Michael Berenbaum

In his career as an editor, Michael
Berenbaum has shown a tendency to collaborate with directors who
look to film as something other than a commercial vehicle. He has
worked with actors John Turturro (Mac) and Al Pacino (Chinese
) as they’ve looked to make the leap from acting
to directing, and has assisted Julian Schnabel (Basquiat)
in his transition from painting to moviemaking. When not working
on features with such celebrated directors as Francis Ford Coppola
or Milos Forman, Berenbaum edits for television. His most recent
work can be seen in Ed and Sex and the City. In an
interview with MovieMaker, Berenbaum talks about starting
out in the industry, the differences between television and film,
and his plans for the future.

MovieMaker (MM): Your resume is extremely
eclectic. You’ve worked with such highly acclaimed directors
as the Coen Bothers and Milos Forman, you’ve helped out successful
actors who’ve attempted to direct features, and then turned
around and edited some successful television series. What criteria
do you base your professional decisions on?

Michael Berenbaum (MB): Well, when the
phone rings for a job and I’m not working, that’s usually
the next job I take [laughs]. But I’ve been extremely lucky
in that I’ve done jobs that have led to other jobs and, along
the way, have met people who have hired me somewhere down the line.
It’s been one fantastic ride after the next. For instance,
I had just interviewed with Al Pacino to do his film Chinese
when I got a call to cut this TV pilot called Sex
and the City
. I hadn’t heard back from Al Pacino, and the Sex and the City people wanted to hire me, so I took that
job. A week later, Al called me up and wanted to hire me too and
I said, ‘You know, I just took this four-week job’ and
he said ‘No problem, do that and then you’ll do this movie.’

MM: What are the major differences
between editing for film and editing for television?

MB: People say there’s a difference
between editing TV and editing movies. I haven’t necessarily
found that to be the case. TV’s played more in close-ups, and
features are played more in wider shots, because the images are
much bigger on the screen. But I deal with the material on an individual

MM: Do you have a preference as far
as medium is concerned?

MB: It depends on the people you’re
working with. I’ve been lucky in that the people I’ve
worked with have been great and it’s always a pleasure to go
to work. On a feature, you’re usually dealing with one person-the
director. You establish a rapport and get in sync with that person.
Between the two of us, we create the film. On a TV show it’s
much more political. The director is really just hired to shoot
the show. It’s a producer’s medium. You do your editor’s
version of the cut as they’re shooting it, and then you spend
some time with the director. But when the director’s gone the
producers can come in and do whatever they want. It’s interesting
that on the two TV situations I’ve been involved in, the producers
brought in their thoughts and we’ve actually made it better.

MM: Your first paying job was on
the set of
The Cotton Club. Did the controversy surrounding
this film ever make you question your choice to work in film?

MB: In a way, the controversy sort of
landed me that job. I was an intern at the Kaufman Astoria Studios
when I learned that Coppola was going to be shooting a film there
with Richard Gere. Since my internship was actually for the executives
of the studio, they wanted me around the administrative offices.
But I went down to the set for hours at a time and hung out with
the extras and the dancers. There was a great deal of tension between
the studio people and the film people. One day I was told that I
was no longer allowed to go down to the set.

MM: But how did you go from snooping
intern to paid editor?

MB: I found an internship in the editing
room on a film called Alphabet City. This editing room happened
to be at Sound One, the epicenter of where most features in New
York are edited and mixed. Just by being there I met a lot of people.
Coincidentally, The Cotton Club was one of the films being
edited there. When Alphabet City was finishing up, I walked
around the halls with my skimpy resume. A week or two later I got
a call asking if I was available to work as an apprentice sound
editor on The Cotton Club. Maybe they thought the fact that
I had “interned” on the set would give me an added advantage.

MM: You have worked on three films
with Joel and Ethan Coen, two men who are famous for storyboarding
every scene in their films. As an editor, how does this affect you?

MB: Joel and Ethan Coen have a great
ability to visualize their scripts and go out and shoot exactly
what they need. That’s not to say that there aren’t changes
along the way and sometimes re-shoots, but they really do know what
they want. This, of course, makes an editor’s job easier. The
puzzle pieces are more clear-cut. When you’ve reached their
vision, there is very little tinkering left to do.

MM: People often note that Milos
Forman is very generous when it comes to allowing cast and crew
the opportunity to experiment with their skills. Did you witness
this at all?

MB: I was brought onto The People
vs. Larry Flynt
as a second editor to help move the process
along while Milos was finishing the first pass with Chris Tellefsen,
the main editor. I was given specific notes on certain scenes where
Milos told me what he wanted, but he also told me to just go through
the whole film scene by scene, tighten where I could, and go through
the dailies to see if any great moment had been inadvertently overlooked.
Once the first pass was finished, Chris and I would keep swapping
reels, reworking scenes and tightening the film based on each other’s
ideas. It was a great experience; I had tremendous freedom to try
many things.

MM: Tell me about your work with
Michael Moore on
Canadian Bacon, and the impact that John
Candy’s untimely death had on that film’s production.

MB: I replaced an editor that was leaving
that job and worked with Wendey Stanzler to continue cutting. Michael
is very smart and has a great sense of humor. There were some very
funny scenes in Canadian Bacon, but there were some structural
problems we were hoping to fix with re-shoots. Unfortunately, John
Candy passed away before we were able to do this. We went through
with the re-shoots with the rest of the actors and a body double
and completed the film.

MM: You’ve worked with Julian
Schnabel on both Basquiat and Before Night Falls. Considering that
Schnabel was a painter before turning to moviemaking, does he approach
the editing process differently than someone with a theatrical or
cinematic background?

MB: Julian is a really interesting person.
His approach is different from anyone I’ve worked with. He
comes at it from a different angle. He has an abstract vision of
what he wants the movie to be, and he’s extremely knowledgeable
about movies. While he works with his abstract vision, I’m
always trying to maintain the narrative and pace and I’m a
bit more conservative in my approach. Working with him always takes
you into these different worlds.

MM: What kind of projects do you
see yourself working on in the future?

MB: As long as Sex and the City stays on the air, I’d like to stay with that-;it’s
been such a great experience. Beyond that, my main interest is features.
It’s where I started. I’d certainly like to do some bigger
budget films, maybe some action films. The great thing about working
as a freelancer is that you get to work with so many different people.
You never know who you’re going to get involved with. When
that phone rings it’s always a surprise.

MM: Do you ever feel like getting
outside the editing room?

MB: Actually, my brother David is a
screenwriter and we have plans to direct a film together at some
point. And my wife, Susan Malfitano, who’s a wonderful actress,
has a great story she’s developing for a feature project. We’re
very excited about that. There’s always kindling burning in
the corner, but right now, editing takes up much more time than
I have.