The Moon and the Kitchen: An Interview with ‘First Man’ Editor Tom Cross

I only prepared for 15 minutes of conversation with Tom Cross, the Academy Award-winning editor of Whiplash who also cut Joy, Hostiles, The Greatest Showman and Damien Chazelle’s last two features, La La Land and First Man. We ended up talking for 45 minutes. At a certain point, the stodgy divide between interviewer and subject dissipated almost entirely, and I chunked my previously outlined questions.

Cross is a passionate, eloquent advocate for his work. While his job as editor involves significant dealings with technical minutiae, he never loses sight of the big picture. Our conversation centered around two films, First Man and Joy, an intriguing study in contrasts that showcases Cross’ versatility and flexibility in the cutting room. His insights into how these films were made both inside and outside of the editing bay provide a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of the Hollywood dream factory.

How are you?

I’m good, still recovering from finishing First Man at the very last minute.

Really, it was down to the wire for the festivals?

We were down to the wire. We already had a really ambitious schedule — also, once you throw VFX in there, that complicates the timeline, too. Once we were lucky to get accepted into the festivals, it made our schedule even more aggressive. Right before Venice, we were still finalizing things in the movie.

How long were you in post?

Close to a year. I started editing the day they started shooting, which I usually do. And right up until Venice, so close to a year. I actually started a little late because Damien decided to shoot two weeks of rehearsal footage, which we weren’t really sure if we we’re going to use, but we ended up using it. Had I known, I would have asked to start earlier, so I was already behind in a way.

What was he rehearsing?

He was getting some of the principals together, Claire Foy and Ryan Gosling, with the kids, the two child actors who play Rick and Mark Armstrong. They did these rehearsals in full makeup and hair in a fully dressed set of their house primarily to get the actors comfortable together. Damien really wanted them to get together and play house, and it was a way to get the kids used to the camera. They did it with a skeleton crew, I think it was just Damien, Linus [Sandgren, director of photography] and sometimes a sound person. 16mm. It was really to warm everyone up, and it was completely unscripted and improvised. Just to get everyone used to being a family. A lot of that stuff we ended up using in the film for certain family/domestic moments. That stuff is as close to documentary as you can get, in some ways.

I noticed that the aesthetic was a little different in those family scenes. A lot more of the free-flowing camerawork reminded me of Malick.

Totally. Damien loves [Terrence] Malick, so we were certainly inspired by that. A lot of inspiration came from Damien’s research in seeing the spacecrafts themselves. He saw that these spacecrafts were more from the Machine Age than Space Age. That low-fi, analog feel really informed the style of the picture. Damien also watched a lot of archival NASA footage, which was primarily 16mm, and all that research inspired him to go for an analog, cinéma verité feel. He told me he really wanted it to feel like we took a 16mm documentary cameraman and put them in a space capsule. What would that look like? What would that be like?

He really saw the movie as a balance between what he called “the moon and the kitchen.” He really wanted to focus on the mission scenes that made them immersive and you really felt how dangerous they were, but balance that out with the kitchen, which was basically the family, relationship stuff. That was extremely important to Damien because we’d get these moments where we’d be showing the audience intimate, personal details that they hadn’t seen before.

How do you find the balance between the two, given their jarring extremes?

That was probably one of the most challenging stylistic things we had to do. On the one hand, he wanted the movie to be immersive so you would really feel how dangerous these missions were. So that meant we would do a lot of cutting between eyes and what they were seeing. We wanted to put you in the space capsules. We wanted you, the audience, to experience these missions through the eyes of Neil Armstrong. But, at the same time, he wanted to have this fly on the wall feel in a lot of the earth scenes. Anything on earth was going to be cinema verité, documentary-like. That was a challenge to blend the two.

I think one of my favorite sections of the film is these little scenes that comprise the GEMINI 8 section. Because that’s where you really see all the different styles blended together (or at least that’s what we were trying to do). The scene begins with an elevator door opening and Neil dressed in his spacesuit, and see him approach the GEMINI 8 capsule, this tiny, claustrophobic capsule. We see him climb in and do this through his eyes. We experience a launch and never leave the space capsule, inside with Neil being shaken around. We intercut that with Mission Control and Janet and the kids at home. I really liked that section because it truly is what Damien would call “the moon and the kitchen,” and I feel like you see all the different styles and techniques at play in that section.

