Universal critical acclaim and one Oscar later, life is good for editor Tom Cross, as he takes a break from his full days editing Scott Cooper’s upcoming Hostiles. On the press circuit for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a December musical release starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone which has generated tremendous awards season chatter, Cross takes a moment to reflect on his collaborative relationship with Chazelle, which dates back to Whiplash—the 2013 Sundance Jury Prize-winning short, followed by the feature of the same name.
And while the scale of the projects he’s editing has increased greatly post-Oscar, per Cross, little else has changed—at least when it comes to the La La Land auteur. Below, Cross discusses Chazelle’s vision for the film’s editing, cutting against a jazz backdrop, and some of the biggest adjustments to the film undertaken in the meticulous editing process.
You have a history with Damien Chazelle, but what were the opportunities you saw in this project that made you want to sign on?
First of all, Damien sent me the script and I thought it was fantastic. It was inspiring, it was heart-breaking, it was full of all sorts of aspects of the Hollywood dream. That interested me—It was clear that this was a script written by someone who loves movies.
The other thing is that Damien worked with composer Justin Hurwitz early on to develop music, so as time went on, as they were preparing, Damien would send me little pieces of music—demos that I would listen to—and I started to fall in love with the music and the sound that they were envisioning for the film, as well.
The third thing is that Damien always sends me lists of films that are inspirations for the movie, and are references. I instantly got inspired by that, also. He was inspired by Singing in the Rain, It’s Always Fair Weather, West Side Story, amongst many other Hollywood musicals from the ’50s and ’60s. As well as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Young Girls of Rochefort. I’m a fan of all of those films, so I instantly got inspired by that aspect, as well.
Having worked with Damien since Whiplash—the Sundance Jury Prize-winning short film version—how was the experience different this time around, post-Oscar?
I can remember sitting in the editing room with Damien when we were working on the Whiplash short, and our hope was that people would see the film; our hope was that it would get into the Sundance Film Festival. Some of those similar dreams carried on when we worked on the Whiplash feature film. One of the big differences now is that there seems to be more of a chance that more people will see the work.
In a lot of ways, Damien’s art has not changed—at least, the voice of him as an artist has not changed. It’s always been kind of the same. What has changed is the size and scope of the project. Also, the ability to share that project with more people. That is wonderful, to be able to know that the work is going to play more festivals and more people are going to see it. That’s something that’s wonderful, in terms of where we started and where we are coming to.
In terms of all the success and accolades that happened with Whiplash, that has been, of course, a dream come true. Mainly, a dream come true because it’s enabled Damien to go on to make more films. On a more personal level, it’s enabled me to get more opportunities to work on projects that I could only dream of working on. For example, I went from La La Land, one old Hollywood genre, to what I’m working on now, which is Scott Cooper’s western, Hostiles. That’s a project that I am having a wonderful time doing, and it’s a project that I could only dream of getting the opportunity to work on.
Damien was credited as editing his early films. I’d imagine he was pretty specific in his vision for the editing of La La Land.
He is very good at describing what he wants; he’s very good at preparing his vision to hit the screen. In the case of Whiplash, we storyboarded every scene. He had even created rough animatics with music, the musical scene. He didn’t do that for La La Land, but he was very prepared, in how he wanted certain emotional moments to hit certain beats with the music. Very, very prepared. In that way, it really helps me as an editor to put the movie into the first cut.
The other thing that is so great about Damien, as a director, is that he is a true believer in what film editing can do. He gets very excited about solving problems, whether they be story problems or a character problems. I shouldn’t really say “problems,” but issues. He gets very excited about solving certain issues through editing. To his credit, he’s a brilliant writer and a visionary director, but he also is not afraid to change something in his script, whether it be dialogue or action, in order to fit what the film has to be.
That’s something that we found on Whiplash, and something we found on La La Land—we had to further and further distill from what he captured in-camera. That meant that certain scenes got lifted out, certain elements got moved around, and sometimes scenes were compressed or truncated, or consolidated. He’s very excited about doing that through editing.
Is editing against the rhythmic backdrop of on-screen jazz the editor’s dream, in a sense?
It is an editor’s dream, in a lot of ways, because you have music, which is creating certain rhythm, and people have certain expectations about how that sound is going to relate to picture. It’s fun to be able to play with that. In the case of Whiplash, the directive was to tell a story, a lot of the story, at a break neck pace, and with a certain amount of precision. As if the character of Fletcher was editing the movie itself.
In the case of La La Land, Damien had similar directives for the editing. They were kind of different. He had different styles that he wanted to do scenes. For La La Land, he used certain romantic scenes that would play out at a slower pace, and maybe less cuts. He knew that in order for that to really work and have the right emotional impact, he would have to offset that in other scenes. Other scenes have quick cutting, or fast cutting, or are told with dissolve, or other optical techniques. I think that something that excites me about Damien’s work is that he really looks at how editing can help tell the story. He’s a real believer in varying the pace and varying the speed of the cuts in order to accentuate moments when he wants to have something play slower and more romantically.
With those old-fashioned wipes, was the idea to get into the grammar of those classic films you mentioned previously?
Damien always envisioned his movie being told through the language of dreams. Here’s a story with the two characters who are big dreamers, and they have big Hollywood dreams. For Damien, the language of dreams is the language of old cinema. In that way, he wanted to tell the story through irises and fade-ins and fade-outs and bold montages and other optical techniques, because he saw those things as an expression of what was going on in the hearts and minds of the two characters.
