Martha Pinson is one of the unsung talents behind some of the finest and most important films of the last three and a half decades. A filmmaker herself, as script supervisor she has worked on eight projects apiece with Martin Scorsese and the late Sidney Lumet, and she has also worked with the like of Oliver Stone, Milos Forman, Brian De Palma and Peter Yates. She started her career just as New York was attracting a bevy of great filmmakers. In the first of a two-part interview I talk to Martha about her early filmgoing years, how she got into the film industry, the responsibilities of script supervising, and working with Scorsese, Lumet, Forman and De Palma.   

What were some of the formative films for you growing up?
One of the first films that blew me away was GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), which I saw in a re-release when I was about 12. As a teenager, I was crazy about Bergman, especially THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) and SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (1955), and Truffaut, especially THE 400 BLOWS (1959) and BREATHLESS (1960), which he wrote. I also loved  Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961). They were revelations. From TV watching I loved the classics: The Marx Brothers, Looney Tunes, and Little Rascals, and the series “Maverick” with James Garner. Also, some greats were revived on Million Dollar Movie, such as YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942). As I explored movies at revival houses and film societies I enjoyed more classics, such as the work of Orson Welles, Michael Curtiz, and Alfred Hitchcock. Some favorites were THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), CASABLANCA (1942) and THE LADY VANISHES (1938). In college and my early twenties, Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST (1970)and Altman’s MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) captivated me. I became a big fan of the work of Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Milos Forman, Brian de Palma and Peter Yates (BULLITT, 1968). It was crazy cool that I soon would later have the opportunity to work with them.  
How did you get into the film business?
As a child I loved art, and I continued into high school with that, especially sketching and painting. I started 'my career' in film and theater in the art department, creating sets and props for our school productions. For example, I painted a giant dragon mural for 'The King & I.'  I developed a love of modern dance and became a film buff. I always loved literature, philosophy, French, and history. In college at Vassar in the late 60s, I studied Shakespeare, Greek drama and creative writing. Also, I attended and loved a Film Society that had been set up by the cinematographer Nestor Almendros when he taught there years before. After college I had no options, no job and no prospects. It was the early 70’s and there was 12% unemployment in Boston, where I lived at the time. Honors from Vassar College counted for nothing. I studied Modern Dance and worked part time. I also went to Europe and practiced my French, and saw the mosaics in Ravenna and other great things. I even thought about going to law school.  

Finally, a job selling tickets at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts appealed to me because I realized that movies combined all the arts I loved. And the job included a pass to all the local art & revival theaters – awesome!  The Welles was an art-house theater not unlike The Film Forum in New York. It turned out that it was the hippest place in the world. People like Neil Young, Fassbinder, Orson Welles and Vincent Minnelli came. Bob Marley did a concert at our adjacent restaurant. I was soon in charge of publicity and some advertising chores. We launched a lot of films. I even went to Cannes in 1975 and picked out HESTER STREET, an indie directed by Joan Micklin Silver, which we did really well with. I’d write press releases, run press tours, invite people to screenings and parties, and design promotional brochures. It was a small salary but really fun and creative. This is a cool story ... I did a press tour for Orson Welles when we opened F FOR FAKE (1973) and he generously spoke to a packed audience of film buffs and fans at the theater.  A guy asked, ''Mr. Welles, how would you define a good director?'' Welles replied, ''A good director is one who finishes a film.'' Classic. Directors whose films I helped launch told me, because we were so successful, ''You have to work for me.'' That’s how I started in production.  I worked as a production assistant but it was too random and unpredictable for me, and there was too much yelling. It seemed the only real job for a woman on a film set in those days (mid-70s) was script supervisor. People suggested it; I read about it; it seemed possible. My mentor said I picked it up faster than anyone he’d trained. People said I had a photographic memory. I had no idea. I loved that it was a union job and I could live on the salary and take time off to write and have a family. I suppose I timed it well and I had the education and visual and language skills that were appreciated. My secret weapon was I was good at math.  I was calm and quiet by nature so that helped. 

