Interview: Bill Pankow
Editor of nine Brian De Palma films, Bill Pankow remains “an actor’s editor” who observes and preserves the gestalt of a performance, making cuts that create a direct line of communication to the audience. This respect for an actor’s work is often overlooked in favor of the heart-pounding action and suspense sequences he’s engineered down to the split second in Body Double (84), The Untouchables (87), Carlito’s Way (93), Casualties of War (89), and Femme Fatale (02)—even though these moments of tension are underpinned by their stars’ entire physicality.
Born and raised in New York City, Pankow began his career as assistant editor to Jerry Greenberg on Kramer vs. Kramer (79) at age 26. Greenberg, who cut The French Connection and Apocalypse Now, became a mentor to Pankow and brought him on as an assistant on his next project, De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (80). Besides De Palma, Pankow has also edited films for Abel Ferrara, Robert Benton, Paul Schrader, and Zal Batmanglij (not to mention a couple of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies with Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark).
Last week FILM COMMENT spoke with the unfailingly polite Pankow about his long collaboration with De Palma in advance of tonight’s screening of Carlito’s Way at IFC Center.
Dressed to Kill
Do you start with a particular scene and really work on it until you’re happy with the rhythm, or do you assemble rough cuts of several scenes, and then proceed from there?
Usually when they’re shooting, what I try to do is try to get the scenes cut as quickly as possible in some sort of shape. Obviously, films are very often and usually shot out of order. What I do is take the first scene that’s been completed and try to edit that down into some rough version, and then continue from there, scene after scene. I don’t really look at it all together until we get to the end of the shooting process.
I read an old interview in which you were talking about how the sound of a Moviola would guide you in establishing the rhythm of a scene. In a digital era, is there anything to replace that? How has your practice shifted?
I think the rhythm has always been established by just feeling how long the shot needs to go on, or once the shot’s ended its life, or ended its importance. Rhythmically, it’s a thing in my head I guess, and I guess the sounds of a Moviola reinforced that and gave me a rhythm. Sometimes, when I feel a length is problematic, I’ll count off in my head a few beats, and see if those beats feel like they’re connected to the previous cuts in terms of length and rhythmic connections. I guess in a digital world I listen to counting in my head, or music in my head, if you will.
I also read that you sometimes become so familiar with dialogue that you’ll just turn off the sound and edit with images.
Yeah. It’s really important that the visuals be able to tell the story in the film. When I’m approaching a scene for the first time, I watch the dailies more than once, and familiarize myself with what seem to be the best takes, or the director’s preferred takes at the moment so I know what the characters are saying. Once I’ve roughed it out, then I’ll play it without the sound, just to reinforce how the images are flowing together, and whether or not, visually, I’m getting a sense of what the story is about or what the scene is about or whether the emotional moments hit. Once I feel comfortable with that, then I reintroduce the dialogue to make sure that everything is correct and also flows the same way, and then add sound effects and our music in layers on top. There’s always a layering effect that gives the audience the overall effect of the scene. But, in the bare bones, we take it one layer at a time to try to make it come together.
Can you talk about working with Brian De Palma? Have you developed a shorthand over the years when you’re communicating about different cuts of the film, or at different stages of the postproduction?
I’ve really had a very fortunate and very unique road to starting and continuing my career with Brian De Palma because I began as an assistant editor for a great editor, and a good friend, Jerry Greenberg. As an assistant, I was able to not only watch and learn from him, but watch and observe the dynamic between him and the director, and in this case, him and Brian De Palma. As my career progressed, I did more films as an assistant, and later as an editor for Brian, I really got to understand how he works, what his rhythms are, and how he expects things to proceed. I was able to take that on myself when I became an editor. And yes, we certainly developed a shorthand in the sense that I knew that he expected to see the scenes edited in the way in which they were intended. Certainly in the first cut, rather than try to push and pull things in a direction that I might want to take them, I could just do what I call “read the dailies.” I could see what the intentions of each shot were, and try to edit the scene with that in mind before fine-tuning it and proceeding to the next stage with him. So yes, it helps us move forward quickly and get to where he wants to be in a timely fashion.
