INTERVIEW: ‘First Man’ Editor Tom Cross Discusses Editing for Subjectivity and Finding Intimacy on the Way to the Moon

One of the most frenetic and visceral films of the year is Damien Chazelle‘s “First Man,” a technical marvel in film for 2018. The focus of taking Neil Armstrong to the Moon and back might be a familiar story for audiences in theory. However, “First Man” digs into the emotional core of the man and his family, creating a beautiful and terrifying journey in the process. Essential to discovering this truth was editor Tom Cross, who received an ACE Eddie nomination today for his work on the film. Cross sat down with me to discuss the intense Gemini 8 sequence, sifting through over 300 hours of footage (more than “La La Land” and “Whiplash” combined, and how the subjective viewpoint of the film creates the visceral sensations of the film.

Alan French/Awards Circuit: First of all, how did you begin working as an editor?

Tom Cross: I was obsessed with movies as a kid. I started watching for directors in high school, and I began studying and reading about them. That was something my parents really encouraged. My mother was a painter and an artist, so she always encouraged the creative side of me. My dad was not an artist, but at an early age he took me to the public library to see a 60mm print of “Wages of Fear,” a movie about men sent to drive trucks of nitroglycerin in trucks across rough terrain.

From an early age, movies were encouraged and celebrated. While I was growing up I loved “Star Wars” and watching James Bond movies, and when I was in high school, that was when movies were available on video. As I would rewatch movies I not only noticed the names of the directors, but the same editor names popping up. As I would watch “The French Connection,” I would realize it was the same editor as “Scarface” or “The Untouchables,” in this case Jerry Greenberg. I realized that I wanted to go into film so I went to SUNY Purchase, where they have a film conservatory there.

AF: Oh SUNY Purchase is a great school. How did that help you towards becoming an editor? 

TC: Well, when I got there I thought I wanted to make my own films, but I gravitated toward the editor side, and when I got out of college, I got my start as an assistant editor at a commercial editing company. During my experience in New York, I worked in most every genre available, including documentary, reality TV, commercials and TV promotion, and eventually I started working on features. One of the early gigs I got was working with Tim Squyres, who is Ang Lee’s film editor, and Tim was editing commercials in-between movies. Someone recommended me to him, and when I assisted him, we really hit it off. He hired me on my first union feature film, so that was how my career officially got started. But the short version? I’ve always loved movies and I wanted to be a part of it.

AF: So one of the filmmakers you’ve caught on with was Damien Chazelle. You actually worked on the original short for “Whiplash,” so you’ve been with him a while. How did that relationship start? 

TC: It started due to our producer friend Cooper Samuelson. I had worked with Cooper on three films in an assistant editor capacity, including two James Gray films, “We Own the Night,” and “Two Lovers,” so I always kept in touch. It was Cooper who was trying to get “Whiplash” off the ground but no one would finance it because no one wanted to back a movie about a Jazz drummer. So Cooper and his producing partner Helen Estabrook, came up with this idea to take 20 pages of the film script. They didn’t see it as a short film, but more as a proof of concept or a sizzle reel.

Cooper sent me the script, and I thought Damien’s script was one of the best scripts I’d ever read. I told Cooper I would love to meet Damien, because it is not that common you get material that is that good. Damien and I met for coffee and we immediately hit it off and talked about editing. It was that conversation that made me understand this was someone who was really interested in editing. From day one, he told me he wanted the rehearsal scenes to feel brutal, like the boxing scenes out of “Raging Bull,” and that was very exciting. That’s how our collaboration started. I was very lucky to do the feature film as well.

AF: You’ve already collaborated with Chazelle three times. What makes “First Man” different from “Whiplash” and “La La Land?”

TC: Well the great thing about working with Damien is that he always has a vision of what a film is going to look like emotionally and stylistically. He wants it to come out of the characters and it serves the story. On “Whiplash,” he wanted it to feel like it was being edited by Fletcher himself, with fast cuts and cuts at right angles. For “La La Land,” he wanted it to be like a Hollywood dream, long and languid. He wanted it to be full of curves and long takes and camera moves, and at times kaleidoscopic montages.

