Gavin Schmitt Interviews Bob Murawski
Bob Murawski is an editor who rose up from the world of the drive-in and low-budget films, Murawski went on to become the regular editor for Sam Raimi starting with “Army of Darkness” through the “Spider-Man” movies and beyond, before winning his first Oscar editing Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”. But while his career has taken him from Detroit to the Academy Awards, his heart never left the drive-in and he has also made a name for himself restoring and releasing some cult films [“Cannibal Holocaust”, (affiliate link)“The Beyond” and many more]
Bob was kind enough to sit down with me at Flashback Weekend 2014 and briefly go over his career to this point…
GS: Starting out, you interned at Mason Releasing, but I’m not sure people know what that is…
BM: Mason Releasing Corporation was a company run by a guy named Bob Mason in Detroit. Bob was a sub-distributor, and in the old days, sometimes a small company would only have one or two or a handful of movies and they would rely on regional sub-distributors to get their movies booked into local theaters and place the newspaper and radio ads. Companies like Motion Picture Marketing and Film Concept Group who put out movies like “Women’s Prison Massacre” or “Night of the Zombies” or “Invasion of the Blood Farmers”. Independent guys like Al Adamson, Sam Sherman and Andy Sidaris would use sub-distributors. The original “Halloween” was distributed this way. Big companies were based in New York or LA, but for the little guys, the US was broken up into regions, so Bob Mason would handle the Midwest. They’d call him up and say, “Hey Bob, we have this really gory Italian film called ‘Gates of Hell’ and we need to get it playing in Detroit, Cincinnati, Minneapolis…” Other guys would handle Atlanta, or the West Coast, or other regions. Anyway, Bob handled all these cool movies. All the movies I had gone to see at the drive-in, he was the one who had released them all in Michigan. I worked with him for a few years booking films in drive-ins back when drive-ins were still big business, and at inner-city theaters. We had titles like “Vampire Hookers” and “Demons”. Basically, he had 35mm prints and we moved them around from drive-in to drive-in.
GS: On “Darkman”, you’re credited as the “director of stock footage”. What does that title mean?
BM: A friend of mine was working on “Darkman” as assistant editor. I didn’t even know Sam (Raimi) at that point, even though we were both from Michigan. My friend said, “We need someone to come on the film and find stock footage for these montage sequences.” Crazy scenes where the camera zooms into Liam Neeson’s eye and there were lightning bolts, tornadoes, volcanoes exploding… Sam needed someone to basically go through stock footage libraries and pull violent, weird footage that would represent primal rage. So I came on doing that, going through and finding footage for the montage sequences. When it came time for a title, I said, “Hey, can I have ‘director of stock footage’?” And he said, “Sure, go ahead. I don’t usually give anyone else a director title, but since you asked for it, go ahead and take it.” That ended up leading to me working on “Army of Darkness”, where I was co-editor with Sam. So it was a big step forward.
GS: With Sam Raimi, especially his earlier films, there is kind of a slapstick style to the comedy. Does that affect your editing choices, as far as pacing goes?
BM: Yeah, sure it does. In “Army of Darkness”, for example, there’s a scene where Ash is in the graveyard fighting the skeleton hands. Those kind of scenes have their own weird rhythm and you have to watch them with an audience, to see how they’re reacting. Sometimes you need to cut something shorter or maybe you need to expand things to get a laugh. And just like anything in a movie, it’s a constant process of watching it with an audience and getting the feedback. But in a way, editing that is no different than editing anything else; you just have to do what’s right for the material.
GS: Today you’re known as Sam Raimi’s perennial editor, so what lead to jumping over to Kathryn Bigelow’s crew?
