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How movie editing takes a script and makes a whole new film

"Editing is really the final rewrite for all movies," says Tom Cross, editor of flicks like space race epic First Man. CNET chats with Cross about the process.

Daniel McFadden

They say you write a movie three times: when you write it, when you shoot it and when you edit it.

That was certainly the case for one of 2018's best movies, epic space race drama First Man. Director Damien Chazelle adopted an almost documentary style of shooting, which meant the film would have to take shape in the editing room.

I talked to the movie's editor, Tom Cross, about the role of someone in his position, long days working with Chazelle, and how a film can change drastically from script to screen.

Q: First Man is an extraordinarily immersive experience. How did editing shape the film?
Cross: The feeling Damien was going for was that he wanted the audience to feel like a fly on the wall, not only in the space capsules but also in the Armstrong home. Our big challenge was to thread the needle between the two. Damien always thought of First Man as a balance between what he called "the moon and the kitchen sink."

He was inspired by NASA archival footage, some of which in the space capsules was actually photographed by the astronauts themselves. He found that footage to be very visceral. So he and Linus Sandgren, the cinematographer, decided they would take a cinema verité approach to mimic this NASA archival footage. That meant the footage I was getting was often improvised, unscripted in some cases, and also very intimate. 

Damien shot two weeks of rehearsal footage of Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy in these fully dressed sets and full makeup and hair, and put them together to play house with the children who play their kids to get the children comfortable in front of the cameras and to get them comfortable with each other as a family. All that material was unscripted. It was almost as if I was going through documentary footage -- and a lot of that near-documentary footage replaced scripted moments in the movie.

Can you think of an example of an unscripted moment you put in the finished film? 
Cross: The Gemini 8 section is one of my favourites because it contains so many different little scenes working at different paces and have different tones. It begins with the Gemini launch, with Neil approaching the capsule, climbing in and getting strapped in, and then we try to build this anticipation and tension as we count down to the launch. Then we finally lift off and it's this violent moment that is pictorially kind of abstract, where sound really helps tell the story. Then we move to the docking of the two ships and that becomes this very romantic moment, almost like a tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey. That's supposed to show us some of the childlike wonder these astronauts experienced. It's optimistic, it's fun and it's beautiful because it's set to Justin Hurwitz's waltzlike music.

Then we cut from the capsule to Janet at home where she's listening on the squawk box and her son Mark runs in and steals it, and Janet has to try to get it back from him. Damien told the actor who plays Mark to go in and steal the squawk box and not give it back to Claire Foy. It was a completely improvised moment.

Claire Foy plays Janet Armstrong in First Man.

Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures

Did that improvisational process mean First Man changed a lot from the script to the editing room?
Cross: Editing is really the final rewrite for all movies. That certainly was the case with Whiplash and even La La Land, which was very preplanned. But for First Man, Damien knew we would do a lot more of the writing in the editing process. Damien loves the editing process. He has a great editors' mind, and he shoots all the material he knows he's going to need for the editing. He shot an enormous amount of footage, so there was a lot of leeway for rewriting in the editing room. Even during the scripted scenes, where he would shoot the scene as scripted, he would often have a second camera to roam around capturing other characters. He shot 1.7 million feet of film. 

Was there anything planned to be a larger part of the film that was minimised or lost entirely in the edit? 
Cross: We minimized some of the more NASA-related material. We used to have a beautiful shot of Neil Armstrong surrounded by other NASA people behind a big glass window, and in the reflection of the window we see the Apollo 8 rocket take off. It's in the trailer. But we found when we leaned too much into the NASA scenes the movie started to feel like familiar scenes we had seen before in other films.

But also if we had too much family material, we found the narrative didn't have any forward momentum. So if you went too much in one direction, it felt too conventional, and if you went too much in the other direction, the movie kind of fell apart narratively. So again it was trying to find that right balance between the moon and the kitchen sink.

When you cut things out, how do you deal with the effects on the overall story?
Cross: An example of a scene we had to cut out of the movie was when the Armstrongs' home burned down. That was a scene in Josh Singer's script based on an event that really happened, which served a great purpose by having Ed White, the next-door neighbour, become Neil Armstrong's best friend after he came to help out. The Armstrongs get closer to the Whites, and that was crucial because of things that happened later on in their relationship. But [the scene] didn't fit into a certain type of cause-and-effect pattern we were trying to establish. So we elected to lift out that scene and surrounding scenes, and it meant we had to try to find a way to bridge the gap.

That's where we found the transition from Neil and Janet having this romantic moment where Neil puts on the record and he does the slow dance with Janet. From that scene it used to go to them waking up in bed and their house is on fire. But instead we match cut to a neighborhood dinner party with all the astronaut families together with all the kids dancing around. We had to connect the tissue to bridge things together. 

Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy share an intimate moment in First Man.

Universal

What kind of effect does editing have on an audience? If a cut is a fraction of a second shorter or longer, for instance, how big an impact can that have on the viewer?
Cross: It's a funny thing, I discuss this with Damien all of the time. It depends on what the scene is, what the shots are. There are times where a frame, or two frames, can really make a difference, and there are other times where it doesn't seem to make a difference at all.

There are times where we alter a cut by a couple frames, which really seems to make a big difference, especially in a scene that feels like it's building towards something and it needs to have a certain velocity. For example, the opening X-15 [test flight] scene is supposed to have a certain amount of muscularity, and there are moments where if we held too long on a gauge it would break the illusion of urgency. If there's a series of insert shots or details played at just the right length, then there's a sense of urgency -- they build upon each other, they seem to answer each other. And then it may give the audience a feeling of being overwhelmed by the details which in some cases is what you want, as with the Gemini 8 launch. So some of these things are intended to only be 10 frames long or seven frames long. But you run the risk of the audience becoming aware of the editing pattern, and when they become aware there's something constructed, you run the risk of breaking the emotion. If they're just at the right length, then the audience can't see behind the curtain. But that's a very subjective feeling, and other [editors] don't always cut to the same clock. Damien and I are very well-matched in that regard. We often like the same rhythms and the same pace. 

What's an average day in the editing room? 
Cross: Really long. An average day might start at 10 a.m., after I dropped my kids off to school, and we won't leave until 10 or 11 p.m., or midnight, 1 or 2 in the morning. Our days were very long because we had a lot of footage to go through, but also we had a very tight schedule. And the schedule got even more difficult when it was decided we were going to screen at the Venice film festival and then Toronto. Towards the last couple of weeks of editing and mixing Damien didn't go home, he basically lived at the hotel adjacent to Universal Studios. 

Do you wait until the end of shooting and come up with a version of the film, or edit as you go?
Cross: Usually when I cut a film, I try to keep up with the camera and the goal is to have a first cut  about a week after they wrap photography. On First Man they shot so much material that a week after principal photography wrapped we did not have a first cut. But Damien doesn't like to view a full cut -- he likes to dive in and start working together on scenes. We did what we did on La La Land and Whiplash, which was we started editing at the end of the movie. Damien likes to do that, which is unusual and different from other directors I've worked with. He likes to start at the end because often the end scene is the reason why he's making the film in the first place. He really likes to put his best scene at the end. His most powerful scene is at the end of the movie, and he tries to have his next best scene be the first scene.

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