Tom McArdle has 35 credits as an editor, including five films with director Tom McCarthy, the latest of which is “Spotlight” which is landing on lots of lists of the best films of 2015.
“Spotlight” is landing on lots of lists of the best films of 2015. It has an amazing 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Oscar prediction lists and awards like the SAG Awards are placing it in serious contention for everything from Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Leading Actor and Best Editing… which leads us to this interview with the editor who’s in contention with some of the biggest action movie editors of the year.
HULLFISH: I’ve edited some documentaries and TV shows where the subject matter that you have to deal with sometimes is so depressing or dark. “Spotlight” deals with the Catholic child sex abuse story. Did that have an effect on you at all?
MCARDLE: Not too much. The film mostly deals with reporters doing their work and I have huge respect for these reporters and what they accomplished. Yes, there were some horrible offenses uncovered in the investigation, but 95% of the film is about great reporters working really hard for a good cause.
HULLFISH: Story structure, and the decisions that need to be made in the edit room about story are one of my biggest interests. When the reporters talk to the first two victims, that seemed like a place that might have differed from the script. Can you talk about that sequence?
MCARDLE: The script actually had that intercut structure in it for the interviews with those two survivors. However, we did make some adjustments in the edit. First, we cut out of the initial cafe scene a little bit earlier. We also cut out some lines during the McSorley interview. One bigger thing that we did later in the sequence occurred when Sacha and Joe Crowley are walking through the park. The scene was twice as long originally. During the shoot, I sent Tom an assembly of the entire interview sequence. Tom felt that the park scene was too long and he decided to cut off the second half of the scene and put all that dialogue into a new phone call scene with Sacha and Joe. This scene occurred later at Sacha’s grandmother’s house. So that was an interesting adjustment. It helped keep everything more balanced.
HULLFISH: Often, films need to get to a certain moment by a certain time… for example, moving a certain plot point or character introduction as early as possible. What story point in “Spotlight” did you feel was that critical moment?
MCARDLE: With this movie it was when the survivors started coming in. We found that once Phil Saviano came into the office with his box of evidence and leads, that people were telling us that this moment was when they started to feel more invested in the story, and more connected. So we did what we could to tighten and trim everything before that point.
HULLFISH: It’s always interesting finding out what that one thing is in each film. Talk to me about your collaboration with the director. How did you guys work together? What’s the relationship?
MCARDLE: This is my fifth film with Tom and we have a pretty similar working process on each film. For “Spotlight,” I did the first rough cut by myself for ten weeks and then I showed Tom the cut. Then after that, he was around a good amount of the time. We would either work on things together or he would give me time to work on things on my own. I’d also often have some time to do experimental versions of scenes. Tom and I are friends, and we have a pretty comfortable collaboration.
One thing we build into our structure, starting a month or so after the first cut, is that we do screenings every three weeks for eight people in the edit room and we sit behind people and try to get a sense of how things are playing. We also talk to the audience afterwards to get feedback. We would try to figure out what information they were tracking or what they weren’t following. We would ask if there were areas where they were confused or had an issue. Then that would give us a lot of information to go and work on for the next three weeks. We kept repeating this process. A lot of times our work was focused on pacing but sometimes it would be clarity, like, at one point, we went back and re-recorded Mike’s phone dialogue with Robby and tried to make things more clear about why the documents were so important. And then at another point, we found out that people found the 9/11 sequence was taking us away from the investigation for too long, so then we cut out a scene plus another little bit and that solved that issue. Later in the edit, we cut out some scenes that dealt with the reporters’ personal lives because we wanted to focus even more on the investigation. We dealt with a lot of these concerns over the months of the edit.
HULLFISH: One of the things that I’ve discussed in a few previous interviews is that sense that I’ve definitely had myself that even if you had a screening where nobody said anything to you, there’s something chemical about your own viewing when you see it with other people.
MCARDLE: Yeah, 100 percent. Screening it and having people there makes you really concentrate and you’re also stressing out—there’s a heightened sensitivity–and you can feel things in your gut, like: “OK, that scene is in pretty good shape. But this other part is dragging. It has to go, and so on.”
You can also study body language too. If you’re situated behind the audience, when they’re sitting still and really watching it, they’re probably compelled, but if they’re getting antsy and moving around in another part, you think, “Ok, maybe this part needs some work.”
HULLFISH: How do your assistants set up your bins and how do you approach a simple dialogue scene?
