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Craig McKay Takes Short Cuts

Craig McKay Takes Short Cuts

Articles - Editing

American Cinema Editors (ACE) and Manhattan Edit Workshop had the inspired idea to create a series called Short Cuts in order to “get that EditFest feeling all year long.” The intention in both cases was the same: To create a deeper understanding of the editor’s invisible art by having master film editors discuss and screen their work for film students, editors and enthusiasts. But instead of having panels of editors for an entire weekend, Short Cuts would focus on one esteemed editor and take place in one evening.

I had enjoyed hosting several events like this before and was really pleased when I was asked to moderate the series and have Craig McKay as the first honoree. He proved to be both compelling and a source of inspiration for the sold-out crowd on January 20th at the Helen Mills Theater.

We initially gave the audience some background on McKay’s remarkable career. He was one of those kids who knew from an early age what he wanted to do, and by the age of 10 he was already making 8mm science fiction films in his neighborhood. He was initially interested in cinematography but discovered that shooting “pretty pictures” for Madison Avenue wasn’t fulfilling. He was more interested in storytelling, and realized that the cutting room was “a place where you have to know a little about everything, especially storytelling.” Soon he was a top-notch assistant to such greats as Alan Heim, Evan Lottman and Barry Malkin. He caught the attention of the legendary Dede Allen, who recommended him for his first editing job. Soon after that he received an Emmy and Eddie for his work on the 1978 miniseries “Holocaust”. Dede considered his work on 1980’s Melvin and Howard, the first of seven films he edited for Jonathan Demme, to be “exceptional.” Dede then asked Craig to co-edit Reds, for which they both received Eddie and Academy Award nominations. Craig got a second Academy Award nomination for Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Craig has edited over forty films in his career so far and has also been a producer and director as well as a creative advisor at the Sundance Institute. Last year he edited Robert Redford’s The Conspirator and a very successful documentary called Babies, which was the first of four films we showed clips from that night.

Babies follows four children—one each from Namibia, Mongolia, San Francisco and Tokyo–through the first year of their lives. Craig soon realized how difficult it would be to create “playability” since there was no dialog, no narration, no subtitles and very little music. He decided right away what the first and last shots were going to be, so he was able to bookend those shots and “build and build and build” by establishing each character. He then followed the chronology of their development. We screened the first shot of the Namibian baby and his sibling, which showed humor and insight. In the second clip Craig intercut all four children eating and gradually developing a mastery of their surroundings. In the final shot the Mongolian child is finally standing, triumphantly. The challenge was finding a story that tied it all together which, Craig discovered to be “their oneness…a universality to our humanity.” That oneness was foremost in his mind when he was editing. Although he said it was one of the most difficult films he had ever cut, “it was also probably the film I had the most fun on.”

The next clip we showed was from Philadelphia, made in 1993. Craig explained that this was a fairly simple story: A young attorney (Tom Hank) gets fired after his law firm discovers he has AIDs, and he takes them to court. Craig initially followed that narrative line and found out the film didn’t work. He then took a different approach and built the movie on an emotional line, one of the few times he departed from the first, second, and third act of the narrative form. Since the film was about such a highly-charged emotional subject, it lent itself to that approach. The clip shown is of a climactic courtroom scene, where the drama really comes from the unfolding of feelings, not from any dramatic piece of evidence. Craig also had the challenge of editing in shots that reflected Hank’s state of mind, such as imagined reactions from the jury, a looming shot of his boss and nemesis. He had to “keep the balance going between reality and unreality and keep the narrative momentum going, so you make it feel as though they’re both part of the same experience.” Craig was initially concerned that the casting of Hanks was too “safe” and “soft,” but Hanks “proved us all wrong” and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Craig also worried about Anthony Hopkins as the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, but when the first dailies came in Craig knew “he had it”. From that moment on there was never any doubt in his mind about Hopkins, or about the power of the film. On every film Craig had asked Demme for something to base his editing on; of The Silence of the Lambs Demme said “This is a very sad story.” To Craig that meant they weren’t doing a horror or supernatural film but a film about the darkest part of humanity. He kept this in mind when he was putting the film together and building the performances. Both Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, who plays the rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling, received Academy Awards for their seductively complex characters, whose relationship forms the heart of the film.

In the first clip, Clarice has to trade stories about her own childhood trauma for information from Hannibal that will, hopefully, lead her to a serial killer. Craig and Demme generally liked to use shots where actors looked directly into the camera and, in this case, the unblinking close-ups of Hannibal were particularly riveting. Craig and Demme always attempted to keep the audience from getting ahead of the story, which they accomplished especially well here since, as Craig said, they “never even let them get an inkling of where the film was going.” Hitchcock always had a strong influence on Demme in terms of building suspense, and his techniques were used to great effect in this film.

In the second clip, FBI agents raid a house they think is the killer’s while Clarice shows up alone at another house, where she slowly realizes that she is face-to-face with the killer. “The dailies seemed very linear,” so initially Craig instead cut them as two separate events. Then Demme told him that he wanted Craig to parallel cut the scenes, which was a challenge “when they’re shooting in a straight line. You have to get in, break up moments and extend moments.” It took him three days to put it together. “It was almost working, but not working and I didn’t know what to do.” Then he spotted a piece of film across the room hanging in one of the bins. “It sounds unbelievable, but I went over and looked at that piece of film, and it was the shot of Crawford [Clarice’s boss who shows up at the wrong house] that I needed to make the whole thing work. These things just come to you in strange ways sometimes.”

The final clip we screened was from Reds. The 1981 film, which was produced, directed and co-written by its star Warren Beatty, tells the true story of John Reed, an American journalist who gets caught up in the Bolshevik revolution.

The clip we showed takes place near the end of the three-hour-and-fourteen-minute film, and shows John on a Red Army train as it is being attacked by an opposing army. Craig said he cut the battle scene in a very classical Soviet way, inspired by director Vsevolod Pudovkin, but specifically by Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin. Reds was the largest editorial production in film history with a crew of sixty-four, edited over a two-year span, and supervised by Dede and Craig. I asked Craig to talk about his relationship with Dede and what he learned from her.

“It was an extraordinary editing experience,” said Craig. “I have not had one like that since… She taught me to be a general, and if anyone could teach me to be a general it was Dede…She also taught me to cut with my gut, that editing is not as much a thinking process as an intuitive process and as an editor you have to learn to follow that voice. It’s the truest voice.”

After spending the evening listening to Craig and watching his work, it is clear what his intentions are: To make, as Dede called them, “right-time-right-place” edits, always focusing on what is emotionally right for an audience. And she was right. Craig is an “exceptional” editor–and storyteller.

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