Film editor Barbara Tulliver had at one time contemplated
a career in theater. She studied lighting design for the stage and
later got the chance to ply her craft in summer stock and numerous
off-off Broadway productions. Her move to the cutting room came
quite by chance, but there she found a creative outlet that suited
her-a good match for the critical training gained in the lighting
booth. Starting in commercials as an assistant editor, she stepped
over into features and did her time as an apprentice, finally assisting
on such films as David Mamet’s House of Games in 1987 and
Milos Forman’s Valmont in 1989.
When Mamet’s regular editor Trudy Ship was unavailable
to work on Homicide (1991), Barbara, by then a familiar face
in Mamet’s company, got her big break when he invited her to cut
the picture herself. Since then she has edited a steady stream of
films for the prolific writer/director, including Oleanna (1994), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), The Winslow Boy (1999), State and Main (2000) and this season’s latest, Heist.
She also cut Hard Eight for Paul Thomas Anderson in 1997
and is currently in production on M. Night Shyamalan’s new picture, Signs, slated for release in 2002.
Phillip Williams (MM): Do you think that,
since Homicide, David Mamet’s approach to working with an
editor has evolved at all?
Barbara Tulliver (BT): No, I think it was a
great transition. When he did House of Games-his first film-he
worked with Trudy Ship; they had a great relationship and it evolved
in such way that when I came in, I worked so similarly to Trudy
(having been her assistant)-all the things that we did were identical.
As David and I worked together we developed a way of working that
has a certain shorthand. I don’t think it’s changed much, but again,
he’s only had me and Trudy to work with.
MM: Mamet seems to be someone who thinks
a great deal about the moviemaking process ahead of time. Is the
approach that you’re going to take fairly well thought out before
you enter the cutting room? Has he given you specific notes to follow
or do you start out bringing your own take to the material?
BT: Yeah, I give it my own take and then we
work together. I sit in on dailies and he’ll tell me his thoughts.
He’ll give me performance choices-but I think [at that point] he’s
so concentrated on shooting, (which at that point most directors
are), that I have that opportunity to give him my own take. This
is just in terms of giving him a good first cut, rather than cutting
anything out of the picture. Then he can get a really good feel
for the film and we go in and begin working together. We’re very
open with each other. For me it’s a rewarding experience because
we have a great dialogue with each other and we’re very open to
trying out whatever will work.
MM: Do you request shots from time to time
during production to make a given scene work?
BT: Yes, and I would do that with any director.
I think David expects that from me. If something isn’t working,
I’ll show it to him and we’ll talk about it. It’s always hard to
cover completely everything that you may need. Nobody likes re-shooting
(laughs), so you try to get everything that’s needed before you
get to the cutting room.
MM: Does David work with storyboards?
BT: No. He may storyboard some sequences, but
not the whole film, though he did earlier on [in his career]. Not
since I’ve worked with him as an editor, though. We talk a lot about
the script beforehand; he’ll be very generous and say “Read the
script, and if anything’s going to end up on the editing room floor,
let me know so that we don’t have to shoot it. We only have seven
weeks (laughs) so I don’t want to waste my time.’ And of course
we agree sometimes and don’t agree other times.
MM: Was Heist unique for you as an
editor in any way?
BT: It was unique because there was a lot more
that David was able to do because he had a larger shooting schedule
and a larger budget, which made it possible for him to do a lot
more things; he was able to provide a lot more to cut with. On a
low budget film, when you’re doing 30 set ups a day, you don’t have
much time, and you have to be very particular about what you give
your time to or not. So [on Heist], he was able to cover
things a little differently than he had in the past; the opportunity
was there. That was great for both of us.
MM: It’s interesting that you mention low
budgets, as a film like The Winslow Boy doesn’t look like
there was any lack of money.
BT: But when you think about it, it’s one set,
really. For four weeks we shot in one house, with four or five characters.
That cuts down your budget right there.
MM: Watching a Mamet film, you feel like
he has been a great student of film-that he has looked at the work
of other moviemakers, like Hitchcock, and absorbed lessons from
BT: He has an enormous amount of knowledge,
seen an enormous amount of films and read a great deal of literature.
He knows a lot; he’s a great ‘studier.’
MM: Were multiple cameras used a good deal
BT: Quite a bit, because there were several
action sequences and a lot B camera footage was necessary. Or, if
they had a short amount of time to shoot a scene, they’d use a B
camera to speed up shooting.
MM: Considering that this was the first
action film for both you and David, did you look to any other films
BT: No, I’ve seen a lot of action/adventure
films. I like them, but here I was really just looking at what David
gave me to cut. I don’t think that I studied any more than that.
MM: Did you find yourself cutting out a
lot of material, or was there a fairly tight ratio between what
was shot and what you used?
BT: I think there was a pretty close relationship.
We ended up cutting out some things that in the end we thought weren’t
working because either the stunt didn’t work, or the gag didn’t
work or we didn’t need it because of everything else that was going
MM: Heist involves a pretty manageable cast
in terms of size. Would it be true to say that the more characters
in a film the harder your job is as an editor?
MM: So, with something like Oleanna, where there are only a few characters, is the challenge to keep
the film moving and keep people interested?
BT: With two characters like that, yes. It’s
really hard trying to create shots. We talked a lot about trying
to keep the camera moving as much as possible so that you’re not
just stuck in a ping pong match of two people exchanging dialogue.
That had to be very carefully crafted; that was really, really hard.
But really the challenge for me is just telling David’s
story, or anybody’s story, in just the way they want it to be told,
no matter the of characters. I mean, David writes characters so
well, it’s all so well integrated that, in a film like State
and Main, with its many story lines, it’s all so well-crafted
that it makes sense as we go in and out of people’s lives. He choreographs
really well from the get-go.
Filmography for Barbara Tulliver
State and Main (2000)
Story of a Bad Boy (1999)
The Winslow Boy (1999)
The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Hard Eight (1997)
Where the Rivers Flow North (1993)
Things Change (1988)
Hello Again (1987)
House of Games (1987)
Places in the Heart (1984)