Did you ever revisit the films he was referencing when you were preparing to edit?
I don’t always ask him what films he’s referencing, because he has such a vast knowledge of films. Certainly when some of the scenes are shot, I can see that he’s maybe referencing other filmmakers, or himself, quite honestly. For myself, what I do is usually try to take the genre of the film we’re about to edit together, and I look at films that are similar in that genre to make sure to incorporate the style of editing for that genre, or at least inform myself with that style so it helps me proceed with my own work, and also to provide Brian with the scenes that will be most effective for him.
You were an assistant editor on Scarface , which is obviously related to Carlito’s Way because that role was so tied up in Al Pacino’s persona. But then, in other ways, Carlito’s Way is like the anti-Scarface because his character is so subdued and trying to go straight. Did your work on Scarface influence or inform what you did with Carlito’s Way?
Working with Jerry as he was editing Scarface, I was able to see a lot of Al Pacino’s performances throughout the entire takes, all the pieces that were in the film and those that weren’t. I got a sense of how he worked and how he worked through scenes just by observing. I guess that helped me in editing Carlito’s Way. But the Scarface experience was obviously a character who’s way over the top, and Carlito’s Way is, in a way, simpler, but much more sophisticated, and as you say, subdued. I’m not sure I brought the energy of Scarface into Carlito’s Way, but certainly having observed Pacino’s work in that film, and watching him in other films obviously, I brought that to the table when I was editing Carlito’s Way. I always try to respect everything that the actors are doing to make sure that I don’t miss moments or nuance that they might be imbuing into the performance.
Could we break down a couple of the scenes in Carlito’s Way? I’m specifically thinking of the pool hall sequence, which is so complex in terms of space and narrative. It says so much about Carlito: you can see how he became a kingpin, based on what details his attention is drawn to and how he reacts. How did that look on the page versus how you constructed it?
On the page it seemed quite simple. He drives up with his cousin, he goes into the pool hall, and encounters these bad guys, and everything goes topsy-turvy. But the scene is quite interesting visually on many levels. Just the approach to the scene, for example: when they’re driving to the barbershop that has the backroom, Brian used a split diopter in the car so that Al Pacino is on the left side and his cousin is on the right side, and they’re both in focus. That helps the audience follow through and pay attention to both of them without having to rack focus or change angles. That allows us to stay in the shot and feel comfortable without cutting back and forth. There’s a comfort level riding into the scene, and his cousin tries to underline that by saying: “Don’t worry. He’s my friend. Everything going to be okay.”
When they get inside, what helped me most was having the experience of working with Brian and learning from Jerry, and how to make the audience understand the scene. You need to make them comfortable with the geography, but also to underline the character’s point of view. We want to be with the character. One of the ways you can be with the character is to follow their point of view. By staying with Carlito when he enters the room, and then seeing what he sees—the guy behind the bathroom door, and Quisqueya, the guy by the cooler who is going to pull a gun and kill everybody—we want to make sure the audience is oriented right at the beginning. Once you do that, then you can isolated the little pieces, and the audience will follow you. We don’t want them be confused or disoriented in any way. I had learned up to that point quite a bit about how to make that work by working on Brian’s films.
Were there other versions of that sequence which you tried and then discarded?
I don’t remember trying too many versions. Typically a scene like that will be edited quite long. In the first pass of a scene, I always put everything the director shoots in there. I try to at least represent every single angle to make sure that it’s all in there. Then this gets distilled down once we start working on it together and get the most salient points involved, tighten up the rhythms and everything. That’s what happens as a process later. What was really cool about that scene was setting up the trick shot and the reflection of the guy in the sunglasses and the reactions of the guys. Once the action begins, it’s just so chaotic, and again, I’m trying to keep the audience oriented in the chaos, while at the same time giving the audience a visceral effect to take with them into the scene and make them feel it that way.
Can you talk about putting the final chase sequence together? It goes on for nearly 20 minutes, but the tension is sustained throughout.
