Career Achievement Honoree – Richard Chew, ACE

March 7, 2022

A spirit of independence permeates the life and career of Richard Chew, ACE. It was never his ambition to work in Hollywood and yet he has achieved arguably the most success an editor can achieve by working largely outsidethe studio system. He co-edited the ultimate indie film, Star Wars, for which>he shared the 1977 Best Editing Oscar with Marcia Lucas and Paul Hirsch, ACE. Chew also earned BAFTA Awards for The Conversation and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as well as three ACE Eddie nominations.

A Wonderer and a Wanderer
His career prior to entering the industry is as informative as his five decades within it. Born in 1940 to Chinese immigrant parents in downtown Los Angeles, Chew was educated in innercity schools and his teenage ambition was to be a pastor.

After reaching college Chew questioned that choice. He dropped out to join the Navy intent on broadening his horizons outside of the church. “I was exposed to people from different backgrounds, guys raised in rural Louisiana or reservations in Oklahoma or the
streets of East St. Louis.”

He left the Navy to take a degree in philosophy at UCLA and then continued his education at Harvard Law School. “It was just a way for me to continue being a student. I wasambivalent about becoming a lawyer, and found that learning and applying legal concepts didn’t suit me. I was miserable being there.”

All this time, Chew was searching for something more in tune with the way he thought and felt.Seeing the film Nothing But a Man in 1964 opened his mind to the possibility of cinema. The gritty indie drama directed by Michael Roemer is about an African American railroad worker’s courtship of a preacher’s daughter in a racist Southern town. “It was eye-opening. Prior to that, movies to me were all spectacle and entertainment and not about personal stories.

Seeing that film changed my mind about what I wanted to do.” The film’s co-writer, producer and DP was Robert M. Young. Chew got in touch with him and through him got a job at KING TV in Seattle, where he was hired as a news cameraman despite having no film experience.

 Documentaries and Cinematography
“I was sent out on assignments with a spring-loaded 16mm Bell & Howell camera with a three-lens turret. That was how Ilearned to compose a shot and what lens to use. I also got to edit the footage. This meant hot-splicing three seconds of one shot to five seconds of another and so on, until I filled out the amount of time needed for the newscaster to read their copy.”

Within a year he grabbed the chance to work on documentaries at King Screen Productions, also in Seattle. This included a film for the Sierra Club as part of its campaign to establish Redwoods National Park. “We shot on location deep in a Northern California redwood forest,” says Chew, who was director of photography. “It was so different to any experience I’d had to that point. It reframed how I saw the world.”

Director Trevor Greenwood also engaged Chew to edit The Redwoods, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 1967. Chew says, “Once I started actually thinking about building narrative, I realized the power of film editing in addition to the gathering of images.”

A couple of years later, after assignments with the Peace Corps and the National Film Board of Canada, Chew was stillworking in Seattle as a freelance cinematographer. He got a call asking if he would step in as a last-minute replacement  for another cameraman at a rock festival. The next day he was operating a camera on stage when Richie Havens opened the Woodstock rock festival.

“I was in prime position, stage left, filming Sly and the Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater and The Who,” Chew recalls. “It was another life-changing experience that I didn’t expect. I was on a wild ride.” Backstage he met Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, ACE, who were part of the editing team for director Michael Wadleigh’s festival documentary, as well as the veteran documentary cameraman David Myers, who was based in San Francisco. Chew says, “I was looking for a way to leave Seattle and not go to Hollywood or New York. Myers told me about a couple of young filmmakers who had just moved to San Francisco and founded American Zoetrope.”

He fired off letters to those young filmmakers – George Lucas, Francis Coppola – as well as to San Francisco-based filmmaker John Korty, who had inspired the duo to found Zoetrope outside the studio system. Korty replied and invited Chew to Z

oetrope to cut a doc for him. You can see the dots being joined. He soon met Walter Murch, ACE, who two years later asked Chew to make the first cut on Coppola’s study of paranoia, The Conversation (1974), while Murch was completing the sound design on Lucas’ American Graffiti.

“Before The Conversation I was very influenced by the cinema verité aesthetic of capturing what was occurring in the natural world. The challenge of editing, in my mind then, was to impose a linear narrative on a collection of images. “At that time Walter was exploring how to tell a story in a nonlinear way. From him I saw how to repeat a scene, how to juxtapose it with something that wasn’t intended in the script, how to expand or collapse time. I learned that cinema is not always about B following A. Working with Walter was my film school.”

