'Hostiles': Oscar-Winning Editor Tom Cross on Shaping the Dark, Emotional Western
The editor of 'Whiplash' and 'La La Land' reconnects with director Scott Cooper and discusses the exploration the film’s themes in the cut.
Director Scott Cooper first met Tom Cross on Cooper's feature Crazy Heart where Cross served as an assistant editor. Since then, Cross has gone on to win an Oscar as lead editor of Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, as well as edit David O. Russell's Joy and Chazelle's La La Land, earning an ACE Eddie award for the latter.
Now, Cooper and Cross have reconnected for Hostiles, a dark Western set in 1892 where racist Army Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is tasked with escorting an old, dying foe, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family, from New Mexico to the tribal grasslands of Montana. Along the dangerous 1,000 mile trek, his group of men encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a mother traumatized by violence, where they ultimately band together in a story of compassion and tolerance that tests the resilience of the human spirit and a willingness to change.
Cross leaned heavily on the human emotion of the story rather than its action to bring Cooper’s vision to the screen. No Film School recently spoke with Cross about his editing process. [Editor's note: This article contains spoilers.]
"It’s very challenging when you’re telling a story about a protagonist who is either ignorant or racist. It’s challenging to do and have the audience maintain interest."
No Film School: Prep wise, did you and Scott Cooper reference any films for language?
Tom Cross: Scott is a big fan of Westerns in general. He loves John Ford and we discussed Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge quite a bit, but he didn’t want it to feel like a Western in the traditional sense. The story takes place in the West, but he aimed to make a psychological portrait rather than a presentational one.
NFS: Any other nods besides the great John Ford?
Cross: Yes. Another important film to Scott and Christian Bale was Barbara Kopple’s documentary Harlem County USA. Docs in general are very important to Scott and Bale in terms of studying character. They each in particular prefer to look at real people and study them instead of characters in certain films.
NFS: Were there any themes behind the cutting style?
Cross: We wanted the film to be psychological first and then a Western second. One way we did this was to try to put the audience in the shoes of certain characters.
NFS: Definitely. You do that right off the top with Capt. Blocker and Rosalie.
Cross: Exactly. We really wanted to present Capt. Blocker’s world view. We really wanted to show the world through his eyes but also through the eyes of Rosalie as we felt like those two characters complemented each other.
NFS: But Capt. Blocker is kind of an asshole in the beginning. What editing tools did you use to shape his characters so we didn’t completely disregard him?
Cross: It’s very challenging when you’re telling a story about a protagonist who is either ignorant or racist. It’s challenging to do and have the audience maintain interest. Scott always knew that he wanted to tell the story that touched on the racial and cultural divides that are happening in the world right now. With that in mind, he wanted to tell the story through Capt. Blocker. What that meant was that we needed to not make his ignorance okay or show it in a way where you understood his viewpoint a little bit.
NFS: So how did that idea translate to screen?
Cross: We made a conscious decision to hold certain shots of Chief Yellow Hawk and his family. We had to be careful about calibrating how you see them. We wanted to present those characters through the eyes of Capt. Blocker and Rosalie first and then build from there.
A close up is a great tool for filmmakers to allow the audience to invest in characters and to sympathize with them. We knew the best way to tee up Capt. Blocker and Rosalie’s journey was to enhance their ignorance or their lack of information in the beginning. So for the characters, it means ignorance, but for the audience, it means information.
"We had amazing performances in this film that allowed us to lean heavily on their faces for emotional value."
When we do introduce Chief Yellow Hawk, you see him through a quick newspaper illustration and the war stories that Capt. Blocker tells. We purposely held back on them and as the journey progresses and the characters start to go to different places emotionally, we start to have Chief Yellow Hawk and his family emerge more and more until there are a few key points in the story where we are completely with them and shift viewpoints.
NFS: The strategy worked well for the story.
Cross: Thanks. Scott felt like if we had shown those characters equally in the beginning, it would have been much harder for audiences to want to watch Capt. Blocker with all of his ignorance. It would have been so obvious that Chief Yellow Hawk and his family were not the characters necessarily Capt. Blocker thought they were. In that way, the audience would have been too far ahead of the story. It would have been a disservice to all the characters.
NFS: The violence is different from traditional action films—not to say Hostiles is an action movie—but the violence is quick and over fast. Was that the intention?
