I’ve interviewed quite a few people in the entertainment industry over the course of the past 8 1/2 years, but up until this February, I had never interviewed an Oscar winner. That changed when I spoke to Alan Heim. Mr. Heim won an Oscar for editing “All That Jazz” in 1980, and as we get close to the 35th anniversary of his Oscar win, I interviewed him about his editing work for filmmakers like Fosse, Sidney Lumet, Nick Cassavetes and more. It takes all sorts of people to make a movie, and an editor goes a long way to making a movie what it is. Get ready to meet one of the best as I interview Alan Heim.
Johnny: To start off, in your early days of film editing, you were also a sound editor on the TV show “East Side/West Side” and movies like “The Pawnbroker” and “The Producers”. What led to the transition from editing the audio to editing the visuals?
Alan: I was, frankly, bored, and I was going to become an assistant to a documentary-editing friend of mine whom I had done some music for, and at that moment, the transition occurred. Sidney Lumet asked me to edit his next movie, which was going to be “The Sea Gull”, so I jumped at the opportunity and I did it, so there we go.
Johnny: Before that, you were credited as an associate editor on the documentary “Festival”, which looked at several years of the Newport Folk Festival. Did the music influence your editing on the movie?
Alan: Well, it was straight musical numbers at the time. I had been hired on “Festival” to be the music and sound effects editor, and the film was effectively finished, or so I thought. The director, Murray Lerner, he kept fiddling with it. He kept changing things, little things, and I suddenly found myself editing little picture sequences, new musical sequences, and then one day, I just got fed up with the whole procedure. It was a Saturday and I said to Murray, “You know, you should really make up your mind. This film is a good film. It’s finished. Why don’t you just lock it up?”. He looked at me and he got enraged and he said “You have no right to tell me what to do with my movie”. I said, “That’s absolutely true, but I think you’re spending a lot of time and wasting a lot effort making something to just keep being the same”. I waited to get fired that day, and then he called me from his office. He stormed out of my editing room, and called me about an hour later. He said, “You know, you’re right. Let’s finish up the movie”, at which point he came downstairs and said, “I’ve got some other material here that I haven’t looked at in a while”. He opened a room that was absolutely chock-a-block full to the ceiling with more musical numbers from five years all over Newport. He threw a couple of numbers at me and said “What do you think of these?”. There was one of Howlin’ Wolf and they had lost the soundtrack, so I reedited the film to the recorded soundtrack of Howlin’ Wolf. I reedited the sequence and that made it into the picture. I did a few others and we finished, and I think it won an Academy Award, so it’s very good. Murray took a long time making movies.
Johnny: You mentioned working with Sidney Lumet for the first time on “The Sea Gull”. Had you seen the play?
Alan: I did, but I had connected with Sidney earlier as his sound effects editor on three different movies, and on the fourth one, which was “Bye Bye Braverman”, he asked me if I would be his next picture editor, and I was absolutely delighted. What happened then was Sidney, up to a point in his career, as far as I know, he always directed off the top of his head. He got very little material, and basically knew exactly how he wanted it. I learned an enormous amount from Sidney about reading performances and how to form a performance. Sidney has great respect for writers, cinematographers and actors, not so much for editors. Anyway, he stood over my shoulder, told me exactly where to make cuts, and as a novice, I was delighted to do that. I did that for two pictures in a row, and then I didn’t really want to do it anymore, not that way, because I felt I could do better editing a film on my own, at least the first time through. Mel Brooks, after I had worked on “The Producers”, asked me to come to Yugoslavia to work on “The Twelve Chairs”. I went there, and I was not available when Sidney did his next movie. He rarely asked me until “Network” to work with him again.
Johnny: Another director you frequently collaborated with was Bob Fosse, and it started with his 1972 concert film “Liza With A Z”. What was the best advice you gave each other?
