Jay Miracle has been a longtime member and supporter of the LAPPG. In this interview he shares some stories from his incredible career working with such legends as Francis Ford Coppola, Milos Foreman, and George Lucas plus, he offers our members and readers some of his strategies and insights into the documentary editing process. We hope you are inspired!
Los Angeles Post Production Group: You’ve had an incredible career in filmmaking having worked with so many of the great directors of our time. How did you find your way into filmmaking?
Jay Miracle: I feel quite lucky that I was able to get into filmmaking.
I was fortunate to get my start in the film world when I moved to the Bay Area in the mid-70’s and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was an art major at UC Berkeley and working with my sculptor teacher/mentor: Peter Voulkos – who was well-known for redefining large-scale ceramics as an art form. I worked with him in one of his foundries doing metal work, but I had a day job as an art installation assistant at Berkeley’s University Art Museum.
I used to hang out at Swallow Café on the ground floor, which was directly opposite a tiny theater named the Pacific Film Archives – that I ignored for months. One afternoon I noticed a poster for a “Screening by Artists-Filmmakers” at the Archives and decided to check it out. The show featured experimental films by Bruce Conner and other artists. The films were on a double bill with some movie by a Swedish guy named Ingmar Bergman: “The Hour of the Wolf”. I’d never heard of him and I thought he was maybe the father of Ingrid Bergman.
The movie was a total shock: I’d never seen anything like it, and fell in love with the possibilities of cinema. I instantly volunteered to work at the Archives. I immersed myself in all types of movies and virtually lived there every night, and by chance happened to run into Eleanor Coppola who was involved in an art installation project at the museum.
Within a few weeks, I was an apprentice assistant editor on “Godfather 2” and worked for the editor Peter Zinner. It was daunting, but exciting to learn on the job. It was an amazing time for filmmakers like Francis, and I got to study every scene and actor through my hours of reconstituting thousands of trims and lifts.
There was also the time-consuming task of trying to lip sync Lee Strasberg – because he had a weird mouth tic and speech pattern that made it nearly impossible to sync up.
And I must have gained over 10 pounds in the first few months, because one of the main scenes we worked on was the cake-cutting scene in Havana. We recut that for several weeks. I’d reconstitute those shots and study the trims over and over of that incredible cake getting sliced and eaten. The subliminal seduction worked: every afternoon I’d wander around North Beach on lunch break, looking for cake!
LAPPG: What were some your early filmmaking experiences that impacted you most?
JM: Since I was hired through Paramount Pictures in L.A. and the local San Francisco IATSE 16 was in the middle of a labor dispute with Francis, I didn’t get screen credit, but it did get me a job as an assistant on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. That was an amazing creative journey. By far, the most impactful experience to me as a filmmaker and editor was working with Milos Forman.
Milos’ directorial style for shooting “ Cuckoo’s Nest” was more aligned to a documentary shooting approach. He allowed Jack Nicholson and the extraordinary cast: Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, et al, to have improvisational freedom, and we kept shooting and reshooting for days. This was a low-budget indie at the time, and yet we had over a million feet of film to edit. The final shooting script was this humongous bible with tons of multiple takes – often where the dialogue was completely different.
So, the editing process was daunting but Milos spent every day ensconced in the editing room. He had to supervise every single cut. These were the days of 35mm, where editing was done on Kem flatbeds, with tons of bins and massive reconstituting work that took hours to assemble and rebuild. Physically cutting 35mm was quite slow – and it demanded enormous patience for anyone who was just sitting in the room and watching. You’d think of a simple cut or an elaborate edit, and then have to wait for five minutes – or ten – or forty minutes – or whatever – before you could see it.
It was not a fun event for visitors. A lot of Saul Zaentz’s friends and investors would wander in and drift away almost immediately. I remember Milos’ girlfriend at the time: Aurore Clement, brought another friend with her who was a famous Madame from Paris (Suzie W.). She showed up at the editing room with an entourage, wearing a wild gold lame pantsuit outfit that had a 20-foot train attached to it. They managed to last about five minutes.
Milos was obsessed with every aspect of post-production and quite brilliant at editing. I learned a tremendous amount about timing and structure from him. He had this innate ability to look at a scene, or scenes, and would often suggest a one frame cut or a frame addition to an edit. I would be amazed numerous times when he would suggest “just take a frame off the outgoing shot, and add one frame to the incoming shot,” or whatever combination. This was a splicing nightmare– removing and splicing one frame – one 24th of a second. I used to think that “a frame edit” was absurd: really? Would that have a major impact? It would surprise me how often the shift in timing would make a tremendous difference.
These days, we’ve all become dissociated from that visceral experience of handling film at 24 frames per second – and we often blast through cuts without the nuance of breath or attention to facial details. Milos was all about the face – the most subtle details and expressions – often those moments before or after they said their lines.
The most fun for us was our weekly meetings, where we’d all go over the cut and get to critique the movie. I felt for the first time that my opinion and input were valued, and we had a tremendous team of collaborators.
I was still attending Berkeley after “Cuckoo’s Nest” and managed by luck (there just weren’t that many people in feature post in the Bay Area at the time) to get involved on “Star Wars” as George and Marcia Lucas’ assistant.
Both Marcia and George were incredible editors, and we all shared editing rooms in their house, which was an amazing collective experience. George went through many ups and downs. The film would go over budget at times – but then the British pound would be devalued or some other event would impact the budget. There was a constant uncertainty, and we had no idea about the future.
One aspect of my job was to spend hours studying all the original Flash Gordon TV shows, because we cut some of the shots into the temp edits as a motion pattern for the Effects people. If you want to be tortured, screen all the Flash Gordon shows in a row – they endlessly reprise all the previous episodes at the beginning of each program.
