Steve Hamilton

Steve Hamilton

Containing a virtual who’s who
of the New York independent film community on his resume, editor Steve Hamilton has worked
with Michael Almereyda (The Rocking Horse Winner), Ang Lee
(Sense and Sensibility), Bart Freundlich (The Myth of
) and Jesse Peretz (The Chateau). He has
also forged a strong creative relationship with Hal Hartley, whom
he first worked with in 1990. He recently edited Hartley’s first
“monster movie,” No Such Thing, which follows an idealistic
journalist (Sarah Polley) who tracks down an immortal Icelandic
creature who voices many of Hartley’s concerns for modern man.

As the founder of Spin Cycle
Post, Hamilton pioneered the use of AVID technology for post-production on low budget features.
He currently runs his own digital editing facility, Mad Mad Judy,
in New York. Hamilton recently spoke with MM about collaborating with Hartley over
the years, as well as his thoughts on the evolution of indie film
through the ’90s.

Jeremiah Kipp (MM): How
did you meet Hal Hartley?

Steve Hamilton (SH): I
never went to film school, but interned at American Zoetrope in
1988 and 1989. That turned into a sound apprenticeship. I liked
being in the editing room, which gave me my focus. After that, I
worked at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Hal’s first feature, The
Unbelievable Truth
, came there. I brought home the tape, watched
it, then immediately rewound and watched it again. I identified
with the film and the filmmaker right away.

Thinking that this was someone I could work with, I told all my
friends, “I’m going to New York and I’m gonna work for Hal Hartley.” They were like, “Yeah, right.”
Pretty soon they had a pool going to see how long it’d be before
laid-back, California born and raised, was chewed up and spit out by the Big Apple.

I arrived in New York and visited my cousin, who is the lead
singer and guitarist for Helmet. He said, “Check out my new video.
It was shot by Mike Spiller, who filmed The Unbelievable Truth.”
I was like, “Really? I’d like to meet that guy.” Mike was in the
phone book, so I called him up. I said that I was interested in
film editing, and that I’d like to meet him and Hal Hartley.

I found out that Hal was about
to make his short film, Theory of Achievement. He needed
someone who could work three months for free as an assistant editor,
which I could. I had been in NYC for less than two months when I
got a message from Hal asking if I could work on the short. When
we met, I just knew that this was going to work.

MM: Where did you go
from there?

SH: I did sound editing
on Theory of Achievement and Ambition. Hal cut those
short films himself. But by the time Hal did [his featurette,] Surviving
, I was doing more and more picture editing. I learned
fast and moved into that role.

MM: After Surviving
Desire, Simple Men was your first feature?

SH: Well, Surviving
was an hour long. It was a two-week shoot on 16mm versus
a four or five >week shoot on 35mm for Simple Men. Surviving
was more of a trial run. Simple Men was a real
feature, but still with a small crew. I cut the film and did all
the sound editing myself on the Steenbeck. On the films after that,
starting with Amateur and Flirt, we moved to the AVID.

MM: Your company, Spin
Cycle Post, pioneered AVID technology for indie features here in New York.
How did that get started?

SH: The year before Hal
did Amateur, I’d worked at this commercial editing house
as an assistant. The commercial editing houses had AVID first because
what they were doing was short and manageable. Nobody was cutting
features on the AVID. I was talking to Hal about it, though-the
main thing that interested us was how flexible the sound editing
capabilities were. Hal was intrigued, and talked to executive producer
Jerome Brownstein, who said “Let’s get one of these machines.” Thus,
we got an AVID and Spin Cycle Post was born in 1992.

MM: Where do you see No Such Thing in Hal Hartley’s body of work?

SH: Flirt was very
experimental and was the end of an entire phase of Hal’s career
that started with The Unbelievable Truth and Trust. Henry Fool was a big step out in a new direction. The Book of Life was something beautiful and energetic, where Hal
really explored the medium of digital video. It’s by far the most
fun thing I ever worked on with him. No Such Thing was informed
by the two experiences of Henry Fool and Book of Life.
I was excited about it, and knew it would have great energy and
be kind of raw.

MM: How do you interpret scenes in the editing room, like
the one where a saint-like Sarah Polley emerges from the hospital
and the onlookers want to touch her?

