By Bill Desowitz
Sam Pollard, editor, NYU professor, producer and director, cut his teeth on low-budget genre films in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Body and Soul), but his specialty remains documentaries (Eyes on the Prize II and this year’s Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, which chronicles the organizer of the historic March on Washington in 1963). However, Pollard is probably best known for his collaboration with Spike Lee (Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Clockers, and Bamboozled). He recently produced The Blues, the PBS documentary executive-produced by Martin Scorsese.
Below the Line: Your mentor is Victor Kanefsky (Blood Sucking Freaks, Seize the Day, and Benny Goodman: Adventures in the Kingdom of Swing). Tell me about how you were mentored, because that tradition is unfortunately on the decline among assistant editors as a result of nonlinear digital editing.
Sam Pollard: I was mentored by working for one editor for three years before I became an editor. I always tell this story about Victor Kanefsky. I got hired as an apprentice editor in 1972 on a low budget feature called Ganja & Hess by a director named Bill Gunn, who had written The Landlord for Hal Ashby. Victor kept me on because I had talent. He made me sit behind him at the Steenbeck and would explain to me why he would go from a medium shot to a closeup, why he would dissolve from one shot to another, why he would make sure the texture of one shot would match the texture of another shot. Why he would move one line of narration from one spot to another spot. He did that for three years, so by the time I was 25, one of his clients asked me to cut a film and I never looked back. And along the way, if you were lucky, you would find these kinds of mentors that would take you from film to film. There’s another man, George Bowers, who cut A League of Their Own for Penny Marshall [among other projects], but when he came out to L.A. in the early ‘80s, he directed some low-budget films for Crown International and Cannon Films, and he hired me to cut Body and Soul. He was another one who gave me a chance to hone my craft and move up in my career.
BTL: How did you come to work with Spike?
Pollard: He had just done Do the Right Thing and I was up in Boston producing Eyes on the Prize II (‘90). I got a call one day in my apartment. My son answered the phone. He said, ‘Dad, it’s Spike Lee.’ I thought he was pulling my leg. So I get on the phone, and it is Spike. A buddy of mine, who was one of his production managers, had recommended me to edit Mo’ Better Blues, which at the time was called A Love Supreme. He offered me the job and I turned him down because I was in the middle of making this documentary. And I thought that was the end of it. But five weeks later he called me and another friend of mine who’s a documentary producer also had mentioned to Spike that I was really into jazz and was doing a documentary about musician Max Roach. Spike called me again, and I said no. It was right before Labor Day and Spike said he was coming up to Martha’s Vineyard for the Labor Day weekend, and I was going up there at the same time, so we met. We met at a little coffee shop and I talked for a half an hour. Spike didn’t say anything. At the end, I basically talked myself into taking the film.
BTL: How did that experience with him work out?
Pollard: Initially, I wasn’t sure it was gonna work. I moved back to New York and when they started shooting, I looked at dailies after about a week and I asked him when we were going to start cutting. He said not yet. A few more weeks go by and I ask him again, and still he didn’t want me to start cutting. It’s an 11-week shoot, and I’m getting full salary just to screen dailies. I could’ve stayed in Boston; I could’ve finished the other job; I could’ve gone back and forth.
BTL: He was waiting to finish.
Pollard: Yeah, so the 11 weeks are over and they finish shooting and I say to Spike, ‘So, I guess we start cutting on Monday, right?’ He said no, he’s going away for a week’s vacation. I thought this is going to be terrible. He comes back and puts on scene one and I realize that we’re going to start looking at dailies a second time and take more notes. All I could think after that was, this is it. He’s going to sit behind me and look at every cut. I’m just going to be his hands. So we screened the dailies for scene one, and, to my surprise, he said, “Cut this scene; I’ll be back in a couple of days.” So I cut the scene and he made some changes, and I cut it again. Then we’d look at dailies again, and I’d cut the scene, and he’d come back and make some changes. And that’s the way it went. It wasn’t too bad. But I figured we’d never work again. But two weeks into shooting Jungle Fever he came to me and asked me to cut that movie. It turns out that he didn’t really know me on that first film and just wanted to make sure that we were on the same wavelength.
BTL: What would you say that you contributed to his films?
Pollard: I think what I bring to his films with my background in documentaries is an understanding of how to tease out moments in a scene that don’t have any rhyme or reason, because a lot of directors working today who’ve gone to film school try lots of different things and don’t stick to the script. For instance on Jungle Fever, there’s a scene when the black women are sitting around talking about black men. Spike shot it with four cameras like a documentary with intro and outro lines, but the rest was improvised. So when he gave that footage, I was in my element, finding what makes it work dramatically and conceptually. He could be a little unfocused and I knew how to attack it. What’s fascinating is that I always say that working on Spike’s dramatic films informed my documentary skills in terms of how to tell stories.