Moonshot Moviemaking: To Cut Outside the Box, Live an Outside-the-Edit-Bay Life and Treasure All Your Footage

Big league moviemaking is a fast-paced sport. With every at-bat moviemakers are expected to be able to square up a blazing fastball and tear up the basepaths, and if you don’t want to stay down on the farm your whole career, you’d better keep up.

The best way to get into that groove is preparation. That means developing a dialogue and having a shorthand with which to communicate to fellow moviemakers. By the time director Damien Chazelle finished principal photography of First Man and came into the editing room, I already had a fair idea of the direction he wanted to take it this telling of the lesser-known aspects of the years leading up to astronaut Neil Armstrong’s 1969 mission to the moon.

Preparing for Liftoff

How do you ready yourself? As an editor, even if you’re not involved in pre-production and not hired until shooting starts or even later, you should be certain that you’re up to speed with other departments as soon as possible. As Damien and I have grown closer in our working relationship, he’ll send me his scripts at an earlier stage. The script for First Man, for instance, came to me in December of 2015. Damien started talking about First Man and about some of his cutting ideas for the film when he and I were in the middle of working on La La Land. It’s at this early point when I’ll ask him to send me his list of references for what he wants the movie to be like, and it’s also when I begin giving my initial feedback. This give-and-take, back-and-forth of drafts and notes is always informal, but we always make sure to check in with each other about how we’re conceiving of the material early on.

On First Man, I monitored each script revision, caught up on the movies the rest of the team were already watching as references, and attended pre-production meetings to weigh and to simply stay in the loop. In contrast, I joined Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman in 2017 much later in the process, so I didn’t have the benefit of working with the director and crew during pre-production and instead had to dive right in. It can be done this way, but I’ve found that if everyone invests in the earlier stages of a project, the results will be superior, and more rewarding.

Pressed For Space: NASA astronauts Armstrong, (Gosling, L) Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll, C), and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas, R) take reporters’ questions on their upcoming mission in First Man. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures / DreamWorks Pictures

Stretching Armstrong Footage

What I learned—or rather, what was re-confirmed to me—while editing First Man was how every piece of footage has potential value. Because of how Damien wanted to tell our story, our way of working allowed for a certain stylistic elasticity with respect to what footage we could use. In this case, that meant that a lot more footage was deemed “usable” than one would usually expect.

Damien shot about a week of rehearsals with the cast. Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, who play Neil and Janet Armstrong, respectively, wanted to get comfortable with the actors who were playing their children, and to get the kids comfortable with the cameras. Damien wanted to film that, and the resulting material was completely unscripted and improvised, despite the cast being in full costume and on fully-dressed sets.

When the footage came in, I watched all of it—making selects and cataloging the footage, but never cutting it. Sure enough, we ended up diving back into that footage once we’d assembled the whole movie. That material was invaluable because it perfectly illustrated specific moments of family intimacy we sought to convey. If there was something I was reminded of during this part of the process, it’s that every piece of footage is important to watch and to catalog for when it comes time to make your selects, even if it’s the tiniest moment—a smile, a look, or a beautiful camera movement. Set it all aside, because you never know when it might come in handy.

Strong Suit: Armstrong (Gosling, C) steps into anti-gravity garb with Collins (Haas, L), and Aldrin (Stoll, R) in First Man

Crew Cuts

Working with multiple editors—as I’ve done on David O. Russell’s Joy in 2015 and on The Greatest Showman—can be both wonderful and challenging. It’s wonderful because you’re all sharing the actual workload and bringing multiple points of view to the work, and challenging because you’re wrangling those points of view into one cohesive vision that works for the director. When you’re working in a multiple editor situation you have to check your ego at the door. You really have to up your game in terms of your communication, keeping the lines open between you and your co-editors to stay on the same page.

Co-editing is also about not being too precious about what your work is, or about the cut you might have done. Often in these situations, the process dictates that a scene that one editor has cut now has to be re-cut by another editor, and you have to be able to sit in both chairs. Sometimes you’re going to be the one doing the re-cutting and other times you’re going to be the one having your scene re-cut. You have to be OK with both of those situations. The biggest thing to remember is that it’s always about what’s best for the process, and for the movie.

When to Spin with Style, When to Splice Your Differences

Some directors hire you because they want your take on their material. I remember working on a TV pilot with a director who was a big fan of Whiplash, and he wanted me to bring a certain style to the project—to give him my take on how the scenes should be cut. He knew that he wanted the editing to have a certain velocity and fast pace, and he was genuinely curious about what I would do with his footage. When your director appreciates what you have to say, and what you have to say is right for that particular project, that’s really exciting.

When I work with Damien, he’s very specific about his vision. He almost always comes in with a certain idea of how the scene should be put together in his head. He has a great mind for editing—he knows what to shoot, he always gets the pieces that he knows he’ll need, and he’s very good at putting them together.

If you’re working with an exacting director like Damien, you should always try to first put together how he or she sees their film as best as you can. After you show your director that preliminary cut, you can begin to refine it together, and that’s where your feedback will start to come into the picture. Sometimes Damien and I will get to a place where the cut is kind of what he envisioned, but very often we’ll get to something different—different, but better. It’s not better because I’m giving him my take, but because the two of us together are coming up with something that improves upon what we’d each previously envisioned.

Armstrong’s (Gosling, L) wife Janet (Claire Foy, R) keeps him grounded in First Man

Edit Down to Earth

We editors don’t often spend a lot of time on set, so we don’t always know firsthand the kind of stresses moviemakers are under while they’re there. The best way you can connect with the world is to spend time outside of the editing room. Of course it’s important to cut anything you can get your hands on, but also try to get to know moviemakers—think like a director, put yourself in their shoes. You can be great at putting film together, but if your personality doesn’t complement your director’s then that’s probably not a partnership that’s going to last.

When you’re starting out, be dedicated to your craft, but also remember that a large part of what we do in our work is relate to people. Have a life! Be with your friends and family. Though they’re not always easy to maintain, it’s these relationships that will ultimately launch your success. MM

—As told to Ryan Williams

First Man opens in theaters October 12, 2018, courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures. All images courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures. Featured image: Blue Moon: Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) straps into Apollo 11 in Damien Chazelle’s First Man. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2019 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on stands November 6, 2018.

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