Quality Over Quantity: Interview with Editor Stephen Mack

Unlike Robert Duvall, his close collaborator, editor Stephen Mack’s career in feature films has not been what one would call a prolific one.

“I hope Assassination Tango will receive some well deserved attention and that I’ll be recognized as a major feature film editor who happens to have only a couple of credits in 33 years,” Mack jokes about his latest project, a film starring, written, produced and directed by Duvall.

Bored with his engineering studies at the Pratt Institute (“My attention span for thermodynamics texts dwindled fast”), Mack began apprenticing for editor Jerry Siegel, who had his own “‘60s style” apprentice program. “In the evenings he’d lend the 16mm and 35mm upright Movieolas to struggling filmmakers like Robert Downey, Sr. During the time I apprenticed, Nicholas Ray came by nightly editing a documentary on the Chicago 7 and the antiwar demonstrations
that surrounded the 1969 Democratic Presidential Convention. It was an exciting place to be, and after several months I learned enough to get my first job as an assistant on a series of 16mm films for travel author Arthur Frommer and TWA airline.”

Though much of his filmography since has consisted of industrials, in the past three decades he has collaborated on
features three times with Robert Duvall, editing each of Duvall’s directorial efforts, from his debut, We’re Not the Jet Set,
to his latest, Assassination Tango, due out this month. Here, Mack talks about his projects with Duvall and his independent work.

Jennifer Wood (MM): You seem to be very selective about the projects you take on. IMDb lists only seven
feature film credits for you. Is that correct?

Stephen Mack (SM): I’ve edited four films for Robert Duvall: We’re Not The Jet Set, a documentary about real life cowboys that Duvall met on location while working on Francis Coppola’s first film; The Rain People in Ogallala, Nebraska; Angelo My Love, a docudrama about gypsies in NYC; The Apostle and Assassination Tango.

In the early ‘80s I also edited a slasher movie, The Mutilator. Though forgettable, it was very well shot and I had
a lot to work with. That’s it. After The Apostle I turned down a film starring Danny Aiello and Cathy Moriarty. I was never
a part of the real feature editor system of apprentices, 1st, 2nd and 3rd assistants, associate editors etc. I know several people who bought homes on their overtime earnings from Reds and they were only assistants and associate editors who prepared opticals. That world is lucrative, but not seductive.

MM: So what are the criteria you use in deciding whether or not to edit a film?

SM: In those early years, it was more important for me to be the editor on anything rather than assist. I mostly took any project that came my freelance way—a lot of documentary-style public relations films for everyone, from pharmaceutical companies to the United Nations… And more recently ABC series shows like Peter Jennings’ The Century and Vanished and for PBS Now with Bill Moyers.

Projects have more selected me rather than my establishing a criteria for whether or not to edit one film over another. That’s why I’m so grateful for Robert Duvall’s loyalty and appreciation.

MM How did you first meet Robert Duvall?

SM: I met Robert Duvall in early 1972, just before The Godfather was released… I was mostly editing industrials. I knew a man named Charlie Carmello, truly a film “jack of all trades.” Charlie was a production manager/line producer on Deep Throat and I was next in line to break into feature editing on the sequel. Fatefully, Charlie had just returned from Mississippi where he kicked ass and whipped into shape the local carpenters on the set of Tomorrow, a black and white feature based on a William Faulkner short story. With a screenplay by Horton Foote and starring Robert Duvall, Tomorrow was released within weeks of The Godfather.

Charlie told me that he met this un-moviestar, Duvall, and he had shot some rodeo footage in Nebraska and asked if would
I consider editing it in my spare time—for free. I had to be reminded of Duvall’s interesting and, to date, credible career (Duvall at that time still went about mostly unrecognized). But when I saw his documentary footage and heard his vision I knew that my interest in Linda Lovelace was over and not quitting my day job in industrial films was essential.

MM: How did you edit the film?

SM: My generous boss allowed me to edit nights and weekends on what was to be We’re Not The Jet Set, a compelling
documentary that captures four generations of the Peterson family, ranchers, farmers and trick riders. It was still the days of stand up Movieolas and Bobby was very patient. Duvall, Pacino and Caan all earned just $35,000 on Part I [of The Godfather], but they all became stars because of it and acting work grew steadier and more lucrative.

Duvall was able to finance shooting trips back to Nebraska to explore and gather more footage. To make myself—an editor—useful on location, I became the soundman and gathered impressions that are best learned firsthand. For me as an editor, being part of the shoot had been my research. Duvall recorded footage over a four-year period utilizing, because of availability, four different cameramen… I had gained a lot of confidence from Bobby and his vision and was encouraged to contribute. No politics, wow… would it always be like this?

MM: Do you think the editing environment on an indie is a better fit for you?

SM: I’ve been an independent film person mostly. Hey, if the shoe fits, wear it. It has been a good fit for me, but now that I’m 30-plus years into this career I wonder how I’d survive on a big studio picture. But don’t get me wrong, I’m in awe of a
lot of the films that are out there. Thelma Schoonmaker’s work with Martin Scorsese is amazing, and Dede Allen’s entire career has been groundbreaking for editors. So there are editors that have maintained close working relationships with their directors and have made important and personal contributions to very large projects. I really liked Y Tu Mama Tambien—that’s about my size.

