McKay had a hunger for more experience and always kept his eye on the prize. “I had always considered myself, even at that early age, a storyteller. I saw the storytelling advantages being in a cutting room. That sort of galvanized me. But I was in a commercial house, and I wanted to do feature films. That’s where the real fire in my belly was. I met a lot of people in the commercial house who also worked in features. I started doing more camera work and editing, but I lost interest in the camerawork because Madison Avenue only wanted to take pretty pictures and I was more interested in storytelling.” He remembers, “One of the people I started out with was Richard Marks [ACE]. We were both PAs in the beginning.
I told Richard my gripes about Madison Avenue. He told me to try coming back in the cutting room. At least you get to learn every aspect of it. It’s a very powerful place to be. After that, I started to pursue a feature film career.” “Film production was really picking up in New York at the time,” recalls McKay, “and [sound editor] Sandy Rakow recommended me for an assistant position to a fairly new editor at the time – Alan Heim [ACE]. Alan hired me on my first feature film. Thank you, Alan. I’m forever grateful.
That feature was the Sidney Lumet film, Last of the Mobile Hot Shots. There I was … doing a Warner Bros. feature film with Alan Heim!” From that point, McKay wanted for nothing regarding assistant work. McKay details, “Alan recommended me to Evan Lottman [ACE]. I did a film with Evan as his assistant, which was Puzzle of a Downfall Child – Jerry Schatzberg’s first film. From there, Barry Malkin [ACE], whom I knew from Cinemetric, asked me to be his assistant on a feature film. It was the Herb Gardner-scripted film, Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? Then, I went back to work on a movie called Scarecrow with Evan Lottman.
I told Evan I wanted to do some cutting and he told me to ask Jerry Schatzberg, the director, and if he says it’s okay then it’s okay with him. So I did and I cut two important scenes in the Scarecrow so I got the bug even more. That same year, I had worked on The Exorcist, which was such a big hit. I got a lot of television work from that. A lot of TV movies of the week. Also, my first feature film – Thieves. I also found out after some success, it’s easy to get your first feature film. Not so easy to get your second.”
Never one to be discouraged, McKay remained laser-focused on his goals. “I told everybody I’m not going to do anything until I get another cutting job so I stayed in the house for 10 months,” recalls McKay humorously. “Finally, Steve Rotter [ACE] called and said he was doing a miniseries called Holocaust. It was one of the first big miniseries for television. He hired me and I worked with him and Bob Reitano. Alan Heim was also on board – he was still in New York at the time. I really gave that show everything I had. We were eventually nominated for Emmys®.
I remember getting a call from Steve Rotter at 2 a.m. who was at the Emmy Awards and he told me, ‘Our show won!’ I got an Eddie out of that, too.” Around that time Barry Malkin was working on Last Embrace with Jonathan Demme. “They had a good relationship. Jonathan wanted him on his next film, but Barry had already committed to doing another project. Barry recommended me. Jonathan called and we had lunch. Frankly, I wasn’t that impressed with the next script. It was Melvin and Howard. Bear in mind that script won an Academy Award®,” admits McKay, laughing. “Still, I told him I’d love to work with you and your take on the fractured American culture. Even though I dumped on the script, he hired me.
There was a problem, though. I was still working on a TV movie of the week and I wouldn’t be able to start work until six weeks into his shoot. I told him that and he wasn’t pleased. He called Barry and complained. Barry said, ‘Hire him, anyway. I’m telling you, hire him.’ Demme told the studio that I would be starting six weeks late. The studio was like, ‘Who the f@#% is Craig McKay?’ Demme said well, he just won an Emmy and an Eddie. That was it. I had the job.” It may have started out complicated, but it was the beginning of a beautiful partnership. The ‘70s were quite good to Craig McKay and the ‘80s would be no different. He started the decade with a onetwo punch that set the tone for his career as an editor and his craftsmanship as a storyteller. “Melvin and Howard won a lot of critical acclaim. I had crossed the bridge to feature land.
