Tom Cross first worked with director Scott Cooper in 2009’s Crazy Heart. Since then he edited Whiplash and last year’s La La Land. Cross has now reteamed to work with Cooper on the brutal and beautiful Hostiles.
Cross explains that Cooper’s vision was to create a psychological portrait first and not fall into the genre tropes of the typical Western. The interview contains spoilers for those who have not yet seen the film, but for those already in the know Cross talks about cutting that pivotal moment that sets the stage for the journey ahead.
Read our conversation below:
The last time I spoke to you we were talking about La La Land and here we are talking Hostiles.
It is a very different movie.
It does not start off with a happy song and dance.
Far from it. I’d like to say, I’m making my way through the old Hollywood genres.
You’ve worked with Scott before. How did Hostiles happen?
I worked with him when I was an Assistant Editor on Crazy Heart. We had always kept in touch and the stars aligned so we could actually get the band back together. I happened to be free when he was going to start Hostiles.
What was the collaboration process like on this, regarding his vision?
Both Scott and I are big fans of Westerns. He loves John Ford and so do I. We love Howard Hawks. He did speak a little bit about Westerns that he loved, but he made it clear that he wanted to make a psychological portrait rather than a Western. He said, “Tom, this is not your daddy’s western.” For Scott, it was important to focus on the characters and not fall into any genre traps.
The story is set in 1892 in the Old West. You’re going to have elements of that time and place, but he didn’t want it to have the tropes and stereotypes that we are used to. For Scott, that meant that certain action films really should be about the violence and less swashbuckling action. I think you can feel that in the way we put it together and you feel that in Max Richter’s score. It’s really meant to be more psychological.
We joked about the opening, but it’s a brutal way to begin and he keeps you there. Talk about editing that pivotal scene.
It was one of the hardest scenes to edit. We both had young children and the two young girls in the opening are his daughters. I know it was difficult to film those scenes. His daughters were excited to be in the film and they didn’t have a problem with it.
Those scenes are difficult to work on because you are constantly watching and revising what you’re working on. Every time all those children are murdered, Scott and I had to look away because it’s so hard to watch. Working on that was the toughest scene to work on. Scott knew it was also the most important scene because that sets the stage for all the characters and the rest of the film. We talked about how that scene was very much like Jaws; we were inspired by that in terms of how that opened and Psycho with the shower scene. We knew if you started with a very intense and visceral moment it would inform everything that came after. It was key that we put the audience in that mindset and put the characters in a place of being victims. Otherwise, it would be very hard to understand the anger and the ignorance that some of these characters start the story with.
What was in your editing toolbox?
In terms of what I had to work with and manipulate. It starts with performances. I had outstanding performances, to begin with, especially from Rosamund Pike and Christian Bale, and later on, from West Studi. Those three people were who I leaned on.
In terms of the toolbox for setting the violence, I go back to all sorts of action related scenes. I think you need to have the characters front and center and you need to understand what they’re going through. What are they experiencing? When I got the dailies I knew I had the violence, but more importantly, I had the look of fear and anguish on Rosamund Pike and I knew that would tell the story.
The burial scene with Wes Studi’s character was so spectacularly visual. What did Scott say about cutting that moment?
Like most movies, you often have a lot of pieces. From the beginning to the end, it was Scott’s choice to hold back on Wes’ character in terms of close-ups and any moments where we would get into their heads. He really wanted to show the Cheyenne through Captain Blocker’s eyes or Rosamund’s eyes. He knew it was going to be told from that point of view, and then it was his strategy that as we move closer to the light the characters are illuminated as the journey goes on. As we go on that journey, he wanted to shift the point of view a bit, and by that moment, we have that scene between Wes’ character and his grandson. In terms of the end of his character’s journey, it’s something he faces completely on his own and that’s what Scott wanted to do, he wanted to make a film that would touch on the cultural and racial divides we have today. He also wanted to offer up a suggestion that we might be able to come together as one as the characters do at the end of the film.
Was there any other scene that was particularly hard to edit aside from the opening?
Usually, they’re all very challenging. The story was very emotional, all of us in my editing room were really affected by it. The scene where Captain Blocker discovers his best friend, Tommy. That scene was challenging to edit because it was so hard to watch. What he experiences is such sorrow. Similarly, the scene where the women are rescued from the fur trappers was hard to watch. It was hard in the dailies because the actors performed it so well that it felt so real. I can’t even imagine what it was like on set. Those types of scenes are very challenging to work on because of the violence and because they actors are so emotionally affected.
When you watch the film, my hope is the context gives you some illumination and that element of redemption. When you’re watching and working on it, you don’t get that, you’re in the midst of violence.
There were so many beautiful shots in the film.
That was what Scott really wanted me to focus on, the beautiful settings and landscapes that were so beautifully captured by Masanobu Takayanagi. Another direction from Scott was to let those places dictate how I’m going to cut. We were really inspired by Masanobu’s photography. We discussed Apocalypse Now and that journey up the river and saw our story as that in reverse in that, instead of going into a heart fo darkness, we hoped to take the audience into the light by the end. It’s just that the audience has to survive the darkness and violence all the way through.
I think you have to do a screwball comedy next.
That’ll be good for my brain.