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INTERVIEW: Academy Award®-Winning Film Editor Tom Cross Discusses First Man

Susan Kouguell speaks with Academy Award®-Winning film editor Tom Cross about the challenges of editing First Man, working with directors, and the experience of winning an Oscar.

Susan Kouguell speaks with Academy Award®-Winning film editor Tom Cross about the challenges of editing First Man, working with directors, and the experience of winning an Oscar.

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 Tom Cross (Photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

Tom Cross (Photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

Academy Award®-winning film editor for his work on Whiplash, Tom Cross received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in visual arts from SUNY Purchase, and that is where we began our bi-coastal phone interview. As a fellow Purchase graduate (and current screenwriting professor), we shared stories of our respective time there and our influential film professors. Cross’s passion for filmmaking and editing is undeniable, and our discussion ran the gamut from his collaborations with director Damien Chazelle to detailing aspects of the Oscar nominated film First Man.

Tom Cross began working on commercials in New York City before transitioning to independent films. He edited Michel Negroponte’s sci-fi documentary W.I.S.O.R. and then was an additional editor on James Gray’s We Own the Night< and Two Lovers. For director Travis Fine, he edited The Space Between and Any Day Now. He subsequently worked with Damien Chazelle on the short film version of Whiplash. Later, they worked together on the feature film version of Whiplash, which won the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize. In addition to the Best Editing Oscar®, Cross also won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award and a Film Independent Spirit Award for his work on the film. As a co-editor, Cross was nominated for an ACE Eddie Award for his work on David O. Russell’s Joy. He was nominated for an Academy Award® for his editing on Chazelle’s La La Land, and won the Critics’ Choice Award and ACE Eddie Award for Best Editing. Recently, Cross edited the Western Hostiles for director Scott Cooper. After that, he returned to the musical genre, collaborating with director Michael Gracey on The Greatest Showman for 20th Century Fox.

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Directed by Academy Award ®-winning director Damien Chazelle, First Man is the riveting story behind the first manned mission to the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the decade leading to the historic Apollo 11 flight. A visceral and intimate account told from Armstrong’s perspective, based on the book by James R. Hansen, the film explores the triumphs and the cost—on Armstrong, his family, his colleagues and the nation itself—of one of the most dangerous missions in history.


KOUGUELL: Tell me about your collaboration with Damien Chazelle on First Man.

CROSS: While we were working on La La Land, Damien had told me about First Man and that it was going to be such a dense story with a lot of biographical and technical research to be done, and that he wasn’t able to write it himself. He made the decision to work with another screenwriter, Spotlight Oscar winner Josh Singer. During the time when Josh and Damien worked on the script, and I was editing La La Land, I got to know Josh and that was great. Damien put a list of reference films that he was inspired by, and he shared it with key department heads.

In Whiplash, the biggest influence was Raging Bull, Damien wanted to reflect the boxing scenes; the film was edited by Thelma Schoonmaker.

In First Man, Damien said he wanted the space capsule scenes to be visceral and immersive like Saving Private Ryan, and I knew this was going to be a fun and challenging editing experience. I knew he’d shoot a lot of material, which he did. He wanted the earthbound scenes to be cinema verité, fly on the wall, and he wanted me to look at Frederick Wiseman’s films.

See Susan’s interview with Wiseman

A lot of Damien’s love of cinema verité came back for First Man. Damien really wanted to focus on the personal intimate moments of Neil Armstrong. We’ve all seen the footage of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, and it was important to balance the iconic moments with the family storyline. A lot of the family scenes were almost documentary-like, and many were improvised. Damien got Claire Foy, Ryan Gosling and the kids together, and shot two weeks of rehearsal with them in full makeup and hair, in fully dressed sets of the Armstrong house, and told them to play house. He followed them like a documentary; all this material we thought was probably going to be useful. It was all unscripted, improvised, and unrehearsed. We often cobbled together these little moments and that ended up replacing scripted home moments in the film.

