The Minnesotan who helped bring "Avatar" to earth

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2010 - 1:53 PM

When the going got tough, director James Cameron turned to St. Louis Park-bred film editor Stephen Rivkin.

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Stephen Rivkin, Oscar-nominated editor of "Avatar."

Photo: Jason Redmond, Star Tribune

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Growing up in St. Louis Park in the 1960s, Stephen Rivkin wasn't sure where he fit in.

At 12, he followed his older brother David's lead and rocked out on electric guitar, with little brother Bobby on drums. But Stephen never craved the spotlight. He was quiet, focused, fond of detail-oriented art projects. At Halloween, he'd wow the kids on Glenhurst Avenue, rigging scarecrow boogeymen to rise from cedar chests as home-recorded sound effects clanked and moaned. He experimented endlessly with the little hand-cranked reel-to-reel projector that made images of Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin flicker on his bedroom wall.

Today the Rivkin brothers are internationally renowned entertainers. Under the stage name David Z, the oldest brother is a Grammy-nominated music producer, songwriter and audio engineer. Bobby Z, Prince's drummer from 1979 to 1986, also has had a long, successful career as producer and songwriter. And Stephen Rivkin is the Oscar-nominated film editor of James Cameron's billion-dollar blockbuster "Avatar."

With its writhing monsters, fiber-optic jungles and humanoid warriors, "Avatar" is a hurricane of alien images. The man who assembled it is tranquil and down-to-earth. In a phone interview from his home in the Hollywood Hills, Rivkin, 57, said the attribute that has advanced his career the most is "patience."

That staying power has sustained him on a 40-year journey from editing K-Tel album commercials and Ski-Doo snowmobile spots to the pinnacle of his profession. It has helped him cope with difficult collaborators. Filmmaking is "an art form that egos dominate," he noted. His persistence and painstaking disposition has made a career of ever-longer workdays and shorter weekends easier to endure.

"I liked cutting and splicing," he said. "I'm thrilled that I make a living doing what I enjoy so much. That makes the long road easier to take."

Cameron originally intended to edit "Avatar" himself, but with its boundary-breaking computer animation, action-capture technology and 3D visuals, splicing together the film was an unprecedented challenge.

"How do you bring someone up to speed when there's no one in the world who knows how to do this other than within our group?" Cameron told the trade paper Variety. "The answer: Get smart guys and have them figure it out with you."

Rivkin, fresh off editing the effects-heavy "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy, signed on for six months. His tour of duty on Pandora ultimately lasted 2 1/2 years.

The revolutionary process offered exponentially more editorial choices than live action. Sam Worthington's performance on Take Seven could be combined with Zoe Saldana's from Take 12 and merged into a brand-new scene.

"We had to keep track of every character using a 'picture in picture' technique of the various reference video tracks," Rivkin said. "It was a discipline that required us to imagine how the scene might be shot before the actual production of the virtual scenes began. We had to concentrate solely on the actor's performances."

The otherworldly workload suited him, though. Cameron, who co-edited the film along with John Refoua, gave Rivkin top billing in the credits.

"He's a workaholic," chuckled his mother, Shirley Rivkin-Brown. "Stephen was more hardworking than the other two."

Not afraid to 'bring the truth'

"Steve was always a serious guy," said Owen Husney, a longtime friend who was Prince's original manager. "Movies were his life. In order to make it in the entertainment business, you have to be not only talented but passionate beyond any degree of sanity. Steve had both. Prince was exactly the same way."

Husney ran a small advertising agency in the late '60s with a client roster including K-Tel, the company renowned for the Veg-O-Matic and compilation LPs. He brought in the teenage Rivkin to shoot and edit a TV spot for "one of those 43-hits-on-one-album things." The president of K-Tel, then a $150-million-a-year company, told Rivkin, "I think we need to do something different here."

Rivkin replied: "Excuse me, I'm the editor. I know what I'm doing, you do not. You are not to tell me how to edit this. I'll put it together for you; it will be perfect. Please do not ever comment again."

Husney was aghast, but the executive said, "Oh, OK, I'm sorry." Rivkin finished "and it was perfect," Husney said.

"As powerful as James Cameron is," he added, "I'm sure that Steve at some point brought him the truth. 'No, it needs to be done this way.' He has a take-no-prisoners attitude about doing what's right."

Pamela Belding, a friend of Rivkin's and his film-studies classmate at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, remembers being "impressed by his command of everything. I'd want him in my lifeboat."

While Belding was working on her thesis film, her camera's film magazine jammed, jeopardizing her project. "I couldn't figure out how to repair it. I knew that Steve would know how to deal with it. I went over to his place and he bailed me out by getting the film out safely. He was a little mad at me because he said, 'You only show up when you're in trouble.' And he was right."

After graduation, Rivkin "lived and breathed film," said Darrell Brand, his longtime friend and creative partner for more than a decade.

"He was the go-to guy for freelance editing in the Twin Cities," Brand said. "He spent endless hours. All-nighters." In a house on Colfax Avenue in Minneapolis that he still owns, "he had multiple flatbed editing systems set up in his dining room. He ate in the living room on TV trays."

Rivkin's first feature was the 1982 indie "The Personals," shot around the Twin Cities. "It looked good for a movie that cost 9 cents," Husney said. It was picked up by B-movie specialist Roger Corman, who coincidentally gave Cameron his first break. The film was regionally successful, and its director, Peter Markle, relocated to California. Whenever he landed a project, he hired Rivkin, who was soon spending more time in L.A. than Minneapolis. He relocated, met his partner of 17 years, actress Dina Morrone, and bought a home not far from Husney's.

He also began a work schedule that would awe John Henry. He didn't follow the apprenticeship path that trains most Hollywood cutters. He arrived as a full-blown editor, learning comedic timing by cutting Mel Brooks' "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," and drama by making films for Michael Mann and Norman Jewison.

"He's moved up faster than 98 percent of the guys out there," Brand said. But that's come at a cost.

"He's so good he doesn't have a lot of time off during projects," Brand said. "When we would go to California, sometimes he literally wouldn't have time to break away to be with some friends. I understood it, but I also know he's sacrificing another part of his life."

High praise: 'That doesn't suck'

The editor's job isn't just to cut images together but to help the director with creative problem-solving about pace, character and the overall intention of the film.

"I always strive to go above and beyond the director's expectations," Rivkin said. But when that director is a notorious perfectionist, making a $300 million technological game-changer, those expectations can be daunting.

"The challenges on 'Avatar' were beyond anything I've ever experienced," Rivkin said. "The process was longer than any other film I've ever worked on. The demands on editorial were greater because of the way the film was made. The 14-hour days were more common and the six- and seven-day weeks were more frequent.

"The first time you show scenes to a director, there are butterflies," he said. "People can panic. Studios can lose confidence. The goal is to make the scene work better than the director imagined, and if you can achieve that, it does wonders for the relationship."

Rivkin knew he was delivering the goods on days when Cameron said, "That doesn't suck" or "That's not hateful."

"I'll remember those moments," Rivkin said, "and there were a few."

The experience also earned Rivkin his first Oscar nomination. (He lost to the editor of best-picture winner "The Hurt Locker.")

As for what's next: nothing, for a while.

"There is talk of an 'Avatar' sequel, but it wouldn't be for a while," he said. "It's been an amazing run, with the 'Pirates' trilogy and 'Avatar.' I really need to take a break and deal with the results of 'life on hold.'"

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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