By James Kenney
Longtime Roger Corman cohort Allan Holzman is best known for editing 1979’s Battle Beyond the Stars and directing the 1982 New World cult-classic Forbidden World, but he had a long run as an editor in the 1970s, working on films featuring stars such as Christopher Walken and Robert Mitchum, and directors like Jonathan Demme and Robert Clouse. Now, over forty years after working on it, Holzman is publishing his exhaustive journal of what it was like editing in 1979 Roger Corman’s biggest budgeted film at the time, Battle Beyond the Stars.
Holzman’s book is a beautifully designed, meticulously detailed review of the making of this cult classic starring George Peppard, Robert Vaughn and Richard Thomas, sparing no detail on what went right and wrong in making this beloved low-budget rehash of The Magnificent Seven in space. He is unusually frank about what unfolded during the course of making the film, and details the compelling and unruly behind-the-scenes minutia of what it was like working for New World during its prime. Holzman, gracious and loquacious, talked to me about his editing career in the 1970s, working for Corman and independent producers before moving on to the directing chair in the 1980s, his exploits as a director of features and later of documentaries, and what inspired him to publish this fascinating record of the making of Battle Beyond the Stars.
How did you gravitate towards editing in the 1970s? What was your first experience editing a fictional narrative?
I dropped out of college in the middle of my Junior year at Western Reserve University just prior to its merger with Case. I had taken several classes at Case as a math and physics major, but reached a roadblock when my math professor declared that the fourth dimension that we had progressed to could not be applied to life.
Particularly disheartened because, as a stutterer since the age of 6, I had no desire or will to teach, and teaching seemed to be the only possible means of support as a math major. By this time, I was a radical politically, having been on the first March on Washington to Stop the Vietnam War in the spring of ’65. I was enormously proud to take the walk from the Washington Monument to the Capital on the front line with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. As a stutterer, I found that the most effective way of expressing my discontent was as a lead actor in two anti-war plays (stutterers don’t stutter when they act or sing and I could not sing to save my life).
Acting led me to study at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York with Nikos Psacaropolis, who gave me a scholarship to Williamstown Summer Theater where he was artistic director. My starring role as the son in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author led me to a full scholarship at Bennington College in Vermont just 50 miles north, where I also received a work stipend as the school projectionist.
Every weekend I screened a selection from the Janus or Criterion collection, which included almost every art film from Europe or Japan. During a winter work term I was curious about learning the technique of film editing, since it clearly became a way of communicating ideas without speaking. To master the technique of film splicing and visual expression I edited black leader and white leader (film that is all black or all white that is used as filler for the beginning or ending of reels) to the recently released Beatles White Album. I did not have a 16mm editing machine (Moviola or Steenbeck) but I did have splicer and projector, so I spliced subliminal edits (one, two and sometimes three frames) of alternating black and white leader to create a pattern that attempted to match the music. It was a flawed system but after a couple of weeks I was skilled enough to inspire my theater teacher to trust me with a silent feature film he shot with his actress/wife. I edited another film that spring that he shot with our acting class and that summer I helped shoot and edited a documentary about horse racing at nearby Saratoga Race Track in upstate New York.
When I graduated, I found work as an assistant editor for one of New York’s leading commercial editors and a friend from Bennington, who transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, introduced me to her classmate Jon Avnet who had shot a 16mm feature starring Richard Gere in his first role. He hired me to re-edit. While editing, I recommended that he go to film school. He showed the movie when I completed the edit and was accepted. After he attended AFI, he encouraged me to apply and in the spring of my first year at AFI, I edited Roger and Julie Corman’s Candy Stripe Nurses. Julie and Roger liked my editing and they hired me to cut another feature as soon as I made my film at AFI for Jonathan Demme’s Crazy Mama.
As a young editor, did you find a director with experience such as Robert Clouse was receptive to your ideas? How did you find the director/editor experience in the early going? Did you learn things working with directors with some credits behind them, or was it difficult in your position to suggest things?
The director/editor experience for me was never smooth and, unfortunately, it was often contentious since I was always hired by the producer. I realized later on that this was a tactic by producers to retain control of the movie and that the director was a director for hire as opposed to a director making his own film. On the three movies that I edited for Roger (Candy Stripe Nurses, Crazy Mama and Battle Beyond The Stars) the directors wanted me fired at the end of the first week, blaming any criticism of their work on the editor messing it up. Working with Robert Clouse was a different matter all together. He was not a first or second time director. He was quite set in his ways and didn’t really care to spend much time in the editing room. I think he liked what I was doing. I only sat with him for a couple of days.
