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HomeCraftsPostproductionEditor interview: Joel Cox

Editor interview: Joel Cox


In an unprecedented dual film project shot back-to-back and released in sequence, Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood depicts the battle of Iwo Jima, a turning point in World War II and a resonate event in American and Japanese history. Troubled that making only one film, Flags of Our Fathers—which is centered around the iconic flag-raising during the American offensive to capture the island—would be telling only half the story, Eastwood followed with the equally compelling Letters from Iwo Jima, the untold story of the Japanese soldiers defending their homeland to the death against the invading American forces.Unlike typical war films that glorify the triumphs of one side, the two films work together to reveal the two sides of the war as a clash of cultures. These highly emotional depictions are based on the life stories of the opposing soldiers and the shared sacrifices each is called upon to make. Both films show how soldiers are used by their governments, and both succeed as a powerful indictment of the horrors of war, while laying the foundation for an understanding of the common ground between enemies.Joel Cox, Eastwood’s editor of 31 years, cut both films. Gary Roach served as Avid assistant on the first and stepped up to co-edit Letters. Cox believes that “a movie works because the audience gets involved with the characters. We see it through the characters’ eyes.” He is passionate about his work with Eastwood and attributes the success of their collaboration to the ease of communication between them. The editor adds that having a director who makes decisions is a huge asset, “Clint has a vision of his film. He doesn’t just shoot to shoot and hope to find the movie later.” Cox doesn’t believe that he has an editing style but rather that “each film has its own style, its own identity. Each sequence is different.” He believes filmmakers must be careful not to tell the audience something before the characters know it. Because the mystery keeps the audience engaged, it is important that the “story unfolds as the audience sees it.”Known for his decisive shooting style despite difficult conditions, Eastwood always comes in on schedule and under budget. The director is performance-driven. Although there are numerous setups, he shoots a limited number of takes. “His feeling, because he is an actor first, is that there’s a magic moment in a performance,” says Cox. “He’s not bothered by a mistake on a take, because that’s real. That’s the fresh approach to acting. After five or six takes, the actors start acting.” Although Cox never goes on location, he communicates with Eastwood every night. He edits on Avid and eschews digital dailies in favor of print dailies.In the editing process the director is as decisive as he is in production. “Everything that he shoots, I make work, then we cut down an assembly of the entire film,” says Cox. “He doesn’t cut the film ten different ways. He goes with his first instinct.” Eastwood encourages Cox to do the same. They work very fast. Cox completes an assembly in a week to ten days after production wraps. He then works with Eastwood for two to three weeks on the film’s structure. The director never needs the ten weeks normally allotted for a director’s cut. Within four to six weeks the film is done. Flags is only the second film that Cox and Eastwood have done that is heavy on visual effects, Space Cowboys being the first. Visual effects are spread throughout the film, not only in the war footage, but also in sequences such as the New York scenes and Chicago’s Soldiers’ Field. This posed a unique challenge because Cox had to edit sequences that contained the actors with nothing in the background, having to visualize what would be in the shots. Although film had been storyboarded by the visual effects team in preproduction, Cox explains that they did not just rely on the preconceived shots. They edited sequences together then brought in the effects team “to wrap it up.” The original bid was for 250 VFX shots, but ultimately the film contained 460. In production, the visual effects crew shot elements that Cox used during post as needed, cutting the film the way they wanted the film cut. “Clint never let the effects drive the film,” shares Cox. “The editing drives the film.” When Cox finished a sequence, Eastwood would make his changes and then it would be handed over to visual effects supervisor Michael Owens, who assured Cox that they could handle whatever they were given. Often the final version of a sequence was very different from what had been envisioned by the VFX team in production, but they always made it work.Because Eastwood tends to work with the same crew, there is almost telepathy between the picture and sound editing departments. Sound designer Alan Murray supplies effects for Cox to add to the picture as the edit is shaped. The real-life still shots were added to Flags after the editing was complete. Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern originally used the archival photographs as an authentic reference for recreating moments, framing the film like the actual events. When Cox’s wife suggested using them for the end credits, his assistant gathered 250-500 photos from various sources. Cox put them together and showed them to Eastwood, who agreed “to play homage to the soldiers.” In total, 89 were used in the final sequence. The photographs serve as a poignant reminder that the film is about real events.The experience of editing the two films was an emotional one for Cox, who feels the heart of a film is in the strong emotions evoked. “War is not good. It has been going on forever, so you’d think that we’d learn. These films show what happens in real life. In war there are both sides. We cannot let Vietnam happen again.”Flags garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director of a Motion Picture, ten Satellite Award nominations for Eastwood and his crew and is on the National Board of Review’s Ten Best List. Letters won Best Picture honors at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, was chosen as Best Picture by the National Board of Review, the San Diego Film Critics and Time Magazine, has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards—Best Director of a Motion Picture and Best Foreign Language Film—and is on the AFI’s Ten Best List.

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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