Talking with Robert Dalva [Interview]

"Dig In Magazine: How did you get started in the film industry?
Robert Dalva: When I was in college, I ran a film program at Colgate University. And it was kind of by mistake. The fraternity I was in ran the program and I took it over at the end of my freshman year and started booking movies and started seeing movies that I was interested in. It kind of changed the whole attitude at the university. And what had been a non-money making organization became a money making organization, because I brought interesting movies, Antonioni, Fellini, whatever…Good, good movies. But the real start for me was seeing The 400 Blows (1959) by François Truffaut. It was then that I realized that movies could really capture [you]. When I was at Colgate, I took a course at Syracuse, a filmmaking course. I would drive there every Friday and learn how to run a camera and then, the woman that became my wife (who was attending Syracuse) suggested that I go to film school, and so I applied to USC (University of Southern California). And I got in there and went to USC. And at the same time, George Lucas, John Milius, Caleb Deschanel Walter Murch and Randel Klieser were among others that were there. So, that's how I started. The first year, I went at night and I worked as a camera assistant and as a gofer…whatever job I could get…[I worked] as a production assistant as they call it now. And I also had a job in New York City with a man who was a cameraman. He helped train me to be a camera assistant and handle lights. There was always this kind of passion. The movies have this great ability to capture someone's mind and attention in this dark room.

DIM: How did you land your first editing job?
RD: When I was at USC, I really liked editing and I directed there. Out of school I got the job to be an assistant editor with a famous editor, who at that time was not quite famous, Verna Fields. And she had a film to cut for the USIA (United States Information Agency) that makes films for the government to give to dignitaries to visit the United States. So, whatever the USIA does is only shown outside of the United States. It's propaganda. They were doing a film about President Marcos and President Johnson wanted to hand it personally to Marcos when he came to the Manila Conference, which was going to happen in three weeks. And Verna Fields turned to me and said "Can you cut?" and I said "Yes." So, I spent less than a week as an editorial assistant and then, became an editor and she was kind enough to give me screen credit. So, now I could call myself an editor. Then, I cut a low budget feature for a French filmmaker, Agnes Varda called Lion's Love (1969) and it was cut on a flatbed machine and I think it was the first time anyone in the United States or certainly in California had used a flatbed editing machine. So, it was great! And then, I moved to San Francisco and became part of Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope. I directed more than I did editing. I made two films for the government. Then, [I] started doing television commercials in which I shot, edited and directed.

DIM: Can you tell me a little more about Zoetrope Studios?
RD: I was there from the beginning. I got a call from Francis to direct two films that he had gotten for George Lucas to do, but THX 1138 (1971) got a green light from Warner Brothers [and was a joint venture with American Zoetrope]. So, George was going to do that and I got a call from Francis to come up to San Francisco and do these two films for the government. Zoetrope Studios is development, production and post-production. So, back then, Francis had screening rooms and a mixing stage. There were editing rooms. There were offices and local Bay Area filmmakers like John Korty rented space there. It was kind of a community. It was a wonderful vision that Francis had. And it has evolved into his own company, which is now at Columbus Towers. But originally it was on Folsom Street.

DIM: I understand that you were nominated for an Academy Award for film editing for The Black Stallion in 1979, what was it like working on that movie and being a part of such an incredible film?
RD: Well, it was fun! We had almost a million feet of film. A two-hour movie is about 12,000 ft. And the island section of the movie, which was about 37 minutes of the film, represented three quarters of that million feet of film. So, the big battle was getting the island section down to a manageable length that made sense. The second half of the movie…when Alec gets home, that section was shot in Toronto, the story telling…the scenes, [there] were many fewer scenes [of that]. I don't know how many scenes that Carroll shot, but you could of made a good two-hour movie of just him on the island, but it didn't tell the story. So, it was great fun. I had a great time doing it. We had a great crew and worked in the Bay Area. We worked at George Lucas' house for a while. Then, we moved into the city and worked at a building that Francis owned down the street from Columbus Towers, which was at the same time that Apocalypse was being edited.

