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Confessions of an Indie Editor

Confessions of an Indie Editor

Articles - Editing

At Sundance
Peter Dinklage, Tom McArdle and Bobby Cannavale
celebrate The Station Agent‘s Sundance victory.

Crashing the "company car"-and a rented one at that-may
spell unemployment in most industries. But in the world of independent
film, just such an occurrence proved to be the first learning experience
for editor Tom McArdle. For more than a decade, McArdle has worked
the editing room with some of today’s biggest indie success stories,
beginning with Nick Gomez’s classic Laws of Gravity, and
most recently with Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent, which
won accolades at Sundance and took home the Audience and Best Screenplay
Awards, as well as the Best Actress prize for Patricia Clarkson.

An unconventional tale of loneliness and, ultimately,
friendship in an old train depot, McArdle says he was attracted
to the script
because of its warm treatment of existentialist themes. Here, he
discusses his commitment to the world of indie film and why a film
about a "train-obsessed dwarf who lives in an abandoned depot
in rural New Jersey and reluctantly becomes friends with an overly-talkative
Cuban hot dog salesman" seemed like a sure bet.

Jennifer Wood (MM): What was the film that inspired
you to become a film editor?

Tom McArdle (TA): The film that made me want to become
a film editor was All That Jazz. I was 11 when it came out
and I wasn’t allowed to see R-rated films at the time. A friend
and I snuck into the theater and later told our parents that we
had seen The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.  Anyway, All
That Jazz
had a lot of scenes that take place in the cutting
room (showing Roy Scheider as the Bob Fosse character and editor
Alan Heim working on Lenny). The cutting room seemed like
a very interesting place. There were scenes that showed Fosse and
Heim changing scenes and also the overall structure of the film-within-the-film.
Also, the cutting style of All That Jazz itself seemed really
unconventional. Some scenes cut out before you thought they would,
and there were the quick-cut montages of the Fosse character popping
pills and talking to himself in the mirror. And, of course, there
were the very dynamic dance numbers shot from multiple angles.
On top of all that, the glimpse into the lifestyle of an artistic
person living in the big city seemed very exciting to a shy suburban
youth.

MM: How did you first get into editing, and how did
you land your first feature?

TA: I studied film (and English lit) at Dartmouth College.
I always knew I wanted to edit. When I graduated, two Dartmouth
alums I knew who worked in editing, Bill Johnson (who won an Emmy
for editing The West Wing) and John Gilroy (who cut Narc)
told me about this new independent film production company in New
York City called The Shooting Gallery. I went down there and started
working as a PA. The Shooting Gallery specialized in low-budget
and no-budget filmmaking. A lot of people there had worked on Hal
Hartley’s films.

On my third day on the job, I was driving a cube rental truck
and got cut off by a cab driver and crashed into some Con Ed equipment.
I figured my career was over before it began. However, since this
was the world of guerilla filmmaking, the production manager thought
quickly and called the truck rental company and blamed the accident
on the (supposedly) faulty truck. The company gave us the truck
for free for the week and paid for the repairs. So I learned right
away that things can turn around pretty quickly. After a few weeks
at The Shooting Gallery, I started assistant editing. A couple
months later I was editing short films. Then Nick Gomez asked me
to cut his $38,000 documentary-styled Laws of Gravity, which
was my first job as a feature editor. The success of that film
allowed me to keep editing features on a regular basis.

MM: You seem to gravitate more toward independent fare
in your work. What is it about the indie world that keeps you
coming back?

TA: I guess the concepts for the projects are less broad
and more personal. I like films that aren’t completely predictable.
I also like films about outsiders. There is always the hope that
indie films can say something new, take risks.

MM: At the same time these kinds of films are usually
created in a shorter time span and on a much lower budget. How
do you think these two factors affect the need for creativity
and, ultimately, your role as editor?

TA: Well, a lower budget might mean
that some things get rushed during the shoot. Then, in editing,
you might have to figure
out ways around certain problems. Sometimes I may not have enough
coverage for a scene or two, so I might start to think about making
a montage out of incomplete scenes or inter-cutting scenes. There
is usually some sort of solution. Also, due to the lower budgets,
I might be asked to work fast, which I’m used to.

