JASON ROSENFIELD ACE TALKS ABOUT HIS BIG BREAK EDITING
COME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME JIMMY DEAN JIMMY DEAN FOR ROBERT ALTMAN
Jason Rosenfield ACE is a distinguished film editor whose narrative credits range from Robert Altman’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) to the improvisation television comedy Free Ride (2006). His documentary credits include the Oscar-nominated Blues Highway (1994), HBO’s Emmy-winning Memphis PD (1996), Law and Order: Crime and Punishment (2002) and the IDA-nominated CNN series The Seventies (2015). Recently Jason has edited three feature documentaries: Lost For Life (2013), Swift Current (2014) and an in-progress documentary about unrest in Ukraine. Since becoming a member of American Cinema Editors (ACE) in 2001, Jason has served on the ACE Board and he has been a Governor of the Television Academy where he helped develop and produce the annual pre-Emmy Prime Cuts symposium event featuring nominated editors. He is an adjunct professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and Columbia College-Hollywood. He is also a Mentor at the Stowe (Vermont) Story Lab’s Screenwriting Workshop.
Jason was kind enough to grant an interview on a Saturday morning in January 2016, before continuing work on the Ukraine documentary. The main purpose of my interview was to ask Jason about how fate gave him the opportunity to edit his first scripted feature film, Robert Altman’s film version of Ed Gracyk’s play Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The film has been unavailable on home video for many years but it was released in 2014 on Blu-ray by Olive Films.
STEPHEN MYERS: What is the first movie you remember seeing in a theater?
JASON ROSENFIELD: Literally the first one as a child was The Boy with Green Hair [1948. Joseph Losey, dir.]. I don’t know if it was the first but it was the first one I remember. This is going back to the days of double features, newsreels and cartoons. Every Saturday all the kids in the neighborhood would go to the movies and that’s the one that stuck out. That and Danny Kaye’s Hans Christian Andersen [1952. Charles Vidor, dir.].
SM: Did those movies have a lasting impact on you?
JR: It certainly gave me an appreciation. There’s a warm feeling around them. The first movie that really had an impact on me was The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957. David Lean, dir.] which I went to like everybody else because it was an exciting war movie. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for the CineMontage [Editors Guild magazine] Tail Pop column about this. It wasn’t until I watched the movie again to write that article that I remembered William Holden was the star of the film because I was totally mesmerized by what Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa were doing. The idea of a guy doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. I was really stunned and it never left me. That and David Lean’s particular talent of telling very intimate stories on a very large canvas.
SM: How and why did you get into the film business?
JR: I was a dancer in New York. That’s what I was studying and performing. It was something I had always loved since I was a kid and my parents took us to see West Side Story on Broadway and I wanted to be a Jet. That’s what I was pursuing but I had injuries and at a certain point I knew that physically I couldn’t go any higher. I just didn’t have the talent to go any further so I started looking around for what else I was going to do.
In the meantime I was waiting on tables and driving cabs when a friend of mine called me one night and said, “I’m leaving this part-time job with this guy who has a brownstone in the Village and he rents editing equipment. He has sound transfer equipment. Why don’t you talk to him?” So I did and I got this job for 90 bucks a week. I was cleaning his office and exterminating his brownstone. He had the bottom two floors for his business and he rented out the top to tenants. I was helping him move flatbed Steenbecks and Kems. He had been a well-known sound mixer in the field in documentaries. He had done the audio for Don’t Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1969). He had worked for D.A. Pennebaker. He worked for these legendary documentary guys. I met Barbara Kopple when she was doing sound transfers there for Harlan County USA (1977) as well as the guys who were doing Pumping Iron (1977).
I started watching editors work and I got intrigued by it. I had a girlfriend who was a dancer. A couple of friends and I took a 16 millimeter Bolex camera and went to a dance studio where she was taking a private class and shot one evening. I took the footage, went into one of our editing rooms and started playing. I realized rather quickly that it was choreography. Not only was it choreography but I could dance in my own ballet. It was so visceral.
SM: And injuries don’t matter.
JR: No, it was a way of continuing my dance career. That’s how I thought of it. And I didn’t even know that editing was a profession until that point. I also had a choice at that time of going toward production. I had worked as a PA [production assistant] on some commercials. But it was sort of a no-brainer. As an editor I could work with the director and I realized that I was good at it, that I had a talent for it.
