Cutting class: The wit and wisdom of Ronald Roose

by Mark Burger


When Ronald Roose first came to teach at the UNCSA School of Filmmaking in 2008, it was just for a semester. He knew the school by reputation and wondered, after a 30-year film career, if teaching was something he’d like.

“I didn’t like it,” he remembers, “I loved it.” That semester ended, another followed, and as the 2014 spring semester ends, Roose marks his fifth year as a full-time faculty member – and the romance is still in full bloom.

“It’s been great,” he says. “I absolutely love it. I love the students. I love the friends I’ve made here. Coming here to teach was an unexpected ‘third act’ for me – and I’m so glad it happened. I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.”

That statement is not to be taken lightly, as Roose lives with Parkinson’s Disease. His physical movement is compromised, but his engaging humor, easy laugh and boundless enthusiasm are not.

Roose initially aspired to be a writer (more about that later), and one of his dearest friends is noted novelist and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Time After Time), whom he would later work with on four films. Roose’s and Meyer’s parents were close friends, and the two men were born an hour apart on the same day: Dec. 24, 1945. Meyer was gracious enough to be interviewed for this story.

“I have never known the world without him in it,” Meyer says of his friend. “It is true that I’ve not seen Ron teach, but I know him to be one of the most articulate people I’ve ever met. Over the years, we’ve talked and argued about just about everything and in those discussions I’ve been made aware of just how passionate and eloquent he can be about his positions. I get a very lively sense of just what a terrific teacher Ron probably is.”

As an editor, Roose started at the bottom working with people at the top, filmmaker Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man) and editor Dede Allen (Dog Day Afternoon, Reds, The Breakfast Club), his mentor with whom he worked on Serpico (1973) and Night Moves (1975), the latter directed by Penn. Allen is considered one of the best women editors who ever lived, but Roose disagrees. “Dede was one of the best editors – period. Dede Allen was brilliant. I can’t say enough about her. Incredible human being.”

There’s a Hollywood adage that a film is made in the editing room – or can be saved in the editing room. That’s not inaccurate, according to Roose. “Good editing can improve a film, no question, and it can also make something out of material that’s less than good, but I don’t think you can really ‘save’ a film in the editing room. There’s only so much you can do. I think it all comes back to the story. That’s where it all starts.”

Roose has no problem with flashy or stylish editing techniques – quite often he enjoys watching them — but “sometimes the best editing is where you don’t notice it.”

“Ron is a brilliant editor because he has an unrelenting eye for detail (and) misses nothing,” Meyer says. “If the editor is a good editor – or if he is right for a particular project – when he plays back the scene for the director, the director recognizes what he intended. He may tweak it slightly, but if it’s the right editor, he’s been understood. If his editor is great, he will reveal to the director things he didn’t even dream he had, tease out additional subtleties, implications and meanings of which the director – at the eye of the storm – was unaware he’d captured.”

At least as important as the technical skills Roose teaches his students is the wisdom he imparts from his 30-year adventure in the screen trade.

Take, for example, Easy Money (1983), a raucous comedy starring Rodney Dangerfield as a man who must forswear all vices for 30 days in order to reap a huge inheritance. The first cut went over like the proverbial lead balloon, and Roose remembers he, director James Signorelli, producer John Nicolella and executive producer Estelle Endler (Dangerfield’s long-time manager) all being taken to task by an Orion Pictures executive who gave them the old Hollywood tongue-lashing that ended with the obligatory “Fix it – or you’ll never work in this town again!” “Wait a second,” Roose recalls thinking. “I’m just the editor here! I didn’t write it, I didn’t produce it, I didn’t direct it “¦!” Nevertheless, the production team reconvened and the result was a surprise box-office hit that made Dangerfield a bona fide movie star. Roose remembers viewing the final cut with the star nudging him and exclaiming, as only he could: “Hey, this is great! This is really great! Have you seen this?” By that point, only a dozen times or more “¦ “Never underestimate what a hit can do for your career,” Roose says. The Wanderers (1979) and Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) had loftier artistic aspirations and are higher on his list of personal favorites, but Easy Money was an invaluable lesson. “Some people in the industry had seen The Wanderers, but everyone saw Easy Money.”

