Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with Oscar-winner Tom Cross, ACE on “Hostiles”

Tom Cross, ACE, is an Oscar winner for his editing of Whiplash. He was last nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing for La La Land, for which he won the ACE Eddie. He was also nominated for an Eddie for his work on Joy. Art of the Cut has interviewed Tom twice before: for Joy and again for La La Land.

In this discussion, we center our talk on the western Hostiles – which was recently released on DVD, BluRay and to VOD.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: So you’re cutting First Man right now.

CROSS: Yes – working on First Man. It’s very ambitious. They’re shooting a lot of film on it and I’ve had to adjust how I work in order to accommodate. I’ve had to try to be more efficient and whittle down my process to just viewing, selecting and cutting. I always watch everything first and make my pulls or selects as I go. After I do that, I let my assistants re-arrange and order my select rolls.

HULLFISH: You said you feel like you have to watch everything before you start cutting anything. And there’s definitely a disagreement about that. There are editors who say, “I look at the last take of every setup and I’ll start cutting with that just so that I can quickly put a scene together in minutes so then I can look at a finished scene and then with knowledge of the finished scene then I watch the dailies again.”

CROSS: And see what you need.

HULLFISH: Right. See what you need or things that you might have discounted before, you might now understand that it has a value. I just talked to Clint Eastwood’s longtime editor, and Oscar-winner, Joel Cox, ACE and he discounts the idea of selects reels at all. Everybody has a different take.

CROSS: That’s why I love the discussions that you have because the reader gets to compare notes. I read an interview that you did with Kirk Baxter and I remember that he had a pretty cool process. Kirk pointed out that what he does works with Fincher but it might not work with some other director. And I totally see what he’s saying.

Scott Cooper’s dailies are different than David O. Russell’s. There’s gold in both but how you mine for that is very different.

HULLFISH: That’s a really interesting idea. … Like you mentioned, even with First Man – Damien’s a director you’ve worked with before several times – but this picture is different. You’ve got to find a good approach because of this picture.

CROSS: Yes. Some of it is familiar. There are great single takes like in La La Land and there are some faster scenes that are reminiscent of Whiplash. But then there are other stylistic and storytelling that is new to me. Damien is shooting a lot of it like a documentary so a lot of the dailies have a cinema verite feel. That’s actually something that he did in his first film, Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench, his black and white 16mm cinema verite musical which he cut himself. Cutting those sort of dailies is very different than what we’ve done before.

HULLFISH: John Ford said, “When in doubt make a western.”

CROSS: Really? I didn’t know that. That’s a great quote.

HULLFISH: That’s my transition into Hostiles.

CROSS: They shot in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico and I went there to start cutting. I wasn’t on set but I was nearby so the production team had easy access to me. I started it directly after La La Land. I think we finished print mastering on La La Land and then I went directly to Santa Fe to start cutting Hostiles.

HULLFISH: To use the title of another of your movies: that must have been like Whiplash to go from La La Land to Hostiles.

CROSS: It was. But I was very happy to go from one old Hollywood genre – the musical – to another – the Western. It’s always been a dream of mine to work on a Western.  I’m a big fan of John Ford, Howard Hawks and certainly Sergio Leone. So to be able to work on one is definitely a dream come true.

HULLFISH: Did you try to use any of those classic Western tropes? I noticed a lot of dissolves that I haven’t seen from you before. That feels like a very western kind of thing.

CROSS: Scott and I talked a lot about it before I started cutting. He’s also a fan of Westerns but he really cautioned me about falling into traditional Western film tropes. He wanted the film to be more psychological like There Will Be Blood. So even though he’s a fan he really pushed me to think of the story as a psychological journey first. He encouraged me to create a measured pace through the use of very long dissolves and overlapping landscapes.

HULLFISH: Well, I’d agree that you steered away from the tropes because one of the things you used was jumpcuts, which are pretty unusual in a Western, I think. There’s a great use of them when Joe goes out to the desert – he’s been given this assignment that he doesn’t want to do – and he’s frustrated and angry and he goes out and kind of claws at the Earth.

