On April 5, Jay Cassidy, two-time Academy Award nominee for film editing and University alum, sat down for an interview in Studio A of North Quad followed by a student question and answer session.
“I don’t think you get writer’s block; I think you just get to the end of your talent,” he said. “A movie isn’t going to be as good as you can make it in the time that you have. It’s going to be as good as you can make it with the brain power that you have.”
Following graduation from the University, after spending most of his time photographing for The Michigan Daily and making films for the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Cassidy landed a job in 1972 editing political advertisements for a company in Washington called Guggenheim Productions.
“It’s pretty heavy when you’re (22 years old), cut this ad together and suddenly it’s on national TV,” Cassidy said.
After four years, Cassidy’s true love for narrative film took him to Los Angeles where he enrolled in the American Film Institute. When asked if Cassidy knew he wanted to be a film editor at this point, he described the nature of the working world in Hollywood.
“There is no tolerance for somebody who wants to try everything or is not sure what he wants to do,” Cassidy said. “That’s the wrong thing to say. Companies like people who say, ‘I want to do this’ or ‘here’s my script.’ ”
Cassidy said he also wanted to settle on the trade that would be most enjoyable.
“If you spend any time on (movie) sets, you realize that there aren’t a lot of people really having fun there,” Cassidy said. “People are lugging lights around and setting up scenes. The only person who is really having fun is the director, and the actors are having a kind of tortured fun.”
Cassidy added that as an editor, he gets to have the final word at the end of a very long, collaborative effort.
“The editing process is like the third re-write of the script, if the work on the set is the second re-write in that it’s an interpretation by the actors and the director,” he said. “As an editor, you get the satisfaction of getting to be there when (the film) gets to become what it is.”
Cassidy has now had the final word on almost 50 films, including influential documentaries such as “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Waiting for Superman,” and celebrated narratives like “Into the Wild,” which garnered him his first Academy Award nomination and posed one of an editor’s greatest challenges — what gets to stay in the film and what gets left on the cutting room floor.
Sean Penn had penned a five-hour script. “And this is something when we watched it, it’s so depressing, you know, you just wanna die,” he said. “I mean, it’s five hours long!”
“But in ‘Into the Wild,’ you’re dealing with amazing performances and extraordinary photography and staging, and you always want good stuff like that. More is usually better, but quantity doesn’t always get you better. There are a lot of movies that are really expensive that are really lousy. Hundreds of millions of dollars will get spent on something that’s nothing.”
Cassidy’s second Academy Award nomination came five years later for his work on the recent critically acclaimed “Silver Linings Playbook.” This first-time pairing between Cassidy and director David O’Russell proposed another common challenge faced by a film editor: working with a director to achieve the right vision.
“It’s a relationship, and it’s scary because as an editor you have a lot of power over the material,” Cassidy said. “It’s a touchy marriage, and David had cold feet.”
But ultimately, Cassidy said that what the director wants, the director gets and that “final word” is always a shared decision.
“If (the director) wants to specify everything and you’re on the payroll, you gotta do it,” Cassidy said. “If he says, ‘I want to put the scene in upside down,’ in it goes! But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t listen to other people.”
“ ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ wasn’t a question of ‘final cut.’ Harvey Weinstein (the film’s producer) is a great force; he’s like an old time Hollywood studio head. He beats you and wants you to push back because he wants to know that the best version of this movie has been made. And that’s the final cut.”
Cassidy mentioned that O’Russell and Robert DeNiro (who acted in the film) each have a child whose life has been compromised by emotional and behavioral issues. These real emotional motivations behind “Silver Linings Playbook” hooked him onto the project.
“There’s enough people who make movies, and they’re just calculations,” Cassidy said. “I’m not necessarily interested in those, but I am interested in somebody who passionately wants to tell a story.”
Cassidy described what it was like to work with Jennifer Lawrence, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film.
“On one hand, she’s this grown up, but on the other hand, she’s like a teenager talking about surfing with her friends, and it’s like, ‘Who is this person?’ ” Cassidy described. “It’s like an angel came down to Louisville, Kentucky (where Lawrence is from). Take her out of ‘The Hunger Games,’ and you just have a bunch of teenagers killing teenagers.”
At the end of event, Cassidy left the students with one final piece of advice.
“Stay out of show business,” he said. “You go to Hollywood, and you’re a free agent, sure, but freedom is just another word for nothing left to do. You rise and fall on luck and talent and hard work. So, if you have certain expectations on how your life is going to turn out, you better factor that in.”