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Interviews > Todd C. Ramsay (Editor: Escape From New York)
How did you end up being
I am the classic story of the guy who started in the mail
room. My father, Clark Ramsay, was executive vice president of advertising and
publicity at MGM under the famous Howard Strickling. (My father later became
famous in his own right.) In any case, he got me mail room job. My father
brought up the subject of nepotism at the time and he told me somewhat
defensively, "No one cares if a baker wants his son to be a baker and this is no
different." He also then told me that it didn't matter whose son I was if I
didn't do a great job - I could expect to be fired. Getting the job was a gift,
but keeping it was entirely up to me. Later, after walking away from collage
after my first year he got me a job as an apprentice film editor in the splicing
and coding room. At that time the union required four years as an apprentice
editor, and then four more as an assistant before you could be qualified to cut.
I put my years in here, both as apprentice and then assistant on a number of
films and was taken under the wing of some great editors like Marge and Gene
Fowler, and John Howard. I became expert in optical effects as it was one of the
few areas where as an assistant you could contribute something creatively to the
film. I did all the design work for the first That's Entertainment! as
well as The Car and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was
assistant editor on Robert Wise's The Hindenburg at Universal, and also
became the editorial liaison coordinating Albert Whitlock's (the famous matte
painter) work with ours. In addition, I used a system of printing black and
white negatives on color film I had developed at MGM for That's Entertainment!
to do the black and white sections of The Hindenburg. Lastly, I found
lost footage of the crash which was used prominently in the film. This impressed
Wise, who of course had cut Citizen Kane and one day he called me up to
come in an interview for editor on Star Trek - The Motion Picture. I had
edited a few scenes but had never cut a picture or been an "Editor". I was
stunned, forever grateful, and considered Robert Wise my mentor from that day
forward. He was an extraordinary man who I will never forget.
How did you get the assignment to be the editor for
Escape From New York and can you tell us how you got Alan Howarth involved
in it as well?
I got an agent, (again through Wise) and went in for an interview with John
Carpenter. A few days later as I was waiting to go in to interview for On
Golden Pond my agent called and said John had hired me. This was only my
On Star Trek I had hired a number of sound designers to make unusual
sound effects for the film. The sound of the engines for example. Alan Howarth
was one of them. When John wanted to set up his own studio to do the film's
soundtrack I recommended Alan as his technical (equipment) advisor knowing that
Alan was really interested in doing music. It worked out well for them both I
like to think.
How did you and John Carpenter prepare for this project
and what kind of discussions or disagreements did you have during the editing?
For the most part John was very pleased with my first cut in terms of the scene
edits themselves, but not the overall structure. I made less changes for John
with regard as to how I edited individual scenes on the two films I did for him
than any other director I have ever worked for. Our time together was primarily
spent on structure. John and I had no disagreements between us, only shared
concerns about whether certain things were working or not.
At one point after the first cut I said to John that having Snake Plissken
captured in the film's beginning didn't align too well with the idea of him
being a master thief. We could see him captured - but seeing him being
captured undercut his credibility. Wise had taught me the value of test
screenings in discovering a filmmaker's "blind side" in regards to how a film
was working (or not working). I suggested we organize a small screening
ourselves. John was hesitant at first but agreed. A very young J.J. Abrams,
still in school and not yet in films, was one of the invites. He remembers this
screening so well he used it in his thank you address to the American Cinema
Editors (ACE) for their award to him last year. All I remember is that it was
agreed afterwards to remove the scene of Snake being captured in the film's
beginning. And that was all I cared about.
He was very concerned at one point about the scene Kurt had with his then former
wife Season Hubley (Girl in Chock full o'Nuts). She was nursing her baby on the
set and John felt that was very distracting to the acting process. I looked at
the dailies and told him not worry. When he saw it cut he loved it. I loved it
before I even cut it, but as always all the glory goes to John and the actors.
It was a fantastic cast and John was in top form.
I choose the fade in fade out transitions because I felt there was a certain
elliptic style to the narrative that would benefit from it. It made for
transitions and pauses in the pacing that achieved something that couldn't be
had with straight cuts, or dissolves or other means.