With the scenes In the Gemini 8 capsule and Janet listening on the squawk box, Janet sitting on the bed with Rick Armstrong when he was upset, then chases him down the hall, all of that was from unscripted rehearsal footage. It felt more authentic and intimate. That was one of the most exciting things for me – to bolster the space missions with the personal and intimate – the balance between the moon and the kitchen, and as Damien said, ‘the mundane.’

It was both a wonderful experience of a lifetime to work on this topic with the style that Damien wanted to tell it in, with the verité – and daunting. It was the hardest film I ever worked on, with the amount of footage and type of footage was challenging.

The section that I think I was probably the most proudest of was the Gemini 8 mission; I loved it because that section had so many emotions and tones. It starts with that very first person subjective experiential of climbing into the capsule and getting buckled in, and plays around with sound, and I have to answer that with actors looking around. It plays cinematically and subjectively. We did the homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey – set to Hurwitz’s waltz music. We get to play with the beauty of the two crafts interacting in space, then it moves to the visceral, almost abstract of the capsule spinning. That was specular to work on, all the while intercut with verité footage with mission control, and the domestic scene of Janet listening on the squawk box.

KOUGUELL: How long was the editing process?

CROSS: I started on the film at the end of October, 2017 and I was done on September 6, 2018. It was a long process, working 12-20 hours a day, six sometimes seven days a week, but at the same time it felt like we didn’t have enough time. Editing was challenging, dealing with the verité footage, but it was fun. Damien shot two million feet – over 300 hours of film.

KOUGUELL: Did you work closely with the script?

CROSS: Yes. I always do. The first cut is often referred to as the editor’s cut, but I don’t think of it that way. It suggests that it’s my cut, but I think of it as a first cut or script cut. When I’m putting it together I’m following the script.

The script is really my bible. I piece things together based on the script and based on the script supervisor’s notes on what Damien likes as best I can. I’m also trying to execute what Damien and Josh Singer have in mind. Once shooting wraps and Damien comes to work with me, we look at what we have and try to make the movie based on the pieces we have.

We always go back to the script, like if we find ourselves in an editorial pickle we will go back to the script to remind us of our initial intention, which is what we want to retain.

 McFadden, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

McFadden, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

KOUGUELL: Whiplash was initially a short film that was then made into a feature film. You edited both films. Let’s talk about this experience and working with Chazelle for the first time.

CROSS: Damien was a competitive jazz drummer; he had a teacher who played mind games, but it wasn’t physical. The biggest thing for Damien, was that it felt like life and death, and that’s what he wanted to get across in the film. I remember reading his script and it felt so cinematic and subjective.

I saw Damien’s feature musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which had some elements of cinema verité musical before I met him on the Whiplash short and thought it was amazing.

Going from the Whiplash short film to the feature was an interesting experience. We ironed out a lot of stylistic things Damien wanted to try, and he was really happy where we got to in the short. When we did the feature, he said, ‘Match this exactly because we worked out a lot of things with the short film.’ The feature evolved and changed; he got rid of certain characters and dialogue, and I tried to cut it exactly like the short. It sounds naïve now, but we found it didn’t work, and we realized, even though we tried to match it, it didn’t have any soul or any rhythm. Once actors inhabit the roles, the footage has a life of its own, it becomes this living and breathing thing that’s different. It comes as no surprise that takes are different and that was very eye-opening. We had to cut the section in the feature different than the short; there were different performances and different actors.

MEET THE READER: Film Editing & Screenwriting – Cutting Remarks

KOUGUELL: How did the experience of winning the Oscar for Whiplash impact you?

CROSS: I always loved Hollywood history and just getting nominated was a dream come true. Winning it is still very surreal to me. I think the greatest thing about getting recognized in that way is that I get considered for wonderful projects, and a big part is that people know my work because of the award. As a movie lover, getting recognized for the work, all of a sudden I had an instant introduction with other film editors. I idolized Thelma Schoonmaker , Dede Allen, I grew up dreaming I would assist Gerry Greenberg,The French Connection. When I was lucky enough to win, other film editors instantly knew me and greeted me by name. I think about how lucky I was.

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