A film editor gets the opportunity of a lifetime with the world’s greatest director. 4,163 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I liked Martin from the get-go. He was extremely polite, with an unexpected sense of humor, and eyes so intelligent and intense that most people feared him. Fortunately, I had grown up around a man with fierce eyes, my grandfather. Being his favorite, I was the only one of his grandchildren permitted to sit on his knee and – privilege of privilege – play with his beret.
This day of my interview to work at Kaleidoscope Studio, Martin was wearing a checkered brown and white shirt and brown corduroy pants, but no beret. Not that day.
“May I ask a question?” I say. He nods. “Why am I here?”
Martin breaks into laughter. “We have three films and three films in trouble,” he declares. His producers Forest and Gary nod in agreement.
Martin wants to take me on a tour of the studio. Once outside, something quite weird happens. He points to a black bicycle leaning against a wall.
“Come on the bike.”
Martin repeats, “Come on the bike.”
“I haven’t done this since I was two years old,” I tell him. But I jump on the front of the bike and off we go.
People on the lot are trying to be discreet, but heads are turning. This is, after all, the most famous movie director in the world. Martin my tour guide, points to the charming street names on the lot: Howard Hawks Lane, John Ford Plaza, Akiro Kurosawa Avenue. We end up at the editing bungalow that houses the state of the art 1/2-inch video editing equipment provided by Sony. Martin shows me a dance sequence he directed for his Western film set on a street in Laredo back in the 1800s.
“I was trying not to shoot masters and coverage,” says Martin “I was going for long moves and no coverage hence many of our problems.”
“It means you have to find solutions.”
I mention Andre Bazin’s book What Is Cinema? and mangle the title. Martin corrects me. I feel stupid for trying to show off.
We climb back on the bike. Martin drops me at the front gate, asks me to send him my documentary and a reel from the feature I had just cut and tells me he hopes to see me again. “I hope so,” I say, then run all the way back home because I can’t wait to call my friends.
Two weeks elapse after the interview. It’s Friday afternoon, and this time his producers, Forest and Gary, are on the phone.
“Congratulations, you got the job. Report to the studio on Monday.”
“To do what?” I ask.
Almost annoyed, they respond, “To edit the Western. Dancing In Loredo.”
I literally fall out of my chair. Never in a million years could I have imagined working for the most famous director in the world. Apparently my editing of the documentary they had screened had been the difference.
“She can cut,” Martin had told his producers.
I spend a very anxious weekend. Monday comes. Beyond terrified, I arrive at the studio. They have my name at the gate. Relieved, I’m told to proceed to the office of the Vice President of Post-Production. But the reason my nerves are so jittery is that, in my mind, I am coming to meet Martin again. If I had known I was to report to the VP first, I might have found out that he had been an editor for Alfred Hitchcock. But that first morning he was just a man standing between me and my future.
The minute I step into his office, hostilities break. The VP is ruddy, portly, and totally unwelcoming. He also has a thick German accent. “No one told me that you vere hired or that you vere coming until this morning. I called the union. You cannot vork here. You belong to the vrong category.”
My blood starts boiling – although I know he is right. Talent should dictate who can cut, not seniority. “Martin has hired me to cut Dancing In Loredo,” I say tersely.
“The movie is already cut,” he says curtly. “There might be a small scene left ve could give you. Ve vould have to put you in a small cutting room in the back. The union cannot find out that you’re here.”
I can see that he is used to intimidating women and believes that I’m going to be a nice little girl and sheepishly accept the deal. He has no way of knowing that, as a Frenchwoman, I can channel my inner Joan of Arc. No retreat.
“I’m not interested in being hidden away in a broom closet,” I tell him. “I don’t think Martin would want me there, either. Maybe we should talk to him.”
To my dismay the VP informs me that Martin is in Switzerland, Forest is in New York, and Gary is on his boat. They have all decided to take a holiday on my big day. In my mind I’m reciting my mantra: “I’m Claire Bardeaux. I crossed an ocean and a continent.” I take a deep breath and tell him that I think we should call Martin in Switzerland.
The VP’s eyes bulge so wide his glasses slide down his nose. He slides them back in place, then tries to get Forest and Gary on the line, but gets nowhere. Reluctantly, he is forced to call the boss. And I’m still firmly planted in the middle of the room. The VP tells Martin that I’m in the office and explains that I have the wrong union classification. Martin wants to talk to me. With sweaty palms, I take the phone.
“You never told us about your union problem.”
I answer very gently. “But you never asked me.”
I hear a guffaw on the line. Martin tells me not to worry, that they will take care of it. He orders me to the editing bungalow we toured. My mission: to study every frame of dailies and then call him.
