Oscars: How 'Moonlight,' 'Hell or High Water' Film Editors Made Critical Decisions That Could Make or Break the Movie

Moving a mother-son showdown in 'Moonlight' and extending the moment in 'Hell or High Water' are just a few of the film editor's approaches to get the Oscar contenders just right.
Courtesy of A24; CBS Films
'Moonlight' and 'Hell or High Water'

In the hands of master film editors, like this year's Oscar nominees, time itself is malleable.

Consider the approach of Tom Cross. In assembling Damien Chazelle's La La Land, he decided to start work by cutting together the film's epilogue in which Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) re-encounter each other five years after their breakup. "It's a microcosm of the entire film — a mini, condensed, high-velocity version," explains Cross. "We wanted to start off with certain patterns so that later we could go back to the patterns [like the alternative version of the couple's first meeting in the bar] and have them turn out differently — bringing you back to the emotional state you felt during the movie. It took a long time to refine it and get the right balance."

On Denis Villeneuve's time-traveling Arrival, Joe Walker points to a critical scene in which, as scripted, Amy Adams' Louise Banks experiences a flash-forward to an event where she meets Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma), who tells her what she must do to reduce world tensions. "She then runs back to the base and does what she was told," recounts Walker. But it was only in postproduction that it was decided to cross-cut between the two scenes so as to build tension and give the moment greater impact.

When discussing Hacksaw Ridge, editor John Gilbert points to one particular moment in time as the scene that gave him the most satisfaction. Amid the battle for Okinawa, Andrew Garfield's Army medic Desmond Doss must make the fateful decision to stay and help the injured rather than retreat with the rest of his company. "It was such a pivotal moment in the movie," says Gilbert. "We see troops retreating and diving over the cliff. It's clear he should go, and deciding to stay seemed to mean death. He looks at the cliff and back at the battle." The challenge for the editor: "I had to get the timing so that the decision was clear. The timing of the music, sound — we spend a lot of time making that just right."

For Hell or High Water, editor Jake Roberts built suspense — and slowed down time — in a climactic scene between Jeff Bridges' lawman Marcus Hamilton and Chris Pine's bank robber Toby Howard. Their face-off is a slow, tense final conversation on Howard's porch. The edit was about building tension through pacing and pauses — and without music. "We gave the scene 'tension music' through sounds of the real world — cicadas, a squeaky windmill," says Roberts. "One of the trickiest things to navigate was at the end of the scene: an accusation and Toby's response. If Toby gave away too much, he would incriminate himself. We started with too much of a response, then too little." With careful editing, he says, he got the balance right.

On Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon made the decision to move the placement of Chiron's (Trevante Rhodes) reconciliation with his mother (Naomie Harris), who has entered rehab. "It was too early in act three [which begins by jumping from Chiron's teenage years] to have this emotional scene. We lobbied to move it further back," says Sanders. Adds McMillon: "This woman was so harsh, so it had to feel very truthful and play out so that Chiron —and the audience — accept her apology."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.