CROSS: That was a scene that we talked a lot about while editing. When I saw the dailies, I could tell from the way that Scott shot it that it called for something elliptical. It called for time cuts. I think that scene was important to the film because it really showed how torn up Captain Blocker was about getting this mission. Scott told me about the back story that he and Christian had come up with for the character. Captain Blocker was this person whose racism and bigotry was learned and hammered into his psyche during all the years of soldiering since he was a boy. Their idea was that Captain Blocker’s efficiency as a soldier was enabled by his ignorance. So all of a sudden he gets sent on this mission which goes against everything he’s been trained for and he doesn’t know how to handle that. And his body reacts. He walks outside and has a breakdown. The scene lent itself to being presented like jagged pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It felt like a moment where we could stylistically break with what came before and it was early enough in the story to have cutting like that. I always feel like the opening of the movie or the beginning passages of a story are kind of a roadmap for the rest of the movie. Most of the time, I think you have to seed certain stylistic things early so that the audience understands the grammar of the film. But the other thing that we tried to do was create some symmetry between Rosamund Pike’s character and Christian Bale’s character. They both have these very primal breakdowns at different moments.

HULLFISH: There’s a twin scene with her clawing at the earth.

CROSS: Yes. Those scenes were really important because they gave the center stage to these two characters and their point of views.

Thinking about that had a direct impact on the cutting because we had to calibrate how we introduced all the characters. There were scenes and moments of Yellow Hawk and his family that we elected to remove from the beginning of the movie. There were also different shots of the approaching Comanche during the opening scene that we didn’t use. In the editing, we really tried to show these characters in wider shots and through the eyes of Captain Blocker and Rosalee. By denying the audience certain cinematic entryways into these characters, our hope was to firmly establish their worldviews so that their shifts and changes later in the story would feel that much more significant. We really wanted to avoid a situation where the audience would get way ahead of the movie. It’s only later in the story that we focus more and more on Yellowhawk so that we get to know him as Blocker gets to know him. So thinking about those things had a direct effect on cutting patterns and where to place emphasis.

HULLFISH: It’s almost like a reverse Save the Cat. We don’t want to show that these people are so likable and human.

CROSS: Right. Right.

HULLFISH: Because we need to go on the journey with the characters who don’t think they’re so likable. Very interesting.

CROSS: The hope was to present the psychological journeys of these characters – in particular, Joe Blocker and Rosalee Quaid –  and through those journeys show how they change. It’s a story where Joe Blocker realizes that all the characters have more in common than they think. Yellow hawk knows this first but it takes Blocker more time to unlearn what he’s been taught.

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about the scene when Captain Blocker’s getting his assignment. It builds up to some great close-ups.

CROSS: Scott covered that really beautifully. I had a lot of different choices in terms of angles and sizes.

HULLFISH: I noticed a lot of different angles.

CROSS: Scott was very particular about how he covered the movie. He really likes wide shots and he loves to take advantage of the scope frame. He generally stayed away from big close-ups. One notable exception was the mission scene. What really governed the cutting of that was the goal of getting into Captain Blocker’s head. I remember thinking that this is a scene where we really need to clock Captain Blocker’s discomfort with the mission and his anger building toward his commanding officer and toward the newspaperman. The scene had to have a clear Blocker POV and the best way into that would be through his face. Scott knew that and gave me plenty to work with. I tried to get to those sizes quickly and even blew up some shots to go even tighter. When you have great actors, their faces are really worth their weight in gold.

HULLFISH: What temp score did you use when Blocker then goes to meet Yellow Hawk? The score is really interesting. It’s not at all a typical Western score.

CROSS: The score had to complement the epic panoramic images that Scott and Masanobu Takayanagi were giving us but also had to complement the internal journeys of all the characters. During my first cut, I temped with some cues from Scott’s previous films: Out of the Furnace and Black Mass. I also threw in a couple Johan Johansson cues from Sicario.  I joke with my editor friends about that because everyone seems to throw in at least one Sicario cue into their rough cuts. I remember using one of those cues to build suspense and horror during the opening cabin raid. Once we started the director’s cut, our Music Editor, Katrina Schiller began swapping out those cues for other things. Scott quickly decided on Max Richter and he started feeding us cues that we put in as we refined the cut.