What was it like editing a performance by a Robert Mitchum or a Joe Don Baker? Did you find early on that you could see the difference between a veteran professional and a more unseasoned actor even in the raw footage?
Robert Mitchum and Joe Don Baker were very consistent with their performances and tended to underplay their emotions, so it was often up to the editor to give emphasis to critical points in the scenes. But it was often quite a pleasure to work with actors whose characters were so well defined.
How did you hook up with Roger Corman? What was it like at New World during the heady days of the late 1970s?
Roger’s wife Julie had met a classmate of mine from AFI at a reception and asked her to edit Candy Stripe Nurses. She felt that exploitation was beneath her cinematic aspirations but she knew that I needed money and recommended me. That was in ’74. Joe Dante and Alan Arkush were editing trailers in a small room adjacent to the large editing room Jack Rabin provided to Roger for no cost in exchange for doing all New World’s optical and title work. Optical work was the compositing, overlay or reshooting of images. We had to edit as fast as the scenes were shot with a first cut ready for screening three days after the last shot. But it was an inspiring place to be. Paul Bartel was making Death Race 2000 with Tina Hirsch editing, Joe, Alan and Jon Davison, Roger’s head of marketing, took Roger out drinking and convinced him to let Joe and Alan direct a two week shoot of a film that used all of the stunts from his Nurse and Teacher films and the star of most of them, Candice Reason, as the star, called Hollywood Boulevard.
Talk a little about Checkered Flag or Crash and Amsterdam Kill. Any anecdotes from the editing room about those well-known drive-in pictures?
Checkered Flag or Crash was shot in the Philippines and pitted Joe Don Baker against 40 Philippine drivers in an off-road car race. Joe Don Baker was a huge star in Manila with 7 story buildings displaying full sized images of Joe Don Baker starring in Walking Tall. We had to bring in editing equipment from Hong Kong. The stunt drivers were Australian and they wore huge belt buckles with WORLD’S GREATEST STUNTMEN emblazoned on their silver belt buckles. One time a stuntman broke his leg in a crash and was in the lobby the next morning ready to drive with a full cast. The Australian director had a concept to under-crank the stunts at 8 frames a second and instead of playing back fast, each frame was held three times in post. I don’t think it worked as effectively as imagined and I mostly created the excitement from the other angles, while still using the stop frame shot as payoff. Amsterdam Kill was edited in Hong Kong at Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest Studios where the Bruce Lee films were shot and I was editing for director Bob Clouse, who directed Enter The Dragon.
The film also featured the great Robert Mitchum toward the end of his illustrious career. My favorite scene was the finale shot in Amsterdam (where I also edited in a shack with grass creeping through the wooden floor adjacent to a women’s prison outside the city). My assistant in Amsterdam was British and he referred to MOS as “moss” rather than just stating the letters. But in Hong Kong, where the majority of the film was shot, there were no flatbed editing machines, so they brought an InterCine flatbed editing machine in from Italy. It has a projection system rather than through the glass viewing, so when you would hit play the lights would go off the film was projected on a white screen. When the editor (yours truly) hit stop, the lights would come on. The action sequence in the Flower Market with Mr. Mitchum breaking through the glass of the many green houses driving a huge tractor fighting a multitude of Chinese gunmen was exciting to cut. Always fantastic to edit on location in an exciting city. You’re on vacation the moment you leave work.
Shoot the Sun Down is an interesting cult western from the late 70s starring Christopher Walken and Margot Kidder. How did you get that gig? Any tales from the editing of that?
David Leeds was a poker friend. He went to UCLA while I went to AFI. Lots of cool actors in a bizarre story. We edited on the Warners Hollywood lot, where Coppola was making One From the Heart. Christopher Walken was never quite believable as a cowboy, but there was a magic between him and Margot Kidder that made editing fun.
• Talk about how you were chosen editor of Battle Beyond the Stars, the biggest production New World had made to that point?
I wrote a letter to Roger asking him to recommend me to Coppola who was producing Hammett. Roger called right away and said he hadn’t spoken to Coppola in months and felt awkward calling him about an editing job for me, but said, “I’d like you to cut Battle Beyond The Stars, my biggest movie ever.” He invited me to come to his office right away. An hour later he offered me $500 a week to edit. I held out for $650 to edit for a six day week.
• Jimmy Murakami, despite being a gifted animator, has only one live-action director credit, Battle Beyond The Stars. Do you know why he was chosen for this high-profile Corman gig as opposed to one of the guys who’d been used before, like Dante?