On the other hand, such films as My Demon Lover (1987), 1994’s The Next Karate Kid (which starred future two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, incidentally), House Arrest (1996) and Almost Heroes (1998) were not critically or financially successful, but Roose has no regrets.

“I tell my students to get out there and do it,” he says.

“You learn by doing. Don’t wait for a perfect project to come along, because there really is no such thing.”

He worked on films that were supposed to be big and weren’t, that were small and turned out big, and a lot in-between. That’s important, he believes. It’s about gaining experience.

“There wasn’t one film I worked on where I didn’t learn something and where I didn’t work with interesting people,” he says. “If the film isn’t a hit, that’s fine. Not many are! You learn as much from the ones that don’t work as the ones that do – maybe more.”

When editing, Roose worked mostly on flatbeds and moviolas. Digital editing technology was just coming in as his career was drawing to a close. Roose admits that when he first came to the School of Filmmaking, “the teacher had to do a little homework” to familiarize himself with the latest advancements. “Editing films hadn’t changed in 90 years, then it changed almost overnight.”

Not surprisingly, Roose considers his collaborations with Meyer a highlight of his career, although he concedes that they didn’t always turn out as well as hoped.

The 1985 Peace Corps comedy Volunteers, the movie that brought Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson together, marked their first collaboration. “It looked good on paper,” Roose says. “Didn’t quite work out that way.”

The next looked even better on paper: A Cold War spy thriller starring Gene Hackman and Mikhail Baryshnikov, released in 1991 as Company Business. During production, however, the Berlin Wall came down and Communism collapsed, necessitating Meyer to do rewrites on the spot to keep the story relevant. Hackman, having several films back to back and exhausted, was having second thoughts but was under contractual obligation. The star was not happy, to say the least – a situation vividly recounted in Meyer’s book The View from the Bridge. In short, Gene could be mean.

Yet Roose, who also worked with Hackman on Night Moves, attests that even at his worst, he was at his best.

“As difficult as he was, as temperamental as he could be, he was one of the most brilliant actors I’ve ever had the good fortune to work with,” Roose says. “His work was stunning, take to take. I absolutely never saw him not have an exquisite take. He could find moments. He could make moments. I wish I could have cut a hundred movies with Gene Hackman, because every scene cut like butter. A pure actor.”

In retrospect, Company Business was perhaps the most amazing experience of Roose’s career for reasons beyond filmmaking. Being of Russian Jewish heritage, being in Berlin at that time had deep personal meaning.

“Like everyone else, it was a revelation,” Roose says.

“I remember reading about the Berlin Wall on the front page of the New York Times when I was a kid, and I never thought it would come down. Not in my lifetime, not in anybody’s lifetime. My mother, she always held out hope that Russia would come back to us, and she lived to see it happen.

“Gorbachev brought a peace – a remarkable and impossible peace. It was absolutely one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever done in my life, to see the wall in ruins and cross into East Berlin. I remember thinking ‘What am I doing here?’ I can’t begin to tell you what a positive feeling it was.”

For Meyer, however, “it was very confusing to be in Berlin making a film when the wall was coming down,” he says. “On the one hand, you knew you were in the midst of the most extraordinary events. On the other, it was a frenetic impossibility to keep up with them in the movie’s story. Events were outpacing the film. It is hard enough under the best of circumstances to be directing a film when you’re rewriting it – and these were not the best of circumstances. The totality of the experience was somewhat lost on me as I was constantly overwhelmed by the implications for the film rather than implications for the world, which I didn’t get to appreciate until much later.”

