Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with Oscar-winning editor, Joel Cox, ACE

A career of editing the iconic films of Clint Eastwood, and recently, “Den of Thieves”

There are a few famous pairings of directors and editors: Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, ACE; Steven Spielberg and Michael Kahn, ACE; and it would be hard to ignore the life-long collaboration of director Clint Eastwood and Oscar-winning editor Joel Cox, ACE. But Cox has expanded his relevance and success outside of that relationship with directors including Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners), Benny Boom (All Eyez on Me) and his latest collaboration with Christian Gudegast on Den of Thieves.

Oscar-winning editor, Joel Cox, ACE

Cox’s awards shelf is groaning under the weight of an Oscar and an Eddie win for Unforgiven, Oscar nominations for American Sniper, and Million Dollar Baby; Eddie nominations for American Sniper, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River; and a BAFTA nomination for The Changeling. He also won the Hollywood Film Awards Editor of the Year for Flags of Our Fathers (2006), and for Letters from Iwo Jima (2006).

Cox will return to the edit chair on Eastwood’s next film.

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

HULLFISH: With a career as long and storied as yours, obviously you started cutting film. Were you more of a Moviola guy, or KEM or Steenbeck?

COX: We never actually segued into the KEMs and stuff like that. We had a Junior, but we used it as a cueing table. We didn’t actually edit on it. I continued to edit on the Moviola until 1995 when we switched over to Avid.

HULLFISH: What was your first film on Avid?

COX: The Stars Fell on Henrietta, with James Keach as director, for Clint’s production company (Malpaso Productions).

HULLFISH: So on film, you only used Moviola and digitally, only Avid?

COX: Yes, on Moviola and Avid. And as archaic as people think Moviola was, when it came to developing stories and creating a cut, I think it lent itself more to that. You really had to know your craft, and with Lightworks and Avid, you could really “trial-and-error edit.” When you cut film you were really cutting the film, and if you wanted to extend it, you would have to put it back together. When I started out, we were hot-splicing the edits. We were just changing over to tape-editing on film, where you didn’t lose a frame. That was an interesting time. If you cut it, then extended it later, then you’d have a black frame where you extended it. It was like cutting negative.

HULLFISH: Did you find that any of the old habits of cutting film extended into your non-linear life and served you well?

COX: Yes. I am still cutting the way that I cut on film. I still run the dailies; make notes and then cut the scene. There’s no trial and error. I’m sitting there, looking at the material, running it and saying, “Where am I going to start the scene?” I put up that piece of film, mark in, mark out, cut it in, load the next cut. Pick a certain angle, look at those takes and mark in, mark out, cut it in. So I have not changed my style of editing. I have just changed the way we do it now, via Avid.

HULLFISH: Because of your time on Moviola, do you find that you do less trimming and revising?

A Moviola

COX: I learned from Sam O’Steen and Ferris Webster. Sam taught me what I believe is the correct way to edit a film on film. He always said, “Once it passed the sync and it was on the reel,” as far as he was concerned, “it was ready to show.” I’m not one of those editors who cut a scene and run it and re-cut it and run it and re-cut it and run it again. Because I have so much experience, the only thing I do is – if I have a little bit of a mismatch on something – I will adjust that, but that’s it. I don’t go back and second-guess myself.

Clint gave me the greatest piece of advice. He said, “Put your first instinct together. Let’s see what it is, because it’s generally really right on.”

Only when we have to think about cutting a film down, will we think about altering. He’ll come in and maybe change a take or trim a shot, but he was never into recutting scenes because he always felt that first instincts were really good. In fact, later on, working with him, I’d spend three to five days with him making his adjustments and that was the picture. We would come back then to Los Angeles – because we were at Carmel for the edit (where Clint lives) – and he’d run it up on a screen and we’d make trims and then he’d go away and then come back in a couple of weeks and make trims. That was pretty much the film that we turned over.

HULLFISH: I’m really interested in your preference for the Moviola. Was there something with the KEM or the Steenbeck that you didn’t like?

A KEM editing table.

COX: It was having to load rolls. People think that Clint doesn’t shoot a lot of takes. But he shoots a lot of angles. In Bird, I had music takes that were five and six hundred foot long, and if you were cutting on a KEM, you’d have to stop, take off the rolls add the other roll, run down to it, get the cut then take those off and go to another one, and it was so much easier and so much faster if I could sit on my bench and run the rolls down in the bin and when I got to that area, I knew what I was doing and what I was looking for. A KEM was nice in a way that you were able to see it on a bigger screen, but as far as having to run takes, I thought it was slower.

