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A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away: My Fifty Years Editing Hollywood Hits

A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away provides a behind-the-scenes look at some of the most influential films of the last fifty years as seen through the eyes of Paul Hirsch, the Oscar-winning film editor who worked on such classics as George Lucas’s Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, Brian De Palma’s Carrie and Mission: Impossible, Herbert Ross’s Footloose and Steel Magnolias, John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down, and Taylor Hackford’s Ray.

Hirsch breaks down his career movie by movie, offering a riveting look at the decisions that went into creating some of cinema’s most iconic scenes. He also provides behind-the-scenes insight into casting, directing, and scoring and intimate portraits of directors, producers, composers, and stars. Part film school primer, part paean to legendary filmmakers and professionals, this funny and insightful book will entertain and inform aficionados and casual moviegoers alike.

Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Release date: 05 Nov 2019
Page Count: 362
ISBN: 9781641602556

Motion pictures are a collaborative process, and one of the most important collaborations is between the film’s director and its editor. It’s the role of the editor to wade through countless hours of footage (rushes) and search from sometimes hundreds of takes the one that delivers the best performance from the cast and the crew; is the shot in focus? Did ‘actor A’ fluff their lines? What are the extras doing in the background? All these and many more decisions go into weighing up what take should be included in the narrative and make it on to cinema screens.

Some films are made in the edit suite, some films are saved in the edit suite and for those of us familiar with the making of the Star Wars motion pictures, A New Hope was one such film; saved in the editing process. Don’t take my word for it, George Lucas said it himself. A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away gives a great account of the process of how, why and by whom that happened.

But I’m burying the lead by focusing purely on Star Wars. The book is one man’s personal account of over 50 years of working in the movie making business, and that man is Oscar winning motion picture editor Paul Hirsch. With a career that spans half a century and counting Hirsh leads the reader through his storied career; through his hits and his misses as well as the what could have beens. It’s a fascinating insight into not only the pivotal role the editor plays in the post production of a film but also the world of a freelance editor navigating the unions and studio system of New York and Hollywood film making.

Whilst some may find the topic of editing dry or hard to comprehend, fear not; the author does a wonderful job of explaining what editing is and its importance in the filmmaking process, and throughout the book continues to give his insight into why he and his directors made the calls they did.

Some editors strike-up career defining collaborations with directors, such as Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker or Steven Spielberg and Michael Kahn. Paul Hirsch’s career saw him work with not only George Lucas and Irvin Kershner but also Brian De Palma, John Hughes, and J.J Abrams to name but a few.

As you would imagine a career that long means you cross paths with a whole host of the industries finest…and not so finest. There’s some great anecdotes in each chapter and Hirsch paints a great picture of many of Hollywood’s elite and their quirks.

As the author himself corrected me in our interview, this isn’t a autobiography but a memoir of his career. Each chapter is titled by the film it covers, and whilst you may think that once you’ve seen how one film is cut that they are all made the same you couldn’t be more wrong. Each production is full of different challenges, from overbearing studio execs to flamboyant directors and then there’s the technical aspects like negative cutting and choosing the composer. Paul oversaw more than just merely the edit of many films and thanks to his sheer brilliance and determination got many a title across the line and into release.

Whilst a title such as A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far Far Away will immediately grab the attention of Star Wars fans, make no mistake; A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back accounts for two chapters of Paul Hirsh’s memoirs, but the book itself covers so many more films.

What I found truly fascinating is his thought process for deciding what films to work on. For someone who’s edited for fifteen years, I still love reading about the process, in particular the decision making process in putting together a film.

Whilst some of Paul’s insights relate to filmmaking, many can be employed in day-to-day life. While the book will appeal to film enthusiasts and those working in the film and related industries, the question I’m sure some of you want to ask is would a Star Wars fan or casual movie goer get much out of this book? Speaking as as a Star Wars fan I was captivated by Paul’s Star Wars stories.

Paul’s introduction to Lucas happened sometime before he was asked to help out on A New Hope and as like with many film industry professionals whilst he admits and is genuinely thankful for the opportunities that opened up after working on Star Wars, it wasn’t all plain sailing on the film and afterwards. I think it’s fair to say that Hirsch recognises the impact that Star Wars made to the American film industry, but that doesn’t mean to say that it’s the film that he is most proud of.

There are stories about Paul’s time on Star Wars I don’t think have been recounted anywhere else. What I found interesting was the dynamic between Paul – a non-native to the Bay Area – Lucas and his USC cohorts. It’s a more personal perspective than you would get from such books with a broader scope such as J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars.

Paul recounts some lovely moments of generosity from both Marcia and George Lucas. Marcia Lucas’ influence on Star Wars cannot be overstated, and is also at times conspicuously absent from other accounts of the making of the original trilogy. It’s great to read more about her in this book, a fantastic and well respected film editor in her own right.

Star Wars tends to get a lot more focus, as its story from inception to birth was a lot more turbulent, but as the sole editor of The Empire Strikes Back there are some great stories about the cutting of Empire too.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It’s rare that we are offered such a honest glimpse into a process that is increasingly becoming secretive and hidden away behind the mega-studio doors.

The book is available from Amazon and the audiobook version is available from Audible. The audiobook version is narrated by Richard Ferrone and runs for over 15 hours.

My first reading was the book alone, but I recently re-read the book and hopped between the audiobook and the printed word. The narrator’s performance is good, channeling a slightly more stereotypical New Yorker accent than Paul actually has, but its an energetic read and was quite captivating.

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A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away: My Fifty Years Editing Hollywood Hits―Star Wars, Carrie, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Mission: Impossible, and More
  • Hardcover Book
  • Hirsch, Paul (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 384 Pages - 11/05/2019 (Publication Date) - Chicago Review Press (Publisher)
SOURCEChicago Review Press
Mark Mulcaster
Mark has been a fan of the saga since the early 1990s after rediscovering the original trilogy on VHS and dived right into the first Grand Admiral Thrawn Trilogy, he has been an avid Star Wars reader ever since. He’s been a member of the Star Wars costuming community since 2007 when he joined the Rebel Legion’s Elstree Base, the Base he now runs as Base Commanding Officer as well as also being a member of both the 501st UK Garrison and the Mandalorian Mercs Vok Chi clan here in the UK.