Michael McCusker’s first feature film in the editor’s chair resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Film Editing: “Walk the Line” (2005). “Walk the Line” won the ACE Eddie that year for Best Edited Feature Film – Comedy or Musical. Since then he has edited “3:10 to Yuma,” “Australia,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Wolverine,” “13 Hours,” and the film we’ll be talking about in this installment of Art of the Cut, “The Girl on the Train.” As we discussed this film, McCusker was finishing work on the untitled “Wolverine” sequel, due out next year.
Hullfish: What was the schedule on this movie?
McCusker: We started in shooting in November last year up until the end of January, and I had a cut for the director two weeks later. I take a long time during dailies because my process is to find a strong point of view and produce a very refined first cut for the director so that his/her viewing experience is as close to watching a finished movie as possible. I also spend a lot of time during dailies organizing myself so that when the director comes in the room, I’m on top of it, I can find things at a moment’s notice. I really don’t like asking assistants to find shots or footage, and if I find myself doing that then I don’t feel like I know the material well enough. My goal is to make the process of achieving the director’s cut as efficient as possible.
Hullfish: Talk to me about the dailies watching process and your approach to the scenes once you’ve watched the dailies.
McCusker: I don’t sit down and watch the dailies from top to toe. I quickly try to run through the shots and review the coverage, spend as much time organizing the bins, spread things out, usually on action scenes, making a hierarchy system to find things very quickly. A few years ago, I was on the IA/VA panel with Michel Kahn and he said, “The hardest cuts are the first 2 cuts of any scene.” After he said that I felt completely relaxed because I had only been cutting for just a short time at that point [one movie to be exact] and had found that it was so hard to start scenes. When he said that, I felt, “Okay, I am not the only one that has this problem or has struggled to find how to get into a scene.”
Hullfish: I have interviewed almost 60 top editors and I think that’s a unanimous thing: first shot of a scene. Many have said the same thing.
McCusker: I’ve been cutting now for 12 years, but when I was starting out I was very conscious, thinking about what the scene is about, what the characters are about. A lot of that conscious thinking now comes much more naturally and has become much more subconscious. The movies I respond to and the stories I like have very focused points of view usually that of the main character so I try to find where that is, what their state of mind is, and what it means to a cut. What’s the meaning of the first shot and how do you move around to pivot the point of view? The traditional entry into a scene isn’t a master any more, although we shoot them.
Hullfish: When you were talking about organizing bins, you are doing a lot of stuff that some other people would have their assistants do because you are using that as a way to familiarize yourself with the footage. Describe to me how you set up a bin for a scene.
McCusker: You’re right. The best way to explain it is to go back in time and tell you about how it was working for David Brenner, working on a movie called “The Patriot” back in 1999/2000. (McCusker was David Brenner’s assistant editor for many years. I interviewed Brenner earlier this year.) There is a scene in the movie, a penultimate and ultimate scene which is this giant battle between the colonial army and the redcoats, it was called Scene 150. On Scene 150 they probably shot, a quarter-million feet of film. They shot about a feature-length amount of footage for one scene because it really wasn’t one scene, it was several scenes but they called it Scene 150. I worked on getting these dailies in for, probably 6 weeks and I am thinking, “How the hell are we ever going to find anything in this scene?” The slating went through the alphabet about 4 times. Plus, there were pickups and second unit. I tried to apply an old time mentality towards it and broke it into a bin structure of KEM rolls, and put wide shots of certain segments into one bin and closer coverage into another, and when the scene pivots and goes to a slightly different location or beat I would set it up different bins. I broke down the scenes in these giant hierarchy of bins, we probably had up to 70 bins on this scene. Some had just a few shots, but some had a ton of stuff in them. The entire point of the breakdown was to be able to look in your Avid, open a folder, look through the bin structure and quickly find the material for the part of the sequence you needed to work on.
I set up this hierarchy for myself because I knew I would have to find stuff constantly. I showed it to Dave and he started working with it and at one point he came to me and said “This is unbelievably great. I can find anything because I can just look in here and it’s all laid out.” Essentially from that point on I adopted that approach, Dave used it for years and he found it to be a very successful system. It’s simply a digital version of film room KEM rolling. I get a bit obsessive about the bin layout and structure. I don’t like to have bins that I have to scroll through, when they get too large, I break them down into other bins. For complicated scenes I figure out the where the beats in the scenes are and I deal with it the incoming footage accordingly. It’s really just an analysis of what pieces belong to what sections of the scene so that I can find them very quickly. I don’t ask an assistant to do this work because that it’s my process and it’s the way I learn the footage. Whenever I work on something that somebody else has organized and I need to cut or recut it, it’s a bit challenging for me. I still have to look at it all, so it’s much easier for me to just organize it myself.
