The Billy Weber Interview: Part One

❉ The first of a very special three-part interview with the legendary Hollywood film editor.

“I don’t watch my own films after I’m done with them… as I’ve spent so  many hours with them, and I know them front to back. I just end up finding more things I’d wished that I’d done differently. The calmest time for me is when the film is finally out of my hands and the screenings begin, because at that point, there’s nothing left that you can do.”

Over a 40 year career, film editor Billy Weber has cut for some of the greatest filmmakers that the motion picture medium has had to offer: Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life), Tony Scott (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder), Warren Beatty (Bulworth, Rules Don’t Apply), Walter Hill (The Warriors, Extreme Prejudice, 48 Hrs), Tim Burton (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), and Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, Gigli).

Never one to shy away from a challenge, he’s worked in all genres, and can also count himself as a director (second unit on Batman Returns and full-blown on the underrated Josh and S.A.M.). Weber spoke with We Are Cult’s Nick Clement about his stunning career, providing both an in-depth peek at his artistic process, as well as recounting some incredible stories from throughout the years.

Billy Weber today (with feline friend).

Background & Early Years

Weber in the 1970s.

First, I just wanted to say thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. I can’t express how much your work means to me, and it’s remarkable when you simply just read your resume, as the films you’ve worked on are truly touchstone items for so many people. So, once more, before we even get started, thank you so much!

It’s my pleasure. I’m so happy you’ve enjoyed the work. I’ve loved doing it and I’ve been so lucky to have been surrounded by so many talented people within the industry.

Where did you grow up? How did you first get interested in the cinematic arts?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and I grew up with an older brother. We’d go to the movies every week together, every Saturday. Our mother would drop us off out in front and she’d make a rough guess as to when the movies would be over, because it was always a double bill. But of course, in those days, you could just stick around and stay all day watching stuff – it cost 50 cents for an admission. So, inevitably, she’d have to come inside and pull us out of our third screening of the day. We’d also go to the theatre with our parents, so it was definitely a family thing for all us. We lived in a neighborhood where we had access to 15 or 16 theatres by bus or walking.

I’m curious to know what some of your favourite films are. Not necessarily out of the ones you’ve worked on, but just in general, what are some titles you could sit back and watch any day of the week?

Growing up, movies were always my passion. My brother loved books, and I loved movies. I definitely enjoyed reading when I was a kid, and he did enjoy seeing films, but those were our distinct passions. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are two of my favourites, especially when viewed in Coppola’s linear TV cut, which is my favourite version of the film. Of course Citizen Kane, that goes without saying. Noir films were also a big favourite of mine, and I’m very much a fan of The Big Sleep, Murder My Sweet, The Best Years of Our Lives, the Marx Brothers, Some Like It Hot, and The Little Fugitive, which had a big impact on me during my youth.

Do you revisit the films you’ve worked on?

No, I don’t watch my own films after I’m done with them. In many instances, I’ve skipped-out on the premieres. I didn’t go to the premiere for The Tree of Life, for instance – I just couldn’t do it, for any number of reasons. I don’t want to watch them after I’ve worked on them for so long, as I’ve spent so  many hours with them, and I know them front to back. I just end up finding more things I’d wished that I’d done differently. The calmest time for me is when the film is finally out of my hands and the screenings begin, because at that point, there’s nothing left that you can do.

When did you decide that getting into the creative process of cinema was something of interest?

In college, at LACC, I had it figured out that I wanted to become an actor. I was about 18 years old, and I’d been taking some acting classes. I had absolutely no understanding of the editorial process while I was growing up. I didn’t think I was particularly good at acting, so I was sort of searching for my next move. My aunt, who was working for a Los Angeles county adoption agency, called me up one day and told me that she’d just met with a motion picture editor and his wife, as they were looking to adopt a child. The editor was Sid Levin, who of course would go on to become Martin Ritt’s editor throughout the years. She set me up on a meeting with Sid over at his editing suite at Goldwyn Studios, which is now called The Lot. Samuel Goldwyn had bought the studio from Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks.

Goldwyn Studios.