HULLFISH: But you’d screen on the KEM?

COX: Clint would come in and run the reels on the KEM. He’d give his notes, I’d take it back to the bench and make all the changes and then back up on the KEM.

Then, when we got to the Avid, you could fix things so fast. The one thing about the Avid, it’s much faster to cut on, because you have random access. When you were on the Moviola, you always had to spin the takes down to find the part you wanted, but with Avid, random access, match frame and you’re right there, right now. But it still takes time. It’s more mental than it is physical but when you were on film, it was 50 percent physical, 50 percent mental. It’s now 100% mental. You’re making decisions and looking at things fast.

I love the art of editing. I am lucky enough that I’ve had a career where I’ve been able to work on some really great films. When my career started, there was a certain amount of luck in being in the right place at the right time. But you also had to be schooled in your field and the art of editing and you just couldn’t walk in and tell people that you could do it; because the minute you sit down by yourself and there’s nobody else around, you’ve got to make decisions and that comes with experience. You have to be so creative as an editor because the scene goes together but nothing is 100 percent. You have to manipulate film to get what you want. You have to be creative enough that when the director says, “I want to do this instead of this and I want to take this out,” you have to be able to figure out how to do it.

Let’s say you have A, B, C, D and he wants to go to D and remove B and C. Well, the actors are in different places. How do you get them there? That’s all experience. I can look at that stuff and I can make good decisions. But that’s 50 years plus of making those decisions.

HULLFISH: Is there something you think that the new digital generation of editors is missing out on from never having cut on film?

A Steenbeck Flatbed editing system.

COX: Yes, because with digital editing, anybody can put two pieces of film together. You can adjust it and do whatever you think you want, and what you think is right. But with film, because you were actually cutting film, you wanted to be correct and you didn’t want a bunch of splices in the first cut, so you had to think about what you were doing and where you were going. You had to think two or three cuts ahead.

HULLFISH: You mentioned loading stuff up out of bins, so I’m assuming you’re not using selects reels.

COX: We place each sequence in a sequence bin and everything that is for that sequence is put it there before you cut the sequence. I know all the material. When I’m going to cut scene 31, I open the bin for scene 31 and run all the material and make notes. I make notes in my own shorthand. I put down two lines on a legal tablet: a little description of what happened in the scene. If I find I’ve got two or three takes, because — it’s not like the old days on film where they could only put so much film in the camera — with digital, you can just re-rack and you can have ten re-takes in a single take. So you’re not running these takes and looking at them, you’re putting marks on pickups. If I can’t remember if I have three or four takes on something, but there was something I specifically wanted to make sure I got in, I put a note down on the pad and can find which take had it. I’d give it four stars and “good in the third” or whatever. When you’re looking at that much footage, you want to put it in your mind, but you’re not going to remember a specific area of a take that’s got four re-starts in it. So detailed notes are very important and time-saving.

HULLFISH: When you’re loading up all the footage, do you have an assistant who has loaded all those takes back-to-back in a sequence, like a KEM roll?

COX: No. I’ve heard editors in seminars say they stack all the lines, which means if it’s a one-page scene and there are 10 lines, they mark them one through 10. And they put each of the readings for each of those lines in a sequence to see which one is the best.

It’s not about the best line reading. It’s about tempo. It’s about their face. You have to see all of the expressions. Instead of the line reading meaning something, it’s the reaction of the other actor. If you don’t run the whole take, how do you know that exists?

Another editor says he puts the first take to the last take, all assembled. They put them all in a cut and he goes through and eliminates what he thinks doesn’t work.  I believe it’s better to assemble a scene from the beginning to the end, knowing the material and what is the best. But that’s just for me. That’s the way I’ve learned to do it.

This is what ScriptSync looks like inside Avid. This is a script page from a movie called “War Room” edited by Steve Hullfish and Alex Kendrick.

We have ScriptSync now where you can go to the line and run it faster than you can run down a roll, because if you have it on a roll, you have to locate where you are in the scene in that take.

This is a page of Avid ScriptSync from the movie “War Room” (edited by Steve Hullfish and Alex Kendrick). Each take and line can be accessed by clicking on the script and the take – represented by the frames and lines to the side of the script, instead of from bins.

ScriptSync takes you right to that line. So I can use ScriptSync to do that. But I prefer to have seen all the film. If you have 10 takes and you’re in the fifth line reading you have to back up and search where that is. I don’t want to spend the time searching. I know when I put up those takes, I know where I’m working and I know I can do this. But if you have 30 minutes of film sitting there on the source side, you have to search it. That’s all there is to it. With ScriptSync I don’t have to search anything. You just click the line in the script and that line gets loaded.

