ART OF THE CUT with “La La Land” editor Tom Cross

Recent winner of Critics Choice Award for Best Editing

Tom Cross, ACE won the 2015 Oscar for Best Editing for the film “Whiplash,” which was hailed as an editing masterpiece. He also co-edited “Joy” (for which I interviewed him previously). His next collaboration, with director Damien Chazelle, is “La La Land” which recently won the Critics Choice Award for Best Editing.

HULLFISH: Tom, so great to talk to you again.

CROSS: Thanks so much for doing this series. I loved our last interview. We’re really interested in the same things.

HULLFISH: Are you on to your next project or are you still working on finishing up La La Land?

CROSS: We’ve finished editing La La Land and it just opened in theaters. Now I’m working on Scott Cooper’s new movie which is a Western called Hostiles. It stars Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike. I’m going from one old Hollywood genre—the Musical—to another old Hollywood genre—the Western. It’s fun!

HULLFISH: I didn’t get to see this film before our interview. Is there a trick to musicals, or is it just like any other editing?

John To (1st Assistant Editor), Tom Cross (Editor), Josh Stein (Post PA).
John To (1st Assistant Editor), Tom Cross (Editor), Josh Stein (Post PA).

CROSS: I found it more challenging because there is this whole other element in play, which is the music. Usually you make an edit decision based on a number of different factors which include emotion, story, continuity, geography, etc.  In the case of a musical film, you consider those factors but also have to consider how your cuts line up with the music. Damien is very well prepared when he shoots and plans every shot and every move. When you get into editing, however, you invariably have to revise or refine. Sometimes you lift out a part of a scene. Other times, the you need to perfect a camera move or moment that was very difficult to nail on set. Either way, you have to find a way to put the pieces together to make sense emotionally but also to be in perfect solidarity with the music.

In the case of LA LA LAND, we worked very closely with our Composer, Justin Hurwitz, and he sometimes altered his music to fit the picture. However, there are some adjustments you just can’t make musically because it doesn’t sound right. Then you have to bend the picture either through cutting or through speed ramps to fit the music.

Precision is very important to Damien. He used to be a competitive jazz drummer so he’s very particular when it comes to rhythms. When I put the assembly together, I had digital mockups of all the music from Justin Hurwitz and that’s what we cut to. Damien planned certain moments to hit on specific downbeats in the music. After that music was replaced with a 95-piece orchestra, the music had a certain elasticity because it was something organic that was created by musicians. We found that the music would strike cuts at different places. Our music editor, Jason Ruder would make adjustments when possible but we often had to roll picture cuts 1 or 2 frames. Our post schedule did not allow us time to put that music back into the Avid. We took the new score straight to the dub stage with Andy Nelson and Ai-Ling Lee.  At the mix stage, we would adjust picture cuts until we got it right. We did this all the way to the end.

Tom Cross’s edit desk for La La Land

Another challenge I found with working on a musical was the lip sync. We spent a lot of time in the editing room scrutinizing the sync during the singing scenes. Damien wanted to be very careful about that because his belief was that audiences scrutinize lip sync more in a musical than they do with standard dialogue in a non-musical film. If the sync is off then the viewer immediately feels the disconnect between the picture and sound. They start thinking that the person onscreen is different than the voice they are hearing. It feels “canned”. Therefore, we spent a lot of time editing the vocal track to improve it but would also sometimes move the picture around for a better match.

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Damien envisioned La La Land as a Technicolor epic that would call for big production design, costumes, cinematography, music and dance choreography. He always knew it would be a collaboration between all those film crafts and he saw the editing as the technical bridge that would tie it all together.

HULLFISH: You’re obviously working again with Damien, a director that you’ve worked with before. Talk to me a little bit about that collaboration between you two guys. Is it just nice to fall into an old relationship again?

