The Madness of a Method Editor: A Conversation with One of Hollywood’s Top Action Editors

Robert Ferretti, A.C.E., has been one of Hollywood’s most sought-after motion picture editors for more than two decades.

He has earned his reputation as one of the top “action editors” in the business through his work with directors like Sylvester Stallone (Rocky V), Steven Seagal, (On Deadly Ground), Mark Lester (Showdown in Little Tokyo) and Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2), and for his critically acclaimed work on the small screen (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Fugitive, and countless others). In recent years Ferretti has proven his versatility by being the creative force in the editing room for such off-beat independent fare as Dwight Yoakam’s South of Heaven, West of Hell and Timothy Rhys’ Men in Scoring Position. Here, Ferretti talks with past collaborator and MM editor/publisher Timothy Rhys about his own editing methods.

Timothy Rhys, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I know you’re a New England boy, and you first came out to LA after a stint in the Navy, right? Tell me how you began working as an editor for the studios.

Robert Ferretti (RF): I wanted to be involved in filmmaking since I was seven or eight. I didn’t know how, or even what it was, really. My ideas were all based on the movie King Kong, which my dad took me to see. I remember the Robert Armstrong character said to the girl and everyone, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be great, we’re gonna shoot a movie! We’re gonna have an adventure! It’s gonna be fantastic!’ So they go to this island with their movie camera, everyone is excited, and I just knew right then and there that was the only job I wanted. And that feeling always stuck with me. When I was 16 I got this 8mm camera and started fiddling around with making little home movies and stuff. And after the Navy, and learning a little about filmmaking at Quinnipiac [College in Hamden, CT], I came out to LA.

MM: How did you know you wanted to edit?

RF: In school, I’d won a contest sponsored by the American Cinema Editors and people started saying, ‘Ah, you’ve won awards at editing. You must be an editor.’ I kept getting jobs, and eventually got hired into the union. The first show I worked on was Gunsmoke, and I started to just love editing. No matter what else I was going to do before– directing, camera work, whatever, I fell in love with editing and the jobs just kept coming.

MM: So what was the first feature you ever did?

RF: The first feature I ever did that I got a credit on was Zapped!, which was Scott Baio, directed by Bob Rosenthal. It was their first film, and I had a blast on it. My mentor, Bob Bring, got me that job. After that I did a bunch of lower budget features. Then I got into TV more regularly, doing a lot of stuff for Aaron Spelling in the late ’70s, early ’80s.

MM: Do you think working so much in TV contributed to your aesthetic? To your style as an editor?

RF: Yeah, I think it has. For a brief time I worked over at NBC, which was all film back then. From TV news and documentaries you learn to make decisions fast.

MM: Who has influenced you? When you came out here did you study other people’s films?

RF: At that time, of course, we couldn’t get enough film. I mean, to this day I have more than 2,000 DVDs and laser discs, and when I start a picture I do my ‘method editing’: I see everything that’s ever been done in that genre– good, bad or indifferent. No matter what it is, I’ll even get documentaries about that subject. I’ll look at photo books. Anything to influence me.

MM: So instead of just immersing yourself in one guy’s work, you immersed yourself in movies.

RF: Yeah, in everything. We were going to movies three or four nights a week, minimum. I was always at the movies. All the foreign films, all the festivals, anything we could see. We’d analyze them, critique them. That was a great time. We were also going to AFI, which on Saturday
mornings had this great cinematographer series. All the greats were there– James Wong Howe, Haskell Wexler, Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis–and we would see there films and have this big discussion, just this handful of people over there at AFI. That was like a ritual, every Saturday morning. That was a big treat.

MM: You directed a feature several years ago, right?

RF: Yeah, I directed a low-budget feature for Cinetel called Fear. We shot that in 18 days. The budget was only $400,000. That was quite an experience.

MM: How did that experience affect you, as an editor?

RF: Lots of times you’ll hear people say, ‘Oh, if an editor directs he’ll know just what he’ll need, so that’s all he’s going to shoot.’ That’s definitely a big myth.

MM: Really? Why?

RF: Editors know the value of coverage, and we always want more. Even David Lean, who was a former editor, said if he got stuck he’d just hose it down, cover it all.

MM: Seems elementary, but it’s really not.

RF: It allows you to be in control. Because if you have it, you don’t have to use it. If you don’t have it, and you need it, you’re handcuffed. And the whole thing about editing in the camera is a big myth.

MM: Didn’t Hitchcock do that?

RF: Yeah, and how many Hitchcocks are there? Very few people can do that and pull it off successfully. The more options you have, the more control you have in the end.

MM: You have very definite ideas about editing, obviously, after being in it for so long. I remember you telling me that you’d prefer not to be on a set.

RF: Yeah, that’s a really big thing with me, and it’s part of the whole process. Like I said, when I’m going to start something I get totally involved in research of the subject, how those films were done, research on everything in the genre. I read the script over and over. And then once production starts, I usually never read the script again. I don’t even like it in the editing room. I want the film to tell me, not the script. And not what went on at the set.

