Some of the most lasting and productive partnerships in filmmaking are between an editor and a director. Trusted collaborators, together a film’s editor and director shape and refine the film in post-production. Such long-standing partnerships include those of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, and Quentin Tarantino and Sally Menke.
Academy award-winning editor Joel Cox (Unforgiven) has forged one such relationship with director Clint Eastwood, whom he has worked with for the past 37 years. Since 1976, Cox has worked on every movie that Eastwood has directed including such modern classics as ‘Mystic River,’ ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ and ‘Gran Torino.’
Having shared his expertise at the John Ford Film Symposium last weekend (June 7-10), he talks to IFTN about his working relationship with Eastwood and the nuances of his craft.
You first worked with Clint Eastwood in 1976 and have edited all his movies since. Why in your opinion has the relationship endured over 37 years?
Well, we started out on ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’. I was an assistant editor. He didn’t know me and I only met him for the first time after the shoot. He’s a very astute person of watching people work because he can tell if you’re bullshitting or if you know what you’re doing, and he watched what I did. At the end of that film Ferris (Webster – editor) got sick and I actually did the last edit of the film. Clint saw something that he had never seen before all because I was a product of the studio system. I had worked from the mail room up, so I learned all aspects of how to make a film in post production. Sound effect editing, music editing, looping, foley – I learned it all so I knew that when I got my opportunity that I’d be prepared and ready, and I was ready.
So in that movie, ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’, there’s this scene where they’re out by the coral and the people are singing and dancing. Clint wanted to cut the song down and I said ‘fine I can do that. I just need a few minutes.’ So he said fine and went out to his office. So I listened to the song and made the cut. Then he came back and I showed it to him and he says ‘where’s the cut?’ So I showed it to him, what we took out, and he was like ‘how did you do that?’ I said. Well I listened to the song and made a correct cut in the song so that the sound [where he cut back in] would sound like that lyric [where he cut out from], and that section that we took out wouldn’t even be missed. He said: ‘You can do that? With Ferris he’d make a cut and we’d have this bad music cut for a couple of months while we’re waiting to get to the dubbing stage’. I said, no that’s easy to do and I can do it.
So at the end of the film he took me aside and said ‘I don’t know what your plans are but my plans are to have you on my team from hereon out’. So, on the next film, he gave me a co-editing credit and I just worked my way through. He saw me do things that he hadn’t seen Ferris do and that’s because Ferris didn’t come up through the system. So he never learned all the things that I had. I knew how to fix things as we’re going. Every now and again, Ferris would tell me that I’m too technical. But I’d just tell him that part of the artistic process is technical. So my relationship with Clint just grew and grew and film by film and here I am 37 years later.
When you go to cut a movie do you have a couple of cuts in mind or is it gut instinct and one-cut?
It’s pure instinct. He told he to go on that. He said he directs by first instinct and that he wanted me to go on that, that he wanted me to edit on first instinct. He said: ‘Don’t second guess yourself. Don’t go home at night thinking about something and come in the next day and change it. Let’s just see what your first instinct is like.’ He told me: ‘Most of the time your first instinct is better than anything else you’ll ever do. All you’ll ever do after that is mess the film up.’ So I went with that advice. It was easy to do that because I had so much background behind me. I’d already edited two films in the interim time, before I came to work for him, so I’d already done editing by myself. I was confident and I was experienced enough that I felt secure. So I just moved with Clint and never stopped.
How early in the production process do you get involved?
Well I work for him full-time so when he gets a script that he’s going to do he’ll send it over to me and say, ‘we’re going to do this next’. He doesn’t say when. He just tells me to read it and let him know what I think. So I’m there all the time in the process, right from the off.
Is it true that when Clint is away on a shoot you’ll ring him every night to talk through what’s been shot that day?
Not as much as we used too. Now we’ll talk two or three times a week when he’s shooting. He’s very confident in who he is and he’s confident in me as well. He knows that if there’s a problem, I’ll call him. If I don’t call him, there’s no problem. The idea is don’t look back and don’t think about it.
