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Emmy-Winning Editor On the Fast Track
10/29/2003

This is a story of a lot of pluck, a little luck, and a great deal of talent that is inspirational to every editor. When Joe Hutshing, A. C. E. received the "Creative Arts Award" Emmy on September 13th at the Shrine Auditorium for Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Miniseries, Movie Or A Special for editing HBO's "Live from Baghdad," the statuette joined elite company on his crowded mantelpiece next to two Academy Awards, two American Cinema Editors Eddy awards, and a "Best Editing" trophy from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. It's all happened with the speed only a Hollywood success story can inject into a career.

After receiving his first Oscar in 1989 for cutting "Born on the Fourth of July," Joe admits that he almost felt a bit of guilt. "This was only my second feature as an editor," he recalls. "I'd just been cutting film for a couple of years and my co-recipient David Brenner and I were up against editors who had been at it for a lot longer. But it was great."

STARTING OUT

Try putting this in the context of someone who, in 1981, as a Fine Arts senior at the University of Oregon, picked up a copy of his roommate's "Introduction to Filmmaking" book and was attracted to the job description of editors because they "dealt with the manipulation of images and got to choose music sometimes." Since Joe had always enjoyed putting together "greatest hits" music collections on audio cassettes he figured film editing might be right up his alley. So he moved to Los Angeles and posted his name on the UCLA bulletin board offering his services as an editor. Almost immediately producer/director Michael Varhol called him to cut an upcoming documentary about five L.A. artists. Joe overcame his total lack of film or video editing experience by xeroxing off the instruction manual of a Convergence ECS-90 edit controller and "figuring out how to make it work," as he puts it. The production was a success, and eventually aired on TV.

After several years of volunteering to cut student videos at the American Film Institute, in 1987 Joe took an assistant editing job with David S. Brenner, the second editor to famed cutter Claire Simpson on Oliver Stone's "Wall Street." When the release date was accelerated, Simpson asked to see Joe's student reel and hired him to be credited as "Associate Editor, Los Angeles." Most importantly, however, some of Joe's creative music suggestions for several key scenes brought him to the attention of director Stone.

Stone asked Joe and Brenner to cut "Talk Radio" the following year and "Born on the Fourth of July" in 1989 for which Joe shared his first editing Oscar with Brenner. Joe remembers being on location in the Philippines where the crucial Vietnam battle sequence in "Born on the Fourth of July" was being filmed during which Tom Cruise gets shot in the spine. It's a hectic scene and director Stone flooded the editors with footage. "The script just called for a horrific firefight, " he tells us, "so David and I put all the rolled-up takes in separate boxes and sequenced them until we had the rolls in an order that made sense. It was an early form of random access editing."

Joe refers to Stone's approach to putting a movie together in those days as "subtractive editing," derived from the director's training at NYU Film School. A typical example came on the next film Joe cut for Stone, 1991's "The Doors," in which all the good takes were strung together into a massive 11 hour assembly. Then during subsequent screenings they would chip out the bad stuff and, like a sculptor, reveal the desired image within.

To make this more feasible, LucasFilm offered to provide their new EditDroid system to the film, a nonlinear editor using laser disks. Joe loved the speed of the EditDroid, but when it came to outputting the final EDL, the software failed entirely. "Everything had to be matched by eye," he recalls, "including phasing all the audio. A battery of assistants, especially Pietro Scalia, wrestled their way through the monumental task without even the assistance of window-burned timecode."

CONFLICTING NARRATIVE

Later that year Scalia served as the second editor with Joe cutting Stone's visual tour-de-force "JFK" for which they shared the editing Oscar in 1991. This time, the schedule could not afford the "stacking the takes" approach. Facing source material covering the gamut from surveillance video to widescreen 35mm film they decided to transfer everything to 3/4-inch U-matic tape and cut it on a Sony RM-450 linear system. With no list management available, sequences were dubbed down to make significant changes, and up to 25 assistants logged the burned code to track the source material.

"That film was about conflict," Joe remembers. "Stone wanted to reflect the conflicting politics through conflicting narrative styles. This made the editorial approach to the visuals very challenging, breaking all the conventional rules."

One sequence that sticks in Joe's memory came when Lee Harvey Oswald was walking the streets after the assassination. Stone wanted to visually depict the tumult in Oswald's mind and kept urging Joe to "make the scene more crazy." Eventually, Joe loaded up two 3/4-inch submasters filled with shots as A and B sources and just let his fingers dance on the crosspoints as they played in parallel. "I was drumming wildly on the buttons and recording the results to tape," he tells us. "When I showed it to Oliver, he said it was exactly what he wanted." The Academy, apparently, agreed.

The next decade found Joe editing prominent features including "Jerry Maguire" (1996), "Almost Famous" (2000) and "Vanilla Sky" (2001). Then last year when director Mick Jackson was having creative differences with the editor cutting "Live From Baghdad" for HBO, Joe was brought in only three weeks before the end of production. The story was based on the memoirs of CNN producer Robert Wiener (played by Michael Keaton) covering the first Gulf War from inside the belly of Baghdad.

As is consistent with Mick Jackson's filmmaking style, the editing in "Live From Baghdad" is as aggressive as a verité documentary, interweaving location backgrounds throughout the fabric of the plot to establish a sense of place. Joe finished his rough cut on time, and then spent the next month finetuning it with Jackson. "By now I'd been editing for 15 years, but I learned a great deal from Mick thanks to his background at the BBC," he says. "Many times I would think 'I can't wait to see what he will come up with next' and everything that should not have worked in fact did."

In one scene, Keaton is scrambling to get a tape cued for satellite uplink in a panic reminiscent of "Broadcast News." "Mick kept saying 'make that cut shorter' and despite my skepticism he would usually be right. I grew to trust his instincts completely."

Later Keaton interviews a doctor at a Kuwait hospital where the incubators had supposedly been scavenged. As the Iraqi chaperones begin to realize the questions are getting too near the truth, the editing becomes progressively staccato until just as Keaton is being led off he looks back over his shoulder to see the doctor being taken away by the soldiers. Suddenly the image becomes slo mo as the hapless physician realizes his fate. "We wanted this to punctuate the scene," Joe explains. "Mick even decided to step frame the shot to emphasize its poignancy."

But perhaps the film's most stunning use of visual editing comes right after the battle is over. A tight close-up of Saddam Hussein's face dissolves to a graphic of the CNN reporters which in turn dissolves through to a piercing close-up of President George W. Bush's eyes. Wordlessly the two combatants are shown glaring eyeball-to-eyeball through the conduit of CNN's reporting. It's like an editorial crescendo to the story, one worthy of the Emmy statuette.

Currently Joe is editing Nancy Meyers' "Something's Gotta Give" due for Christmas release. Think there is room for another trophy on his mantelpiece? With the pluck, luck and drive of this talented editor, I'm sure they'll keep the area dusted.   Print Page