“I’m like the poster child for guys like me,” film editor Michael McCusker laughs into his cell phone while negotiating traffic on an LA freeway. By “guys like me,” he means “people just looking for their shot,” or more specifically, talented assistant editors, or second assistants looking to get the call to cut their first feature.But he also means not just a “break,” but an “amazing journey”—which is to say, two nominations this award season for his work on Walk the Line; one for an “Eddie” from his editor peers at ACE, and the other for an Oscar.Indeed, McCusker knew that kind of lightning had struck with David Brenner, who he’d been assisting since Independence Day. Brenner took home an Academy statuette for his Born on the Fourth of July, only his second outing as “head cutter.”“That’s like winning the lottery,” McCusker told himself. But he might’ve sensed he was in for a stretch of high-roller luck when he was prepping a pitch to Walk the Line director James Mangold—and his producer wife Cathy Konrad—about why he should be given the editing gig. “I was trying to cook up a way to pitch myself to Jim. Just as I was trying to devise a strategy, he called me!”But perhaps the surprise wasn’t fully warranted: Mangold had seen McCusker work as a first assistant, and later associate, editor with Brenner on Mangold’s earlier films Identity and Kate and Leopold.Brenner only bowed out of contention for Walk the Line’s scene-connecting chores because he’d been working nonstop for six years and he wanted some time to write. That’s when the fateful call came, and next, McCusker found himself at Mangold and Konrad’s house, being offered the job. “At one point I said, ‘why me?’”Not that he didn’t want it, but he knew this was the kind of high-caliber project that could attract any editor in town. “’You know what?’,” they told him, “We’re comfortable with your working habits, and we know how to communicate with you.’”“They’re very confident filmmakers,” McCusker adds.And so he was off, cutting. Of Walk the Line, McCusker says “the biggest challenge was the music.” They “hadn’t done a full instrumental track” when he cut the celebrated opening sequence set in a replicated Folsom Prison where the footstomps of prisoners serve as a way for the film to “Get Rhythm”—literally and figuratively—as it moves into the story of Johnny Cash, the Man in Black.“I didn’t create the music, (but) that musical cut pretty much survived intact.” McCusker allows a certain pride in the sequence, and though he laughs again that “it’s all downhill from here” after being so suddenly ushered into the Oscar spotlight, it seems certain there will be much down the line for him to stay proud about: He’s currently working on an HBO film for director Edward James Olmos, and Mangold has asked him to come on board “a pilot they’re doing for ABC” while the director sets up his next feature.
Written by Mark London Williams