Miller’s Crossing: From ‘Raising Arizona’ to teaching in Winston-Salem
Michael R. Miller has worked with some remarkable filmmakers on some remarkable films: Woody Allen (Manhattan, Stardust Memories), Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull), Brian De Palma (Blow Out), Paul Schrader (Patty Hearst), Herbert Ross (Boys on the Side), Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World), and the Coen Brothers (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing).
Since 2015, Miller’s been sharing those experiences – and many more — with students of the School of Filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he teaches editing and is the chair of the editing faculty.
His students learn the tools and techniques of film editing – a vocation that requires a great deal of patience and persistence, to say nothing of passion. “When people see limitless possibilities, it inspires me,” Miller said.
“Michael is one of my great heroes, and he’s become a great friend,” said fellow editing faculty member Julian Semilian. “He’s a fantastic teacher, an amazing teacher, and he loves his work. Actually, some people think he’s one of the best teachers at the School of Filmmaking.”
When asked who he thought was the best, Semilian diplomatically offered, “Well, modesty prevents …”
Born in New York, Miller’s earliest passion was rock ‘n’ roll, and he still plays guitar. “I wanted to be the next John Lennon,” he said, “but I soon realized I wasn’t going to be the ‘fifth Beatle.’”
Miller grew up in what he calls “a crazy neighborhood in Queens” whose residents also included Ellen Barkin, Fran Drescher, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, and Marcia Gay Harden, with whom he later worked on Miller’s Crossing. He’s circumspect about his age but admits he cut school to see the New York Mets play their first game at Shea Stadium in 1964 – “but it might have been nursery school,” he wryly points out.
He wasn’t a big moviegoer as a kid, but his burgeoning love of film, “I attribute to my dad,” he said. His father loved watching “The Million Dollar Movie” on WOR, which would show such films as King Kong (1933) or Citizen Kane (1941) every night for a full week, or WNEW, which broadcast his father’s favorites: Classic gangster films of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Years later, Miller was attending a production meeting when rumor ran through the office that James Cagney, making a well-publicized return to acting in Ragtime (1981), was coming to the building. Every office emptied as everyone waiting anxiously for a glimpse at the living legend. When Cagney made his entrance, everyone applauded and cheered.
“It chokes me up even now,” Miller said, “and I couldn’t wait to tell my dad.”
Miller eventually took the plunge into editing. “Being 25 and insane was really helpful,” he noted.
His decision to come to UNCSA stemmed in part from lectures or seminars that he’d given. “I guest-lectured, and I loved that,” he said.
Therefore, no longer 25 and slightly more sane (at least), he succeeded Ronald Roose, whose ongoing battle with Parkinson’s Disease hastened his retirement from UNCSA.
“Yes,” Roose said with a laugh, “I prefer the term ‘successor’ to ‘replacement,’ but when I’d heard the School of Filmmaking had hired Michael Miller, I thought that spoke volumes about the quality of professionals they bring in to teach. Michael has worked on some wonderful films. Since we’re both from New York, we actually know and have worked with a lot of the same people. He has a tremendous reputation, and the students and graduates I’m still in touch with speak very highly of him.”
Miller reciprocates the sentiment. “A lot of my students who have graduated since I’ve been here started with Ron as freshmen. They were bright, ambitious, and creative … and thanks to Ron, the transition was that much easier. He was a great help to me.”
An interesting bit of trivia is that Miller and Roose both turned down the opportunity to work on Warren Beatty’s 1981 epic Reds.
I think we were the only two editors based in New York who didn’t work on Reds,” Miller said. “Craig McKay – a really good guy – asked me, but I didn’t want to be an assistant editor again. I wanted to move up. I know they asked Ron, and he said no – I think for the same reason. It just took so long, and they never really finished. People got divorced on that film. There were death threats. People had nervous breakdowns. I think it’s a great movie, but I’m not sorry I didn’t do it.”
“The editing of Reds didn’t finish, the editing of Reds stopped,” Roose said. “There was no more time. As much as I loved Dede Allen, and although I think the film turned out well, I didn’t want to get involved with that mess. Life was too short. People told me later I’d made the right decision.”
Early on, Miller even had his brush with screen stardom, in a manner of speaking. On his way to a meeting in 1975, he was walking through New York’s diamond district when he realized a film was being shot. The crew had cordoned off the street and were offering passers-by the chance to be extras in a scene featuring one of the main stars.
The movie was Marathon Man (1976) and the star Laurence Olivier. “If you freeze the frame at just the right instant, I’m there,” he boasted bemusedly. “I can recognize myself because I remember what I was wearing that day.”
As he sees it, “My one acting role, and it was with Laurence Olivier. You can’t top that. There’s nowhere to go but down after that!”
Although teaching is a full-time job, Miller still practices what he preaches, having edited Angus MacLachlan’s award-winning drama, Abundant Acreage Available in 2017.
“To be able to work with Michael was a complete gift,” said the acclaimed playwright-turned-filmmaker (and UNCSA graduate). “He’s great at what he does … (and) I think his work on my film is terrific, with his signature care for humanity, exactitude and rhythm. His body of work is vast, but I did love to hear his stories of the first three Coen Brothers films, Woody (Allen), and Marty (Scorsese). And, he’s also almost always in a good mood – which makes the hours in the darkroom much easier.”
As there was simply no room to include it this week, next week’s Visions column will be devoted exclusively to memories of the movies that Michael R. Miller has made.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2020, Mark Burger.