Hullfish: So you’re cutting from the KEM rolls instead of the clips in the bin?
McCusker: No, let me clarify that, it is not a selects sequence. I don’t work with selects at all. I take the master clips in the bin and I use the bins to organize them in a way that’s like a KEM roll, but I don’t work with selects sequences. The only time I ever build a select sequence is if I am dealing with a lot of B-roll footage in creating a montage, then I’ll put selects together. But when I’m just dealing with performance scenes or action scenes, I stay away from selects because the minute it goes into a sequence of selects, I’m a step away from the organic, base-level of the shot. I start to only go back to the selects sequence and I begin to lose my grasp of the intention of how it was shot, in what order it was shot and from which take a particular piece was chosen. I also can’t readily know how many restarts there are in a particular shot, I can’t answer questions and I always get questions from the director like, “How many restarts did I do?” well if I am working off a selects roll, I can’t quickly answer their questions. Instead, I have to go back to the dailies and I have to look through it and try to figure that out. The way I work, I’ve already organized it and I’ve already marked all of the restarts, I can just pull up the shot and see four restarts here and we’re using the last one. I try to stay away from selects as much as possible, I don’t like it.
HULLFISH: Because you want to be at the atomic level of the film.
McCusker: I always want to be working from that place because I find myself constantly in situations where you’re working with the director, and I get questions like ‘What were we doing at that point and what was going on, while we were shooting…’ you’re able to talk from that place of what was intended in production. For me, it informs the conversation. If you’re working from selects you find yourself spending a lot of time trying to find out what was being shot at that time, I find that to be a waste of time, I’d rather always be talking about the footage from some understanding of how it was shot and discussing what was intended during production.
Hullfish: The KEM roll thing that you were talking about before, were you saying you were use the bins for that concept?
McCusker: Yes. I am working on a scene right now on the latest “Wolverine” and it’s similar thing where they shot one scene that is a complicated, multi-component scene and I was going through the dailies and I break them down, and figure out the structure. It seems time consuming, and on the front end it is. But I am looking at the back end experience with the director as the more important experience. I don’t want to be searching for stuff for him, I want to working towards getting the cut right.
Hullfish: I was just talking to David Helfand who did “Weeds,” and “Friends” and he feels exactly the same way: It’s all about the experience of where you are when you are sitting in with the director that he’s trying to create. For David, he does it using Avid Script Sync.
McCusker: Yes, I’ve used that a couple of times. The times I have used it, I was like “Wow this is unbelievable, I just cut this scene in half the time it usually takes me to cut a scene and I look at the scene and it’s awful. And I realized it has nothing to do with the software, I was just cutting to the next line of dialogue and so I put it together and it was just a flat-line of a scene. I think it’s valuable and I’m still prone to try again, but for me, I try to feel the subtext of a performance as I’m cutting. I try to get a sense of where the scene is, where the actor is and how they’re moving through it and I find stuff. But with Script Sync, I found myself going, “Eh that’s a fine reading, let’s put that in.”
When I do have the time, I do what I call a manual script sync, which I go through a heavy dramatic scene and I’ll mark out all the lines with markers on the dailies, so I can graphically see where lines fall or where beats fall. I have two different color markers, I use red for restarts, yellow for the other stuff like line reads and drama beats and pivots, so that way, I can see where I am graphically on that particular take. I know a lot of people use ScriptSync. The other editor I am working with on “Wolverine” uses it and he thinks it’s really valuable.
Hullfish: Some people like it, some people don’t.
McCusker: I might try it again. I have to be cognizant of where I can misuse it just slamming through a scene.
Hullfish: Helfand uses it much more like a different graphical representation of a bin and he specifically said he doesn’t use it just to jump from line to line. In approaching a scene, how do you find that first moment? What are you looking for when you are looking at the bins and organizing and getting yourself accustomed to the footage? Do you finally find that moment of “this is where I start” or do you sometimes see “this is where I have to get to this exact moment in this exact shot, in this exact take?”