CROSS: It is great to work with him again. When we first met we immediately hit it off. We found that we loved a lot of the same movies and the way that Damien spoke about editing told me that he really understood its potential. We were really comfortable with each other and that carried through from the short film Whiplash into the feature film. After Whiplash played Sundance, he sent me the script to La La Land —I think it was in March of 2014. I was very excited because it was a great script but also because it was so different from Whiplash. He also gave me a list of movie references and told me that he was really inspired by the films of Jacques Demy as well as Hollywood musicals from the 50s and 60s—Singin’ in the Rain, It’s Always Fair Weather and West Side Story. I was very familiar with all these references so it made it easier to get on the same page with him in terms of style. Once he jumped into the editing room after he finished shooting La La Land, we could hit the ground running.

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HULLFISH: What are some of the films of Jacques Demy?

CROSS: He [Chazelle] really is a big fan of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and also The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Those were two big La La Land inspirations. They helped us with tone but they were also inspiring to Damien because they combined non-studio locations with artifice of musical numbers as opposed to traditional Hollywood musicals, which were almost always shot on a studio backlot. He really wanted to make a contemporary story with contemporary characters but have their dreams expressed through the style of old Hollywood musicals. So he was inspired by both and the challenge was to combine and create a chemical reaction that would give way to something new.

HULLFISH: So with La La Land you’ve got these great references. I’m starting a film this next week and one of the first things that we did was to come up with the references. For us, it was Dallas Buyer’s Club—just the editing style, the way to get in and out of shots—almost in the middle of them—and that’s hugely helpful don’t you think?

CROSS: I think it’s very helpful when a director can share anything that is an inspiration. Cinematic references are especially helpful because you don’t have to translate as much. If a filmmaker says, “I was really inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright”, I have to do a little more deciphering. If someone can say, “I want the music scenes to feel like the boxing scenes from Raging Bull,” that is going to give me a pretty good idea of what it maybe should look like or feel like.

HULLFISH: That was your reference for Whiplash, correct?

CROSS: That’s right. With La La Land, he really wanted to make a love letter to Los Angeles. He knew it was going to be an intimate, romantic movie, but at the same time he wanted it to feel epic because the dreams of our characters are bigger than life. In terms of the editing, he really wanted to tell his story with the language of dreams. Damien is a film lover so for him, the language of dreams is the film grammar of Old Hollywood cinema. He wanted us to use old optical techniques – irises, fades, wipes, montages, dissolves— as an expression of how these characters see their world: Through Technicolor glasses in widescreen Cinemascope.

HULLFISH: It seems very different also in pacing. Of course I haven’t seen the movie, but talk to me about the editing style of this compared to Whiplash in that it seems much slower and, like you said, “dream-like”.

CROSS: The emotions that each film focused on are very different. However, both movies are similar in that Damien wanted La La Land to employ different editing styles to support different emotions and moods.

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Damien always saw the film as having different rhythms of romance. When they meet at the eighties party, there’s a brusque energy. The characters don’t like each other. They try to cut each other down to size with comebacks and the pace of the cutting reflects that. The putdowns come one right after another. With every quip you feel each cut.

Later, during the “A Lovely Night” number, we slow down and take our time as the characters feel each other out. They’re curious and we begin to feel some romantic tension. We show it through a single, unbroken take on the hilltop at night when they look for their cars.

Next, when they’re fully smitten with each other, the pace reaches a fever pitch. They run around town in a quickly cut montage of LA landmarks during the Summer.  We jump to the jazz club where the camera whips back and forth between Sebastian playing piano and Mia dancing. The cutting is fast and Damien wanted to express what it feels like to be in love and to be swept off your feet. It’s electric.

In general, Damien always knew that one cutting style would enhance the other. Long, unbroken takes, for example, would only be effective if used in a measured way. The soft edges and curves of the dance on the hilltop would have to be balanced out with the sharp edges of scenes such as the John Legend concert.

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HULLFISH: I get it. A lot of people tease musicals because someone just breaks out in song, almost like it’s unexpected. Was there something you did to make it feel cohesive or did you want to call attention to those musical numbers?

CROSS: We never wanted to audience to be pushed out of the movie. That was the most important thing. How do you have someone break into song and have that be acceptable to an audience? The opening scenes of the film really answered that question for us.

