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My First Hit: Carrie
In 1975, when I was still in my twenties, Brian De Palma approached me about his next project, our fifth together, a film called Carrie. It was to be based on a first novel by an unknown writer, Stephen King. In it, Carrie, a shy girl who secretly possesses telekinetic powers, is mocked and shunned by most of her classmates. Her ultimate humiliation takes place at the senior prom, when she is elected queen in a rigged election and, at the moment of her triumph, has a bucket of pig's blood dumped on her. I read the book and liked it, but it seemed to me to be a step backward for Brian. He had already done horror (Sisters) and musical comedy horror (Phantom of the Paradise), and moved on to romantic thrillers (Obsession), pictures that I had edited for him. Why go back to the B movie genre? Coming in the wake of The Exorcist, a story about a young girl with magical powers seemed imitative to me. Little did I know that Carrie was destined to become much more than a hit movie; it would become part of the culture.
I expressed my reservations to Brian, but he was undeterred. He correctly saw the potential there and went out to Hollywood to start preproduction and begin casting for the film. Coincidentally, at that time, George Lucas was casting actors for his next picture, a sci-fi epic called Star Wars. Brian and George had become friends in 1971, when they were both in Burbank directing pictures for Warner Bros. Since the actors in their upcoming films were in the same age range, they decided to hold their casting sessions together. They agreed to have George do the opening speech and Brian do the closing speech. If the actor looked hopeless, Brian would launch into the closing speech before George had finished the opening one.
One day, Brian called. "George wants to speak to you." I had an image of Brian with his arm wrapped around George's neck in a headlock, dragging him to the phone.
"Hi, Paul. I just wanted to tell you that I like your work, and I'd love to work with you someday."
Wow! I thought. This was exciting. I had met George and his wife Marcia, a fellow film editor, a year earlier at a screening of Phantom of the Paradise.
"I have already hired an editor for this picture that I'm doing now" — my heart sank — "but I'm going to be doing another one right after it, so maybe you can do that one."
"That's great, George," I said.
But I thought, Why couldn't it be this one? I had done four pictures by now, all for Brian, and as much as I appreciated his support, and as proud as I was of the pictures, I didn't want to just be one director's editor. I wanted to get a chance to work with other people, with other sensibilities, and George's previous film, American Graffiti, was exactly the kind of picture I wished I could have worked on.
In any event, Brian wanted me for Carrie, and I was happy to be wanted.
The now-legendary casting sessions with George Lucas had yielded great results for Brian. For the lead, he chose Sissy Spacek, who had appeared by then in Terry Malick's Badlands opposite Martin Sheen. I had been rooting for her to get the part, because I believed her to be genuinely talented. My sympathies for her were also based on the fact that we had met on Phantom of the Paradise, and she is one of the friendliest, least affected people you can imagine.
In the cast too was Nancy Allen, whom Brian later married. Nancy has a great presence on the screen. She played the bad girl, but in truth she is quite the opposite: charming, gentle, and kind, with a graceful sense of humor and a ready laugh. Amy Irving, the good girl, had an extraordinary and unique beauty. Steven Spielberg married her after he met her while visiting the set. In the key role of Carrie's mother, Brian cast Piper Laurie, who hadn't been seen on the big screen since The Hustler about fourteen years earlier, and who is a wonderful, extremely focused, and well-prepared professional. Edie McClurg, a funny and gifted character actress, and Betty Buckley, who later became a legend on Broadway, were also cast.
Brian had briefly dated Betty and had used her to revoice an actress in a small role in Obsession. Betty had been after him to put her in a movie, and he finally did. She turned out to be great, and Brian got to kill her character in dramatic fashion, something he always enjoys. It plays to his macabre sensibility. He really comes alive dreaming up perilous situations for his female characters to face. I don't think, in retrospect, that it reflected an animus against women, although that may perhaps be naive. I think his view was that in life men are more likely to be aggressors or predators than are women. Brian has been accused of misogyny, but if you think about it, all the characters in Carrie who have any agency are female. The males are peripheral to the drama, boyfriends who are merely doing the bidding of the girls, or the clueless teacher and principal. The main conflicts are all between females.
In the "bad boyfriend" role, Brian cast a young TV performer named John Travolta. Brian has always recognized great young acting talent. He has given many actors, if not their start, their first important role, a list that includes Robert De Niro, Charles Durning, John Lithgow, John Travolta, Dennis Franz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Kevin Costner, who was a surprise choice to many when Brian chose him for The Untouchables. It made him a star.