MM: You once told me that one of the most important things as an editor is to trust your instincts.

RF: Trust your first instincts. A lot of times you second-guess yourself, thinking maybe the director will like this or maybe the producer will like that, and you start cutting for them and it’s always wrong.

MM: Do you have a favorite genre to work with? You’re known kind of as an action editor…

RF: Yeah, unfortunately. And that was another reason I got into independents, just to get out of the action thing. I’m sure it happens to actors, directors and all the other fields. You get pigeonholed. It’s so funny, because when I was starting out I was doing comedy. But they see all these later credits that are action and they say, ‘Oh you’re an action guy; you can’t do this.’ It’s so ridiculous, because editing is telling a story. No matter what anyone says about editing, it’s simply telling a story. You’re given x amount of material, and you have to tell a story with it.

MM: Do you always cut linearly, or do you sometimes take a particularly difficult scene, no matter where it is, cut that….

RF: It depends. A lot of times you start from the first day of production, so you’re cutting dailies as they come in. I remember on Rocky V, for the end fight scene we had over 17 hours of coverage. It ended up being a little over seven minutes long. That was one of the single biggest scene tasks I’ve ever encountered. We broke it down into select reels of what we liked – punches from the left, punches from the right… and literally assembled that fight foot by foot. And we got into the character’s head by playing around with opticals. Nowadays you can try those things and experiment on the Avid. Back then you’d literally have to go out and make that optical, and it was a very expensive experiment. You didn’t even know if it would work for four or five days.

MM: How much did that process hinder you?

RF: Quite a bit, especially if you were on a picture that didn’t have the budget for it. A lot of times I still hear big misconceptions like, ‘Now that you have the Avid, people try more dissolves,’ etc. That’s a bunch of horseshit. I think it enables your creativity. Not just on dissolves, but on anything. For instance, in Men In Scoring Position, we tried a lot of transitions. The film needed some good transitions, and we were able to experiment with those things on the Avid until we got something cool that we liked. On a low-budget film years ago you’d never be able to experiment like that.

MM: Did it take you a while to become a digital convert or did you embrace the technology immediately?

RF: Two seconds. I mean, because I was always doing this stuff. Years ago, around the time we were doing Zapped! I got to use a montage doing something like a music video. When Steven Seagal directed his first picture, I invented a digital editing system called ‘Goldfish.’

MM: The picture was On Deadly Ground?

RF: Yeah. We were up in Alaska, shooting in these remote areas where we had to be helicoptered in every day, and we’re on these big ice floes and glaciersóit took us five days to get dailies back. So here was Steven, directing his first picture which he was also acting in and producing, and I wanted something to help him get his confidence. A lot of times when we left these locations there was no way we’d ever get back, so if we didn’t get it, we didn’t get it. Anyway, what I did was I took a tab from a Panavision camera, cut it into a computer, digitized it, and was able to edit live in a very small portable crate which I called a Goldfish. I literally dragged it around on a sled in the middle of a glacier at twenty below zero. We wound up leaving it on the set every night and just covering it with a tarp, so in the morning we’d just come out plug it in, and fire it right up. I’d be editing with a big parka hood on, freezing.

MM: And it worked?

RF: It worked perfectly. I was literally able to have scenes cut two and three days before we even saw dailies. The studio took a lot of pressure off this first-time director.

Ferretti edited the fifth installment of the Rocky franchise. Image courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer

MM: Of all the features you’ve edited, which have been the most difficult and which have been the most satisfying?

RF: I’d say Die Hard 2 was probably the toughest, because it was such a short schedule. And they went over, because that was the one year where there was no snow in America, and the whole film was based on snow. Today you’d just add the snow digitally, but 10 years ago [producer] Joel Silver and our whole production company were chasing snow all over the country. It affected the schedule, but our end date didn’t change. And satisfying? I find them all very satisfying. Each film is its own experience. There are the people that you meet–  I love the whole process, whether it turns out good or bad, whether the people are nasty or great, I like that whole experience. And I still love editing. I love seeing a scene come together, and once it’s together, how things change. I still have the same fascination and the same exuberance for it that I did when I was just starting out. I still get a thrill.

MM: Does it take a certain temperament to be an editor? In your case, I know you have your “dark side,” but you’re an even-tempered guy most of the time.

RF: Well, you pull your hair out and you get crazy, but that’s all part of it. There have been times I’ve gone in on Monday morning and left on a Wednesday night without
ever seeing daylight. So you definitely have to have patience.

MM: The whole process-the passion you have for it-is internal. An actor’s passion, for instance, is on the surface.

RF: It’s definitely internal. But inside me, I’m exploding.

MM: How does the editor’s lifestyle affect you personally sometimes? I mean, you and your wife, Carmen, are fairly newlyweds.