So what sort of things would you talk about?
Well we’d talk through the dailies mainly. He’d ask me what I’ve seen and I’d go through each scene that I’ve edited and tell him if it’s going well. I know he’s busy so I don’t try to bend his ear with things too much. Being with him so long, I know when to ask him something and when not. I know when I’ve got his attention and when I don’t. I’ve seen people talking to him and his mind is somewhere else. He’s so busy, he’s not listening and then he won’t remember their conversation about if something is to happen or not. Those kind of things. So I know when to ask him certain questions that are pertinent and need a response.
In your Editing Masterclass as part of the John Ford Ireland Symposium, you showed a particularly emotional scene from ‘Mystic River’ and noted how you got into the character’s headspace to edit the scene. Is that something that you regularly do when editing?
Absolutely. I get into all my characters like that. When we were doing ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ there was this dance scene. I had to edit real slow to get the movements just right. So - because I took dancing as a kid - I would hit the editing machine to let it run and get up and dance out the moves to make sure that every step was in perfect tempo and timing. I wanted it to be perfect.
I imagine there was a similar process to editing Clint’s two sports movies over the past decade – boxing in ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and rugby in ‘Invictus’?
They are completely different but they are still musical in every way. There’s rhythm to every film so you have to find the rhythm that works for that film. Each film has its own identity and its own path, so you just finally get into a flow. I would have read the script but the editing is all new so you just start at one edit; one step; one cut at a time and you just start to create the film.
I come from the old school so I know how to edit like [I'm editing] in film. For me that’s the only way to edit a film. I can’t imagine doing elimination and trying to figure out what is the best take or the best bit. That’s trial and error editing, that’s not editing. You’re lucky if you get it together right with the director. That’s why most films with the new young guys, they’re in the post editing and they spend 10 or 12 weeks re-editing the film because he’s just assembling.
My edit, when I move past a scene, if he (Clint) walks into the room he knows that I’m ready. I have no qualms about showing him what I’ve done. A lot of people are very nervous about that because they don’t have the experience and they don’t have my background. In my Masterclass I talked about how some editors just stack lines up in the editing software. That’s just guessing what works best. You’re not creating a scene. You’re gluing things together that you hope work. So they’ll go through the whole thing and fix the little mismatches; angle the angles and make sure the movement is right, but that’s not editing. That’s a game to see what fits.
Working so long with Clint, have you ever over-stepped that editor-director relationship?
I keep it really professional. I know that he is the boss. My job is to make his film the best that I can make his film. He allows me to speak up and say what I think, and then he goes ‘yay or nay’ and we move on. I don’t sit there and barter with him about it because it’s his film. I’m just working for him. If he wants it this way, that’s it. I will show him the way I think it should be and then he’ll do things and allow me to change things. If I’m sure something is off just a little bit, I will fix it right there and then and let him see it. Then I’ll go back and touch it up a little so that I know it’s [as] smooth as it should be. He doesn’t care so much about that, he just wants to see the scene work.
Finally, Joel what’s your advice to someone looking to get into film or television editing?
I would go to work for a post house. Here’s the question: How much are you willing to give to get? Are you willing to work for three months for nothing to show them your capabilities? It’s on you to perform. Give them a good year of work. Be diligent. Don’t ever take anything for granted. Then find an older editor and get in his pocket. Even if you have to drop back to being an apprentice, do it. Learn from him and stay with him. Every time that he works, be there. Just support the guy and you’d be amazed at how the door opens. Doors open to guys who work for it. The people who bullshit their way in to the job, they get caught out because they can’t perform. You can’t hide this. You can either edit, or you can’t. You gain that by knowledge of watching and learning from an accomplished editor at work.
Joel Cox has recently completed editing on Clint Eastwood’s latest movie ‘Trouble With The Curve,’ which will be released in Ireland in September.
More on the John Ford Ireland Film Symposium and to register for information about next year’s event go to www.johnfordireland.org