John Smith: Cutting from Battersea to Bel Air

January 27, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The trailblazing editor who brought a piece of Hollywood back to Soho.

We’re all tired of people in this industry talking about the good ol’ days – you know, when advertising was a rewarding, exciting thing to do. It’s boring, not to mention depressing. And let’s face it, it’s not quite as simple as “good then; bad now.” The fact that industry veterans are still pegging away at it is evidence against their turgid nostalgia. Advertising’s still interesting.

That said, there’s something deeply glamorous about the industry’s creative golden age, before the accountants took over and sucked the fun out of it. Esteemed Editor John Smith was most certainly on the front lines in those days and he knows the sort of stories we’re used to hearing. “John Smith was from the heady, hedonistic days, when there was far too much money spent,” he pre-empts. He may roll his eyes, but he can’t deny the decadence that was a very real part of the business in 20 or 30 years ago.

“It was a very hedonistic business at the time,” he admits, almost revelling in the memory. “We’d get in a cab with Cliff Owen, drink champagne and eat Danish open sandwiches from Foubert’s Place to De Lane Lea on Dean Street [less than half a mile]. That’s the business I started in.”

John’s on the record here, so that’s the sort of PG-rated story he feels comfortable digging out. You can rest assured much of his remaining repertoire is more incriminating, particularly when you consider the company he was keeping.

Having started editing film aged 27 John’s career took off like he was some sort of Wunderkind. Largely because the people he worked with recognised him as one. He attributes his break to Dave Trott, who gave him his first ad to edit.  “He bandied my name around town as the best Editor he’d ever worked with,” John remembers, still incredulous, “which is very flattering for a 27-year-old kid who just started editing.”

This flying start worked wonders for his career as a whole. “From that job onwards I never really stopped working,” he considers. “It’s amazing what good word of mouth can do from someone respected like that.”

The scary thing is that wasn’t an isolated event. John’s early career was littered with good reviews. He edited a Boots No7 job for David Bailey once. When the famous photographer saw the young editor’s reel, he felt compelled to call the Producer. His critical opinion: “This kid’s artistically inspired.” Again, this was almost too much for John’s ego to handle. “Can you understand? I’m 27, doing too many drugs,” he says, “and David Bailey thinks I’m artistically inspired. Trying to keep a lid on it was really quite hard.”

To top that experience off, when David saw John’s first edit of the No7 ad he instantly kissed the young Editor on the cheek, he was so excited. “Of course that breeds confidence in you,” John reflects, “[But] you’ve got to be careful that doesn’t become an arrogance.”

Craftsman to businessman

Three years into his meteoric rise, John co-founded his own editing company with two other film editors, The Whitehouse, on Carnaby Street. With the momentum from the work he’d done so far, they quickly became a hub of excitement in Soho.

John remembers those times fondly. “One of our editors, Gareth McEwan, once told me that someone got angry with him a in a pub because he worked there [at The Whitehouse] and they didn’t. It had a strange effect on people. We were a bit like the Moonies – nobody wanted to leave.”

This was 1990 – as it turns out, a threshold moment for the editing industry. John had learnt his craft the old-fashioned way, cutting film on a Steenbeck flatbed Editor and a Moviola. “It was hard work,” he says, “but a great way to learn. There was no Apple-Z undo, so if you made a mistake and chose the wrong edit too many times it could cost you money to reprint the film. You had to be sure you were cutting on the right frame.”

Looking back without our nostalgia goggles, it wasn’t ideal. John remembers once hunting high and low for a small three-frame film trim, only to find it stuck to the bottom of his shoe when he got home.

The Whitehouse weren’t afraid to leave all that behind them. As far as John knows, they were the first commercial editing company to buy an Avid machine and enter into a new era of non-linear editing. They put it in a little room and viewed it with some suspicion at first, but eventually John took the plunge.

Simon Levine, his then assistant, taught John to use Avid. He fell in love. “It was the most highly-charged, creative revolution. Instantly accessing anything you want.” Suddenly, the pace of old-fashioned film editing seemed glacial. “It was mindblowing,” he says. “It was a bigger trip than any of the drugs I’d done in this business. Creatively, there were no boundaries from that point on for me.”

In the meantime, the sort of Directors John was cutting for were still big names, many of them working on feature films with commercials paying the bills in between. It was just a matter of time before the jaws of Hollywood closed around him too.

Cutting edge stuff

When they did, it was through Mike Figgis, who asked him to edit Leaving Las Vegas – a low-budget movie about an alcoholic and a prostitute, starring the still relatively unknown Nicolas Cage. Mike wanted to shoot it on super 16mm film and edit it the old-fashioned way. Somehow John persuaded him to edit on Avid. And it didn’t turn out too badly.

The film did spectacularly well. Nicolas Cage won an Oscar for his performance, launching his career into a new league. Suddenly John was living the Hollywood dream. “After we’d finished it I was in LA cutting a commercial,” he recalls. “Mike invited me to dinner with Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue and we ended up at Nic’s house, where we watched Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant [the sequel to which Nic would later star in]. Mike played Nic’s bright red grand piano overlooking LA. Later that night, courtesy of Nic’s personal driver (who used to drive Dolly Parton) I went downtown to the set of Heat to say hi to Michael Mann, who offered me a job on it and met Al Pacino all in the same night. Pretty surreal for a boy from Battersea.” The adventure could have continued when Nic then offered to take the party to Hawaii on a private jet for a few days, but much to John’s disappointment he had to go home the next day.

He had a commercial to cut.

Returning to cutting ads left John in a dilemma. Back in Soho, he was left with the taste of Hollywood in his mouth and soon he was getting lots of calls to edit more movies. A potentially great movie career beckoned, but the Whitehouse was still one of the most exciting houses in London and John had a business to grow. Bravely, he decided to try and balance the two.

To his credit, he’s managed to do both, editing more movies while expanding The Whitehouse into a global network of five offices, with three sister companies and 166 employees. In the process he’s won awards with both hats on, from his induction into American Cinema Editors (A.C.E. – his proudest achievement of all) to an EMMY for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers to three D&AD pencils and the first BTAA Arrow for Editing. He’s cut some truly iconic ads over the years, including Guess Cheat and Playstation Double Life and still finds his job difficult at times.

Not letting up

“Editing commercials is still challenging,” he admits. “It’s not just the process. There are levels of politics that you have to deal with and those levels are greater than they used to be. If feels like the number of clients you have to please just gets greater and greater. Now there are levels of creative people who have to see [the work], or clients from different markets [because] things are more global.”

Undoubtedly, today’s business is a different world from when a 27-year old John was getting his ego fed by prominent Adlanders. Gone are the days when creativity could write its own price tag. But John’s nostalgia for those days is no criticism of today’s industry. He's changed too, and has spent the past 11 years sober. “I think it’s a much better way now,” he says. “There was a lot of waste, a lot of excess, in those days. But there are still some very positive reasons to get into our industry, even though there isn’t the money there used to be. It’s still an amazing, creative, stimulating business. It’s just got a lot harder.”

Soon to be working on a prominent big-screen biopic, John still has one foot in Hollywood, but the other is firmly placed in Soho – the spiritual home of The Whitehouse – where he continues the work he’s known for in this industry.

He’s still humbled by the words of others. “Just the other day an account manager in my edit suite [was] viewing some cuts before he showed his client,” he says. “[He] slapped me on the back and said ‘great job John. These are going to make me and you famous.’ Maybe I’ll get another 30 years out of that good word of mouth."

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