You mention the claustrophobia of shooting tight spaces inside the spacecrafts. Did that limit the amount of material you were working with? The staccato rhythm of those scenes reminded me of the extreme close-ups in Whiplash, but I can imagine there were a lot more shots to choose from there?

Well, Damien always is great with intent. He pre-plans everything, storyboards, animatics. He did this on Whiplash, did it on La La Land, continued with First Man. He knew we would want to stay inside the capsules for the most part. When we go outside, we had craft-mounted shots where the cameras seem to be mounted on the spacecrafts so they’re very close. On rare occasion, just to give a breath, we would go to an extreme wide.

But for the most part, Damien knew he wanted to not tread on what he’d seen in other space movies. He’s a big fan of Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff, definitely Kubrick’s 2001. Those movies often had this beautiful, clean, antiseptic feel. Damien didn’t want to tread on what those movies had done really well, and he thought we could lean into something more personal and intimate. And, in that way, more visceral. He was really inspired by the visceral visuals in Saving Private Ryan, that informed and reminded us of what we wanted to do in some of these space scenes. He wanted the launches to be really violent. He really wanted to put you into that seat inside the capsule. He knew it would probably not go outside for the god’s eye view that much.

All that being said, he shot so much more material than he shot on either La La Land or Whiplash. He shot more than both those movies combined on this movie. He shot about 1.7 million feet of film, in several different formats: 16[mm], 35[mm], large format VistaVision and IMAX. And that’s because Damien thinks like an editor, he’s got a great editor’s mind. He knows that he’s going to need to get certain pieces in order to do the storytelling he wants to tell. Just the insert photography alone was daunting. The instrument clusters, the close-ups of the gauges — I had an editor friend after he saw Whiplash email me and say, “congratulations, you win the award for Most Inserts” because he thought there were so many insert shots in Whiplash . Well, in First Man, we have probably ten times the amount of inserts we had in Whiplash, maybe more. It was a big undertaking.

You mentioned Saving Private Ryan as a touchpoint for the film, and I’ve read other interviews where you mention that Damien will send you movies that inspired him for the aesthetic. Were there any other touchpoints for First Man?

He and I always exchange references. Damien creates a long list of movies that he shares with all the key department heads. It’s never to try to replicate or copy something, but the hope is that we can be inspired and talk the same language. The list for First Man included a lot of space movies, but it included a lot of movies that were really very different. He included a lot of documentaries from the 1960s and 70s, documentaries by Frederick Wiseman like High School, the Robert Drew documentaries Primary and Crisis, Gimme Shelter by the Maysles. He included a lot of that stuff and really told me to study those to focus on the aesthetic and how those stories were told.

Then he’d also include movies like Ordinary People that dealt with certain themes of loss and pain. So the references were pretty varied and kind of all over the place. But it really helped nourish the process at the beginning. I could get dailies, and then I could see what he was really going for. It was just more information, I could put two and two together because he couldn’t be there next to me to explain every single thing he was trying to do. The reference films are another shorthand.

Also, we both love movies, so it gives us another opportunity to watch great movies that we appreciate and love. When he was here in LA, we would get either a DCP or a print of some of these movies and screen a double bill of Zero Dark Thirty and United 93. We’d watch All the President’s Men and The Parallax View. It was a lot of fun but also very informative.

Interesting that you mention United 93, because I definitely got a Greengrass vibe — especially in some of the space scenes packed into the spacecrafts.

Definitely. We’re both such fans of Paul Greengrass’ films, and United 93 is an incredibly powerful movie. And I love the editing in that movie. That was definitely an inspiration and a starting point. I think something Damien really wanted to do through the cinéma verité was try to lean into the more personal and intimate aspects of the story. And you really feel a lot of that in the family scenes, the scenes with the sons and with Janet. I think a lot of us know the story of Apollo 11, we know that they made it to the moon, we know that they survived, we know Neil Armstrong as an icon. The style was another way for Damien to tell the story of Neil, the person with family, as opposed to Neil the icon.

How do you edit a performance as internalized as Ryan Gosling’s in First Man? Especially given how minimalist he is, you as the editor have such a big impact in terms of how that plays for an audience.

I’ve been very lucky to work with great performances, and that’s probably my favorite thing, to help support interesting characters. Maintain the emotion. And edit it in such a way that the emotional marks track, that there’s consistency. That’s one of the biggest challenges but something that I love to do.

We always knew that Neil’s character would be very internal. This character was from the Midwest, from another time and also very humble. This character was not a gregarious person with a big external ego. This person was very humble and workmanlike. We wanted to honor that, but at the same time, we did feel a dramatic obligation to try and suggest to the audience what Neil might be thinking or feeling.

When you get a great actor like Ryan Gosling, he gives you so much with his eyes that you can really lean into that, and you don’t have to do too much. We worked very closely with Ryan on his performance, he came in several times and would work with us, gave us notes all the time. I love working with actors that way. We would also make sure that, if it was a dialogue scene or something as simple as Neil listening, we timed the dialogue underneath a shot a certain way so it would really inform what you were seeing in his face. You could really start to see the changes because you could hear something being said, and your mind connects the two things and tells you that what you’re seeing in his face is a reaction to what we are hearing as an audience.

It was really getting down to the nitty gritty and playing with the minutiae. An actor’s face can be more valuable than the most incredible landscape. If I can, if I have a great performance from an actor, I can lean into that face and tell me so much. I try to take advantage of that wherever I can.

Pivoting a little bit, I did want to ask you about Joy — I’m a big fan of that movie in general but especially in terms of the way it comes together in the edit. But given that there are four credited editors on the film, I’m not sure how or where to attribute your involvement.

I came on board at the very beginning of Joy with Jay Cassidy, who had worked on American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook. A third editor, Alan Baumgarten, joined us about a week after shooting wrapped because he was still on another movie. It was really the three of us — two of us from the very beginning ––when shooting wrapped and David O. Russell came back. And then at some point, there were some scheduling challenges which basically dictated the need for a fourth editor, Chris Tellefsen, who had previously worked with David O. Russell on Flirting with Disaster. And then it was four of us working at the same time!

All of us would really work on different sections of the film, and David would basically work with us editors to hand out assignments. He’d say, “Tom, why don’t you work on this opening section of the movie? Jay, why don’t you take this?” Then we’d work on our own sections and have little screenings for ourselves where we would run our sections for David and the other editors. We’d give notes and comments and go back to work on our individual sections. And then, eventually, as things progressed, we would trade off sections or scenes. Invariably, something that one editor had started would be continued by another editor.

Something I learned when working with other editors is that, in these cases, you really have to check your ego at the door and not be so precious about what you’re working on. You’re invested, you’re certainly passionate and care about what you’re working on when you’re working with such great material from David O. Russell on Joy. But it’s more about what’s best for the film and trying to move that ball down the field. So it was a true collaboration between all of us, with David really being the unifying force.

Was David O. Russell serving as quality control to ensure a similar feel and coherence across all sections?

Definitely! What’s really exciting about working with David O. Russell is he’s so open to trying different things and pitches. You would do a cut of a scene for him the way he wanted it, and sometimes you would come up with your own thing as an alternate. He was always excited to see what you had. He didn’t always accept it or take it. Often, he would take some of what you did and incorporate it into what he had pitched originally. But he was a very open collaborator, and that’s what I loved about working with him.

He always would help rein in things stylistically or creatively. He’d always question if this was the right tone or the right style. He always knew we’d be doing a lot of the story writing in the editing phase, more than you might normally do. But he always had a clear picture of what emotions he wanted to get across. What he likes to do is to try different options and set you off on the track to try different things. Sometimes he’ll shoot things where he’ll have repeated beats in the story. One example is he’ll have two characters knock on a door, Jennifer Lawrence will open the door and two characters come in and talk to her and leave. Well, he might have two characters knock on the door and come in to have the conversation at a couple different times in the movie because he knows that it might be a useful sequence emotionally. But he’s not certain yet where the right place is for it to go.

When you first do an assembly of the movie, you include all that stuff and have the same beat happen a couple of times in the movie. But it’s really just an internal test to see where’s a better place for this emotional moment. A lot of times when you work on a movie, a lot of things seem perfect on the page. But once you put it all together with performances, visuals and sound, it plays very differently. You find you have to rearrange scenes to have it make more emotional sense. Sometimes, because of continuity, you have a hard time rearranging scenes. David keeps that in mind because he also thinks like an editor, and he will grab certain pieces that he thinks might be useful to cover himself.

So working on one of his movies is very different than working on a Damien Chazelle movie, but it’s as exciting in terms of the editing because of how much he leans on the editors and how much he really likes to collaborate with them. It’s pretty great.

As an editor, is it easier or harder to work with someone who’s a little less technically exacting on space or story time but is trying to hit something more intangibly emotional?

I would say it’s just different. It’s just a different way to arrive at something. I wouldn’t say anything is better; I’d just say different. He [David O. Russell] really shoots for the editing room. He will shoot and grab pieces of things, coverage, while shooting something. You’ll hear him direct the actors to repeat a line or do something, and he’ll probably be looking at framing and get some ideas about a moment that might be great to capture. He’ll get it in the moment. So sometimes his dailies are chock full of gold, but the gold has to really be hand-picked and cut out in a very meticulous way. That’s why he needs really strong editors to work with. He gets all these amazing pieces that people don’t get, but it takes really strong editors to cull that out and get it.

But that’s what his expectations are. That’s why he’s worked with Jay Cassidy and Alan Baumgarten on several movies. They’re really great at doing that. His film dailies are not always conventional, but they lead to an end result that is also not conventional and almost always something special.

I think there’s an urban legend that, apparently, you can hear him giving direction while the cameras rolled in Silver Linings Playbook, and they weren’t able to get it all out in the edit.

[Laughs] I don’t know about that because I didn’t work on Silver Linings Playbook. But I do know he will talk and converse with actors while they are shooting more than other directors. It’s having a conversation with them, and he’ll direct them. It’s great to watch his dailies because he doesn’t like to stop the camera in order to give direction, he’ll just keep rolling and give the direction. If he wants someone to repeat the line, he’ll tell them to do that.

He really likes to keep the emotion up and keep the scene going; he doesn’t want to break the rhythm. What you end up getting with his dailies is that you hear his voice directing, and as an editor, you can hear what he’s going for. And it’s really informative to hear him directing the camera to do something so you know it’s an important moment. You might hear him saying, “Let’s do this because it will look great for this moment.” So sometimes that information you’re hearing on the soundtrack from David is more valuable than what you’re getting from the script supervisor’s notes.

A director I interviewed once told me that Truffaut said, “The film is the critique of the script, and the editing is the critique of the shooting.”

That’s a great quote, I’ve never heard that! In the editing room, we’re so lucky because we know it’s ground zero where we get everything, all the efforts of all the different departments. All of a sudden, it’s focused into this one department, one room. In some cases, it gets whittled down to just the editor and the director working on something with everything at your fingertips. It is definitely a reaction to what was shot and written.

It’s different because what you find is that there are certain intents going into the script and certain intents going into the shooting and acting. Actors will do a lot of things to get into their characters to make it real for them. A lot of times you shoot a lot of material that helps inform the actors of what the characters are. All that stuff is amazing, and what is interesting for me is that when you get into the editing room, you find that less is more. A lot of things you needed in the script phase or needed for the performance while shooting, you don’t actually need in the story. Those are always really interesting discoveries. And sometimes very challenging, because you want to honor the actors, the performances, and what they’re doing. Sometimes they’re very attached to some of the character work they did in the shooting.

As an editor, you’re lucky because you are not tied to what was shot. Most often, we’re not on set. We don’t know how hard it was to get that crane shot. We don’t know how difficult it was to do XYZ. All we see is the footage in front of us. It’s a challenge to put the story together, but it’s also a challenge to make sure that everyone who has invested in this project feels like their work is getting their due.

It sounds like you’re in a good position to judge how the audience is going to perceive something. The average person isn’t going to know how hard it was to get that shot or how long it took to get that reaction.

I like to think that I’m more objective. I rarely go to the set. I didn’t go to the set at all on First Man — part of that was because they shot in Atlanta. I went to the set once for La La Land, which was exciting but also very boring because you’re waiting around for long periods of time. The flipside, if people came into the editing room, I can imagine it’d be pretty boring for them because it’d be like watching weeds grow. So I don’t expect anyone to want to do that, either.

I like to think I have an objective point of view. At the same time, as you start editing and working the footage, you start getting your own opinions and judging certain things. That’s why, on First Man, it was really important for Damien and I to have little screenings for friends and family very often. On First Man, we had a screening almost every week for trusted people to watch. We were able to do that because we were cutting on the Universal lot and were able to do that in a theater projected and could invite 25-50 people to watch the rough cut of the movie. We would also give people questionnaires to answer afterwards, but often times we didn’t read the questionnaires because we learned so much from sitting in the theater with a group of people. There’s no place to hide. When a joke isn’t playing, you feel it. If something is feeling slow when Damien and I are working, it will definitely feel like molasses when we’re watching it with an audience in a theater. It’s a way to take the band-aid off and really see how well your movie is working – or not working.

So, the next time I watch Joy, is there anything in particular you could point out that has the Tom Cross stamp on it?

We all worked on several different things, so I don’t know if I could point to one specific thing. I will say it was truly a team effort because even if I worked on something — I was on from the very beginning to the middle of the movie — two of us, myself and Chris Tellefsen, left early because we had prior movies we were going to. So Jay Cassidy and Alan Baumgarten took what we did, incorporated that and meshed it together with what they did — and then they tweaked things further.

I wouldn’t point out any specific thing I worked on but would say I was proud to be a part of it overall. It was a really special movie to work on, I really loved what David was going for. It was ambitious, very different from his previous movies. He really went for something that was more of an epic story, something that was earnest in a really emotional way. It kind of reminded me of It’s a Wonderful Life in some ways. It was a dream to work with him. I’m a big fan of his movies, always have been, and when I got the call they might be looking for an editor, I jumped at the chance. I think when I signed onto the movie, interviewed by David and then hired, I hadn’t even read the script. But I didn’t need to because I just knew that I wanted to work with David O. Russell.

I always like to ask this question to craftspeople: obviously you’re brought on to execute a filmmaker’s vision, but you’re an artist in your own right. Is there such a thing as “a Tom Cross film,” some sensibility that endures no matter who you’re working with?

There might be, but I’m probably too close to know. I’ve had the opportunity to work on a lot of amazing films. I got to work on a western, musicals, now I just got to work on a space movie. As a movie lover, that’s a dream come true to stretch myself and try different stories in different genres. I hope I can continue that. But the editing is always at the service of the story, so I don’t feel like I bring my style to a project. I try to collaborate with the director to channel what the story style is. Sometimes, the style is invisible or classical.

When I worked with Scott Cooper on Hostiles, the story called for something more traditional and invisible. That’s what Scott preferred, it’s what the story called for, and I loved doing that. At the same time, I was very lucky to work on a movie like Whiplash where the story, in the way Damien wanted to tell it, called for an overt style. It was all about speed and feeling every cut. As an editor, you don’t always get an opportunity to work on something that’s overt in its style but still serves the story.

The great editor Sam O’Steen, who edited The Graduate and Chinatown, said it’s not about showing off. I totally agree with that. I cringe when I watch a rough cut, and it feels like I’m too pushy or trying to be cool and stylistic. It only works for me when it feels like it’s coming out of the story. Maybe we can talk in 50 years to see if it looks like I’m pushing my agenda on something. In general, I like to think that it comes out of the story.

Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).