Tom Cross is an Oscar-winning editor who is currently nominated for his work on the smash hit LA LA LAND, a film nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards. I recently attended the ACE Eddie Awards and had a chance to speak with Tom about life on the silver screen.
Q: What kind of a feel were you going for with different parts of LA LA LAND and how did you achieve it?
A: Damien Chazelle always knew this was going to be an ambitious picture; he wanted it to be an intimate story about these two characters who are very contemporary and naturalistic. He wanted it to feel epic, and he always told me that he wanted to tell the story with the language of dreams.
Damien is a film lover and so to him the language of dreams translates into the old Hollywood optical techniques from old Hollywood movies. That meant he wanted a lot of irises and dissolves and fade-ins and fade-outs and montages. He really wanted to have those techniques and that style feel like it was an outpouring of the characters’ dreams and their hopes and how they saw the world. Here are two characters, Mia and Sebastian, and they are these artists who dream big, they see the world through Technicolor glasses and in Cinemascope.
We wanted to have different editing styles that would match the emotion of each scene, and so with some of the scenes we wanted them to be presented as these wide-shot, unbroken takes. We wanted to give the feeling of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers scene where you see the dancing, you see the feet. To us this was the ultimate way to have something be romantic, we used that only for the courtship scenes. We knew that it would only have power if the editing style was different in other scenes, and so when they’re full-blown in love and running around Los Angeles during the summer montage, we cut it very quickly so that it would feel like they were being swept off their feet. We wanted it to have that lightness; we wanted it to feel euphoric.
We had other scenes that were much more austere, like the scene during the dinner break-up, where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are just sitting at the dinner table and they have a conversation and it’s a very long conversation. To Damien, that scene was as important to him as the traffic scene in the beginning, he wanted that scene to feel like a set piece unto itself. We wanted it to have its own weight, to feel prolonged, and so for that particular scene the editing style was austere. Damien shot a lot of coverage for that scene but his directive to me was to really only use four angles. He said “Here’s your challenge, you’ve got a medium shot of each character, and a close-up of each character, I want you to just use those angles and when you cut close you’ve got to stay close for the rest of the scene." He shot other things, he shot wider shots and two-shots and others, but we didn’t use any of that for the scene. We wanted it to feel very stripped-down, we knew that with less angles that the cutting pattern would inevitably feel somewhat repetitive and that a certain amount of tension would come out of that. We wanted it to feel like something’s wrong, that it’s prolonged and uncomfortable. For Damien, it’s because this dinner scene is kind of the anti-musical, the characters are no longer singing and dancing with one another. There’s music playing but it’s a record playing in the background and by the end of the scene, the record ends and the music is over and the relationship is over. We spent a lot of time planning editing styles and then editing the movie, we edited the movie for nearly a year, we spent a lot of time calibrating these different approaches.
Q: Avid or Final Cut and why?
A: I use Avid Media Composer, for a couple of reasons. Number one, it’s the system that I’ve done most of my work on, it’s a system I’ve been using since the 90s. I was an Assistant Editor for many years before I became an editor and I came to appreciate how robust the system is, how bulletproof it is. Nothing’s perfect, every software has bugs but I really appreciated how stable it was when I was an assistant, and certainly as an editor now it’s my comfort zone. The other thing is that I use the Avid script tool a lot, and that’s something that Avid offers that other systems either don’t offer or they’re starting to offer. It’s something I’ve been using with Avid for many years, it’s a very helpful tool for me to compare takes and compare line readings.