HULLFISH: When do you use it? Some people say they only use it for revisions and not for the initial decisions.

COX: I use it both ways, sometimes. It just depends. It’s really great for running for the director when he says, I think there’s a better reading.” 75% of the time I have the best reading. The director may say, “Well, I like this reading,” then I will explain the difference of readings. That doesn’t mean we won’t change it, but I’ll at least let him hear why I chose that reading. When I worked with Christian or Denis (Villenueve) I told them why I used this reading because of the physical part or the look, and I think that’s more important. It’s about assembling a scene and making it have emotion and understanding and feeling and you can’t just do that by putting the best line reading in. That doesn’t work… not for me. That’s my experience in learning to edit.

HULLFISH: Are you tending to load that stuff out of a bin. And how has the bin been set up for you? Frame view?

This is an Avid bin in Frame view from the movie “Rampage.”

COX: Its frame view, definitely! I have all the clips as large as they can be. If the scene is extremely large, I will break the scene up. When you start shooting a scene, they don’t always go all the way through. If it’s a really long scene, they’ll do it in parts. I’ll break the bin up into parts and then – if it’s just long takes – I don’t have to worry about it because in the scene bin I can fit them all and just draw from them.

HULLFISH: Do you like to set up each camera set up in its own row in the bin?

COX: I pretty much do that. But sometimes what I’ll do is, I’ll set them up on angles and I’ll put all of one actor in one row and then the other actor in the other row. I don’t have to search down through the whole bin for something. Sometimes that will take two rows or three rows. I just put all his angles up there. Sometimes if the scene is really big, I’ll have two bins: actor 1 and then actor 2. I’ll keep them both open and I’ll just draw from the bins.

HULLFISH: When you put up the first shot, are you thinking that you already know the camera angle or the size that you’re looking for?

COX: I’m creating a sequence and I know what size I need in my mind. I have lots of experience so I say, “OK, I know this is a good place to go to the medium wide. This is where I want to go because he’s making this statement and I want to come in closer,” but I’m not going to just jump in to the close-up. I’m going to work my way into the sequence.  Sometimes you never use the close-ups and sometimes that’s all you use. Like Clint says, “There’s no rule to editing.”

The only rule I have for editing is that I don’t cross the 180-degree line. I don’t want actors looking the same way because they’re not talking to each other then. Sometimes the camera puts you in that position that you have to finagle – that’s where you really need to bring your experience to the table. When they’re not looking the right away, you’ve got to figure out how to make them look the right way. I like photography that leaves enough nose-room or lead-room in the direction the actor is looking. If you don’t have that, then you’re looking across each other and not at each other. If he’s facing left to right I don’t like him framed past center. He needs to be on the left side with his eyes going right. Because if he’s past center on the right side of the screen and the other guy is left of center, when they’re talking, they’re talking away from each other. I just don’t like that at all. If I’m on a show and I see anything going on like that, I’m off to the set immediately and I explain to the director that the eyeline is as important as anything else.

(The previous video clip is from Den of Thieves and has been re-edited by the marketing department and is not the same as Cox’s work in the film.)

HULLFISH: When you finally assemble the scenes together does the context of the surrounding scenes change the edit? 

COX: Sure! Again, this comes from experience. I see the scenes. I see what’s going on, then I put them together and look at it. I might make a slight adjustment as far as tempo, or maybe the last shot, I decide looking at it, that it would be good if we use this as a segue. You start out with scene 29 and then you edit scene 64 and then eventually you start to see things when two scenes that go together.

Whenever I cut a scene together, I always put it in the reel and when another scene is next to it, I always look at the transitions, because transitions are just as important as anything else in the film. In fact, sometimes they may be more important.

HULLFISH: So you start assembling scenes to each other as soon as you’ve got two adjacent scenes? Or do you wait until you can assemble a whole reel or…

COX: I wait till I’m at least halfway through or maybe two-thirds in. I just think it’s important to try to stay up to camera. Then you get about two-thirds of the way into the film and if I see that I have five or six scenes in a row, I’ll assemble them.

Clint had a really smart style. For the first day or so, they’d start with really small scenes, to allow everybody to get comfortable. Nothing major. Filler scenes — they’re important, but they’re not life-telling in the story of the film. So he allows the actors and the crew to become comfortable with their surroundings and how he works and then they get into it. Then the schedule can be anything. But for Clint, he doesn’t do the important scenes right away.