At one point, when there was a lot of pressure from the studio, George would hunker down back in his garage and spend meditative time building a small wooden storage desk that fit under his Kem.
No one had the slightest idea of what would happen to this movie, nor how this would be received once it was released. We would have these crew lunches at the house, and I remember one particular guest who amazed me with his observations – and who would help shape writers and filmmakers for some time: Joseph Campbell. Undoubtedly, the mythic structure of “Star Wars” will permeate our zeitgeist for generations.
LAPPG: What is it about documentary filmmaking that attracts you to it?
JM: I started working on documentaries after “Star Wars” and discovered an entirely different world of challenges in production and post. I loved the uncertainty and difficulties around creating a story, building an emotional arc, and delivering a message.
I was still inhabiting the Pacific Film Archives almost every night, and at the time, every major filmmaker from around the world would come to show their films. I was heavily influenced by the German new wave: Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Silberberg, etc. I met another Archive denizen there: Errol Morris, and began collaborating with him on the production of his documentary: “The Gates of Heaven”.
At one point, early in the production of the documentary, Werner Herzog challenged Errol that if he ever finished his film, he’d eat his shoe. A year later, after one of his boots was simmered for a week in a special sauce, Werner got up on stage at the UA Theater and ate it.
I’ve always had incredible inspiration and admiration for filmmakers like Herzog and Wenders – who move so effortlessly and without ego between feature films and documentaries.
There’s nothing more compelling and challenging than figuring out how to deliver an effective documentary. There’s no actors, there’s usually no repeat takes, no script, none of the usual safety nets of scripted work. I think documentary editors are the creative powerhouses behind documentaries – and yet they are the least appreciated.
LAPPG: What strategies do you use during a documentary edit?
JM: Whenever I take on any documentary project, I always search for a hook beyond the information or message that the film is about. I try to find a protagonist with whom the audience can hang their emotional hat and follow along for the journey. Of course, any great documentary needs to deliver a powerful message, but it’s a bit more challenging to convey an impactful message with just facts, or flashy effects or graphics. I feel my main responsibility is to find a strong, emotional arc throughout the piece. I’ve always felt that viewers watch with their heads, their hearts, and their guts. The head is constantly downloading data and assessing, but if you can find a way to powerfully connect to the latter two, the head will come along for the ride. When I see projects with a ton of data and graphics, or endless talking heads, I tend to tune out, unless there’s some deeper hook to it – so I’m always searching for that in my documentary work.
I also follow a basic formula, and I cannot stress its importance: follow the KISS formula: Keep It Simple Stupid.
If you’re presenting a story and somehow there’s a misunderstanding about the character, the topic, or the journey that you are on – the viewer will tune out. To me, editing is basically creating a flow: what follows from A to B, what connects B to C, etc. Does everything build and have a logical progression to it? If it’s audio and text driven – is it clear, easy to follow, and builds the story?
I often work with a radio cut of the audio on the first pass and refine the story to that. If the project is more vérité based, the challenge becomes more about discovering the story.
I will initially edit the sequences that resonate with the theme. I’ll assemble these and assign cards to each scene (just like assembling cards for writing a script) and build a breakdown chart.
You then become the writer and begin to align the cards to build the story. Invariably, I’m always looking for those scenes that deliver the most dramatic or emotional impact – the “trailer scenes” – because you’ll build around them.
Do the visuals have clarity and impact? Do they support the concept or the scene?
Sometimes I don’t have the luxury of a clear, story progression – sometimes I have to create something from a more abstract structure – where the synthesis of an idea is a visual or auditory progression of similar concepts. Sometimes I need to build a “parallel universe” that works as a metaphor. If there’s a hole or a leap in concept, audiences can follow along if you’ve built a solid base.
LAPPG: You won an Emmy for your work editing “Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.” How did you get that opportunity and what was it like uncovering the behind the scenes story for such an iconic film? Can you tell us about a challenge you came up against and how you found a creative way of telling the story?
JM: When I was working on “Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” there were instances where we had no concrete visuals to propel the story. I came onto the project since I’d worked on “Apocalypse Now” and had some additional insight into the production and post. The initial edit had been more of a didactic behind-the-scenes breakdown of how the film came together. Like so many documentaries, after further review and discoveries, we realized we needed to include the deep, emotional angle of Eleanor’s notes and interactions with Francis.
After we discovered this, it became imperative to create an entirely different direction to the edit.
Her recordings became the visceral anchor that propelled us on the journey for the entire documentary. But the fun was finding out how to tie Eleanor’s thoughts to the evolution of the story.
We had lots of footage, but there were times when there wasn’t an appropriate shot.
As an example, there’s a moment where Eleanor is wondering whether the entire trajectory of Francis and the film would be a disaster. We couldn’t find a perfect visual, but we found a metaphor: a shot we’d discarded six months earlier as totally useless – it was a shot of some kids playing in a shoal. They launch a tiny, toy boat that floats for a moment, then slowly sinks.
Of course, now, many documentarians solve those problems through highly-stylized graphics, animation, re-enactments, etc. When we were editing “Hearts of Darkness”, our consideration was to find material that was organic to the time and the story.
LAPPG: What are you noticing about the documentaries of today?
JM: The evolution of the documentary form and the tools available to filmmakers and editors are extraordinary. And documentaries have continually evolved in story form. Today, many follow a traditional, scripted three-act structure, exactly like their scripted sisters.
I’m amazed at the level of subjects and the higher quality of story-telling in documentary filmmaking that comes out every year. But the bottom line to me is: everything revolves around character, story and emotion. My perpetual questions are: can I find, or create those elements.
There never has been a better time for working in documentaries because the viewing world has become much more sophisticated and engaged with the form.
Let’s all enjoy the adventure.