The Mailer Review/Volume 3, 2009/Editing Mailer: A Conversation with Jan Welt and Lana Jokel

From Project Mailer
« The Mailer ReviewVolume 3 Number 1 • 2009 • Beyond Fiction »
Written by
Michael Chaiken
Abstract: An interview with Norman Mailer’s two main collaborators on Maidstone (1970): Jan Welt and Lana Jokel.

In September 2008, three of Norman Mailer’s films were deposited in The Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For six months, I assisted in the archiving of these films, Mailer’s “sixties trilogy,” Wild 90 (1967), Beyond the Law (1968) and Maidstone (1968–70). The Norman Mailer Estate and Harvard University together have endeavored to preserve these important films. As I analyzed these cinematic materials, what immediately struck me was how much of a collaborative effort these films had been, evinced by countless notes affixed to film cans, coded in the private language of like-minded artists.

When I spoke to Mailer about his films in 2005, he was quick to dismiss the notion that these films were anything but a collective effort: “My editors Jan Welt and Lana Jokel were vastly more skillful at frame to frame cutting than I could ever be. They were both immensely talented and I turned over entire sequences to them. I built the structure of the films myself, for better or worse, working with them as closely as any Hollywood film director would.” In early 2010, Criterion will release these films in a DVD boxed set, digitally restored from source material. In helping Criterion prepare this collection, I had the opportunity to speak at length with Mailer’s two main film collaborators, Jan Welt and Lana Jokel. I spoke to Jan Welt by phone on the evening of June 15, 2009 as he is currently living in Anchorage, Alaska. My conversation with Lana Jokel took place in her New York apartment over a period of many months, concluding on July 21, 2009.What follows are our conversations over their recollections of working with Mailer during one of the most productive periods in his career, an experience that led to Jan and Lana emerging as filmmakers in their own right.

Jan Welt

Chaiken: Where are you from originally and how did you become interested in film?

Welt: I’m from Albany, New York and became interested in film through my father who was an avid amateur photographer. He was an attorney but photography was his passion so there were always cameras around me growing up. Certainly that had an influence, but my decision to pursue filmmaking as a career came after I had taken a course in cinematography during my senior year at Syracuse University. To get some money together after graduation, I went to work for a year in Albany at Capitol City Broadcasting and from there I enrolled in NYU Graduate School to get my MFA in film.

Chaiken: What were you majoring in at Syracuse? Welt: Theater.

Chaiken: Were you training to become an actor or were you hoping to write for the stage?

Welt: Both. Although I was primarily interested in cinema, I thought having a solid grounding in writing and acting would be good preparation for my MFA. I’ve always thought of myself as a utility outfielder. Haig Manoogian, my mentor at NYU, who incidentally was also Martin Scorsese’s mentor, held the view that if you want to keep your head above the curbstone in this business, then you better learn how to do everything. Write, produce, direct, shoot, edit. I think he was absolutely right about that.

Chaiken: What year did you enter NYU?

Welt: I graduated from Syracuse in 1964 so I must have been at NYU in late 1965 or early 1966.

Chaiken: Who were you studying under at NYU?

Welt: Haig Manoogian was largely it at that point. Also Calder Willingham, who wrote the screenplay for One Eyed Jacks (1961) and The Graduate (1967). And of course Shirley Clarke, who was my editing instructor. She gave me my first job as assistant editor on a twelve-screen film she was working on called Man in Polar Regions (1967). Graham Ferguson, who went on to inventIMAX, shot most of that film. It screened at the World’s Fair in Montreal in 1967.

Chaiken: Working with Shirley Clarke, were the films of the New American Cinema an influence? Welt: In the mid-sixties, I lived with my wife on St. Mark’s Place, directly across from the Bridge Cinema where the New American Cinema was exploding. It was literally ground zero for all of that stuff and I was constantly over there seeing new work by Clarke, John Cassavetes, Jonas Mekas and others. When we first moved to the neighborhood, it was this quiet little Polish-Ukranian community and it seemed like within a week of arriving it became this epicenter of culture known as the East Village. It was an amazing time to be there; a constant flutter of activity that one couldn’t help but be inspired by.

Chaiken: Were you making your own films at this point?

