The Billy Weber Interview: Part Three

❉ The top film editor discusses his work on Bulworth, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life and more.

“I wasn’t smoking pot while editing The Tree of Life, but I’ve smoked a tremendous amount of dope in my life.”

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). 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…

Warren Beatty Calls & Terrence Malick Returns

What’s it like getting the call from Warren Beatty? How did you end up working on Bulworth?

My connection to Warren goes back to the late 70’s. I was working on Days of Heaven, this was in 1978, and I got a call from Dede Allen, who was cutting Reds with Warren in New York. We’d never met before, but she called me up, and said that she had heard that I’d be a good match to work with Warren, and would I be interested in coming on board to help them out with Reds? Naturally, I said yes, and she was excited, but she then told me that the following week, they were going to tell Paramount that they were one year behind on the project, and that she didn’t want to say anything about me to the studio until she spoke to them. So, I waited, and a week later, she called me and said that it wasn’t going to happen. They’d told Paramount about the one year delay, and the execs are Paramount were very angry, and they put a hiring and spending freeze on the production, across all departments.

Wow! That’s so crazy!

I know! So, now it’s about 1996, or 1997, and Terry Malick is doing a re-write on a project for Warren, something that obviously never got made. You have to remember, Terry spent so many years doing un-credited re-writes for the studios and other filmmakers, that’s how he spent the majority of his time. He did a draft of Good Will Hunting for Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and I’m not sure if you know this, but Affleck’s mother is an old college friend of Terry’s, so he’s known Ben for a long time.

And of course he cast him to play himself in To the Wonder.

Yes! Terry called me up, and asked me to come and have lunch with him, and to meet Warren. So I went down to his office and that was the first time I met Warren. Then a year and a half later, I get a call from Bob Jones, who was cutting Bulworth for Warren, and he asked if I’d be able to come and give them a hand, as he was really behind. Warren wanted him on set with him every day, because that’s the way Warren is, he likes to have all of his collaborators around him at all times, giving him notes, and advice. So I told him I could come and help out, but I had a hard out at a certain point because Terry was coming back from Australia to edit The Thin Red Line. Leslie Jones, who is Bob Jones’ daughter and my second editor, had gone to Australia with Terry to edit during filming, and then later we brought in Saar Klein to help out. But I spent about three or four months on Bulworth, and when I left the project, we had a really good cut which we were showing to people.

I still can’t believe that Fox released Bulworth, as it just doesn’t seem like a “Fox movie” at all. It’s up there with Fight Club as one of the most subversive films in that studio’s history.

That happened because at the time, Barry Diller, who Warren had known from his days at Paramount, was running Fox, and they were friends. So Barry greenlit Bulworth, and then three months later, he left the studio! And the incoming regime hated the film and didn’t get it at all, and they had no clue what we were doing. They had no interest in the film.

Yeah, as I recall, they buried it in the summer, I think it came out in mid-May. When in reality, it should have been a fall prestige release. It ended up grossing $30 million domestic, but I’d be curious to know just how wide that movie played.

Yeah, and it did well with critics, but the film didn’t do enough business. And you know, we shot an alternate ending to Bulworth, where he lived at the end. Did you know that?

Wow, I had no clue! I absolutely love that film and I can’t imagine it ending in any other fashion. It’s such a bold piece of work and it still feels very topical even though it’s over 20 years old.

Yeah, there was another version of the ending where the bullet hits him in the shoulder, and then we cut to the hospital, and Don Cheadle’s character is sitting out in front of Bulworth’s hospital room, essentially acting as guard – you have to get through him to get to Bulworth. And then we had a bit with Paul Sorvino’s character showing up to deliver Bulworth some flowers, but the implication was that maybe he had a gun with him, too. Because he was the one who shot him to begin with.  Warren was really nervous that audience wouldn’t be happy seeing him die in the end, but ultimately, Warren believed in the ending with his death more, so he went with that, even knowing it might have cost him at the box-office. Warren is a smart guy and his politics are brilliant, and in the end, what he was saying is still very much relevant today – our real enemies are the pharmaceutical companies and big business, and our racial divide is even more hostile now than it was when the film was released. Warren is a pleasure to work with. He’s incredibly smart and a wonderful person, but for many people, he can be very difficult. He’s a complicated guy.

And then Malick returns from the ether with one of his grandest epics, The Thin Red Line, which had to have been a beast to put together.

