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Union Made: How George Lucas Helped a Young Editor Find His Way

Ben Weissman. PHOTO:COURTESY BEN WEISSMAN
Ben Weissman. PHOTO:COURTESY BEN WEISSMAN

By Ben Weissman, ACE

I can’t say if my 5th grade teacher making me the class projectionist was the spark for my interest in images. Nor can I recall why I asked my father to buy me an 8mm camera at age 10. But a fascination with visual images has run throughout my life.

In high school, I took still pictures and somehow talked three of my teachers into lending me $25 each to buy a used 35mm camera with three lenses. San Francisco, where we lived, had a large darkroom run by the City Parks Department and I would ride the bus there and spend hours developing negatives and prints. I learned a ton about composition, cameras, lenses, depth of field and contrast.

I attended Sonoma State College, an hour north of the city. It had a Film Department, but they were only interested in experimental films, which was kind of just drinking beer and running amuck with cameras, and wasn’t for me. I wanted to make films that told a story.

It turned out that in the California college system, you could create your own major. That explains why I probably am the only Californian with a degree in the Psychology of Film. My first film, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” made with equipment borrowed from school and a pay-as-you-go budget, was eventually accepted into the San Francisco and Chicago film festivals.

I didn’t know what to do next, but I read in the local paper that a young filmmaker was making his debut studio film in nearby Petaluma. A very young George Lucas spent three hours talking with me in his garage while upstairs in the overhead apartment his wife, Marcia Lucas, and Verna Fields were editing “American Graffiti.” Lucas advised me to go USC and get into film editing.

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The film I made got me into the graduate program at USC with a Teaching Assistant position to David Raksin, a wonderful composer. I had the great fortune of being one of the crew members on an intermediate class project titled “The Preparatory.” It was directed by Terry Cahalan and won the 1976 Student Academy Award.

With a couple of decent film projects under my belt, I was ready to look for that all important first job. I made a list of every executive whose phone number I could find and started dialing. After 12 very polite “Sorry, no jobs available,” I got through to Bret Garwood, Aaron Spelling’s executive assistant.

Garwood, in his deep Texas accent, asked, “What kind of work are you looking for, Ben?” I said I wanted to direct. “Well Ben, I don’t have any directing jobs right now. But I do have a position in the Mail Room starting Monday.” I took a deep breath and said, “Great, I’ll take it!”

It would be another two years before I was able to get into the union and several more before I had a chance to edit, thanks to Charlie Goldstein, a huge break from Jerry London, and a lifelong creative relationship with Roger Young.

When I started out, everything was shot on film, the sound was mixed on 35mm magnetic film and the studios were still run by members of the families that bore the studios’ names. The re-recording studio had rooms filled with dozens of “dubbing machines” that controlled 1,000-foot reels, and each picture reel would have dozens or more reels of magnetic sound, so stopping a mix sounded like a locomotive coming to a screeching halt.

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It was fascinating to be a part of the technical changes in post-production as film editing moved on to various electronic systems, including the VHS based Editflex, the beta based Montage, the laser disk based CMX, the digital Lightworks, and the last person standing, the Avid. Audio mixes went from 35mm Mag to 24 Track 2” to ever smaller boxes for digital recording and now you can do it all on your MacBook Pro.

For those just starting out, I’d like to say: Work hard, be kind and grateful, read and learn everything you can, be patient and remember that there’s always another way to accomplish the things you want.

I am extremely grateful to the many kind and talented people I have worked for and with, who have made it all a remarkable time. It was a blast.


Ben Weissman, ACE, edited more than 65 TV movies, miniseries and features and won two Eddie Awards. He can be reached at tzben@aol.com.

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