With “First Man,” he wanted to have a different style inspired by the research he was doing. Damien and Josh Singer were watching a lot of NASA archival footage, and Damien fell in love. A lot of the footage was shot by the astronauts themselves, and the 16mm footage was very gritty, personal, and intimate. So early on, he wanted that quality for “First Man,” and it would be our way into the story.

AF: How do you make your film stand out among the many excellent films that take place in space? 

TC: Other movies, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Gravity” loomed large as we were getting ready, and he wanted to do something different. Rather than make it clean and modernist, he wanted it to be like the NASA footage. He also wanted to double down on the subjective point-of-view, it would help the missions feel more dangerous. It was the feeling he was going for after he talked to astronauts and they talked about being ordinary men stepping into castles that were more machine age than space age. It was a style that would be more immersive, almost like a fly on the wall documentary that would bring something new.

AF: One of the things about this movie that stands out to me that it is frenetic and manic. It’s so tactile because of that, so that’s cool that you knew that early. 

TC:  Yeah, we were really looking for a Cinéma vérité style to the film. Damien wanted me to watch the films of Frederick Wiseman and movies from the Maysles Brothers. He knew to film “First Man” in this style, he would have to shoot a lot of material, and he shot more footage on this film than “Whiplash” and “La La Land” combined. He shot 1.7 million feet of film, which is over 300 hours of material. 

AF: Wow. That is a ton of footage.  

TC: Yeah, it was very daunting, but we knew this going in, and there would be a lot of wiggle room in the editing room. I should say that Damien pre-plans his movies very well. He created storyboards and rough animatics for every big action scene. But he also shot it in a way that allowed us to do some rewriting in the editing room. He shot two weeks of rehearsals with Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, and the kids who play their family. They shot this material that was completely improvised, and they followed all of them around like a documentary in Nathan Crowley’s fully dressed set. 

That’s footage we knew we would use, we just didn’t know how. When we got down to editing, we knew the domestic parts of the story would be new to the audience, and we scrutinized it really hard. There were scripted scenes in “First Man” that we replaced with scenes from the rehearsal footage because it felt unique and more authentic. We were constantly tweaking those scenes until the very end. 

AF: Are there any scenes that you think are underrated when people talk about the film? Obviously, you have some incredible work with the Gemini 8 sequences, but what about something a scene that is not talked about as much?  

TC: We knew the Gemini scene would be a cornerstone for the movie. We knew if that whole section didn’t work, we didn’t really have a movie. That was a very challenging sequence and it’s exciting to hear people learn about the mission, because most people don’t realize they almost died. I certainly did not before I started working on this picture.

But in terms of other scenes that are really special to me, I love the scene of Neil saying goodbye to his boys. Janet makes him sit down and talk to his boys, and that’s a scene that was really emotional to work on. I have small children, and I thought all the performances were incredible. Those are the kinds of scenes we can offer the audience that they wouldn’t know without seeing the movie. Of course, Neil makes it the Moon, walks, and then makes it back. Everyone knows that.

Our way into this story was to find and focus on the personal and intimate aspects of the story. If we do our job right, we’re showing people moments that suggest what Neil was thinking or feeling. We wanted to tell the audience about the things they didn’t know. I think that the intimate scene with the boys is a perfect example of that.

AF: What other scenes do you champion when you think about the movie? 

TC: Well there’s other scenes that should feel like they’re simple, ordinary, mundane things. Like Janet speaking with Pat White while Neil cleans the pool and the kids jump into the water.

