At NYU they used to tell us to make films about what we knew. We had one teacher that was very forceful about that, and he also insisted that if a student said he wanted to direct, that he have a script in hand. If you didn't have one, he'd tell you to go write one, that if you want to direct, the script would have to come from you, you know. So, the filmmaker pretty much did all the scripting, as well as the editing. In some cases you even did your own photography.
In fact I had a lot of experience editing at New York University and I think it's where I began to think that I had more of a feel for writing and editing than photography. To this day, I'm still baffled by the light. I don't know where the light comes from, because I grew up in a tenement. It took me years to learn this. I never saw any real light. You wanted light, you turned on a light bulb. Maybe that's why I can't get a shot like Steven Spielberg got in Empire of the Sun, with the Japanese kamikaze pilots silhouetted against the red ball of the sun rising in the morning. I never saw such a thing growing up. I saw men and women in cars, nightclubs, a lot of bars, churches, and the inside of tenement houses, and always lots of hallways. You'll see lots of hallways in my pictures. Even in Last Temptation of Christ, there's a scene with Jesus and Judas in a hallway; we found a hallway in Morocco.
I started out as an editor to try to make some money. I just wanted to do work that was associated with film. So I started working as an editor; one of the projects I worked on was Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock. Wadleigh had also been a film student at NYU and we knew each other and he photographed my film Who's That Knocking at My Door, with Harvey Keitel and Zina Bethune. That's the one that came to the attention of Roger Corman.
I just worked on Woodstock in New York and then the film was taken to California to be finished. I think when I left, the cut was eight or nine hours. There were a lot of editors on the film, and I was one of the key ones in New York, but they took it to L.A. They only took certain people with them, and it was finally cut down to three hours. Fred Weintraub of Warner Bros. had another rock-and-roll film that he wanted cut, and since he knew me from Woodstock, he flew me out to California. Around the same time, Who's That Knocking had opened in New York. It was wonderfully ignored, maybe rightfully so, but there're some good things in it. I mean, the actors are wonderful and the camera work is pretty good. There was only one real champion of the film and his name was Roger Ebert, but it also got a very nice review from Kevin Thomas. The film opened in L.A. under a different title, because the theater manager didn't like the original title. So I said fine, as long as they show it, I don't care.
Roger Corman saw that film and we had a meeting with him. He asked me if I wanted to do the sequel to Bloody Mama. It was a costume drama set in the Thirties, so I said okay. He said he was going to get married and we would talk when he got back. By that time I had tried everything, working on many films in New York. I even had tried to direct one film called The Honeymoon Killers. I was hired as the director, and then after one week I was taken off the picture. I was fired from so many jobs because I had my own way of doing things. But I really didn't know enough to really direct a whole feature at that point. Especially a film with a plot like Honeymoon Killers, which was finally directed by the writer Leonard Castle. Anyway, after talking with Corman, I went back to edit a film at Warner Bros. for Weintraub. At that time George Lucas was there finishing THX, and Brian De Palma was out in California, too. He took me everywhere to meet people. I figured, well, I'd never hear from Roger Corman again.
About that same time, I had become friendly with John Cassavetes through another gentleman by the name of Jay Cocks, who worked for me over the years and still works with me. We showed Cassavetes Who's That Knocking and Cassavetes was very, very supportive and told me to keep making pictures like that. I went to work for John for a few weeks as a sound effects editor on his film Minnie and Moskowitz. Basically, I was drawing a salary, but I wasn't really doing anything. He just wanted me. He was just so very sweet. He gave me a salary and a place to work and every now and then I'd record something for him and he'd put it in the film. I had no idea what was happening.
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