What are the responsibilities of a script supervisor?
A script supervisor is a key assistant/adviser to the director on set. We make sure that the film will cut together, and we are considered the representative of the editor during shooting. We create a literal breakdown and maintain continuity of all elements. For example, an actor might have sixty different wardrobe changes; props get moved around and changed. Everything is shot out of sequence. Script supervisors are where the buck stops on all this, and we communicate with all the departments to catch errors and answer questions. We're charged with remembering every detail in a scene as it happens and what has been established on camera so far. An actor might ask ''Martha, which way did I turn?'' I will answer as we keep rolling. We also have to advise the team if we are missing any shots or coverage, or if there are issues with eye-lines, lens size, matching and so on. We make sure the dialogue is covered and correct. Information from the set gets passed on to the editor, and we inform him/her what the director likes or dislikes about each take and setup. We also contribute to the daily production report. We are the memory of the production.  

Before you began working on movies what on set experiences did you have?
I worked as a script supervisor on the PBS miniseries THE SCARLET LETTER (1979) and I got a lot of experience. It was a 200-page script, four hours of television. I was hired on a provisional basis because I was new, but I finished the shoot and even co-edited an episode. I also did some shorts, commercials, and two movies-of-the-week as script supervisor:  BRESLIN'S NEIGHBORHOOD (1979)and MAYFLOWER: THE PILGRIM'S ADVENTURE (1979), which starred Anthony Hopkins. The editor on MAYFLOWER, Eric Albertson, told me my notes were the best he’d seen in 15 years and that he had told everyone in New York. After that, the phone was ringing, and Brian De Palma's production manager must have heard about me because he asked me to work on DRESSED TO KILL (1980).  

Was it daunting working with a director as big as De Palma for your first feature film? How was that experience?
I was of kind in awe of De Palma but I don't think I was intimidated, which is interesting. I knew the job and what was required on a daily basis. I wasn't scared until I read the script! I was shaken up, just from reading it. I knew it would be a hit so I was excited going in.  Because I was still pretty new, during the shoot there were a couple of things I might have noticed if I’d had more experience. And people did tease me a bit. I had to prove myself and overcome skepticism regarding my knowledge and abilities. I was fortunate in that De Palma knew exactly what he wanted, so my job was easier in a sense. He had designed a beautiful shooting plan for the movie. It would have been harder to work for someone who was new himself. The job was to pay attention and not let anything escape me. Brian was terrific, and is all about the work, as am I.  
What was the experience of working on RAGTIME (1980) with Milos Forman like?
By the summer of 1980, when I got the call, I had done a couple of big films in New York and I guess I was on the radar of the production team. I was a big fan of HAIR (1979) and loved Doctorow’s novel 'Ragtime' (1975) so I was delighted to do the film. I said yes and dove in.  We shot in New York in the summer and early fall, then moved to London for 10 weeks at Shepperton Studios. RAGTIME was dazzling, complex, and beautiful, and I enjoyed it.  Milos and his DP, Miroslav Ondricek, were brilliant and fun, and the cast was amazing: James Cagney, Mary Steenburgen, Mandy Patinkin, Howard Rollins, Norman Mailer, Samuel L. Jackson, and more. It was a long shoot and there was a lot to keep track of and I suppose I 'grew up' a bit in the process, learning to shoulder more responsibility and pressure and to work far from home. It was an honor to work with Milos Forman. One time he said to some of us crew that he liked it if his colleagues were smarter than him. We took the compliment knowing full well there was no chance – he is so smart, we were not even close. I learned a lot about elaborate, complex coverage of scenes. I was witnessing the work of a very accomplished and passionate director. The film was also incredibly beautiful and historic. Every set, costume, and hairdo was special. John Graysmark was production designer, Patritzia von Brandenstein was art director, and Anna Hill Johnstone was costume designer – the best! I remember one day, it was so hot on our set that the candles were melting, literally bending over. RAGTIME had vast and varied elements and Milos just kept going with a great spirit. A funny thing I remember is that the crew would watch dailies with Milos and Miroslav in a screening room after work. Sometimes a heated exchange in Czech would start between them and it sounded like there was trouble. Yipes! Those of us on the crew would sit there, not understanding a word and silently praying that whatever was wrong was not our fault. One time I heard my name in the middle of the intense exchange.  Panic. When the shot ended, Milos asked me why we had not done a certain scene along with the ones we just watched. I replied that the scene in question was a night shot, different lighting from the daylight scenes screened. Phew, that was fine. I had a wonderful time working with Milos and he asked me to do AMADEUS (1984) with him later. However, they were shooting in Prague and I was about to get married in New York. That was my priority and I didn’t want to delay things.  
How about Sidney Lumet?
I loved his films: THE PAWNBROKER (1964), SERPICO (1973), DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975). Wow! Sid was such a brilliant, earthy, aware person. I was really excited to work with him, and luckily we just clicked. We did eight movies together. Sid also signed on as adviser/consultant on a project I was developing to direct, which was extremely generous.  One of the remarkable things about Sid was that he always did two, or sometimes three, weeks of rehearsal prior to shooting. It was six hours a day, no fooling around, and he prepared for the shoot as if he was getting ready to open a Broadway play. Well, there was some fooling around because Sid loved to do vaudeville jokes. He had a table read with the whole cast, then talked about the script and broke it down. He'd show photographs of the locations and talk about the history and backstory of the characters. People asked questions and everybody got to know what Sid was thinking. He’d progress to working with smaller groups of actors on each scene, going over motivations, marking the dramatic beats, and blocking the action. Different levels and interpretations in the performances would be tried, and the staging adjusted. We'd work in a big, empty rehearsal hall. The assistant directors would tape off the dimensions of each set, and we'd have basic props brought in. Details that would make a big difference in the daily schedule would get ironed out.  I'd report to production every day what had been changed and/or decided. On the last day of rehearsals we'd do a run through for the director of photography so he could see the staging and often pre-light the sets. Sid believed that actors lost energy if they were waiting around too long. He wanted to bring them in and be ready to start shooting quickly. He didn't want to rehearse, try to find the scene, while a hundred crew people were standing around. He also liked to make decisions when he could envision the film more as a whole. For him, that was before the shoot. He felt he'd be less objective when tired from getting up early, the grind of the shoot days.   