Not long after that, I got a call from Dede Allen [ACE]. I had worked with her as an ADR editor on a couple of jobs a few years prior. She had recommended me for an earlier job for a TV documentary on the American Revolution. She said, ‘I’m doing a very big film. Russian Revolution. John Reed. Ten days that shook the world. Warren Beatty. Diane Keaton. Jack Nicholson. I need a partner. Are you interested?’ Took me about a tenth of a second to say yes. I deeply admired Dede and welcomed the opportunity to be partners with her on the film. And we were indeed partners. It was a partnership and we did that for two years. We got (Oscar) nominated for that but didn’t win. I was pretty well established by that time as a feature film editor.”
Reds scored a slew of Academy Award nominations including a win for its director, Warren Beatty. Now that McKay was in the big leagues, he learned that editing is sometimes more than just telling the best story. “When I started working on Reds Warren took me aside and said, ‘Craig, I want you to know one thing: I’m the biggest narcissist in Hollywood,’” laughs McKay. “I had that in mind when cutting a particular scene where his performance is really good but he had these visible crow’s feet. I asked my assistant, Jill Savitt, to take a look at it, and she said, ‘Well, he’s really good but I don’t know if he’s gonna go for that shot.’ I said, ‘I know but I’m gonna put it in anyway because he’s that good in it.’ I asked Beatty to come in and look at the scene. He came in and after he saw it he said, ‘Wow, that’s really good. It’s a very interesting scene. I like it a lot, but you know that one shot.’ Of course, he’s talking about the one with the crow’s feet.
I said, ‘Yes. It’s a really good performance. Very strong.’ He replied, ‘Yeah, but don’t you think it shows a little too much character?’” And so character won. The rest of the decade was filled with three more Jonathan Demme films (Swing Shift, Something Wild, Married to the Mob) and a number of TV movies interspersed throughout. Unbeknownst to McKay he was building up to something even larger that would bloom in the ‘90s. He explains, “I established a great relationship with Jonathan. We were definitely molto simpatico. Sometimes I wouldn’t even see him while he was shooting but I still had a sense of what he wanted. Most of the time we were totally aligned.
I had fun with Demme. He was a humanist and it was at the core of his work. It transcended the quirky aspects of the subject matter. I ultimately did seven films with him and produced a couple of things with him. Once, we were in a sound mix and he came in that morning and he gave me a book to read. He said, ‘I read this book all last night. I gotta make this movie.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘It’s called The Silence of the Lambs. It’s an unbelievable, thrilling ride.’ I said, ‘I wanna do it with you.’ He said, ‘You got it.’ I’ve done a number of movies, but Lambs is probably the one movie where I got to do everything I wanted to do as an editor.”
The Silence of the Lambs won the Academy Award for Best Picture and garnered McKay his second nomination. The film was not only a critical smash, but also a box office success proving that horror need not be relegated to B-movie status. There is a now-famous scene in which McKay’s talents truly shine through and it is close to the film’s denouement.
“When I first got the scene of the FBI raid, it looked like it was shot in an almost linear or straight line. I looked at it and thought, ‘We should parallel cut that,’ but I couldn’t get a hold of Jonathan while he was shooting out in Pittsburgh. I got a hold of the script supervisor and asked, ‘Was that scene intended to be linear or in parallel?’ She thought it was linear so I went against my instinct and cut a linear version. A couple of weeks later I’m screening it with Demme and in that dark screening room he leans forward and says, ‘How come you didn’t parallel that?’ We had great communication. GamesRadar does a great job describing the scene and the power of editing on full display:
“If any aspiring filmmaker wants to know how to use crosscutting to its full potential, just point them to this sequence. As the film nears its climax, the FBI think they have their killer and are about to raid his house, while Clarice [Jodie Foster] follows up on an interview lead separately. We see Buffalo Bill [Ted Levine] panicking as a bell rings at the exact moment the FBI press on the doorbell but, wait, he opens the door to Clarice while the FBI breaks into what they come to realize is an empty house. The added genius to the sequence is that only [the audience] realizes just how screwed Clarice is, meaning we’re hoping and PRAYING she just walks away from the house. She doesn’t.”
