Art of the Cut: Building the New Western in “The Harder They Fall”

Today, we’re speaking with Tom Eagles, ACE, editor of The Harder They Fall, a stylish modern Western led by Jonathan Majors, Regina King, and Idris Elba, which debuts on Netflix in early November.

Tom is perhaps best known for his work on eccentric, character-driven features like Jojo Rabbit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and What We Do in the Shadows, and is equally comfortable in TV episodics, with Spartacus, Ash vs. The Evil Dead, and the darkly funny Creamerie in his filmography.

Listen while you read…

HULLFISH: The visual grammar of the film felt very Western. Can you talk about how you either tried to exploit that or amp it up?

EAGLES: I agree with that 100 percent. I always struggle a little bit with research. I don’t know how useful it is for an editor sometimes to get deep into research, but I did watch a lot of Westerns, both newer and classic.

I think for this movie, starting from the color Westerns and the big sky Westerns were influential, and definitely the new Westerns and the Italian Spaghetti Westerns. I guess I just absorbed that over a period of time leading up to cutting the film. Finding those Leone-style super close-ups made sense to me; I was familiar with the grammar. The pacing was something we took from those older Westerns, learning to be patient when building tension. Having to hold off and counter the expectations of a lot of contemporary cinemagoers who wanted things to be fast. It needs a little time to gestate.

HULLFISH: You definitely did that, and one of the places I noticed that gunslinger energy the most was the first time Stagecoach Mary sees Nat, and there are these close-ups on the eyes, and you really feel the tension.

EAGLES: Those are interesting because they are a little bit influenced by Covid issues as well. We couldn’t pack that bar out the way that Jeymes wanted to, initially. Although we did later go back and populate some wide shots and put some people into them in that first pass, they had to figure out a way to shoot it that didn’t reveal that the room was completely empty.

So I got the dailies, and there are all these fights, and I thought, first of all, all these close-ups on objects, like a beer glass going shattering, or cards going down on a table, they’re all wonderful punctuation points to the music. But then there are these beautiful, extreme close-ups on Nat and Mary’s eyes and lips. So I decided to play those later in the second half of the scene.

Once she spotted them, they have this whole exchange from across the room without speaking, and it’s almost more intimate than when they start making out in the next scene. It was an interesting thing to make a really intimate scene from across a crowded room.

That was one of the few times that we were challenged but ultimately blessed by what Covid threw at us.

HULLFISH: One of the other interesting pacing places was the scene with the train before it stops. That whole scene is such a classic Western tension-building scene and the pacing of all of that is fantastic. Can you talk about cutting that scene?

EAGLES: As soon as I got the dailies to that, I had a specific idea of how it was going to play. A lot of it had to do with sound, like when we cut to the train; it’s this huge mechanical beast making a lot of noise, and when we cut to Trudy, Regina King’s character, she’s completely still, and there’s a little bit of a train in the distant wind until they come into the frame. So I drove the assistants a little bit crazy trying to find all the right sounds to attempt that, but when we finally got it into our sound designer, Richard King’s hands, that was when it really started to sing. The train is hyperkinetic and she is very still—that was just a pleasure to cut.

I drove the assistants a little bit crazy trying to find all the right sounds.

HULLFISH: Was there any classic score in the film?

EAGLES: There is, and the remarkable thing about this film is that our director is also our composer, so there was a really unusual collaboration for me, and it was very exciting to be able to see that process from start to finish. He wrote a bunch of songs, and there are a couple of needle drops. The script was filled with all these reggae and dub needle drops initially, and there’s a great musicality to the dialogue as well.

(L-R) Jeymes Samuel directs LaKeith Stanfield, Idris Elba, and Regina King in The Harder They Fall. Image © Netflix
(L-R) Jeymes Samuel directs LaKeith Stanfield, Idris Elba, and Regina King in The Harder They Fall. Image © Netflix

With Jeymes, he doesn’t really distinguish between music, dialogue, and sound effects. It’s all just one big opera. It was a constant form of interplay and a constant dance between music and picture to try and find the right kind of symphony of all of those elements.

HULLFISH: Were all those music moments written in?

EAGLES: Sometimes they were written in, but often they didn’t exist yet. For example, that song in the bar that Mary sings, he wrote into the script The Old Spiritual Jim Crow Count, and I spent forever trying to find that song, but it turned out to be an original that he just hadn’t written yet. There’s a real swagger to it that I really loved and was a joy to work with.

HULLFISH: The Promised Land was one of those pieces of music where I could feel you editing to the music. You could see where a cut would happen or where a gunshot would go based on the beat.

EAGLES: It was often a lot of re-editing. I would cut things to the music, and then the story would change, or something else would change, and then I would have to tweak things to get them to fall into the rhythm. With something like that, it’s all about the swagger, so they had to be on beat. It would feel weird to me for them not to. Any time there’s an obvious visual rhythm, it feels like it should be tied to the musical rhythm.