McCusker: Occasionally. It happens more than it used to for me. I tend to be a bit linear in my thinking, When I was starting out cutting, I had to go from top to toe. I couldn’t work from some random spot: “’Okay here’s the middle.” Over the years, I’ve relaxed a little bit. I can look at stuff and go figure “Okay, here’s the moment we are gonna try to get to, but I still need to find an In.
The interesting thing is when I find that moment that I know is going to be the pivot point in the scene or critical catalyst for the scene; it almost makes me anxious. I found this great moment and now everything leading up to it has gotta be great.
I often talk to my assistants about what it’s like to cut and where my head space is when I’m cutting and what my process is. I feel like I need to experience the scene as I’m cutting it, this kind of parallel thought process where I am trying to feel what it would be to be the character and how I would be if I was in that space; what would be holding my focus, what would be important to me. So I’m trying to cut with that in my mind. It’s hard to explain. After years of cutting, looking at my scenes I find that I’m going into scenes with something that I find is meaningful to the character and then I sometimes pull back from that in the middle to get to the master. It’s not that I’m taking a position to never start on a master. It’s not that didactic. That’s my style, it just kind of worked out that way.
Hullfish: You were talking about the important thing for you is the perspective of the character and that the wide shot – the master – doesn’t give you the perspective.
McCusker: Exactly. Over the years, I watch other people’s work and I watch where they go to master, and it’s happening on some logistical thing that needs to be dealt with or to shift people around a little bit. And keep the scene moving and opens it up but it’s not in any critical moment of conversation. Having said that, there’s no rule to anything, if you are a slave to rules you are never going to do anything different, you are never going to discover anything. For me, with master shots, I really do like dynamic cuts going from a real close-up to a giant wide or an establishing at the right moment because you can create meaning just from that. There’s nothing better than the sense of loneliness that can be communicated in a vast shot that comes from a very close a shot on a character and I love those moments in movies. I try to find those juxtapositions when it feels like the characters are experiencing that. I just don’t have a real clinical approach to getting in to a scene.
Hullfish: Nor would you want to, I would say.
McCusker: I have a very clinical approach to organizing, but not to editing. I feel like I have to be really organized so I don’t feel stressed or anxious, so I can enjoy the discovery of the scene.
Hullfish: Talk to me about the structure of the film, what happens to the sense of pace when you start to assemble all these individual scenes together into a larger whole, do you watch them in context, talk to me about that part of the process.
McCusker: When I’m putting the movie together for the first time and the director is not around, I work off a certain organic resonance and find pace by what I believe works. For me, the hardest reset in the entire process is putting together a movie you feel pretty good about and then the director comes in and you have to reset and work toward what he wants or she wants. Suddenly, pacing changes, things change and you have to adapt.
Any editor will tell you you’re often times cutting stuff that you think, “okay this is not going to make the movie” but you gotta cut it. So you put it in and you just have a conversation with the director. I don’t go out of my way to cut lines out or pull stuff out before the director sees it. I’ll ask if I can pull out a line, but I don’t really do that. I kinda want the first cut to have everything that was intended in the script and the development process sitting there. The pacing is something that you discover as you watch it over and over again with different people sitting in the cutting room. The hardest thing for me is to change from a very subjective experience and pulling back and being objective about it. And saying “is this really working?” and I find I can do that better when there are people around.
Hullfish: Tell me a little bit about collaborating. Collaborating with the director. Somebody has chosen you to edit their movie with them, and obviously they think you’re a good editor but, they also have to really like you because you gotta spend a lot of time with the editor and the director together in close quarters. Just talk to me about that relationship a little bit.
