by Rob Feld • portrait by Carrie Leonard
Lawrence Silk, A.C.E., links his interest in documentaries to an early social consciousness, derived in part from his parents. As a teenager, Silk’s father had guided Eugene Debs through factories near Pittsburgh and, when they moved from Detroit to New York’s Washington Heights, Silk was well aware of the plight of the German Jewish refugees from the war, who were his classmates.
When his parents took him to the 1939 Worlds Fair, he saw two documentary shorts made for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which stuck with him, Pare Lorentz’s The River (1938) and Ralph Steiner’s The City (1939). “The social consciousness of those films didn’t particularly hit me at the time,” says Silk. “But the way they were made, the documentary footage, the rhythm of the editing — I was only nine, I didn’t know it was editing — The River moved me so much. They used to show the films to the public school kids, and I would be so excited that I was going to see them again. My friends hated them but I obviously had a thing about documentary — and what could be.”
Silk eventually dropped out of City College and hitchhiked America, returning to New York after his adventures with a new sense of confidence and determination to learn filmmaking. He returned to City College, this time to its film institute, and studied editing under Carl Lerner, who got him excited about documentary editing with a World War II aerial bombardment sequence he had cut for the United Nations. “This is what I want to be,” Silk said. “I want to be an editor.”
He worked his way through commercials and animation gigs until landing his first editing job on a series of educational films, which toured the country teaching physics to students; the instructor was physicist Albert Baez (Joan Baez’s father). That job led to freelance network television jobs on series like NBC’s White Paper, for which Silk edited Sit In (1960), effectively launching his career in earnest.
Since then, three of Silk’s films have won Oscars: Marjoe (1972), American Dream (1990), One Survivor Remembers (1996). Others garnered general acclaim: Johnny Cash! The Man, His World, His Music (1969), Pumping Iron (1977), PBS’s Trader (1982) and Wild Man Blues (1997). Silk was honored February 16 with a Career Achievement Award by the American Cinema Editors (ACE). CineMontage interviewed him in New York in January.
CineMontage: What was your first job in the industry?
Lawrence Silk: My first job working in a decent editing room with documentary footage was for Affiliated Film Producers, and Willard Van Dyke was the producer; he had shot The River and The City, many years before. And I got to work under him. A young Richard Leacock was there, who was the prince of cinéma vérité; he was developing it along with the Maysles brothers. I got to work with those two guys as an assistant, and had lunch with them every day at a pub. It was a transformative experience for me, listening to their conversation, sometimes contributing. Many of my colleagues who worked through that miss the assistant relationship now.
CM: What made Sit In so special?
LS: It was the first network show about the civil rights movement in the South and segregation; the fact that Blacks were discriminated against and couldn’t sit at lunch counters. We interviewed a hoodlum, in jail for some minor crime, of whom we had footage beating up one of the demonstrators sitting at the lunch counter. Bob Young, who produced the film and whose father owned Du Art Lab, got the guy to say, “Yeah, got me mad, n—–s sitting at the lunch counter.” The editing was like nothing anybody had seen before because from that cut, it went to John Lewis, the congressman who was then one of the young demonstrators, and his voiceover: “I felt a moving feeling within me to stay there.” It was played off against, “It made me mad…” The back and forth was very moving. This confrontational editing was something new on network television.
My colleagues were really excited about that show and it brought me to the attention of the famous film editors of the time, who hadn’t paid any attention to me before. Sidney Meyers, who was very famous then, stood in the doorway of my editing room the next day, looked at me and said, “Silk, you’re a threat!” And he walked out. It wasn’t I who came up with the editing style, it was Bob Young, but I constructed it. It was a great piece of drama, of passive resistance. I did that sort of thing about four different times in the film, so you got the feeling of the experience. That put me in another league, and I started getting a lot of good freelance jobs. That was 1960.
CM: What else do you think added to your education?
