Shortly before winning his first Oscar and an ACE Eddie award for La La Land, absorbed in the limelight of one of the year’s most highly acclaimed films, editor Tom Cross was in a very different headspace as he cut Scott Cooper’s dark, often brutal Western Hostiles, attempting to bring a depth and a psychological dimension to Cooper’s take on a classic American genre.

Working with Cross on his first feature, Crazy Heart—where he served as an assistant editor—Cooper expressed his desire with Hostiles to tell a story that would reflect present-day realities when it came to racial and cultural divides. Centering on Christian Bale’s racist Captain Joseph Blocker, who would escort an old enemy—the ailing Chief Yellow Hawk—through dangerous territory, the film would accomplish this by minimizing coverage of Native Americans early in the film, prior to Blocker’s journey of understanding and redemption.

To put the viewer in the place of the oppressed and those traumatized by violence—including Rosamund Pike’s Rosalie Quaid—Cross told the story through the faces of the actors involved, rather than through mindless action, their every look expressing their internal wounds.

By focusing on the human face, rather than the whizzing bullet, Cross would underline Cooper’s cinematic mission.

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How did you come to work on Hostiles?

I first met Scott Cooper when I was assistant editor on Crazy Heart, his first film. I thought he was a brilliant writer and director and we shared a lot of the same tastes, in terms of film and music and art. We always kept in touch after that, and at some point when I was finishing La La Land, the stars aligned, and we were able to get the band back together.

Did you feel as though you were working within a certain tradition when it came to the editing of a Western? 

Hostiles has some elements of the traditional Western and then some elements of other types of stories. Scott Cooper is a big fan of Westerns, as am I. We would talk about John Ford and Howard Hawks. The story takes place in the American West in 1892, so, you can’t help but feel some of the elements of that time and place.

The Western is a genre that is episodic in nature. How did you work with Cooper to find the film’s rhythm, and the pace of scenes?

In terms of the editing, Scott always encouraged me to create a measured, patient pace through the use of long dissolves, and super wide landscapes and vistas. It was his hope that these vistas would not only show the great geographic distances traveled, but also suggest how far the characters travel, in terms of their understanding and empathy.

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He wanted to set up this very patient meditation on the landscapes, but at the time, he wanted to punctuate these landscapes with violence. He knew they would offset and enhance each other. When we had these violent scenes, he wanted to have them steer away from the swashbuckling action that you might see in a more traditional Western. He really intended the violence to feel savage and brutal, and wanted to do this by putting the audience in the shoes of the protagonist.

When you have an amazing actor like Rosamund Pike, you can really hold on her face and see it go through all these changes. You can see the fear, and you can feel the fear. Scott was always in favor of favoring those shots and giving an opportunity for the audience to conjure up something in their head that is worse than what you might actually see.

We do this later on, as well. There’s a moment when Rosalie is with Living Woman, and they’re cleaning dishes at night by a stream. We see these fur traders—these unknown men—approach, and you really experience it through the eyes of the characters when you see the fear in the faces of our protagonists.

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How was your experience working with the performances of the Hostiles cast?

Scott used to be an actor. I’m not sure exactly what his process is on set, but whatever it is, the work that he does with his actors creates these amazing performances that I’m lucky to get to work with. In terms of what I saw with Christian Bale, he was really very consistent in his performance, as was everyone else. All the performances were very strong, and I think Christian really felt like he was that character. He had become that character.

In a way, my job was to maintain and support what Christian had created, and what Scott captured on film. One way we embellished that was through how we edited everything around him. The goal was to present the movie through Captain Blocker’s point of view, and then as the journey progresses, have Yellow Hawk’s point of view and the point of view of the other Native American characters slowly and subtly emerge at the appropriate point. The hope is that by the time you get to the end of the story, you really feel the distance traveled from the beginning.

The first time we’re introduced to Yellow Hawk is in the scene where Captain Blocker’s given the mission. We’re introduced to Yellow Hawk through a cryptic illustration in a newspaper showing his face, and through the stories that Captain Blocker tells about him. As the journey goes on, we learn more and more about Yellow Hawk, and eventually it shifts completely, where we’re completely in Yellow Hawk’s point of view. That was all part of Scott’s strategy, and it was my job to implement it.

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Can you further explain the process of dealing with the film’s action sequences—its violent moments?

Different scenes had different emphasis, in terms of the coverage. In the case of the opening scene, it was very easy to favor the faces. When it came to some of the other scenes, there was a fair amount of coverage, but this gets back to something that I really believe about any action-oriented film or scene. I always ask, “Who are the characters in the scene, and what are they experiencing?” because I do believe that these scenes are much more powerful when they have emotional weight, and the only way you have emotional weight is if you really feel the characters in the scene.

There was a lot of great horse work, a lot of great stunt work in these scenes, but when I put these scenes together, I always find the best angles and the best moments of these things, and I use that to punctuate what I see as character moments. I look for eyes seeing things, and characters sharing looks, connecting. Then, I surround that with the action.

One other interesting technical tidbit was that because of the SPCA [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] and the desire to keep horses safe, you’re not allowed to use full load blanks near horses, and you’re not really allowed to use squibs very close to horses. So a lot of the muzzle flashes and gunshots were enhanced digitally later. Most of the bullet hits had to be enhanced with effects later, and that also shows you how convincing the performances were. These actors had to navigate this action, had to ride horses with a certain amount of skill and expertise, but they also had to really sell the danger and the violence with these arrows and bullets flying around.