MCARDLE: I like the bin to be set up in a minimal way. I like to see just the slate names, plus maybe asterisks for the circled takes. I like to add in notes in my own shorthand regarding what’s happening in the take and if it’s incomplete, or whatever.
As for editing, I have an unusual process. I like to cut a scene together pretty quickly, at first relying mostly on the circled takes. Editing is a feel thing, so I go with my instincts as far as what shots to play certain beats in, and then when to cut to reactions and so forth. Once I have a rough scene cut together, then I’ll go back and thoroughly check all the other footage against what I already have. It’s easier for me to focus on the footage if it is a “compare and contrast” situation.
Once I have a good cut of a scene, then I try to step away from it and not look at it for a few weeks. During the “Spotlight” rough cut, I had more time than with past films, since it was a longer shoot. So I had the opportunity to go back after a month or two and look again at scenes I had cut early on, which is always useful. You always get a little more critical and objective about your work when you haven’t seen it for a while.
HULLFISH: It sounds like you don’t use a selects reel of any kind.
MCARDLE: No. I have never used a selects reel. Every movie I’ve ever worked on, we load every take onto the Avid. And, periodically throughout the edit, I will go through all the takes again.
HULLFISH: You’re working in Avid in Frame view or Script View or Text view?
MCARDLE: I just use a simple text view. The less mess the better.
HULLFISH: Just organized by how they were slated?
MCARDLE: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll break up my footage into numerous bins. If there’s just too much footage for a scene I’ll break it up by characters, or by wide shots vs. the tighter coverage, or sometimes I’ll break it up by the early part of the scene vs. the later part of the scene. I just find if a bin’s too big it’s just too hard to work with. A lot of editing is simply a process of organizing and narrowing down your options.
HULLFISH: You had some great acting talent in that movie. Talk to me about being the steward of the performances themselves. The editor really has a lot of control over the performances.
MCARDLE: Well, Tom and I are both responsible for the performances. It’s interesting to see in the dailies how some actors are better in their early takes and others are better in later ones. For the most part, Tom and I have a similar taste in performances, so the takes that are in the rough cut generally don’t have to be changed too much during the later editing, but there are always some adjustments that get made.
Also, I’ll do some dialogue editing on the Avid in situations where someone’s a little flat on the end of a line or maybe dialogue got slurred somewhere in the middle of a line, and so forth. I’ll cut in new sound for part of a line from another take, and sync it up using the waveforms. There’s a fair amount of dialogue replacement that happens in scenes.
HULLFISH: Another editor hot button is pacing. I’m big on the micro-pacing of shot to shot within a scene, but also the macro-pacing of the whole film. I noticed in this film – there’s an early scene where you first meet the Spotlight team in their office and the dialogue in that scene is very fast paced. My sense was that it was because they were all such a tight group who had worked together so long that they were kind of talking in short-hand almost. Was that the thought?
MCARDLE: Yeah. It’s an energetic conversation between friendly co-workers. They speak quickly and sometimes overlap each other. Mark Ruffalo’s character, Mike Rezendes, is an energetic guy, so that influenced things too. We also cut out some lines from the middle and end of the scene, because we wanted to move through the first act more quickly. We found a new ending for the scene on the line “I really don’t think that story is for us.” It was a more sharp line to end on.
HULLFISH: Where does the pacing of the scene come from? So often it’s from movement in the scene or the dialogue of a specific actor or character.
MCARDLE: Well, hopefully, the director and the actors establish a good general pace on set. Then, once you are in the edit room, scenes usually are cut to be a little tighter than they were in the dailies. But not always. Sometimes you go the other way. It depends.
In the early scenes with Marty Baron, since he is an outsider, I often gave him an extra beat before he spoke, to set him apart. Others might talk fast or overlap but he does not. So, even in his speaking rhythm, he is an outsider.
HULLFISH: The style felt very documentary to me.
MCARDLE: We have heard that from some people. I think having such good acting across the board contributes to that feeling. Also the film is very authentic about the reporters’ work and following their process. And because of the subject matter, and Tom’s taste, there was a certain amount of restraint exercised in how scenes were handled.
HULLFISH: I’m fascinated with the lists they come up with of potential Oscar candidates – editing in particular. There are a bunch of gigantic action pictures in the handful of top films… and then there’s you and “Spotlight.” How do you compare the editing in movies that are SO different in style and substance?