McCuster: You just have to be yourself. For me it comes from feeling like you got some authorship already before the director comes in and that is not to say that you highjack their movie. You want to go through the movie and have a strong point of view. I feel like the reason I’m sitting there isn’t just to put scenes together, but it’s actually presenting a point of view and a strong point of view. It may not be the exact point of view of the director, but as long as I had an opportunity to present it, then I’m very amenable to pivoting towards what the director wants. So that’s one of the reasons why I take a long time putting the first cut together. I hate the words “editor’s assembly.” That sounds like you’re just kind of putting things together in a timeline and then you’ll get to figuring out what the movie is about later, with the director. No, the first cut is the Editor’s Cut and it represents what I believe the movie should be: “This is where I feel the story lives and that starts the conversation with the director. If I was just putting together a quick assembly of a scene or an entire movie, I can’t respond to it or react to it from a place of belief. It just doesn’t inspire a conversation. After I present my cut I can then sit down and make it very comfortable to tear apart the movie to find what the director wants. My hope is that is a process and an atmosphere in which directors want to work, that they feel comfortable enough in my ability to do what they want but have a really distinct place to start from. It’s the moment of truth if you get too possessive after showing a director a cut, then you’re not gonna have a good relationship with the director. In my opinion, you have to have the ability to release what you did and continue the conversation. We live in the world of digital editing, you can have multiple versions of anything.
Hullfish: Talk to me about your use of sound design and or music. How much are you using those things to present this very refined cut to a director?
McCuster: A ton. A lot. When I was working for Brenner, his cuts were really refined, really well done. The sound was done and the music was really done. We were doing that at a time when we were on early Avids that only had four audio tracks, then eight and that allowed us to refine the audio. So, being Brenner’s assistant, it became apparent to me that the logistical side of being an assistant was fine but, the whole goal had to be to do that work as quickly and as efficiently as I possibly could, so that I could support him, and I did a ton of it. I kind of became his own sound editor, sound designer in the cutting room. And it was an invaluable experience because cutting sound for him was an amazing way to learn picture editing because so much is carried by the sound and so many things can be made better by understanding how sound will alter a scene. Today, my process is that when I cut a scene together I’m absolutely insane, crazy, nuts about the production tracks. I use four channels and I checkerboard the production tracks across those four channels and I smooth everything out so that I can remove all the music and all the sound effects and still watch the scene and not have a bunch of bumpy sound. The reason I do this is, once that’s all in there I know that throughout the rest of the process that sound is going to be good.
I used to do a lot of the sound work myself but now I hand it over to my assistant and he goes through and does a full sound pass pulling sounds from a giant sound library. I have been working with a guy for years and he he’s about to start cutting on his own so I’ll have to find somebody else. Music is the trickiest thing: to find the right temp music for movies and how it holds the character in the movie and pulls us through. I love music I love cutting it but it’s the hardest thing to figure out how you’re gonna put together a temp track that feels like it has an arc to it and doesn’t feel like a hodge-podge of music that’s pulled from different scores but also feels like it’s moving you through the narrative. Because the process has changed in recent years. Studios and directors want to see cuts with full sound tracks in them as quickly as possible, so a positive development is now a lot of studios understand that bringing on a music editor early is a good idea. So, a week or two before I show the director the movie I’ll usually have a music editor on the movie. I’ll sit down with him and discuss conceptually what I want to do with music and show him key scenes where I’ve placed music and we’ll discuss approach. At that point in time, it’s important that the music editor is moving in the direction I want to go with the music. The idea is that when the director comes in it’s all up for grabs. But during the Editor’s Cut, I want the music editor to follow my lead. On “The Girl On the Train” it was really tricky to put the score together. I had Nick Ratner in New York piece it together for me. He was very helpful, but it was real tricky.
Hullfish: What did you use for temp? When you read the script, did you think, “This is in the vein of this other movie.” and then you started pulling those temps together or did you know who your composer was and started pulling from the composer’s previous work?
McCuster: We did not know who was composing. I started thinking about what the overall concept of the movie was. And in “Girl On the Train” this is about this despondent, broken person and then something terrible happens and she tries to figure out what the hell happened and discovers what went wrong in her whole life. So it became real clear to me very early on that if we play too dark too early it’s going to be too leaden and the movie is just going to sit there and feel really heavy and dark. You don’t want a score that says “poor me I’m a drunk.” The trick was how do you honor the character’s mental and emotional state but hint at there’s more than meets the eye. I had this conception of putting together a temp track that was off-kilter – like the ground beneath Rachel’s feet wasn’t solid – like she was on a gimbal. I wanted the music to start there and then as the narrative gets more intense, it moves into a darker place. And so the music on the front end of the movie was a little quirkier but had strains of darkness to it. We used a couple of pieces from a band called Broken Social Scene, which I really liked. It sounded like score but they’re just instrumental pieces. (Check out “Pitter Patter” on iTunes)
I started out with the first piece, which was the “Suite for Jesse James” from “The Assassination of Jesse James.” I liked that because it was this very sweet rambling guitar piece which you wouldn’t think of at the beginning of a dark mystery thriller but, what it really broadcast to me – my intention was that she’s just a regular girl on a train going to work every day. There’s nothing really different about her until we realize everything’s different about her. It pulls you into her in a commonness. We used a score selection from Sex And Lucia which was great because it had electronica in it and strings. It had this interesting combination of electronica and classical. I used another score by Antonio Pinto called “Nina” which is just a beautiful, beautiful score and has some darkness in it but it’s real organic and it has classical orchestral, chamber music but, also has electronica in it and it’s modern so it plays to both worlds. We used some “Gone Girl” which was inevitable, but worked very well. We used some Cliff Martinez from “Arbitrage” and some Clint Mansell from “Moon,” another great score. We pulled from a lot of different places.
