Coming off his Oscar-nominated work on Takia Watiti’s Jojo Rabbit, editor Tom Eagles probably had a lot of options when it came to his next project. Why did Eagles choose an anachronistic Western that played fast and loose with (while also tipping a hat to) the oater genre? Well, you’ll have to read our interview to find out. You’ll also learn a ton about cutting a film for performance and not just action. Something Eagles does masterfully in Jeymes Samuels’ The Harder They Fall.
Awards Daily: What drew you to The Harder They Fall?
Tom Eagles: Initially, the script came to me through my agent and it was really beautiful and had a lot to say about the western, but it did it in this really fun and stylish way. It was laced with all of these incredible needle drops – at that stage Jeymes hadn’t written all of the music but he had written in the kinds of sounds that we might be hearing. I was familiar with some of the trends so I was able to imagine some of that music playing against this western world, which seemed anachronistic to me but it felt like it was going to work. And then meeting Jeymes. We had a call and I think he sung the movie to me in sections and he’s just such a joyful person – t was really infectious and it felt like being invited to a big party. There was a kind of lyricism to the way it was written. In the musicality – not just in terms of needle drops and things like that, but in the language, and it was interesting to me. It was interesting that you have this genre that is being kind of a vehicle for a discussion on white supremacy and toxic masculinity for like a hundred years. I could instantly see that this film had a really different point of view.
Awards Daily: Tarantino has taken two shots (Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight) at making a western that traffics in more than just revisionism, but that anachronism you alluded to. Was the possibility of comparison in your mind?
Tom Eagles: The film has been drawing a lot of comparisons to the work of Quentin Tarantino. I think that’s fair, both Jeymes and I love his work, and there are a lot of similarities, but there are also a couple of key differences. The main similarity is they’re both black belt level cinema nerds. I kind of thought I was a movie geek, but the depth and breadth of Jeymes’ knowledge left me floored. I literally don’t know how he found enough time to watch everything he’s watched. So to a degree they’re both pulling from the same huge pool of cinematic references. They both love a bon mot or two and neither are shy of violence. Tarantino also draws heavily on black culture. As does Jeymes, but from the inside, it’s an entirely different point of view. Just look at the liberality with which Tarantino uses the ‘n-word.’ Jeymes on the other hand, treats the word as the explosive weapon that it is. There were a few times when actors improvised along those lines, and we always avoided those. The one time a character almost says it… well, let’s just say they are prevented from finishing that particular sentence.
But the main difference for me is emotion. There’s a soulful aspect to this movie that’s arguably lacking from most of Tarantino’s lexicon. It is at times a deadly earnest film that (I hope) delivers a true emotional catharsis and raises some questions. The movie has style to burn, but we never let that get in the way of the emotional journey. I guess the last word on this for me is that Tarantino doesn’t own this territory. The cinematic playground is not his alone to explore. We need more films that explode the canon as it were, and I certainly hope this movie does that.
Awards Daily: Early on in the film, in the church scene, I definitely felt a bit of an homage to Sergio Leone. Am I right on that?
Tom Eagles: Absolutely. I think Leone’s movies are a touchpoint throughout. Certainly that sequence was the one scene where we said, “hey we’re doing a western, it’s gonna be fun.” We are portraying some kind of horrific things in it and it is a very soulful movie that goes deeper, but at that point in the movie we wanted to kind of cue people into the idea that this is going to play off some of those classic western tropes. So the super tight close-up on the eyes and the hands twitching towards the holsters and all of that stuff. But Leone was a touchpoint in other ways, the interrelation of pictures and music and sound. Like the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West with the train sequence was a kind of touchstone for us for the kind of space that we wanted to occasionally inject into the movie.
Obviously in 2021 you have to move fast, but we always wanted to create some space. And that scene that you’re talking about is one of those scenes where there was pressure from some folks to “let’s just get through it, let’s get through it get the story started,” but understanding that tension takes time and especially in a western. I guess another point that echoes with Leone and with that train sequence is when our gang breaks Rufus Buck, Idris Elba’s character, off the train – once we get into that last carriage and you know there’s something in the box. Trying to eke out the tension there as long as possible and then the same way that Leone did with sound, try to make the train into a bit of a character, and kind of twist the edges of reality with the sounds that you’re hearing there.
Awards Daily: This is a movie where the editing is very out front much of the time. How did you approach the material so as to not overdo it, and get in the way of the story?
