Paul Hirsch on ‘Star Wars’: Thinking We Were Making a Film for Kids, We Made a Film for the Kid in All of Us

George Lucas, editor Paul Hirsch, Harrison Ford, and Gary Kurtz on the set of The Empire Strikes Back. Photographed by George Whitear © Lucasfilm


By Sven Mikulec

An unusually calm, composed and quiet man sits across the table from me and my notebook, patiently awaiting my next question. We’re in Poland: it’s that time of the year when the city of Bydgoszcz becomes the filmmaking center of the world. “The awards are always very gratifying,” the man says with a subtle smile. “It’s nice to be recognized for the work you’re doing.” His name is Paul Hirsch, and he’s come to the Camerimage International Film Festival to chew bubblegum and collect his much-deserved Award to Editor with Unique Visual Sensitivity. (And he’s all out of bubblegum.) With a career spanning from Brian De Palma’s 1970 black comedy Hi, Mom! to this year’s Alex Kurtzman’s ill-received The Mummy, Hirsch has edited no less than 41 feature films, making a name for himself through his collaborations with the likes of Brian De Palma, John Hughes, George Lucas, Herbert Ross, Joel Schumacher, Taylor Hackford, Duncan Jones, and many others. He rose to prominence back in 1977, when he shared an Academy Award for Best Editing with Marcia Lucas and Richard Chew on account of Star Wars, and 27 years later received another Oscar nomination for his work on Ray.

“Winning an Oscar is always a nice thing,” he gives a cheeky little smile. “It happened very early in my career, even before I formulated a hope of winning an Oscar. I’ve known a lot of people who’ve done wonderful films, great editors who have fantastic resumes, who’ve done classic films that will never be forgotten, but who haven’t won an Oscar. I just feel fortunate that it happened to me before I ever got to the point where I had the ‘I wish I could win’ feeling.” Even with the Academy Award aside, it’s still a marvelous career to look back at: Hirsch has edited such classics as CarrieThe Empire Strikes Back, Blow Out, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Mission Impossible, while his collaboration with De Palma forms the very heart of his filmography sheet, with as much as eleven movies they made together. “I don’t know, it’s just a match of personality. He and I share a similar sense of humor,” Hirsch explains their relationship before getting a bit more serious. “He was my mentor, he was very important to me as a young editor. He put a lot of confidence in me, and at the same time gave me confidence in myself. He trusts me. When we work together, he relies on me to shoulder a lot of the burden so that he doesn’t have to do as much.”

Whatever the secret to their chemistry is, films like Carrie, Blow Out, Phantom of the Paradise, Obsession, Sisters and Mission: Impossible constitute one of the most famous director-editor partnerships in the history of Hollywood. Hirsch doesn’t seem all too excited when I remind him of some his the triumphs of the past. He was completely oblivious, for instance, to the fact that he is currently the only editor to have won the Saturn Award twice, for Star Wars and Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol. “Oh, really? I didn’t know that.”

Chance had a lot to do with how he ended up in the editing profession. He ran the shipping room at Dynamic Films in New York City, only to become a trainee of a negative cutter, learning the craft during the next six months. This effort led him to become an assistant to a trailer editor. Soon another opportunity appeared out of nowhere: Hirsch’s brother Charles produced Brian De Palma’s comedy Greetings and they hired Paul to cut the trailer. Happy with the results, De Palma wanted Hirsch to edit the film’s sequel as well—Hi, Mom! was the beginning of a very long and prolific story. He then cut a series of De Palma’s films, which introduced him to De Palma’s circle of filmmaking friends, including George Lucas. But a career that was seemingly launched by a series of fortunate events has, in fact, been long in the making. “I always loved movies and I remember as a child I used to see movies over and over and over again,” he sparks, “so maybe that’s a warning sign that you might be an editor one day. I was always caught up in movies. I loved the way they transport you to another world, another time, another place, so you find yourself living a different kind of a life for two hours in the dark.”