For Roose, Company Business became family business during post-production in London, where his wife was expecting their second child. “I said to my wife ‘Can you go into labor on Sunday? That’s my day off!'” Indeed, it was a Sunday in May when he helped her to a waiting taxi, and Roose laughingly recalls the English driver doing a double-take at the expectant couple and crying out “My worst nightmare!” For Roose, however, daughter Emma was a dream come true, much as her brother Benjamin had been a few years before. Just before Benjamin’s birth, Roose was offered a job in Toronto. “I thought about it for a nanosecond” before turning it down, he says, “and I’m so glad I did, because I wanted to be there for the birth of my son.”

Does he consider Benjamin and Emma his “best productions”?

“My ‘best productions?'” he pauses before laughing. “Perfectly said – I love it! Truly they are.”

Although he and his wife have parted, “that’s OK,” Roose says, “because we have two beautiful children together, and she’s unequivocally a great mother.”

By the time MGM, then in the throes of financial upheaval, released Company Business, Roose and Meyer were well into their next project, which also had a Cold War spin. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) marked the last hurrah for original crew of the Starship Enterprise and is the biggest box-office hit Roose worked on. Meyer had previously directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and worked on the screenplay for Star Trek VI: The Voyage Home (1986).

“Nick was given a lot of credit for saving the franchise,” Roose says. “Of course I’d seen Star Trek II and of course I’d seen the show, but like Nick at the beginning I wasn’t really a ‘Star Trek’ fan.”

It was that objectivity, Roose believes, that helped Meyer steer the film series in the right direction and also steered his editing of Star Trek VI, which excited him because he was working again with Meyer and getting his first (and only) crack at a big-budget special-effects extravaganza.

“That was fun – a good experience.

Nick was in great form, really on top of things. The (regular) cast was like a family, because they’d been doing it for so long.”

Roose and Meyer’s fourth and final collaboration was the HBO film Vendetta (1999), a fact-based drama starring Christopher Walken and Clancy Brown about political corruption in late 19thcentury New Orleans that resulted in the lynching of Italian immigrants.

Roose thinks Vendetta was their best collaboration, yet there were problems with an early cut of the film. The first act didn’t work to their satisfaction, so Meyer decided to essentially eliminate it altogether. By doing that, “it accelerated the story,” Roose says. “It made an unwatchable film watchable. I’m enormously proud of what we did and what Nick did. It’s a film that I regard as one of his very best.”

Roose recalls Meyer’s simple justification for taking the approach he did. “We have to get on with our story, Nick said. It’s not about what I think is terrific and it’s not about what you think is terrific. It’s the story. It’s always about the story. A real director, that Nick Meyer.”

“Perhaps because Ron knows me so well, he can easily understand what I’m trying to get at,” Meyer says, “and because he’s so observant, he more likely – than I am – to find it. I also think Ron is much less rigid than I am when it comes to looking for solutions to problems encountered I the editing process. He’s less bound to the script and more willing to think in broad terms of reconfiguring material to get at what’s essential. Ron is a great appreciator of actors and acting. He pays microscopic attention to the smallest nuances of a performance and can highlight things other editors might miss or dismiss. Ron understands the importance of totality. A small detail may not be important, but a lot of details add up …”

If there was one film that Roose might have dreamed about writing a Oscar acceptance speech, it likely would have been Hoffa, an epic 1992 drama about the life of the controversial union leader. Jack Nicholson played Hoffa. Danny DeVito co-starred and directed. David Mamet penned the screenplay. Twentieth Century Fox released it at Christmastime as one of its big Oscar hopefuls. But reviews were mixed and the box-office disappointing.

“I thought Jack captured the voice perfectly, and Danny DeVito is a nice, nice guy …” Roose shrugs. “I thought it was a good movie.”

Roose can pinpoint precisely when his Hollywood romance ended — making Whatever It Takes (2000), a teen variation on Cyrano de Bergerac with an early screen lead for James Franco. The producer and director were deep in conversation regarding the proper amount of discharge spurting from a popped pimple for comedic effect … but Roose wasn’t laughing.