LS: I worked on some 20th Centuries with Walter Cronkite, which was interesting for me. For The Siege of Malta, I had to learn how to cut aerial combat, Interceptors and Spitfires and all that. The Inheritance was a big film for me in 1964. It was to tell the whole story of immigration. They had stock footage that they had researched very well, and lots of gorgeous stills from the immigration period, shot with those big cameras by famous photographers from that era.
What I learned there was how to design stills that blended into stock footage so that audiences don’t say, “Oh, these are stills. Oh, footage.” The footage of the era was shit; there wasn’t much you could do with it. I would send it to an optical house. I’d figure out if something could be done optically, and then how to design the photographs with overlays and diagrams. It was a wonderful thing to learn. I fought for an “Edited and Designed by” credit because without those stills, there wouldn’t have been a film.
CM: Trader is a hard film to find, and is legendary among the Wall Street set. Tell me about that one.
LS: It was about this guy from Tennessee, Paul Tudor Jones, who became the top trader on Wall Street. He was so human. He let us film him on a big trading day, and he lost a few million dollars for people during its course. He talks about what an adventure it is being a trader. And you see the adventure. That was one of the most fun things I’ve ever edited. It’s fun to watch a human being be a human being: risking people’s money, and his joy of getting it back months later. And you see him failing. He had tears in his eyes, weeping at the end of the day. That movie was a legend in its own time and beyond. And it was vérité.
CM: What can you tell me about Pumping Iron?
LS: That was a lot of fun, but very, very difficult because you’re dealing with two different classes of awards and competition. We had some good characters, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Louis Ferrigno. Arnold was just a great film character, explaining what he’s trying to do; he says it’s like having sex: “It’s like coming! It’s like coming!” He was definitely going to be the main character. Charles Gaines wrote the book it was based on, and he was a guide to the filmmakers. That was an epochal job. I learned a lot and there was a lot of politics, a lot of fights between the partners.
CM: How did you find the evolution of technology affecting your process over time?
LS: I think it affected the editor’s relationship with assistants because, in the beginning, when you were working out of film barrels, splicing and looking for tiny trims with film hanging everywhere, your assistants and you were really close. It wasn’t like they would come in at night while you worked in the daytime, which became so common when we went to digital. They were important and knew how you were feeling about sequences, and you wanted their input. It was a close, warm relationship.
With my first experiences with the Avid, I was really ready for it. I was appalled at some of my colleagues who dropped out at that point, some of them younger than I. I said, “You just can’t imagine how much more wonderful it is!” If you want to extend a shot that’s in the film, you don’t have to look at the trim barrel or edge number records. You just press a button and you can see what was at the head and tail trim. It’s just so much easier in every respect. You can save sequences without breaking them up and using them for a re-cut. You can save the old choices and look at them and utilize them, without having to reconstitute. That’s an incredible advantage.
It wasn’t a nightmare to say, “Let’s try a different approach to that sequence.” In the old days, you’d have to rip the whole thing apart. Digital made a big difference and you became bolder.
CM: I always feel like the editors are the grown-ups of any given film crew.
LS: It’s absolutely true because we don’t expect any glory at all. We expect to be more employable. We cared about what we did, whether or not the film would reach an audience, satisfy them and make them feel something. We were grown- ups in terms of emotion; we had to be steady and real with the people who hired us, and with the mixers.
Our relationships with the mixers were interesting and close ones. We loved what these guys were doing for us, and the way they were able to use our log to do the right thing. We hired sound editors who were hip to what the film was about. We were the fathers and mothers of the house, so to speak.
CM: You collaborated with Barbara Kopple on a whole string of films. Can you tell me about that relationship?
LS: It was a very good collaboration. We would speak our minds on how we felt about everything. She’s been great and I wanted her to be the one to give me the award.
CM: How do you feel about this Career Achievement Award?
LS: It means a lot because the people I worked with are so excited. And I’ve had very little contact with most of them until now. But I’ve been talking to them, and some of them
are going to try and come to the event.