I pass the phone back to the VP. He takes it into the other room. A few minutes later, he reappears and tells me to follow him. We walk in silence across the now empty studio. We reach the editing bungalow and the VP introduces me to the technician in charge, and leaves. The tech is a skinny Scotsman with a big grin. He sets me up with the videotapes of Dancing In Loredo. That whole week I view the footage, a dazzling feat of set design and photography and country western music.
Meanwhile, the door of the editing bungalow is opening incessantly. First the editor waltzes in and hasn’t been told about my hiring. It starts to sound like a refrain. He had finished the first cut a week after the end of principal photography. He was sitting around waiting for Martin to return. I’m not sure what to tell the guy, but I sense we could never be friends.
I finish watching the dailies, then get Martin on the phone. He tells me his concept for the film: a musical where people don’t stop to sing but where the songs tell the story. I sit down at the Kem and start work. I have never been that panicked in my life. I’m running to the bathroom constantly. In the back of my mind I know this is a test and I have to pass it. This is my chance. A chance I could never have imagined, for a director I had always admired.
My initial cutting room is located in the back of the sound department, and sound editing is already in full swing. Because the scene is a big montage and no song has been created for it yet, I start to look for music. It was before the days of iTunes. I didn’t have a collection of CDs yet or sound effects. But I find a charming street musician recorded in Loredo and I decide to use him for rhythm. A knock at the door. It’s the sound designer. Up to this point he has made a serious effort to avoid me. I crack a large smile. He hovers in the doorway.
“What are you doing?”
“You can’t use music. Music is my department.”
“But I need music. It’s a montage.”
The door slams.
As soon as I deem it safe, I play the music and cut to it.
A few days later, another loud knock at the door. This time I hold back my smile. For the second time, the sound designer warns me not to use music. He reminds me there had already been a first warning. The door slams.
I’m alone deep in enemy territory.
It is Saturday morning. Martin is returning on Monday and has demanded to see the scene. I’m frantic. The studio is empty and I’m blasting the music. The door opens wide. It’s the sound designer yet again.
“How many times do I have to tell you that music is me. You cannot use music.”
He is obviously beside himself, and I have also reached my limit. Call Martin again? It turns out they’re old pals. The two friends talk for a while, then, without looking at me, the sound designer hands me the phone and departs. Martin tells me to continue what I’m doing, and I do.
Monday arrives. Martin storms in. He sits at the Kem. I sit way back in the room. Martin plays the scene and then rises to his feet. He tells me, “That’s what the whole movie should look like,” and marches out.
I sit down, wiped out.
The original editor left. He felt unwanted. I find out later he was a protégé of the VP of Post-Production. It clarified the hostility.
Forest tells me to get my own team. I find a pearl for my first assistant, then hire an apprentice, I don’t know when, but at some point Martin gives up on the idea of video editing. I was never asked to learn the system. The technology in 1980 was still very rudimentary. The Avid had not been invented yet. We proceed on film. The routine is soon established. Martin stays in town a week or two and goes away for a week or two. When he is in town, we might still be cutting at 2 a.m. or screening the film at 4 a.m.
Martin is a visionary.
He was the first filmmaker to invent pre-visualization using storyboards and video assist on set. He was the first to venture into tape editing. He already believed computers would become an integral part of movie making. Most people in Hollywood at the time scoffed at Martin, thinking it was just another one of his crazy ideas.
As I am starting to cut, I ask him if he has any advice for me. He tells me, seemingly surprised by my question, to only keep the good pieces. He is not a hands-on director when it comes to editing. He wants me to dazzle him, surprise him, dare to show him my ideas. It’s like being thrown in the swimming pool before anybody asks me if I can swim.
It took me a while to really understand what he meant. Don’t force the material for an idea of what the scene should be; that’s how we end up using inferior footage. Construct the story making sure every brilliant piece of acting, photography, costume or set gets included. His dailies were always interesting, each take evolving as the ideas poured forth.
Sometimes the best idea could come on take four or seven, “Match up,” Martin would say. Meaning: that’s the guiding take, so everything would have to be cut around it. It drove script supervisors mad for sure, but I liked the constant challenge and creativity. It was a lot more fun than watching twelve takes, all of which were almost identical save for some almost unnoticeable details.
Our cutting rooms are in a nice bungalow in the back of the studio. If Martin was in town and we worked late, then food, always delicious, would be served on real China with sterling silverware. There is no room for plastic in this man’s world. Margaritas would be poured but I’d barely take a sip. Some nights, Martin grilled barbecue for the entire crew. His shirt off, an apron on, he fired up the coals like a professional. Well, almost. A few times he came dangerously close to losing control of the flames and burning down the bungalow. It was there I had my first rack of ribs. I have sampled them in many different restaurants since, but none has even come close to his.
