In today’s In Conversation we talk to BAFTA and Oscar-winning La La Land editor Tom Cross about how he got started, the cutting process behind Damien Chazelle’s instant musical classic and his movie editing recommendations.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the awesome Tom Cross!
Tell us where you grew up, when you realized you wanted to be a film editor and how you went about becoming one.
I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and grew up in Rochester, New York. Rochester is the home of Eastman Kodak so I was aware of photography and motion pictures from an early age.
My mom was an artist, she painted and did sculpture, and she always encouraged artwork and creativity. My father was and is a lover of movies. I remember at an early age – probably 10 – he took me to the public library where there was an afternoon screening of a film called “Wages of Fear”. Viewings like that had a huge impact on me.
My father would often tell me about movies that he had seen when he was a kid. I remember him describing scenes from Rear Window but he would never give away the ending even when I begged him to. He took me to see the film when it was re-released in theaters after years of being out of circulation.
So I grew up with two parents who really encouraged my creativity. My Father would buy me books about movies to support and encourage my interest. In High School, I spent a lot of time at video stores trying to see every movie that I would read about in those books. There were certain movies that I watched over and over again: Raging Bull, The French Connection, Apocalypse Now, Dog Day Afternoon, The Untouchables, Scarface, etc. I noticed that certain names kept popping up in the credits. Dede Allen, Jerry Greenberg, Alan Heim and Tom Rolf. I started to see a common thread running through these movies and that thread was the editor.
I took that knowledge with me to college, The State University of New York at Purchase, where I got into the film conservatory. I studied directing as it was mainly a directing program, but I remember being inspired by our editing professor Mimi Arsham.
When I left college I gravitated towards editing and got myself a job as an apprentice editor at a commercial editing company in New York City. The Avid Media composer was a new tool at the time and this company had 8 or 9 of them. Only a few feature films were using it as the storage needed was prohibitive and documentaries were not using it as it was too expensive.
I learned a great deal at my new job but longed to work on feature films. Through some lucky connections I was put in touch with an editor who was cutting some commercials in-between feature films. He needed an Assistant who was well-versed in the commercial world. That editor was Tim Squyres, Ang Lee’s editor. I was a big admirer of his work so I leapt at the opportunity. Soon after, he hired me as a second assistant editor on his next feature film. That film with Tim was my first union gig.
I’ve had a long road beyond that, taking detours and working in different genres, but that’s where it started.
And was it difficult to establish yourself from there or was it plain sailing?
I would say that I’ve had a wonderful struggle. The journey was challenging and slow most of the time but also exciting and full of wonder.
I was exactly where I wanted to be working with Tim until one day, I was presented with an amazing opportunity. I got a call to edit a documentary for the award winning filmmaker, Michel Negroponte.
I took the job and found it a wonderful, once in a lifetime experience. Michel taught me so much about storytelling. However, when the project finished, I found it hard to go back to feature films. The documentary took 2 years to finish, and during that time, I found myself outside of the feature film Assistant Editor loop.
I naturally gravitated to where there was work. I edited more documentaries, commercial spots, reality TV, industrials, fashion videos and TV promos. I worked in all kinds of genres. I think that’s what a lot of NY editors end up doing since there is only a small amount of feature films being made in the city. After the year 2000 it was getting harder and harder to find work. After 9/11 in New York City I couldn’t get work at all.
I had always nurtured the idea of moving to LA and the timing felt right so in 2002 I did just that and tried to get back into feature film editing. The long road continued. I tried to grab whatever work I could to make ends meet.
Eventually, someone recommended me to Elizabeth Kling who was editing Deadwood on HBO. I joined as her assistant and that got me back into the scripted loop. I was working on this prestigious David Milch show and she would give me scenes to edit and was very nurturing with her critiques. It was a wonderful experience.
After that, our Deadwood post-production supervisor – Peter Philips – went to work on Turistas, a horror Thriller film by John Stockwell. When Peter heard that the film’s Editor, Jeff McEvoy, was looking for an assistant, he recommended me.
After Turistas the company who produced it wanted to keep me for their next film which was We Own the Night, directed by James Gray. The editor was John Axelrad who already had an assistant. However, John’s assistant couldn’t work for what was being offered, so the company suggested that he hire me. At first, John was skeptical but we had a great meeting, during which he told me he wanted to see me do a lot of cutting and that if I did he would push for me to receive an additional editing credit. I was blown away as nobody had ever offered me an opportunity like that.
I assisted John on 5 films and in all of those cases he would give me a lot of creative freedom. He would also encourage his Directors to work with me. That helped me learn and become comfortable in the editors chair.
Later, John heard a tip about a low budget film that needed an editor and he put my name in the hat for it. He was instrumental in helping me get a couple of good breaks.
So did you do much strategising in terms of working on bigger or more acknowledged productions or was it all serendipitous? Or somewhere in between?
It was probably a lot more serendipitous than I thought it was going to be.
I can remember looking at other editor’s resumes and analyzing people’s careers on IMDB. I always assumed that each film was a carefully thought out, and perfectly strategic career move. I was amused later when I met one of the Editors and found out that everything I assumed was wrong.
Also, in my experience, the things you expect to be big breaks often don’t turn out to be. And then the ones that sneak up on you turn out to be big.
For example, I once got a call from a Producer I had met while on Turistas. It was Couper Samuelson and he emailed me about a feature film that he was going to produce. They didn’t have the financing but they were hoping to shoot and edit a short proof of concept piece that they could shop around to potential financiers. There wasn’t much money to pay me but it felt like a good opportunity.