RF: It’s horrible, because you have no life when you’re on a project. And it’s most difficult for your wife and children. They’re the ones who get the worst end of the deal. When you’re working, you’re so caught up in it that you almost don’t notice. And it’s so weird to me, because you’re working at such a fast pace and then BOOM-it’s done. And then there’s nothing. There’s no gradual end to it. It’s like, “We’ve gotta get this done!” And the next day you’re out of work, and you come home and you’re a zombie. You have to get accustomed to going through withdrawals.

MM: You’ve worked with several first-time directors now. Is it usually a frustrating experience? Tell me about that, as opposed to working with someone who has done several big pictures?

RF: It’s not so much frustrating. I think it’s probably more frustrating for the filmmaker once he sees his coverage or lack of coverage. I always hear “Okay, let’s go to the close up there.” And I have to go, “I’d like to, but you don’t have a close-up.”

MM: (laughs). Is that the biggest problem?

RF: Yeah, because if you don’t have it you’re handcuffed. If you have it, you have options. Some directors shoot a ton of film and for me, that’s great. You couldn’t shoot enough for me. The more options, the better. And you have to prepare. Shot lists, everything.

MM: What should an aspiring editor do to prepare?

RF: Number one, see a lot of films. And television, too. Nowadays, commercials and television are doing a lot of new, innovative editorial things. And see all the old films. Absorb as much as you can. To me (and this is what I tell my assistants), I feel in my heart that for every project I go on, it doesn’t make a difference if I’m doing it for nothing or there’s a $50 million dollar budget. Everything I go on is the most important project there is and I treat it like it’s gonna be up for an Academy Award.

MM: You respect it.

RF: Exactly. You really need to love it and embrace it, or else you’re just going through the motions.

MM: Do you like working with the same people over and over? You’ve worked with Sylvester Stallone a number of times, Steven Seagal a number of times…

RF: It’s like anything. The more you work with the same person, the more you know their style and what they want. It’s kind of a shorthand. A lot of times you’ll see the same editor with the same director for years and years. Joel Cox with Clint Eastwood, for instance. He’s kept working 365 days a year; he’s always doing it. They have a shorthand. Any time that you can make even one aspect easier, by all means do it.

MM: That goes for your assistants, too?

RF: Oh totally, of course. The worst thing about assistants is when you get good ones, you know eventually they’ll be off and running as editors and you have to find a new person. I would love to have the same assistants forever.

MM: How do you train an assistant? When you first started working with [your current assistant] Philip Steinman, for instance, what did you tell him?

RF: It’s important to have honest feedback. I certainly don’t like anyone patronizing me. Whether I accept your idea or not is irrelevant. I like to get real feedback.

MM: Have you worked with directors who are too overbearing as far as what they want, which hinders you?

RF: Yeah, sometimes. I do something different from what I was taught. I remember editors used to tell me for the first cut, give the director everything he shot. I used to feel, when that happened, like the director was trying to figure it out, I was trying to figure it out– it was a lot of clutter. To this day when I present a first cut to a director, to me it’s as close to what I think it should be when it goes on the screen. And that’s with sound, music, everything. And I think it’s a lot better, because the closer you get to what you feel the end is, the more time you have for creative thoughts. It’s good for a director to let the editor present his first cut, because it gives the director time to step away from it. I don’t think it’s healthy for the director to say “What are you doing? Let me see the scene you did today.” They get caught up in the scene-by-scene or shot-by-shot, and that’s not the objective.

MM: I remember a conversation we had just recently, after I showed you a New York Times piece that said editors are starting to get their due in the motion picture world, and from audiences, too. People are finally starting to ask not only, “Who directed that?” or “Who shot that?” but “Who edited that?” Has it sometimes rankled you that audiences haven’t fully appreciated the fact that after you’ve boiled down this big mish-mash of shots, the story is refined and to a large degree created, in the editing room?

RF: It’s nice that audiences are seeing that, but I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s never ever bothered me, because I know that the producers and directors know what  my contribution is.

MM: In the near future so many more people will be working in this medium, as editors and as directors and everything else. I’m guessing you’ll say there’s no need to worry about the gatekeepers, though. It’ll still be easy to recognize talent.

RF: You know, the format isn’t the issue here- because if you can’t compose a shot with an instamatic $1.98 camera you’re not gonna compose a shot with a Panavision. People want stories; they want to be moved. I always say the world works and here in California we entertain the world. When people go home, they want to sit back, relax, and enjoy a good movie. They want to laugh- and they want to see a story. If you can tell a cool story, someone’s gonna notice; someone’s gonna give you a shot. I thought that if I was financially able to, I would love to spend more time in the independent field. I just found working on your movie, [Men in Scoring Position] to be very refreshing. It brought me back to a time when I was starting out. I happen to believe this digital revolution is a great thing for our industry. The storytellers will rise to the top. Basically this whole industry is about an audience gathered around the campfire, and you, the moviemaker, are the storyteller. If you can just tell that campfire story to an audience, you’ve got it. MM

Top image from Die Hard 2 courtesy of 20th Century Fox. 

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