MM: What was it that attracted you to The Station
Agent?

TA: How can you not like a script about a train-obsessed
dwarf who goes to live in an abandoned depot in rural New Jersey
and reluctantly becomes friends with an overly-talkative Cuban
hot dog salesman? Seemed like a sure bet to me. But seriously,
I like scripts about outsiders, existentialist stuff, and this
script had that. Then it turns into something else along the way,
something sort of off-handedly warm. I also liked Tom McCarthy’s
comedic tone in the script, which was sort of deadpan, with funny
small moments. Tom McCarthy, personally, is a hilarious guy, so
working with him on the film was a ton of fun.

MM: The film marks Tom’s feature debut, but you have
a lot of experience working with first-time directors. What are
the questions you generally ask of a director before deciding
to work together? And what are the personality traits that attract
you to a director, regardless of experience?

TA: Well, when I first meet a director, I try to get a
sense of whether the person has a good amount of life experience
and intelligence. I also look to see how they handle people. You
know, if we meet at a restaurant, are they nice to the waiter?
Then I also try to find out about the director’s film sense–have
they made short films or gone to film school? What kind of films
do they like? Things like that.

MM: In deciding how to tackle a film editorially, what
are the questions you ask (either of yourself or the director)–and
want answered–before the process begins? Do you have ways to
to solidify the story and where you want to go with it before
you start cutting?

TA: I ask about the films that the director
feels have a similar style or tone to the film that we’re about
to make. These influences can then be referred to throughout
the process as touchstones.
Sometimes in the edit, you are simply going for ‘a feel,’ and how
do you describe ‘a feel’ properly? So having other films as tone
or mood reference points helps. There can also be perfomance touchstones.
On some jobs the editor and director may say to each other ‘Let’s
make it more Steve McQueen’ or ‘more Daniel Auteuil’ or whoever.
Then you can shape a performance around an idea.

MM: Is there any one aspect of a film that clues you
in best to the editing–the script, the acting, the cinematography,
etc.?

TA: Well, you always start out trying to tell the story
as written. However, as Francis Ford Coppola says on The Conversation DVD
commentary, the script cut never quite works out as well as you
might hope it will. Then, once you get past that whole issue, I
think it usually works out that the acting drives the edit a lot
more than anyone would want to admit. I think everyone, whether
in the film business or not, is very sensitive to false acting
moments. To me a false acting moment is like someone playing a
trumpet and hitting the wrong note. You just cringe, and the film
loses credibility. So in the edit, you do whatever you can to keep
things feeling real all the time.

MM: The Station Agent is very much
a "character" piece.
Not just in the sense that it’s about people rather than action,
but in that it’s about three clearly-defined characters, the
likes of whom we don’t often see on the big screen. What does
it help you to know about the characters, in particular, in deciding
how to edit a film?

TA: It’s good to know some backstory, if you can. The film
I am editing right now, Killer Diller, is based on a novel
by Clyde Edgerton and, in preparation, besides reading the script
a number of times, I read the book a couple times so I could know
what the characters were thinking at any given moment. Then, if
I know what they’re thinking, I can choose reaction shots to reflect
that, even though it might not be in the script. Books have the
space to describe thoughts, scripts usually do not.

MM: Do you like to choose a different editing style
for each of the characters, to help define them better on screen?

TA: In general, I do not try to establish an editing style
for individual characters. However, in The Station Agent,
I think Fin may have ended up getting his own editing style in
some scenes simply because of his reluctance to connect with others
and his deadpan expressions. Sometimes, cutting at a certain moment
to his emotionless face just staring at people could only make
you laugh.

MM: The film made its  debut on the
festival circuit, premiering at Sundance, playing at Toronto,
Denver, Mill Valley,
Aspen, Chicago and San Sebastian and winning a number of awards
in the process. How satisfying is it to you to create such a
personal film and have it touch so many people throughout the
world?

TA: It has been very satisfying to see how the film has
been received. I think everyone in some way relates to Fin and
the film seems to touch a chord in people. I really enjoy the film.
I hope other people do, too. I think it has the potential to entertain
a wide audience.

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