Right now, our La La Land begins with “Another Day of Sun”, which is a big musical number on the LA freeway. Suddenly motorists start hopping out of all their cars to sing and dance. There was a time, however, that that scene lay on the cutting room floor.

At some point, we realized that we had a very top heavy opening because we also had a main title sequence that served as an overture. For a number of reasons, we tried versions of the film without “Another Day of Sun”. That ended up creating problems down the line. One of the biggest consequences of that was that people didn’t start singing until 15 or 20 minutes into the film and that was way too late to spring a musical number on an audience.

We made other changes to the opening and that allowed us to restore the “Another Day of Sun”. That scene then functioned the way that it was originally supposed to. Right out of the gate, it announced to the audience that we were in a musical. Once we set up the cinematic rules, we felt that we could move in and out of musical numbers if they made sense emotionally in the story. Emotion is the key.

A perfect example happens during the musical number “A Lovely Night”. At the start of the scene, they dislike each other but by the end, they close in for a kiss.  As an audience member you completely understand how they’ve gotten to that place. Somewhere in between the beginning and end, some sort of cinematic miracle happens to connect those two disparate emotional points. The miracle is the by product of the music, singing, dancing and choreography. The musical number is not merely spectacle. It carries emotion.

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HULLFISH: That makes sense. Tell me a little bit about the romance. You and I have talked about it before: the idea of perspective—whose perspective is the scene from, and how does that affect the edit? In these love scenes, are you choosing either the Emma character or the Ryan character, or is their relationship a character and you’re going from the relationship perspective? Talk to me a little bit about perspective and what it does to your edits.

CROSS: For La La Land, it was really important to Damien that the two characters feel equal. He didn’t want to have a romantic story where it felt lopsided, where it felt that one character had more power than the other. He never wanted to have one character’s success be the other one’s failure. It was very important to him to create something balanced.

Damien’s script set about doing that in a very specific way. The beginning of the movie starts with a broader vision of their world. It begins on the freeway where it’s large in scope and there are a lot of characters. Then we focus in on our two characters who are connected briefly because they’re both drivers honking at each other. And then they drive off their separate ways.

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It was at this point that Damien decided to follow each character individually. First, we follow Mia into the Warner Bros coffee shop where she works. We follow her in her day-to-day routine and then go with her on an audition. After a night on the town with her roommates, she walks home. She’s hears piano music coming from a nightclub and goes in to investigate.  She is enraptured by the music but before we see who is playing, we flashback in time. Now we’re back on the freeway with Sebastian and Mia and they’re honking at each other again, but this time we drive off with Sebastian and follow him through his day.

Damien felt that the idea of balance and equal time would be more obvious by presenting each character in their own longer stretches, rather than intercutting them more frequently.

He also had the idea to suggest equality or similarity through certain repeated editing patterns. For example, when we start with Mia, we smash cut into her coffee shop job with a series of quick cuts. There are three insert shots of food and drink with one of the shots being a coffee being poured into a mug. Later, when we’re with Sebastian, we use a similar triple cut of inserts to launch into his routine. Damien wanted Sebastian’s shot lengths cut to the same exact length as Mia’s before. One of the shots is literally the same insert shot of coffee being poured. We wanted to suggest cinematically that these two very different people who are doing different things might actually have similarities that they don’t even know yet.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) in LA LA LAND.

HULLFISH: What about the intercutting? You were talking about telling Mia’s story and then Sebastian’s story. Was there any consideration of breaking that up so it was shorter pieces, or did you always want to take it from being on the highway to all the way to the night club with each of them all the way through? Did you consider breaking those in half?

CROSS: We always felt that the character introductions played better in longer stretches, separately, because it emphasized how alone each person is before they meet.

Damien also wanted to play with time. The script had seasons written in as story benchmarks. In the very beginning of the movie when we tilt down to the LA freeway, it looks like the freeway any day of the year in LA—it’s a sunny day—but then a title comes on that says “winter.” On one hand, it’s a gag, a little joke to remind you that even in winter this is what LA looks like, but it was also to set up the seasons that we cycle through – winter, spring, summer, fall. Creating a cycle would be a way to build up the audience’s expectations, and give us the opportunity to surprise them when we return to something unexpected.

