'Bridge of Spies' — Michael Kahn edits Steven Spielberg's latest film
Issue: November 1, 2015

'Bridge of Spies' — Michael Kahn edits Steven Spielberg's latest film

LOS ANGELES — At 79 years young, Michael Kahn was busy editing by 7am in his LA studio before jumping on the phone with Post to speak about his recent work on Steven Spielberg’s latest spy drama, Bridge of Spies (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures). The three-time Academy Award-winning, Brooklyn-born editor ( Schindler’s List, Raiders of the Lost Arc and Saving Private Ryan) has a long history with Spielberg, having first met in 1976 for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The two have worked on many films together since then, including Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones franchise, Minority Report and, most recently, Bridge of Spies, which Kahn describes as a “very patriotic film.”

Spies stars Tom Hanks as an American lawyer during the Cold War, who is called upon to defend a Soviet spy in court. The CIA then recruits him to help facilitate an exchange of the spy for the Soviet captured American spy U2 plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers.

Kahn, who says he is “always on-location during production,” explains that he and Spieldberg traditionally work closely in post, even with trailers set side-by-side, as was the case during the film’s shoots in Manhattan, Germany and Poland. “We have an editing trailer (loaded with an Avid Media Composer and Avid ISIS) and that is always next door to Steven’s trailer on-location. That way, he can go in and out of his trailer and next door to ours, and that way, he’s not wasting any time during the day while they’re lighting or doing something else. He’ll just come in when he can, even during lunch.”

Apparently it’s a successful pairing, having produced a series of box-office successes and critically acclaimed films since the ‘70s. In a statement from Hanks on the latest collaboration, “the timing and the composition is all Steven and Michael.”

Here, Kahn discussed the new film, his thoughts on the editing process, and his long-time relationship with Spielberg.

What was your understanding of what Steven Spielberg was looking for with the editing style on the film? I understand it’s a very dialogue-heavy film?

“Yes, there are certain scenes that should be edited in one way and other scenes edited in another way. The way I edit, I run film with Steven — the director and editor sit down together and run the film. And by that, I mean the dailies. And he would indicate to me what takes he likes and that’s saves a lot of time because I would be editing with the good takes. A lot of guys would just edit and then the director has to spend weeks and months trying to find the good takes. But Steven does that before.”   (Editor Michael Kahn, right)

So you’re editing while he’s still shooting?

“During the whole thing — if he shoots the first day on Monday, let’s say, I get the dailies either Tuesday or Wednesday and we’ll run those dailies immediately. He’ll select the takes he likes. And as we’re shooting, he’s already selected some takes, just out of the shooting he’ll mark down that he likes this take or that take, so I get that from the script supervisor.”

Is that’s different from how other editors work?

“Yeah, well, we’ve been doing this for a long, long time. We realized that he has to take the time if he wants the material quickly. He has to run with me and give me an indication of how he’d like to have it — it’s a tremendous time savings for directors because they can see right away if the performance works for them, if they have enough coverage, and when everything works. So we edit right away. What he shot on Monday, he’ll probably see a cut scene on Tuesday or Wednesday.”

Since you’ve worked together for such a long time, do you both sit down and he says, “This is the type of editing style I want on this film?”

“No, we never do that.” 

He leaves it up to you, then?

“Well, we decide together, as we’re running dailies. Typically, he discusses things with me. Some scenes he wants quicker, some slower, just the ideas. He needs that edited scene right away in order to project or move forward and that’s very important for him. But we don’t discuss the show before.”

Is there a key film or sequence you can talk me through? 

“I may disappoint you now and I’ll tell you why (laughs). This is important to my philosophy. To me, there is no key scene. To me, every little scene is as important as every other one. So I treat every scene I get in the editing room like it’s the most important scene. And, while I’m working on that scene, there could be a million feet of film sitting someplace else, but that’s the only thing I’m working on. My focus is on that scene and I try to dig out the best values for that scene and get it the way I think Steven would want it, so I have my collaboration in there, too. We work together and collaborate on it. I want to get that first scene the best that I can. And the second scene, the 10th scene, each one is separate. And eventually we marry them together and decide what we’re going to do with it. We don’t have a formal sit down and discuss good or bad scenes. If the scene plays within the context of usually a two-hour movie, if it’s too long, we start pulling stuff out. We do what any other editing team does, really. But to me, every scene is important. Even if we end up taking a scene out of a show, when we did it, it was important. I remember in Schindler’s List we had a great scene that we had to take out. It was a beautiful scene, but sometimes you have to have enough guts — and it’s the director’s guts — to take it out. It’s the director’s decision on everything.”

How would you describe the overall feel of the film?

“Well, I think it’s why people like it, it’s a very patriotic movie. It’s a lot of patriotism, a lot of Americana, the way the judge talks, and I find it very reassuring. It’s like a conventional movie done patriotically. There’s a lot of dialogue, too — and people did listen — you get the essence of what the show is about. That’s why I’m proud of the show, like Steven is, I’m very proud because it was a lot of dialogue, we had to discuss where to be in certain lines — or whether to have a cold cut — but that’s the idea. A lot decisions to be made in dialogue scenes.”

Spielberg recently described your editing style, saying that you will hold on a performance or let a scene run a beat longer to let the movie “breath.” Can you explain that a bit further?

“I always do that. I don’t want to do what they do a lot in shows these days. They cut off an actor’s performance right away. But sometimes you want to hold on to a performance. Let him look, let the guy breath, and let them look at each other. I like when eyes look at each other. That’s important to us, having people look at each other just like people really do. They don’t talk right away sometimes. Sometimes they do. It depends on what kind of movie it is. At the beginning of the show, there are a lot of moments where we don’t rush the editing, but as it gets a little more tense, we rush it a little bit more. But you have to see the whole view of the picture, when you get it together, to see how it looks. But don’t forget, every scene we do, before I put the show together, Steven looked at those scenes many times. At least we know how that scene works and the next scenes works. So, by the time he’s through filming, we’re always finished with the film. Which is really quite amazing.

“We know what we like. Fortunately, I’m on Steve’s wavelength, so we get there quickly. We don’t want to waste time. If a director knows what he’s doing, it shouldn’t take that long to get a cut together. And as Steven is shooting, he gets ideas and he adds things. He’s a very smart guy. He’s really a brilliant guy. It’s such an honor to work with him all these years. We’re still talking to each other (laughs). That’s better than most marriages, you know? (laughs).”

I would think that after all this time, you have your own way of communicating — a kind of shorthand?

“Yes, there are times when we don’t say very much at all. He knows me very well by this time and he knows by the way I act if I like something or don’t like it, and vice versa, so it’s a shorthand. We don’t have to explain everything to each other. Sometimes, though, there are scenes he’ll shoot and I don’t know how to put it together. And I have to go to him and say, ‘How did you want this?’ And he loves the honesty. It’s not a crime not knowing what to do. But what it does, it makes the understanding better and it makes everything clearer.

“It’s funny with film sometimes, people say, ‘It’s easy, put that together.’ But it’s not easy to decide which frame to cut. Everything matters. Steven once said to me that he shoots for the editing room.”

Was there anything on this film that you thought was more challenging than other projects?

“Well, everything is a challenge. It’s all exciting and all a challenge. I don’t think one is more challenging than another.”

Are you happy with the final film?

“You know it’s funny, when I’m through editing a film, I try to completely dismiss it from my mind because I don’t want to carry any baggage from that film to the next film. I have a funny attitude. Editing, it’s just one cut at a time.”