There is an image of Martin I will never forget:
I get up from the Kem to stretch my legs and walk to the front door of the editing bungalow. It’s a beautiful sunny day. Suddenly, a toddler races across my field of view, laughing hysterically. Then two large outstretched arms appear in pursuit. It’s Martin. He confesses that he wishes he could throw away the grown-ups and only keep the children. He had a very special relationship with kids. They liked him unconditionally.
I cannot imagine what it must have been like being married to this giant of a man. But Martin’s wife seemed to take everything in stride. I could sense her sigh of relief when she was delivering her husband back to us. With me, she was always very cordial and complimentary. “You gave Martin a lot more than he expected,” she once told me early on when I really needed a boost of confidence. We were walking back from screening a cut. I think it was the time when Martin decided to put Reel 4 in first position. I can still hear the ADR assistant laughing in the hallway as she told her cohort: “Did you see what Claire did?”
Martin was never afraid to try his wildest ideas. He loved creative chaos, and I came to love it and practice it as well. Chaos is always difficult (hopefully, the studio executive won’t demand to see the cut at this juncture), but it’s the veil that lifts and reveals new paths.
The endless creativity, cutting a scene forty different ways, I loved that about my boss. It didn’t bother me. If we had an idea, we just tried it. And it seemed we always had more ideas.
Another of Martin’ mottos was: “Make it beautiful.” Never satisfied, always searching, it suited me perfectly. But the VP of Post-Production was of the school who thought the editor – a male – is supposed to control the director, and that was the problem with female editors. We were too pliant, too accommodating. Martin did not think that. Because one day he blurted out of the blue to me, “French women are argumentative.”
Some people would say to my face that I got my big break because I was French. Others, behind my back, would spread rumors of something sexual going on. No one ever said, “Maybe this woman has talent” or “Maybe she is a real hard worker.” It felt like nobody in the world was celebrating my big break. Certainly not men and, sadly, not women either.
But when I was cutting, I was able to shut out the negativity. Many years later, Forest told me that Martin had been searching for an editor not trained in the ways of Hollywood, an editor unencumbered by rules. My ignorance gave free reign to my boldness.
I’m French, born in a small town, the daughter of an electrician and a homemaker with no connection whatsoever to anything artistic. Not exactly the right provenance to bring down the walls of Hollywood. But my father had a philosophy: “If you work hard – and very few people really work hard – and if you love what you do and have a talent for it, you’ll succeed.” I went to film school in New York City and learned technical words in English for which I had no reference in my own language. It was quite a challenge and their pronunciation a daily embarrassment. “Iss? Iss? Iiiiisssss!” I meant the “hiss” on the sound tape. But my classmates and professor let me go on making a fool of myself. Editing was a blessing. I did not have to speak. And, as I quickly discovered, I had a talent for it.
My first assignment was to shoot and cut a fight. Cutting the 8mm footage together, I had a big “Eureka” moment. I knew how to do this!
People had told me, “There is no chance you’ll make it in Hollywood.”
But Hollywood was not my dream. Reluctantly, I followed my husband to Beverly Hills and decided to give it a try. At that point in my career, I was still waiting for my big break. It came by happenstance. Shortly after my divorce and my move into a garden floor apartment, I saw a yard sale across the street. I needed to furnish my place, so I came looking to buy. Every piece of furniture, every object, was chosen with great care by its owner. She was an energetic, curious and brilliant woman who I later learned had been the first woman Vice President at a studio.
A few months after we met, she called me and said she had given my name to a producer at Kaleidoscope Studio who was looking to hire a standby editor. I was not sure what a standby editor was. To stand for the union, I guessed. I had been a member of the New York local, but the Los Angeles local didn’t honor my membership. I had to start all over again.
The meeting was brief. Forest, the producer, didn’t ask me for my union category and I did not volunteer. He was very intimidating. He let me talk and talk while staring silently at me, and then his dry sense of humor kicked in. He didn’t hire me that day. Instead, it was almost a year to the day later when I heard back from him. I had three messages to call Kaleidoscope at 7 p.m.. I decided to ring my friend. She told me he had phoned that day and asked if I was really good. She had gotten a bit irritated with him for questioning my talent because I was a woman.
Finally, it’s seven o’clock. Forest grills me for half an hour on the phone. I ask if we will meet again. He chuckles and says, “Let’s talk some more.” A few days later, Forest calls again. He wants me to come over to Kaleidoscope. Now.