BM: I had just finished “Spider-Man 3” with Sam, and I got a call from Kathryn. A friend of mine named Paul Ottosson had done the sound for “Spider-Man 2” and “Spider-Man 3”, and he did the sound restoration for me on “The Beyond” and “Cannibal Holocaust”. Anyway, he was going to be working on Kathryn’s movie as sound supervisor and recommended me as the editor. So she called me up, and said she was doing a movie in Jordan about the Iraq War, and asked if I was interested. I was a huge fan of “Near Dark”, which is my favorite movie of 1987. I turned it down, because I had been working on “Spider-Man 3” for two years and had too much I needed to do in my personal life, like spend time with my family and work on my distribution company putting out Italian horror movies. I told her I needed a few months off, and she said, “I’d really love to have you, Paul really recommends you.” But again, I told her I’d love to work on a movie in Jordan and I love “Near Dark”, but I just can’t do it.
Kathryn called back about a month later, and she said, “Would you please reconsider? Is there any way I can make you do this movie? I’m calling from a Starbucks in Kuwait on a military base.” I really wanted to do the movie, but at the same time my wife was saying she’d kill me because it was so dangerous at the time in the Middle East. Kathryn called back a third time and said, “I know you want time off. Maybe you can send an assistant out to start assembling the movie while I’m shooting it.” So I talked to my wife, and she’s an editor, too, and she said, “I’ll do the movie.” So first she said she wouldn’t let me go, and now she’s saying she’d love to go herself. She loved the script and thought the movie could be great. So my wife actually went to Jordan and took the job that I didn’t take, and was there for three months while they were shooting. I stayed home where I was working on “Pieces” and my old Italian movies. I kept checking in because I was worried about her since she was a blond-haired, American woman near the border of Iraq during the surge. And I ended up going out to Jordan for a week to see her. She was there editing, just doing a great job. When she got back to the US, I started working on it as well. And it required a huge amount of work, because there was 200 hours of footage we had to turn into a 2 hour movie. I have to credit Kathryn for being persistent, but especially my wife for doing it when I couldn’t do it.
GS: With regards to Hollywood politics, do you think there was something about your editing in “The Hurt Locker” that was more deserving of an Oscar than previous films, or did it get a boost for being a more serious film?
BM: Working with my wife, she might have focused more on the drama and emotion while I might have focused more on the gore and the violence… but, also, I think it’s just a really strong movie because of how we focused on the main character, played by Jeremy Renner. And there was a lot of work on the structure of the film, because the first cut was almost four hours. I give Kathryn a lot of credit for being very mercenary, allowing us cut it down to the length it needed to be. When it got down to two hours and eleven minutes, that’s when we decided it was the best picture it could be. The other reason I personally think it was successful is because we weren’t working for a studio. There were producers, but they backed off when we stood up against them. With studio movies, like “Spider-Man 3” or the Oz movie I did with Sam, the studio was so involved that they ruined the movie. That was the biggest problem with “Spider-Man 3”. The studio sabotaged the film by doing what they thought was best, but it wasn’t what was best for the movie. The Oz movie, for Disney, was ruined because they were relentless. And even “Darkman” was the same thing, the same situation with Universal. But “Hurt Locker” was independent, and basically a low budget movie by today’s standards with an $11 million budget, the director had the power and told the financiers how things were going to be. And that gave the film a lot of integrity. But everything was great: a great script, Kathryn’s directing, and the actors were solid.
GS: I don’t disagree with any of that. The point I was suggesting is that horror films are as good as other films but don’t get the recognition of the Academy.
BM: Yes, they are as good and they don’t get the recognition. That’s the other part of it, too. A movie like “Drag Me To Hell”, as good as it is, will never be considered an Academy-quality product. And for me, now that I’m in the Academy, hopefully I can persuade them. I’ve actually gone to Academy meetings where they talk about “Academy-caliber movies”, and my response is, “Well, what does that mean?” Because I think all movies, if they’re made with passion and are a quality product with heart, soul and integrity, are just as good as any other movies. The movies I love the most are not movies that are typically considered Academy-caliber movies. And that’s the irony. I never thought I’d be nominated for an Academy Award, let alone win one. It was never even a goal of mine, because I knew the films I was interested in were the polar opposite of Academy movies. When we were up for the award, I wasn’t desperate to win the award. I mostly just didn’t want “Avatar” to win. But when we won, it was cool and the right time, because it was the same night Roger Corman got an honorary award.
