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 15th St. and 2nd Ave., took Maidstone and helped distribute it to college campuses. Bob started New Line Cinema after picking up a print of Reefer Madness (1936) and distributing it to college film societies. They soon became a great distributor of political, avant-garde and foreign films.Way out stuff by Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Watkins and us.

Chaiken: When did you first hear about Norman’s idea for Maidstone? Welt: After we finished Beyond the Law, I was twiddling my thumbs on salary. Then it all just started. Norman told me he wanted to make a movie about a film director who had become so popular that he was going to run for President of the United States. This was right after Robert Kennedy’s assassination in June 1968. Next thing I know, I’m in East Hampton making this crazy movie with what seemed liked hundreds of others dedicated to the same crazy movie.

Chaiken: How much footage do you estimate was shot on Maidstone?

Welt: It was something close to 250,000 feet on 400 foot rolls of color reversal film.

Chaiken: What do you remember about the shoot?

Welt: The absolute chaos. All of the cameramen were mobile chess pieces. I was initially assigned to follow Rip and his group, The Cashbox, but when nothing was happening with them I decided I would go look for better targets of opportunity and just start shooting anything that moved. I can remember having lunch at Barney Rosset’s East Hampton estate when his wife came running into the living room screaming ‘There’s a dead baby floating face down in the swimming pool!’ So Jose Torres runs out and discovers it’s not a baby, but actor Hervé Villechaize. He’d drank himself into a stupor and was floating face down in the Rosset’s pool. They were able to resuscitate him, but still had to take him to the hospital. It was quite an ordeal as he nearly drowned to death.

Chaiken: Were you around for the fight between Norman and Rip?

Welt: Shooting had essentially wrapped by the time Rip attacked Norman. All the groups had broken up and people were now just waiting to go home. I remember I was with Buzz Farber and Nina Schulman, my sound person throughout the shoot. We’d all gone to the beach for the day. Coming back I caught the tail end of the fight and immediately went for my camera. There were actually four cameras on the fight. Aside from my own there was Leacock, Pennebaker and Daniel Kramer, a still photographer, who you can see at one point trying to break Norman and Rip apart. When the film was edited I primarily used Pennebaker’s roll as an unbroken take.We tried a few different approaches, though in the end we found using the long take was best.

Chaiken: In Maidstone, Norman appears adamant that he is not going to include any of the fight footage in the film. Was there ever any serious consideration of not using it?

Welt: Norman needed a bit of convincing, but he quickly came around after he saw how well it worked with the rest of the film. How could one exclude a roll as priceless as that from a film that essentially had no ending? It terms of structure, it had to be in there. It gave the film this whole other dimension and made it much more affecting. Chaiken: Was there any indication beforehand that Rip was going to attack Norman in the way that he did?

Welt: Well, you’ll remember that Rip pulls out a derringer during the Grand Assassination Ball scene. The intent there was that he would take Kingsley out if no one had gotten to him first. That much was discussed beforehand, only it never came off. Rip shows Norman the gun and that’s it. I think Rip was stewing a bit over the failure of that scene so he came up with this whole other approach. I honestly don’t think he intended to seriously hurt Norman, but the fact that it turned out the way it did, with Norman coming up into the down stroke of the hammer blow, was unfortunate for the both of them, but it certainly made for great cinema. I still contend that Rip saved the picture.

Chaiken: Was Maidstone edited at Leacock-Pennebaker?

Welt: By the time we got to edit Maidstone we had moved out of LeacockPennebaker to an upstairs office in the same building. Maidstone cinematographers Nick Proferes and Jim Desmond had started their own company,Proferes-Desmond Films, and that’s where we worked. It was around this time that I was doing interim work as an editor on Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970). Working on that film, I had come up against the KEM editing table, which gave you the ability to have three screens going simultaneously. Pretty sophisticated stuff for 1969 ... the KEM dictated the tripanel look of Woodstock. I was pretty astonished by them as an editing system and suggested to Norman that we buy a couple and make some extra money by renting them out. So we did and that’s how Maidstone was edited, on a KEM with three screens going simultaneously. It was a very convenient way for us to handle that much material.

Chaiken: Did you watch all the rushes with Norman?

Welt: Yes, we looked at all the rushes together. It took nearly two months.We were absolutely meticulous about it. One had to be because there was so much material—it was the only way to stay above water and not drown in the footage.

Chaiken: How did the film begin to take shape?

Welt: The rushes would talk to you. There were some shots that just stood out. You’d grab those and put them onto a separate reel of ‘keeps’ until finally, from that morass of 30 plus hours of footage, we ended up with a 3 1/2 hour ‘keeps’ reel. Lana, Norman and I worked on that material for quite some time, putting together a rough cut just shy of three hours. I always thought that cut was the best version of the film.

Chaiken: What can you tell me about the original version?

Welt: Unfortunately, the differences between the two versions have all receded into the distant fog of memory. There was a lot more exposition and more interactions between Norman and Rip. I also remember the original dream sequence being sensational. I’d spent many hours working on it before Norman came in and started playing with it. He would sometimes get on the editing table and vigorously start cutting and splicing.With Norman, sometimes a little knowledge was a dangerous thing.

Chaiken: Did you make a dupe print of the long version? Welt: No, I don’t think I ever did. I certainly agitated for it to be done, but unfortunately it never happened. That version is probably lost forever. I know we never kept the original edit of the dream sequence, which was something I took utter pride in because it flowed so nicely. It had a much