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Spielberg honors longtime collaborator who’s a cut above

by Desa Philadelphia
Dean Elizabeth Daley, Steven Spielberg, film editor Michael Kahn and USC Professor Norman Hollyn, the first holder of the Michael Kahn Endowed Chair in Editing at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)
Photo: Dean Elizabeth Daley, Steven Spielberg, film editor Michael Kahn and USC Professor Norman Hollyn, the first holder of the Michael Kahn Endowed Chair in Editing at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

Michael Kahn, one of the most celebrated film editors of his generation, first worked with Steven Spielberg more than three decades ago on the 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Since then they have collaborated on most of the director’s films, including Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, for which they both won Academy Awards, and last year’s Lincoln. On Nov. 11, Spielberg honored their 37-year relationship during the formal dedication of the Michael Kahn Endowed Chair in Editing at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA).

Kahn has been nominated for eight Oscars, including the third win of his career for Raiders of the Lost Ark. His other awards include an Emmy for Eleanor and Franklin, a television miniseries about the early years of the Roosevelts, and a lifetime achievement award from the American Cinema Editors.

In introducing his friend, Spielberg joked that they are bonded by the fact that they were both Eagle Scouts and continue to apply the scouting motto “be prepared” to their work as filmmakers.

Spielberg noted that while his films rely on actors and crew members who could number in the hundreds, once the production has wrapped, he, Kahn and composer John Williams often spend many months as the small core team that sees their projects through to completion. Williams, who attended the dedication, has worked with Spielberg for 40 years.

“The magic of editing is something I will never get over. I will never get over doing the best of my ability to tell a story and handing it over to Mike and having him showing it to me, using the gift of objectivity — something filmmakers are all too quick to lose,” Spielberg told an audience of friends and supporters who gathered at the Ray Stark Theatre. “When you have a friend like I have in Mike, he can show me my movie in different ways over and over again. Without Mike, I wouldn’t be standing up here.”

Kahn, who learned his craft as an assistant to other editors, said he was pleased that his accomplishments would inspire SCA students for generations to come.

“I got my education at Desilu [Productions]. I started on I Love Lucy and moved onto Hogan’s Heroes,” he said. “I did my postdoctoral work with Steven on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and a few other small projects in between over the years.”

The event also recognized Professor Norman Hollyn, the first holder of the Kahn Chair. Hollyn is head of the editing track at SCA. His credits include The Cotton Club, Heathers and Oliver Stone’s TV miniseries Wild Palms. The professor writes about filmmaking at normanhollyn.com

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