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Similarly, Damien wanted to do the same thing with editing patterns. It was important to set up the cutting pattern during the scene when Sebastian brushes past Mia and then replicate it later when there is a different outcome. Playing with time and cashing in on those cycles and patterns would really come into play during the end “Epilogue” section.

HULLFISH: Frame sizes is another thing that I’m interested in, especially with musicals and dancing. Did you think, “Hey, I don’t want to be too close because these dances are great in a wide shot.”

CROSS: Definitely. Damien designed some scenes with the dancing and the wide scope frame in mind. He was inspired by the wide shots from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies where there are a lot of full-body compositions and you can see the feet and the tap dancing. So it was important in these romantic numbers to feel like those Hollywood scenes. That’s how our characters are experiencing their world in those moments. The camera often shows Mia and Sebastian in a head-to-toe composition and Damien didn’t want to cut into those moments. He felt that there was purity to showing everything but also that it was more romantic to show our characters connecting in the same frame. It was the best way to experience them as a couple rather than individuals.

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Damien also kept that in mind when he designed the John Legend jazz / rock concert which is completely different emotionally. Therefore, he wanted the visual style and cutting to be different, too. The concert isn’t the gentle swell of romance where the voluptuous camera moves follow and and are one with our characters. It’s loud and bombastic with cuts at right angles. The editing rhythm is fast and caffeinated. Whereas, the romantic scenes are oners that show us our characters’ whole bodies, this scene is fragmented with quick shots of different sizes. Mia and Sebastian are apart and are experiencing the show differently from one another. Damien’s directive was to cut it in a way that was very different rhythmically than what we’ve seen before. We wanted to make the audience feel like a fish out of water and really make Mia’s discomfort apparent.

HULLFISH: You’ve got these two huge Hollywood stars that people want to see them up-close and personal, and you’ve got the conflict of that and the dancing, which everybody wants to see wide, right?

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Director, Damien Chazelle

CROSS: Right, right. Again, it’s what I think Damien is really good at planning and visualizing. There are beautiful wide shots that make use of the big anamorphic frame. Damien made the decision to shoot La La Land in 2.55:1 because he wanted to replicate Fox’s original CinemaScope aspect ratio and the feel that those early movies had. So you’re going to have an image that’s extra wide, which also helped Damien with another goal of his, which was to make this intimate, romantic story, feel epic. He knew it would help with the Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers grammar and the spectacle aspect. But he also wanted to use it to get more intimate with his characters in ways the audience might not expect.

One example that comes to mind is the dinner scene when they break up. For that, Damien wanted it to feel like the opposite of a musical number. At this point in the story, our characters are drifting apart. They are no longer singing or dancing together. The only music we hear is a record that’s playing in the background. It’s not about romance or dreams anymore. It’s about the characters confronting reality. Damien wanted that particular scene to be austere and stripped down, without all the expressionist hallmarks of their Hollywood dreams. He shot a good amount of coverage but really felt that less would be more. He gave me a challenge and said, “Here’s the scene. You have four angles. You’ve got a medium shot of each and a close-up of each and that’s what you have to work with. And once you cut to the close-up, you have to stay close. And you have one cutaway, which is an insert shot of a record player needle going into the run-out groove. That’s one cutaway you can use toward the end of the scene and that’s it.”

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He wanted the scene constructed with those limitations because he knew that the restraints of the framing – the big Cinemascope close-ups – and the back and forth repetitive editing would make it more uncomfortable. It’s just talking heads and there’s nowhere for them to hide. Instead of them singing it’s literally a record playing, and a record that comes to an end at the moment we realize their relationship is finished. It was one of our favorite scenes in the movie. Damien wanted it to be as much of a cinematic set-piece as “Another Day of Sun” on the freeway.

HULLFISH: I want to jump all the way back to the beginning of the interview. You said that when you guys first met each other, you loved the way Damien talked about and described editing and it was how you felt about editing. Can you remember that conversation well enough or remember what he said that intrigued you or made you know that he would love you as an editor?

