Paul Hirsch remembers how excited he was to win an Oscar. He also remembers the "terrible faux pas" he made shortly thereafter. The year was 1978, and Hirsch had just won Best Film Editing for his work on Star Wars. "I'm not accustomed to being the center of attention," he demurs. "It's not my nature to want to have everyone staring at me." Backstage, he bumped into his director, George Lucas.
"George, who was nominated and did not win, was talking to Steven Spielberg, who was nominated and did not win," Hirsch recounts to A.frame. Spielberg was up for Best Directing for his own sci-fi hit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. "In my moment of excitement, I went up to George and I said, 'Oh, George, you should have won!' I forgot Steven was standing right there!"
Star Wars won six Oscars in total, on its way to becoming the highest-grossing film of all time. (A distinction it held until the release of Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982.) "I really felt that George should have won because, if we were going to win, he should have won," Hirsch maintains, even all these years later. "It was such a personal project for him, and we were just helping him with his personal vision."
Hirsch returned to edit Lucas' sequel, 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, and has been in the cutting room for movies by filmmakers from Brian De Palma to George A. Romero, Herbert Ross and John Hughes. He has worked on one of the biggest hits of all time and, as he puts it, "the biggest flop." (That'd be The Adventures of Pluto Nash.)
"The lesson to be learned is that — hit or flop — you got to go onto the next," says the editor. "Just keep working. I was like a worm, burrowing my way through the dirt. Keep going forward. Don't look back."
After more than 50 years in the industry, Hirsch did eventually look back to write A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away. He began working on the memoir while on location for 1999's Mission to Mars. By that point in his career, Hirsch's resume boasted classics like Carrie (1976), Footloose (1984), Steel Magnolias (1989), and Mission: Impossible (1996) — plus Star Wars, of course.
"When you're shooting a film, from time to time, you want to get out of the cutting room, go down to the set, hang out for a little while and chit-chat with the producer, the director — if they're not too busy — the cinematographer and the actors and so forth," he shares. "I would tell stories about the amazing people that I had met in my life and the interesting things that happened while I was working on their pictures, and I just thought, 'I should really write these down.'"
The book's title is a hat tip to arguably his most famous film, but it's also literal for Hirsch.
"I lived in New York, and San Anselmo, where we cut the picture, was far away," he explains of George Lucas' California hometown. "And it's now a long time ago."
In the book, Hirsch revisits each title in his filmography chronologically, sharing his recollections from the cutting room during the making of each movie. Star Wars aside, the one he used to be asked about most was Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Lately, it's another Hughes comedy: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. He did not, however, actually rewatch any of the movies as part of his writing process.
"I don't re-watch my movies," Hirsch says matter-of-factly. "When I get to the end of a film, I've seen it so many times that I'd rather put long needles in my eyes than watch it one more time. So when it's fresh for the audience, it's dead to me. I can't bear to look at it." He doubles down on the analogy. "In The Penal Colony, Kafka describes people being tortured by being impaled on a spit, and then they're roasted. The spit turns and a needle engraves their crimes into their skin as they're turning. Each revolution, the needle goes deeper. Watching my own movies reminded me of that."
There are exceptions: He attended a 35th anniversary screening of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles ("It was one of the great screenings of my life. The laughter was fantastic."), and during a recent book tour in Europe, a Parisian cinema screened Joel Schumacher's Falling Down. ("That was a picture I thought didn't get the attention I thought it deserved.") But the last time he saw Mission: Impossible was in the mid '90s. And it's been even longer since he last watched Star Wars.
"If I'm going to watch a movie," Hirsch says, "I'd rather see something I've never seen."