When I arrive, two assistants are unaware of the meeting. They call around to locate Forest. He is in Martin’s bungalow. The secretary says she will find out how long he will be there. She calls back immediately. Forest wants me to come over to the bungalow. It takes me a second to process the information. Was I going to meet Martin?
I knock gently at the door. A very friendly Forest opens it. He shows me into a little salon with a sofa. From the corner of my eye, I can see Martin seated at a long table. He immediately gets up to shake my hand. A moment of confusion arises about who should sit where. Martin points for me to sit at the head of the table. He sits to my right, and Forest and Gary, the other producer, take the seats to my left.
That first meeting, Martin seems a little lost for words. He starts with generalities. Where do I live? Am I settled here? I tell him I have a degree from the Sorbonne, blah, blah, blah. Then he proceeds to ask me what kind of films I want to cut. “I want to work on movies with large themes because…”
He interrupts me: “Those films are the easiest to make. It’s easy to know what to do. I’m interested in fantasy but that’s hard. You need enough reality for an audience to relate to the story.”
A couple of times during the interview I am tempted to smile. It’s one of these experiences where, while engaged in a conversation, your inner dialogue runs wild. As I am talking about cinema, I am really thinking about the beautiful absurdity of this situation that has Martin Sitford, the greatest director of all time, listening to me yakking away about film.
If I had known in advance that I was going to meet Martin, would I have enjoyed myself so thoroughly?
Working for Martin is a calling. He used to rhapsodize about building a studio in Bangkok and how wonderful it would be over there making movies. A million images would rattle my brain. Who would follow me to this faraway place? Martin never built a studio there, one of the few things that this man dreamed of doing that he did not accomplish. Actually, I can think of one other idea that never came to fruition. Martin called a post-production meeting and announced that he was going to borrow a jet from a financier and travel around the country to preview Dancing In Laredo in different cities. We would load a Kem, the lifts and outtakes into the plane, and make editorial changes as we went to accommodate audience reactions.
It’s easy to imagine our reaction.
Remember my union problem? Martin solved it by appointing the VP of Post-Production as my stand-by. It was quite a farce. The VP would sit down at a Moviola and play editor every time a union rep was on the way. Of course, we had to put his name in the main credit. Thank you, union. I never saw the original cut but I had to share a credit with the original editor, too. Thank you, union. Fortunately, Martin decided to give me a credit that clearly distinguished me from the two other editors. Thank you, Martin. “She did the most work.” That was his line.
When it came time to finish the film, I flew to Technicolor in Rome to oversee the negative cutting. Flying First Class for the first time in my life, I basked in the luxury. The crowning moment of the trip was a lunch at Frederico Fellini’s home. Martin, Gary and Forest were there and we were served a delicious meal. At the end, Fellini proposed a toast, and, to my great surprise, it was addressed to me. “Let’s have a toast to Claire. She did a great job.” I thought Martin was slightly taken aback by the accolade. Or maybe I was just embarrassed at being singled out.
The buzz around the movie was overwhelmingly negative.
It started early, while we were still editing. An incomplete color dupe of Dancing In Laredo with only a few of its 20 songs was screened to five distributors. These blind bid screenings are supposed to be strictly confidential. But three weeks later, a slanderous review appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Martin called. He was very low.
“My hometown,” he kept repeating. “My hometown.”
I managed to make him feel better, but I felt ill.
Then the distributor delayed the film, and money disputes ensued. Martin fired the distributor and found another. To gain public support and create interest, Martin took it upon himself to have a very public preview at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The two screenings were sold out. Ten thousand people saw the film that night. I was there. The audience seemed to like Dancing In Laredo and I hoped against all hopes that maybe Martin had turned the tide. But the negative atmosphere surrounding the film would not go away. The film cost twenty million. No, it cost twenty-seven million. Money, money, money, that’s all the press would talk about. But mostly, nobody wanted to see a movie with songs and dancing directed by Martin Sitford best known for dramatic storytelling.
The movie was a gigantic flop. We were crushed. In tears at the premiere in Century City, I thought, “My God, I’ll be forever known as the editor who ruined Martin’s career.”
The night of the premiere, Martin sent me flowers. A note was attached. It read, “Thank you for your loving attention above and beyond the call of duty. Martin Sitford.”
The best that could be said about my first experience in Hollywood was that I had edited a film for the greatest director in the world and had managed to survive even if the picture hadn’t. But many years later, when I visited Beijing, people knelt in front of me for having been the editor of such a masterpiece. They loved the movie in China.