Steve Rosenblum
Steve Rosenblum

One might have a tough time
envisioning a path to Hollywood from a Connecticut department
store, but that’s exactly
where editor Steve Rosenblum’s improbable career began. One serendipitous
journey west, with a stopover at the American Film Institute, eventually
brought him to the forefront of his field.

Now, with 20 years and more than a dozen feature
films under his belt, Rosenblum’s latest effort, The Last
is about to hit theaters. He recently spoke with MM about
why success too often leads to pigeonholing, his longtime collaboration
director Edward Zwick and the nature of what he calls “musical

Jennifer Wood (MM): First, what was it that attracted
you to the film industry?

Steve Rosenblum (SR): I was actually
selling blenders at a department store in Connecticut when this
guy next to me said “I
know this filmmaker and he’s looking for help.” And since I had
never thought that there was a film industry, I applied for this
job and got it.

It was a two-man industrial film company. I
started out doing camera and editing and the other guy was the
producer, director
and writer. From there, strangely, these two people came into borrow
a splicer. And I thought A “splicer?” What are you using a splicer
for in Westport, Connecticut? They were applying to the American
Film Institute-and it was John McTiernan! So I said, ‘Well I’m
going to apply there, too.’ So I just sort of gravitated to the
business in this really strange way. But once I was in it I realized
that it was perfect for me.

MM: What was it about the editing room that interested

SR: First, let’s start by saying I started as a cameraman
and I was particularly inept. I had absolutely no talent for that
aspect of filmmaking. I was at the American Film Institute and
in the second year there you do your film projects. A director
was about to start his project and I asked him if he would be interested
in having me working in the editing room while he was shooting
and he said “yes.” And that was Ed Zwick-so that’s how long
ago I met him!

When he came back from shooting the film, he
had no idea how to handle the film at all-none-so we sat down
together and start editing. (laughing) That began a longtime friendship and collaboration.

MM: So I assume that’s how you got
involved with
Last Samurai?

SR: Well I’ve done almost everything he’s done-I
did “thirtysomething” way back when. There are some things that
I wasn’t allowed to do, because the union system here used to be
very difficult to break through. So when Ed did the movie About
Last Night,
I think he wanted me to do it, but I wasn’t

MM: Editing is one job in the film
industry where it really seems to be about building strong
relationships-and not
just on a very surface level. It takes a certain kind of chemistry
for a director to entrust someone with the cutting of his or
her film. Who are the editors and directors that you’ve learned
the most from in this respect?

SR: It’s funny because I wasn’t an assistant
for a very long period of time. I worked for a guy named David
Holden, who
was really my mentor. He did a couple of Walter Hill movies, like The

Basically, when he was editing, he would take
the material and divorce it from the script and say “This is the raw material. The
script was the bible for when we were shooting, but now the script
is sort of immaterial. Now it’s the film in front of your face.” And
he would actually create stuff in front of my eyes, and I realized
that the linear nature of a film is not dependent on script order
or dialogue, it’s just how you envision the story. David is probably
the most influential person in my upbringing as an editor.

MM: Do you still, to this day, edit that way?

SR: Yes. I read the script and I may refer
back to it a couple of times during the editing, but I hardly
use it
at all. I’m a disaster on some levels to script supervisors. My
assistants use their notes all the time, but I don’t because the
things I’m interested in are not whether the actor matches what
he did previously; you can always find ways around the technical
problems. The emotional through-lines are really what editing is
about-and storytelling is really what it is. It’s sort of musical

MM: Editing is really comprised of two talents: the
technical know-how and the ability to judge the material, which
is a much more personal thing. Do you think that an editor can
be successful with a strong grasp of only one of these talents?

SR: I can only speak from the kinds
of films that I tend to do. Even though they’ve been big lately,
I see them all as relationship pictures. When you see The Last Samurai,
for example, you’ll
see that even this is a relationship picture.

If you’re reality-based and believe relationships are the crux
of the film, you must be involved in the film personally, otherwise
it just doesn’t work. There are movies, like maybe The Matrix, where
it’s all about action and not really about character. It’s possible,
I suppose, that you could be technically super-proficient and not
really care about the characters and be successful, but I doubt

MM: Well, in cases like The Matrix, I wonder
if the editor works only from the script-where all the
action must be completely planned out ahead of time and is right
there in the screenplay.

SR: It’s never been my experience that that’s
the case. (laughing) When we did X-Men, I thought
exactly that-and
it was exactly the opposite!

MM: You mention that you tend to cut “relationship” films.
What is it that attracts you to this kind of material, from an
editing standpoint?

SR: Well, the stuff that I’ve been doing with Ed Zwick
or Mel Gibson are all personal stories, with personal interactions,
but set on huge canvases. And there’s nothing I like more than
a huge canvas, because it gives you an opportunity to give it all
the skills you have and to keep a lot of balls up in the air, which
is truly why we go to the movies, I think.