Alan: Well, Bob Fosse was a different kind of genius, I think. It was a concert film, so we had twelve cameras, and we just made a concert film. We just handled the numbers. What I learned there was something I had actually learned before, which iss follow the movement. Fosse, I was in awe of him, absolutely in awe of him and his coverage and the way the film went together was just, for me, spectacular, and as you mentioned, it led to a long relationship. Later, on “Lenny” and “All That Jazz” and “Star 80”, Fosse referred to me as a collaborator, and I think, for an editor, that’s just a great compliment, because that’s all I want to do, just help get the director’s vision onto the screen any way I can.
Johnny: Speaking of “Liza With A Z”, did Liza Minnelli share ideas on how she wanted her performances to be edited?
Alan: Absolutely not in my editing room, that’s for sure. I mean, Liza owned the project which I actually never knew. That’s how come it got reissued on DVD. It was shown once on television, and it won, of course, an Emmy, but there were technical problems involved, which were partly due to the early days of video. If you ever watch something like a basketball game, anything that moves quickly, in the early days of high contrast a basketball player jumping up to the net would often blur. That’s what we were having, not on the 16mm film but when we transferred it to video. For years, “Liza With A Z” was not shown, and then Liza, who owned the property, got together with Craig Zadan, the producer, and they retransferred it and put a stereo track on it, and it’s a beautiful version. No, Liza did not come into the cutting room. Usually you don’t let that happen. Whatever happened was in rehearsal. I think in Liza’s case, Bob treated her very well. He loved her, and he knew how to make her look good. He could control actors very well.
Johnny: As I had mentioned in my initial letter to you, I was impressed with the editing of “Network”, especially the film’s conclusion, as the death of Howard Beale rapidly become lost in a fog of commercials. Do you think that has any paralell to modern day news?
Alan: Well, Paddy Chayefsky was a genius, and he was prescient. He was incredibly smart. He saw the way the world was coming. Here’s a film that was made 35 years ago, or something like that, and it’s not much different than today, except it’s worse today. You’ve got oil crunches. You’ve got the Middle East destroying itself. You’ve got unbridled capitalism. It was almost like a fortune-teller working in that movie, and it was just a great experience all around. Paddy and Sidney and Sidney’s producer Howard Gottfried, we spent several days together in the cutting room. They went quickly, and he (Sidney) doesn’t shoot a lot of material. It was such a good script, and so beautifully acted, that it is what it is. It’s still a timeless movie, except for some silly costumes. I mean, people dressed a little funny in those days. I did, too. It is a timeless movie.
Johnny: Your editing highlighted the drama inherent in the final number of “Hair”, “The Flesh Failures (Let The Sunshine In)”. Had you seen the original play and did it give you an idea of how you wanted it to be edited?
Alan: Let me correct a misapprehension about “Hair”. There were three editors on the film. I was the third one, and I was hired to do one specific number, which was the “Black Boys/White Boys” number, the draft board number, because the other two editors and Milos Forman all worked on that number, and they couldn’t make it work. I love Milos, and the way he makes American movies is fabulous, because he has a different take on America than most people back then. He came at a subject from a foreign point of view. “Black Boys/White Boys” was a show-stopping number. By the way, I never saw the play in English. I saw it once in Serbo-Croatian in Yugoslavia, which had its’ moments. I only worked on that one number, then Milos, who had been away, came back and he saw the number. I figured I was done, and he said, “No, stay on the movie. Do whatever you want. Make it better”. I’m thinking, “Gee, I have two friends working on the film. I feel awkward being given authority”. I worked on a few numbers, and most of them were not as I left them in the movie. It was a beautifully edited movie, except for that one scene where they just missed the idea that it wasn’t political. It was the draft board scene, but it was not so much a political number as it was a Broadway show-stopping number. That’s how I created it, and when you do something, when you treat material with the honesty it deserves, then the content comes out of it. It never was anything but a number about race and the military draft in America, but by treating it as an entertainment, rather than putting a political weight to it, it became a much different number and it stayed in the movie. That’s the story of “Hair”. People keep giving me much more credit for the movie than I deserve. It’s a little embarrassing.
