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August 2014
Issue: February 1, 2007

Q&A: 'DELIRIOUS' EDITOR PAUL ZUCKER

NEW YORK - Film editor Paul Zucker has worked with some of today's most innovative directors, including Gus Van Sant (Gerry), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, winner of a BAFTA award for best editing), and Harmony Korine (Mister Lonely). He was an additional editor on Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, a documentary focusing on underground artist Jack Smith, and has collaborated with artist Luis Gispert on two projects: Stereomongrel and Smother. Additionally he has edited the independent features Shooting Livien and Point&ShootDelirious, which recently screened at Sundance, marks his first collaboration with director Tom DiCillo.

Post:  Tell us a little about Delirious.

Paul Zucker: "Delirious is a pop fable about fame and all its many splendored machinations. It's about Toby, a wanna-be actor slash homeless runaway, who befriends Les, a bottom-rung paparazzo with a chip on his shoulder the size of China. Together they fly through the celebrity overground and become the fastest of friends. When Toby falls head-over-boots for pop-tart du-jour K'harma, Les gets jealous and tries to break up the party. Delirious is written and directed by Tom DiCillo and stars Steve Buscemi in his most all-out performance ever, Michael Pitt, Gina Gershon, Allison Lohman and Elvis Costello as himself."

Post: How did you get involved with this project? 

Zucker: "It was a blind date. I knew Tom strictly through his films, which I had been aware of since I saw Living in Oblivion at the Anjelica theatre in Manhattan a dozen years prior. Tom didn't know me from Adam. I was sent the script, read it twice in a row, loved it, and met with Tom the next day. We talked about slippers, our grandmothers, and debated whether Captain Eo was a ride or a movie. We probably talked a little bit about the script and the tone Tom envisioned for the film. Tom really wanted the editing style for the film to match the title; it's not called Delirious for nothing! When he mentioned 'A Hard Day's Night' as a stylistic reference I said to myself, 'A-ha. I get it.' I remember he was taken with my description of that film as 'buoyant.' I think that word got me the job."

Post: Did Tom DiCillo or writer and producer/director Robert Salerno have a tone or direction that they wanted you to follow in the edit room to make this film more satirical? 

Zucker: "Not really. 'More satirical' was never a note, because there was never a lack of it. It was an embarrassment of riches in that department. The movie is stuffed full with paparazzos, pop stars, publicity peons, velvet ropesters, swag-baggers and reality TV show hucksters. The satire is pretty well built into its DNA. Dialing in the emotion of the scenes, unearthing the hidden jewels in the performances, and keeping things moving along smartly was the real work. There was also a lot of attention paid to finding the correct ratio of the more fantastical elements of the film to the more reality-based parts. Oh, and making it as funny as it could be!"

Post: How was it to be involved in a film that essentially makes a mockery out of pop stars and paparazzi?  How did that affect your approach in the edit room? 

Zucker: "Well, everybody deserves to have the piss taken out of them now and then, and some more than others. Making fun of pop stars and paparazzi is shooting fish in a barrel, but that doesn't mean it isn't funny. It was never done in a cruel way; we weren't trying to be character assassins. All of the mockery and satire in the movie is used to illustrate how fame is something Steve's character, Les, measures himself against. Instead of self-reflection, Les seeks public affirmation. It's something that you see more and more of these days as the promise of fame is lowered closer and closer to street-level. With Warhol, you could be famous for 15 minutes; now with YouTube, you can be famous in 15 minutes. We always kept in mind that the pop satire was a backdrop for the drama of these characters lives to play in front of, not the other way around."

Post: Describe the timeline for post production on this film.

Zucker: "The first assembly was completed one week after wrap. This included the editing of multiple scenes for on-set playback, including an entire music video, of which only a snatch is seen in the final cut. Picture was locked in approximately 16 weeks, which included three small scale public screenings and one temp mix."

Post: Were there added time pressures to make the Sundance deadline? 

Zucker: "No. We were done five months in advance, as the world premiere was in Spain in September of 2006 at the San Sebastian Film Festival."

Post: Were there any elements you tried to focus on in the edit room to make it Sundance-ready? Are there any tricks to the trade to making a film appealing to Sundance decision makers?

Zucker: "I think about festivals only enough to curse them for being the reason I'm at work at 4am on a Sunday, trying to make a submission deadline. Editorially, I wouldn't know how to make a film 'Sundance-friendly.' That kind of angling happens at the casting stage, not in the cutting room. What happens if I edit a film to be Sundance friendly and they don't accept the film? Do I then re-cut to make it South By Southwest friendly? Toronto friendly? It's an unhealthy environment when a film, and even a filmmakers fate, rests on acceptance to a single festival. I focus on the making the film as sharp and as good as it can be. No trick to that."

Post: Talk about your post production workflow. 

Zucker: "35mm, 4 perf, 1.85 negative - and some reversal - telecined at Creative Mega Playground to DVCAM. Production sound was recorded on DVD, post-sunk by my assistant Ryan Murphy on an Avid Xpress Pro on a Macintosh laptop. During dailies, he would digitize the day's material on the Media Composer Adrenaline at night, and copy the media over to the Xpress Pro. Synching was done in the morning, and by lunch, I would have new scenes to cut. Picture was edited at 14:1 resolution on the Adrenaline. Public screening format was always DVCAM, which I like for digital sound I/O and long running times. Picture was onlined for public screenings on the Adrenaline at 2:1 resolution. The 2K DI finish was done by PostWorks NY."

