Phil Spector became famous as a music industry icon. The legendary producer, who originated the “wall of sound” production technique of densely-layered arrangements, worked with a wide range of acts, including the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers and the Beatles. Unfortunately, fame can also have its infamous side. Spector abruptly came back into public notice through the circumstances of the 2003 death of actress Lana Clarkson and his subsequent criminal trials, culminating in a 2009 conviction for second-degree murder.
The story of his first murder trial and the relationship between Spector (Al Pacino) and defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren) form the basis for the new film by HBO Films. Phil Spector, which is executive produced by Barry Levinson (Rain Man), was directed by celebrated screenwriter/director David Mamet (The Unit, The Shield, Hannibal, Wag the Dog). Rather than treat it as a biopic or news story, Mamet chose to take a fictionalized approach that chronicles Spector’s legal troubles as a fall from grace.
One key member of the production team was editor Barbara Tulliver (Too Big to Fail, Lady in the Water, Signs), who has previously collaborated with Mamet. She started as a film editor working on commercials in New York, but quickly transitioned into features. According to Tulliver, “I assisted on David’s first two films and then cut my first feature as an editor with him, so we have established a relationship. I also cut Too Big to Fail for HBO and brought a lot of the same editorial crew for this one, so it was like a big family.”
As with most television schedules, Phil Spector was shot and completed in a time frame and with a budget more akin to a well-funded independent feature, rather than a typical studio film. Tulliver explained, “Our schedule to complete this film was between that of a standard TV project and a feature. If a studio film has six weeks to complete a mix, a film like this would have three. The steps are the same, but the schedule is shrunk. I was cutting during the thirty-day production phase, so I had a cut ready for David a week after he wrapped. HBO likes to see things early, so David had his initial cut done after five weeks, instead of the typical ten-week time frame. Like any studio, HBO will give us notes, but they are very respectful of the filmmakers, which is why they can attract the caliber of talent that they do for these films. At that point we went into a bit of a hold, because David wanted some additional photography and that took awhile until HBO approved it.”
The production itself was handled like a film shoot using ARRI Alexa cameras in a single-camera style. An on-set DIT generated the dailies used for the edit. Although you wouldn’t consider this a visual effects film, it still had its share of shots. Tulliver said, “There were a lot of comps that are meat-and-potatoes effects these days. For instance, the film was shot in New York, so in scenes when Spector arrives at the courthouse in Los Angeles, the visual effects department had to build up all of the exteriors to look like LA. There are a number of TV and computer screens, which were all completed in post. Plus a certain amount of frame clean-ups, like removing unwanted elements from a shot.”
Mamet wrote a very lean screenplay, so the length of the cut didn’t present any creative challenges for Tulliver. She continued, “David’s scripts are beautifully crafted, so there was no need to re-arrange scenes. We might have deleted one scene. David makes decisions quickly and doesn’t overshoot. Like any director, he is open to changes in performance; but, the actors have such respect for his script, that there isn’t a lot of embellishment that might pose editing challenges in another film. Naturally with a cast like this, the performances were all good. The main challenge we had, was to find ways to integrate Spector’s songs into the story. How to use the music to open up scenes in the film and add montages. This meant all of the songs had to be cleared. We were largely successful, except with John Lennon’s Imagine, where Yoko Ono had the final say. Although she was open to our using the song, ultimately she and David couldn’t agree to how it would be integrated creatively into the film.”
Phil Spector was cut digitally on an Avid Media Composer. Like many feature editors, Barbara Tulliver started her career cutting film. She said, “I’m one of the last editors to embrace digital editing. I went into it kicking and screaming, but so did the directors I was working with at the time. When I finally moved over to Avid, they were pretty well established as the dominant nonlinear edit system for films. I do miss some things about editing on film, though. There’s a tactile sense of the film that’s almost romantic. Because it takes longer to make changes, film editing is more reflective. You talk about it more and often in the course of these discussions, you discover better solutions than if you simply tried a lot of variations. In the film days, you talked about the dramatic and emotional impact of these options. This is still the case, but one has to be more vigilant about making that happen – as opposed to just re-cutting a scene twenty different ways, because it is easy and fast – and then not know what you are looking at anymore.”
“Today, I cut the same way I did when I was cutting film. I like to lay out my cut as a road map. I’ll build it rough to get a sense of the whole scene, rather than finesse each single cut as I go. After I’ve built the scene that way, I’ll go back and tweak and trim to fine-tune the cut. Digital editing for me is not all about the bells-and-whistles. I don’t use some of the Avid features, like multi-camera editing or Script Sync. While these are great features, some are labor-intensive to prepare. When you have a minimal crew without a lot of assistants, I prefer to work in a more straightforward fashion.”
Tulliver concluded with this thought, “Although I may be nostalgic about the days of film editing, it would be a complete nightmare to go back to that. In fact, several years ago one director was interested in trying it, so I investigated what it would take. It’s hard to find the gear anymore and when you do, it hasn’t been properly maintained, because no one has been using it. Not to mention finding mag stripe and other materials that you would need. The list of people and labs that actually know how to handle a complete film project is getting smaller each year, so going back would just about be impossible. While film might not be dead as a production medium, it has passed that point in post.”
©2013 Oliver Peters