I think that young directors need to to be schooled that way, to be thinking about what’s good for the film and the actors and how they become comfortable with each other. With Clint, he always used the same crew, so everybody knew their role. But for people who work with a largely new crew every time, there’s a coming together. It’s not a marriage on the first day. It takes time to build relationships. It helps a director and the actors to plan simpler scenes early in the shooting. The chemistry between the actors has to be built. The director getting his ideas across to the actors just doesn’t happen in one day. Once that happens then everybody becomes comfortable in their role.

This film, Den of Thieves, was Christian’s first directorial project, but the crew and the actors that I talked to had a great relationship. Christian really knew the material as he had written the script 14 years ago; that’s a long time to be able to refine it.

Director Christian Gudegast on the set of Den of Thieves

HULLFISH: Talk to me about this scene from Den of Thieves where they’re in a traffic jam with the cops trying to move through the cars to get to the robbers.

COX: That’s the biggest scene in the film, near the climax. That scene took four or five days to construct.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about building the sense of tension in that scene. Obviously, you could have tightened it, but that would lose the impact. (This video clip has been edited differently than Cox’s work for the film.)

COX: What you really want to do is build the tension of them coming to that point, having them reacting because they’re trapped  – so they have to get out of the car to try to defend themselves.

HULLFISH: What temp music did you use?

COX: From the composer, we used the scores of previous films he had written, so we had an idea of the style. But the scene’s gotta work first, and then the music will just enhance it because that’s what it’s for. It’s not a character in the film.

Clint always says this – and I’ll say it again – because I spent 40 years with him: “The music is for support; not the driving force. If you get the film to work and then you add music, it’s much better.”

You have to know when you’re sustaining things, building tension, and how long it should be. This film was different: we were making things happen in a fast way, while adding the tension.

HULLFISH: Another scene is kind of expository: where they drive past the Fed Bank building and then the conversation continues in the parking garage. (Again, this clip provided by the studio is not edited exactly the same as Cox’s original work on the film.)

COX: We did a lot of intercutting of scenes. They weren’t actually that way at first. We found that by intercutting them, instead of letting an entire scene play out and then letting another scene play all the way out, they became like a dance. It’s the two sides formulating what’s happening and what they’re thinking about. Christian allowed me to experiment with this intercutting because the film did not have the tempo that he wanted. So we started intercutting and it really worked out well.

HULLFISH: In that same scene there’s a great jib shot — or maybe a drone — that’s from the outside of the garage looking back at the characters. Did you find that moment and you knew you wanted to be on it for a certain time and then built the rest of the scene around it or was it much more linear than that?

Pablo Schreiber, Curtis Jackson, Evan Jones and O’Shea Jackson star in Den of Thieves

COX: Well, it was kind of linear. They made that camera move that swings across from left to right. They made that where that piece of dialogue is, so it needed to happen there. We have a number of drone shots in this film and they really worked great. If you get film like that, it’s a blessing because the director has a vision of his film and it helps when you’re given film like that. Sometimes they just shoot things and then you figure out how to put it in. In this case, he knew he wanted that visual to happen there on that line of dialogue. I would believe that’s on an arm swung around from above.

HULLFISH: It seemed like a shot specifically constructed for that exact moment so I was trying to figure out how you either worked up to that moment or did you start with that moment and build outwards from it?

COX: We knew where that piece of dialogue was and I had to construct the scene so we could get to that shot.

Gerard Butler and Director Christian Gudegast on the set of Den Of Thieves

HULLFISH: But when you built it, did you build it linearly, just knowing that it was coming up? I’ve heard of other people who would cut that shot in as the first shot and then build the scene backward from it.

COX: I built it from the beginning through to the end. That’s what I learned how to do. All my mentors: Sam O’Steen, Ferris Webster, Walter Thompson… I also watched Bill Ziegler. That was way back in my infancy, before Sam O’Steen took me under his wing. Next came Walter and then Ferris. They all allowed me to sit in their room.

Walter never really liked to do the re-cuts with the director. So he would put me in there on the Moviola with the director. I came through a system of the studios that is much different than today. I came out of a studio, which means they took you in as an apprentice and they pushed me around to different departments. So in my years of being an apprentice, I was working in all the different departments. I really got a background that allowed me to see how sound effects are cut, how  ADR is cut – how it all works.

Also, I learned how to cut in music and how to track films. It’s unfortunate that most aspiring editors don’t get that opportunity. They get an opportunity sitting on a film as an apprentice as they’re starting to learn but they don’t really get in the room and see how it’s done.

