Paul Hirsch had edited five of Brian De Palma's films — beginning with 1970's Hi, Mom! and including 1976's Carrie — when he was hired to work on a space fantasy from emerging filmmaker George Lucas. That movie, of course, was Star Wars.
"Brian had this aesthetic, what Hitchcock called 'pure cinema' and he adopted it. He wanted to be able to tell stories visually without relying on dialogue," Hirsch says of what he took from his time with De Palma into his work in that galaxy far, far away. "One of the techniques that he relied on was the point-of-view shot, and that became part of my way of approaching dailies. What happens is the audience gets inside the actor's head. You're understanding what they've seen and how they react, and it engages you in a way that just listening to dialogue doesn't."
Hirsch won the Oscar for Best Film Editing for Star Wars, which he shared with Richard Chew and Marcia Lucas. He received a second Best Film Editing nomination for 2004's Ray. Hirsch reflects on his approach to editing both films, as well as The Empire Strikes Back, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Mission: Impossible, and more, in his memoir, A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away.
Fifty years in the cutting room — working with filmmakers such as George A. Romero and John Hughes — "it makes it harder to be knocked out" by watching a film, Hirsch admits. "I describe the process of filmmaking as: The screenplay is the recipe, and the shooting is the hunting and gathering of the ingredients, and the editing is the preparation of the meal. And then the cook — the editor — doesn't get invited to the dinner party. It's really where the movie is made, at least the experience that the audience is going to have is defined by what we do in the editing room."
Still, there have been movies over the years that Hirsch says have had a "profound effect" on him. Below, he shares five of them with A.frame. "I would call this list My Holy of Holies."
Directed by: Orson Welles | Film Editing by: Robert Wise
I saw Citizen Kane in Paris at the Cinémathèque, and I had no preparation for it at all. I had heard the name, but that's all I knew about it. I was 20, and I saw it in a packed theater. The print had no French subtitles on it, and I'm sure that not everyone in the room spoke English. They were film nuts who wanted to see the camerawork, and hear the music, and see the editing and the staging and the lighting. And like I say, I knew nothing about it in any way at all. And when I got to the end, I was floored.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Directed by: Federico Fellini | Film Editing by: Leo Catozzo
La strada is an extraordinary movie, and it's a movie of extraordinary sensitivity. Giulietta Masina delivers a performance that's just a knockout. Anthony Quinn plays a street performer after the war who's traveling around Italy, which is devastated, and he's a strong man. Giulietta is his assistant. They're traveling with a circus. Richard Basehart plays a clown, and he develops a relationship with Giulietta Masina, and Anthony Quinn is jealous of this. Suffice it to say, it's a tragedy. But it is an extraordinarily moving story. If you haven't seen it, I want you to go home and watch it tonight.
Directed by: David Lean | Film Editing by: Peter Taylor
Another of my Holy of Holies is Bridge on the River Kwai. The [Alec] Guinness character is so strong and so wrong, so it is an extraordinary moment when he suddenly realizes, at the end, the folly of what he's done. I have a saying that I picked up over the years, which is, 'You're never so certain as when you're wrong.' And this is exemplified in Bridge on the River Kwai. He was so certain of what he was doing, and at the end, he realizes his context had been completely wrong. And when he suddenly got reminded of where he was and what he was doing, he realized his life had been a folly.
Directed by: John Huston | Film Editing by: Owen Marks
Treasure of the Sierra Madre is all about greed and how Humphrey Bogart's character — this guy the audience identifies with — turns out to be consumed by greed, and ultimately destroyed by his own character weakness, which is the epitome of tragedy.
Directed by: Charles Chaplin | Film Editing by: Charles Chaplin and Willard Nico
It's a tie between City Lights and Spartacus. I was trying to find a common theme between these films, and I think I did to a certain extent, but City of Lights and Spartacus are sort of outliers. The other four films are about the weaknesses in people, and people who are not admirable, but whose story as rendered in these films touched me very deeply. And City Lights and Spartacus are about the strengths in people, and people who are admirable.
Spartacus is pure heroics. He's not crippled by any character flaws, nor is Chaplin for that matter. But City Lights is a masterpiece because it alternates touching moments with comic relief. He's watching the blind flower girl washing out pots, and he is sitting there looking at her lovingly, and she takes the water and she throws it in his face, because she can't see he's there. So, you have this touching, sentimental moment followed by a laugh. And you get to the end and there's this great sentimental moment, and then, the lights come on and you're sitting there in tears because there's no comic relief at the end. I just think it's a brilliant picture.