MM: Can you talk a little bit about your work on Assassination Tango? Did you go on location with the crew at all, or did you work from New York?

SM: Duvall has seen to it that I’m on location during the filming. I’m so grateful to get out of the editing room because the experiences there can be so vicarious, second-hand. I went to rural Louisiana for The Apostle; I even chose to drive myself from NYC so that I could get off the interstate highways and travel some back roads through the South. I’m real big on maps and travel books that point out the unusual places to eat. Bobby likes to hear about these little adventures, too—especially the food. I had the experts at Colony Records (in Manhattan’s famous Brill Building) gather on one tape all the hymns that Duvall had cited in the script. I played it many times over hundreds of miles. I gathered a lot of tango recordings before Assassination Tango and I even took a few dance lessons. I told Bobby, but made him promise never to ask me to demonstrate any steps…

From the standpoint of spontaneity, Duvall dislikes looping. I spend a lot of time editing my dialogue tracks I’m told, more than most “picture” editors, but I take this as a measure of being an independent. Being on location helps me establish the geography of the scene in my mind; it helps me make sense out of the dailies. Several large scenes developed on the set and were largely improvisational, with lots of overlapping dialogue. As long as they shot with two cameras (and often they did) I didn’t mind.

Duvall decided one day to accommodate the Argentine actors and allow them to deliver their lines in Spanish. The executives were constantly worrying about an American production with subtitles, asking “Isn’t there a lot of Spanish? Aren’t you covering these scenes in English, too?” In the end there are quite a few subtitled sequences, but that’s keeping it real. I relied on my excellent, (of course Spanish speaking) Argentine assistant and edited on an Avid system he had set up to my specifications. I did bring media storage drives from New York and took them back to Duvall’s farm and home in Virginia, where we edited.

MM: What was that process like?

SM: Duvall and I were literally locking the director’s cut on 9/11 and executive producer Francis Coppola was ready to make his notes. By the end of that week I drove these black boxes the long way back to NYC to avoid all the tunnels, bridges and congestion on the direct route between Washington, DC and NYC. The drives went by private jet and I followed on one of the first commercial flights two days later to San Francisco for a week of editing at Zoetrope. Francis had very definite opinions, but I found him relaxed, appreciative and easy to work with. Though he did visit the set in Buenos Aires, he had never screened dailies nor had he seen any edits till Duvall completed his director’s cut. So even
though Tango is a MGM/UA/Zoetrope/Butchers Run (Duvall’s company) film, it felt like an independent movie.

MM: Were there any challenges that were particular to this film than any of the other’s you’ve worked on?

SM: On Tango there were more people involved—people that made you wonder “What did they actually do?” More people, more politics. One executive bean counter made it his business to deny me my union benefits while I was on location because we were out of the USA—even the Brooklyn scenes were shot in Buenos Aires. However, a few days of NYC exteriors were planned and, though I didn’t know it, those few days would become my bargaining chip. Because I refused to sign a non-union work release, I went unpaid for the first month. I hoped I’d get my back pay and health benefits eventually, but it wasn’t like me—the independent—to be complaining, especially to Bobby. Ultimately, it was beyond me.

I had to step away and let my Local 700, IATSE, business agent handle it. He informed the NYC Camera Local scheduled to shoot those NYC exteriors, of my situation and they threatened to boycott the production if “that editor in Buenos Aires” isn’t recognized. How’s that for solidarity! I didn’t tell Bobby till we were comfortably editing on his farm because I was nervous to think that the production was threatened on my account. He was pissed, but not at me, and he had the executive banned from calling the farm, talking to me about the edit, everything. I delighted in being so protected.

MM: In what ways do you think Robert Duvall has changed most as an actor since you first began working with
him?

SM: I think Duvall is pretty much the same actor that he’s always been.

MM: What about as a director?

SM: As a director, sure he’s more confident because he’s made four films, but essentially he’s the same as when I met him in 1972. He was growing as an artist then and he’s still growing today. He speaks openly about the need to continually learn and explore and encourages those around him to do the same. When Assassination Tango premiered at the SXSW Festival in Austin, he said, “I want to consider my potential rather than where I’ve been.” Bobby happily calls himself a “late bloomer.” He’s very young thinking and possesses a kind of perpetual adolescent charm. He’ll ply you with good food, throw a great party or an impromptu Thanksgiving dinner. Never tell Bobby a secret because he’ll be sure to say it out loud and in front of you.

MM: Even though you’ve worked together on several projects, in many cases there have been several years between
each film. Does this make it hard for a sort of shorthand to exist, or is it easy to sort of pick up where you left off with him on each new project?

SM: Since we’ve worked together on four films—every film he’s directed—even though there have been years between projects we seem to pick up right where we left off. As an actor he feels people work best when they’re relaxed and he’s often praised for sticking around the set for the other actor’s close-up. That’s not a bad analogy for how we’ve worked together: he gives you a lot, then kind of steps back and lets you do your job. MM

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