Cuckoo’s Nest
The Conversation was nominated for Best Picture and prompted director Miloš Forman to invite Chew to cut his adaptation of Ken Kesey’s counter-culture classic. “I got a call out of the blue from [producer] Michael Douglas to meet Miloš,” Chew recalls. “I was floored! To be interviewed by a director whose work I admired and who was going to direct a film based on a book I also admired was beyond belief.” On location in Salem, Oregon, Cuckoo’s Nest was shooting in an unused wing at the Oregon State Hospital, a facility treating patients with mental illness. Chew and his crew were editing in rooms above the set. During breaks, Forman would visit Chew to review his assembly of the footage. From him Chew learned how to adroitly apply reaction shots to define character and add momentum to the narrative. “Milos was fastidious about even adding one frame,” says Chew.

Later, during post at Fantasy Films’ Berkeley studio, with a release date fast approaching, Lynzee Klingman, ACE, and Sheldon Kahn, ACE, joined the team to help Forman and Chew finish the cut. Reviewing the film recently, Chew is mindful of its lasting impact. “Back in the ’80s when I met folks who had come from authoritarian countries like Russia and Chile, they talked about how impactful and popular the film was in their home countries because of its anti-authoritarian message.”

Star Wars
The production history of Star Wars is among the most documented in movie history. Chew himself has shared extensively in talks and interviews about his work on what was, let’s not forget, a modestly budgeted indie picture in keeping with his maverick sensibilities.

Chew had originally declined Lucas’ invite to join the production in Pinewood, England electing to prioritize his young family at home. When the unit returned to the Bay Area, editor Marcia Lucas contacted him again. “George didn’t like what the first editor did in England so he had that cut reconstituted into the original dailies. Marcia started work on the ending, while George assigned me to the beginning,” says Chew. “He was focused with how we introduced Darth Vader, the robots and Luke. Elsewhere there were action scenes that had to be cut before the VFX could be created.”

For example, Chew cut the Mos Eisley escape battle scene featuring Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill in rotating gun turrets shot against blue screen. “Cutting action with blue screen was new for me,” recalls Chew. “How I cut the sequence determined what VFX had to be created. I had to be very precise.”

With the clock ticking toward showing a cut to the studio, Lucas brought in Paul Hirsch, ACE, to join the team. “It was invigorating to have a third editor onboard to share the workload on a tight schedule,” Chew adds. “For the climatic battle sequence I suggested intercutting Luke making his final bombing run on the Death Star with Princess Leia in jeopardy of being blasted to bits by the Death Star. The original script had them as separate sequences, but by intercutting them we would raise the tension,” says Chew. “George and Marcia loved the idea.”

Eventually with the film in good narrative shape and the post budget funneled to the VFX shots, Hirsch made the final adjustments with George after Chew and Marcia Lucas left to join other projects.

Actor-Directors and Writer-Directors
Chew was suddenly hot property but the lure of commercial studio projects didn’t attract him. Instead, he sought scripts that would shed light on the human condition. “I’ve turned down projects that went on to be hugely successful, but were too violent or exploitative for my taste,” Chew says. “When I get a script, I ask myself what are the underlying values of this story? Why is this being made? That’s why I prefer whenever possible to work with writer-directors and on stories that give voice to certain people who are rarely portrayed on screen.”

For Allison Anders’ Mi Vida Loca (1993), for example, he helped tell the stories of young Chicanas in the pre-gentrification L.A neighborhood Echo Park. “This was a subculture that needed to have a voice, and Allison wrote a screenplay interweaving multiple characters with their voiceovers. Early cuts confused audiences so I devised a new structure telling their stories more clearly.”

Chew has also been a favorite collaborator of actors turned director. Having struck a rapport with Jack Nicholson on Cuckoo’s Nest, the star invited Chew to edit Goin’ South, the 1978 comedy Western he was directing. “Jack was looking for a fresh face, a non-Hollywood guy and I was that guy,” Chew says. “He always kept me close by. During shooting on location in Durango, Mexico, he had me editing in the house where he stayed. Later when we returned home, he had me editing in a house next door to his canyon home.

He was eager to show off his young cast of Mary Steenburgen, Danny DeVito and John Belushi. Always the actor, Jack would show how a scene should be edited by acting out all their parts himself.” Chew recalls, “When he needed reassurance, Jack would invite his director pals to see some reels, guys like Hal Ashby, Bob Rafelson, Warren Beatty. Then he would tell me their notes.”

