Attribute her success to tenacity and talent all you
want-but Claire Simpson will tell you it’s really all about luck!
Just five years after getting her start assisting legendary editor
Dede Allen on 1981’s Reds (for which Allen received an Oscar
nod), Simpson was reciting her own Oscar acceptance speech for her
work on Oliver Stone’s Platoon.
With a filmography consisting of more than a dozen
films, including two further projects with Stone (Salvador and Wall Street) and collaborations with directors Robert Towne,
Neil LaBute, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, Simpson has carved out
a career that would make most editors envious. Here, she discusses
her roadmap to Hollywood, political awareness and how it really
all began with some mixed up birdcalls.
Jennifer Wood (MM): First, just give me
a little bit of background on you: where you were born, education,
Claire Simpson (CS): I was born and educated
in England, but my family was Irish and we spent large chunks of
time there. Meals were always digested with a large dose of political
debate, so there was always a highly charged atmosphere at the dinner
table. God forbid if you didn’t keep up with current events. I still
read four newspapers a day, and watch documentaries addictively.
MM: Is it true that you began editing nature
films for Irish television?
CS: After school I moved back to Dublin and
worked on nature films for Irish television. I was totally inadequate.
I would get all the birdcalls mixed up. Suddenly a loon would be
endowed with the song of a lesser-spotted warbler. I was a city
girl, after all, and country life was not only unfamiliar to me,
it was alien. I would march up the Wicklow Mountains in high heels,
crawl into a bird hide and read Jean-Paul Sartre for hours on end.
On one of those balmy days of August, I realized that existentialism
and angst was to be my destiny and what better place to find it
MM: How did this introduction to film via
non-fiction work influence your style when you began working on
CS: I went on to edit several documentaries,
which satisfied my appetite for political discourse. Documentaries
really make you feel part of the world, whereas features remove
you from it because you are largely dealing with fantasy or fiction.
With documentaries you are up to your neck in the nitty gritty of
real life. You are not working from a script so you often have to
invent one with the director. The rules of drama still apply: it’s
usually a three-act form, but the characters and the situations
are very real. One is, essentially, writing with images.
MM: When did you get your first big break
into the film industry?
CS: On the way [to Hollywood], I had a short
diversion to London where I had the great good fortune to meet Dede
Allen. She was looking for a crew for Reds, and I presented
myself for work as an assistant. When Dede bounced into the room,
her good natured geniality dispelled any illusions I might have
had of a gnarled, cigar-smoking, hyperactive achiever. Her sheer
physical strength radiates with intelligence and defines the space
around her. We were all smitten and swore loyalty, because that
is what Dede inspires. Her honesty when dealing with both the material
and people is disarming. She challenges at the same time as nurtures.
Her formal dexterity pushes the art of editing to exhilarating highs,
and it was exciting to watch her work and shape a scene.
MM: It’s not news that women have always
been underrepresented in the film industry-except when it comes
to the editing room. Why do you think it’s in the editing room that
women have always made a difference?
CS: Yes, there has always been a tradition
of women in the cutting room. I don’t know exactly why. I have heard
some liken the process to weaving or sewing, and then there are
those theories about women having a greater capacity for detail,
which is fundamental to editing. I think these perceptions might
explain why it was acceptable for women to work in the cutting rooms,
but I don’t think that it is particularly helpful to use those analogies
Men and women are equally adept at these skills and
the available technology has stripped away a lot of the physical
fussiness of the work and allowed the form to become more of an
intellectual exercise. Personally, I think that editing has more
to do with architecture and, having built a house recently, I can
honestly say that dealing with the plumbing can be as tantalizing
as disguising the mechanics of the plot.
MM: You’ve worked with a number of the film
industry’s most celebrated directors, but whose personalities and
work habits all are rumored to be quite different. What is your
advice on how to balance these strong personalities to create a
CS: I’ve worked with some very talented people;
not just directors but wonderful actors, cinematographers, designers-and
I’ve enjoyed the loyal support of my own crews, who I try to include
in the process as much as possible. I build a challenging and nurturing
environment, as Dede graciously extended toward me. And then I try
to have some fun.
Cutting rooms are only dark and gloomy places if you
make them so. Hard work, educated taste, sharp instincts and a flare
for the absurd have been essential to my career as an editor as
well as important ingredients for my life. And never underestimate
the value of good luck. I know many extraordinarily talented people
who have not been lucky enough to win an Academy Award. Don’t get
me wrong, it was remarkably validating to win. But what really counts
is to face every working day with the guts to be honest both with
your director and with the material you’re working with. If you
can’t do that, don’t take the job.