In the early days, you’d be in a department for six or seven months and they’d teach me how to do everything in that department. I think that’s what gave me such a wide range of knowledge about how to edit all kinds of films; each film that came in the studio was a different style of film and so each film was a learning curve.

HULLFISH: Did I see in your credits that you recently did just music editing on a film?

COX: Yes, I did do that on a John Kusack film. They had a score for the film that John didn’t like. He came to Clint and begged Clint to write the score. Normally, Clint only writes the scores for his own films, but he agreed, and said that if he did it, I had to edit the score. So Clint did his usual thing – he wrote a theme. He starts exercising the theme and extends the themes and then Kyle, his son, would come in and do the scoring for him. I’d tell them what I needed, they’d go off and create it and bring it back to me. It was a combination of Clint and Kyle and me.

HULLFISH: So, Kyle Eastwood is the music arranger on Grace is Gone, that was the film you were music editor on, right?

COX: I thought that the music that Clint wrote for that film was right on the money. John was so grateful that Clint did that for him.

HULLFISH: Let’s get back to Den of Thieves. How do sound effects affect the pacing and the rhythms of the film? Are you adding SFX as you go or are you just doing picture and worrying about SFX later?

COX: No. In the old days, you only had one track. Now we really have a big array of sound effects. The one thing that was really great about this is that the guns are such a character in this film. Every gun had a distinct sound. No gun sounds alike. Everybody is shooting a different gun and the sound is amazing. You have to see this film in 7.1. The sound is incredible. It’s a big collaboration, but it all ends up at my desk. I have the job – 300 or 500 people do all this work and it funnels to my desk.

HULLFISH: You mentioned a couple of your mentors. What do you think it was about you that they wanted to kind of bring you along? Or was it predestined because you were part of the studio system? It sounds like there was something special about you that they saw.

COX: I have a personality that’s pretty open and I can talk to anybody. I may not be as well-read as Clint — he is so versed in everything that is going on in the world. I think I was fun to be around. I always helped. I’ve been very fortunate in my career; you can call that lucky. But you also have to be really smart and you have to be able to talk to people. I started out in the mailroom at Warner Brothers. I was there about six months. Initially, I wanted to be a sound recorder. That’s where I thought I was going to end up. After six months, somebody was sick in editing (it was on a Wednesday) and they sent me over there.

At that point in time, you couldn’t be there very long before the editing guild would want you to join their union. That guy was sick for three days. I just did the job I always tried to do: punctual, fast, accurate. And Friday evening, Rudi Fehr, who was the department head and Jack Warner’s right-hand man in post — called me into his office. He asked me what I thought about editing. I told him that three days ago, I didn’t know anything about editing, but that it was something and I could really get into. He says, “I’ve got to tell you, everybody in the department has come to me and said what an asset they think you are – they loved me being around. So I would like to offer you the next opening if you want it. I waited in the mail room for three years. I turned down camera, sound, assistant director. Every time there was somebody sick or on vacation I was the replacement. That’s what they wanted.

I finally got into the editing department. I worked my way up. I worked in all the different facets of it. As I said earlier, after learning all that, when it finally came time to be an editor, I had all that knowledge. I knew about tempos and how much spacing you had to have, and overlapping cuts to make them look smooth, and how to cut ADR. And music — I worked on The FBI show for Kenny Wilhoit for two years as a sound effects and music assistant and he taught me how to track TV shows. When Clint started writing scores, it was natural for me, because I knew how to do it.

I usually work with two assistants – Nathan Godley and David Cox. On this film, I had my assistants co-editing. I didn’t come on this film until they were through shooting the film. They started out with a different editor and it just didn’t work out with Christian. That happens. It’s like a marriage. If you’re not on the same wavelength, it just doesn’t work.

HULLFISH: One of your old assistants cut Clint’s last movie, The 15:17 to Paris.

COX: Yes, Blu Murray. I’ll tell you what happened here: after American Sniper, Clint wanted to take some time off. I took another job and then when he started to do Sully, I was already working on another film. Then I was doing this film and he started 15:17 to Paris.

For Blu, it was a great opportunity. He learned a lot from me and now he’s off doing his own thing. I am going to be back editing with Clint on his next picture. I like working for Clint. After 40 years, I’d say Clint and I are soulmates.  I could look at things and know exactly what he was going for. That man knows every scene, how it’s going to be in his mind. He only storyboards when you have so much going on and you know you have to have a lot of visual shots, like in American Sniper – the big shootout on the rooftop. That was semi-storyboarded, but normally on a film, he doesn’t storyboard at all.