So, here you are, at Goldwyn Studios, about to meet Sid Levin, and you’re just wondering…what’s going to happen next?

Yes. I had no real idea of what might happen. When I got there, we introduced ourselves, and then he took me over to a soundstage where Billy Wilder was shooting The Fortune Cookie with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. I saw the three of them talking in an elevator set, and it was at that moment that something inside of me clicked, and I knew I had to be involved in some way with getting films made. And then, here’s the kicker – 32 years later, I’d find myself back at the same studio – in nearly the same space – cutting Grumpier Old Men, and Sid Levin was there cutting the Bill Murray vehicle Larger than Life. Everything comes full circle in the industry at one time or another.

So did you end up assisting Sid Levin at all? What happened next?

No, I never worked for Sid. What happened next was that the same Aunt, the one who set me up with Sid, called me again about three months later, and told me that she’d run into an old college friend who was working for Universal. He was an executive, but not working in the movie and television realm. This guy had come up with the idea for the Indy 500 to be filmed as a live event and put into CCTV, and then released in theatres across America. They did it, and it became a huge success, so Universal hired him and gave him an office and bought the rights to his creation.

So how did he help you get your first job in the biz?

He was a really nice guy, and he basically asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I was interested in editing. He took me over to the Universal/MCA employment office, which was on the lot. It was a big building that basically gave people the chance to scope out new work. And back in the day, if your office was located inside the MCA Tower, especially toward the top, everyone knew how important you were. Where your office was located said a lot about your status within the hierarchy of the company, and the guy I was with, his office was on the eighth floor. I got a job three days later in the print shop at Universal/MCA, which was where they printed all of the motion picture one-sheets and scripts and advertising materials.

MCA Tower. Taken on April 20, 2008/via flickr

It’s always “Who you know,” isn’t it?

Yes, absolutely. And there were about 12 of us in this small office, making tons of copies of scripts and all sorts of items, and then I’d go off and deliver them all over the lot. This was 1966-67, and Universal was the most successful studio in town, with 26 hours of prime-time television every week. And here I am copying scripts and collating press releases, and we literally had access to all of the departments. It was a great way to break into the industry and see a lot of different things at the ground level before getting established in one particular field.

So how did you break into editing?

After spending about a year and half in the print shop, I got a job in the editorial department. My meeting with Sid Levin had showed me what an editor was capable of doing during the process of making a film, and I saw that the editor was the one who was really putting all of the pieces together to solve the big creative puzzle. They were the real storytellers as far as I was concerned. My first gig in an editing room was working as an assistant editor, which meant you’d receive no credit, on a TV series called The Name of the Game. I was so excited just to be assisting and to see this world that it didn’t matter what the project was.

Per the IMDB, your first credit, billed as Associate Editor, is on a film called Messiah of Evil, which was released in 1973. How did you get involved with it?

From the time I was in my late teens, I’d been friends with Gloria Katz before either of us had been involved in movies. When she was a UCLA graduate student, I was working in the print shop at Universal. Four years later, Gloria and Willard Huyck, who was her husband, had written this wacky script, and I’d moved directly next door to them in Echo Park. They were really busy writers, and they’d already written American Graffiti, and then they wrote drafts of Star Wars for George Lucas, without ever receiving any credit, but they did get a piece of royalties. They had some clout, and when they’d finished writing Messiah of Evil, they asked me to cut it. I said yes, and that’s how it all started.

Again – it’s always “Who you know” when you get your first big break.

Exactly. And the entire production was a total indie, done for about $100,000, and then the financiers took the film away from Willard and Gloria, and they re-cut it with a different editor. But over the years, it’s become a cult favourite for so many people. A while back, some folks were doing a new UK DVD release of Badlands, and they sent a crew to my house to interview me. And the interviewer started off the chat by asking if I had known anyone on the Badlands crew from before the film started. I said Jack Fisk, who I knew from Messiah of Evil, so he turned off the recorder, and he just lost it on me! He loved Messiah of Evil so much and he just wanted to know all about it, and this sort of thing has happened throughout the years.  One funny tidbit about the film – Walter Hill had been dating one of the production assistants, and he ended up being featured in the opening sequence, he’s the one who is being chased.

