Remembering Neil Travis

The Archive just learned the sad news of editor Neil Travis’ passing. Travis died of natural causes at his home in Arroyo Grande, CA on March 28, 2012. He was 75 years old. He began his career as an assistant editor at Paramount and left to work on several television series, including Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and Kung Fu. Travis edited three parts of the groundbreaking miniseries Roots and edited numerous films, including Patriot Games, Clear And Present Danger, and Dances with Wolves, for which he won the Academy Award.

Here are some selections from Travis’ two-hour interview:

On his philosophy on editing:

On meeting John Wayne when editing the film The Cowboys:

John Wayne was like the Statue of Liberty. Meeting John Wayne was one of the high points in my life. He’s John Wayne. Can you imagine, “Neil, I’d like you to meet John Wayne.” It’s unbelievable. It’s like, “I’d like you to meet God.” It was fantastic. He was getting a little on in age by that time. I think he made only one or two more movies. And as a matter of fact, at that time he was breathing very hard.  He had, I think, lung cancer and you could hear him wheeze. I was standing on the set and saw him lose control of a horse and I thought he was going to get killed; he couldn’t stop the horse. He didn’t have enough strength and the horse ran right through the set and I thought it was going to go right through the house. But he finally was able to turn it around and he had wranglers chasing him and everything. It was funny. But at that point in his life, he was transitioning from middle age to old. But it was amazing to meet him. I’m star struck with some people like that.

On how being on the set of Roots influenced his editing choices on the project:

It was enjoyable to me because I went on location and that’s very unusual – my first editing location. To be right there when it was being shot was good. A silly word to say but it helped me, for some reason or another. I was involved in the scenes where the slaves were brought over on board ship. That was brutal to watch. I really became affected by going on the set, which was the slave ships and seeing the conditions in which they were brought to this country. It moved me. I mean, I don’t know how to tell you. It was kind of devastating in a way. I think that mood helped me function on the picture. I gained so much sympathy for them.

On editing Part 1 of Roots:

On editing 1983’s Cujo and learning how to scare an audience through editing:

Cujo was a lot of fun. We were on location up in Santa Rosa. As I recall, Cujo was originally directed and edited by someone else and they brought in Lewis Teague who directed and hired me. It was a switch in that we started all over again. But working with Lewis was fun. He had a good appreciation of what I was doing and I of what he was doing. It’s where I developed a skill of learning how to really scare people. I mean it’s very simple: the skill is to never have something happen where the people expect it to happen. It has to happen either at a different time or from a different direction. As simple as that. You’re looking at a window and you expect the rabid dog to be coming through the window and it comes right here. That’s all that is.

On winning an Academy Award for editing Dances with Wolves:

Oh my heavens, what a great moment for that, winning the Oscar. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. People who poo poo the Oscar, I don’t think they get it. The fact is that the Oscar is the Pulitzer Prize of motion pictures. It’s difficult, for example, to pick the best actor or the best actress or something like that because they’re all good. It was difficult for me to feel that I deserved it. As a matter fact, Thelma Schoonmaker was up for Good Fellas that same time, and the editor of Ghost was up at the same time, and they were all well edited. I felt good about Dances With Wolves because I felt that it was a movie that grabbed the audience’s imagination probably more than the others. Good Fellas was a brutal movie about gangsters fighting and killing one another, and so it’s not as much fun as to watch a white man turn into an Indian. That movie captured people’s imagination; there were people who would come up to me and tell me they’d seen the movie forty, fifty times. They’ve seen the movie as much as I have, it’s amazing. That made me feel like I had a good chance, but I told my wife at the Oscars, I said, “hang on to me, because people have been telling me that I’m going to win, and if I don’t win, I’m liable to stand up anyway. So pull me down will you? Don’t let me stand up.” But I was so nervous up on stage, I screwed up. That night was my wife and my 30th wedding anniversary and I failed to mention her. I didn’t mention her at all, I didn’t mention any member of my family. What happened was, they tell you that you’re only supposed to take like a minute and a half or two minutes and a half or whatever it is for your acceptance speech. But they don’t tell you that there’s a TV monitor facing the stage in the audience, the size of New Jersey, that starts flashing “out of time, out time, out of time,” and that just blew me away. I saw that and I was I lost and my script went right out the window. I did the wrong thing, I tried to remember the speech that I had memorized instead of just remembering the people and saying whatever came to my mind. So I was standing up there just totally lost and what I wanted to say was, “thanks finally to Kevin Costner, who molded us all into a unit and gave us a picture that we can remember for the rest of our lives. Thank you Kevin for trusting me with your first born,” which is a very sort of eloquent way of saying it. What I ended up saying to Kevin Costner, to whom I owe a lot, was that it is a lot of pressure up there on the stage when  it pops into your mind that a billion people are looking at you. It really blows you away.

On how technology changed over the course of his career:

I walked onto the Paramount lot in 1959 a long time ago – I arrived simultaneously with the butt splicer. The butt splicer was a new invention for the editors then, also magnetic tape, magnetic sound. They were used to cutting optical sound. It’s come a long way since then. The editors that I worked with were always very suspicious about butt splicers; they thought that should be used only for sound and they were very suspicious about magnetic sound itself because they couldn’t see the sound. In optical sound you can actually see the striations; you can see where a word starts – it’s just like a graph. They couldn’t see it, so they didn’t like it. The same sort of reaction has repeated itself through history, like when the first flat bed editing system came everybody was very suspicious about that and the first electronic editing system came in and everybody was suspicious about that. It takes a long time for things to get in place. From where I started, spending hours and hours in the splicing room, scraping the emulsion on the film and putting glue on it and gluing it together and doing it again, pulling paper clips off the film that the editor has put on and throwing them at a target on the wall … it’s come a long, long way. We’re up to Avid and I have no idea where we’re going to go after this. I think the envelope is going to be pushed a lot more. 3D is going to be a big deal.

On receiving the ACE Lifetime Achievement Award:

It’s the most exciting experience since I won the Academy Award. I was less nervous than when I won the Academy Award because I knew it was coming. I was called months ago to be told that – it’s like the Irving Thalberg award – you know ahead of time and you can prepare a speech. As I said at the time, it was really cool to be able to get my favorite actor and my favorite director and my favorite producer all to introduce me and to present the award to me: Morgan Freeman, Phil Alden Robinson, and Mace Neufeld were all in my corner and that was a great, great feeling.

On the highlight of his career:

I had a friend who died recently, Dom Deluise, who was a very funny man. He said, ‘if you ever find a million dollars in a purple elevator, you’ll never get into a green one.” I found a million dollars with Dances With Wolves. I got my Academy Award. For that reason and for another reason: Dances With Wolves was a very familiar kind of movie, not a family movie, not meaning G-rated, but that the people who worked on the movie felt like a family. We gave each other Indian names, we all played around with each other out on location. We had softball tournaments, we had water ski tournaments, Kevin Costner’s wife at that time was very helpful at arranging things – we had a bowling night at the bowling alley, we had a night at the pool hall; she always was throwing parties. My Indian name by the way, was “Over The Hill.”

Watch Neil Travis’ full Archive Interview.

Read Travis’ obituary here.

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