HULLFISH: What were some of the things you saw in Blu Murray that made you want to mentor him and bring him along?

COX: Before Blu there was Gary Roach. He is an editor now and doing quite well. Blu is my second assistant to spring out on his own. And now I have Nathan and my son David working for me and they got co-editing credit on this film. I’m sure that Nathan will be the next to step out. I’ve taught them. Nathan has said that he has learned so much from working with me. Not only in style and type of editing, but how to run the editing room. I treat my crew really good. There’s no yelling or arguing. Nobody’s upset. We’re all working together.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about the collaborative process with the director.

COX: Clint didn’t want to influence me. He’d say, “You put it together. I want to see what you see, then we’ll get together.” That was how I earned respect from him, because on that very first film that I worked on with Clint, The Outlaw Josie Wales, I was the assistant editor and I come in to replace somebody. It was kind of awkward in the beginning because it was Ferris’s son-in-law and he had had a falling out in the company and I came in. Ferris had had his son-in-law with him for years. It was a hard time for Ferris. After that first show, I’d proved myself to Ferris and to Clint. At that time, we’d pack up the Moviola’s and cut the films up in Carmel. We came back to LA and Ferris got sick and was in the hospital for about a week. Clint came in the editing room and said, “So we can still work, right?” I said, “Absolutely. What do you want to do?” So, I started doing the re-cuts after we’d seen the film on the screen.

What I think was really the turning point was a scene in that film – about two thirds of the way into the film – there was a scene where they’re out at a campfire and Sheb Woolie is playing music and they’re dancing and Clint’s dancing with Sondra (Locke) and he wanted to cut that scene down. He said, “Take about a minute out of it.” So I told him, “This will take me a bit of time. Why don’t you go make some phone calls. Give me the time and I’ll work it out. And so he went off and then I musically cut it. So he comes back, runs the scene and says, “What did you take out?” I said, the song was like this and I cut this verse and this verse and there it is.” He said, “You can do that?” I said, “If you cut the music in the right place.” And from there on we clicked. And by the end of the picture, he came to me and said, “I don’t know what your plan is, but my plan is to have you with me on every picture.”

Sandra Locke, Clint Eastwood and Sheb Wooley in Outlaw Josie Wales

HULLFISH: WOW! I love that story.

COX: Remember all that learning that they don’t do today. They don’t have the opportunity. Studios don’t carry their departments. Everything is independent. So for a young man, he can’t learn all that like I did. So I’m trying to teach my assistants those kinds of things. They’ve been with me for a number of pictures now. Nathan and David have really learned how to do that. It’s an art of getting music to play with a picture. With the Avid you can add multiple tracks and you can put songs in and you can try things and you can get scores from other films and you put those in there as just an idea. It’s just something to play in there but you still have to cut it to fit. It just doesn’t drop in. So you have to know how to cut two or three pieces of music together or repeat a phrase. That’s all part of the art. And they didn’t know how to do that. Now they’ve learned how to do that. And that’s just good for them because they need to know how to do that in this business. You have to know how to cut music. You’re going to be putting somebody’s music in there until the show is turned over to the composer.

HULLFISH: Did you have a musical background before you started editing?

COX: No. I can’t read one note. But I can listen to the music and I know bars and I know the structure of music. The picture before this one was All Eyez On Me about Tupac Shakur. Before that show, I really wasn’t into rap music. His music is great! I loved the music and the lyrics. But if I hadn’t done that film I would have never heard it.

HULLFISH: You mentioned how you had earned the respect of Clint. What about some of the other directors that you’ve worked with only once, like Denis Villenueve?

COX: He loves me. He wanted me to go with him but I had already had a commitment to Clint for Jersey Boys and American Sniper. I just couldn’t. Once you make a commitment you’ve got to go. Joe Walker’s cutting for him now.

Benny Boom from All Eyez on Me, he just called me during Christmas and said, “I’ve got script together and hope we can work it out.”

Christian, who we just finished Den of Thieves for, has two or three scripts he’s trying to get going, and he tells me I’ve got to do it. I’ve never worked for a director that, when we separated at the end of a film, didn’t want me back. It’s experience and it’s personality. I have a lot of experience. I learned from those old guys.

HULLFISH: You’ve been nominated for three Oscars.

COX: And for the ACEs, I have four. Mystic River is in there. Every year when the Oscars come out there’s always an article in the trade papers about what was overlooked. When Mystic River came out, the opening quote from the article was “How could the editing of Mystic River not be nominated?”