Cross: Scott knew it would be a slow burn story—that’s how he envisioned it. But he also wanted it to be a film full of violence. He wanted to create this almost meditative pace through the use of long dissolves, but then punctuate it with these very fast, savage, violent scenes. Being a fan of westerns, Scott wanted to present it more psychologically instead of confrontational, so the violent scenes had to be more brutal as opposed to swashbuckling action. By the end, Scott hoped we’d all realize that this is a world where everyone shares in the violence but also everyone shares in the grief.
NFS: The film opens with a violent scene where we meet Rosalie and her family. A small Easter egg in the story is that Cooper’s two daughters play Rosalie’s children, who end up dying. Did that add any burden to cutting the scene?
Cross: For Scott, it was really hard for him, but his daughters really wanted to do it. They were both in his film Black Mass and they had a lot of fun in this film. As an editor who has kids of his own, it was one of the harder scenes to work with because we had to look at it over and over again because of the visual effects in the scene. But the scene itself goes back to Scott’s approach to violence. He felt like it would be the most effective if this happened in way you least expect. The children are taken out in the background and we didn’t want to play up any sort of extra notes emotionally. It’s fast and savage and there’s no time to dwell on what really happened which is true for the characters. There’s no time to think about it. They had to just run.
NFS: How did you want to draw audiences into the story and characters?
Cross: Scott was careful about not leaning too heavily on tropes from western films nor did he want to feel the clichés of the western drama. One way we tried to do this was to focus on the characters during violent scenes. In the opening raid, we hold on Rosalie’s face, or in the scene with Chief Yellow Hawk and Capt. Blocker when they go to kill the fur trappers, we hold and see the emotion on their faces, but then, we don’t see what happens inside the tent where the fur trappers are sleeping. We had amazing performances in this film that allowed us to lean heavily on their faces for emotional value. It’s something we were very lucky to do because you’re not always able to do that.
"We knew that we would have to be careful about playing certain notes too hard and have it turn into something sentimental or too overt."
NFS: The cinematography stands out for its scope and scale but it seemed to tie in metaphorically as well. Was that the case?
Cross: Yes. What’s great about working with Scott is that he’s a great communicator and gives you all the information you need to do your job. By showing off the landscape and lingering on those vistas, Scott’s hope was to not only show the great geographical distance these characters were traveling, but it would also suggest the distance that they travel in terms of their understanding and their empathy. In that way, his strategy was to have the landscapes play into the physiological angle he was going for.
NFS: The score is perfectly balanced. Not overpowering or trying to drive the emotion. What was theme behind it in the edit?
Cross: There’s a lot of dark, emotional stuff that happens in the film. A lot of lives are lost and a lot of loved ones die. We knew that we would have to be careful about playing certain notes too hard and have it turn into something sentimental or too overt.
NFS: That tends to happen in some films. It’s like someone says, “Hey, we have this amazing composer, let’s write in wall to wall music.” It can be too on-the-nose at times. How did the team hold it back for Hostiles?
Cross: We worked closely with our music editor Katrina Schiller who did an amazing job collaborating with our composer Max Richter to find the right amount of music. Max’s score is so powerful that it can easily take over everything you put it up against. We had to be very careful and we wanted to find the balance between the score and the sound design which is very subtle but very important to put you into this time and place. Paul Urmson [re-recording mixer] and the rest of the post sound guys did a great job filling out what needed to be done.
NFS: The final sequence was a magnificent testament of suspenseful anticipation. What were the buildings blocks behind it?
Cross: That whole scene turned into a purely visual and musical experience. In a way, we saved the biggest piece of score for this very moment. In the edit, we kept the scene on Rosalie and held the look of her and Little Bear [Xavier Horsechief]. There’s this uncertainty brewing. It was something Scott wanted to make very clear so we held on them and pulled the rubber band a little until it had to snap back.
NFS: It also played well in shaping Capt. Block’s story arc. What themes played into that sequence?
Cross: Two things come to mind. One being that after putting the audience through this dark journey, we had a certain responsibility to show that there was a change in this character, this world. Along those same lines, Scott wanted an ending that would ultimately have a message of inclusion in it. The idea of Capt. Blocker, who starts the film one way, has changed in a way that he’s not going to allow himself to be left in the dark ages. Scott was hoping that it would resonate symbolically and emotionally with the audience.
Hostiles expands into wide release in theatres across the U.S. today, Fri. Jan. 26.