Post: Was the decision to go with Xpress Pro for your assistant for the offline a result of the film's budget? 

Zucker: "Yes. Originally there wasn't room in the budget for a second Avid system. Ryan generously brought along his own laptop and Avid Xpress Pro system. We set him up with an apple box and a bean bag in the corner, and thus he was able to work alongside me as I edited. Otherwise, he would have had to pull a graveyard shift and would have been excluded from the creative process completely. I've done that beat when I was an assistant - for two years. It's a drag, it's bad for the craft, and bad for movies in general. I got to where I am because of all the editors that I assisted who let me in on the process.

"I was always lucky enough to work with editors who invited me into their cutting room. I watched them work with directors and learned how what an editor does. I learned how to cut a scene, sure, but also how to collaborate with a director, how to act with six producers in the room, and how to treat your assistants. Filling trims I figured out in 15 minutes, but it took many, many movies to gain the experience that I feel I have now that makes me a good editor and not just a cutter. With Xpress Pro as cheap as it is, there's no reason assistants should to be forced to work nights. Don't even get me started on only budgeting assistants through dailies…."

Post: It's been said that Steve Buscemi was initially weary of the role he plays in this film because an earlier version of the script made his character "unredeemable." Was there sensitivity to making his character more redeemable in the edit room?  If so, how did you approach that? 

Zucker: "Well this was probably addressed in a rewrite more than it was in the edit, but I couldn't say for sure. On one level, Steve's character, Les Galantine, is a louse, but as written in Tom's script, he isn't beyond redemption. No one is beyond redemption. He's had a hard time of it in life. He craves respect that he never got from his parents. He has a massive inferiority complex. The way that Steve plays the role, you actually like Les despite it all. Such is the power of Steve's performance. He has one of the most expressive faces of any actor around, and he can do anger better than anyone else. And he can do it with a touch of humor that makes it special.

"Cutting Steve's performance on this film is one of the great pleasures of my career. So the sensitivity to his character in the edit room was in using everything Steve gave us. Things like using the subtle eyebrow moves and shoulder turns that make a performance special or looking at takes carefully and repeatedly, lest we miss trick. There was enough in the dailies that we could nuance the character to be darker or lighter as we pleased. Cutting great footage is easy, it's cutting bad footage that's a challenge."

Post: Do you have a certain routine you like to follow before you sit down to cut a film?  What inspires you once you have the raw footage in hand? 

Zucker: "Well my routine these days seems to be to go straight from one film to another without much time to prepare at all. I read the script a minimum of two times. Often it's more. However many times it takes to figure out the mechanics of the thing. With a traditional narrative script, its works in acts. Sequences make up acts. Scenes make up sequences. I try to identify sequences in the script, because it helps me to engage with the story and gain some understanding of how the film is going to work - because you'd better know when you're working for a writer-director who's spent years living with it before you come aboard. 

"In the cutting room, I like a nice chair. I like my mixing board on the right. I like the speakers equidistant from each other and the monitors just so. Finicky stuff like that. I edit with my keyboard upside down when I use a PC, and right side up when I use a Mac. Don't ask me why, it just works better for me upside down. It's a quirk. Sort of like Jimi Hendrix playing right handed guitars. 

"Once I sit down with the footage, that's what inspires me. The work of all the people that went into the material that's on my monitor. Actually that's one thing I like about visiting the set - it reminds me to be humble because there are a hell of a lot of people working to make it happen. Once I start watching, I might get inspired by a great camera move, or the way an actor says a particular line. Steve Buscemi's performance was inspiring. Working with people who love what they do is inspiring. Good coffee is inspiring."

Post: What format requirements did Sundance have in the final delivery of the film? 

Zucker: "We delivered 35mm print. They're also accepting HD these days, I believe."

Post: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers and editors?  

Zucker: "Express yourself artistically in every decision you make. Don't cut corners. Have an opinion! Speak up! There's a lot of people doing this who I'm convinced don't like movies. Separate yourself from the pack. Listen to a lot of music. Listen to advice but make up your own mind. But, what do I know? I'm only 30!"

Post: What are your tricks of the trade?  

"Ok here's one, taught to me by my teacher, the great Valdis Oskarsdottir: After you have finished working on a reel, or an extended sequence, run the cut at 5x speed for review. New thoughts and forgotten ideas will spring to mind. Think of it as a moving visual checklist. Editors who cut on flatbeds did this all the time. It's also a quick way to get a sense of the big picture rhythm of your movie. You can see which scenes play longer than others, which are shorter, how long it takes to get to a certain point, etc. I was skeptical at first but after watching Valdis run reels MOS, with an Astor Piazolla CD playing in the background, and seeing how it sparked my brain, I was sold."

Post: What is up next for you? 

Zucker: "I am currently editing Harmony Korine's new film Mister Lonely. It's about a Michael Jackson impersonator. It's gonna be something else."