Aspects of Editing 2 Qtr, 2018

This following is an excerpt from the essay collection, Nobody Dies Tonight: 40 Years on the Cutting Room Floor – A Hollywood Memoir by Bonnie Koehler, ACE.

Whenever I hear Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, incongruously, I think of the great noir film director of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, Nicholas Ray, the way I knew him in 1974. I see his imposing, slightly-stooped frame, his lionsized head with its regal mane of silver hair, his black eyepatch and movie-star smile. I see the large chunk of turquoise hanging around his neck, his oversized, seashell ears and his penetrating left eye smiling at me ironically.

“I know too much,” he was fond of confiding in his deep, whiskey-and-cigarettes voice, “Like Jesus, they have to kill me.” Then he would whisper: “When they say I’ve fallen from grace – they admit it! Don’t you see? They admit that I’ve known grace. And that’s enough.”

I was the perfect foil for Nick Ray. He was proud that he was jaded and loved that I was not. I made him laugh. He was a mess when I knew him, but charismatically commanding in a rundown, elegant way. He gave off the impression, even then, well into his long, self-destructive decline, of being someone who could tell you the key thing you had to know. The elusive and essential thing, that only he could see. The thing that would galvanize you as an artist.

When I knew him, Nick was a dying elder in the wandering tribe of story catchers. The closed clan’s secrets were woven into an oral history, passed on only in parables. They would never be written down. You had to be by the fire when they were incanted and women rarely were. I was grateful that fate had tossed us together for a while. Nick let me in.

Nobody knew for sure how to make a great movie. Thus, Nick’s allure to a small cult of French, German and American filmmakers who idolized him even then, or idolized what he had been: the Orson Welles of the noir genre who directed over 20 successful Hollywood films in rapid succession. He might anoint them. Or some of the pixie dust left on his cloak might blow their way. And they, the next generation, owed him. He was a pioneer who had flown too close to the sun and was now in free-fall. We filmmakers were a reverential tribe after all, I remember thinking proudly. We took care of those who had come before us. That’s how it seemed to me anyway, when I was 23.

Here’s a glimpse of my time with Nick: Nick Ray is passed out in the passenger seat of my Karmann Ghia, his long, black leather-clad legs folded into the cramped space like a stork. I have his seat pushed all the way back but it’s not enough. The streets are empty as we drive through the warehouse district of San Francisco near the ferry terminal. Fog is tumbling off the bay. It’s just after 2 a.m. I’m shivering, but my coat’s tucked around Nick because the heat’s not working and I think he’s in shock. His head has fallen back onto my shoulder like a sleeping child. I’m relieved to feel his breath warming my neck as he struggles to breathe. I was afraid that this time he was dead for sure. I know he’s drunk and on meth and heroin and god-knows-what injectable, snort-able, pop-able drugs, but this time feels different, like he’s not going to make it back from wherever he goes.

I paged my boyfriend, an intern at Mercy Hospital in the Haight, from my cutting room at American Zoetrope when Nick collapsed on the floor in a seizure. “Bring him to me. Faster than an ambulance,” he said. “They’ll tip off Herb Caen1. He’s a heater.2”

Looking back on that night now, I have no idea how I got a man who was 6’4” down that long stairway and into my car. Did I use the freight elevator through the Automatt Recording Studio below to the loading dock? Did I give the beefy security guard in the parking lot the rolled, cocaine-covered C-note falling out of Nick’s pocket to help me? I think both.

Nick suddenly jerks awake and looks around, alarmed to find himself speeding through the neon streets of Skid Row, Joe Cocker on the radio.

“Stop!” he yells in his stentorian voice. “We’re out of Tanqueray!” “Really, Nick. Not now.” “STOP or I’ll jump out of this limo and sue the damn studio for all they’re worth!”

He opens the door.

I slam up to a liquor store on the corner just as the metal grate bangs down for the night. I look Nick in the eye.

“Just play your part, Angel, and the world opens up,” he says, oozing a lot of charm for someone who’s dying.

I buy him a green bottle of gin and miraculously both survive the experience and find him still in the car when I return. He’s been thrashing and gotten tangled in the seat belt.

“I could make the sun come out!” he roars as I struggle to rebuckle his shoulder strap. “That was in Spain, 1951. I was betrayed! They made me shoot it in winter. But by God I made the sun come out for 61 days in a row and it was a HIT!”

We pull into the ER.

Freddy’s waiting with two orderlies and a wheelchair. Nick hides the gin and flips up his collar like an Italian as they roll him in, making an entrance.

I rifle through Nick’s leather messenger bag, ignoring everything in it until I find his wallet, looking for a Directors Guild insurance card or Social Security card, so I can confirm he’s on Medicare.