The Thin Red Line wasn’t hard to edit. It’s a very good film but I think it’s a little too long, and I think that if I were to go back to it now, I’d cut back on the section where they charge up the hill. I also had told Terry to take out George Clooney’s scene, just take it out of the film entirely. I wanted to cut from Wick’s funeral to leaving the island, but Terry really wanted to keep George in there. And then Fox cut together the trailer, and they used George front and center, even though he’s only in the film for a couple of minutes, so at that point we had to keep him in there. I’d even gone so far as to speak to George about potentially cutting his scene, and he was all for it, he just wanted the best possible film overall that could be made. The best part of the process of making The Thin Red Line was when we showed the film to James Joyce’s daughter, and she told us that her father would have absolutely loved it and the choices we made in terms of bringing it to the screen.

What the hell happened with Gigli? Still, to this day, I think it’s a two and a half star movie, not an outright creative catastrophe, but I’ve always felt that there was more than meets the eye with that film is some respects.

You should have read the original script and seen the original cut. That entire film got destroyed by Revolution Studios. Martin Brest had final cut privileges, provided that the movie didn’t exceed two hours and 10 minutes. If he delivered a longer cut than that, Revolution had the right to re-cut it. It was an unfortunate experience all around, because Marty’s original version was nothing like the one that was released. It ruined him and it’s really unfortunate.

Yeah, I’ve heard so many rumors about Brest’s original director’s cut, and I’ve been so curious to know if it actually exists?

It’s doesn’t really exist, per se. It’s such a shame what happened to Gigli. And the changes were so major. We had a bit towards the beginning where Affleck’s character has this little daydream about escaping to this pristine, gorgeous beach, this is happening while he’s in the middle of beating up some hood. And it was going to pay off later on at the end, in the original cut of the movie. As you know, the movie ends with Affleck and Jennifer Lopez driving down the PCH, ostensibly headed towards a happy ending. And which of course was nothing like how Marty had originally scripted the piece.

Yeah, the ending never made any tonal sense to me, and it just felt so tacked on and forced, especially after all the stuff with Pacino and Walken, and the guy getting his brains blown out into the fish tank. I distinctly remember that, the fish eating the piece of the guy’s brain!

So, in the original version, it was structured so that Affleck’s character was going to bring the kid to the cops, and as a result, Jennifer’s character leaves him. She leaves the movie, never to be seen again. So Affleck takes the kid to see a cop detective, who was played by Walken. Affleck realizes that Walken is actually working with Pacino, he’s in on it, and so they pull out their guns, and shoot each other. Affleck takes a bullet to the gut, and Walken gets killed. Affleck and the kid get into the car and start driving down the PCH, when they see the commotion on the beach, which turns out to be a commercial being shot. The kid gets out to explore and Ben goes and sits down in the sand, and this was going to bring us back to the daydream from the beginning. And then, there’s this huge, swirling sandstorm, which keeps getting bigger and bigger, it was a huge CGI visual effects sequence and it was amazing, and it was basically Affleck’s death scene in the movie, he gets totally covered up in sand. Then we cut to the pristine beach from Ben’s daydream, and the movie ends. It was an amazing ending but because Marty’s final cut ran over the contractual time limit, Revolution forced him to shoot a re-shoot a happy ending, which really destroyed the film. And we actually previewed both versions for test screening audiences, and the happy ending version tested no better than Marty’s darker director’s cut. But the studio went with their version, and the rest is history. I can remember reading Marty’s script at the beginning, and saying to him, this is a great script, you can do this for $20 million. And he said, “No, they’re giving me $70 million to do it.” I told him not to make it for that amount because I knew there would be issues.

Miss Congeniality was a big hit for Sandra Bullock, and I’m curious how you got involved with that project – what’s she like to work with?

Sandy is an absolute angel and a pleasure to work with, and I actually got to know her on another movie she’d done previously, called Gun Shy. It was this little indie she produced, and then agreed to take a bit part in to help the film’s visibility, but it’s a little crime thriller with Liam Neeson, and the director and the film’s main editor, Pamela Martin, weren’t getting along, so I was called in by Sandy to watch a cut and offer my thoughts. I liked what they had, but they still wanted some work done, so I did my own cut of the movie while the director was off somewhere else. I didn’t take credit for working on that movie, but it’s how I got to know Sandy, and then that’s how she thought of me for Miss Congeniality.

It’s always “who you know,” even when you’re a legend!

Ha! Well, it was a fun picture to work on. The original director, Hugh Wilson, left just before shooting because he wasn’t getting along with Sandy, and Donald Petrie, who is a lovely man, came in and did a nice job with the movie. It was a smooth production, and a very nice hit, and people really enjoyed it.

And then…finally…The Tree of Life happens.

Yes, finally! We started back in 1979, Paramount set us up with an office and we were doing tests and development, lots of visual effects research and script work, and we even shot some footage. But nobody had any idea what was going on except for us, nobody at Paramount had a clue, but they paid the bills, and just let us do our thing.

