A Chat With Bill Butler, Editor of 'A Clockwork Orange'
By Erin K. Lauten November 2001 editorsnet.com
When did you become interested in filmmaking, and how did your career take off?
I was always interested in film as a kid growing up, although I never dreamed that I would be behind the scenes. My father had a friend that worked at a studio in London and he got my brother a job as a runner for the studio. I left school at 16 and became an electrical engineer, but breaking out in sores from the dust, my father said that was it, so he got me a job at a studio. It was the old days where they used to play back to back features, and in-between they ran newsreels. I started out working on the newsreels. Then I became a second assistant.
After that, I went into the army for two years. When I returned, I couldn't get back in the industry, so I took another job as a trainee butcher. I then got a job working on a series about Colonel March, a police inspector with Scotland Yard, starring Boris Karloff, and I did that for a while. Then I started working with Les Hodgson, who was the sound editor on the series. I worked with him for the next four years. We did "That Lady," starring Paul Scofield and Olivia de Havilland. While working on "Alexander the Great" collecting sound effects for Les on "War and Peace," I met Russell Lloyd, who was the editor on the film "Moby Dick," starring Gregory Peck, Les again being the sound editor. I became Russell's assistant and worked with him for five years.
What are some of the films you worked on with Russell?
My first film with Russ as his assistant was "Roots of Heaven," starring Errol Flynn, shooting in Africa and working in Paris. We did a film in Africa called "The Lion" with William Holden and Trevor Howard. I also went to Ireland with Russ for "Of Human Bondage," starring Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak. I then became one of the sound editors on David Lean's film "Ryan's Daughter" before working again with Russ as the sound editor on "Return from the Ashes," starring Maximilian Schell.
What are some differences you've noticed between the editing business here and the editing business in England?
In England, as you work your way up, you become a trainee assistant (second assistant, as they were called) and then a first assistant. In most cases, you move on to become a sound editor, and if you are lucky, you become a film editor. Here, it seems to be that if you are on the sound side, you stay on the sound side, and if you are on the picture side, you stay on the picture side.
How did you land your first job as a picture editor?
Melvin Frank had a disagreement with the editor of "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell," which starred Peter Lawford and Telly Savalas and was filming in Rome. I applied for the job, and since Mel knew me because I was the sound editor on "Forum," he gave me the break and that was it. "Buona Sera" was a very, very funny movie.
How many films did you work on with Mel?
I did five films with Mel, including the film he did just before he died, called "Walk Like a Man." I also did "A Touch of Class," "The Duchess and Dirtwater Fox" and "Lost and Found," and I was second editor on "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," which starred Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft.
How does "A Clockwork Orange" fit into this timeline?
I had just finished a film that Jerry Lewis directed called "One More Time," which was a sequel of a film called "Salt and Pepper," with Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford. So I was in town and a friend of mine - Ray Lovejoy, who was an assistant editor on "Dr. Strangelove" and cut "2001: A Space Odyssey," and later did "The Shining" - said, "Do you want me to introduce you to Stanley?" And that's how I met Stanley. By that time, they were only two weeks from finishing shooting "A Clockwork Orange." After the shooting we went to the dailies of scene one, progressing in scene order to the end of the movie, using at times as many as 10 Moviolas and a couple of Steinbecks.
What was your first meeting with Stanley like? What was your initial impression?
We met and we walked around his garden in his house. He was very pleasant, asking me about my experience and how I liked to work. I told him I liked to work with the producer and the director as one, then you don't have the clashes of temperament, which normally happens. Things like that. I thought it was all going to be sweet and nice from then on, and it wasn't. He wasn't a very easy man to work with. He initially came across as easy-going. Yes, after our meeting he sent me a card saying, "I am glad you are coming aboard." It was all very pleasant and he seemed like a very, very nice man, calm and collective. That all changed on day one of the edit, with our first disagreement - the Korova Milkbar. When the boys were leaving the bar, one the patron's eyelines was moving the wrong way, and I told Stanley I thought it looked ugly. We re-cut some more and he asked me again what I felt. I said again, "I don't like it, but if you want it that way, okay." His reply was, "That's no fucking answer." Eventually Stanley took both eyelines out of the film and played the exit in the master.
Had you heard that Stanley was difficult to work with?
Oh, yes. I knew Les Hodgson, my ex-boss, who was the sound editor on "Dr. Strangelove." He told me Stanley in those days was a different person. Les and Stanley would occasionally go to soccer matches together on weekends. They were sort of buddies. But by the time I started working with him, he had already moved into his hermit stage. Many years after doing "A Clockwork Orange," I was working on a film called "Lost and Found" which we shot in Canada and finished in England. I ran into Stanley, who was making "The Shining" at the time. We had a long talk. He was friendly and quite caring, but during the film itself, it was difficult.
How long were your workdays on "A Clockwork Orange"?
Working was constant, seven days a week. I would be gone about 7 a.m. and never back before 10 p.m. It was about a year by the time we finished.
Did you read the novel before you started on the film?
No, I read the script. I should have read the book. It was a very good script. Stanley had a great eye. The only film out at that time that had anything like that kind of frontal nudity in it was the Clint Eastwood picture "Dirty Harry." "Clockwork," with the nudity and violence was, I think, the first, and way ahead of its time. It still stands up.