Now, with that said, I’m sort of tired of doing war movies. If
you look down that list of stuff, it’s so much about war movies.
And generally, big movies in Hollywood tend to be war movies. So
when there’s a new war movie, they generally call me up to do it-or
one of four or five other people. It’s weird, because I’d love
to do a romantic comedy. Those are the kinds of movies that I watch.
(laughing) But there’s a certain hierarchy in Hollywood
that once you’re earning a certain amount of money, the smaller
movies can’t afford to hire you. Which is a terrible box to be
put in.

MM: Well I think that it’s the same
with editors as it is with directors, actors and cinematographers.

SR: Someone like Ed Zwick is interesting
because even though he’s never had huge success, he’s been able to make the
kinds of movies that he wants to make. He’s never been locked into “he
only does this kind of movie.” He’s done a comedy, he’s done a
thriller, he’s done a couple of big war movies and big sprawling
epics and he can sort of go wherever he wants. And that makes it
easy for me-because I know I’ll go with him.

MM: Within the scope of one film, with a movie like The
Last Samurai or The Four Feathers or even Pearl Harbor,
where there seems to be a dual nature of the material-part action,
part personal film-how does your editing style change? For example,
within the same movie, how is your approach to a romantic encounter
between two actors different from your approach to a battle scene?

SR: Technically, it changes. For instance,
on a battle scene, I may spend a week just organizing the material
into a way
in which I can just cut it. Because when you have 300,000 feet
of film from a battle, you know that you can’t possibly always
look at it over and over. So you have to organize it in some way
so that you can look at the parts that you need when you need them,
knowing full well that you’re going to go back and forth in and
out of that sequence until you’re very happy, using stuff from
all over that doesn’t necessarily go where it’s intended.

But the actual editing of the sequence, if
you take it down to its microcosm, it’s just: Why do I cut to a shot?  Why do I leave
that shot once I’ve cut to it? And those principals, which are
so very basic, are in a dramatic dialogue scene as well in a big
war scene. Every cut point has a reason to go there and, just when
you tire of it, there’s a reason to leave. It’s no different.

MM: Going back to The Last Samurai,
was there one main challenge that you faced on this film that
you hadn’t
encountered before?

SR: The real issue with The Last Samurai was
that it was a bear to get into the first cut. It’s funny, we had a long
schedule and yet you never have enough time. And all the battle
sequences came sort of toward the end of the schedule. When you
see the picture, there’s a huge end battle. And we were shooting
that battle and I was cutting it at the same time. So I would get
the sequences and we could then discuss what we needed to pick
up and shoot. So we were trying to figure out what needed to be
re-shot or additionally shot during the course of production so
that we didn’t have to worry about ‘Can we get it eight months
from now?’ It was fascinating, but also a lot of pressure at the
end of the shoot.

MM: How long was the shoot?

SR: Well, we shot a couple of weeks in Japan to begin and
then came back to L.A. and shot for about a month or so and then
went to New Zealand for, I think, four and half months.

MM: So how long have you been working on the project?

SR: I’ve been on the project now for over a year. I think
it’s been 13 1/2 months, which is pretty long. But it’s funny that
on this picture, once we were able to get it into a cut-and it
was very difficult to do for whatever reasons-the cut played! So
it was like ‘wow.’ There’s no major surgery that needs to be done
on the picture. So the final post-production part of the film was
much simpler than it usually is. Usually, I’m sitting there in
the last 35 days of a picture and just cutting it constantly.

MM: When you get to that point, where
your main concern is basically time, do you already know the
parts of the film
that you’re going to go for first to get the time down? Even
when you’re assembling the first cut, are you thinking about
certain scenes “If something needs to get cut, this can go”?

SR: When I’m doing a first cut, I actually take stuff out
right away if I don’t think it should be in the final cut. I don’t
believe that you should show the director everything, and most
of the directors who I work for don’t believe that either. If something
is superfluous-and in a big movie like this there’s a lot that’s
superfluous-then it shouldn’t even make it into the cut. I will
usually discuss it with the director, or show them what I’ve done.
If it’s a real collaboration, I can show a director what I’ve done
and they’ll get it right away.

In general, it’s clear where a movie is slow and where things
should come out of. Whether you can actually get rid of those things
with any kind of comfort level, whether it looks like it’s intended
as opposed to just making a horrible decision.

In the case of The Last Samurai, it’s sort of a four-act
story. So in the beginning of act three, it just gets kind of slow.
So I tried to find ways to pace it up and get rid of certain sections
of it, knowing full well that I couldn’t rid of all of it and that
act three out of a four-act story is just going to be a little
slow. It’s inherent. Three acts are what we like; four acts get
a little long.

MM: Right now, how long is the film?

SR: I think that right now, with titles,
it’s two hours
and 34 minutes. In the beginning of the film there’s this wonderful
beheading, where a samurai walks down the street and beheads these
two terrible Japanese antagonists. But it’s not in the movie-even
though we loved the scene!

In this case, even though it was a great scene,
it showed the samurai before we wanted to see the samurai from
the audience’s
point of view. When you see them in the movie, they come out of
the woods and they attack en masse. This sort of undercut that.
Though I hated to suggest it, I just had to say “this scene ought
to go.” Luckily, Ed agreed! (laughing)