So what truly kept it from being made back then?

It was a combination of the technical limitations of the time, as well as the fact that Terry could never figure out how to exactly tell the story. It took him a long time to put it all together, and in the end, he made the movie all about himself.

The thing I find so fascinating about The Tree of Life is how it resembles a series of memories. It’s like you’re sitting around during the day, just remembering about these snippets of your life, and I love how evocative the film is for everyone who watches it, regardless of how religious you are.

The film really was a snapshot of his life. Brad Pitt’s father character was moulded off of Terry’s father, certain aspects definitely. And the mother character was very similar to Terry’s own mother. Terry’s dad was a hard-edged person, and he also took some things from his real-life brothers and put it into the movie, but not everything. In 2009, he finally cracked the story nut, and the idea was always to tell a story that involved the creation of the universe, but how it ultimately related to the creation of a family unit. He didn’t initially set out to make a movie about himself, but that’s what ended up happening.

Were dinosaurs and the creation of the universe sequence always a part of the story, even back in the late ‘70s when you were starting to develop it?

Yes, the dinosaurs were there from the very beginning, and there’s no extra footage that we didn’t use in the final version. And yes, the creation sequence was always a big part, as that was the one big theme that Terry had come up with at the start of his creative process: How the creation of the universe is the same as the creation of a family. The Tree of Life had many different permutations. We had one angle where the story would have been told in the vein of something like Quest for Fire, and we had another angle where the story would have concentrated on the earliest, historically recorded civilisation on the planet, which was determined to have been located in what is now Iran. That would have centred on the earliest civilised man, the link right after the cavemen. I personally wish that he’d broken up the creation sequence, and interspersed it throughout the entire piece, with little cut-aways to that footage. But Terry didn’t want to do that, he wanted it to be viewed in one large chunk, and he used to say to me that it was because I smoked so much dope that I wanted it to be broken up! Now, I wasn’t smoking pot while editing The Tree of Life, but I’ve smoked a tremendous amount of dope in my life.

And recently, you got the chance to work again with Warren Beatty on one of his longest-gestating projects, Rules Don’t Apply, where he played reclusive genius Howard Hughes.

Yeah, we worked on that for close to two years, from production all the way through to the end of editing. I was on set every day with Warren because that’s the way he likes to work.

Yeah, you mentioned earlier in our chat that he’s very open to collaboration.

Yes, he’s amazing in that regard. He wants to know what everyone thinks about all of the various decisions that go into making the film. Sometimes that can trip him up, though. One of the issues we had with Rules Don’t Apply is that the company who produced it, New Regency, they were busy at the time with The Revenant, and they sat on Rules and didn’t give it the proper release. And I had to go off and work on another project, and for six months, Warren showed the film to all his industry friends, who all told him that they wanted to see more footage of him in the movie, and less that centred on the young couple. That was always what the story was all about, this young couple who enters into Howard Hughes’ orbit.  I’m not fully satisfied with the way that movie turned out in the end but it’s still got many charms, and I love working with Warren.

Do you think he’s got another move in him, that he’ll direct another picture?

We spoke very recently about some stuff, and he’s got some ideas kicking around, and I’ve got an idea for something for him, so yeah, I think he’d make another movie if he had the right material and the right set-up. I have one idea that he really likes, but I think he’s a little nervous about it, so we’ll see what happens.

And most recently, what have you been up to? Are you still looking for work?

I spent some time helping Shane Black on The Predator, but that was an unfortunate situation because the studio really screwed him over on that movie, it didn’t turn out well, and he was very disappointed about the process. I recently did some work on the indie drama Shirley, which played some festivals and will be coming out at some point soon.

Wow, you worked on that? I didn’t realize! Shirley is fantastic, I had the chance to see the film and interview the director a few months ago.

Wow, that’s great! It’s an excellent piece, very much a true independent production, and it was fun to help them out a bit on that project. The next big film that I’ve fully cut that’s set for release is American Skin, which was directed by Nate Parker. It’s a very powerful film and it should be coming out at the end of the year. Nate did a terrific job with it, and it’s a shocking piece that’s going to make some waves when it finally gets released. But yes, in general, I’d like to be working. Right now with COVID, nobody is doing anything, but once things get back to normal, or whatever the new normal will be, yes, I’d love to get back to editing. It’s what I love to do.

Thank you so much for all of your time, Billy, This has been beyond illuminating, and I can’t thank you for your generosity of spirit, and for all of the cinematic gifts you’ve given to all of us movie lovers.

 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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