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Hill and Hanley: Twenty Years of Continuity

Hill and Hanley: Twenty Years of Continuity

Articles - Editing

Mike Hill

Dan Hanley

Mike Hill Dan Hanley

Film editors Mike Hill and Dan Hanley have a lot to
celebrate. Their latest montage, Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind,
picked up several statues at this years Academy Awards, including
Best Picture, assuring the film, and their contributions to it,
a healthy shelf life after a grand and glorious worldwide roll-out.
The excitement of watching their ‘baby’ win first prize is sweeter
still because the duo of veteran cutters can now point to a prolific
20-year partnership in the cutting room, almost exclusively for
director Ron Howard. It’s a rare pairing of talent and personality
that has produced an extensive column of popular and well-crafted
Hollywood fare.

Starting with their first feature assembly, Howard’s Night Shift (1982), Hill and Hanley have gone on to sculpt
all of the director’s output, including Splash (1984), Cocoon (1985), Parenthood (1989), Backdraft (1991), Far
and Away
(1992), The Paper (1994), Apollo 13 (1995), Ransom (1996), EdTV (1999) and How the Grinch Stole
Christmas
(2000).

Howard gave the two their big break when their mentor,
seasoned editor Bob Kern, was unable to cut Night Shift himself
after suffering a serious stroke. Leading up to that opening were
many years of apprenticeship, lugging around film cans and filing
trims. They were fortunate to come under Kern’s watchful eye. Mike
remembers, "He was one of those editors who let the assistants
cut scenes and actually learn how to do it." Kern took Hanley
on as an assistant editor on the television series Laverne and
Shirley.

Dan and Mike took some time out to speak with MM ,
in separate conversations, during the heady madness of Oscar week.
We ‘spliced’ together their respective comments on Mr. Howard, Russell’s
‘method’ and even Mel Gibson, a man beyond all methods.

Phillip Williams (MM): Why
have you worked with Ron Howard for so long?

Dan Hanley (DH): He’s a fantastic guy to work
with. And I say ‘with’ and not ‘for’ because he is very collaborative.

MM: When you cut your first picture for
him,
Night Shift, what were the main things you were learning?

Mike Hill (MH): I think both of us had a little
anxiety because we didn’t have much experience. My anxiety was around
wanting to prove myself to Ron. I wasn’t sure if I had the knack
for comic timing, but as it turned out, I guess I did. Ron certainly
does, and he guided us through. Night Shift was one of those
silly comedies that depends on timing and the actors and whatever
editing can do to help. We learned a lot about cutting comedy. It
was amazing to see Michael Keaton, who was kind of unknown then.

MM: Certain films, and perhaps certain
genres, invite experimentation. Where do you see the most ingenuity
in the cutting of
A Beautiful Mind?

DH: There is a scene that Mike put together
where Russell’s character had the realization that the girl (in
his delusional fantasies) never gets old, with the spinning 360
camera and the flashbacks. He tried several variations, where to
place the flashbacks, how long they would be, how much overlap needed
so that camera move would feel fluid. He experimented a lot with
that.

MM: A Beautful Mind uses a number of special
effects to illuminate the internal workings of John Nash’s mind,
the way that numbers and information are visualized and sorted by
him. Do you need to be aware of these effects when cutting the raw
footage?

DH: You need to be aware, in any effects scene,
what they have in mind. It becomes a collaboration. On A Beautiful
Mind
, with the raised letters, we had an idea of how they wanted
it to look and they went back and forth on how to attain that and
still have it feel organic to the film. And I think that’s one good
thing about the effects in the film: they don’t feel self-conscious
at all.

MM: When you were cutting those scenes
were the effects elements already in the shot?

DH: No. If you take the code room, for example,
Ron did various push-ins and snap zooms, pans and 360 pans, and
we did various variations of dissolves and so on. At one point it
looked kind of good without the effects but then the effects artists
showed us a test with the effects and we felt that they had
a more interesting way to go with it. But they made a couple of
adjustments to what they were doing based on what we were doing
and used a combination of the two.

MM: What was the biggest challenge on A
Beautiful Mind for you as an editor?

DH: To me the biggest challenge is always the
first assembly, which is important because it makes our lives easier
and the director and producer’s life easier in terms of just keeping
their sanity and feeling secure. Because that’s the foundation you
work from. There’s always the need to look for things that you can
lose, material you can do without, and to know why certain things
are actually necessary.

