This post was written by Meagan Keane and originally appeared on Adobe blog on Sept. 15, 2022.

On the heels of the world premiere at SXSW, the official premiere of The Last Movie Stars on HBO Max debuted to rave reviews from critics and television fanatics worldwide. The documentary is a six-part series that transports viewers back to the days of old Hollywood to experience the talent and romance of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. Director Ethan Hawke took on the project after being approached by one of Joanne and Paul’s children, who revealed that Paul had begun working on a memoir with over a hundred interviews, before setting them all aflame with gasoline.

By a stroke of luck, transcripts of the interviews remained and are dictated by actors, including George Clooney, Laura Linney, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Brooks Ashmanskas. The series wonderfully depicts Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman’s intertwined story of epic love and diverging careers during a historic era of Hollywood.

We chatted with the editor, Barry Poltermann, about his career, creative influences, and experience editing The Last Movie Stars in Premiere Pro as well as sharing footage using Poltermann emphasizes how the mutual respect and trust between him and Hawke helped to facilitate an imaginative storytelling process in post-production.

How and where did you first learn to edit?

I bought a super-8 camera and projector when I was about 12, and shortly thereafter realized—hey wait—I can edit these little movies I am doing too! So, I saved up and bought a little plastic editor (mostly with money from my grandmother) and started chopping and splicing with super-8 perforated editing strips. This was around 1980.

How do you begin a project and set up your workspace?

I mostly cut documentaries, so I usually begin with string outs of the material bucketed by “archival,” “interviews,” and “verité.” Then, I work with assistants to ‘boil down’ the material (depending upon length) into something manageable. For instance, 200 hours of verité (a genre of film, television, and radio programs emphasizing realism and naturalism) might boil down to 20 hours, by watching over and over and deleting more extraneous, repetitive, or uninteresting material on each pass. Then, I watch this ‘boiled down’ material and determine what elements are most driving the narrative—is it interviews, verité, or archival? Whichever it is, that’s when I start to sling rough cuts or radio cuts together, scene by scene, looking for connections as I go. I typically start out by building the material chronologically, because it's easier to find later when the actual story work begins.

This is the important part. Until the story work is in full swing, I purposely keep edits super sloppy, kind of like when you build furniture from IKEA and they say don’t tighten the bolts until everything is roughly assembled. I save the ‘good’ editing until after the story is starting to emerge and I have a good sense of how the pieces might be fitting together.

Tell us about a favorite scene or moment from this project and why it stands out to you.

There are so many, but I think the scene where we explore Joanne’s childhood using clips from The Sound and the Fury. We had been playing with and pushing the notion of using their movie clips to bring their story to life, but when we cut that together I remember thinking, “Wow, this is kind of amazing and beautiful.” I don’t know if I’d ever seen anything quite like it. The next day, when I posted it for Ethan, he basically said, “That’s it, that’s the film we are making. Commit to that, more of that!” There was a point later when he watched the scene of Jackie (Paul’s first wife) meeting Joanne and called me after seeing the edit and said, “It’s like they made that movie so we could make our movie!” I will always remember that quote, it was in my head over and over as we continued.

Like in the Winning section where Paul and Joanne are on the phone, having an awkward conversation, and Joanne hangs up on him. It was so intimate and perfect, I played it without any VO or commentary. Just played the scene. Let it be long and thought, “Will this work? Playing a scene culled from a movie like this as though it’s actually the movie we’re making? Will it seem compelling or just weird or confusing? Or boring? It’s not boring when you see it in Winning, so maybe it won’t be boring if we do the right story work prior to making you sink into the drama of the moment.”

It even felt kind of lazy to me, almost too easy just to use the scene as it was, and I didn’t know of any documentaries I could study that had done something like this, so I wasn’t sure. I just trusted Ethan, who has an amazing eye for what works and what doesn’t. He compared these moments to a great rock and roll documentary where you take the time to watch them play a song: “I want to see their performances the way Scorsese would let you watch Dylan perform a song. Don’t be afraid to live in it, this isn’t a DVD extra.”

What were some specific post-production challenges you faced on either project? How did you go about solving them?