SM: How did the possibility of working with Altman come up? What were you doing when it happened?
JR: When people ask me what I cut right before Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean I tell them the truth. It was a three-minute magazine piece about an Argentinian tree frog cut to a recording of the song “La Cucaracha.”
I had been freelancing and editors in New York would work wherever they could. So it was not unusual to work on a documentary one month and do an indie feature or a commercial the next. I spent a year or so working for a commercial house and I really honed my craft there. I certainly learned the art of the “hook”: how to get someone hooked quickly. We cut 16, we cut 35 millimeter and we did some of the early video with a system called Convergence. And then I worked as an assistant on several Time-Life Film documentaries. I worked for a guy named Al Perlmutter, who was a well-known documentarian in New York, doing some small TV shows for Public Broadcasting and Imre Horvath, a documentary producer, was working there. I had just gotten married and I wanted to be working steadily so Imre hired me as an editor on an early HBO series called What on Earth? It was a magazine-style series with different segments and Orson Bean was the host. It had all sorts of bizarre nature stories. Imre had produced a segment of 60 Minutes in which Altman was profiled. When Bob left L.A. and came to New York, one of the people he contacted was Imre.
Bob was doing theater. He did two one-acts called Two By South at an off Broadway theater. And then he opened Jimmy Dean on Broadway. It was a time when commercials for Broadway shows was a new idea. I think one the first ones that was done was Two for the Seesaw. So Bob did a commercial for Jimmy Dean. He called Imre and said, “I need an editing room.” And Imre said, “Sure. Come on over.” Then he came to me and asked, “Do you mind working late tonight? Bob is coming over.” By then I was his lead editor.
When Bob came into the editing room he had shot basically documentary footage outside the stage door, his stars coming out, crowds, the marquee, just whatever he could grab. So we threw it up on a 16 millimeter flatbed, not even synched up. And I was there just to help him. But as we rolled through and he told me what he was looking for I said, “There’s something we could use. Here’s a moment, there’s a moment.” When we finished he said, “You want to cut it?” I said, “Sure!” He gave me five hundred bucks and Imre gave me permission to take the time to do it. So I cut a commercial. He looked at it on a Friday and made one change. I think on Saturday we went to EUE Screen Gems to online it. That was interesting too because he asked me to do the color correction and he would come in and do the final. He came in and absolutely hated what I had done, just despised it. I had made it as pretty as I could and he wanted it to be raw. So he was flipping out. I turned around to Bob and said, “Okay, it’s my fault. Let me fix it. Give me five minutes.” I turned around to the online guy and said, “Do whatever you can to screw this up as much as you can.” And he did. Bob calmed down and we finished the commercial. So I went home and I told my wife, “Maybe I can call him in a week or so and see if I can be an assistant or do anything to get over there with him.”
Much to my surprise a few days later I was getting dressed for work and Imre called me and said, “I had dinner with Bob last night and he’s considering you for his next movie.” I said, “What?!” And he said, “You’d better get your resume and get your reel together.” I said, “What reel? I’ve got Argentinian tree frogs. I’ve got nothing to show the guy.” So I went to work and I had a message to call Altman at ten o’clock. So I called at ten o’clock knowing there was no way I was going to get this job and I didn’t have any credentials. He got on the phone and he said, “Hey, kid! Want to cut a movie?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “Call my line producer and we’ll figure out the deal.” And he hung up. I was so stunned that I called back and I got Scotty Bushnell who was his producer at the time. I said, “Scotty, did he just hire me or did he just ask me if I was interested?” She said, “No, he just hired you.” That was the entire process. I thought that was the way the business worked. When I got to L.A. I was a little surprised.
Everybody who has worked with Bob or who has followed his career knows that with actors he liked a certain amount of improv. He did the same thing behind the camera. He followed his gut instincts. He never storyboards. When you asked him what he did the night before a shoot he’d say, “I smoke a joint and I dream.” And he trusted that. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t in control. But it was his process. He just went with his gut instincts of who he thought would work.
SM: Before he started directing theater he worked on so many projects where he encouraged actors to improvise, but when you are doing a play or an adaptation of a play you have to stick to the playwright’s words. How did he deal with that? I guess you kind of answered that he did it behind the camera.