However, there were a few things which I really learned from John about film
editing. The first is the scene where Snake and cohorts are fleeing up an alley
toward the taxi that (Ernest) Borgnine's (Cabbie) character is driving. I cut
the scene realistically but John felt the suspense could be stretched out a bit
longer. At the time I thought it might drag, but after doing it I realized he
was absolutely right.
In another place the character played by Frank Doubleday (Romero) swings down
suddenly from a rail car. I made nothing special out of the moment thinking it
stylish but not frightening. John thought it could be a surprise and make the
audience jump. I changed it to accommodate John's idea and thought, "Oh well." I
doubt anyone will jump at that. When we previewed the film, the audience jumped.
The last and biggest change is in Snake's fight in the arena. Again, I cut this
realistically. John, who had cut his own films in the past, asked if could take
a pass at it himself. He had been so easy to work with that I wasn't bothered by
this. He took a few hours and simply made about seven or eight trims (less than
half a foot in length) on the heads or tails of shots to speed up the action. It
was much better and I told him so. What he did was what we call "jam" cutting
and it became part of my arsenal from then on.
Is it true that J.J. Abrams was responsible for John's
decision to film Maggie's death scene in his and Adrienne Barbeau's garage since
the test screening didn't show what happened to her after the impact with The
I never knew, or maybe I've just forgotten, anything about this. Truthfully I
couldn't recall this shot when I read your question. It would certainly have to
have been shot post wrap as there would be no reason to shoot it beforehand (or
have anything to match to).
What kind of challenges did this movie provide to you and
which were the hardest, funniest and most satisfying scenes or sequences to work
on? How come you chose Claude Debussy's The Engulfed Cathedral to be in
the tempo track for the glider flight and what led you to chose it to be in the
final movie for instance?
At this point in my editing career practically everything I did was new in some
way to my limited experience as the actually editor. I enjoyed every day and
everything I did. I didn't get to really spend any time with John before the
shoot, he was on location for the majority of it and I didn't get to sit down
with him until after my first cut was complete. I had a complete temp score. I
choose music that I felt supported the scenes and the film's dark tone.
All the scenes were very satisfying to cut because my method was always to keep
cutting a scene until I was satisfied with it. I never believed in just
"roughing out" a cut and then refining with the director. I wanted the director
to be able to sit down and enjoy (as much as one can ever enjoy a first cut run)
something as close to what I deemed their vision as possible. This allowed us to
move right on to structure.
How long did it take to edit the movie?
I don't recall how long it was until the film was finished editorially. It
wasn't long as the film was relatively low budget.
How many different cuts of the movie did you do before the
final version and were there any scenes you and John wanted to keep but had to
drop at the very last second so to speak? You cut out a lot of scenes from this
I don't recall how many different cuts there were but it was not a lot. There is
nothing I'd change or want to restore. I'm surprised you found 25 deleted scenes
but cutting the film down and pacing were our main goals. A lot of the dialogue
scenes have a very meditative tone for an action film and getting the right
performances and taking the right beats was essential to keeping the film moving
and not drag while making these scenes play.
Is it possible that the deleted scenes still exists?
All the dailies and lifts (deleted scenes) were packed and put into storage. The
company no longer exists and by now most likely has been discarded as the
storage fees on such material are one of the first things such companies cut as
they devolve or dissolve.
Despite all the cuts the movie still has a surprisingly
slow pace that probably wouldn't work with today's audiences. Did it evolve
naturally and did the studio have any issues with this? Additionally, would you
have edited the movie the same way today?
John's direction and the script determined the pace as it does with all
directors. The approach as to how to deal with that pace editorially was mine
and (style wise) remained unchanged as we simply cut things out to tighten the
narrative. If the film were to be re-cut to more modern approaches it would fail
at what it so clearly succeeds at now - a mood. There was no studio interference
on the style or execution of the film. I took the same approach in cutting
John's The Thing, and would do so today on any similar film which I
might be presented with. The only other film which I have edited where I was
permitted such complete authority besides John's two films is Minus Man directed
by Hampton Francher of Blade Runner fame.
What's your favorite memory or memories of working on the
It is all a favorite memory, one of my best experiences as an editor.
What do you think of the movie personally?
I think the movie is terrific and feel very fortunate to have worked on it.
What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy doing
in your spare time?
I do more writing now than editing and have three scripts in various stages of
Thank you for your time, Todd.