Can you remember a particular experience that sums up his ethos?
One day on A STRANGER AMONG US (1992), we were filming a major car stunt and other action in the midtown diamond district, with a guy crashing into the back of a truck and people running everywhere. It was a whole day's filming on one block, all set up in advance, with four cameras. We did 48 setups before lunch and went home. That's what preparation can do. The producers would tell Sid ''You can take a little more time if you like'' but he'd say ''No, it's fine.  I'm good.'' It was something deep in him that he liked to move along. He might have done another take and tried alternate versions but he was decisive, had a vision, and went with it.  
Your first of eight collaborations with Martin Scorsese was on the Michael Jackson 'Bad' video (1987).  That must have been quite an experience. What do you enjoy the most about working with Scorsese?
'Bad' was a fantastic experience. I didn't work that closely with Michael Jackson, but I liked him; he was extremely prepared and a nice, gentle soul. Marty is a genius, as everyone pretty much knows. And he’s funny. He's intensely passionate about his work and getting it right; if the slightest thing is off in the composition or framing, he notices it right away and makes an adjustment. I was amazed by his knowledge of films. He’d reference a specific shot from a great film and we’d all be standing there in awe, trying to picture that shot. He’s warm and supportive to the actors, and very engaged. Of course, I am not there for much of the prep and communication with the actors. I see the results on set, which are astounding. He knows about art, history, and so many things besides film, so it's an education just to be around him. He’s also collaborative and wants input from people he trusts, and that in turn inspires everyone. He is completely prepared, annotates the script with every shot he wants - in order, described, numbered, diagrammed. He and his DP’s get up every day and do shots that don’t even seem humanly possible. They're astounding. Working with Marty, I've experienced a constant sense of wonder when I see what has been designed - the sets, the costumes, and then the approach to the scenes. Nothing is just all right or obvious. There is always a unique and imaginative approach. That applies to every set, every scene and every sequence, every day. Marty makes use of every tool available to a filmmaker and takes each one beyond the accepted into a new, expressive realm. 

Part 2 can be read here.

I spoke to Martha by telephone on 20th July 2013 and also by email correspondence during May and June 2014. I would like to thank her for her time.


(1) Martha directing (c) Paulo Caserta
(2) Martha and crew on the streets of New York for WITHOUT A TRACE (1983) (c) Holly Bower
(3) Portrait of Martha (c) Lou Jones
(4) Milos Forman at the Jersey Shore location for RAGTIME in 1979 (c) Martha Pinson
(5) Martha and Sidney Lumet on the set of POWER in 1986 (c) Kerry Hayes
(6) Martha with Martin Scorsese and Nicolas Cage on the New York location for BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999) (c) Philip V. Caruso

Special thanks to Ricky Barnett of IIWYK.

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