Tom Eagles: I think we just found our way through it gradually. It was always going to be somewhat in your face. As an editor you often are making your work invisible, but in this movie it became clear early on working with Jeymes that editing, as a tool of emphasis, was going to be a big part of this film. We’re going to hit hard into these giant close-ups of characters staring directly into the camera. I found that if I got two versions of a scene and I went for a really subtle restrained sort of kitchen-sink and then a more stylized version that the latter usually won out. I learned pretty quickly what his (Jeymes) proclivities were. At the same time, there was a question of not letting that ever become overbearing because really it’s quite an emotional tale. We just had to keep the Nat Love/Rufus Buck axis as the center of the film and keep Nat’s pain and anger central, and make sure that we were making time to see some humanity in Nat – based primarily on the relationship between him and Mary (Zazie Beetz) – so that there was some sense of hope at the end of the movie.
AD: Jeymes produced, directed, and wrote the film while also composing the score and writing original songs for the movie. What was it like working with him? Did he also hand out sandwiches at lunch?
Tom Eagles: [Laughs] Jeymes is a professional collaborator, which is a wonderful thing. All of his experience in the music world has taught him how to collaborate with other artists. So working as a songwriter and a producer and a music artist in his own right, he’s kind of learned how to create space for other people to add their talents to the mix and then for him to draw out what he wants from that. He gave me a lot of space I needed and he always was a big champion of my work even against me. If I would later on down the track say, “Oh, we should really look at the studio note or we really have to get through the sequence quicker” and I’d be prepared to throw out some of my early work, he would always say “look there’s a reason that you did what you did, you have to trust your first instincts.”
Awards Daily: The Harder They Fall has a large cast and everyone gets to have multiple moments on screen. I imagine a film with this many significant parts that editing for performance can be a challenge.
Tom Eagles: Performance is like 90% of what I spend my time on everyday. One thing we did to establish those characters is that we made sure that each character had a very memorable entrance and that wasn’t necessarily as scripted. The scripted version that we shot, we met Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole), Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) in one scene. We got rid of that scene for a couple of reasons, but one of them was so that we could give each of those characters real introductions of their own. Each of them had a scene. The first time that you meet Trudy she’s facing that train. The first time that you meet Cherokee he’s soliloquizing on non-violence and then cutting someone up. The first time you meet Wiley he’s doing this kind of tough guy act to the camera that we did reveal is not the real Wiley. It’s a process of reduction, the pulling things out until we find the scene that is the magical introduction to that character and sit him there for people. We did introduce Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cuyler) and Pickett (Edi Gathegi) together. We referred to Beckwourth and Pickett as kind of our R2D2 and C3PO. They were like a Greek chorus and kind of the soul of The Harder They Fall.
So, Spoiler Alert when those two characters die, you really don’t see it coming, and you also really feel it because you’re invested in who they are and their relationship with each other as well as the other other characters in the movie. We had to make sure we gave them the time they needed to shine.
Awards Daily: Idris Elba is a commanding presence in this film, but he actually doesn’t have a lot of lines. It’s a very minimalist, but powerful, performance.
Tom Eagles: Some of it was crafted in the edit. When you think of Rufus Buck’s character there was actually a lot more to him – we had flashbacks to his childhood for example. But we found that he was much more magnetic and mysterious the less we knew about him and the less he spoke. Like when Mary comes to meet him and tries to buy him off in the bar, we actually stripped away all of his dialogue in the first half of that scene, so that she keeps speaking and he gives her nothing and there’s a tremendous power in that. He just withholds and when he finally speaks it’s very decisive and lethal. Definitely with Rufus we looked at a kind of less is more approach and to keep him an enigma, because we also didn’t want people to figure out the reveal of the end. So we tried to make him a mysterious character throughout. But we did try to give a little hint that he was also in the grey zone. He’s not exactly a good or a bad character. We tried to strengthen that idea, and we wrote in a little bit here and there for characters like Cherokee and Trudy to show why they would be loyal to someone like him.
Awards Daily: I really felt that during the train scene when Buck comes out of the iron box and rests his head against Trudy’s shoulder.
