Press > Escape From New York > Exclusive Interviews > Todd C. Ramsay (Editor)




How did you end up being an editor?

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 second film.

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 Duke's car?

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 movie.

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 movie?

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 development.

Thank you for your time, Todd.