How did you respond to the script? Were you disturbed by it?
No. I didn’t find it disturbing, it's a part of life. The violence was there. One wouldn't want one's girlfriend or wife raped, but the violent scenes were done artistically, and with a point.
John Alcott was the cinematographer on the film. Did you meet with him?
I knew John quite well. John had similar difficulties with Stanley. Stanley set everything himself and wouldn't take any of John's ideas. I remember when John won the Academy Award for his cinematography on "Barry Lyndon," he was thanking everybody and said, "And least but not last, Stanley Kubrick."
In general, what things did you and Stanley disagree about?
Mainly, the thing we fought about was timing. We also couldn't agree which were the best takes. We clashed about overall cuts and selections. We disagreed on how the scenes should be put together. Pretty much everything.
Does a particular scene stand out in your mind?
The final scene with the minister. We assembled that together. It's still a good scene, but originally we put it together to show that the minister is trying to manipulate Alex, and then toward the end it comes to where Alex picks up on it, and starts playing with the minister. It still works, it's still funny. But I think it left a bit of the story missing.
Did you spend any time on the set?
No, because I came in about two weeks before the end of shooting.
In general how much footage did you get?
With Stanley, you were lucky to only get about 20 takes. Everything was in racks and racks and racks. He had plenty of material. But it was fairly easy to sift through the material and find out what the best takes were. Then you work from those and pick the various pieces. I think the Billy Boy fight had the most footage shot.
Were there scenes that didn't make it into the final cut?
There was a scene with another old guy being beaten up. The scene with Joe the lodger, and Alex's mum breaking down was originally much bigger. Alex's father and the two nude girls after the high-speed bedroom scene with Alex - the only one I really missed.
Did you have much control over the first cut?
I thought that I was going to be left alone to put it together, which is a normal procedure. The director shoots it, the editor assembles it. Then you have your first cut, you get input notes from the director, you fine cut that, and then you work with the director. Of course, with Stanley it was a different story, it didn't happen. I would say there should be a close-up here and a long-shot there, and it would materialize maybe weeks down the road - but not right away, no way. My understanding was that he was like that with all the departments.
Did you ever get the chance to edit without Stanley in the cutting room with you?
Yes. Although Stanley was there all the time, I would make my adjustments to his marks after moving to the bench from the Steinbeck, and if he wanted extra frames and I disagreed, I would make a cut three frames back on the existing film so he could see the join.
"A Clockwork Orange" can be difficult to watch because some of the footage is very disturbing. What was it like working with that footage for a year?
I can't say I was disturbed in anyway. You read the script, you work with the script and you attack each scene the way you think it should be. If it is supposed to be violent, you make if violent. If it is a love story and you want to make it erotic, you make it erotic. If it's violent, you play up to that to the best effect you can. The idea of editing is that you have to put yourself into that mood. "A Clockwork Orange" was very, very violent, but it was also done with a certain amount of humor. And quite a lot of irony. Definitely. The scene in the library where Alex manipulates the chaplain, it's all tongue-and-cheek. I never really looked upon it as violence when I was working on it. But yes, when you see it all together, you see it as a disturbing piece of film.
There are montage scenes in the film with shots of Jesus, a bleeding vampire and Alex with the snake. How did you put those scenes together?
The Christ dance was done to the beats on the music. When we started cutting it, we tried making it longer with a double beat, but then we decided that each beat was a cut. It was pretty straightforward. It worked out to be something like nine frames.
How did the preview screenings go?
When we previewed it at Warner Bros. in London, he came into the theater and sat with me after the lights went down, and then before the final sequence he was gone. He was in and out in the dark.
Were you happy with the way the movie turned out?
Oh, yes. The film was released around Christmas for Oscar consideration. I had no idea whatsoever that it was going to be nominated. I knew it was a good film, but then suddenly - I think I was at the Warner Bros. offices in New York - they announced the nominations, and I wass one of them. There's no doubt about it, I was pleased.
Did you expect it to become a cult classic?
I didn't think so at that time. I just thought it was an interesting film with a fair amount of violence and nudity, which films at that time didn't have.
Editorially speaking, did you learn anything from your experience?
I can't say I learned anything editing-wise. I've learned from other directors and other editors, but editing-wise I didn't learn anything from Stanley. Maybe I learned to have a bit more patience with him. I don't know if he learned anything from me.
Who were your best mentors?
Ralph Kemplen, who edited John Huston's "Moulin Rouge" in 1952, and whom I worked with as a first assistant on "Bobbikins," starring Shirley Jones. Les Hodgson taught me a lot about sound. Russ was really my mentor. He taught me a lot. He is a very nice man and easygoing.
What is your advice to editors just getting started today?
I always say, just keep working. Obviously film school gives you the basic technology of film, but you have got to learn hands-on -- and hands-on with a good editor. It is now much easier to do that with digital equipment. Today an assistant can cut the film from the dailies, put it together and show the editor. You couldn't do that in the old days because you only had one print. Just play with it and be crazy. It's a wonderful opportunity.
© 2001 editorsnet.com
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