JR: He did allow the actors to bring a little bit of their personalities to it. There was a line of where she said, “You look like you’ve been rode hard and put away wet.” I don’t think that was in the script.
SM: Would you say that working on that film launched the rest of your career?
SM: What was the biggest adjustment you had to make working with a renowned director after editing tree frogs?
JR: It’s an interesting question. What came to mind as you were asking it was “getting over fear.” I remember going out to dinner once with the DP [Director of Photography] and maybe two other people. He asked everybody at the table, “Are you in awe of Bob?” And the DP was the only one who said, “No.” I think that was the biggest thing in a way. To let go of “Oh my god! I’m doing a movie with Bob Altman.” Especially for someone like me who had never cut a movie. I had cut but mostly in documentary style. We shot in Super 16 millimeter which was an unusual format. There was a tendency to look down upon what was known as the “feature system” for those of us who hadn’t done features. We thought, “They’re just being snotty.” In fact, they weren’t. There really was a different system and I had a lot to learn. There were times when I overcompensated for my own fear and insecurities. As far as Bob was concerned what I remember is that he came in on a Saturday to see what I had done. Right off the bat in that movie we were cutting in continuity.
SM: Just like he had done it on stage.
JR: I was still trying to get a feel for match cutting and cutting on action. The basic stuff. There was a flashback at the beginning of the movie and I was trying to figure out how to deal with this crazy set going back and forth in time.
SM: Just to explain, there was the set and a mirror image of that set shot through a two-way mirror .
JR: There was this material that I think was called Mirrex which were the mirrors. David Gropman [Life of Pi (2012 directed by Ang Lee is just one of his recent credits], who I think is still a very successful production designer, had built a mirror image of the set behind the Mirrex. So everything is backwards. He even had the lettering on the boxes of light bulbs written backwards. He was brilliant. He got every detail. What it meant was the cameras never went behind there for the flashbacks. They would shoot through the Mirrex. There were banks of lights overhead and depending on the balance of the lights between the foreground and background you either got full image in the back or you got ghost images coming through the mirror to the front.
SM: So there were no opticals.
JR: No opticals. It was all done on the set. The cameras never went behind the mirror so every scene behind the mirror were these wider shots. You couldn’t punch in to a close-up. There were no reverses. So it was a different way of trying to cut.
Anyway, Bob comes in on my first Saturday and he walks in with an entourage. Bob never went anywhere without an entourage. And I think, “Oh God. I’m dead in the water.” We watched and I could sort of see him going “Oh!” And I’m waiting for him to say, “Look kid, I don’t think this is going to work out.” And he just said, “Here are a couple of ideas. Try this, try this, try this.” He stands up, pats me on the shoulder and says, “It’s gonna be great, kid!” And he walks out the door. I think at that point my shoulders dropped.
SM: He took the tension away from you.
JR: He took the tension away. Okay, he’s not going to fire me. Relax. Another big thing was Alan Heim [editor of Lenny (1974. Bob Fosse, dir.) and All That Jazz (1979. Bob Fosse, dir.)]. Alan was cutting down the hall. There was a lot of weird politics around the fact that I was cutting the movie because nobody knew me. And it was a very small community in New York. There was a certain amount of resentment and hostility from more established editors that I was doing this. Alan was really supportive. He would find me pacing the halls (this was back when you could smoke in the editing rooms) and I was smoking away. He would keep calming me down. I remember him saying to me, “He hired you for a reason. He trusts you. Trust yourself. Go back in your room. Don’t worry about continuity. Cut for story, then go back and finesse for picture.” That’s what I did. It was the best advice I ever got. I had a chance to pass it on years later to another editor who was nervous.
There is one scene in Jimmy Dean that I think of as where I think I really learned how to be an editor.
SM: What was that?