Danny Elfman ended up doing score and he liked it. He thought the right intentions were there, working.
Hullfish: Talk to me a little bit about ways in which you are the story teller. All of us editors consider ourselves story tellers and the whole job is being a story teller. But, how are you specifically helping to tell the story that is beyond what the director and the screenwriter already gave you.
McCuster: By getting into the business of being an editor you have to have understand that you’ve got to be on the same page as the director. I think the most satisfying thing for me in story telling is when you discover something for a scene that wasn’t intended by the director, but you pull it out and it just bolsters and augments the story. So I’m always looking for those moments. I think that in a real clinical sense – a friend of mine is a great studio executive over at Fox – Aaron Downey – said something that made the most sense to me about the job position, which was “There’s only two people on the entire crew that have to be across all the different departments and have to be able to speak to everybody and know where the story is going, and that’s the director and the editor.”
As an editor you have to be able to understand writing and character and lighting and sound and music and visual effects and so does the director. So you have to have a broad swath of understanding. Most of the other departments are doing what they do very well. They’re specialists. They’re like the surgery specialists, but the editor has to be like the general practitioner. We’re the ones who see the whole patient. You have to learn how to command the language of all the different departments so that you’re communicating in a way that they understand efficiently. You have to show that there’s a level of respect for what they do so you can bring it all together and make the movie better. That’s on the practical sense. When I’m sitting in front of the Avid, it’s about, “What’s this movie about? What’s this character going through? What’s this scene about?” I’m always looking at the story from the point of not just what’s occurring on the screen, but what’s the point? Why are we making this movie? How can we say something more than just the events of the movie? That’s where the real story telling is.
It’s less of what’s being said than what is being felt. Hopefully I’m in the position to help the audience feel something.
HULLFISH: I want to talk about performance. How are you choosing it and how are you molding it?
McCusker: I’m looking for honesty. I’m looking for a moment where it feels real. I’m incredibly lucky because Emily Blunt is a great actor. So there’s a ton of that. She gives you so much. Subtlety… the subtle eye. The subtle performance, I’m just a sucker for. One of the great moments for me like that was Mark Wahlberg in “Boogie Nights” when he’s sitting there and firecrackers are going off and Night Ranger is blaring on the stereo just before they’re about to hold up Alfred Molina and the camera just pushes incredibly slowly on him and and his face changes and he’s thinking, “What the f**k am I doing here?” It’s this moment where you can feel it all, but also read into it your own positioning. I look for that all the time. It’s like those places where “I get it. I know what this man or woman is going through. I feel it.” When I finished the cut on “Girl on the Train” and showed it to the crew, the female visual effects editor said, “So what makes you think you can cut a movie about four females?” I didn’t know what to say. She said, “I’m asking because there’s so much in this movie that I identify with.” That was just such an incredibly nice compliment. I was just cutting while I was trying to feel what the characters were going through and just trying to find something that was just real, authentic and real and honest.
Hullfish: Any last thoughts?
McCusker: I’m in a position for the first time in years where I have to find a new assistant and it’s going to be hard because I need somebody who can be a really good communicator with different vendors and departments and do all the logistical work that’s involved with the job, but do it like I did. What I look for in an assistant is somebody who wants to be an editor. I don’t want someone in there who really wants to be in some other part of the business. I want people who love movies and want my job. If they want my job they’re going to want to engage in conversations, contribute on a creative level.
Hullfish: Thanks Michael, for speaking with Art of the Cut.