Johnny: Well, this next question is all about you. We’re coming on up to the 35th anniversary of your Oscar win for “All That Jazz”. What was it like to win an Oscar after almost a decade-and-a-half of film work?
Alan: On “All That Jazz”, I must say it was not a surprise. It was, I think, a spectacularly edited movie. Again, working in collaboration with Fosse was an incredible experience, but there were a bunch of my friends, by coincidence, nominated for the same thing, for editing, “Apocalypse Now” and “Kramer Vs. Kramer”. It was a life-changing experience. As you said, it’s been 35 years now, and it still has an effect on my life. I mean, working on the movie and the Academy Award had a big effect on my life, though because of union problems in those days, New Yorkers could not work on the West Coast in California, so most of my job offers were coming from California, and I couldn’t take them after the award, but I have no complaints. It was an amazing experience and night, and for days after. It holds a nice place on my mantelpiece.
Johnny: Your final collaboration with Bob Fosse was in 1983 on the movie “Star 80”. Did the launch of the Playboy Channel the year before influence how you edited the movie?
Alan: No. You know, nothing outside of the material influences how I edit a movie at any time. We had to be more politically correct than Fosse wanted to be. When we were finishing “All That Jazz”, Bob came into the cutting room one day with a tear-out from the Village Voice and he said “I want to do this as my next movie”. It was a story about Dorothy Stratten. I don’t recall the title of the article, but I had read it beforehand, and it was a fascinating subject with a lot of Fosse’s obsessions, which is manipulation of women, show business, a lot of things. Bob knew this territory. I loved working with Fosse and I love being an editor because it enables me to learn about things that I would never normally learn about in my life. If I could jump back to “Liza With A Z”, I interviewed with Bob at the rehearsal hall, Broadways Arts, that you later see reproduced in “All That Jazz”, reproduced to the inch. I went up there in the afternoon and talked to Fosse who was standing in the middle of the dance floor, maybe off to the side a little. All of these dancers were coming and running and sliding across the floor and ended up at our feet. I was just so thrilled by the experience and mastery of this man, and again, it’s a world that one is not so familiar with living a day-to-day New York existence. I knew people in show business, but I never got to go to rehearsals and things like that. I went to dance programs, but to watch the dancers work was thrilling, and I just always liked that aspect. You know, “Star 80” is a really awful subject. What haunts you is the lead in that subject, Paul Snider. As it turns out, as I was working on the movie, I discovered certain aspects of friends of mine really related to Paul Snider. It’s not that it can change the way you edit a movie, but when we were doing “All That Jazz”, up to the last big number, the death number, I discovered I got a call that my mother had died rather suddenly. She had a heart attack on the street, and we had to stop working on the film, which was normal. I went home to Brooklyn, and did all the things that had to be done over several days, and after that, when I got back, I couldn’t really work on the scene with the same mind I had bought to it a month before. These things affect your life a little bit.
Johnny: In 1988, you worked with John Hughes for the first time on his film “She’s Having A Baby”. I’ve read a lot of mixed stories about John Hughes, some good and some bad. What was your experience like working with him on that movie?
Alan: Well, I had an enormous affection for John. He was a brilliant, brilliant writer. As a director, he had the good sense to hire very fine editors. He left them alone, and then what would happen is John would come in near the end. It was always very hard. It was like a trip to the dentist to get John to come in, but John would come in very close to the end. He worked well under deadlines, and he’d just drop a couple of suggestions every once in a while, and then he’d disappear and the suggestions always made the film better. He was also one of the best storytellers I ever knew. I liked him. I did another film for him that he produced, “Dennis The Menace”, and he did the same kind of thing. We had to go to California to do the recording session, and as of Friday, he just refused to come into the cutting room, and we finally got him to come in Saturday. Meanwhile, we had a whole sound crew working in California, getting ready for the mix, and we didn’t know how to find the tone of the piece. We made it, we always make it, but John was just incredible. I wish I had done other movies with him, but he was in Chicago, and I was in New York or California, and it never quite turned out. That’s all I can say about John, really. It’s all positive. He did not take care of himself. He drank tons of coffee and smoked constantly, and he was much too young to die.