Welt: In school I was making films one after another either on my own or shooting and editing for other people. NYU was a hotbed of activity and collaboration. For my thesis film, I directed a verité documentary about Frank O’Connor, the Democratic candidate running against Nelson Rockefeller in New York’s 1966 gubernatorial election. At the time, O’Connor was the District Attorney of NY and it seemed as if Rockefeller was the most hated man in the entire world. But thanks to these extraordinary political commercials he ran, Rockefeller won the election. If you were living in New York at the time, Rockefeller’s ‘fish in the Hudson River’ ads were unforgettable. His campaign essentially portrayed the Hudson as one giant septic tank that, if elected, Rockefeller was going to clean up. These ads were effective, brilliantly so, and started a new wave of political commercials. At the outset of the campaign, it seemed like there was no way he could win, but by the end it was a landslide for him. So, I took all the footage I shot of O’Connor and made a film of my own that was shown on New York’s Channel 13.

Chaiken: Making a verité documentary in 1966, I imagine that you were well aware of what D.A. Pennebaker and The Maysles Brothers were also doing at the time . . .

Welt: They were the giants whose shoulders I climbed up on. In fact, just before graduation, I was offered a job at Leacock-Pennebaker Films. The funny thing was right before that happened, I had shot this film about the rematch between Jose Torres and Dick Tiger. The film was called Split Decision ~1967! and was directed by Jon Ostriker. We were shooting in Torres’ hotel room when in walks Norman Mailer. That’s where I met him for the first time. I remember Norman being fascinated by the French Éclair 16mm camera I was using. So, when I went to Pennebaker’s a few months later, there’s Norman trying to cut Wild 90 ~1967!. The first job Pennebaker gave me was helping Norman cut his film. Chaiken: How far along was he?

Welt: Before I got there Mark Woodcock, another filmmaker working with Leacock-Pennebaker, was helping Norman to synch the Wild 90 rushes. It was around this time that everyone in the offices took off for San Francisco to make a film on the Monterey Pop Festival. Mark helped Norman synch the footage and I seem to remember there already being a very rough assemblage of the takes Norman wanted to use. Over the next several months, Norman and I worked to clean up the rough cut.

Chaiken: Not having any formal training, how were Norman’s instincts as an editor?

Welt: From the outset he was highly capable of transferring his sense of editing the written word over to film. It really wasn’t all that difficult for him and came somewhat naturally as I think it does for most people who’ve grown up watching movies. Just by watching films, almost by osmosis, you arrive at some basic notion of the rhythm and language of film editing. On Wild 90, unlike the films that followed, I was essentially an extra pair of hands. He would come into Pennebaker’s studio and review the material on the Steenbeck. He would make decisions on what to cut and would leave me detailed notes. I’d take over from there and implement whatever it was he wanted. It was all pretty straightforward. Wild 90 was shot in real time, so that dictated the order of events. Also, there was only one camera, so whatever footage Norman ended up with was what we had to work with. Unlike the other films, just in terms of shots, there weren’t a huge amount of options. It was cut, more or less, slate to slate based on the rolls Norman liked best. Chaiken: Was Norman a patient supervising editor? What was the dynamic like that developed between the two of you? Michael Chaiken { 509 Welt: Needless to say, Norman was an extraordinarily complex guy. Enormously warm hearted and loyal, though I would sometimes see him fly into a rage with people he felt were insulting to him. I remember watching David McMulllin, a Wall St. guy who ran Leacock-Pennebaker Films, once trying to negotiate a deal with him. They got into this argument, over what I don’t remember exactly, but it got more and more vituperative until finally Norman went into this ferocious Texas drawl that so startled David that the negotiation immediately went in Norman’s favor. Almost instantly, he could become this whole other person entirely. In terms of our relationship, I honored him, he honored me and we always got along ... unless there was a major fuck up of some sort. Don’t forget Norman produced these films with his own money, so any fuck up was going to be a costly one. But, in the years we worked together, things rarely ever went in that direction.

Chaiken: Wild 90 is notorious for its muffled sound. Unless you are in a closed setting and can hear what’s being said, it can make for a distressing viewing experience. What happened?

Welt: The sound was our Achilles’ heel. It was complicated by two factors. Our soundman was Bob Neuwirth who was a folkie, boyfriend to Edie Sedgwick and Bob Dylan’s road manager at the time. You can see him running around Don’t Look Back (1967), the famous Dylan documentary Pennebaker directed. Neuwirth wasn’t trained to do this kind of thing, so sometimes he’d have the mic pointed in the wrong direction. The other factor, the one that ultimately did the film in, was the optical soundtrack used on the 16mm projection prints. Optical soundtracks are terrible under any circumstances. The original Nagra sound reels Neuwirth recorded weren’t so bad, but when it was mixed down to optical, we lost so much of the sound that it left us with an inaudible mess. I was agitating for putting on subtitles, but it never happened. After the premiere at the New Cinema Playhouse, Norman took out a full page ad in the New York Times offering anyone their money back if they didn’t like the film. Guess what happened . . .