I worked on the film with another editor, Kristina Boden, and we worked on different areas at different times. It was a very tight time frame: I think we began in March or April, and we were mixing in August. We had to have a second editor and that’s when Kristina, who had been my assistant on a couple of my movies, came in. She had worked on the whole subway section as they were approaching Grand Central Station, and then it just fell into my lap to do the Grand Central part, most of which was one shot as you can see, or at least appears to be one shot all the way up until I think the time when Carlito is on the escalator and he looks up and sees the guy with the gun who says: “There he is.” I think that’s the time when the shot broke. It was kind of fun to do that. Brian had made some storyboards early on, and often had storyboards in his films. In this case, they were just the most basic boards, very basic computer-generated triangular figures that represented the space, just to help us orient how the characters would be moving or placed inside the space.
But what I like to do is I like to edit a scene that has storyboards without looking at them, as just a kind of challenge for myself. After I have edited the scene, I’ll refer to the storyboards and see if I’ve achieved what the director was looking for or if I’ve gone a different direction, and then I make sure the two versions come together.
Another moment that really stood out to me was when Carlito runs to the roof in the rain to watch Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) in her dance class. How do you approach a scene like that, when there’s no dialogue and it’s perhaps less action-based?
Again, it’s an example of Brian’s masterful visual storytelling technique. As many scenes as there are when you want to cut, and make sure you cut for effect, it’s just as important to know when not to cut (as I and other people have often said). We’re following Carlito, not only his character going to a specific place, but watching his eyes, and trying to pick the emotional moment, or the emotional feeling you get from his face, which is the right time to cut to what he’s seeing, and make what he’s seeing provide an emotional impact. We want the audience to identify with what he’s feeling. It’s a delicate balance and sometimes it’s trial and error, but it’s also fun to do that because you want to take advantage of the moment most when you can feel the emotional heartstrings the strongest.
Sean Penn is also so good in the film.
Sean Penn is great, and both Sean and Al Pacino are such nuanced performers that every take, they give you something a little different. That’s the mark of a great actor too—when there’s a little nuance that, if the director wanted to take the performers a little more in one direction or another, it’s usually available there by changing takes and pushing in a direction that might emphasize something else.
It’s an exciting film. It’s really cool. The music in there, Jellybean Benitez was the music supervisor and he provided all of those songs that just fit so perfectly all the time.
Nobody does split-screen like Brian De Palma—from Sisters (73) to Femme Fatale and most recently Passion (12). But does that make things more difficult when it comes to editing?
In Femme Fatale and also in Snake Eyes , for example, the split-screens are very, very carefully planned out. Each side is planned and shot with different lenses and different sizes to be specific to that point of view. It’s very rare that we use pieces that weren’t intended. It’s always fun to block those out. What I usually do is block out one side, and get the action working the way it should be, let’s say, for one character or one point of view, and then cut the other side for its own merit, for its own weight and value. And then I put them side by side and start to see where they come together, and make adjustments once each part is doing what it’s supposed to do, but also make sure the two sides obviously sync up and coincide perfectly.
Are there any editing clichés or trends that annoy you?
That’s a tough question. One thing that bothers me in action editing is when the audience is confused. A lot of times, films will go for the purely visceral effect—they want their gut-wrenching shooting, and blowing up, and moving around, and chasing. And that’s all great, I love that stuff and I love editing that stuff. The problem I have sometimes is that the audience is lost. You don’t know who’s shooting at whom. You don’t know who’s chasing whom. In the interest of serving the visceral effect, the narrative is given short shrift. That’s a problem that I think exists more often than it should, and there’s no reason for it.
What’s your ideal working situation with a director?
I think working with Brian De Palma is one of the most ideal situations you could have. We work together in looking at the first cut after he finishes shooting and we’ll discuss it. Historically, he’s always given me notes on how to proceed in terms of fine-tuning the movie and then asked me how long it’s going to take to execute those notes. I tell him and he’ll come back in a week or two, whatever the time frame is, and as we proceed through the process, the time frame that he’s away gets shorter and shorter, because there’s less and less to do until we’re fine-tuning it. Then he might start coming in a couple hours or a few hours every day for a while until we get it totally the way he wants it to be. Other directors like to be in the editing room all the time, and that’s fine also. You have to get each other’s rhythm and find out what direction they want to go.