DIM: How was it working with film legend Francis Ford Coppola on both The Black Stallion and it's sequel, The Black Stallion Returns?
RD: Well, the story of how I got the movie was fun. I was walking out of Columbus Towers one morning at 10 or 11 am. And Francis pulled up in a taxicab and got out. And he said, "Robert, if there's a sequel to Black Stallion, you want to direct it?" And I said, "Sure, Francis." So, it was great! He was very helpful and we had a great production crew. We shot in Italy and in Morocco…but mostly in Morocco. It was hard, but fun.

DIM: Francis Ford Coppola produced both of these films, but you changed hats from film editor on The Black Stallion in 1979 to director on The Black Stallion Returns in 1983, what role do you prefer, editing or directing?
RD: I love directing. I wish I had done more. As I said, I directed television commercials. I directed documentaries, and an episode of Crime Story (1987), which was a TV series. Last year, I directed an episode of Clone Wars (2008-2010), which is a series that George Lucas is doing. And that was fun and different. But I love directing. Like I said, I wish I had directed more. But I also love editing. I can't complain. I'm happy with both. Editing is an intricate look into all of these pieces, trying to put them together and tell a story. That's really what the magic is. But ultimately, editing is about storytelling.

DIM: In a few words, can you explain the art of editing and the secret behind being a good editor?
RD: NO [laugh]! As I said, finally, it's about storytelling. It's kind of minutiae…how to make a single cut and join a bunch of pieces together. First, you cut the script and then, you cut the movie. And a good friend of mine, Paul Hirsch, says editing is the final rewrite. And that's really what it is. You're looking at performance; you're looking at story and change in the story, clarity and emotion. It's putting this thing together that moves in time for two hours that drags you along and takes you along into this wonderful mystery that we call movies…that captures our hearts and minds in a dark room.

DIM: How do you keep your head clear and maintain strong concentration when editing such large, lengthy films?
RD: Oddly, I think I've always had good concentration [in which] I could focus on what was in front of me…an editing machine. But years ago, before I edited Black Stallion Returns, my wife gave me, as a birthday present, a course at a driving school where you drove race cars. It was a session up at Sears Point in Sonoma, California. Certainly, you were sharpening driving skills, but at the heart of what they were teaching was concentration. It was kind of a method to help you focus on what was happening right in front of you. And if you are in a car driving a hundred miles per hour, it makes sense to be completely concentrating on what you are doing. I came away with a sharpened ability to concentrate. And it has helped me enormously. I think I had the ability, but the driving school sharpened it.

DIM: Regarding directing, would you want to direct another film in the future if you had the opportunity?
RD: Absolutely.

DIM: Some of your recent work includes Jumanji (1995), October Sky (1999), Jurassic Park III (2001) and Hidalgo (2004), how was your experience working with director, Joe Johnston and Steven Spielberg, the executive producer of Jurassic Park III?
RD: We certainly had great contact with Steven. He was certainly very positive and helpful. He really liked the movie and we really liked the movie. And Joe and I have had a special relationship. We work very well together. I really enjoy his movies. I think he has a great sense of humor. I think a great thing about Jurassic Park III is that it is funny. Jumanji is very funny. I think October Sky is a remarkably good movie and it never got the play that it deserved.

DIM: You've worked with director, Joe Johnston on Jumanji, October Sky, Jurassic Park III and Hidalgo, how did you two meet and end up working together on so many movies?
RD: You know, the odd thing was that when George Lucas was shooting the original Star Wars I got a call from George. [He said] "Come down to LA," which at the time that's where ILM was, and shoot two shots of the land speeder going across the desert. They hadn't shot a convincing version of it. So, I went out, did the two shots and there was a young guy there from ILM. And years later, Joe and I realized that it was Joe. I'd say [that] it was on Hidalgo that we realized that he was in on that [and that] he was on that little crew and had been the ILM representative. It's pretty funny! So, when we did Jumanji, Joe lived in Marin County where I live. So, the post-production was going to be in Marin County at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch. So, I think that had some influence on hooking up the production. I was a little cheaper, because I lived in the Bay Area and they didn't have to house somebody from LA. So, I think that had some influence on the phone call. But Joe and I get along really well. So, exactly what the chemistry is…if it happens, it happens and if it doesn't, it doesn't.