HULLFISH: The nomination is from your peers.

COX: That’s right. That is a huge thing. 450 pictures. Five nominations. Wow.

HULLFISH: Do you have a favorite? Do you have a movie that you feel is your best work?

COX: You’d have to look at Bird. Unforgiven. I really like Changeling. I think that the structure of that story was magnificent. Angelina was fabulous in that picture. American Sniper. Mystic River. Million Dollar Baby. I don’t have a favorite. You could say I won an Academy Award for Unforgiven, so that must be my best work, but not necessarily so. Back when Bird was out we didn’t have videotape screeners sent out to the Academy. I had three editors call me in April after the Academy Awards and they said they saw Bird and they apologized for not nominating me, and I should have won the award. That’s an honor, for them to make a statement like that.

I’m a believer that if it’s a best picture it’s pretty hard to say, why isn’t the best director associated with best picture? And why isn’t the editor associated with that? The editor and the director put that film together, so the director’s vision gets to the screen as a best picture. I don’t know how that doesn’t line up?

You can have beautiful photography and there are some beautifully photographed films but not in a great film. That doesn’t have to line up with best film. Art direction: same thing. Costumes: same thing. The film on the screen is put there by the director and the editor. I always nominate the five best pictures and those five best editors. I do not nominate myself. I don’t do that. I know my work. I nominate what I feel is the best work that I’ve seen.

HULLFISH: What are you looking at when trying to determine a Best Editor?

COX: The art of it. The style of it. The tempo of it. The moments and how he has created special sequences. There’s so much to look to in editing.

HULLFISH: Last year you had Spotlight, where the editing was trying to be invisible and that was up against The Big Short, which had very stylized editing.

COX: That’s two different styles. You can’t just say, this is my style, I cut this way. You have to cut the film in a way that it lends itself to story, it’s not about style or how I do things. I look at each film as a completely new endeavor. What are we going to do and what is the plan? What are your ideas? I try to dig in the director’s head. What is your plan? What do you want to accomplish in this? And how do you want to accomplish it? I’m going to take off in that direction and then I will add what I believe. I remember years ago I worked for a director Dick Richards (producer, Tootsie), on a picture called Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. We had a great relationship, in fact, I worked on three films with him. Jerry Bruckheimer was his associate producer when he was a fledgling before he became as big as he is.

Dick would say, “At dailies, give me a few frames of this and a few frames of that and a few frames of this.” We were all laughing about that. So one day at the end of dailies, I put just a few frames of every scene. It went through the projector and he said, “What was that?” I told him, “Well, that was just a few frames of this and a few frames of that!” He obviously meant that he wanted to see the scene — a cut of this and a cut of that. That’s the kind of relationship I get with directors.

HULLFISH: Can I ask you about a specific scene in Unforgiven? if you could walk me through the big shoot out in the bar?

COX: That was as big a night for the film shooting as it was for the editing and the creation of the final piece. They knew when they went to work that night that by the next day that was the last night they’d have to shoot because they would go to bed at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning and when they woke up there’d be three feet of snow. So they shot that entire interior of the saloon and the exterior of the horse and the rain and all that in one night. It was a magnificent day of shooting. When they woke up the next morning – three feet of snow.

They actually had to take some sets down to central California because they were up in Canada and they had to reconstruct them down in California. They had to go down there to shoot a train set – so they left before the snow hit. The bunkhouse scene where he shoots the guy in the toilet? That scene was shot in California. But as far as that shootout sequence goes. That is an iconic scene that I was very fortunate to edit. We really hit that scene. I remember that Gene Hackman refused to read the script and Clint kept calling until he finally got him.

HULLFISH: That must have been one of your last Moviola movies. In the Line of Fire is next — 1993. (Notice in the trailer that there a shot of a Miles Davis CD and sheet music)

COX: I had a great interview with that director. It was a pretty accomplished director and he wanted to own the cutting room. The director didn’t want Clint Eastwood’s editor on the film because in his mind, he thought that Clint would have control of the editing. No matter who the director is. I cut it for them.

We’ve done a number of films that use outside directors and I didn’t do City Heat for the same reason.

HULLFISH: Getting back to that scene from Unforgiven. Realizing that it was Moviola instead of Avid. There’s a beautifully rhythmic section in that gunfire. In Avid, judgments are made on time, but in Moviola maybe you’re actually pacing based on the length of the film itself?