Tom Eagles: Absolutely. You can see that there are some real heartfelt relationships that had deep history, and all of that is done without words – that’s a testament to the performers. I just had to try not to mess that up because they gave us all of that and more. They invested so deeply in their characters, those guys. I agree absolutely, there’s a lot of stuff in this movie that technically could have or should have hit the cutting room floor and those characters – Trudy Smith, her story, her childhood story was one of those things that technically we could have cut out of the movie and the movie would have still made sense. But we just really enjoyed going into her world and her history and seeing the depth of a character like that – where often with a kind of “sidekick” you wouldn’t have the opportunity.
Awards Daily: I’m not sure how tall Regina King is in real life, but I suspect she’s pretty short. However, she has a towering and terrifying presence in this film. What did you do in editing to achieve that?
Tom Eagles: I think that’s all Regina, nothing I can take credit for. What she’s doing there is just incredible and she knew exactly the size of the character – if that makes any sense – and she performed right up to the limit of it. She filled the cup but she didn’t overfill it. She was never trying to buy real estate off other characters. She just had this menace and determination right from the get go. I guess the only thing I would say is that decision that we made to start with her facing off with the train and shooting a man – I think that gives you a really good idea of who she is, a much bigger idea than the previous intro that we had which was very dialogue heavy.
Awards Daily: Lakeith Stanfield has a unique energy. I can imagine editing his performance being a tricky matter. Every line he speaks and just the way he carries himself seems to have additional subtext.
Tom Eagles: Oh absolutely. He was very different. It was like trying to hold the wind or something. [Laughs] He is such a loose and fluid performer. He never really does the same thing twice. He’ll give you a lot. There was a lot of improvisation in this movie. Jeymes was always happy to let the actors run and see where that went. And no one needs that more than LaKeith. He did make it very hard to cut for reasons like continuity. The split scene between him and the General, where they’re talking to each other through the door, that’s in continuous time. That was a hard thing to cut because it wasn’t those two speaking at the same time. When he responded to the General’s lines he sometimes created an entirely different conversation. To try to make the two conversations fit was tricky, especially without the usual kind of things I can lean on when I’m just cutting back and forth between two shots. I had to keep both of those characters alive on screen at the same time, but they weren’t having the same conversation. Some of the stuff that LaKeith did on his side was really important like little references to the countdown. He never did the countdown on the General’s side, and I thought the countdown that he did was amazing. I had to try and cobble together reactions from the General and the soldiers to try and make that countdown work. You’re kind of mining for gold, and you find these pieces of gold, and then you have to try and build around it and make sense of it. Lakeith was definitely tricky, but in the best possible way.
Awards Daily: Even though there is a lot of heavy subject matter in the film, there is also a lot of humor in this film too. I don’t know that I laughed harder watching a movie this year than when the “It’s a white town” text popped on the screen.
Tom Eagles: It was so much fun. The only gag that I added to that sequence, or to the movie really, was “it’s a white town,” because I didn’t know they were going to do that. I was cutting the movie a thousand miles away in New Zealand while they were in Santa Fe because of COVID. When those dailies came in, I had no idea he was going to paint the whole town white with white horses and white sand everywhere. [Laughs] It was amazing and I laughed so hard. And the phrase in the previous scene “it’s a white town” came to mind and we had already established putting up enormous titles on screen, which i thought was useful for us for story telling purposes. By that stage, it just felt natural to put up this huge title: “it’s a white town.” I got a laugh out of Jeymes, so it paid off for me. That’s the fun thing of being in the edit and not being on set, which I only did a couple of times during pickups for this movie, is you get all these wonderful surprises. You really are the first audience for the film and that can spark different ideas than you wouldn’t have if you were part of the on set team.
Awards Daily: There’s a lot happening with signage and text in the film. I loved the little tribute to Chadwick Boseman.
Tom Eagles: If you look at all the signage in the movie, it is all references to friends and family of Jeymes – present and past. So there’s also a tribute to a friend of Jeymes who passed I think just before shooting. And then a lot of tributes to people alive as well. There’s a JL Savings and Loan for our producer, they’re everywhere. And then again they should just remain in the background. So I never really cut for any of the signage except that one time. I had compressed the scene so actually that scene had been traveling down four carriages which ended in one carriage in just a few words (of dialogue) so I had to find a way to get it (Chadwick Boseman’s name) in the right place in the shot without stopping the story for it.
Awards Daily: We talked a bit about how entertaining the movie is, but it all leads up to a deadly serious showdown between Nat and Rufus. In a way, the weight of the film sneaks up on you a bit and lands in that scene. I can imagine you felt a fair bit of responsibility to cut that sequence so that it hits as hard as it needs to.