With Damien, it was really important to support their fantasy through the editing styles and cinematic techniques. In some cases, he wanted to tell a story almost like a silent film. He wanted to tell them through montages with no dialogue, but with music underneath. There is a scene where Sebastian is playing “City of Stars” on the piano and Mia comes into the apartment, and they start singing with one another. Then she sits down next to him at the piano, and they start looking at each other, and singing, and talking about their dreams coming true.
Then, we transition to a very old style Hollywood montage, with no dialogue. It’s done with sweeping camera moves, but very specifically placed dissolves and transitions between each moment. The montage, basically, shows the slow deterioration of their relationship. It shows how the characters are coming apart, and that is something Damien always envisioned being told purely visually, and with a musical. That is something that he wanted to do in other places in the movie as well.
In that way, he definitely relied on old Hollywood techniques. That scene is inspired by the breakfast scene from Citizen Kane, when Citizen Kane is having breakfast with his wife. The beginning part of the montage, they are deeply in love and by the end, they’re sitting at opposite ends of the table.
Supposedly, cinematographer Linus Sandgren storyboarded La La Land in full—did storyboards come in handy for you, as on Whiplash?
In the case of Whiplash, storyboards figured in heavily. In La La Land, not so much. It was usually pretty obvious how he wanted to start something and how he wanted to end something. I had a pretty good idea of how he wanted things put together. When he came in the editing room, there were things that were right on, and there were a lot of things that were different. When he and I worked together, a lot of creative work happened and a lot of changes happened. There were some drastic changes while we were editing.
How much was left on the cutting room floor? Reportedly, there were only a handful of takes shot for some key scenes.
He’s very precise. For scenes like the opening traffic number, it was designed to be a handful of shots that would interlock together. In that way, there was not a lot of coverage. Similarly, the scene on the hilltop in Griffith Park where Mia and Sebastian have their first dance together, that was shot in one [take] as well, with no cutting.
At the same time, there were a lot of other scenes where there was an enormous amount of coverage. One scene that comes to mind is the concert scene with John Legend, which was designed to operate in a different way. That was a scene that had a large amount of coverage, including a large amount of insert photography.
There’s one scene that was very interesting because it was a scene that was originally intended to be a handful of shots stitched together and there wasn’t a lot of conventional coverage. The scene of Mia and her roommates going out for a night on the town and going into that Hollywood party was originally designed by Damien and Linus to be very fluid and unbroken. When they entered the party, originally, we were to follow the characters into the party, and one character would hand off to another character in this very voluptuous I Am Cuba type of photography.
What we found, when we got into the editing room, was that these shots were spectacular, but that we were losing the character of Mia in the party. We had to figure out a way to cut into these unbroken shots and to get back to our character. One thing that really helped us was a Hollywood device that we were already using at the beginning of the scene, which was this layered, kaleidoscopic montage at the beginning of the night, which was inspired by the Hollywood montages of Slavko Vorkapic. This was a layered montage where we see dancing feet, and overflowing glasses of champagne, and neon signs at night. Damien always intended that to be more of a transitional device, and a shorter section.
What we eventually decided to do was take some of the party and fold it into the Slavko Vorkapic montage. We were able to do it because Damien had set up this device that allows for a certain amount of compression of time. We were able to repurpose things and edit them in such a way because of this old optical device we were using. Now, when you look at that scene, you see Mia and her roommates go out for a night on the town, and in that montage, you start to see Mia at the party, you see her sit down, and you see her feeling like a fish out of water. A man sits down next to her on the couch and she’s clearly uncomfortable. Then, she winds up going to the bathroom, and we then transition into the aftermath of the party, where she feels rejected and out of place.
The important thing about that montage is that it couldn’t just be graphic, it couldn’t nearly be visual—it also had to be emotional. It had to carry Mia’s emotions. We tried a lot of different versions, and some of the versions had Mia very small in the frame, and we had several things going on at the same time. That looked great graphically, but we still did not get Mia; we still did not understand how she’s feeling. It was only after we calibrated it a certain way, and made her larger in the frame, that you really follow the emotional thread, which enabled us to then go in the bathroom and have her look in the mirror and start singing to herself, and realize that she feels out of place.
Per producer Marc Platt, the film references the classics, while providing something for a new generation. What does that mean to you, in editing terms?
That was something that was very exciting about La La Land. Damien never wanted to make a film that was strictly going to hang on a wall in a museum. He didn’t want to make merely an homage film: He wanted to make a contemporary film, a contemporary story, with grounded real-life characters. Characters who dream big and see their world through technicolor glasses, and widescreen CinemaScope. With that in mind, he knew that it would be a combination of different styles and tones. That was something that was very challenging.
In a lot of ways, besides feeling the musical element, the technical musical element, that was probably the other biggest challenge, which was trying to find the right style and tone for the film. On one end, we wanted the performances to be very naturalistic. We wanted the setting to be naturalistic. That meant that there were items where the editing would have to take a back seat and be very invisible. That could be seen in the dinner scene where they break up. It was directed to me as an editor to use these four shot units—we had a medium shot of Sebastian, a medium of Mia, a close of Mia, and a close of Sebastian. That’s all you have. For that scene, it’s about them breaking up, its about the music for the scene. It’s about being stripped down to record until it’s just basically dialogue. The music that we are hearing is literally just a record playing in the background.
By the end of the scene, the record reaches the end and the music stops. That was a scene that we wanted to play very naturally. Damien, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone worked very hard on trying to keep the performance very naturalistic. That was a challenge, to have a movie that contained scenes like that, as well as scenes of them floating into the stars at the planetarium. That’s what made the movie so fun to do.