Despite this undeniably sharp eye for acting talent, Brian's focus on camera movement and brilliantly creative ways of assembling shots into memorable and extravagant set pieces is offset by a diminished interest in the human aspects of cinema, namely what the actors bring. Character and performance seem to leave Brian cold. Films with a focus on these he derides as "talkfests." He finds filming close-ups of actors a bore, and he has little interest in film unless it pushes the visual boundaries of the medium. Yet, despite his oft-stated indifference to filming dialogue scenes, both Sissy and Piper were nominated for Academy Awards for their work in Carrie.
* * *
Near the end of principal photography, Brian asked me to come out and show him the partial rough cut as it currently stood, to see how scenes had shaped up and if there was a need for any additional shooting. After we screened the film and Brian pronounced himself satisfied with it, I visited the set, which at that point was the gym where the prom is held. The prom was the major set piece in the film, and it was to take weeks to shoot. Outside the soundstage, Paul Monash, the producer of the picture, came up to me. "What do you think?" he asked.
"I think everything is fine," I answered, knowing it would be catastrophic to hint at the slightest concern. In fact, I had none at that point.
"I'm worried," said Monash.
The issue was something I found relatively trivial; in fact, I don't remember what it was, but what struck me was his lack of confidence in how things were going. This concern would soon blossom into major disagreements between director and producer, but my loyalties were, of course, to Brian.
It is one of the strictest rules in my makeup that the editor must be loyal to the director. I have occasionally been asked by producers or studio executives to show them something without the director's permission. This is a no-no, and by and large, the "suits" know this and respect the rules. It was much later in my career that I found a way to deal with those occasional awkward situations. It was suggested by 20th Century Fox chairman Joe Roth, who, when I hesitated after he had asked me a somewhat delicate question, answered for me by saying, "I know, you can't answer me. The editor's code and all."
From then on, I would joke to people who asked me questions I found awkward to deflect, "I can't tell you that [or show you that] because it would be a violation of the Editor's Code, and I could be brought up on charges."
Some people actually believed there was such a code. In any event, Paul Monash would prove to be someone who would test my loyalty to my director.
* * *
Brian designed the prom scene in three major sections: the first was shot in normal, real-time photography, with dialogue. This section established the characters at the prom and how happy Carrie was to be able to be there. The last shot of this first section was a long tracking shot that detailed the substitution of the false ballots for king and queen of the prom and set up the geography, with the bad kids (played by Nancy Allen and John Travolta) under the stage stairs, then the rope leading up to the bucket of pig's blood, followed by the announcement of the winners of the (rigged) election, Carrie and her date, Tommy Ross. All this in one magnificent crane shot.
The second section began at this point and was shot all in slow motion, without dialogue, only music. This covered Carrie and Tommy's march to the stage; the discovery by Sue Snell (played by Amy Irving) of the rope and the plot to humiliate Carrie; her subsequent effort to break it up; the sympathetic gym teacher (played by Betty Buckley) misinterpreting Sue's actions as motivated by jealousy; her throwing Sue out of the gym just as the rope is pulled; and the bucket tilting down, drenching Carrie from head to toe in pig's blood (actually Karo syrup dyed red). The music ends, and all we hear is the sound of the rope creaking. The bucket then falls onto Tommy's head and knocks him out.
There then follows a brief montage during which Carrie hears in her head the voices of the people in her life mocking her, accompanied by a kaleidoscopic effect we achieved at the optical house. Her rage builds, her telekinetic power is turned loose, and she begins to wreak her vengeance on her tormentors. The screen splits and Carrie looks around the room, making objects fly at her bidding.
This split-screen sequence is the third part of Brian's design for the scene, and he was so committed to it that in many instances, but (importantly) not all, he protected only half of the frame as he shot it. That is, as he was concerned with only one half of the screen, if a light stand or some other piece of movie equipment or even a crew member happened to appear in the frame, he didn't care, since he only intended to use the other half.
This was a bold choice. It prevented the editing of the scene in a conventional, full-screen manner. He also decided that all the action should take place in red light and turned off all but "emergency" lighting. But after a week of shooting, he decided that he couldn't play the whole scene that way and had one of the extras being blown around by Carrie's supernatural power accidentally point a fire hose at the lights, causing a short circuit that brought the original lighting back on!
The prom scene is a tour de force, a set piece with a strong and original graphic design. The slow-motion section alone had over a hundred setups, or camera angles. The split-screen section had even more. We shipped it off to the optical house to combine the halves of the screen into a single piece of film so it could be projected.