GS: Stepping back a moment, you edited and served as a third unit director for “Uncle Sam”. What did this involve?
BM: There was already a second unit director shooting, so I told Bill (Lustig) to call me the third unit. It was pretty simple stuff, like shots of Uncle Sam in his coffin. Just little pieces to spice up the movie. I wish Bill would have pushed the envelope more on the gore. I love Bill and “Maniac” is one of my all-time favorites, but he had a different idea for “Uncle Sam”. Larry Cohen’s script was incredible. Larry’s such a great writer. But Bill wanted to go for more of a PG-13 horror film, or more like a Val Lewton movie. And I felt it needed to be like “Maniac”, but he wanted to take it in a different direction. The movie gets kind of a bad rap, but I think there’s some cool things in it.
GS: Today, you and Bill are both distributors, with Grindhouse and Blue Underground, respectively.
BM: And Grindhouse was around before Blue Underground.
GS: So when you’re out looking for properties, do you and Bill have something of a friendly competition?
BM: Sometimes not so friendly. (laughs) I’ve been friends with Bill for years, but he’s pretty mercenary when it comes to business. He doesn’t care if you’re his friend or not if he wants something. For “City of the Living Dead”, we were supposed to put out that movie. At the point we started Grindhouse, the original license hadn’t expired, so we had to option to buy it. Somehow when it became available, Bill slipped in and bought the movie. I don’t know how it happened and I was furious. But Bill’s attitude was “you snooze, you lose”. So, it’s a little bit competitive, but for me these movies are more of a hobby. I don’t have to rely on them to pay my mortgage, so I don’t take it personally.
GS: Plenty of people, myself included, love the old Italian films. But for you personally, why is this the type of film you’re passionate about?
BM: I just love the movies…
GS: Put another way, of all the movies in the world without distribution, why are these the titles you want to bring out?
BM: That’s a good question. I often ask myself why I waste my time with these movies. When I first started Grindhouse, the idea was to release these movies that no one else wanted. Back in 1996, when we started the company, there weren’t all these companies putting out these movies. For a movie like “The Beyond”, when you go back to the original print, the negative, you see a beautiful movie. It’s really well shot, really well directed. The cinematography is gorgeous. The level of the surreal, the atmosphere… I just respond to that on an emotional level. I grew up reading Famous Monsters, and staying up late watching “Twilight Zone”, Hammer films and AIP pictures. Years later I got into the Italian stuff. And when I worked for the guy in Detroit, we always talked about trying to get some of our own movies.
When Sage (Stallone) came around and had the ability and the money to get the movies, I was like, yeah, count me in 100%. When we started doing it, nobody was doing it, so to be able to see these films at pristine quality, spending our time and energy to make them the best possible, that really appealed to me. I give these the same amount of attention that I give a studio movie because I want them to be perfect. I’ve always been into gore, for whatever reason. It might seem kind of childish, but it brings me back to being a small kid in Michigan and seeing the ads for the drive-ins in Detroit. Movies like “Meat Cleaver Massacre” and “Toolbox Murders”. The Andy Milligan movies like “Bloodthirsty Butchers”, which, when I finally saw them realized they were horrible. But you get this image in your head from the ads when you see them as a kid. Years later, I was more drawn to the Fulci movies or Herschell Gordon Lewis, because they had a certain level of craftsmanship. And they have a lo of passion, be it “Blood Feast” or “Texas Chain Saw Massacre”, “Dawn of the Dead”… I’m just a big film fan.
GS: I can get behind that. Thanks for your time and the thorough answers.
BM: It’s been cool, man.