When you were working on Carlito’s Way, do you remember making any major changes, or were there any difficult spots?
One of the difficult things was the nightclub scene. It wasn’t that difficult, but it took a while to get them just right. Also, the rescuing of Tony on the boat took a while to get just right in terms of the timing and the feeling of the scene in exactly how things came together. When we were mixing the sound when Sean Penn’s character hits Tony on the head with a crowbar, the sound wasn’t quite right in the studio. I asked one of our assistants to go to the butcher and get something. During a lunch hour of the mix we went into a studio and re-created a sound that was more appropriate.
That’s very giallo.
[Laughs] Carlito’s Way is interesting because the whole movie takes place in the space of time that his stretcher or whatever he’s on hits a crack and he’s thinking about it. It’s unique in that way I think and wonderful how successful that is.
It’s a cliché to say at this point, but Carlito’s Way is a great New York movie that effortlessly captures the essence of these different areas of the city.
When I was small, up until I was 7 or 8 years old, I lived in that neighborhood [Spanish Harlem]. I grew up on 119th Street and First Avenue, which was in that area.
You were going to school and coming of age during the heyday of the New Hollywood, and you were mentored by someone who worked with a lot of these people. Could you talk about your relationship with Jerry Greenberg?
I was coming up in my career as a sound assistant and film editing assistant. I was working in a sound department for a Dede Allen film. I think it was The Wiz. Anyway, Jerry had been working on Apocalypse Now, and had been out of New York for two years. He was coming back to New York to do Kramer vs. Kramer, and he telephoned Dede Allen who he had worked with quite a bit, and asked her for a recommendation for an assistant editor. To my surprise and delight, she recommended me. Jerry came to New York and we started working together on Kramer vs. Kramer. We hit it off, and then I worked as his assistant several times after that.
What was wonderful about Jerry, and a lot of other editors too, is that as they’re editing, they start talking about what they were doing and why they were doing it. Being privy to that thought process was a way for someone like me to be learning how to do that craft and art of editing. That’s something that’s a little bit lost now in a digital world because there’s no longer a need for an assistant to be in the room with you handing the film and handling the film. Quite the opposite, as they need to be in there own room with their own computer taking care of all the day-to-day business of the film editing room. I lament the loss of that sort of relationship.
Eventually, Jerry was working on Body Double, and the time frame required a second editor come on to finish, so I became a second editor. I was very young and new. I went to my own room with a Moviola. I think I burnt out three different Moviola motors going back and forth, back and forth, trying to find just what I considered the right frame. That was sort of a baptism for me, learning how to be an editor on my own. The relationship proceeded from there. On Wise Guys , I went back to being his assistant. When The Untouchables started, he was on another film, and he asked Brian if it would be okay if I started as second editor. When he was able to finish his other project, he and I would finish the film together, and that was the big break for me I think. It was wonderful. He’s a great friend still. I consult with him all the time. He recently received an A.C.E. Lifetime Achievement award.
What part of your experience on The Untouchables stood out for you?
It was very exciting for me to be working on a film of that scope and scale and be the editor. As I said, Jerry was away, so I was all by myself. It had this up-and-coming star, Kevin Costner, and Sean Connery in it. I wanted to do it well. Of course, I was a little anxious being a new editor. It was a lot of fun to do. There were so many wonderful scenes in there. When the footage for the train station—the so-called Odessa Steps comparison scene—came in, I was a little nervous about it. I said, you know what, this is the kind of thing that’s right up Jerry’s alley, and I think I’m going to leave it for him. I called him and I told him that. He said, no, no. You should go and jump in and take it, but out of respect, I said, no, no. I’m going to leave that for you.
There were plenty of other scenes I got to do. One in particular that I think amused Brian in the first cut was when the bad guy comes to get Sean Connery in his house, and Sean Connery pulls the gun out of the gramophone machine, and the other guy says: “You bring a knife to a gunfight?” And when the guy [outside] was shooting Sean Connery, I think I put every single squib, or every explosion on Sean Connery’s body or on the nearby walls that was shot with all the different cameras. When Brian saw it, he chuckled because it was way over the top and silly, but I felt I wanted to put it all in there and we’d take it down later.