That project turned out to be the short film version of Whiplash.
That whole situation came about because I stayed in touch with someone. You just never know where your breaks are going to come from.
So tell us your approach to a first cut with a director?
I think most Directors find a first cut quite overwhelming. It is the first time they are seeing what they shot assembled together and there are so many things that are wrong and things that need fixing. After sitting through a three hour first cut it can get quite emotional. One time, I was about to run a first cut and the Director told me that he always cried after watching first cuts of his films.
So I always try to remind them that we are at the beginning of the process and remind them of all the great things that are in the film. I try to verbalize a path that will get us to the film that he or she wants to make.
There are some directors who won’t watch a first cut. Each director and film is different. One thing that works on one project might not work on another. I always try to take the approach of what will be the most constructive for the filmmaker.
We didn’t watch the whole first cut of La La Land. We just started looking at all the material and started cutting scenes.
Sometimes, Damien would ask to see the first cut that I did. Sometimes, we would take things from that or sometimes we would go from scratch but a first cut was always there if we needed it.
On La La Land, Damien wanted to start by cutting the last scene, first. We did the same thing on Whiplash. We started at the end because the final section was so important. In a way, it as the reason that Damien was making the film. So he wanted to do that heavy lifting first and then back the rest of the movie into that last scene.
Tell us about La La Land and how the process went, from script to screen?
Damien had been developing La La Land for a number of years before Whiplash. He had been working on the project with his Composer Justin Hurwitz.
Shortly after Whiplash had gone to Sundance he sent me the script for La La Land and I thought it was amazing. I was so happy that this was what he wanted to focus on next. It was very different from Whiplash but it also had some of the same passion and great story telling.
Damien was extremely well prepared going into La La Land. He story boards and plans every moment. What I try to do is deliver what he has envisioned, as best as I can. Invariably a lot of the stuff he pre-plans will remain exactly the way he saw it. Other things evolve during the normal distillation process of editing. Often you find with great performances that less is more. Damien welcomes this evolution. He’s used to changing his script, open to lifting things out or moving pieces around in service of the story and the characters.
How long did post take on La La Land?
The editing of La La Land took nearly a year. The challenge of Whiplash was that the post schedule was a race with the clock. They started shooting late and we had very little time to edit before we had to ship to Sundance. With La La Land, the challenge was that the film was much more epic in scope. It was more challenging from a musical and technical standpoint but it was also more ambitious with all the different tones and styles that needed to be juggled.
Damien wanted to tell a story that was naturalistic but that could organically expand to contain big fantasy elements. He wanted to tell the story of two real people who are artists who dream big and see their world through Technicolor glasses. The film would have to straddle old Hollywood but somehow be something new at the same time.
He told me he wanted different editing styles to match the emotions of each scene. For Damien the story had different rhythms of romance. Often, the rhythm would be slow and languid to emulate scenes from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. There would be sweeping camera moves, wide shot compositions and long takes. This rhythm and pace would signify the courtship of Mia and Sebastian.
Damien’s cutting strategy was to accentuate these scenes by having different styles on either side and in different parts of the film. The John Legend concert, for example, has sharp edges. It’s the opposite of the soft edges and gentle rhythm of when they first dance on the hilltop. It has faster edits and feels more caffeinated and fragmented. Instead of seeing how these characters relate to each other in a wide frame Damien wanted to show how disjointed they are, and how they are each experiencing this differently.
The whole film was very challenging because there were so many things that Damien wanted to play with editorially. He told me he really wanted to tell the story through the language of dreams and for Damien, the film lover, that means the language of old Hollywood cinema. He wanted to use iris outs, dissolves, wipes and montages where there is no dialogue.
Another challenge was the technical precision that we had to adhere to in order to tell Damien’s story. He always visualizes certain picture beats to hit at certain times in the music. He and his crew were very good at capturing that precision on set. However, as our picture evolved during editing, we often had to find new picture moments to hit at different musical moments but still have it feel as if it was always intended that way. Damien is very particular about having precise downbeats. We were working on those issues all the way into the final mix.
How long did you shoot La La Land for? There are some really interesting lighting cues. Were those done in post?
We shot for a little over 40 days, so it was still very ambitious for what they wanted to accomplish. Most of the lighting is in-camera. Linus Sangren and Damien decided that they really wanted to capture a certain natural light that you see in LA sometimes. This meant they had to shoot a lot at magic hour or other specific times of the day.
For example, when they sing “A Lovely Night” they had to shoot that over two nights in order to capture the right performance at the right time of day. The lights of the valley, Ryan walking along the pier… All these scenes are in camera.
Did you always know you would reach these heady international heights?
I always wanted to work on projects that would be accessible to a wide audience, and I always wanted to collaborate with great filmmakers.
The fact that I feel like I’m doing both is literally a dream come true for me.
What advice would you give to an aspiring editor or filmmaker?
You have to follow your passion. Really follow it. You have to love what you do in order to succeed. And if you love it, then the journey upward will be something to savor rather than something to endure.
Try and work towards your target genre, even if it means you have to start in a lower position. Try to get your foot in the right door. Make a connection.
I once read some advice from the late, great film editor Sally Menke. She recommended keeping your overhead low so that you could afford to cut the next low paying job coming your way. That low paying job could be your Reservoir Dogs. Those words of wisdom came to mind when I got the call about the Whiplash short.
I think when young people are just starting out, it can be an exciting time.
Don’t think of it as paying your dues so much as being able to take opportunities that older and more experienced people might not be able to take. Young editors and filmmakers should feel empowered in that way.
Thank you, Tom!
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