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CROSS: He spoke about specific cuts in movies and specific scenes. He mentioned dialogue scenes that he liked and how they were edited. He spoke about – Scorsese comes to mind. He spoke about some type of action being represented on screen, maybe it was a punch or a hit, and he spoke about frames being taken out to make the hit feel harder. We also spoke about adding white frames in certain sequences to add impact. We spoke about a scene from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch which was edited by the legendary Lou Lombardo.  In it, there’s a scene when Robert Ryan and the bounty hunters are crossing a bridge in pursuit of William Holden’s bunch. The bridge is dynamited, which sends all the men and their horses falling into the river below. The way the coverage is cut together there is a clear frame—a white frame or a piece of clear leader—edited in between all the cuts of the explosions to give it more impact. We both geeked out about that. There was a way that Damien spoke about the minutia. He was literally talking about frames, either adding a frame or taking a frame out. To Damien that could mean the difference between a moment with impact or one without. It was clear that he respected the power that a single frame could have.

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HULLFISH: Anything else about La La Land that you can think of—the editing, things to discuss, your approach to scenes…

CROSS: Another goal of Damien’s was to tell a lot of the story visually with no dialogue or only with music. He designed several scenes to be told in montage.

During the “City Of Stars” montage, we show Mia and Sebastian gradually growing farther and farther apart. They haven’t broken up yet, but we’re introducing conflict, and compressing time to underline how far apart they are becoming. The big inspiration for that was the breakfast scene from Citizen Kane which starts optimistically with Charles Foster Kane and Emily sitting next to each other at the table in love. By the end of the montage, they are sitting at opposite ends of the table, silently reading rival newspapers.

In the “City of Stars” montage, Damien wanted to show our characters sitting at the piano together, singing about their hopes and dreams. When the music goes instrumental, we dissolve to Sebastian signing a contract with Keith which signals the start of our couple drifting apart. We dissolve from one moment to the next, each one showing the slow drifting apart that is happening. At some point, we used to end with the image of Sebastian sleeping alone in bed during the day. However, Damien had the idea to dissolve back to the two of them still sitting together at the piano. They finish the song and are smiling at each other. The effect is hopefully all the more heartbreaking because their cheery optimistic demeanor is now informed by troubling images that we’ve just seen.

Director Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone on the set of LA LA LAND.
Director Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone on the set of LA LA LAND.

Another montage we had was a very stylized one, and was inspired by the old Slavko Vorkapich Hollywood montages where you would have all these elements sandwiched together to form a very graphic, visual collage contained in one big optical. We referred to ours as the “Champagne montage”.  In it we show Mia and her roommates going out for a night on the town, and that’s depicted in this visual kaleidoscope of neon signs, dancing feet and champagne being poured into overflowing glasses. In the script, the montage was meant more as a transitional device. In our original rough cut, we followed the “Champagne montage” with long choreographed shots of our characters walking through a bizarre Hollywood party. Each shot was perfectly executed and designed to be stitched together seamlessly.

During editing, we realized that we were losing the character of Mia during these long unbroken shots. Also, we decided that we needed to take air out of the party section but were somewhat baffled because each of these shots were composed and choreographed in very specific ways that didn’t lend themselves to jump cuts or lifts.

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Finally, Damien came up with the idea to fold parts of these long takes into the earlier “Champagne montage”. Seeing pieces of these longer shots on their own would have been jarring but in the context and style of the montage seemed completely organic. We tried different versions where all the images come up very, very quickly and there are fragments of Mia in different parts of the screen. However, that didn’t work. It was satisfying graphically, but it was not emotional. We found that we had to play her imagery at a certain size in the frame during this montage in order to track her emotional through-line. Once we’re out of the montage and we go back to full screen, Mia is at a very different place emotionally than where she was before. Therefore, it was imperative that the montage move our characters forward not just literally but also emotionally. Surprise surprise! It always comes back to emotion!


HULLFISH: I guess it does, Tom. Thanks so much. I love talking about editing with you.

CROSS: It’s always my pleasure, Steve. I could chat with a fellow editor for days.

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

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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…