With something like that, it’s all about the swagger.

HULLFISH: I noticed a time-contracted point where the gang is coming up on their horses to a building; it cuts to them already walking through the door. Why compress time like that? What benefits are there to not showing the entire ride up and them getting off their horses?

EAGLES: As an editor, you’re always looking for those opportunities because you’re usually starting out with something insanely long. When we were assembling, Jeymes encouraged me to go even longer—much longer than the finished cut of the movie ended up being. So we’ve done all the swagger and the menace of them coming into town. The next interesting thing really is them walking through the door. If you are given some kind of kinetic endpoint, you can sometimes fudge that and remove time.

HULLFISH: Do you remember how long the first assembly was?

EAGLES: Somewhere slightly over three hours. It wasn’t too crazy, and certainly, the first thing I showed Jeymes was even shorter than that. He was quite happy for me to cut certain scenes that we talked about in advance that weren’t helping us. The first cut is the easiest; the second layer of cuts is harder sometimes.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about how you bounced between different characters during fight scenes; was that how it was scripted?

EAGLES: No, not at all. That battle sequence was crazy. It was coming in piece-by-piece throughout the shooting. We were getting shots by the main unit, shots by the second unit; things were divided up by cast availability, and there wasn’t a very strict dogma about what had to go where. There was a script, obviously, but Jeymes was very happy for me to move things around and try and find the right rhythm and make that emotional call.

There’s a period of that fight that’s very fun, and the backbone of that is the Zazie Beetz and Regina King fight, which is a fun thing to watch because it’s been boiling for a while between the two of them, but there are also all these emotional beats, and it didn’t really work to intercut those. So we had to rearrange things and backload all of the emotions towards the end of that sequence to keep all the characters on the same page, emotionally, even though they’re in different parts of the town doing different things.

We battle with logic a little bit because, in the first cut, we had Nat standing around for a very long time while everyone was shooting and Cherokee Bill’s standing right in front of them, and neither of them shot each other. It just didn’t make logical sense for that to happen, so we had to move things around a little bit.

HULLFISH: There are some really nice match cuts, one of which was of a literal match. Can you speak to that cut at all?

EAGLES: That one is really fun, and for some reason, Jeymes credits me with that cut. I can’t imagine how else you would cut it. I don’t know if I moved things around there, but those were the shots. Someone lights a match, someone else lights a fuse, and it just felt like a nice little nod to Lawrence of Arabia as well.

We had this very stylized sequence when the characters were gearing up and getting ready to go to battle where they’re just staring into the camera, and it’s cut to this beautiful piece of music. However, it was quite long, and as much as we loved it—and it really was one of our favorite scenes—it was just a bit of a repeated beat because we already had Nat singing into the camera, and we already had the marshal riding into town. We already had a sense of anticipation, so the sequence just had to come out.

There was a silver lining, however, and that was when we took it out. It lined up this great shot of Nat singing the last line of her song, which says “in the distant view,” and it cuts to a distant view down the scope of a rifle. It was just good luck that it cut that way even though it wasn’t what we were trying for.

HULLFISH: Are there examples of needing structural changes and getting those happy accidents because of it?

EAGLES: Usually, it’s the other way round. You might have really nice scene transitions, and then you restructure things, and it all falls apart, and you’re banging your head against the wall. We didn’t do major restructuring, but we did do a lot of shrinking. As it is scripted through the opening of the movie, there was a lot of intercutting between the gangs, and you didn’t really know who was who. The gangs were not together, so you were going from Idris Elba to Regina King to Jonathan Majors, and it was all hard to track.

We pulled back on the Buck Gang through the opening of the movie and tried to get the good guys established. One of the happy results of that was we were able to give each character a really good entrance.

In the middle of the movie, there was a lot of positioning and exposition and there was a lot of intercutting. I actually consolidated a lot of those stories so that we didn’t keep flopping back and forth between the two gangs.

HULLFISH: I’ve talked to people about the social intelligence it takes to be an editor and to know that a scene will probably need to go but not saying it immediately. There’s a process that it needs to go through and having the director come to that conclusion himself might be better.

He’s quite happy to ignore me, so he went and shot all those scenes anyway.

EAGLES: Absolutely, especially with a film like this. Jeymes had been working on it for close to ten years, but even so, I did give some of those notes on the screenplay, but he’s robust enough that he’s quite happy to ignore me, so he went and shot all those scenes anyway. It wasn’t going to chip his confidence.

With some directors, you need to be a little bit careful that you don’t taint the relationship or that you tip your hat towards something so that they get the feeling that you’ve always been wanting to get rid of a scene. Or you’ve always had some agenda. You do have to get to that conclusion with them, and I think Jeymes was really good about things that had to come out, even if it was painful.