Jimmy storyboarded the entire film. He was second unit director for Roger’s airplane film and for Humanoids From The Deep, which was Roger’s current film, so Jimmy was basically in house. Special Effects at that time was still a subject that Producers were grappling with and tended to trust technical people more than visual people. Jimmy also had a background in Animation, producing one of my favorite films, The Point, with a score from Harry Nilsson. Perhaps even more importantly, because the film was based on the plot of Kurosawa’s classic film Seven Samurai, Jimmy was an actual descendant of the Samurai clan featured in the classic Japanese movie The 47 Ronin (Chushingura), which I saw in New York in 1970 at the beginning of my professional film career.
• Your book is refreshing in its frankness and detail. Why did you decide to write such a detailed journal during the making of the film? Is it something you always do, or something you decided to do with that project?
I had just completed my first novel that was part journal part fantasy, part autobiographical, part fiction. That will give you an idea of how impossible it was to read. But it was great therapy as I was attempting to understand my stuttering and the relationship between sex and stuttering with a severe undertow of rape. By page 240 I understood what happened to me as a 6 year old that caused my stuttering. When I finally understood what happened it did not change my stuttering but I did stop getting chills whenever I saw a man with thick hairy hands.
When I decided that I would not seek to edit an A-movie with a top director but instead return to low budget with Roger, I knew that keeping a journal would help me make the political, aesthetic, and technical decisions necessary to make the best possible effort to have a good movie. Since I had edited two features previously for Roger (with his wife Julie producing) I knew that I was re-entering a very political atmosphere with everyone trying to prove that they can direct by criticizing those above them. But most importantly with low budget, time constraints force compromises and I wanted to solve every problem that existed and have a plan of attack each day. Also, I wanted to communicate to the world the creativity involved in low budget action editing. You are constantly called upon to make something look much better, much more exciting, and usually much faster that it was shot. Creating illusion through editing is the key and I wanted to communicate how that was a daily and highly creative challenge in low budget.
•Everyone has James Cameron stories from working on Battle Beyond the Stars. Can you share one?
Chapter 3 of Celluloid Wars is devoted to that. We were testing the front screen projection for the planet Akir (named after Kurosawa) . The great Stanley Kubrick used front screen projection for the opening of 2001 and we were attempting to replicate the effect. The tests came out well, but the actual production dailies were too dark. I called Roger and asked to reshoot. He told me in no uncertain terms that he never reshoots and that I should fix it in editing. I walked across the sound stage that night on my way home and it was empty except for a young man I did not know who was slouched over a wooden table looking down. I walked over to him and asked if anything was wrong. He told me he had been up for three nights painting the front screen projections and they came out dark in the dailies. And this was his last day. I looked at the slides and they were magnificent. Certainly worth the expense of reshooting. It truly brought the planet Akir to life. I called Roger again. This was his dinner time and calls to his home were forbidden. I insisted that the producer, Mary Ann Fisher, break the rules and call him as they were striking the set. I did disturb his dinner, but I gave a really convincing argument for reshooting. Roger said in his very calm but authoritative voice, “Allan, I never reshoot. Just make it work. Besides the set will be gone by tomorrow morning.” I reiterated how great the paintings were and informed him that it was this guy’s last day and that he should hire him to design a set. Roger asked for his name, so I asked the dejected artist his name. “Jim Cameron,” he said. Roger hired him to design the Caymen set where he held Nanelia hostage. Roger gave Jim $12 and Jim brilliantly used egg crates and Carnation milk crates with smoke seeping up as his high tech design. I used the same ideas for the hallways in Forbidden World. Jim also used my idea for shoulder cameras in Aliens.
I assume if you want it one way, and the director another, you ultimately do it the director’s way. But if you’re really convinced you’re right, did you have a system or way of trying to convince the director? I don’t mean “undermine,” but for the good of the project did you ever really push an idea that the director resisted while working on a film?
Many of the great Academy-Award winning feature editors have developed “The Nudge.” You drop subtle hints whenever a cut or shot bothers you until finally the director gives in. I never developed that skill. I always fought instantly for what I believed. I felt that was the best way to make the best movie. Also, I rarely had the time to develop a nudge as I mostly edited lower budget action films and often without a director involved.
How did your first directing gig, directing some of the most memorable sequences from Firecracker, come about? Were you doing some editing for it and pointed out it needed some new stuff, or did Corman come to you and just say “I have something I want you to direct?”