He has edited the directorial feature debuts of actors such as Richard Benjamin’s My Favorite Year (1982) featuring the Oscar-winning performances of Peter O’Toole; Forest Whitaker, Waiting to Exhale (1995); Tom Hanks, That Thing You Do! (1996); and Emilio Estevez, Bobby (2006). When Chew interviewed with Benjamin on the MGM lot, Mel Brooks, the executive producer, reminded Chew to “always cut on the frame line.” “Being a first-time director, Richard Benjamin welcomed how we could help the actors through editing. With a solid script and performances, we focused primarily on pacing, flow, building to the punch line. Since we found the same things funny, he asked me to edit his later films but we could never make our schedules coincide, which is a source of regret,” Chew says.

“On Waiting to Exhale, Forest worried about whether he extracted the best turns from his all-star cast of Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett, among others. Since the film is based on Terry McMillan’s best selling novel about four worldly Black women’s quest for faithful lovers, he didn’t want to disappoint its huge fan base. After he saw my edit, he was reassured.” Whitaker and Chew’s collaboration extended to two subsequent films.

“And Tom Hanks was so enthusiastic on That Thing You Do! that he infected us all with his energy. He appreciated how editing could enhance moments he missed during shooting. When we struggled with a lengthy second act, I created a montage to shorten it, much to Tom’s delight. Based on what I did, he empowered me to cut his footage the way I felt would work best. That was how it was working with Paul Brickman and Richard Benjamin. They accepted me more as a creative partner.”

On 1983’s Risky Business, written and directed by Brickman, Chew suggested areas of the script that could be fleshed out visually, such as the love-on-the-train sequence, and musically with the use of Tangerine Dream’s now-classic score. “We enjoyed creating jokes in the editing that weren’t inthe script.” Six years later Chew edited Brickman’s next film.

Men Don’t Leave.
Chew was initially drawn to Estevez because of his script about the assassination of Robert Kennedy. “The script was really ambitious. It dealt with undocumented workers, voting rights and how people across the racial divide see each other. I sensed that as an editor, I could help him convey his vision.”

Their partnership continued on Estevez’s next pictures The Way (2010) and The Public (2018). Cameron Crowe, another writer-director, wanted Chew to cut the romantic comedy Singles (1992). “Cameron was a great fan of Risky Business. He liked its stylishness and wanted to capture that in Seattle during the height of the grunge movement.

Because of my documentary experience and knowledge of the city, we scouted locations together and he allowed me to oversee several aspects of the film including the title sequence.” Chew is credited as second unit DP and co-producer as well as editor.

Working with Malick
One collaboration that upended his approach to editing was working with Terrence Malick on the historical romance The New World (2005). Chew worked with editors Hank Corwin, ACE, Saar Klein and Mark Yoshikawa, ACE, on the film.

“By any measure Malick was the most original and unconventional director I’d ever worked with. He made me question my editorial sense of continuity and linearity. “On every other film you shoot the script and then you edit the images to fit the narrative informed by the material. But Malick is a lyrical poet. He throws away the script in the edit room and creates an almost entirely different work from the images. “I made the mistake in my first assembly of making matched cuts,” Chew recounts. “Terry chastised me for being too literal by ‘Burbank-ing it’ – like, editing it the studio way.

Another time he handed me two hours of narration to place. One paragraph was talking about fire. So, naturally I put the words about fire over images of fire. He hated it, telling me to move the voiceover 10 seconds later so that the words don’t match the picture. Elsewhere he wanted sequences with no match cuts nor continuity. He liked his images to appear random in their placement. It wasso subjective, and completely free from predictability.”

Chew’s Career
It’s impossible to sum up the contribution of this remarkable filmmaker. He is as modest as he is revered, suggesting   that every one of his life’s turns has been a matter of right place, right time. “I respect every single one of the editors I’ve worked with – I’ve learned so much from them by osmosis,” Chew says. “The ACE organization is an extension of this – a collegial group with whom I can share thoughts about film aesthetics or industry practices.”

He urges, “The industry now is so different to that when I entered in the 1960s. The workload and schedules are so much more demanding. We editors must be resolute in advocating for sensible working conditions and better recognition of the pivotal role we play in making movies. Our skills are essential and unique.”

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