MCARDLE: It’s an interesting question. The films are very different and each editor has his or her own unique style. I personally think the first priority for the editor is the story. I work to serve the story, to make sure that it flows and that things are clear. I think people should just vote for whatever film they think is the best overall movie.
HULLFISH: What are YOU looking for when you appreciate the editing in a movie? What’s a film recently that you loved the editing on and why?
MCARDLE: I like to see a film where I just get immersed in the movie – where I forget that I’m watching a film–where it is completely compelling. A few people have mentioned “Zodiac” to me lately and I remember watching that film and thinking, “My God, this is so well cut. I’m just totally interested, and two and a half hours just flew by.”
HULLFISH: I think one of the reasons you’re on these early lists for Oscar consideration is for that very reason: you keep people in the story.
MCARDLE: Thank you. We tried.
HULLFISH: Was there a scene that was either particularly hard to cut or particularly rewarding?
MCARDLE: A difficult one is the scene towards the end of the film with everyone in Marty’s office. They shot it over a couple of days and there was a lot of coverage and sizes and shots from both sides of the actors for different eye-lines and so forth. It just took a long time to piece together.
HULLFISH: Was there anything in your life – a movie – where your passion for being an editor was really started?
MCARDLE: When I was a kid, I saw “All That Jazz” and I thought it was really compelling and I could feel that there was some cool editing happening in it. Also, there were scenes within the film of the Bob Fosse character (Roy Scheider) working with his editor, Alan Heim, and I thought, wow, that looks like really interesting work.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about keeping fresh or staying sharp as an editor. Stuff that you watch or things you try to do to continue to learn or is it just continually plying your craft?
MCARDLE: I like to watch a lot of films. I try to watch everything that I hear is good. When you’re working you learn a lot on each film. They say you learn a lot from the films that don’t go well. (laughs) So you learn what not to do. Over the years, your experience builds up.
HULLFISH: Describe for me if you can what you might have learned from something that went wrong.
MCARDLE: Well, one time I didn’t go to the sound mix on a film and I saw the film a few months later and it was missing all these key sound effects that I had put in as pre-laps to cuts. So a lot of cuts didn’t work as well as they should have.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about the importance of sound design at the rough-cut stage.
MCARDLE: I like to do a full eight-track mix on the Avid—sound effects, backgrounds, tone, temp score, etc. I really want the soundtrack to not have any holes and to have the right feel because we have all these little screenings in the edit room throughout the editing process. Also, sometimes certain sounds will carry you through part of a scene and you realize you don’t have to rely on score as often.
HULLFISH: Those sound effects and room tone and pre-lap sounds before a cut, they sell the edits.
MCARDLE: Totally. So we try to establish all of that during the rough cut, and then it’s a model for the later sound edit and mix.
HULLFISH: Before I let you go, I was wondering if you could walk us through a few scenes that I have from the movie.
MCARDLE: This scene comes late in the film and it is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It’s a real “movie-movie” scene. It’s a big confrontation between the guy who is sort of a spokesman for the dark side and our hero (one of them). I love the writing in this scene. Keaton is great here. I am also a big fan of Paul Guilfoyle. In this scene, all of Guilfoyle’s cuts are from his first take. In terms of the editing, it’s pretty much a feel thing for me. I cut when it feels like I should, dramatically.
Some of the writing here gets quoted in articles about the film. “This is how it happens, isn’t it, Pete? A guy leans on a guy and suddenly, the whole town just looks the other way.” I cut this scene together pretty quickly, and this part of it never changed much. I got pretty enthused when I first saw it cut together. I paced around the edit room.
HULLFISH: I love that feeling when I know I’ve really nailed a scene. Especially when that’s confirmed later by the director liking it or audiences liking it. Any other scenes you could comment on?
MCARDLE: This clip is part of a longer scene between Mark Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci. It was a challenging scene because it had a lot of information. Mark Ruffalo is great here, as always. Stanley Tucci was really good at doing a lot of dialogue very quickly and effectively. Ultimately, we cut out a couple lines of dialogue to keep the scene manageable. It should be mentioned that Paul Hsu, our sound designer and re-recording mixer helped us out a lot here. The production sound had a lot of traffic noise on it. Paul managed to filter out that traffic noise without losing the bass and warmth in the actors’ voices, which is always a delicate challenge.
HULLFISH: That’s great insight. Thank you so much for sharing with us.
MCARDLE: Thank you too. It was a fun talk. It is good to talk with another editor.