SH: I had many ideas,
but had almost no contact with Hal while they were shooting. They
were in Iceland, I was in New York. The dailies were coming and
everyone [on set] was nervous because they weren’t seeing anything.
At best, they would see a VHS five days after they shot the scene.
If there was a problem, I was almost afraid to say anything because
their opportunity was gone. It all worked out in the end, and was
so well shot by Michael Spiller. I interpreted things as they came
in, putting them together. With that scene where she comes out of
the hospital, I watched the different takes over and over. I said
to myself that the moment was about water, trying to get all those
hands and faces [around Sarah] to move like water. There was a purification
there, like her Baptism.

MM: The final scene
is edited in quite a different way from Hartley’s other films.

SH: We worked on that
more than any other scene. It’s funny-Hal and I have done entire
films with between 400 and 600 edits in them, whereas a normal feature
might have a couple thousand. That final four or five minute sequence
had something like 380 edits in it! We’re not used to doing that.
There are all these pieces that form a crescendo. It became kind
of a techno song with images as samples, and I embraced it in that
way. Editing is like music, so I find a rhythm in my head. I’m always
sort of tapping my foot, and sometimes it’s faster and slower; sometimes
it’s offbeat like a jazz syncopation.

MM: You’ve worked twice
with Michael Almereyda, on
The Eternal and The Rocking
Horse Winner.

SH: The Eternal was
made with Trimark, which was this wannabe studio, and they completely
undermined Michael’s film. If he had been given $3 million and carte
blanche to do whatever he wanted, he would have given them something
great. Instead, it cost almost twice as much and was compromised
in many ways. There was a lot of messing around with the casting.
Michael wanted to cast Joaquin Phoenix, and Trimark said he’s not
well-known enough. They didn’t want to take a chance. It’s ridiculous.
That’s why those decisions should be left to visionary directors
rather than shortsighted studio people. It was a long and painful
process-but after watching it a year or so later, when the video
release came out, I felt like what was salvaged turned out pretty

Working on Rocking Horse Winner was one of my most satisfying editorial experiences. On any given
day, the process would involve Michael coming in with a film that
he thought was cool, like Fallen Angels. We would watch it,
and it wasn’t like, “Let’s watch this and make our film this way.”
It was for inspiration. And be it a book or a TV commercial or a
newspaper article, Michael was always bringing in different things
that influenced him. Then we’d see what happened with our own process.

MM: Could you describe
your experience as a sound editor on
Sense and Sensibility?

SH: I’m really disillusioned
working on big-budget movies like Sense and Sensibility,
particularly with sound. Most of the work that we did was for screenings
and test dubs. It was disheartening because we’d spend so much time
on those things, then in the end we’d have maybe four weeks to pull
the whole thing together. That was a big film with a complicated
soundscape, because it was a period piece. Those are hard to do,
even though it might be very subtle. Getting sounds out that don’t
belong is a nightmare. We did it with a crew of four or five people,
whereas most films of that size might have a dozen or more.

MM: What was the genesis of leaving Spin Cycle Post and
developing your own company, Mad Mad Judy?

SH: Spin Cycle Post was
developed right on top of the big move toward digital, pioneered
a lot of new technology, and was involved with a lot of great films
when truly independent filmmaking was burgeoning in New York. I
loved every minute of it, but in the end my partner and I couldn’t
agree on where to take the company. I knew in the end I could leave
with my own reputation and do what I wanted.

With Mad Mad Judy, I created
an adaptable environment for myself. It’s small enough where I can
make everything in it as nice as it can be, but it’s not incredibly
expensive and has a low overhead. I can edit features or commercials,
I’ve been making sound and video art for galleries and museums,
and it’s all about me as a creative individual. The moment the commercial
clients leave, I just switch over my computer to the art project
that I’m working on.

MM: The times have changed. What  indicated the end of
a particular era for independent films?

SH: The death of Bill
Nisselson, Vice President of Studio Operations at Sound One. He
was the heart and soul of independent filmmaking in New York. Even
though they had all these huge-budget movie clients around, Bill
always made sure that Hal and Michael got everything they needed
for whatever they could afford to pay. I can’t overemphasize how
important he was to so many young filmmakers. We’re in a different
era now, and maybe the advent of technology will create a whole
new surge, but what started with Jim Jarmusch and Hal has run its
course. It’s been absorbed by the studios. But Bill was such a champion
and friend of the underdog and the good people-he always respected
the good people. I was blessed to be a part of this great wave of
filmmaking in New York, and maybe I’ll be blessed to be part of
the next wave. I’ve found a maturity and balance in my work that
grew out of the changing of the independent film community, though
I do mourn the loss of it.