JR: There’s a scene where Sandy Dennis as Mona has a ten-minute monologue where she tells the story of her alleged tryst with James Dean. Bob shot the film with two cameras on Elemack dollies that never stopped moving. No two takes were alike. There were no over shoulders, reverses, medium shots, close-ups. He didn’t shoot that way, which was confusing and complicated. That’s why Alan’s advice was so crucial. What I did was I cut Sandy’s story first. I just went for her best readings and I didn’t worry about jump cuts. Which I hadn’t been doing up to that point. I was worrying over every single cut and cutting myself into corners because I wasn’t thinking story. I was thinking cuts. I was thinking, “What’s the next shot?” Here I put Sandy’s monologue together and then I went back and started cutting in all the other women. Bob gave me very little direction. But one he did give me is “This story happens out of the corner of your eye” which is pretty obscure. It took me many years and learning layers of understanding before I realized what he fully meant by that. In this scene it could really apply to all these other women because all of them knew the story was bullshit. Nobody was taken in by it. But they loved the story and it was that story that I think was at the heart of the film and the play. Because it was all of their dreams. It was all of “the road not taken,” all that might have happened. Back when they could dream of these things before life intervened and all these things started to go wrong. Loveless marriages, mastectomies and all the other secrets they were hiding. It was really where I realized that the story is in the reaction shots. I teach that now. In most cases you find that the story is not in the person that is talking. It’s in the person who is listening. There are no rules but when I talk about the difference between plot and story now, I think back on that scene. Mona is giving me the plot and the women around her are giving me the subtext of the story. So it taught me to cut from the subtext. Bob always said, “Every scene has to say more than one thing.” There are three or four things he said to me during that film that have colored everything I have done since then. That’s where I went to school. That was my film school.
SM: What were the issues of cutting on Super 16? What kind of equipment were you using?
JR: We were on a Steenbeck flatbed. What was different was the size of the frame. Here you had widescreen. While the sprockets were the same size, the amount of film taken up by the frame was different. We did find a flatbed where the rollers had been machined for Super 16, but we were never able to find a synchronizer that was. So every time you ran the film through the synchronizer that little ridge on the rollers would cut a groove along one side of the film so it was difficult. We avoided the synchronizer whenever possible. The other thing is that the optics were a little off. Like where the light bulb was placed in the projector. That drove the DP crazy.
SM: There were a couple of things about Jimmy Dean that I thought were somewhat groundbreaking. One is from the playwright Ed Gracyk and the other is from Altman. The play is one of the earliest pieces I know of with a transgender character, though now it is more common. The other one is Altman’s casting of Cher in a dramatic role [before Mike Nichols cast her in an Oscar-nominated supporting role in Silkwood (1983)].
JR: I hadn’t thought about that until you mentioned it but you are completely right. Most of the support for the play was from the gay community. It’s what kept the play moving forward. The play didn’t get very good reviews and it was in a big house. It was in the Martin Beck Theater, a big Broadway house, so it took a lot to fill that house. Karen Black played a transgender person and Cher was like Judy Garland. She was an icon within the gay community. Between those two factors the show became the rage in the gay community. When Cher left the show it really hurt the boxoffice.
SM: Was it still playing on Broadway with a different cast when the movie was filmed?
JR: The same cast. They would shoot during the day and do the play at night. Long days for them.
SM: I’ve never heard of that before!
JR: Yeah, they worked hard. They shot it in seventeen days. It was very quick. It was meticulously planned. The cast knew exactly what they were doing. The origination of this project was Showtime, which was a young network back then. Originally it was just this idea of taping a Broadway show and putting it on television. That was it. It was going to be a proscenium sort of thing, nothing fancy. It was Bob, I think, who got [gameshow producer] Mark Goodson involved and got more money and convinced them to let him shoot it as a movie. He shot it in Super 16. There’s only one reason to shoot in Super 16 and that’s to blow it up to 35 millimeter.
SM: It’s cheaper to shoot in Super 16 and you’ve got a higher quality image that you can blow up.
JR: Right. And it’s widescreen so you’ve got the right aspect ratio so he always had this in mind. He was very sly.
SM: The thing that strikes me about the movie as well is that with many play adaptations you run the risk of it seeming “stagey.” Especially something like Jimmy Dean which takes place in a single set for the entire running time. But with that constantly moving camera and the mirrored set you never feel claustrophobic.
JR: Even though it’s one of his more obscure films, I think it’s a mark of his genius as much as MASH (1970) or Nashville (1975) is. What Jimmy Dean achieves is exactly what he wanted. “How can I keep the feeling of this being theatrical yet make it cinematic?” I think he achieved that. I think we achieved that. I don’t think anybody had pulled that off before.