Samuel Pollard
Samuel Pollard

From editing to producing and writing to directing,
Samuel Pollard’s experience runs the moviemaking gamut—and that’s
just the way he likes it. Though he originally gravitated toward
the editing room, after a decade of cutting footage for other directors
Pollard decided it was time to move behind the camera. Best known
as a frequent collaborator of Spike Lee—both as editor and producer—here
Pollard discusses their 15-year relationship, the benefit of a non-fiction
background and why he won’t hesitate to put his money where his
mouth is.

Jennifer Wood (MM): How do you think the
industry has changed from when you first started out? Do you think
the opportunities for young people are more plentiful today?

Samuel Pollard (SP): I think a couple of things.
In terms of opportunities, it might be more difficult for young
people who are attracted to editing to attach themselves to professional
editors who are doing television and films. Right now there is such
a plethora of material out there that really young people are starting
to edit immediately. They don’t have the opportunity to be mentored
by a more experienced, older editor like I did.

MM: Editors often talk about the importance
of having a really strong mentor. Who were some of the people who
mentored you when you were first starting out?

SP: Well, the gentleman that hired me for my
first film in 1972, Victor Kanefsky, was probably the most important
mentor I had in the business. He was one who, three days out of
the week, would make me sit behind him at the Steenbeck in the afternoon
and teach me. He would explain to me why he made every cut, what
the importance was of going from a medium shot to a close-up, from
a master to a long shot, when to use a dissolve, how to use voiceover
and how to select a performance. He really taught me so that, by
the time I was 25 and cut my first film, I had a wealth of experience.

Another important mentor for me is George Bowers,
a feature film editor now in California who edited A League of
Their Own, The Good Son
and The Stepfather. He was very
important to me because when he was an editor in New York I worked
as his assistant. Then when he became a director in the early ’80s,
before he went back to editing features, I edited two of his features, Body and Soul for Cannon Pictures and a film called Private
for TriStar which had, at the time, a very young Johnny
Depp and Rob Morrow. And my final major mentor was a documentary
filmmaker named Sinclair Bourne, who’s been around for many years.

MM: Do you think that there is a value to
learning to cut film today as opposed to going straight to the Avid?

SP: I don’t think there’s a value to cutting
film, to tell you the truth. I think the difference is that by cutting
film, a young editor like me had the ability to learn how to think.
When you were going through the physical process of splicing a picture,
it gave you the ability to think about what you were going to do
and why.

What’s happened now with the digital medium, because
everything can be done so fast, is that people don’t have the tendency
to understand that editing is really about what you think—not
about what you do physically. It’s really how you think in terms
of conceptualizing the way a sequence should unfold, particularly
when you’re cutting documentary footage. How the sequel should build
structurally—it’s a real thinking process. To me that’s the one
downside to digital technology. People are so impatient now and
things are on TV so quickly, there’s no opportunity to think.

MM: What is the difference for you then
cutting features and documentaries?

SP: The big difference for me is in cutting
documentaries—and particularly verité documentaries. As a young
editor I was given the responsibility to really direct the material.
Nine times out of 10, the producer or director doesn’t stay in the
editing room when you’re doing a documentary film; they leave it
to you to sort of help build the concept, find the direction and
find the story.

With a feature film, most times you’re given a script
and you see the dialogue and you basically have to make sure it’s
the best performance—the best moment—and make it work. But it’s
right there in front of you. I’ve been fortunate to work with Spike
Lee on a number of films because he tries different styles and approaches.
He’ll do a sequence like you’re watching a documentary, a verité
sequence. For example, in Jungle Fever, there’s a sequence
when the women are talking about black men. That was shot like a
documentary. He didn’t script it, really. So I was able to bring
my documentary tools to that scene. It depends on what the director
of a narrative film is doing.

MM: You’ve edited both documentary and feature
films for Spike Lee. You approach the films differently as an editor,
but do you think that he approaches them differently as a director?
Does he have a different style of direction from a feature film
to a non-fiction one?

SP: In terms of Spike, he’s never different:
he’s completely intense. [laughs] Whether it’s narrative
or feature, he has his mind on a particular approach that he wants
to implement or execute. So no, he’s not different.

MM: How did you first meet Spike Lee?

SP: It was 1988. I was producing two shows
for the series Eyes on the Prize in Boston. I got a call
from Spike in the summer of 1988—his production manager happened
to be a good friend of mine. He was looking for somebody into jazz
to cut Mo’ Better Blues. We got together about a month later
and I said yes!

MM: What is it about your relationship that
keeps bringing you back together?

SP: I am going to say this so you put it in
print! [laughs] This guy, to me, is one of the great filmmakers
on the globe, and I appreciate what he tries to do. I don’t say
that he’s completely successful every time, but I appreciate the
challenge of trying to make a story work from Bamboozled. I
appreciate that this guy never rests on his laurels and he knows
that me and Barry Brown, the other editor who has done a lot of
his films, come from a documentary background. We understand the
challenge of always trying to make sure you step up to the material.
That’s why we still work together.

MM: Now that you’ve been producing and directing
films as well, do you think that editing is something you’ll ever
give up completely?

SP: No. I still love editing—I love the challenge
of editing. I look at these guys who hired me the other day for
this reality thing and I think ‘I’m crazy. Why am I going to jump
into this?’ But then I think ‘Let me see if I can do it.’