I just had to be patient because I knew he would see the benefits of doing some of those things over time. Of course, equally, I could be wrong about some things; there can be reasons other than story reasons, why a scene or sequence needs to stay in the movie.

We found with this movie that the style was part of the substance of the movie, and if you take the style out, you take some of the soul out of the movie. So I think for both of us, it was a learning experience and highlighted why this has to be done together as a team.

HULLFISH: With this being a new director for you, tell me a little bit about learning somebody’s method of working. How do you develop that relationship? What lets the director know you’re on his side and that he’s safe with you.

I make it clear from the start that any ideas I come up with are just my two cents.

EAGLES: At the end of the day, it’s not my movie. As much as I’ve put my heart and soul into it, it’s always going to be his movie. So I make it clear from the start that any ideas I come up with are just my two cents. I think it’s really important to have a safe space to talk about that and it’s important to have private time with your director. If producers or the studio get too involved too early or the director comes with an entourage, that can be tricky. You want the space to be fully honest, so you can say to each other. “Oh, I think that sucks.” Or “What are we going to do about it?

I had gone out to Santa Fe and we were just about to shoot the first scene, but we were shut down due to Covid. So I went back to New Zealand, I did a couple of other small projects, and I thought that the film had gone away. I thought it might not happen, but then thankfully, we started up again in September of 2020. We were doing a long-distance collaboration, so I made sure to make myself as available as I could. I staggered my week and was available to Jeymes on the weekends.

That’s your role as an editor. You’re the first audience for the movie.

Due to all of that, I think I ended up having more interaction than I’ve ever had with a director during a shoot. We would just hang out and talk about the movie and talk about other movies. He’s a great storyteller, so all I had to do really was listen. And in a way, that’s your role as an editor. You’re the first audience for the movie. So if you can show that you’re listening and not coming in hard with all of your ideas upfront, that’s really good.

HULLFISH: What are some of the benefits and challenges of working with a director who is also the writer and composer?

EAGLES: I find that writer/directors are usually more pragmatic, more adaptable, and more flexible than just writers and sometimes even the folks that are just directors, because they feel like they have to protect this script that they were given that they fell in love with.

I love it when there’s one person wearing all the hats because it’s just one person I have to convince if I want to change something. I’ve had the experience on TV shows where I want to change something, and it’s like turning an ocean liner to get everyone to agree to it. I love it when it’s just one person because there’s a single point of view, and I can just ask if they like my idea, and either way, we can move on. It’s very simple.

The director/composer thing was new to me and was very interesting. There was a tension between “Director Jeymes” and “Composer Jeymes.” Director Jeymes loved when I put temp music in because it would make the scene look better, but Composer Jeymes sometimes felt like he either had the wrong idea of the sound in his head or he had the right idea but that it’s a lot more to live up to. So that was a bit of a challenge. I always gave him the option because he liked both, so I would give Director Jeymes a cut with all the sound and music and then give Composer Jeymes a cut without it.

This situation also means that the composer held a lot more sway than a composer normally would. With some tunes that I knew had to be in the movie, I’ve got to figure out a way to make it work because I’m not going to be able to tell him, “this is not happening.” It was definitely fascinating for me to watch the scoring and especially the songwriting processes from the get-go.

HULLFISH: Was it a different experience trying to find temp music?

EAGLES: It was really tough because I didn’t have a lot of music yet. He hadn’t written most of it, but he definitely had strong opinions about the music I was going to temp with. I certainly knew what he didn’t like, and if you look at the way the film is shot, you might lean towards temping with Morricone, but he didn’t really like that. Not that he doesn’t like Morricone; he just didn’t like it against this movie.

The sound that we were going for was this kind of synthesis of classic Western, like Elmer Bernstein, kind of Magnificent Seven-style with dub music, and that doesn’t exist anywhere on earth. There wasn’t a temp library that I could pull that stuff from. So I worked very hard on trying to find little bits of instrumentals, little dub X synths, some melodica which was a fun instrument for me to play with, but it was really eclectic in terms of what I found that worked.

I found a couple of Fela Kuti tunes that have been covered by acoustic ensembles and a cello cover of a Jimi Hendrix song that he liked. It was difficult and time-consuming, and I was begging for a music editor, and I eventually got an amazing one named Clint Bennett but not until we were into directer cuts.

HULLFISH: In an interview with the editors for No Time To Die, they mentioned that the production designer and the editor are also tied together, and that the editing is influenced by the production design. This seems to be just as true for this film with scenes like White Town and Redwood City.

EAGLES: Both of those are good examples. White Town is the one joke I added to the movie; I had no idea that they were going to do that. I had no idea. Jeymes kept telling me, you’ve got to see Maysville; it wasn’t in the script, but he had planned for the town to be literally all white, including white horses and everything. It is a big job, and it happened really fast for them to paint the whole town white.

