The Editor with No Name
- Article 3 of 4
- Soho Independent, February 2001
Somewhere in Soho is one of the UK post-production industry's unsung talents. He's worked with Sydney Pollack, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mike Figgis, Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Russell Crowe. He's sought after enough to be asked to edit top films like Michael Mann's The Insider and be able to say “No” without worrying. He's won awards for commercials, including the famous PlayStation 'Double Life' campaign. Yet despite all this, this pragmatic South Londoner is as anonymous as his name suggests - he's John Smith.
Somewhere in Soho is one of the UK post-production industry's unsung talents. He's worked with Sydney Pollack, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mike Figgis, Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Russell Crowe to name but a few. He's sought after enough to be asked to edit top films like Michael Mann's The Insider -- and to be able to say “No” without worrying. And he's won a fistful of awards for his commercials, including the famous PlayStation “Double Life” campaign, and is still regularly listed by colleagues and directors as one of the top commercials editors in the country. Yet despite all this, this pragmatic South Londoner is as anonymous as his name suggests -- he's John Smith.
Smith is tired. Although his previous film, Under Suspicion, starring Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, has just opened in the UK, he's just had his first holiday in two and a half years, following the hectic schedule the Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe vehicle Proof of Life has just put him through. “I worked six or seven days a week, had previews in LA and shoots in Ecuador and Poland as well as London -- it's the hardest job Smith I've ever had.
Smith started in 1987 as a runner but never had any ambitions to be an editor, only to work in the film industry. ”I assisted lots of editors but I got my break when one had to take a weekend off because his kid was ill.“ It was at the insistence of the creative director, David Trott, that Smith took over. ”I jumped on a Steenbeck (an old-style film cutting machine) and as soon as I'd started, I thought 'this is it!' I'd been an assistant for five years but I hadn't known for sure until then that I wanted to be an editor.“
Like most of Smith's work, his first feature came to him from a previous client. Mike Figgis needed someone to cut his arthouse tale of an alcoholic drinking himself to death in the company of a prostitute -- the award-winning Leaving Las Vegas -- and thought of Smith, despite his ”never having cut anything longer than 30 seconds before.“ Smith, although nervous, found everyone helpful. ”Mike Figgis was so generous in letting me do my own thing. At the end of the first week, I asked how I was doing, since he hadn't said anything to me. He said I was 'doing brilliantly. Mainstream editors come with this baggage of having cut a lot of movies and aren't willing to change or experiment. I just want you to do what you feel.' And he gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted.“ It was the star, Nicolas Cage, who suggested to Figgis and Smith the final shot. ”I thought it was great, absolutely right for the film.“
A few months later, Smith got the chance to cut Figgis' next film, One Night Stand, starring Wesley Snipes and Natassja Kinski, and it was while cutting that that he was offered Sliding Doors. ”I always look for interesting material,“ maintains Smith. ”I thought it was a really interesting challenge, so much so that when I read it, I thought 'It can't be done. I'll do it.' I always think that on a movie, you're given four cards. I had an Ace in Sydney Pollack (the producer), a King in the script, a ten in the director -- because all due respect to Peter (Howitt), it was his first film -- and Gwyneth Paltrow who's very definitely a Queen.“
The movie proved to be one of the greatest experiences of Smith's career, he says, because of the chance to work with Pollack. ”I learnt so much off him. Not only is he a great film-maker and really generous, but he's a real gentleman.“
Smith was so surprised when he was next offered the chance to edit Under Suspicion that he nearly caused a pile-up when he received a call from his agent about the script as he drove home from work. The film stars and is exec-produced by Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman and features Hackman as a lawyer who’s asked to come to the police station to clear up a few loose ends in his witness report of a murder. This will only take ten minutes, Freeman says, but the ten minutes he is away from his speech become longer and longer as more and more holes appear in his story. ”Hackman had seen the original movie and it's a part he's wanted to play for years. He chose to make it with Freeman, who'd set up a production company a couple of years earlier, and together, they got all these people involved, including Stephen Hopkins (director of Lost in Space, a movie whose name still sends shudders through Soho, thanks to its gruelling special effects demands).“
Smith had already turned down The Insider at that point, having worked with Michael Mann on several commercials, because he hadn't wanted to leave the country for ten months. ”I love living in London. I'm at home here, apart from the climate. I love the culture. I love being with my friends and family. Yes, I could probably get more work and become a big player on a big salary if I moved to LA, but I've got to put my quality of life before that.“ The shorter spells in Puerto Rico that Under Suspicion called for were bearable, and he was able to edit a substantial part of the movie in the Kingly-Street based The Whitehouse, of which he's one of the founding partners.
Proof of Life, in which Meg Ryan hires professional negotiator Russell Crowe to help release her husband, who has been kidnapped by anti-government guerrillas in South America, has proven to be more demanding. ”It's the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle for me: a big Hollywood action film,“ says Smith. He was asked by director Taylor Hackford to take on the whole edit after he had helped Hackford polish off small Brit flick G:MT (aka Greenwich Mean Time). But with Warner Brothers wanting a Christmas release in the US, the film's post-production schedule had to come forward; Smith was forced to hand over part of the editing to avoid falling behind. ”If there's one thing I've learnt from that, it's that if you want to make a Hollywood film, you have to be a team player. It was alien to begin with, handing over my vision and asking someone else for theirs, but I enjoyed what I learnt. It was a good experience.“
Smith is now mulling over his options, having done the whole gamut of mainstream genres. His next move could be into directing. ”As an editor, you're realising someone else's visions. As much as you try and make it yours, it is inevitably the director's vision.“ But until the next feature project comes along, he plans to rest from movies while he catches up on the latest techniques cutting commercials. ”It's something I really enjoy doing. I don't have to wait for the next movie. I love making films but in the future, who knows? Right now, I want to be challenged by something I haven't done.“