Friday, September 11, 2015

Film Editor Sam O’Steen, A Man Who Could Tell a Joke

Yes, I’ve already written about Sam O’Steen. But I was so enthralled by his Cut to the Chase: Forty-Five Years of Editing America’s Favorite Movies that I  can’t resist turning the spotlight on Sam once again. Of all the films he cut, The Graduate is probably his favorite, because “it was such a huge surprise that it hit the way it did when we really didn’t know what we had.” Sometimes, though, movies he considered masterpieces never did find their audience. Catch-22, the film made by Mike Nichols immediately after The Graduate, is one prime example.

Like all editors, Sam labored hard in the cutting room to make good films better. Sometimes, though, the job entailed salvaging a project that just didn’t work. Take the case of Dry White Season, a movie about apartheid that was shot in South Africa in 1989. The novice director was proud of her “vision,” but it didn’t translate onto film, and because the original editor had “butchered up all the main takes,” Sam was called in for an emergency doctoring job. He was presented with a roomful of footage, but absolutely no paperwork. Fortunately, he enjoyed the challenge of assembling outtakes, jigsaw-puzzle-style, into a coherent story. For instance,“I found this film that wasn’t even shot for the movie: the camera had just been running while this white boy and this black boy [young actors in the film] were playing together, fooling around with a ball.” Sam chose to run this footage over the main title sequence, “because that’s what the story was about, that they were friends, but they were supposed to be enemies.” He ultimately considered Dry White Season some of his very best work, “because it wasn’t a movie, and now it is.”

Then there was the time Sam lopped off an entire season. The 1999 film debut of writer-director Tony Bui was the first American movie shot in Vietnam since the Sixties. Originally called Four Seasons, it told four separate stories, set against appropriate times of the year. But the “Rainy Season” segment was tedious, and Sam chose to highlight the appealing love story of a cyclo driver and a hooker at the expense of less dramatic tales (like that of a sad poet, as well as ex-soldier Harvey Keitel’s search for daughter he’d left behind). The result was Three Seasons, which was honored at Sundance and became a minor art-house success. 

Sam O’Steen had strong opinions on just about everything, like the introduction of computerized editing systems To him, computers were a mixed blessing. Yes, they speed up the editing process, and there’s no danger of ruining delicate film stock, so it’s much simpler to experiment now. On the other hand, because a computer is far easier to master than the old Moviola, everyone wants to get into the act. So the old days of the editor and director cutting in relative solitude are becoming a thing of the past, as producers and studio execs vie to take charge of the finished product.

At the end of this book, wife Bobbie (a veteran editor herself) asks Sam what kind of person makes a good editor. His answer is surprising: “Someone who can tell a joke.” Why? “Because the timing is right and he tells just enough.” Naturally, other skills are useful too, like an ability to be organized, to work independently, and to have total concentration on the task at hand. It’s important to be secure in your opinions, without having a need to show off. And you should recognize what’s important and what’s not. Sam’s favorite expression?  “Fuck ‘em.” 


  1. More great stories - looking forward to the book.

  2. It may be hard to find, at least that's the impression I get on Amazon. Let me know if you track it down.