Tom Eagles: It was tough to get that to pay off in the way that we needed it to, both from a narrative point of view and from an emotional point of view. From the narrative point of view we needed to make sure that we tipped our hand a little bit but didn’t give anything away, and emotionally we just had to make sure that those two characters, Nat and Rufus, stayed front and center and that you really saw Nat’s pain and anger and you can sense this heaviness to Rufus. We could have fun, but we mostly had fun with other characters, if you notice, through the film. When those two characters are on screen, things are pretty serious. We did lighten Nat up in a couple of places just because we wanted to add some hint of hope, and so we looked for the charm in Jonathan which comes out in strange places. He smiles when he’s about to get shot, which I think is very consistent on his behalf because there is a nihilistic aspect to him although he wants a better world. Likewise, Rufus wants to create a better world in Redwood. They have this inevitable pull towards confrontation, and ultimately, death for one of them. We did have to be careful because the performances that we were getting were mostly in the world of anger and pain, so we had to go back sometimes and color that a little bit, and paint in the charm if we missed it.
Awards Daily: That scene truly took my breath away. The way Idris stomps the floor, you can feel it come through your chest. In some ways, it reminded me of his last scene in The Wire. He wasn’t looking for death, but he was ready for it now that it’s here. He’s one hell of an actor.
Tom Eagles: That scene was amazing. It was shot really simply and fairly fluidly as well, though the blocking kept changing throughout the scene so it was a little bit tricky to cut. Sometimes they were standing, sometimes they were sitting. Shots went off in different places. Jeymes was giving them that freedom to just feel it out. But it was extraordinary. It was a very long scene, I can’t remember how long. It’s like six minutes, nine minutes something at the larger end but it feels like it’s worth it for every frame. As I mentioned, we had actually shot flashbacks to illustrate Rufus’s story.
We’d shot some for the middle of the movie and we’d also shot some for the story that he tells at the end, and realizing Spoiler alert that the two men are brothers. But when I saw Idris’s performance come in, I didn’t want to cut away. I said to Jeymes, we had all these moments of serendipity making the film, because I would call him and say “look I really don’t think we should use that” and “I’m thinking the same thing.” I really didn’t want to cut away from Jonathan because it is very important that we know what he is feeling and thinking and what he realizes and when. We went back and looked at other movies where a character tells a story. I looked at the Wayne Wang movie Smoke – Harvey Keitel’s character tells a story in such a simple scene. It’s just a focus on Keitel with occasional cuts back to William Hurt.
Awards Daily: I love Smoke, but I would never have connected Smoke to The Harder They Fall.
Tom Eagles: [Laughs] it’s a great movie, right? And in my mind I sort of thought that they had used flashbacks in Smoke because I could see it all. Keitel is such a great storyteller. I could see the story where he goes with this old lady, I think she’s blind, and I think he steals his first camera from her and this whole convoluted tale, but I was sure that I could see it. But I hadn’t seen it. I just pictured it. I think it’s kind of the same with Rufus, with Idris, when he’s telling that story. And likewise when Trudy tells her story, they’re such great storytellers, such great performers, that you don’t want to or need to cut away from them for a second when you have storytelling like that. This is consistent with Jeymes and who he is because he is a great storyteller. He’ll sit you down and he’ll start a story and you know you’re going to be there for half an hour, but you also know that you’re not going to regret a single second of it because it’s such a full meal. So we tried to take that ethos to the movie as well to just try and stay with those performances.
AD: This is a movie that takes a lot of chances with tone and style in a beloved genre – I think you were working at a high degree of difficulty. It must feel great to see how well the film has been received.
Tom Eagles: It does. It feels great when you’re sitting in a cinema and you can hear people laughing, crying, calling out at the screen in all the right places, and the gasps when that story is revealed at the end. That is a wonderful feeling to know that, for that group of people at least – it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – but for a certain group of people that it really has hit the mark. And it’s one of those movies we talked about when we were making it, that it might not end up being necessarily the most widespread movie that everyone will see – although a lot of people have seen it – but we did want to make sure that it was someone’s favorite movie of all time. That’s how we thought about it and hopefully that’s paid off.
AD: At the end, there is a hint at the possibility of a sequel. Any chance that’s going to happen?
Tom Eagles: [Laughs] We leave the door pretty wide open for a sequel if we should choose to do it.