Clint Eastwood's 'J. Edgar'
Issue: December 1, 2011

Clint Eastwood's 'J. Edgar'

LOS ANGELES — The Clint Eastwood-directed J. Edgar, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the enigmatic lawman who started the Federal Bureau of Investigation, jumps back and forth in time — from a fresh-faced young Hoover up to the older man recording his memoirs. 

When tackling this type of storytelling, as well as a very dialogue-driven film like this one, a director needs to put his trust in his editor. Eastwood had that peace of mind thanks to long-time collaborators Joel Cox and Gary Roach. Cox first started working with Eastwood back in 1975 and then joined him full time in 1984; Roach started with Cox on Absolute Power in 1997.

Cox and Roach (pictured, left to right) used Avid Media Composer Nitris DX for the edit, working in 23.976 (1920x1080); their media was loaded at DNX 36. “Clint loves how we are able to output the show at the end to an HDSR tape and have it look as good as it does right out of the Avid,” explains Roach. “There was a lot of dialogue so we didn’t have to use many tools other than an occasional SpectraMatte, Resize, or Picture in Picture; we also used 3D Warp and the Stabilizing tool in a few scenes, and the color effect when we had to put something on a television monitor and make it black and white.”

Cox used an Avid system for the first time when he cut the James Keach-helmed Stars Fell on Henrietta in 1995. His second film with the system was Eastwood’s Bridges of Madison County that same year. “There was a lot of music that Clint gave me before we even started — he knew certain songs were going to play with certain scenes — but there where a lot of dissolves and I was able to cut it musically and make it work,” he says.

Cox gets involved on Eastwood’s films as early as possible. “Clint likes me to read the scripts beforehand. For instance, we have a script we are going to do in March called Trouble With the Curve, and I’ve already read that.” 

The veteran editor is also called on to help in the casting process. “Our casting director Fiona Weir records the actors and we put them into the Media Composer” for Eastwood and others to look at. “Sometimes I’ll take two actors playing a scene and intercut them to see how they play against each other.”

Cox took the time to chat with Post just as J. Edgar was hitting theaters.

POST: Can you walk us through the workflow on J. Edgar?
JOEL COX: “We would get a drive — the dailies are right off the negative now — and ingest it into the Avid. Then I would take a scene and Gary would take one.”

POST: How do you decide who gets what? 
COX: “Gary started out as an apprentice with me, became an assistant and is now co-editor. Am I faster? Of course. So do I take some of the harder scenes? Sometimes. But sometimes I like him to do them as well because it gives him the experience. Every scene is different, and people don’t realize when you are editing a film you aren’t editing scene one, page one. A film is shot randomly and you have to have the ability to understand the story and edit that particular scene and what it’s trying to say in relationship to the entire story. That is experience you gain over a lot of years as an editor.”

POST: How do you and he start on scenes?
COX: “When Gary gets ready to edit a scene, he reads the scene and then looks at the material. I’ve taught him this in respect to editing. We run the dailies and when you are ready to go, you run it and make a two-line note of what took place in that angle, then you do the next one and the next one. You might have 10, 12 different shots or you might have 20, but you run them all. If there are two or three takes and one is better I underline it.” 

POST: Gary is now a co-editor?
COX: “On the very first film I worked on with Clint, The Outlaw Josie Wales, Ferris Webster was the editor, and at the end of the film Ferris got sick, so I did most of the final editing on that film. I was a younger guy and of a different generation, just like Gary is a different generation than me. Gary has learned from me, and he’s learned the Media Composer very well. He knows all the technical parts and he has been great working behind me, so Clint and I decided to move him up and make him co-editor of the films. It has changed my life, because I used to work 17 weeks, every day. Now we work 9-6, five days a week and we are waiting for film.”

POST: Do you and Clint have an unspoken language at this point?
COX: “When Clint gave me the reigns when Ferris retired in 1984, he said he lived by his first instinct and wanted me to edit by my first instinct. He’d say, ‘I don’t want to tell you what to do, I want you to put it together and see what you see in it.’ That is the type of relationship we’ve had all this time. Now as we start a film, Gary and I cut the scenes and if Clint’s in town, he will come in and give us some suggestions. When he’s on the road, he likes me to see the film right out of the lab and we talk about it rather than waiting for days for it to go through process and be shipped to location. 

“J. Edgar was shot in town, except the last week was done in Washington. When they were shooting on set he’d be here everyday and look at what we cut the day before. We were really right on top of the camera. When he finished shooting, Clint went home to Carmel, and we packed up the Media Composer and went as well to make his changes. We added some music and then returned to the studio to watch the film in a theatre. Then we started massaging and molding the final feeling of the film, adding more music at the same time. The music is sparse; Clint believes music should be a supporter of the film, not a character in the film.”

POST: Can you talk about going back and forth in time?
COX: “Leo’s make-up changed and you had narration that took you in and out of timeframes. A challenge was making sure the make-up was right, and the transitions are also hugely important when you are doing time change. You want it to flow. So the important part is the transition. 

“I thought they were uniquely done several times on this film. Where you are going down the elevator at one age and coming out a younger age, and when he was watching the presidential parade on the porch and he steps back in and it goes from 1936 to 1973. Those were assigned in the script but you still have to find the right place to make it work. Our films are very emotional and much more about timing and moments than action films. Here you are holding the emotions of the viewer and trying to take them along with the emotion of the characters. That is probably the hardest part, getting the right feel and right timing to a scene.”

POST: Is there one scene that was particularly challenging?
COX: “The one where Hoover and Clyde Tolson are in an apartment after the races. They start talking about their feelings and Hoover starts telling Tolson he’s thinking about getting a Mrs. Hoover. There is an explosion and a fight and kiss. That was like four films in itself. That is one of the few scenes that Gary and I split up. Gary took the first half and I took the second. We did that on several scenes.”

POST: Knowing each other so well, has to help in the process, right?
COX: “The relationship between a director and editor is probably the closest relationship on a film, not to take anything away from anyone else, but you are there the whole shoot and then you spend months in an editing room, day after day, with the director. Our personalities work great together and we’ve had a lot of fun together. I probably have the greatest editing job in the field. Since 1984, I’ve worked with him every day.”

(PHOTO CREDIT - Cox and Roach picture by Wm. Stetz, courtesy of Editors Guild Magazine)