The editing career of Carol Littleton, A.C.E., has been an odyssey filled with personal growth. Her journey started in Paris when as a student Littleton became mesmerized by the French New Wave cinema’s reflection of the grittier side of life; but her lifework has evolved into dedicating her editing skills to influencing our noblest emotions through film.
When she received the Creative Arts Emmy for "Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special" last Aug. 26, there were, of course, many people she wanted to thank for making that honor possible. At the top of the list were Executive Producers Kate Forte and Oprah Winfrey, whose company Harpo Productions produced a challenging and intensely emotional made-for-TV movie called "Tuesdays with Morrie," which aired last Dec. 5 on ABC.
The members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences recognized that the movie was a work of love. It’s based on the best selling memoirs by Mitch Albom recalling his weekly Tuesday afternoon meetings with his former sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, who knows he is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. In addition to Carol’s accolade, Jack Lemmon won an Emmy as "Outstanding Lead Actor" for playing Morrie and Hank Azaria earned a statuette for his portrayal of Mitch Albom. Other Emmys for "Outstanding Sound Mixing" went to Jim Tanenbaum, the production mixer, and Michael Casper and Daniel Leahy, the project’s rerecording mixers. Even the film itself was crowned with an Emmy for "Outstanding Made-for-Television Movie."
Currently, Carol and her longtime assistant Suzanne Spangler are working on "The Anniversary Party," produced by Fine Line Features and directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It’s the first film Carol has edited that was shot in 16:9 with the Sony DVCAM format on a DSR-500 camcorder.
"This movie typifies the reason I got into film in the first place," Carol said. "I like ensemble films dealing with the characters’ relationships and shy away from anything with a high body count. I don’t work on films that exploit people, which is one reason I looked forward to cutting ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ in the first place."
Carol says she got into the movie business almost by accident. Back in the ‘60s she studied for two years at the Sorbonne on a Fulbright Scholarship. "I sort of fell in with some film students in Paris where I discovered the works of Renoir, Goddard and Melville," she recalls, "and because my language skills weren’t that great, I regularly watched the films two or three times. I especially liked the B-movie film noire gangster genre and began to appreciate the difference between ‘the movies’ and ‘cinema.’"
Returning to Los Angeles in 1970 to pursue a master’s degree in literature, Carol met her future husband, John Bailey, who was a USC film student. She discovered that working around film sets was more fun than studying literature, so she landed a job transferring sound at Richard Einfeld Productions.
One day when she was through syncing dailies, Einfeld asked her to straighten out his edit bay. "Little did I know, Richard was teaching me how to be an assistant editor," Carol said. "Later he would throw some scenes at me to cut and I realized that everything I had learned about in my university studies from literature to art to music culminated in the edit room. I became a total film junkie."
Unable to get into the restricted Editors Guild of the mid ‘70s, Carol started her own commercial editing company, Galloping Tintypes, named after the one-reel westerns of the silent era. After five years of trying to satisfy the relentless demands of heedless producers, one day she looked around at the mess her clients had made of her edit bay and realized she was getting no respect. Carol sold her company, purchased a KEM flatbed and went after feature film work.
She was hired by Jerry Sims Productions, which was just about to sign union contracts, so she was grandfathered into the Editors Guild. "I got in as a total fluke," she admits, "but having felt the sting of a closed union registration list, I vowed that if I ever got the chance I would make some changes." Elected president of the Editors Guild (then local 776, now local 700) in 1987, she liberalized the union’s policies and dropped most of the impediments to open membership.
Carol’s first major feature was "French Postcards" in 1979, which led to 1981’s hit "Body Heat" and, the next year, to an Academy Award nomination for editing Spielberg’s blockbuster "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial." With "E. T." on her resume, major movies were offered every subsequent year including "The Big Chill" (1983), "Brighton Beach Memoirs" (1986) and "Wyatt Earp" (1994).
But one of the projects that influenced her most was 1991’s "Grand Canyon" about big-city characters separated by their socioeconomic status. "This film had a really profound effect on my life," Carol reveals. "Living in Los Angeles I would drive past homeless people on the street and began to pay attention to the realities of their situation. It kindled in me a sense of responsibility toward our fellow human beings and opened my eyes to the need to make a real contribution."
This sense of elevated social awareness was one of the reasons she agreed to cut "Tuesdays With Morrie." She had edited Oprah Winfrey’s "Beloved" in 1998 about post-Civil War former slaves, which garnered a lukewarm reception. "I admire Oprah tremendously," Carol said. "We became very close on ‘Beloved,’ so when they brought ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ to me I eagerly accepted."
MORE THAN MEMOIRS
"Tuesdays With Morrie" is much more than just the memoirs of a dying man. It portrays the parallel story lines of an over-achieving sports reporter, Mitch Albom, whose existence is being crushed under the pursuit of success contrasted against the graphically deteriorating physical status of his former teacher, Morrie Schwartz, who is finding liberation in his own death by passing onto his loved ones what he has learned about life.
"I’m on a last great journey," Morrie whispers to Mitch, "one that we all have to take. Maybe I can teach people what to pack for the trip."
The main challenge for the whole production team was not to let the plot sink into morbidity. "Lifting Morrie’s aphorisms above his depressing situation was mostly handled by the script’s excellent writer, Tom Rickman," Carol reflects, "so my job was to try to maintain the spirit of Mitch Albom’s original memoir while illustrating the changes in all the characters’ lives by making [the situation] into a life-affirming experience."
Through her editing, Carol contrasted the hectic life of sports reporter Albom crashing into crowded locker rooms with the reflective environment of Morrie’s sickroom. She credits director Mick Jackson’s style of complete coverage for giving her the elements she needed.
For example, in a scene where Mitch is pushing Morrie’s wheelchair through the streets of his college town, we see three quick shots of a discarded marquee, a refuse-filled alley and a padlocked fence before the locale is identified as the abandoned dance hall where Morrie used to show his students how to tango. "It’s like a tiny montage," Carol explains. "I wove these elements into the scene to give the story a specific pace and texture."
In some moments Carol found editorial juxtapositions of stunning beauty, such as when she dissolved from an athlete leaping over the camera to the jet plane that is flying Mitch back to Morrie. Other moments had a sense of dramatic percussion, as when Mitch first sees Morrie’s physical therapist. In a quick sequence, a sheet pops over the lens, then flaps onto the massage table. A finger hits the play button on a tape deck and we see a rapid collage of all the faces greeting each other. It is this kind of editorial touch that makes the unavoidable reality of the film’s plot endurable.
But toward the end, when Mitch asks his mentor to describe an ideal day, there comes a supreme moment of poetic subtlety as Carol gently half-dissolved a composite of flowing lakes, waving leaves and flying birds over the old man’s face to emphasize the tenderness of the scene. "It has to do with conjuring up the images in Morrie’s mind," Carol muses, trying to explain her motivations. "How can anybody extrapolate form from content? Especially when editing, they flow together."
Carol Littleton is modest about her accomplishments, as most people whose career can speak for itself can afford to be. But in an industry awash with senseless violence and meaningless exploitation, she is one editor who has decided to devote her talents to improving the lot of her fellow human beings. Such self-realization, and the resulting determination to live by her own creed, will always be reflected in that shiny statuette she took home last August.
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