Thinking of the movie as a psychological story certainly informed how I cut the landscapes. We knew there’d be a lot of long traveling passages and it was important to luxuriate in what might be considered shoe leather in another movie. That was part of the point. Scott really wanted to lean on the images and music to tell his story. He felt it was the best way to present the journey. His hope was that these ethereal travel scenes would help the audience feel the geographic distance traveled but also suggest the psychological journey traveled, too. And he also knew that the slower, brooding pace would accentuate the violence which is faster and more staccato.

It was important to Scott that our action scenes feel uncompromising in their violence. Those were the scenes that Scott really didn’t want to feel like a traditional Western. Classic Western films are known for a certain type of swashbuckling action and Scott wanted to avoid that. He really wanted the action to feel more violent and grim rather than presentational.

HULLFISH: You mentioned Sicario getting used so much for temp scores. I can see THIS movie being used for temp music. It’s all internal. You can feel everybody’s wheels, the gears shifting and grinding against each other. The music is great for showing someone thinking and their worldview changing.

CROSS: Something that I really love about the movie is that it’s a very visual film. There’s not a lot of dialogue. It’s a psychological journey that rides on the landscapes and music. And luckily for us, we were able to collaborate with Max Richter. I thought he just nailed the ending cue. It’s emotionally epic and underlines the fork in the road that Captain Blocker is facing at the train station. You have a character who can stay in the past or jump onto the train and into modernity.

HULLFISH: One of the structural things that I was interested in is that thing where the attack happens on the homesteaders and then you go for a pretty long time before you come back to the discovery of that Homestead again.

CROSS: That was pretty close to how it was scripted. We really didn’t move too many things around because the journey was so clearly linear. They actually shot the film almost entirely in continuity so that made it easier for me to cut it together. I think Scott really wanted to shoot it that way to make it easier for the actors to track their own journeys. We did end up lifting and compressing certain scenes. There was a scene when our group came upon a pillaged encampment with dead bodies. It felt a little redundant so we ended up folding it into one of our travel montages. Those sections were loosely structured in the script so we were able to play around with them based on how the landscapes meshed with the score. So in terms of moving things around we didn’t really do a lot of that. Scott always intended the story to be played in a linear way.

HULLFISH: The journey happens but the homesteaders are separate from that.

CROSS: They are separate initially but their existence is connected and their fate informs everything in the journey that follows.

Scott always wanted to start the movie off with a pastoral American tableau and then turn that scene upside down. All the terrible things that happen to Rosalee and her family set the bar in terms of how uncompromising their world is. If something that traumatic happens in the first two minutes of the movie then the audience is going to be looking over their shoulders, thinking that anything can happen.

HULLFISH: I’ve been obsessed lately with the idea of pre-lap or post-lap edits as scene transitions in recent interviews. (a J cut or L cut) and there are several including when Rosamund’s character asks Christian’s character, “Do you believe in the Lord?” Right after that, there’s a post lap into “sometimes I envy the finality of death.”.

CROSS: After Blocker says, “Yes I do”, he goes back to reading the bible passage to Woodson and we start to dissolve. We post-lapped Blocker’s voice as we dissolve through several other travel shots and landscapes. That overlap wasn’t scripted but Scott always encouraged me to go in those directions in the editing process. We did another overlap when we post-lapped Woodson’s campfire singing into another travel montage. Scott liked how the voices would hit the various images. Sometimes we would be dissolving through beautiful awe-inspiring landscapes; other times we would be seeing trails littered with dead bodies. Those juxtapositions sometimes had surreal results and our hope was that it would feel more psychological. We also liked hearing the Bible passage because it was a reminder that our characters really had very little to comfort them in their world. They had little more than their faith. It was very primal.