Chaiken: How were you being paid? Did Norman have you on a salary?

Welt: Initially, I was being paid by Leacock-Pennebaker, then Norman, myself, Buzz Farber and Mickey Knox formed our own production and distribution company, Supreme Mix, Inc. This was during the Beyond the Law (1968) period when I was pretty much left alone to do my thing while Norman was off working on The Armies of the Night. I would do the edits and he would come into the studio a couple days a week. We’d look over material, confer and then I’d keep going. I was taking a salary from Supreme Mix, whose very existence was thanks to Norman’s investment in it.We had great ambitions for the company. Had the films been more successful we probably would have been able to realize some of them. Chaiken: By the time Wild 90 premiered, you were already editing Beyond the Law, which you also helped shoot. What can you remember about the shoot and was there an immediate sense that Beyond the Law was a significant advance on Wild 90?

Welt: When Wild 90 failed to reach any kind of audience it was dispiriting, but since the film was a bit of a lark to begin with we got over it pretty quickly. With Beyond the Law it all got more serious. More cameras, better sound and a host of talented players. Norman was wise about shooting. The sine qua non of a no budget film is to have only one location. For Beyond the Law that location became the tenth floor of 56 W 45th St., the same building where Leacock-Pennebaker had their offices. They were on the ninth floor, so we moved lights to the vacant floor above them. That became our police station. It was me, Nick Proferes, D.A. Pennebaker and this guy we hijacked into shooting for us, Richard Leiterman, who was part of a BBC crew making a documentary on Norman at the time. It was right around this time that Lana Jokel signed on as my assistant editor. We had one editing suite at Leacock-Pennebaker since the rest of the studio was entirely devoted to Monterey Pop (1968).

Chaiken: The editing of Beyond the Law follows a different kind of strategy than Wild 90. Can you talk about how the structure of that film developed? Welt: Wild 90 was essentially cut flash frame to flash frame with complete, or almost complete, takes from a single camera. Much of what was used in Beyond the Law was also single camera stuff, but we had many more options since some of the scenes had two, even three, cameras on them. We could pick the best angle or cross cut between the two if we wanted to capture a particular expression or a certain action. We had three crews in different rooms, so with Beyond you have all of this stuff happening simultaneously. That helped to dictate the parallel structure of the film. We tried to give a sense that all of the scenes were happening in real time over a single evening when in fact it was shot over several evenings. The parallel structure of the film was determined as much by the shooting as it was by the editing. As Norman says to his troops in Maidstone, ‘you find out the nature of your attack, by attacking’ and that’s essentially how these films were made since there wasn’t any kind of script or storyboard to follow. In that sense, these films were conceived and edited almost like a verité documentary would be. You’d shoot and shoot and shoot, and then with the material you had you’d make sense of it all in the editing room.

Chaiken: Do you recall any specific instructions Norman gave to you as a cameramen on Beyond the Law?

Welt: There were none whatsoever. It was all based on happenstance and spontaneity. He set up the situation and you followed it as a documentarian would. Of course, in the editing room all that changed and Norman came in with a lot of ideas and instructions. I specifically remember him wanting me to do this very elaborate title sequence for Beyond the Law. The way he envisioned it I just couldn’t fathom, so, as I often did, I went ahead and did it the way I wanted to do it—the cityscape in time lapse with the titles overtop. I remember showing it to him and afterwards he was dead silent. Finally, he says,‘This is the first time I’ve ever been double crossed, but it’s great. Leave it. I love it.’

Chaiken: By all accounts, Beyond the Law received a somewhat mixed response after its premiere at the 1968 New York Film Festival.

Welt: Yeah, except for Vincent Canby who wrote that great piece about it in the New York Times. After the New York Film Festival, there was a short run of the film at a theatre in mid-town, but it disappeared fairly quickly after that except for the college circuit where it continued to play.

Chaiken: Didn’t Barney Rosset’s Grove Press Films take over distribution from Supreme Mix at a certain point?

Welt: They did. Mainly because they already had a built in audience for the kind of films they distributed. They were far more organized, had their own catalog, and were able to reach more people. Particularly on the college and film society circuit which was their bread and butter. For the same reasons, New Line Cinema eventually ended up with Maidstone (1968–1970). Bob Shaye, who at that time was essentially working out of his apartment on