“That was it,” he says now, “thank you very much. I’ve had a very nice career. I’ve worked with great people. And I’m done.”

Roose was by then indulging his passion for writing. The impetus for the script that would become Collateral Damage (2002) was the terrorist bombing of a plane over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1986. When Warner Bros. optioned the script as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s next vehicle, recalls Roose, “I immediately knew two things: I was out, and the script would be rewritten.”

Right on both counts. Indeed, Roose first encountered Schwarzenegger at the premiere (the release delayed from late 2001 in the wake of Sept. 11). For his efforts, “I received a handsome check and I still get royalties,” Roose confirms, “and Schwarzenegger – what happened to him? He became the governor of California!” Roose and Meyer wrote the screenplay for the World War II thriller The Hessen Conspiracy, also known as The Hessen Affair. By the time studio executives expressed interest, however, it had been sold to an independent producer. Released in 2009, the film quietly came and went. Roose has not seen it and has no interest in doing so.

By this time, however, Parkinson’s Disease had made its presence known. Upon his initial diagnosis, Roose exhibited few symptoms. “It never crossed my mind – I felt fine,” he says, “but then it began to get worse, as Parkinson’s does.”

Roose frequently relies on a cane or walker, but he’s slim and trim, watches his diet, gets his rest, follows doctors’ orders, and takes his medication. When dining out on weekends, he’ll occasionally prescribe himself a glass of single-malt scotch “purely for medicinal purposes.”

He’s undergone brain surgery and offers a deadpan sigh. “They didn’t find anything, just a few cobwebs and a flickering light bulb hanging on a string.”

It’s that indomitable, irrepressible spirit that endears Roose to friends, colleagues and students. He’ll deal with Parkinson’s Disease – and he’ll grumble the odd unprintable epithet under his breath in a private moment – but he won’t cede to it. Surrender is not an option.

“People have gone through far more terrible things than I have – or ever will,” he says evenly. “So I don’t feel sorry for myself. Self-pity is a waste of time, and I don’t have time to waste. None of us does, really. In so many ways, I’m so lucky and so blessed.”

“Ron Roose uses humor with the same precision that he has for making a scene better in the editing room,” observes School of Filmmaking dean Susan Ruskin. “His wit is sharp and his eye for a false frame that needs to be cut is equally sharp. He is a problem solver and he helps you sort things out without realizing he has done so. Though he lives with the effects of Parkinson’s, which robs him of his ease of movement, his banter and his ability to nurture out students has not slowed one bit.”

“As far as his illness is concerned, I am more than a bit awed by Ron’s ability to confront it,” lauds Meyer. “I don’t know where he gets his courage. I don’t feel confident that under similar circumstances I would display anything remotely like it. I don’t feel I’m doing justice to my friend but I hope some of this proves useful.”

A dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker (“born in Manhattan,” he boasts) and a die-hard New York sports fan, Roose’s boyhood coincided with a glorious time for the Yankees. He cheerfully recalls seeing Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, to name a few – all at the peak of their powers. Yet when it comes to the greatest he’s ever seen, that player didn’t wear Yankee pinstripes. He was playing across town for the New York Giants.

“Willie Mays was the most exciting player – probably the best natural ballplayer I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says.

“You couldn’t take your eyes off him. What would he do next? What couldn’t he do? Even people who didn’t like the Giants went to see him play!” It was an older, slower Mays who returned to New York to play for the Mets in 1972. Roose well remembers: “All the newspapers had the headlines ‘Willie Comes Home’ – and indeed he had. The first game back, what did he do? He hit a home run and won the game!” Roose laughs again, a laughter of accomplishment and affection. He’s weathered a few curveballs himself, but he’s still in the game, too.

“I’m doing something I love, working with great people at a terrific school, and making a living. To be bitter would seem ungrateful. Life is good. It ain’t perfect – but it’s good!” !