DIM: As a film editor, how closely do you work with the directors and producers in the film projects you are involved with?
RD: You are essentially working for the director. And the director is making the movie. The producers certainly have an influence creatively, but finally, the creative process is at the hands of the director. So, an editor works very closely with the director. You don't necessarily have day-to-day contact with the producers. You do have hour-by-hour contact with the director. So, the director is in the cutting room three or four hours a day and will leave while you are fixing something…[he will be] taking his notes and doing it and then, come back to look. So, the contact that you have with the director is extremely close, extremely intimate and it's very creative. The relationship that you have with producers is economic, schedule [based] and then creative.

DIM: You recently edited the new California Film Institute movie, Touching Home, which stars 4-Time Oscar Nominee Ed Harris and was written and produced by Marin County's Logan and Noah Miller, what was the editing process like for this film in terms of how long it took to edit it?
RD: It was pretty quick. I think it was seven to eight months. And what was odd was [that] they shot in September without Ed Harris. And I was in the cutting room putting stuff together. Then, in the last week and a half or last two weeks of November, Ed came up to shoot the parts that he was in, along with Robert Forster and Brad Dourif. And I was the B-camera operator and shot some moments independent of the production as sort of a second unit camera. And so, I was around on the set during the shooting. I am also a DP. So, it was great! I had a great time with the brothers, the twins. They are sponges. They want to learn everything about the process, about how I was thinking, about how I got to wherever I got to. And so, it was an extraordinary fun time for me. And they are such entertaining good guys that it really was a trip. I don't know how else to describe it. They listened to me and they liked what I did. They are team players. I think the baseball experience for them really sharpened their ability to play with the team. The analogy [to directing] doesn't fit baseball completely well…it was more like football where the quarterback is calling his own plays, not from the bench…but moviemaking is about teamwork and you have to work with other people. You can't do it all yourself. And their pleasantness, their sharpness, their intelligence and their ability to be team players really contributed. I think they got the best from everybody. So, they were going to be directors…so what do they do, they take acting classes, so that they know how to talk to actors. You know, I'd mention an idea to them that was in a book and I'd realize two days later that they had gone and bought the book…and were reading the book. It's pretty amazing!

DIM: How long does the film editing process usually take for a feature length film?
RD: Well, I'd say the average is a year. You usually start before principle photography usually starts.

DIM: As a film editor, do you work in your own studio or do you have to work on location at times?
RD: I would say that I rarely work at home. I do have my own cutting room at home and basically, I cut Jumanji in the Bay Area, and both Black Stallions were cut in the Bay Area. Jumanji was shot in Vancouver, so I was in Vancouver during principal photography. And then, I was in the Bay Area. But since I live in the Bay Area, I end up having to go to LA or go to where they are shooting, like Montreal where I am now, and [then] ending up in LA where we do post-production. That often occurs. And it was nice with Touching Home, because I cut it in their [the Miller brothers] mother's house that they had grown up in.

DIM: What film editing programs do you generally use for the majority of your film projects?
RD: I'm a huge fan of the Avid. I think it's a great program. It is really accurate and easy to use. It does what it needs to do. There really isn't anything better. I've worked with Final Cut and I'm not as big a fan.

DIM: How difficult is it to mix sound in the editing process?
RD: I have very rich soundtracks when I edit. I think that sound is a very important part of the process. So, if you are doing a sword fight, the swords are made of rubber on the set, because they don't want to get anyone hurt. When you edit it, it sounds like "thump, thump, thump, thump" [instead] of "clang, clang, clang, clang." I would, in the cutting process, take out the thumps and put in clangs, because I miss it. I want it to be realistic. Because I think it's distracting to hear something that you don't expect. But also, I want to enhance it. I think putting temp music in is also very important. I use as many tracks as I can. Sometimes you don't need many, but sometimes you do.

DIM: What are some of your more recent projects? What are you working on now? Who are you working with?
RD: I'm helping out on a film called Immortals that is shooting in Montreal. It is directed by Tarsem Singh. I'm the second editor. I don't know how long I'm going to be on the picture. I'm sort of helping them get through the shooting process and getting scenes cut, so that they know that they're in good shape and whether or not I stay on until the end, at this point I have no idea."

By Cindy Maram.

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