Those are moments that were really fun to put together. They were slice of life moments we assembled from the rehearsal footage. We knew that the crux of the movie would hinge on these scenes. Damien described as the balance between the moon and the kitchen sink. The movie would only work if it had the right balance of the mission scenes versus the ordinary and domestic part of the story. If the juxtaposition made those differences feel more stark, all the better. That is what it felt like for the astronauts, who would go on life and death mission and then all of a sudden they would be in these completely ordinary and earthbound moments with their families. It was very surreal for them, and we really wanted to bring that out in the story.

AF: Now you brought up the Gemini mission. What was the most difficult part of editing that sequence? It was just so energetic and disorienting. 

TC: Well first off, we shot a lot of footage for that sequence. It comprised a lot of different elements and a lot of different scenes. First we show Neil and Dave Scott getting strapped into the cockpit. We were focused on making this moment a first-person subjective experience. Then we go into the launch, which Damien wanted to maintain the subjective feeling.

We stayed inside the capsule and make the audience feel like they’re strapped in the capsule as well. Then the scene moves from something scary to something fantastic. When the ships dock, we wanted to nod to “2001” and Kubrick. We see these two vehicles doing a dance, and it’s set to Justin Hurwitz‘s beautiful music. It’s like a waltz in space. However, we change tones quickly when something goes wrong and they go into the spin. Suddenly we get very scary, and we had to get into something very visceral and immersive.

AF: It’s a great homage. You seem to be playing with a lot of different styles in the sequence. 

TC: There are a lot of different styles going on in the scene. All the while we’re cutting back to Mission Control and intercutting that with Janet Armstrong listening on a squawkbox at home. Even just working on individual elements was difficult on its own.

The Mission Control control scenes were set up like one long stage play, and all the actors had dialogue they had to say. Josh Singer wrote dialogue for every person in the room, even if they were off camera. They had to have credible dialogue to say. Then Damien and Linus Sandgren followed around the actors like they were covering a documentary event. When I got the footage, no take was the same, and it was very challenging. I had 24 tracks of audio for each take because they put a mic on every person in the room. There’s also more of the unscripted rehearsal footage with Janet at home.

With all of that material comes great options, but it’s challenging to wade it and make choices. It was one of the most rewarding sections to work on, but it wasn’t easy. It’s great to have so much amazing footage, but it can be daunting. That was the scene that Damien and I were afraid of as we approached it in the edit. As we were standing at the base of the mountain that was Gemini 8, we found it daunting, but once we climbed it and came back alive, we were very happy with the results.

AF: Once you’re actually on the Moon, I loved how slow it got. We’re with him for every step. 

TC: Well Damien and Linus knew they wanted it to feel different than all the events that had come before. They made the choice to shoot in IMAX. It makes you edit it differently. When we transitioned out of the ship and the camera comes out of the hatch, that is when we transitioned to 70mm IMAX. Damien wanted it to be a showstopping moment, and likened it to Dorothy crossing into Technicolor. He wanted Neil to go through the hatch and make us feel like we were in another world.

AF: Can you tell me about that sequence and the mix-in of the IMAX footage? 

TC: The IMAX really helped because it gave us all this incredible resolution. It kind of invited us to linger on the shots and slow the pace. You can see the detail in the soil and on the ladder as he’s climbing down. The black sky becomes pure black. It also allowed Damien to double down on the first person subjective approach. We wanted the audience to feel like they were walking down the ladder. Like they were taking that first step.

When you linger on these shots, there’s also something that feels uncomfortable. When we do the 360 degree pan, you see this desolate and empty place. It just feels surreal. Damien wanted it to feel that way, almost haunting and scary. It was like watching a silent horror film and Damien wanted to live in this monochromatic world. The shadow of Buzz Aldrin coming down the ladder looks grotesque and creepy. We always felt that the style change was one that was appropriate for emotional reasons. It set the scene for the moments at the crater.

AF: I’m not going to lie, that is my single favorite moment of any film this year. This is one of the most amazing films of the year, so thank you for speaking with me! 

TC: Thank you!

What do you think of Tom Cross and his editing in “First Man?” Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

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