Persons of Interest: Peter Zinner

A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

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Zinner as Admiral Yuri Ilyich Padorin in The Hunt for Red October

By Julia Gray

When I heard of Peter Zinner’s death this past November 13, I remembered the one and only time I met him. It seemed like it must have been more recent rather than some 16 years ago.

I was working as an assistant film editor on that craptacular cinematic gem Showdown in Little Tokyo with Peter’s friend and former coeditor, John Burnett. John and Peter edited The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988) TV miniseries, for which both earned Emmys.

When I was introduced to Zinner, the thought that ran through my brain was, “Holy crap! This is the same dude who cocut the first two Godfather movies and won an Oscar for The Deer Hunter. Wow.” At that moment, I remember telling myself to keep my big yap shut because when nervous, it was not unusual for me to say dumb things. I just stood there with a goofy smile on my face and listened to these two editing giants reminisce about the good old days.

During their chat, I could barely feel my legs and was thankful when Zinner offered me a chair. I think I mumbled something that resembled “thank you,” but I don’t remember. He must have understood my uttering because he acknowledged me with a smile and slight nod. Or, perhaps he realized he was dealing with a Class-A nut job and thought it best to assuage me with friendly, nonconfrontational facial expressions.

You know, the kind of expressions those who work with apes use.

Peter Zinner was one of the greats who understood at an almost genetic level the importance of telling a good story. He came of age when film editors had to possess not only mental and emotional resilience, but also physical strength.

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The editing process in days of yore usually involved standing over a loud, vibrating machine called a Moviola and physically running film through it. Back and forth, back and forth the editor would spool the film while watching the images on a small screen until he or she found the perfect place to cut. That’s where the muscle came in. The piece was spliced together with other pieces and watched over and over, for days, months, and sometimes years until it felt “right.”

Zinner got it right. Not many folks would’ve been able to understand the complexities of Michael Corleone (the Godfather movies), Michael Vronsky (The Deer Hunter), and Zack Mayo (An Officer and a Gentleman) the way he did and bring the most out of the performances of the fine actors who played them. Zinner’s sharp eye and understanding of human nature informed by his varied life experience added to his work.

Zinner was an Austrian Jew born in Vienna in 1919. His family fled the Nazis in 1938, first to the Philippines, and eventually to Los Angeles. There, Zinner worked in a movie theater, accompanying silent movies on piano.

Later, he landed a job as an apprentice film editor at 20th Century Fox. He also worked for MGM and eventually opened his own company with two other film editors. He and his daughter Katina, who followed in her father’s footsteps, worked together on the 2006 documentary Running with Arnold about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Zinner even had a bit part in The Hunt for Red October.

My favorite scenes cut by Zinner are from the Godfather films. The first of the trilogy, The Godfather, my favorite drama of all time, reveals the complexities of the characters feeding off an even more complex story line in an almost effortless tour de force. Each viewing provides me with something I missed during the hundred or so previous viewings.

One of my favorite scenes is when the Corleone family is discussing what to do after father Vito is seriously wounded in an assassination attempt. Michael, recovering from a broken jaw courtesy of a corrupt thug of an NYPD captain and not yet involved in the family business, decides to add his two cents on how to get rid of the men responsible for his father’s condition.

The camera slowly pushes in on Michael’s face, and we see him go from an innocent, a war hero, to one of the most powerful and dangerous men of his time. Everyone in the room, all of them harden criminals, is enthralled by Michael’s suggestions for the killings and subsequent ways to spin them in the local, family-influenced press. The overwhelming confidence in his speech and the calm with which he plans the demise of a rival Mafioso and a crooked police captain are unsettling at first. As we learn later, it’s Michael’s cool demeanor that make him so alluring and powerful.

The cuts are few, but potent. It is obvious that this was a scene where less was definitely more. The supporting characters’ reactions seem to convey to the audience that Michael “gets it” and that their lives are going to change from that moment on.
This sequence stops me in my tracks each time I see it. I can only imagine what went on in the editing room between Zinner, coeditor William Reynolds, and Francis Ford Coppola. It would have been the best film lesson ever.

Today, film editing is largely a hands-off affair. It’s done on computers, with an edit taking place by clicking a mouse rather than scraping off splicing tape. Post-production schedules are half what they used to be because of the speed and seemingly endless capabilities of Avid and Final Cut Pro. Film editors have to worry not only about the edit, but also budget and personnel management. The actual editing of actual film is slowly disappearing. It’s hard to imagine a pure, artistic summit between editors and directors happening today. There isn’t time. There isn’t money.

During production on Showdown, I would see Zinner from time to time, and he would give me that same nod and smile he shared the first time we met. At those moments I would think, “The man who helped shape Michael Corleone once offered me a chair.” l

  • Erik Smith spoke:
    6th/12/2007 to 1:48 pm

    Julia, that is a great article! I am getting out my Godfather dvd right now. I miss hanging out with you in Fantasia’s Editorial and learning about these things…

  • Curtis Lawrence spoke:
    9th/01/2008 to 10:45 am

    Julia,
    Great job of not only conveying the importance of Peter Zinner and the impact he had on movies, but also a thoughtful look and the impact (pro and con) of technology on editing. As a non-filmy, I have often overlooked the importance of editing in movie making. Your piece, though, helped me to understand why The Godfather is one of my favorite movies of all time. I see it as the perfect storm of movies — the acting, directing, cinematography and (now I know) editing all come together perfectly. I, too, find myself watching the film over and over again.
    Thanks for a thoughtful, insightful piece of writing.
    Curtis

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