Johnny: You edited both 1988’s “Funny Farm” and 1990’s “Quick Change”, both based on novels by Jay Cronley. Is that a coincidence, and had you read either book before you were drafted to edit the movies?
Alan: No. In fact, Jay Cronley was having a hot movie time at that point. Dede Allen was doing “Let It Ride”. In that general period, he was hot. It happens sometimes. Did I read any of the books? No. When my daughter was 10, I was offered a children’s movie. It was one of her favorite books. I gave her the script to read, and she turned to me and she said “You know, Dad, the book was much better”. I find that I really don’t like to read books. I’ll read a screenplay. Did you ever try to read “The Notebook”? It’s unreadable…At least for me, it’s unreadable. I just think it’s bad writing, and I wish it were not so, but “The Notebook” certainly made a better movie than book. No, I didn’t read Jay’s book. He did come up to Vermont where we were shooting “Funny Farm” and spent a couple of days, and he was just in awe of the process. It was a very different thing than writing a book. You write a book alone and you make a movie in a mob.
Johnny: You’ve edited your share of movies with graphic content, but when you were editing “American History X”, were you unnerved by the language in the movie?
Alan: Yes. Worse than that was the language in “Alpha Dog”. I was one of three Academy Award-winning film editors who were on the film (“American History X”) serially. Richard Halsey, who edited the film “Rocky”, was on the film during shooting. I had been asked to do the film, but I was not available. Near the end of the shooting, the director called me. I was available. He told me that he had fired Richard, and everything was all clean and I could just walk in Monday and start. I should’ve called Richard, I know Richard, but I really belived the director when he said it was all cleared up. I just worked on the material as it came to me. I didn’t have to listen to the dailies every day. On the other hand, “Alpha Dog” changed my whole way of speaking for months afterwards because the cursing was so vivid. I mean, I’m not a prude by any means, but my assistant at the time was pregnant, and when she finally had to leave the movie, when we finished dailies, I got her a whole bunch of classical music records to play for her child in the womb, who seems to have recovered fine. People would come into the room or office, and they said, “Do you people have to talk like that?”. We were saying “It’s not us, it’s the movie”. You carry that around with you sometimes. “American History X” was its’ own problem. When I left the movie, I recommended Jerry Greenberg to take over, and Jerry, of course, had won an Academy Award for “The French Connection”, so serially, there were three Academy Award-winning editors on the movie. Strange experience, but in the end, we got it finished.
Johnny: Speaking of troubled pictures, you were also the editor of 2002’s “The Adventures Of Pluto Nash”. If you had been given more time in the editing room, do you think you might have been able to save the picture?
Alan: No. “Pluto Nash” was a bad idea that had been going around for a long time. I was asked to come on it. I didn’t know anything about the movie. The guy I took over for I don’t think ever forgave me. It was filled with special effects that were very expensive in those days and didn’t look so great. It was just a troubled movie. I didn’t want to do it when I was offered the film. I took a look at the cut, and I knew it needed a new opening, a new introduction of the love interest and a new ending at the least, but I figured the worst I could do was just improve some of the funny parts a little bit, and I say “funny” with quotation marks. Quite frankly, the producer offered me a lot of money to do the movie and I said, “Okay”. I did what I could, and then, I said “Okay, here we go. You need this new scene, you need that new scene. Call me when Eddie Murphy’s available”. The producer said, “No, stay around. I like having you around, kid”. He’s the only person I’ve known older than I was, ever. I stayed because it was silly not to, and that was like 14 years ago. I had nothing else to do. It was not a demanding job once I got through my recut and then, eventually, Eddie came in and he bought his own writers in. It was pretty terrible. The producer’s son did some writing on it. It was a mess. I couldn’t have saved it. Nobody could have saved it. It was what it was.