This, naturally, leads me to ask about a specific film that might have left a deep mark in his formative years. “Growing up, I saw King Solomon’s Mines, I don’t know how many times. And I found out later that it won an Oscar for editing, so maybe that had some kind of an influence on me,” he explains, suddenly remembering another influential gem. “I also watched An American in Paris. My family had moved to Paris when I was a child, so I was an American in Paris. The lead character, played by Gene Kelly, is a painter—my father was a painter. And he fell in love with this woman, Leslie Caron, who’s a dancer—my mother was a dancer. So I saw An American in Paris twenty times or something like that.”

Hirsch edited the first two Star Wars movies, only to miss out on Return of the Jedi, as the English director Richard Marquand chose to work with his own editor. Still, Hirsch was heavily involved with the first two parts that started an unprecedented revolution in filmmaking. “I had no idea what the movie would do. I know I loved the film: as I watched it, I thought, wow, this is really exciting. This is exactly the kind of a movie that I’d want to see as a kid,” he states right before giving probably the best explanation for the film’s planetary success and its impact on both the audience and the film industry. “We thought we were making it for kids. We didn’t realize that it would touch the child in everyone.”

A few years after editing Herbert Ross’ Footloose, Hirsch worked with the great John Hughes on two of only a handful of the most memorable comedies of the eighties: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Plains, Trains and Automobiles. “John was the funniest man I’ve ever known,” he recalls with a grin. “Working with him was like going over to a friend’s house and spending the afternoon laughing. He would tell stories. Sometimes it was impossible to work because he would launch into a story. He was just so gifted at making things funny. He came back from a weekend one time describing a wedding he had attended, where the two families were very different: one was sort of upper class from the North, the other was kind of lower class from the South. All the little differences that he described were so hilarious. He would be able to take the smallest idea and spin it into a fantastic story. He was a lot of fun to work with. But he was a bit mercurial, he had his moods. And, you know, when he was in a bad mood, that wasn’t so much fun. We made a couple of wonderful movies together.”

Hirsch edited his first film in 1970. As was the case with countless others, his profession substantially changed with the advancement of technology. “The tools are very different from working with film. Looking back now, it seems almost primitive.” But the shift in the procedure, claims Hirsch, brought about a shift in the perception within the industry as well. “I think in those days, because it was more difficult to make changes, there was a greater premium placed on the skill of the editor to get it right in the first place. Whereas now it’s much easier to make changes, so I think that the editors’ role has become a little less valued, and many people—producers, directors, studio executives—tend to feel that editors are less important than they used to be. The tools make the work much easier, but they invite participation from a greater number of people. The more people get involved, the more difficult it is to arrive at a consensus on what to do.”

Editing technique isn’t the only thing that changed in Hollywood in the last couple of decades. When he discusses the current state of American mainstream filmmaking, spurred by my remark on the filmmakers’ tendency to oversimplify, over-explain and please everybody at the same time, Hirsch seems a bit disappointed. “I think Hollywood is making too many fantasy films. The thing about fantasy films is, in an imaginary world which they create, there are certain rules that don’t apply in the real world, so they feel obligated to explain what these rules are. Fantasy movies are fine, but other kinds of films are also interesting. I’m not happy with the direction that films have been moving in, but you know, Hollywood has always been controlled by the business aspect of it. The way the world is today, most of the money that comes to Hollywood comes from foreign sales, international markets. They prefer projects that don’t have to be translated. Action films, for instance, play very well because you don’t have to explain what’s going on, a car chase or whatever. But the fantasy aspect of it… I wish there was less of that.” The situation is not all that dire, however, as Hirsch reverts to optimism. “I saw a very good film this year, Molly’s Game, which is not a fantasy. It’s based on a book by a woman who ran a very high stakes poker game (Molly Bloom). It was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, with Jessica Chastain. It’s an excellent film.”

It’s been half a century since he entered the business, and on Tuesday, Hirsch turned 72. Is the spark still there? A brief tired look gives him away: one of the most prolific and respected editors in the business is thinking about laying his scissors down. “I’m trying to figure that out. I’m waiting for the right project. I don’t want to just jump into something at this point. I’ve been talking to Taylor Hackford (Ray) about doing another project with him, we’ll see if that works out. I hope it does. It’s always important to be active and looking to the future.”

An interview conducted by Sven Mikulec. All images are copyrighted to their respectful owners. Intended for editorial use only.

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