Miller’s Crossing: Memories of movie magic
Last week, Michael R. Miller, chair of the UNCSA School of Filmmaking editing faculty, discussed his early life and his decision to join the school in 2015. This week, he generously shares some memories of his adventures in the screen trade.
Miller’s mentor was Paul Hirsch, the Oscar-winning editor of Star Wars (1977), who recently visited the School of Filmmaking and spoke about his long friendship with Miller. As luck would have it, their first professional collaboration was Brian De Palma’s 1974 cult-classic Phantom of the Paradise, and Miller was off and running … and cutting.
Some of Miller’s early credits were indicative of his ambition and drive. For example, Violated (1984), a low-budget rape-and-revenge melodrama. “It had gone through about 12 or 13 title changes and almost as many editors,” he recalled with a smile.
There’s an old editorial adage that “I can’t hurt it,” and that certainly applied to Violated, which if nothing else earned Miller that all-important solo editing credit.
Around this time, he’d entered the orbit of a pair of up-and-coming filmmakers who happened to be brothers. They were, of course, Joel and Ethan Coen, thus beginning a collaboration that lasted three films – Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), and Miller’s Crossing (1990) – and proved most rewarding to both parties.
“These were born filmmakers, with a real understanding of film,” Miller said. “I knew immediately these guys were special.”
Miller vividly recalls the first screening of Blood Simple, which he called “one of the worst screenings I’ve ever attended.”
It wasn’t that the film wasn’t good (“We knew it was,”) but that the Coens were so far ahead of the curve, “that the audience had to catch up,” he said.
It wasn’t the first or last time that would happen. Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing were critical darlings but didn’t really find an audience until home-video and cable. Raising Arizona was more successful theatrically, but a monster hit on video. Even The Big Lebowski (1997), one of the Coens’ most popular films, didn’t capture its cult until video.
Not surprisingly, Miller considered their collaborations a career highlight.
“Honestly, I think the best is Raising Arizona,” he said. “That’s my favorite. It’s the one people still talk about the most and the one they love the most. I had a great time before, during, and after. Everyone was working on all cylinders.”
After Miller’s Crossing, Miller and the Coens parted ways, but on the best of terms. The Coens had made their reputation, and Miller had made his. After Raising Arizona, he was actively sought for film work, and not the other way around.
The Coens adopted the pseudonym “Roderick Jaynes” and have edited every one of their projects ever since. (Trivia note: “Roderick Jaynes” gets an early credit as sound editor in Blood Simple.)
“He’s a good editor,” quipped Miller. “I’d like to think I helped mentor Roderick Jaynes!”
In 1988, Miller edited three high-profile feature films, one being D.O.A., a remake of the classic film noir, starring the real-life couple of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. It’s not a film he considers his best. “It over-emphasized the visuals rather than the narrative.”
Patty Hearst (1988) followed, and Miller was certain of two things: The film would be controversial, and Natasha Richardson, making her American screen debut in the title role, would absolutely be a star. The director was Paul Schrader, who’d taken his fair share lumps after some studio failures and was determined to regain his footing in the independent arena.
“Paul was so damned smart, and fun, and totally insane,” Miller said warmly. “We’d be brainstorming at some Times Square bar at 4 a.m., and he’d be scribbling notes on napkins. In some ways, he’s a quintessential example of a great director. Every Sunday, the cast and crew would have dinner at the Imperial Gardens, and I remember looking over at Natasha. Everyone would be laughing and joking, and she’d be a little off to the side, smoking a cigarette, just taking it all in.”
The real Hearst, upon whose memoir Every Secret Thing the film was based, was granted an open-door policy wherein she could visit the set any time she wished. The only time she did was the sequence where Patty, holed up in a motel room across from Disneyland, watches live news coverage of the S.L.A. (Symbionese Liberation Army) in their final, fatal shoot-out with police.
“I’m not sure if her visit was cathartic or nostalgic, but she was totally supportive of the project,” Miller said. “She and Natasha went on Good Morning, America together – I think they also might have done The Today Show and CBS This Morning – so she really went out of her way promote it. But, for whatever reason, no one wanted to see the film. We were all a little surprised because only a decade before the kidnapping of Patty Hearst was the biggest story in the world.”
Miller ironically compared the production of Patty Hearst to a guerrilla operation. “We’d shoot a scene, then the cast and crew would pack everything up, get into a van, go right to the next location, and start shooting again. In a way, it bonded us. We really were like the S.L.A.!”
It was back to laughs with I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), the feature directorial debut of writer/star Keenen Ivory Wayans, which offered an outrageous take on the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970s.
“Meeting Jim Brown and Isaac Hayes was a thrill,” said Miller, and as a life-long music fan, he was thrilled to spend time with Shaft Oscar-winner Hayes.
Even films that weren’t successful offered Miller great memories. Mr. Magoo (1997), starring Leslie Nielsen as the live-action version of the bumbling cartoon character, was no awards contender, but working alongside legendary Hong Kong action specialist Stanley Tong was “wonderful,” he said.
During editing at Disney, there was a knock at the door. Opening the door revealed a familiar face requesting to “meet the genius.”
It was Quentin Tarantino, “and I knew he wasn’t referring to me,” Miller chuckled. Tarantino, a die-hard fan, spent a few hours talking with Tong.
“I don’t think Stanley had a very good time making Mr. Magoo,” Miller observed, noting that it remains his only American feature, “but meeting with Quentin really gave him a lift, knowing that a filmmaker he so admired was also an admirer of his.”
Miller looks back on his career fondly, but he’s not one to wallow in nostalgia. What’s done is done, and it’s about looking ahead and moving forward. When he revisits an earlier film of his, he doesn’t necessarily think about what he could have done differently, but memories of the production and the people he worked with.
“I’ve worked with a lot of nice people, and I liked a lot of them.”
When asked about those he didn’t, he’ll either offer a bemused, enigmatic smile and say nothing, or offer a bemused, enigmatic smile and say, “I don’t care to say.”
Of his transition to teaching, “It’s been inspiring to teach at UNCSA because the students are passionate,” he said. “Unlike students at other colleges, the vast majority of ours are always eager to attend class and do their work. They’re here to become filmmakers, and they know that’s not going to happen if they slack off.
“Teaching editing is especially gratifying (because) the craft has always passed from editors to assistants and apprentices. But in the past quarter-century, with the advent of digital editing, we haven’t needed assistants in the room finding pieces of film. So the classroom has replaced the cutting room as the focus of learning.”
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