For some odd reason, when editor Tom McArdle met director, Tom McCarthy in 2002, McCarthy couldn’t get the editor’s name right and kept calling him “Tim.” Despite the fact that their names sound nearly identical and they share the same middle name: Joseph, McCarthy’s head was in the clouds. No matter. The two Toms have forged a strong working relationship since the film the Station Agent and the profoundly compelling Spotlight is their fifth collaboration. “We’ve developed a style, for better or for worse,” said McArdle. “Our past films were somewhat intimate, often focusing on unlikely relationships. With Spotlight, the story centers on a big investigation. So, we used the same style, but we couldn’t dwell as much on personal or private moments as in the past films.” Some of their other work includes The Visitor (2007), Win Win (2011) and The Cobbler (2014).
McArdle first became interested in editing in college while he was taking film courses. One of his professors had mentioned that editing was the final rewrite of a movie, and it was this idea that intrigued him. Specifically, “the way you can shift the flow of a piece or change the feel of a scene through the sound design and score,” just seemed to peak his interest. He also preferred working with filmed footage, and putting the puzzle together, rather than waiting with people on the set, day and night. “I could work in the edit room all day and time would just fly by.”
Like most directors, McArdle revealed that McCarthy likes to be involved in his process as much as possible. “I did the rough cut on my own for 10 weeks,” said McArdle. After that, he and the director would work together or McCarthy would give him time alone. McArdle would also regularly do experimental or alternate versions of scenes on his own. “Tom McCarthy is interested in new ideas and he is very creative.” Overall, “Editing lasted eight months. As most editors will tell you, it starts to get hard to keep looking at the same movie over and over again. How do you stay objective? For me, the trick is to have a lot of small screenings where I sit behind the audience and judge their reactions, as well as my own gut feelings.” Screenings will stress you out, but that heightened sensitivity will reinforce what’s good or bad.
After these screenings, and armed with the viewers feedback, they were able to make important changes. At one point, they “added a scene between Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) in the vestibule of Mike’s apartment building because people had some questions about Slattery’s character. At another point, we changed some of Rezendes’ off camera phone dialogue with Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) so people could understand why the documents were so important.” Perhaps the most difficult cuts of all were scenes that fleshed out the main characters’ personal lives, which McArdle and McCarthy both begrudgingly realized detracted from the urgency of the story’s strongest element: the investigation into the Catholic priesthood’s child abuse scandal.
Spotlight has been garnering many awards this season and McArdle himself just received a Spirit Award nomination for his work on the film. Spotlight is the only Robert Altman winner to have earned an editing nomination.