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April 2014
Issue: February 1, 2011

Editor Michael Kahn reflects on his work with Spielberg

By: Trevor Hogg

“Steven was looking for an editor after Jaws,” recalls film editor Michael Kahn, as to how his creative partnership started 34 years ago with moviemaker Steven Spielberg. “[Irvin] Kershner and Owen Roizman, the DP, recommended me to Steven. Steven had probably talked to every editor in town by then, but he talked to me. It was a short visit, but it worked out well. He called me and I was on Close Encounters [ of the Third Kind].”

Kahn and the director were housemates during the production of the 1977 science fiction picture. “We lived in the same house in Mobile, Alabama, and the editing room was in a really big playroom. I felt like a wife in a way. He went to work shooting the film. I stayed home and was cutting the film.”

In the beginning not everything went smoothly for the native of New York City. “I had this reel on a spindle [on the editing bench] and it got stuck; I couldn’t get it off.  I had just started working with him and I said, ‘Maybe you can help me get this off.’ And he pulled the spindle off.  It was so funny when I think about it. He just hired this guy Mike who couldn’t get the reel off the spindle!”  

His background as a small-screen editor came in handy for Kahn, who made a name for himself with Hogan’s Heroes. “Everything I did in television prepared me to work with a guy like Steven. He moves quickly but…he shoots a lot of coverage,” states Kahn.  “Steven has said on many an occasion that he shoots film for the editing room.  He gives us an endless amount of options.” When I question him as to what is his favorite Steven Spielberg picture, the three-time Academy Award-winner replies, “The first one I did with him, because it set the pattern for everything we did after that.”  

In explaining the pattern, Kahn remarks, “I run it [the dailies] with him early.” The reason for him doing this is simple. “I like to get his pick on the takes.” With that knowledge, the film editor goes about assembling the first cut of the movie. “With a different kind of film, he may change his thinking, but I can get onto his thinking pretty quickly just by watching him and listening to what he says. I don’t know if enough editors really listen.”

Kahn is not afraid to experiment with some ideas of his own. “Sometimes I like to try things that may be different from what he suspects. I hope every editor does that.  Sometimes he likes it and sometimes he doesn’t.” The post production specialist adds, “He is like me. He wants to see it as quickly as possible to see…if there is anything we could make better.” There is no doubt as to who makes the final decision. “He runs the show and I’m one of the spokes in the wheel.”  

Kahn does not spend a lot of advance research time with the screenplay. “I get it maybe the day they start shooting or a couple of days before so I can prepare the music and effects.” The temporary music track, which Kahn puts together, helps Spielberg to communicate with veteran composer John Williams. “He uses the music as a template to give Johnny thoughts about what he likes and doesn’t like.” The film editor purposely avoids watching Spielberg conduct the principle photography. “I don’t’ want to be on the set and know what he shot. I want it to be fresh. I would have a different view of it because I’m not living with it all that time.”

Schindler’s List (1993), which lauded him with his second Oscar for Best Editing, left a lasting impression on Kahn. “It was clever work Steven did on that, but it was very heartbreaking. Sometimes I would run a scene for him and we’d look at each other, and he’d say, ‘I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ We wouldn’t even talk about it. Some of it was really painful. But you go ahead and you edit it. Whether it’s painful or not you have to dig out the best values for that scene... I would say of all the films I’ve done, that was really difficult.” 

Commenting on the holocaust film (pictured), Kahn observes, “Whatever we had in Schindler’s List, the truth was worse.” The cinematic depiction of the horrific event was nevertheless unsettling for the Academy members when they were watching it for the first time. “When the show was over, nobody moved. I heard little sniffles. It was unbelievable. People were so affected by it. I was in a projection room with top Universal executives running it for them and the show was over and the executives were crying. They were really taken in by it.  This big executive said, ‘Mike, this is a great show. Steven did a great job, but who is going to want to see it?’  That was a weird comment.  It was so tough, who would want to see it.  But the show was a huge success.”

Spielberg can still surprise Kahn with his choice of projects. “I never heard of Tintin until Steven said, ‘Mike, we’re going to spend some time shooting this Tintin movie,’” confessed the film editor, who assembled The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011), the first installment of a proposed motion-capture animation trilogy based on a series of comic books authored by Hergé about an inquisitive Belgium boy and his dog. “ Tintin was very big in Europe, Canada and England, so it should do very well.” 

Reflecting on his Academy Award-winning collaborator, who has a habit of releasing two films in the same year, Kahn states, “Steven is quite a guy; he does a lot of things at one time.” 

Contemplating the creative development of Spielberg, Kahn believes, “When you look at Steven now, he is not what he was, he’s better than what he was, and that’s the same thing with me, I think.”

As for the ability of the two men to have long and successful careers in the movie industry, Kahn remarks, “What we do have is a tremendous passion and that lasts through your whole lifetime.”

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer. His diverse interests have seen him assemble stories for local current affairs programs as well as the pilot episode for a proposed reality television show. A fascination with film has inspired him to compose features on those who have excelled in the world of cinema. Hogg is a graduate of the University of Toronto. He can be reached at:  tahogg@gmail.com.