MH: It wasn’t a difficult picture to cut. The
actors were so good; we had a lot of rich material to work with.
You almost couldn’t go wrong with a lot of the scenes.

MM: After the Oscar nominations were announced,
there was talk about the fact that some aspects of John Nash’s life,
that he might be bisexual for example, or anti-Semitic, were left
out of the film, and whether or not those omissions were warranted.

DH: I can’t answer that totally because most
of those conversations took place before we came onto the film.
But from the early drafts of the script, and general conversations
we had with Ron, it was ‘based on’ the life of John Nash. I think
they stayed away from some of those elements because it was a time
when he was delusional. So in the scheme of the movie, I don’t think
they should have put them in, in hindsight. It would have clouded
up the film, which is more about this poor guy dealing with his
schizophrenia and the love and support he received from his wife.

Dealing with his bisexuality, which to my understanding
hasn’t been corroborated, nobody has come forward and said ‘I was
John Nash’s lover’, or with the anti-Semitism, [would have been
distracting]. My sense is that if I were walking down the street
and bumped into a schizophrenic in front of Starbucks, and he makes
some kind of racial slur to me, I’m not going to take it personally.
In any case, had that been dealt with in a two hour and 15 minute
movie, you’d likely have too much material; it would muddy it up.

MM: How do you divide the workload on a
picture?

MH: Very simply. The first scene comes in and
one of us will just take it or say ‘You can have that,’ and we just
alternate from there. What ends up happening is that it seems to
balance out really well. If one of us has a big scene that takes
several days to do then the other guy picks up the slack, doing
whatever else that comes in during that time.

MM: Does it help to have another opinion
in the cutting room?

MH: Sometimes fresh eyes will see stuff that
you didn’t see. It’s also nice to have someone who can tell you
right off if what you’re doing is good or if you are taking the
wrong approach. The two of us have worked together so long that
there is no problem saying those things. There is no ego problem.
We trust each other. We have total confidence in each other’s opinion.

MM: To what extent do you think it’s possible
to evaluate whether or not a film is actually well-edited? How can
one evaluate, as in the case of the Oscars, what is well-edited
when we don’t know what the editor had to work with?

MH: I think it’s the toughest category to evaluate
of them all. I think that the Academy voters tend to put editing
along with the Best Picture category and I think you could make
an argument that there are a lot of really well-edited films that
are not necessarily really good movies. A bad movie could be really
well-edited, but that’s not going to happen in the Academy. An editor
may have had to work some magic just to get it to a mediocre level.
The direction could have been abysmal and he might have had to do
all kinds of manipulation. So if something is up for Best Picture
the assumption will be that the editing is good. There are certain
movies that stand out, though. Every year there are one or two that
don’t fall in line with Best Picture. This year it was Memento.

MM: What was the highlight of A Beautiful
Mind for you?

MH: The best thing was having Russell Crowe
in the film and seeing how he approached it. It was interesting;
he gave us a lot of different approaches to each scene. Since he
was playing someone with schizophrenia he would generally start
out the scenes with a low key and subtle approach and ultimately
he would allow the performance to become more ‘out there,’ becoming
more extreme, until on the last couple of takes he would just go
all out. Usually we wouldn’t use the latter material but he did
give us a lot to work with.

MM: What are the pictures you’ve worked
on that stand out for you?

MH: Splash will always stand out for
me. I think it still holds up now; it’s still fun to watch. Cocoon is another one, and Parenthood. Far and Away stands out because
it was so much fun to work on. It didn’t turn out to be the greatest
movie, he had high ambitions of making a 70mm epic and it didn’t
quite live up to that, but it had great locations and we had a lot
of fun doing it. It was a real family atmosphere. I think Tom Cruise
and Nicole Kidman really fostered that. It was a very happy set.
They had just gotten married, so they were happy, and it kind of
rubbed off on everybody. Too bad it didn’t turn out to be a classic,
but we sure had fun doing it.

MM: Why are you still editing? What is
it about the job that you love?

DH: It’s just compelling, it’s interesting.
Every job has a different set of problems. Just the idea of being
able to work with these great performances that the actors have
given us over the years, and the cameramen and so on, to be able
to put these movies together, I couldn’t think of a better way to
make a living.

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