An Auspicious Start

In 1973, along with Messiah of Evil, you also have a pretty big credit – as Associate Editor on Terrence Malick’s Badlands. This would of course mark the start of your artistic relationship with Malick – how did all of this begin?

Our sound guy on Messiah of Evil, David Holden, had a girlfriend who was an assistant editor, and she couldn’t take a job that had come her way, to do some assistant sound editing on Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate. Richard Harris and Bob Estrin were cutting the film for Ritchie, and did it in about three months. Then Estrin got the offer to cut Badlands and he hired me as his assistant. I remember meeting Terry Malick for the first time at his house, and we quickly hit it off, and we became best friends during the cutting of Badlands. Bob then had to leave the production about two-thirds of the way through, so I took over and completed the movie, and that really began my lifelong friendship with Terry.

Is Malick aware of his “Sasquatch of Cinema” reputation? He’s a walking, talking legend to many, many people. He has to know this.

Oh, sure, yes, he’s totally aware of his reputation. It all stems, of course, from that interview he did in the 70’s with Rolling Stone around the time that Days of Heaven was released, where everything was taken out of context, and then he decided to not talk to the press about his work, or anything for that matter, any more. So that of course created this myth around him. But he couldn’t be any nicer and warmer, and I’ve loved spending time with him throughout the years. He’s been one of my closest friends. I remember when he was prepping to direct Che, which never happened for him, he was always kicking around other ideas. And Warner Brothers decided to pull the plug on the movie, and I suggested the story of Pocahontas, which we had researched years earlier, and that’s what would become The New World. I wasn’t able to edit the film as I was busy with another project at the time.

Were you surprised by the response that Badlands initially received from critics and audiences?

Well, I think it’s a great movie, but at the time, lots of critics didn’t like it, and it didn’t make a penny. But those were the days where you could make a movie and it could fail on a financial level, but then people would give you work again because they recognised the quality of the work, even if the movie bombed with audiences. But upon first release, only a handful of critics gave Badlands a positive review. Pauline Kael hated the film, but part of that was due to the fact that we couldn’t personally screen the film for her. She always preferred to have her own screenings in New York City, and when we were set to premiere at the New York Film Festival, there was only one print available. She refused to attend the festival print screening, so when she finally did see it, we were already dead in the water with her, regardless of how good the movie was.

You then went on to work as an Assistant Editor on Martin Scorsese’s decade-defining masterpiece Taxi Driver, which is a film that feels more and more resonant as the years have progressed. How did you get involved?

I was working on a Bob Newhart TV series, and I got a call from Marcia Lucas, who was cutting Taxi Driver with Tom Rolf and Melvin Shapiro. She was married to George Lucas, and was friends with Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who had given my name to her as someone that she could possibly work with. So I got the call, and I really wanted to do it, so I told the head of post- production at MTM that I had been offered the chance to work on a movie, and he flipped out with excitement. This was when film was considered so much more of a big deal than TV, so when that opportunity came about, he said “Go!” I went to work on Taxi Driver as one of two assistants to the three main editors, and my primary job was to sync up dailies and work on the sound mix.

Original UK Quad poster for ‘Taxi Driver’.

What was your reaction when you saw the completed version of Taxi Driver for the first time?

We hadn’t fully finished putting it together, but we had a cut ready to show, so Marty and Michael Phillips set up four screenings, over four nights, at a screening room at Columbia. These weren’t traditional test screenings, they were screenings with industry folks, and over those four nights, I was the only one associated with the picture to attend – Marty didn’t attend, nobody from the production did. But I was there to make sure the screenings went off without any problems, and I have to say, I was so depressed each night while watching the movie, and over the course of those four nights, I was supremely depressed when it was all over.

Why? Where the initial reactions negative?