We screened the film for a group of Brian's friends and for the studio. When you show a rough cut to a group of people and ask them for criticism, they will, in trying to be helpful, be critical. If they all seize on different points, you can safely assume that they are each responding to a personal idiosyncrasy. If they all give the same note, though, you have a problem.
In this case, the overwhelming response was that people didn't like the split screens. They felt it took them out of the movie, just at the moment when they were most involved. Split screen can be interesting, but it's not emotionally affecting.
At this point, Brian had had enough. "I don't care anymore! Cut it however you want!" he said to me.
I went back and looked at all the footage again. I picked out all the shots I could find that would work in full screen and cut them in. The rest could only be used in split screen, so I left those alone. The final result is a mixture of full and split screens that is actually pleasing. The action doesn't get bogged down in one style or the other. Or perhaps I am simply making a virtue out of a necessity.
* * *
Brian has based much of his approach to shooting films on the point of view (POV) shot: the camera shows what a character is seeing from his or her particular vantage point. In Carrie, this principle was essential. Carrie was able to move objects or people through the power of her mind. Communicating this cinematically meant extensive reliance on POVs.
CU Carrie: She looks intently at something offscreen left. Her eyes flick to the right.
Cut to: A knife suddenly leaping out of frame left.
Cut to: That knife flying right to left through the air.
Cut to: The knife embeds itself in the body of the murderous Margaret White.
The grammar is intuitively understood. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. First this, then that; therefore, this caused that. It is a logical fallacy: The rooster crows immediately before sunrise; therefore, the rooster causes the sun to rise. Or the drunk who kicks a lamppost at the precise moment of a citywide blackout and thinks he caused it. Obviously not true. But it works in movies. Carrie caused the knife to fly and directed its flight.
When that scene was shot, many different kitchen utensils were filmed leaping out of frame, pulled by an unseen monofilament, followed by a separate shot of each one flying through the air, again along a monofilament. For the second shot, each utensil was filmed once flying straight and then a second time tumbling end-over-end. I used the tumbling version only once, as a capper. Audiences howled appreciatively every time we screened it.
* * *
The split-screen sequence at the prom, however, got us into trouble. You will perhaps have noticed in the description of the sequence above, Carrie looks left to right, but the knife moves the opposite way. This is because the shots are reverse angles. In one case, the camera is pointed one way; in the other the camera is pointed 180 degrees in the opposite direction. It is like someone with binoculars watching a horse race coming down the stretch: if we look at the horses, they are running left to right on the screen; if we cut to the person in the stands, his gaze (following the horses) moves right to left.
In the prom scene, the split screen is introduced only after the blood has been dumped on Carrie. Because Brian had shot Carrie looking right to left, we placed Carrie on the right side of the split screen, with the left side showing what she was doing. Carrie looked sharply off to the left three times, and we intercut three shots of doors slamming shut, sealing the gym. Looking to the left posed no problem, but when she looked off to the right, she was looking off screen, which was confusing. Our solution was to have Carrie's close-up, on the right side of the screen, slide across the screen to the left side, so that when she did look right, her gaze would be directed correctly, in this case at the overhead lights exploding.
* * *
During the editing of Carrie, Brian was invited to show his previous film, Obsession, at the Naples Film Festival. Before he left for Italy, he instructed me that no one was to screen Carrie until he got back. I presumed the studio had consented. A couple of hours after his plane left the ground, though, my assistant got a phone call from someone at the studio asking us to deliver the print across the street to United Artists' offices so that one of their executives could run the picture. "What should I tell him?" he asked.
"Tell him no," I answered.
He delivered my reply. Some time went by. The phone rang again. "Paul?"
"This is Paul Monash."
"I am the producer of the film, and I am ordering you to deliver that print right now, do you understand?" "Yes, Paul, but I can't do that. Brian left me strict instructions that the film not be screened while he's away."
"If you don't deliver that print right now, I am going to fire you and your crew, do you understand?"
"Yes, I understand." Pause.
"Are you going to do it?" he asked.
"No," I replied.
"OK, you're fired." I got off the phone and turned to my crew.
"We've been fired," I said. I was a little unnerved, but I trusted that Brian would set things straight.
I started trying to reach Brian in Naples. By this time, he should have landed. This was before cell phones, so it was a little complicated, but I finally did get hold of him. I told him what had happened.
"What should we do?" I asked.
"Well, you've been fired. Go home."
The implication was that it was really nothing to worry about. So we went home. We essentially had been given the rest of the day off. The next day, I got a call from Brian.
"Go back to work," he said. "You've been rehired."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away...."
Copyright © 2020 Paul Hirsch.
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