Johnny: On a lighter tack, in recent years, you’ve worked with Nick Cassavetes on several pictures, from the 2004 romantic drama “The Notebook” to last year’s comedy “The Other Woman”. Had you known each other before “The Notebook” or was that the movie where you first connected?
Alan: No. What happened was Dede Allen had done “John Q” for Nick. She was retiring and Nick asked her if she could recommend anyone, and she recommended me. I was hired on the telephone. We didn’t meet until I actually went to South Carolina and met him in the production office. Things happen in strange ways. The film I’m doing now, the editor was supposed to do it, an old friend from New York, she had knee replacement surgery just before the film was due to begin and she couldn’t work. She couldn’t sit still, she couldn’t stand up, she was in great pain. She had to do rehab. I fell into this wonderful situation. I love the director. I love the movie. It takes a long time to get a movie made. When I started working with Sidney Lumet, he did three movies every three years. Nobody does that anymore. Nick goes four to five years without doing a movie. This director I’m working with last did a movie 8 years ago, so I just have to take the films as they come.
Johnny: To jump back to the 80s, you edited Cyndi Lauper’s video “True Colors”. Was editing a music video as challenging as editing a full-length movie?
Alan: No, it’s very different. For one thing, if you ever saw “True Colors”, it was a very slow music video. It was very different than the things that were around in those days. It was very poetic and very lovely. The things in those days tended to very fast and kind of disconnected, and this was much more like a poem. If you want a challenge, I think a documentary film might be a bigger challenge than a feature, and that’s been an object of discussion for many years.
Johnny: What would you say has been the biggest change in the entertainment industry from the 1960s to now?
Alan: I really believe that a lot of the people at the studios have a bottom line mentality now, which you didn’t have when I started out. It’s very tough to make an average movie. They want to make gigantic blockbuster movies. I’ve been kind of fortunate to work on smaller movies. I like it better that way. When I started out, the studios were not really involved. They put up the money and let the filmmaker do whatever it was he or she wanted to do. We didn’t have test screenings. We screened for friends and listened and made changes or didn’t make changes, depending on our moods. Nowadays, the studios get very involved right from the beginning. They can make it hard and they also are really responsive to test audiences because they want to bleed every aspect of audience interest out. If you make a film for grown-ups, in some ways, they still want to have an appeal for children. I’m simplifying that, but let’s just say I’m happier near the end of my career. I’ve had a fun experience with real good stuff for a long time, and still do.
Johnny: My apologies if this sounds ghoulish, but if you were to be included in the Oscars In Memoriam when you pass away, what movie would you like to have represent your work?
Alan: How funny. I looked at that question and I thought “That’s very odd”, but I know what it’s going to be. It’s going to be “All That Jazz”, but anything I did with Fosse and “Network” and maybe some of “The Notebook” and maybe some of “American History X” and “The Twelve Chairs”. Why not? Always leave them laughing, I think, is the expression.
Johnny: Well, that does it for my questions. I would like to extend a tremendous thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
Alan: It’s okay. It’s actually a fun way to spend a drive. Thank you very much, and it’s been a pleasure.
Johnny: As I had mentioned before, it’s always been a dream of mine to interview an Oscar winner. That’s one of the three dream interviews I had. The first was Ginger Lynn and I interviewed her last year, the second is anybody who’s won an Oscar, and the third is a writer named Sherri Stoner. Today, the second dream came true by interviewing you.
Alan: I’m glad I could help somebody get their dream. Good luck with this, and I’ll talk to you again. I have to get into my screening now.
Johnny: Okay. Have a good day.
Alan: You, too. Bye.