They were making big swings, with all of the decisions, whether it be production design or camera. The whole thing had a very graphic and bold feeling. So when it came time to do things like chyron that would typically be lower thirds, it just felt like I wanted something a lot bolder.

So I think all of those things influence you; sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Sometimes it’s just over the process of watching the dailies for three months, you get into the rhythm and the vibe of the film, but certainly the production design in this movie I think is just beautiful.

HULLFISH: What is your process when you’re in dailies? When you walk into new dailies for a new scene that you’ve never seen before. How do you have your assistants prepare that? And what do you do to get a handle on the scene before you make the first cut?

EAGLES: I try and watch everything before I start cutting, but there’s sometimes a point where you think you know what the sequence is, and you need to start organizing your thoughts. As I watch material and throw things into its select reel, it’s roughly in order, and I guess I’m looking for the fulcrum in the scene.

I am looking for what’s interesting shot-wise and what’s interesting performance-wise, and they’re not always the same thing.

I’m looking for the pressure points in the script, but I’m also looking for what’s interesting in the material. I am looking for what’s interesting shot-wise and what’s interesting performance-wise, and they’re not always the same thing. Once you find those kinds of nuggets, you have something to build your scene around. Sometimes I’ll make odd choices at that point and then try to reverse-engineer the scene to fit and to work around that strange choice. If there’s a great performance and an odd frame, I’ll try and make it work. It’s just a process, and by going through that process, you find out what the scenes are really about.

HULLFISH: When you’re watching dailies, are you watching from individual setups in bins, or do you string them out into a longer KEM roll?

EAGLES: I do both, which is terrible; I’m very cruel to my assistant editors led by the wonderful John Sosnovsky. I really needed another assistant because we were getting so much material and because I was asking them to ScriptSync, and I also really needed a music editor. So as a compromise, Netflix gave me an assistant editor who was good with music, and he helped out through the shooting period as well.

I’ve soaked up various different methodologies from various different editors that I have worked with, and I’ve wound up liking them all. So I have all the shots laid out in a grid view. So I can see them visually, and if there are two cameras, I have them grouped together and then the group clip below. I also had them do a KEM roll type, and then I also had script sync, so it was a lot to ask of my assistants, but it makes my process a lot more efficient.

I do try and use the KEM roll or scene sequence to stop me from doing too much. Sometimes I’ll try and sit back on the couch where I have a Bluetooth keyboard, and I just throw on log headers because the temptation is to either start cutting straight away or to get a little bit too carried away in classifying material.

I started out fast in television, where you just had to be decisive and quick. Now I know that I will get another chance to go back and that my objectives will probably change when I do go back through the material. Knowing now that I’m looking for different things or I’ve learned something different about a character. I’m not so tough on myself the first time, so I don’t really start cutting until I have an idea of what I want to do with the scene, but I try not to be too rigid about it. Halfway through the cutting, I might decide that my idea was rubbish and I have to throw it out.

I think there’s this side of me that wants to watch everything that comes from having done a lot of improv and a lot of comedy. So literally every time, it’s different. We did actually have a lot of improv in this film; oddly enough, you wouldn’t think that a lot of stuff was improvised, so that made me really feel like I had to see everything.

I feel a responsibility to be a fresh set of eyes, so the circled takes for me are a little bit irrelevant. I’ll watch them as I watch everything, but I have this little bit of hubris in me that I will have a better idea.

HULLFISH: So many directors will say, oh, that was my circled take. And then, once they’re in the comfort of the edit suite, they look at their choices and wonder why on earth they thought that was the best take.

EAGLES: Exactly, but they have something they are going for, and it is a bit of a journey, usually for them to figure out at some point. Sometimes you figure it out right away, and other times, you need to do 20 takes and figure it out later. So sometimes they need us, we can be helpful with their process with our fresh set of eyes.

HULLFISH: Absolutely. Tom, thank you so much for a really interesting discussion of this movie, and I hope everybody gets a chance to watch it. It’s very entertaining.

EAGLES: Thank you.

Steve Hullfish

Stephen Hullfish is an internationally respected producer and editor, and has written six books about the professional scene in Hollywood. He has edited seven feature films, including "Courageous" and "War Room", as well as "The Oprah Winfrey Show". Steve has also worked with industry leaders like Avid, Adobe, Blackmagic, Fujifilm, and Tektronix on technical and creative projects, and produces bespoke training for companies like the NHL, MLS, NBCSports, and Turner Networks.

Art of the Cut: Achieving a State of “Euphoria”

Art of the Cut: Getting Bloody Revenge in “The Northman”

Art of the Cut: Navigating Love and Loss in “Drive My Car”