Oh, no! People thought it was great, they were very moved by it, and it definitely made an impression. It was just so dark and unrelenting, and to see it four nights in a row, it was an experience I’ll never forget. I really didn’t know what people were going to think of it overall. De Niro was at the prime of his abilities and his performance was just so phenomenal. Jodie Foster was so young, and she was great, and of course Harvey Keitel’s performance was brilliant. And then Marty was in it, in that classic role, which he wasn’t even supposed to do. There was another actor who had been cast as the cab fare, his name was George Memmoli, and he’d previously done work with Marty. But he’d gotten injured on another movie, so Marty came in and did it, and the rest is history. But yeah, considering the subject matter and the time it was released, people were caught off guard by it, and it actually became a good financial success. Taxi Driver was a real moment for Marty’s career, as I don’t think people expected it to come from him based on what he’d previously done, and then of course he’d go off and make New York, New York as his follow-up. But overall, the experience of working on Taxi Driver was extremely memorable for me.

And then you went directly into Days of Heaven?

Yes, Terry had just gotten greenlit to do Days of Heaven and he was doing casting, so I immediately jumped into the pre-production process.  Little did I know that it would become the most challenging film of my career to edit, but it’s great to see how the film has grown in stature over the years, because that was another project that wasn’t fully appreciated when it was first released. The big thing, at first, was the casting process.

What happened during that?

Well, the original lead was John Travolta. Terry really liked John, and thought he was perfect, and he pretty much was, being a working-class guy from New York. He sounded exactly the way Terry wanted the character to sound, and he really wanted to make the movie with him. It was even written with Travolta’s voice in mind. Producer David Wolper basically owned the rights to Travolta as a result of the TV series Welcome Back Kotter, which was a massive success, and which made it challenging to work with John because of his schedule. So, the deal fell through, and scheduling was the main reason, as we’d only be able to have four days per week, and then we’d lose him for two weeks in the middle of production because he needed to shoot a Kotter Christmas special. And additionally, as part of the deal, Wolper wanted Terry to write him a spec as a future project, so it just didn’t make any sense.

Who else was considered for the leading role before Richard Gere was ultimately cast?

Sylvester Stallone was discussed, and he met with Terry, but he was busying finishing up Rocky, and he was very focused on that. Sly was very interested in the project and he and Terry got along very well, but he really wanted to finish the editing process on Rocky, so he had to pass. And then Terry met with Richard, who was the polar opposite of Travolta and Stallone, he was a classically trained actor from The New Vic, but Terry felt he could do it, and they ended up having a great relationship all throughout the production.

John Travolta in the TV series ‘Welcome Back Kotter’.

Did you ever get to visit the set during filming? Were you editing while footage was coming in?

I was on location during filming and I went down to the set about a dozen times, but yes, I was editing simultaneously as the film was shooting in Alberta.

What did you think of the how the film looked? It’s of course widely considered to be one of the most gorgeous movies ever lensed.

The footage looked simply incredible; there was no doubt about it. It looked absolutely amazing, and every day I’d see something else that was just spectacular in one way or another. Nestor Almendros was shooting it, but it was all Terry’s ultimate vision in terms of lighting and texture, and if Nestor were alive today he’d say the same thing. Then Nestor’s schedule got compromised, so he had to leave about three weeks early to work on a Truffaut picture, so Haskell Wexler came aboard, and finished up principal photography, as he was friends with Terry and producer Bert Schneider.

Terence Malick on the set of ‘Days Of Heaven’.

You then had the chance to work with action auteur Walter Hill (The Driver, Hard Times) on two of his most enduring films, The Warriors and 48 Hrs How did you wind up teaming with Hill?

Paramount called and said they needed some help, so off I went. I had actually met Walter for the very first time on the set of Messiah of Evil years ago. Working on The Warriors was a crazy experience because there were roughly seven other “gang movies” either in development or being shot while we were in production, and our film was famously shot on-location in New York City, which gave it this extra vibe of menace and hostility. We were the first out of the batch of movies to enter into post-production and one of the first to be released in theatres.

So re-teaming with Hill on 48 Hrs after the success of The Warriors seemed like a logical next step?