But I find nothing except his expired California license with his DOB as 8/7/1911. He’s only 63 years old, too young for Medicare? That can’t be right. He looks 85. How young was he then when he made all those films? I’m just putting it all together under the fluorescent lights in the ER, sirens roaring towards us.

I try to reach Francis’ lawyer on the sticky pay phone for help but get no answer. Nick is rolled out of the admittance office by a blushing nurse rebuttoning her blouse with one hand. She’s agreed to overlook their strict insurance policy and admit him after all. Nick winks at me. Freddy does a work-up, running a battery of tests, blood panels, x-rays. He concludes that as far as he can tell: “Technically, Nick’s dead.

He has no vitals. I have no idea why he’s alive. Everything’s wrong with him, including malnutrition, cirrhosis of the liver, no oxygen in his blood, dehydration and extreme toxicity. Told me a very funny story, though. A few days’ rest and a steady diet will allow him to keep killing him- self a while longer.” As the nurse wheels him out of the exam room Nick pulls a Bolex 16mm camera loaded with fresh film out of his bag and hands it to me. “Track me with a rolling dolly shot, Angel.”

I give him one of the clean eye patches I keep in my bag and brush his hair. He flashes a Clark Gable smile for the camera. Freddy leads the procession, wheeling an IV as we head for the elevator. “Tuck your elbows tight against your body to steady the camera,” Nick directs. “Circle me now and land in a loose medium. Don’t throw a shadow, don’t you see. — Now you’ve got it, Angel. Manipulate me, the moment. It’s all fiction.” An hour ago he was writhing in pain on the floor with foam coming out of his mouth.

Now he’s directing me directing him. We enter the men’s ward on the seventh floor. There are a dozen metal beds lining the windowed wall facing the shaft to the courtyard. The only lights outside at this hour are from the morgue in the basement below, working overtime. The nurse whirls Nick around so that he doesn’t see the bed being prepared for him. Its former occupant disappears into a black rubber body bag.

The zipper makes a long, ripping death rattle. Freddy kneels in front of Nick to distract him from the morbid spectacle as the corpse is wheeled away. Nick lifts his cane and knights him, touching each shoulder with noblesse oblige. Orderlies snap fresh sheets on the bed. Nick is lifted in. Freddy hooks him up to the IV and gives him an injection.

I fluff his pillows and manage, “Good night, sweet prince.” He squeezes my wrist and mumbles in retort: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be,” getting the last Hamlet word, as he succumbs to sleep.

Freddy and I walk down the shadowy hall and around to the windows on the opposite side of the floor in the run-down hospital. We look back across the shaft at Nick’s room, but the lights have been turned out now and the glass is dark.

“Hungry? Got sardines and an orange,” Freddy says as we head to his monk’s cell. “And raisins.” He pulls a crushed red box out of his pocket.

He stops at the three-legged grand piano in the abandoned ballroom next to the interns’ quarters and plays Maple Leaf Rag, singing the chorus from the 1899 vintage sheet music:

“I can hypnotize dis nation, I can shake the earth’s foundation…” I fall asleep on the narrow bed listening to ragtime and looking out the window toward Nick, relieved that the director of Rebel Without a Cause and In a Lonely Place didn’t die on my watch. Not yet anyway, not tonight.

During the next three days as Nick regains his strength in the hospital I take notes on a new narration he’s writing for the film we’re re-cutting together. Francis invited Nick to San Francisco when he saw him in Cannes where Nick was screening his work-in-progress experimental feature out of competition.

It’s a heavily montaged, split-screen film that Nick began a couple of years ago while mentoring a group of college students in upstate New York. Our cutting room at Zoetrope is down the hall from Walter Murch and Richard Chew editing The Conversation and the legendary Hollywood editor Doug Stewart cutting Phil Kaufman’s film, The White Dawn. We’re in good company.

But unlike theirs, Nick’s work habits are erratic. Throughout the three months we’ve been working together, he’s been disappearing every few days. Francis, busy with the second Godfather, hired me to cut for Nick and look after him, but it’s an impossible task.

Clearly I’m screwing it up. Nick Ray is hooked to an IV while chainsmoking on oxygen, seducing the nurses and eating his way through the Mercy medicine cabinet. “The most important story is the price of love. That’s what all my films are about,” he says one night when I bring fresh coffee. “For the narration?” I ask. “For you. Remember that when you make your own films, Angel,” he says.

When we return to Zoetrope we have our most productive editing week yet. Friday evening, he bows and kisses my hand as he leaves for dinner. The next day he’s not there. Or the day after that. When Nick doesn’t return by the end of the following week, Francis throws up his hands. We pack up the film and ship the boxes back to New York. I never see Nick Ray again.

Five years later, in San Anselmo while I’m cutting in the song, Heat Wave, with George Lucas on More American Graffiti, George gets word that Nick Ray has died. I stop the KEM. “Oh,” I say. “I knew him once.”

“I know,” George says. “Keep cutting.”