Oh, if it were only that easy…..After saving the battle sequences in Battle Beyond The Stars, Roger promised he would give me a shot at directing. I called him every Friday to see if he had work until he hired me to direct second unit on a car film, directed by his longtime associate Chuck Griffith, who wrote many scripts for Roger including his first two movies, Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors. After shooting second unit and editing the all of the action scenes on Smokey Bites the Dust, Roger asked me to produce, write, direct and edit two scenes for Firecracker which was shot in the Philippines that could be included in the trailer as well to make it look like a film shot in the US. So I came up with an idea for a chase scene and a love scene. For the chase scene I wrote a script where the lead actress, Jillian Kessner, gets chased by two American guys into a lumber yard which was actually Roger’s studio in Venice. Every time they had a skirmish she loses one article of clothing. The fight took place in as many parts of the studio as I could imagine. We did 94 setups in one night beating Roger’s record of 87. I called him the next morning to brag about it and he informed me not to get too excited. There was someone with 130, who shot on two sets simultaneously.
• You detail your troubles in making Out of Control pretty thoroughly on the Code Red Blu-ray release. Can you talk about the casting process? You have some fairly notable young actors from the time (Sherilyn Fenn, Betsy Russell) in that film. Did you audition anyone else noteworthy?
Andrew McCarthy was the top choice along with Martin Hewitt. Martin, who was the lead in Endless Love was the bigger star at the time. I wanted Andrew, who later starred in Pretty in Pink.
• If I’m not mistaken, the shorter cut of Out Of Control on the Blu-ray is your preferred cut. Can you talk about why and how that cut came about?
The producer Fred Weintraub would not let me in the editing room. I felt that the film lacked pace and featured too much time with the Russian bad guys. I also objected to the post looping of actor’s voices. So, I persuaded Bill Shields, head of distribution, to let me make a Music Video to promote the movie that would also give an idea of how I would recut. Then I met with Bob Rehme, head of New Word Pictures (after Roger) who let me recut after I explained what I wanted to do.
• Do you know how the Brothers Johnson got involved? It’s a great theme song!
I did not know them. Fred was friends with Quincy Jones who I’m sure helped him connect with Brothers Johnson. Fred also produced Woodstock, so he was quite connected to the music scene.
• What was it like working with Deborah Harry and James Russo on on Intimate Stranger? Russo is a great actor, but seems a bit intense (he blocked me on twitter because he was a Trump supporter).
James was with my agency and friends with some of the New York people I knew like Martin Brest. He rebelled against me for a reason he found out later was false and apologized, but we did not get along during the shoot. He was very stubborn about how his character felt. I tried to get him to fall for Deborah and put some passion into the kiss but he resisted. How could he do that???
She was wonderful and completely willing to do whatever she could to make a good movie. For the end where she breaks down she asked me just prior to shooting to yell at her and call her every vile name I could think of. She said that would make her cry. I did. And she did, but out of respect for her I did not tell anyone on the crew that she asked me to do that. I just let everyone think I was some kind of asshole.
You’re listed as one of two directors in Programmed to Kill on IMDB. I assume there’s a story behind that..
i was the third director brought in but I had to take full brunt of the credit. The film had been shot twice with some of the same cast including the two leads but in different locations, different costumes and slightly different plot. I had to take twenty minutes from each of those seemingly incompatible versions and create a new 45 minutes merging the other two into a singular 85 minute movie. I gave Sandahl Bergman a video eye when they turned her into a cyborg to assassinate her lover. I was able to colorize the film shot on location in Israel, put computer graphics over it and have people from both casts watch from her point of view, then they called each other to establish who was working for who and then she assassinates each of them, one at a time, with a fight against the army at an airport for the finale.
You did some editing on some notable releases, such as Vamp and the Sleeping Car, after you had stepped into a directing career. Did you find that having previously directed altered anything you did in the editing room?
Directing theater helped me the best in the editing room. I understood scene structure and movement to express action and feeling. To me the shots are like actors and the editor is like the theater director choreographing the shots. I also feel that while the film is in the editor’s hands, he or she is the filmmaker and has the responsibility to make a film out of all the shots. Once the film is cut then the editor no longer has that role or can lay claim to it. But while editing, the editor gets the glorious opportunity to make a film.
You have made several noteworthy documentaries in the last 30 years. How did you transition to doing documentaries and what do you find the biggest challenges and rewards in making them?
I fell in love with rich characters telling tragic stories. Taking out the narrator puts the editor into the writer’s seat and results in letting the characters lead the audience through the experience, which is very much like making a feature film.
Anything you want to plug? (Besides the book?)
I made a four and a half hour documentary series of legendary feature directors Hitchcock, Spielberg, Lean, Capra, Huston, and Truffaut based on the only archival tapes to survive from the early years of the AFI Harold Lloyd Seminars, called The Art Of Directing. Also I have an autobiographical documentary feature, C-C-CUT and a feature documentary on Marilyn Monroe, who was also a stutterer, My Marilyn.
Check out Allan’s website HERE!
Pulp 2.O will be publishing Allan’s book, find them HERE!