HULLFISH: Obviously, with a movie like this, where the whole point of the movie is the journey — physically and psychologically. I just talked to Dylan Tichenor about some scenes like that in Phantom Thread that could be viewed as shoe leather, but the audience really needs the time to get their heads in a different place… plus the scenes are so cinematic.

CROSS: I loved his work on that. That’s a great example because I remember really liking those moments. They felt integral to the story and emotion. Sometimes the shoe leather is actually informing me about the characters, creating suspense or maintaining a rhythm. Sometimes those moments in films become iconic. The architecture and construction of a film can be so delicate and precarious sometimes. If you build it one way, it can feel like shoe leather. On the other hand, you can take that shoe leather and shape it a certain way and then it becomes a moment that your story needs.

HULLFISH: There’s a great moment when Joe is in the infirmary saying goodbye to his good friend Henry and I noted that you played it almost entirely dry. There’s no music as I remember in that scene.


CROSS: We loved that scene. I remember one of my assistants was doing Avid ScriptSync on that scenes and he had a big reaction when he watched the dailies.

HULLFISH: You used ScriptSync?

CROSS: Well, we didn’t use the actual phonetic ScriptSync feature. We just did it manually.

HULLFISH: A lot of people call it Scripter when they do that, even though that’s not the name. If you’re using it manually, it’s called Script Integration.

CROSS: That’s what I used to call it, script integration. But then every time I would say that no one would know what I was talking about. You mean Scripter? So I’m with you. It’s Script Integration.

One of my assistants was scripting the Woodson hospital bed scene and he told me that he cried while watching the dailies. He found the performances so moving. When you edit scenes like that you really try to somehow maintain the original emotions that you felt when you first experienced the footage.

So we played the scene dry with no score. Scott and I felt that the performances and dialogue could carry the emotion. Also, it was coming out of the scene with Rosalee holding her daughter’s teddy bear and that scene did have score. Rosalee’s scene was silent so it could float on top of score. So part of it was modulating our scored moments so that you don’t become numb to them.

Another thing we had to calibrate was the amount of emotion you see Blocker express. We did a very stoic pass where we really held back on his emotions even more. That included a version of the film where we lifted out the desert breakdown scene that you spoke about earlier. In theory, the idea was that Blocker would show very little emotion so that when he did become emotional – like the scene when he finds his friend’s body – you would really feel his sorrow. Of course, that idea worked in theory but not in practice. When we watched it, it didn’t really feel as emotional. It was too dry. Often the only way to know if something is going to work is to try it and watch it in a run.

HULLFISH: Did you make the more dry version just by eliminating things or also by finding more dry performances?

CROSS: The process was more subtractive. The performances had slight variations but everyone really stayed in their lanes. Christian, Rosamund, Wes Studi and the others had decided on what these characters were going to be and there really wasn’t much variance. Sometimes a director will work with actors to give you very different options. That wasn’t really the case with this movie. The gradations were subtle.

HULLFISH: Final strange question: there was a post-production credit for New York. Did you have to edit in New York or was that just finishing stuff?

CROSS: We did edit in New York for tax reasons.

HULLFISH: You personally went to New York?

CROSS: Yes. I was in Santa Fe while they were shooting and then we finished post in New York. We did our entire final mix there with the exception of maybe a week or so of dubbing on a larger stage at Warner Bros.

HULLFISH: I just did an interview with Tatiana Riegel on I, Tonya and they shot in Atlanta, but she went to New York for the edit. It’s the same thing: as soon as they finished principal photography they all went to New York.

CROSS: It was a fun adventure.

HULLFISH: Tom, I thoroughly enjoyed this. I could talk forever.

CROSS: Same here. Steve, I love your interviews. I don’t know if I’ve told you that before. I read them all the time. You’re an editor, so you ask these great questions that I would ask if I was speaking with these editors. I want to know how they work. You get into specifics which is great and it gives me new ideas.

HULLFISH: Wow! That’s very nice of you to say. Thank you!

CROSS: I hope we chat again. Thank you so much.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

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Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured…