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October 10, 2018

One Step Forward for Cinema: An Interview with ‘First Man’ Editor Tom Cross 

First Man depicts the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong and his journey to the Moon. We all know the story of how he got there and returned. Director Damien Chazelle decided that First Man was going to show a different side of the first man who stepped foot on the lunar surface. This is a film as much about perseverance as it is about finding your way back home again.

Speaking with Academy Award-winning editor Tom Cross, we went into the process that Chazelle used to tell this particular story. This was a change for Cross, who worked with Chazelle previously on the films Whiplash and La La Land. This wasn’t going to be an exploration into the musical genre, but rather an attempt to bring something new to the space exploration movie.

Something that hasn’t been seen from the likes of The Right Stuff, Gravity, and Apollo 13. One of the big ways they accomplish this feat is the use of the IMAX format. Chazelle, Cross, and company really utilized the format to new lengths. It makes one wish that every film was shot with the IMAX format cameras. Tom Cross shared his experience on the film, working in the IMAX format, and how they wanted to show a different Neil Armstrong.

You’ve been working with Chazelle since doing the Whiplash short film, how did you meet up with him?

We got connected by a producer friend. I had worked on a couple of movies for James Gray, Two Lovers and We Own the Night. [Chazelle] is a big James Gray Fan and this producer had a feeling that the two of us would get together pretty well. I got sent the script, the feature-length script, which I thought was one of the best scripts I had ever read. I just had to meet this director and we just hit it off because we both love movies. We found that we love a lot of the same movies. Immediately we started talking about little editing minutia in movies that we love. Things from The Departed, Taxi Driver and Lawrence of Arabia. We found that we just spoke the same language.

Quite a few directors that once they find their editor, that’s who they continue to work with. Do you find that that’s the case with you and Chazelle?

That editor and director collaboration is kind of like a marriage in some ways. You spend so much time together in a dark room. Debating, arguing, pitching ideas. If it’s a marriage that doesn’t work, then that collaboration isn’t going to work. When you find a dynamic that works, you stay with it. For me, it’s always been a dream to find those collaborators who I could kind of stick with and grow with.

How was putting together First Man different than cutting a musical like La La Land?

I was very lucky to cut both Whiplash and La La Land and you know, they’re both the same in that they’re editors dreams. A lot of the storytelling is expressed through the cutting patterns and rhythms, they’re all very stylistic. It was fun to be able to do a musical because I’m a fan of old Hollywood movies. I’m a fan of old Hollywood musicals. It was fun to get to lead to something that was stylistic, romantic and favored long takes. But I always, like to be stretched and try different things. And with this [First Man], [Chazelle] really wanted to lean into a different style. Whiplash and La La Land are about clean cutting. And in this one, he really wanted the cutting patterns to be rough. He really wanted First Man to feel rough, like it was cut with a rusty razor blade.

He also wanted to show how painful and dangerous these NASA missions were. That sense of danger is something that I think was new to us in some ways. That’s not something that we really dealt with in La La Land. Maybe we touched on the painful part with Whiplash, but with this movie, he really wanted to do something he hadn’t done before. [Chazelle] wanted to create scenes that were really gritty, raw and immersive. He wanted to create these, set-piece scenes that were kind of experiential.

With scenes in the movie designed specifically to simulate what it must have been like to be piloting these devices, where did you make the decision to stop?

Yes. And, and you know, I think that was one of the biggest challenges with First Man. To find the right balance between these immersive, experiential scenes which were primarily the NASA mission scenes. The other thing that [Chazelle] was really keen on focusing on was Neil’s family life. His relationship with his children and with his wife. [Chazelle] always kind of referred to that relationship as the moon and the kitchen. That’s what the movie was about for him.

One of the biggest challenges was how to balance those two things. He knew that if the balance is right, then each thing would be accentuated. When the movie leans too much into the mission movie, it became more conventional and less interesting. It was too familiar. At the same time, when we lean too heavily into the family and domestic moments… the overall trajectory to the moon felt bogged down or sidetracked. Finding the balance between those two things was the key to making each component work as best as it could.

Was this your first time working in the IMAX format?

Yes, it was the first time working in IMAX. I’m a big fan of film as is [Chazelle] so this movie was a dream to work on. [Chazelle] shot in 16mm, 35mm, VistaVision and IMAX. It was a big challenge for me and my crew to find ways to organize all that footage and to keep track of everything. [Chazelle] and I felt like we had an obligation to really use the formats. Because he had shot in IMAX, we really had to make sure that we supported that changed aspect ratio, but that also that changed format. He had designed a transition to go into IMAX, which he really thought of as a Wizard of Oz moment. He was really inspired by the moment in Wizard of Oz where Dorothy goes through the doorway and as she crosses through the threshold, we go from Sepia black and white to Technicolor.

For First Man, he really wanted it to feel like we were going into another world. He really wanted to feel like we were on the Moon and you get that through the change of the screen opening up. But you also get that through with the resolution. And the thing that we really worked on was how long to hold these P.O.V. shots on the Moon because that’s something where we thought that the cutting pattern could slow down so that you could take in these expanses.

I mean, not only because you had more resolution with IMAX, but also because we wanted to change the pace and have it feel different from what had come before. We also had to play with sound. We had to choose the places where you would just hear breathing, choose the places where score would come in, and also decide what are the best moments to drop the sound out. That was another thing we worked on for a long time and that was all stuff to support the change to IMAX.

Once you could see what the IMAX cameras could achieve as there any to shoot the other sequences in IMAX or was it always just going to be about the Moon?

I think that [Chazelle] always intended that to just be the Moon. A part of that was because we had seen what had been done on other movies before. [Chazelle] is a big fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, but he really wanted to be careful not to tread on stylistic things that those movies did. Often in space movies, everything is very clean and antiseptic. The image astonishes you with clarity and I think that [Chazelle] really wanted to go in a different direction and lean into more personal, intimate aspects of the story.

He really wanted it to feel like you were a fly on the wall. As if we had a documentary cameraman following Neil as he goes into his house and then as he goes into the capsule. That’s primarily how we wanted to tell the story. He wanted it to feel like a Cinema Verite documentary, but he knew that once we got to the moon that he’d have to pull out all the stops and have that really feel like a different time and place.

Tom Cross First Man

Editor Tom Cross working on First Man

I’m glad you mentioned looking like a documentary following Neil Armstrong around because I noticed right away that the movie almost has like an archival sheen to it. Was that done in post or something you knew you always wanted?

No. Actually, [Chazelle] and his cinematographer Linus Sandgren knew that they really wanted it to be the opposite of what a lot of space movies had done before. They shot it primarily in 16 mm and small versions of two perf 35 mm which is very grainy and it’s very close to 16 mm. They were really inspired I

think by the spacecraft’s themselves. When [Chazelle] did his research and saw what the spacecraft’s actually looked, he saw that they were really more machine age and space age. And I think that really inspired an analog, low-fi approach all across the board. You see it in the production designed by Nathan Crowley. And I think you really feel that in the photography.

He was really keen on going in the direction of NASA archival footage and he told me to look at a lot of Cinema Verite documentary by Fredrick Weisman and D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles. He really wanted to kind of copy that cutting style. He really wanted me to favor jagged cuts and things that you
would really have footage snap zooms. You know, rack focuses, a certain sort of messiness. That was really fun to do.

I should also add that he shot at least two weeks of rehearsal footage with his principal actors and the children. He did this so that they could get to know each other and so that the kids could become comfortable with the camera. That’s the footage that we ended up using for certain domestic scenes at
home. That stuff is completely improvised. It’s unscripted in a way that is really similar to a Cinema Verite documentary. So a lot of the cutting was actually real documentary cutting.

With the film going from 16 mm all the way up the IMAX, the film really builds to that.

[Chazelle] is such a great planner when it comes to his films. He was so prepared on Whiplash, extremely prepared on La La Land and on this one even more so. He always comes armed with storyboards and a
telephone book of reference photos and images. He always knew that we would start at a certain place and that the audience would get used to seeing this gritty, grainy, 16 mm in scope and that that transition to the Moon would be that much more breathtaking and shocking.

I’m sure you’ve been briefed that the patriotism has been a highly contested facet of the movie. Was there any footage from the moon that you left on the cutting room floor?

Um, no. First of all, there’s no question that the flag planting is a great iconic moment. But [Chazelle] always wanted to focus on the more unseen and unknown aspects of Neil’s story. He wanted to focus on the more intimate and personal. Most people know Neil Armstrong as an icon, but [Chazelle]’s hope was to show moments that might suggest what Neil was thinking or feeling. He wanted to show the intimate things that audiences haven’t seen before.

Did you and Chazelle ever imagine that it would become as hotly contested as it has, considering how much period patriotism is already in the film?

No. We had no idea. I think a lot of these thoughts come from what people hear about and come from. Things that they think the movie is about or isn’t about. And my hope is that people will just see the movie and they can decide for themselves.

There’s a moment during the Moon landing that I wanted to get clarity on. Was that something detailed in the novel or something that the Armstrong children detail?

[…] Everyone knows and has seen the footage of Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the Moon. They know that it was a mission that was successful and they know that the astronauts got home safe. I think that [Chazelle] really wanted to show was something that the audience really hadn’t seen before. He wanted to put the audience on the moon and make it feel like they are walking, climbing down the ladder, and that they are stepping foot on the moon. He wanted the audience to experience walking on the moon. But then he also wanted to get into the character Neil Armstrong’s head and wanted to suggest things that Neil might’ve been feeling or thinking. If [Chazelle] leaned into those things then we’d really be doing our job. We’d be showing the audience something they didn’t know or hadn’t seen before.

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