The ‘90s saw its share of other highlights including Miami Blues, Philadelphia, and Cop Land. Eager to impart and discover creativity, McKay was also a creative advisor at Sundance during its zenith as America’s premier independent film festival. It was around this time that McKay made the digital leap. He recalls, “I was helping out Demme on a doc he was producing about Nelson Mandela. He asked me to come take a look at it. There was an Irish assistant on the film named Naomi Geraghty. That doc was being cut on the Avid. I had not made the transition yet. I was able to sit with the editor. While I was on the job, I got a call from a producer who said he was doing a film in Ireland called Some Mother’s Son, and we want to know if you’re interested. He said the director is Jim Sheridan and those are magic words.
I said, ‘I’d love to work with Jim Sheridan.’ I didn’t have an agent in those days. We had entertainment lawyers who would make the deals for us. I knew it was an Avid job. I remembered Naomi was in the other room. I asked her, ‘You interested in doing a film in Ireland?’ She responded, ‘You know I came all the way here to make films and now you’re taking me back.’ She was able to help me out and that was the first film I was able to cut digitally.” For someone known for his narrative skills, telling an eloquent and interesting story didn’t happen overnight for McKay.
He explains, “The transition between assistant and editor was not easy for me. I was known as the technical guy. I was trying to crack the whole idea of story and I was talking to Herb Gardner, the playwright, about it. He suggested I read a book by Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing. He said, ‘It’s the bible.’ I studied that book over a couple of years and read it two or three times. It really delineated the framework of storytelling for me. That helped me more than anything else. He also suggested Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I took that and applied it to film – omit useless words/shots. Those two sources helped me tremendously.
Right now, I consider myself more of a storyteller than an editor or a producer or a director. I was once at a dinner party with Herb, Paddy Chayefsky, Bob Fosse and Sam Cohen from ICM. I asked Paddy if he had any advice on storytelling. He said, ‘Kid, there’re only three things you need to know to tell a story: Who is your character, what does he want and what’s preventing him from getting it? That’s it.’” Filmmaking is about collaboration and asking for help is part of that process. It’s a team of specialists working toward a common goal: Tell the best story possible. Over the years, McKay has been ably backed by such strong assistants like Joe Landauer, Colleen Sharp, Trudy Ship, Deirdre Slevin and Nancy Kanter, who is now executive vice president at Disney Channels Worldwide, plus the aforementioned Geraghty and Savitt.
“I like giving someone talented the opportunity to be an assistant, but sometimes you have to push them out of the nest and find another,” shares McKay. Throughout his career, McKay has been adept at hopping from genre to genre, from style to style, without losing any of that special touch. This century only cements that fact with a roster full of comedies (Surviving Christmas), sci-fi (Europa Report), dramas (The Manchurian Candidate), indies (Sin Nombre), and documentaries (Babies). He explains, “I felt that I could do any genre: documentary, TV, film. My career is varied that way.
The one thing that I was really thought of as is a performance editor. Dede used to say to me, ‘Performance is everything.’ I worked really hard on developing strong performances through deep concentration.” Jodie Foster, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Maureen Stapleton, Mary Steenburgen, Tom Hanks and even Warren Beatty can attest to that. Nowadays, McKay continues to edit but is working on a passion project that’s a little hush-hush right now. He’s putting all his energy into producing a script that he has written. Not bad for the die-hard New Yorker who learned how to not let a disability hamper his dreams. McKay was born with a dislocated hip, which created a shortness and a need for an artificial leg. “I’m the one-legged film editor,” jokes McKay. “I never let the handicap get in my way. Fortunately, a lot of people wanted to hire the handicapped guy.
As a kid, I suffered a lot. Doing camera work was pretty aggressive stuff. I still live it today.” When his grandmother took him to see The Secret Garden as a child, he had no idea the film was about “a rich kid who was handicapped and wore braces and how he healed. I remember, looking up at this big black-and-white screen, I got more deeply involved. I was a moviegoer from that point on. I was blown away. It was the impetus for me to pursue passion. Interesting now. All these years later, my apartment in Manhattan is next to a two-acre private garden shared with another building across the way.