The vast amount of movie material of Joanne that was unavailable to the edit team and was of low quality. The scene in the movie when we have to buy a copy of The Stripper actually happened, because we couldn’t find a decent copy. So, one of my assistants found a copy on eBay, bought it and screen-grabbed the process in order for us to make it a “story point”. It seemed to say a lot about what happened to Joanne and the way her work has been treated. And the made-for-TV movies are super hard to find. I took out an old NTSC TV from storage and rephotographed those made-for-TV movies off of YouTube rips in order to make it look more “of the time” and sort of lost in the past and (hopefully) mask (a bit) how horrible our copies looked.

Media_15509c34d486facb4beb513a881fe1cc36fcc0190'The Last Movie Stars'Credit: HBO Max

What Adobe tools did you use for each project and why did you originally choose them? Why were they the best choice for each project?

I am pretty much a Premiere Pro fanatic—I love it. When I am “in the zone” I play the keys like a pianist—I can edit without thinking, effortlessly letting what’s in my brain hit the keyboard. I am sure lots of editors get that feeling at some point after they’ve done it for a while, but I don’t get that feeling from other platforms. Part of it is just my experience and what I am used to, I am sure, but I love it. I don’t really use the other tools, as I just cut and do story work. I leave the graphics and other technical work to the other pros on the team. My team used After Effects quite a bit too.

Do you use as part of your workflow? If so, how do you use it and which features do you find most valuable?

We used to send out review copies and upload and share edits with Ethan. I edited remotely and I didn’t even meet Ethan until this January as we were picture locking on Chapter 1 for SXSW. That’s the first time we met in person. Prior to that, it was a nearly daily process of me uploading my work each day to and texting a link to Ethan. Then, he would text me his initial thoughts, so I had them in the morning when I woke up. Then, we’d have a call for an hour or two, nearly every day, to go over his thoughts and discuss next steps.

Who is your creative inspiration and why?

Since college, I have been a huge admirer of Walter Murch, ever since understanding what editing could be after having seen The Conversation, then thinking about the editing work in Apocalypse Now. Listening to his commentary track for The Conversation years later and learning how he approached the edit really influenced the way I approach documentary editing—the “boiling down,” assembling it all super long and then boiling it down over and over, while Coppola was shooting The Godfather Part II. Many years later, I was given a bootleg video of him speaking about editing Cold Mountain. So many things he said resonated with my way of thinking about editing.

Even though he’s not a documentary editor, I had so much to learn from how he approached cutting. He talks about “making spaghetti sauce” and how it’s different from “making a sandwich”—that’s the two basic ways to edit. I am more of a spaghetti sauce editor: boil it down, boil it down, and let the sauce evolve and emerge. I don’t make sandwiches, I have no idea where I am headed when I start cutting. I just boil it down until the film emerges from the material.

What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career and how did you overcome it? What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers or content creators?

One thing that all documentary editors must overcome these days is a huge misunderstanding as to what we do. Editing the kind of documentaries that I like to edit is akin to writing an adapted screenplay. Source material exists, but there is little more than a treatment or vision statement, typically, when I start. Working with a director to structure the story “writing” is the most fun and interesting part for me. Most people imagine editing as button-pushing with a director telling you what to do.

My advice is to make sure you work with directors and producers who respect your work and treat you as an artist, a co-writer, a partner, and not a button pusher. If they treat you “above the line,” then that’s who you want to work with. Ethan Hawke is one of those people. Find those directors and producers. If they start talking about the great story editor they just hired to work with you, that means they see you as below the line. They don’t want you to be an artist, they want you to be a craftsman. So, you’ll need to decide if you’re okay with that. There is nothing wrong with that, but I am actually not a great craftsman. Ask me to build a sliding split screen and I won’t have the slightest idea where to start. I am more suited to working with the director to figure out the act I threshold moment. If you are an editor who is good at story, you are valuable. Find people to work with who recognize that value.

What’s your favorite thing about your workspace and why?

I work out of an office over my garage at my home in Studio City. My favorite thing about it is my voluminous Blu-ray collection—which came in super handy on The Last Movie Stars.

Media_164d3aacc32a08d11d2a6b8bd52c8cf699a6a1503Credit: HBO Max

The Last Movie Stars is now streaming on HBO Max.

This post was written by Meagan Keane and originally appeared on Adobe blog on Sept. 15, 2022.