Tom McArdle and Indie Filmmaking

For Class #6

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
 Office: 310-821-2792 Phone: 323-472-1164

 E-Mail: nhollyn [at]

E-Mail: elizabethmoody [at]

Things I've Learned as a Moviemaker

by Tom McArdle

1) Have a lot of screenings.

Show the rough cut every week or two to a bunch of people who haven't read the script. Then listen to their feedback about what isn't working and what isn't clear. It may be painful to hear the critiques, but get over it. Then take all the info back to the edit room and figure out what to do.

2) Be flexible.

Things change. And change. And change. Roll with it.

3) Make sacrifices.

If you haven't edited a feature yet and you want to, you may have to cut your rate or edit in some far-off country in order to get a good opportunity.

4) Listen to that little voice.

Sometimes you get this tiny feeling, like the hint of a twinge of a feeling that something is off with a scene or a storyline. Listen to it. Mull it over. There may be some issue that wouldn't surface for months, if ever. Other people aren't going to tell you everything. The film is counting on you to search for the right answer.


Filmography for Tom McArdle

Bottleneck (2004) Loving Jezebel (1999) Star Maps (1997)
The Killing Zone (2003) QM, I Think I Call Her QM (1999) Sandman (1996)
The Station Agent (2003) A Hole in the Head (1998) Talk to Me (1996)
Lone Hero (2002) Nazis: The Occult Conspiracy (1998) The Keeper (1995)
Boys On the Run (2001) Paranoia (1998) Hand Gun (1994)
Whipped (2000) Hi-Life (1998) Laws of Gravity (1992)
Poor White Trash (2000) Twisted (1997)  

© Moviemaker Magazine, 2003

Confessions of an Indie Editor

The Station Agent's Tom McArdle discusses his career

by Jennifer M. Wood

Jennifer Wood (MM): What was the film that inspired you to become a film editor?

Tom McArdle (TA): The film that made me want to become a film editor was All That Jazz. I was 11 when it came out and I wasn't allowed to see R-rated films at the time. A friend and I snuck into the theater and later told our parents that we had seen The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh . Anyway, All That Jazz had a lot of scenes that take place in the cutting room (showing Roy Scheider as the Bob Fosse character and editor Alan Heim working on Lenny ). The cutting room seemed like a very interesting place. There were scenes that showed Fosse and Heim changing scenes and also the overall structure of the film-within-the-film. Also, the cutting style of All That Jazz itself seemed really unconventional. Some scenes cut out before you thought they would, and there were the quick-cut montages of the Fosse character popping pills and talking to himself in the mirror. And, of course, there were the very dynamic dance numbers shot from multiple angles. On top of all that, the glimpse into the lifestyle of an artistic person living in the big city seemed very exciting to a shy suburban youth.

MM: How did you first get into editing, and how did you land your first feature?

TA: I studied film (and English lit) at Dartmouth College. I always knew I wanted to edit. When I graduated, two Dartmouth alums I knew who worked in editing, Bill Johnson (who won an Emmy for editing The West Wing ) and John Gilroy (who cut Narc ) told me about this new independent film production company in New York City called The Shooting Gallery. I went down there and started working as a PA. The Shooting Gallery specialized in low-budget and no-budget filmmaking. A lot of people there had worked on Hal Hartley's films.

On my third day on the job, I was driving a cube rental truck and got cut off by a cab driver and crashed into some Con Ed equipment. I figured my career was over before it began. However, since this was the world of guerilla filmmaking, the production manager thought quickly and called the truck rental company and blamed the accident on the (supposedly) faulty truck. The company gave us the truck for free for the week and paid for the repairs. So I learned right away that things can turn around pretty quickly. After a few weeks at The Shooting Gallery, I started assistant editing. A couple months later I was editing short films. Then Nick Gomez asked me to cut his $38,000 documentary-styled Laws of Gravity , which was my first job as a feature editor. The success of that film allowed me to keep editing features on a regular basis.

MM: The film marks Tom McCarthy's feature debut, but you have a lot of experience working with first-time directors. What are the questions you generally ask of a director before deciding to work together? And what are the personality traits that attract you to a director, regardless of experience?

TA: Well, when I first meet a director, I try to get a sense of whether the person has a good amount of life experience and intelligence. I also look to see how they handle people. You know, if we meet at a restaurant, are they nice to the waiter? Then I also try to find out about the director's film sense--have they made short films or gone to film school? What kind of films do they like? Things like that.

MM: In deciding how to tackle a film editorially, what are the questions you ask (either of yourself or the director)--and want answered--before the process begins? Do you have ways to solidify the story and where you want to go with it before you start cutting?

TA: I ask about the films that the director feels have a similar style or tone to the film that we’re about to make. These influences can then be referred to throughout the process as touchstones. Sometimes in the edit, you are simply going for 'a feel,' and how do you describe 'a feel' properly? So having other films as tone or mood reference points helps. There can also be perfomance touchstones. On some jobs the editor and director may say to each other 'Let's make it more Steve McQueen' or 'more Daniel Auteuil' or whoever. Then you can shape a performance around an idea.

MM: Is there any one aspect of a film that clues you in best to the editing--the script, the acting, the cinematography, etc.?

TA: Well, you always start out trying to tell the story as written. However, as Francis Ford Coppola says on The Conversation DVD commentary, the script cut never quite works out as well as you might hope it will. Then, once you get past that whole issue, I think it usually works out that the acting drives the edit a lot more than anyone would want to admit. I think everyone, whether in the film business or not, is very sensitive to false acting moments. To me a false acting moment is like someone playing a trumpet and hitting the wrong note. You just cringe, and the film loses credibility. So in the edit, you do whatever you can to keep things feeling real all the time.

MM: The Station Agent is very much a "character" piece. Not just in the sense that it's about people rather than action, but in that it's about three clearly-defined characters, the likes of whom we don't often see on the big screen. What does it help you to know about the characters, in particular, in deciding how to edit a film?

TA: It's good to know some backstory, if you can. The film I am editing right now, Killer Diller , is based on a novel by Clyde Edgerton and, in preparation, besides reading the script a number of times, I read the book a couple times so I could know what the characters were thinking at any given moment. Then, if I know what they’re thinking, I can choose reaction shots to reflect that, even though it might not be in the script. Books have the space to describe thoughts, scripts usually do not.

MM: Do you like to choose a different editing style for each of the characters, to help define them better on screen?

TA: In general, I do not try to establish an editing style for individual characters. However, in The Station Agent, I think Fin may have ended up getting his own editing style in some scenes simply because of his reluctance to connect with others and his deadpan expressions. Sometimes, cutting at a certain moment to his emotionless face just staring at people could only make you laugh.

© Moviemaker Magazine, 2003

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Last Modified - September 30, 2008