If an editor has a good working relationship with a director, he’ll probably get involved in the pre-production of a film. Usually with John Schlesinger, I would be involved with the script early on and go through various versions with him but often what happens is that you’re sent a script through the mail by your agent and asked to read with a view to cutting it. This happens to me a lot. Often I’m not interested in scripts and read them up to a point, then throw them aside. It’s never wise to tackle a film if you don’t like the script. If you read it and say yes, then you meet the director. If that meeting goes well and you feel you have a mutual understanding of the script and want to work together, then you may proceed.
That happened to me on The Killing Fields. I only read it once and immediately knew that I wanted to get involved because I liked the script. I then met Roland Joffé who didn’t know me at all. It was David Puttnam’s suggestion that I should cut the film. Puttnam never actually called me himself. I had a call from Iain Smith who was the associate producer, asking me if I was interested. I knew Puttnam vaguely from Agatha but we had not been particularly close and I certainly hadn’t seen much of him. I went to David’s office for my meeting with Roland and we talked briefly about the script and about the film because he was about to go off to Bangkok to actually make it. So you could say I was imposed on him.
The script, by Bruce Robinson, was fascinating and written in an odd style that was not at all like a regular screenplay but more like an article written on speed. It was fuelled with passion and I could see straight away that, if it was well made, it would be an absolutely cracking, emotional film.
David said that, since I would be the first person to actually see this material, I had to phone him in Bangkok as soon as I’d seen it and give him a report. “Be absolutely fearless,” he told me. “Don’t just say nice things to me. Whatever you feel you must say.” So I did and the very first scene they shot was outside a cafe. Malkovich and Waterston are sitting, having a coffee and a bomb goes off. David phoned me after that and said, “Well, we did the first day and we nearly killed the actor,” because the special effects people had got too close to Sam on take five and the fire had actually singed his beard. It was a very tricky moment for everybody and that was the take we finally used in the film.
I wasn’t, however, concerned about the look, but more the way that Sam Waterston was playing the part. Bryan Oates was my assistant again and, while we were viewing the rushes, he said he wasn’t convinced that this guy was a hardened war reporter. I didn’t get that as quickly as Bryan, but I did say to Puttnam on the phone, as I’d been instructed, “Sam Waterston doesn’t seem to be playing the role right. He seems to be too weak and soft.” Naturally enough when Puttnam reported back to Roland Joffé that I had made these rather critical remarks, Roland wasn’t very pleased because he didn’t really know me and why should he take comments about the acting from the film editor? It’s not something we editors normally do. We don’t critique the acting, perhaps as much as we should, but this was a special case because we were some distance away from one another. I never spoke to Roland directly. I only spoke to David.
Things went on and after about a month of material coming in, Waterston’s performance greatly improved. Whatever I had said and whatever Roland thought about my remarks, he did obviously communicate to Sam that he needed to be more convincing as a professional war reporter. I thought the look of the material was very good but I was critical of Roland’s interest in master shots and not in cover. The master shots were very well done but he failed to cover in closeups and various other angles, so I asked for more…