COX: Yeah. But remember I still do the same style. It’s just rhythm that I learned. I was taught how editing is rhythm. It’s amazing, I can take a piece of music and it will fall into the rhythm I’ve already cut. I run the film: cut! And I knew the rhythm I was going for. Those cuts are all rhythm. You’re creating a tempo that lends itself to the rhythm and the timing of the film. On Avid, it took me a while when I would stop the film, because stopping was different. I had to reset my rhythm because I’d have my hand on the brake on the Moviola and now I had my hand on a mouse to make the same kind of rhythm I had in film.

HULLFISH: Because of the time that the brake took to engage?

COX: Yeah, the difference for the brake to engage and electronically to stop the film. I think the Avid is faster. Clint and most directors will tell you that going into the electronic editing is so far ahead of the physical way of doing film. The extra tracks you can add, but it still comes right back to the experience and the understanding of how to develop a character, the momentum, the pauses. Someone asked, “How do you know how to do that?” I said, “It’s right here – in the heart.” I’m feeling that. I’m always in the character – what would I do and what would I feel? I’m a great studier of people. When I was shopping with my family, I’d just watch people. It’s like studying real life. Clint always said, “We’re trying to make real films about real people.” So in order to have a real film about real people you have to experience some things that maybe you didn’t experience in your life, but you saw somebody else go through. I’ve seen people arguing in the mall. I’ve seen people fighting in the mall. I’ve seen people crying in the mall. Talking things out. It’s amazing what you can see if you just pay attention to what’s going on. We’re trying to tell stories through these people, and you have to have real feelings about it. How can you edit something if you’ve never felt those feelings? If you’ve seen or felt those things, it allows you a whole different perspective on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Pablo Schreiber, Curtis Jackson and Evan Jones star in Den of Thieves

HULLFISH: How did your relationship with Christian get started?

COX: Eight or 10 years ago his dad, Eric Braden (an actor on Young and Restless for 30 years) did this western in between the seasons. The director cut the film and they weren’t happy with it. His son, Christian, was one of the producers and they wanted me to cut this western because I’ve cut three westerns. So, I recut the film and then his dad came in and started watching me do things. He said, “This is poetry in motion. We are so lucky to have you.” So that’s how I knew the family. Christian originally asked me to edit Den of Thieves, but they went with someone else. Just before they finished shooting, they called me up, and asked again if I would edit it. It was myself and my two assistants, Nathan and David.

HULLFISH: You started editing after everything was shot. Did you edit in sequence then? Did you edit in order, since you could?

COX: Well, yes and no, because we started out that way, but there are three big sequences in the film and — they had this date they wanted to make. I said, “Well you’ve blown ten weeks. And now you want me to create a miracle. I can’t bring in somebody with different styles and different natures and learning. I want to raise my assistants up and they’re going to cut. So they both edited the smaller scenes, but I took off from there and I took all the major scenes and cut them. They did the less complicated scenes. The big scenes sometimes took two weeks to cut – they were huge! Massive amounts of footage and material to go through and the scenes were big; I cut those and then I fell back in, we filled in the picture and cut the rest. Then we made the director’s changes and previewed it. It got an 89 and a 95. Great scores.

HULLFISH: Was the film you cut for Christian’s dad, The Man Who Came Back.

COX: Yes. 2008. That’s where I met them, and I adore them.

HULLFISH: How long has your son been working with you?

COX: Ten years. Actually, he started out in photography. He got into the cinematographer’s union which is hard to do, not having a dad who’s in that union. That’s one of the hardest guilds to get into. Eventually, he asked if he could come work with me. We worked it out with Clint and he’s been with me ever since. Invictus, I think is when he started with me. His first film on the camera crew was Flags of our Fathers. Christian loves him. Benny Boom loves him. His knowledge of music is far beyond me.

HULLFISH: Do you rely on your assistants to do music editing for you? I know you can certainly do it yourself.

COX: Mostly myself, but on this film we were so busy I just didn’t have time. He and Nathan did most of it, and they did a great job. I’m learning all the time. I’m always learning. There’s different styles and techniques and films are constantly changing. So you have to be up on everything.

HULLFISH: You said you go see a lot of films. When you’re watching them are you noticing things like: “That’s interesting how they made that transition?”

COX: Of course! I can’t just sit and be entertained. I see edge to edge. I see anything they’re doing to try and get around things. I see it. It doesn’t affect me in enjoying the picture.

HULLFISH: I know you’re getting close to your vineyard, so I’m going to let you go, but thank you so much for spending so much time with Art of the Cut. It was incredibly generous of you.

COX: My pleasure.

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…

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