I just wanted to keep working, and 48 Hrs was another Paramount film, and I was on their radar, and I’d gotten along very well with Walter, so yes, it made sense. Eddie was only 19 when we made the film, he’d never done a movie, and he had been coming out of stand-up and Saturday Night Live. Initially, I was called in to cut the two Bus Boy songs, which essentially became little musical sequences. Pauline Kael, in all of her infinite wisdom, and who didn’t like the movie very much, actually included negative comments about the musical numbers in her review. Freeman Davies and Mark Warner, the two head editors, I knew them both, and I’d worked with Freeman on The Warriors, and I knew Mark’s dad who was a famous sound editor. They needed the help because they had a ton of footage and a crunched post production schedule, so after I worked on those two sequences, I ended up staying on until the film was fully edited.

48 Hrs is such a great movie, and it really built upon the buddy-cop template which had been laid out in the 1970’s with efforts like Richard Rush’s Freebie and the Bean, and Peter Hyams’ Busting, and to a slightly lesser extent, Gordon Parks’ The Super Cops. And of course, 48 Hrs would serve as hugely influential to an entire genre of films in the 1980’s, many of which you worked on.

48 Hrs was sort of like a pilot for Beverly Hills Cop, that’s what Martin Brest used to say. I knew we had something terrific while we were cutting 48 Hrs I thought the footage looked great. But, the studio didn’t like it at all, and they had no faith in what we were doing. Michael Eisner wrote a corporate memo to all of the executives essentially saying that the movie was being ruined by Nick Nolte’s performance, which he deemed as too serious, and totally at odds with Eddie’s comedic sensibilities. He didn’t understand the idea of mixing tones, and overall, Eisner didn’t really understand movies. He’d only seen some dailies, and was basing his opinion on things that were being viewed out of context. And then, of course, we had our first test screening in Lakewood, CA, and it was a huge success, and the audience loved it. The movie became a smash, thanks largely in part to Nolte grounding the entire thing with his dead-serious performance, which was the perfect match for Eddie’s incredible energy. I loved cutting that film.

Nick Nolte, Walter Hill and Eddie Murphy on the set of ’48 Hrs’.

What was it like working on the film Iceman? I’ve long been fascinated with this little gem, as it was a film that made a big impact on me, and over the last few years, I’ve revisited it a couple of times – it’s really a special movie with a terrific ending – and that final shot is amazing.

Mark Warner was a friend, and he’d worked on Fred Schepisi’s previous film, and they were looking for an editor, and my name was put into the mix. Nobody had seen John Lone before, I think he’d done an opera in China, and of course he’d go on to do great work in Michael Cimino’s gangster movie, The Year of the Dragon.  David Mamet was on set the entire time of Iceman because he was married to Lindsay Crouse at the time. Norman Jewison was a great, hands-on producer, and what was most interesting is that the movie was green-lit, and then there was a regime change at the studio, so nobody from the studio ever paid much attention to the production, and nobody saw any of the dailies. And of course, when they saw the final film, they were nervous.

They didn’t think it was commercial?

Well, it had the downbeat ending, and we did a test screening in San Diego, and the audience loved the film all the way up until the last reel, when the Iceman leaves and then is hanging off the helicopter before he lets himself go in order to kill himself. The audience was not happy with that ending, but that was the story, and nothing was going to change that. And there was some discussion about going back and filming a quick scene, or really, it was more of a moment, where we would have had Lone and Timothy Hutton share a look of recognition with each other, right after they are separated by the crack in the ice. Norman Jewison wanted to show that emotional, human connection between the two of them, and we felt that if that scene had been inserted into the last reel, the audience would have gone along with the ending in an easier way. But Schepisi shot it down, he didn’t want any part of it, and didn’t want there to be a connection between the two characters in that manner. We ended up getting mixed reviews and the film totally bombed at the box office.

You are aware of the fact that the film has found a large and passionate cult following over the years, no? It’s been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

No, I had no idea! That’s great to know. It’s a good film with a good story behind it, and John was so great in it. I’m glad to hear that people ended up discovering it.

 Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.

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