Kodak Theatre, Hollywood, March 5, 2006
It’s Academy Awards night and Michael McCusker, his wife and his parents are almost late. Hollywood Boulevard is cordoned off, the area protected by the National Guard as a chain of stretch limos stuffed with celebrities and ogled by fans and paparazzi makes its way to the Kodak Theatre.
All that day Mike had been in a daze, and here he is, someone who spent his teen years trying to fit in, who got his first taste of filmmaking at New Canaan High School, on his way to the biggest night of his life so far. He has been nominated for his editing of Walk the Line, his first major film. The evening could be likened to editing a movie of his life, splicing together thousands of individual frames to form an arc of continuity.
“I didn’t have time to absorb the whole red carpet thing,” he said, “but I did have a moment when I felt an electric charge. ‘You can’t be any higher in this business,’
I thought. To be there and look around and think, ‘I am not just a seat-filler.’ It was a great moment, awesome and spine-tingling, as if something had zapped me.
“The funny thing is, you spend all this time, go through all this stuff, learn how to live in this business, trying to make a living and be respected and not let it get to your head and do a pretty good job of it — then you’re nominated. It’s great — you get a lot of praise and it’s a really amazing drug that you get used to very quickly. So when you don’t win (the Best Editing award went to Crash), there’s serious withdrawal. It took me a while to get over it.”
His mother, Pamela, remembers, “He came home that night saying, ‘I wanted to win. I feel like I’ve let everybody down.’ I said, ‘No, that isn’t true.’”
“I took him out the night before the Oscars,” said his father, Allen, “and told him, ‘Look, you’re thirty-nine. This is the first damned one you’ve ever done. Thank God you’ve been nominated. It’s never gonna go away. It’s going to open all kinds of doors for you. If you win, fabulous; if you don’t, don’t sweat it.’”
Doors had already been opening. At the Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 19, Mike won the prestigious Eddie Award from ACE (American Cinema Editors) for Best Edited Feature Film (Comedy or Musical). At the Egyptian Theatre on March 4, he was on an ACE panel, Invisible Art/Visible Artists, in which all the Oscar-nominated editors showed clips from their films, discussed their work and opened themselves to a Q&A.
“The place was packed,” recalled Allen. “And there’s Mike up there with all these film editors, some of whom have won multiple Oscars, and this is the first movie he’s ever cut. And that kid stands there on the stage saying, ‘Now this is what was running through that person’s mind and this through the other person’s mind and if I put the two together…’ And I’m thinking, ‘This is my kid.’ It was unbelievable.”
New Canaan High School, 1981
At NCHS, Mike suffers through the fear, common to teens, of not belonging. In his case, the feeling is exacerbated by his having moved so much because of his father’s jobs as marketing consultant with various firms around the country. From New York to Connecticut to California to Minnesota, then back to Connecticut, Mike found himself in a different school every other year. To fulfill his fine arts requirement, Mike opted for Peter Kingsbury’s film class, a decision that changed the youngster’s life. “Peter was a great guy but a little off center, and somehow I jibed with him,” said Mike. “He threw lesson plans out the window and it was kind of like, ‘Let me show you this stuff, this whole world out there.’ Something clicked. I was learning what coverage and angles were and cutting and camera movement.
“Peter was a guy who, if he thought you were interested, took an interest in you. New Canaan has a lot of students directed towards the classic avenues of corporate success: Wall Street, lawyers, doctors, the standard stuff. A lot of the kids took an arts course only because they had to in order to get out. Peter was trying to push his students to think outside the box, outside their well-off existence in Fairfield County.”
Under Kingsbury’s tutelage Mike began writing and making films. Told that he had ability, he elected film and video classes during his entire final two years in high school.
Two of his films were The Bed That Made Itself and Breaking M: A Boy’s Odyssey, the latter an obviously autobiographical study of a boy who, wanting to break out of his mundane existence, takes a train into New York City. Another film, started at NCHS and finished at Emerson College, where Mike earned his bachelor of fine arts in film theory and production, was Flagpole, partly filmed in Waveny Park.
“I had taken up with a bunch of guys who liked to get a case of beer and one guy would be the designated driver and we’d all get plastered and end up in one of those facilities they have near the Merritt Parkway for the trucks to sand the road during the winter. There was this circle with a flagpole in the middle, and one night one of the guys put his foot into the rope loop. Some other guys came over and started spinning him around. It was bonehead high school fun.”
Mike found meaning in the event. “It’s actually one of these peaceful moments in that guy’s life where nothing else really matters. The more he was ostracized by the group, the more he was trying to be one of the guys but couldn’t be. It was coming of age, trying to find your identity, and close to my heart because we had moved around so much. If you can’t fit in, where do you go?”
Boston, New Canaan, California, 1988
Mike piles his six-foot-two frame into his Volkswagen Golf; drives cross-country to room with friends in West Hollywood; gets recommended for a job with Gracie Films working sixty, seventy, eighty hours a week as a production assistant, making $300 gross a week, taking home $220. From there he works on The Simpsons, then becomes a director’s assistant, which means, among other chores, assisting in getting the director’s laundry back from the cleaners. In time he learns how best to tell a story and starts to write but feels dissatisfied. “so here i am six years out of college. I should be directing movies and it wasn’t happening. I didn’t like anything I’d done and I’m running out of options, so I’m thinking I should get out of this business. This was ’93, ’94. I talked to my mom about it and she said, ‘You should get into editing. In high school you loved cutting movies, and you always talked about that process in college.’ I thought, she’s probably right.”
Mike began talking with editors, who told him the job would consume so many hours that it would eat into his personal life, that he might have to work with directors who didn’t always know what they wanted, that it wasn’t glamorous. He finally got a television job as assistant on a Showtime anthology called Fallen Angels. Noticing his eagerness and interest, editors responded to him as Peter Kingsbury had, teaching him the trade, heaping on more and more responsibility.
“It was hard work. I busted my ass, but I knew I was doing the right thing. I got into the union and was able to work on Independence Day in 1996 with David Brenner, an incredibly cool editor. It was great. I did a couple of movies after that — What Dreams May Come, Third Miracle. David asked me to be his first assistant, cataloguing and assembling footage, and I worked for him for five years on such films as The Patriot and Kate and Leopold. We hit it off really well because we were both very intense about trying to present a top-notch, high-quality product with lots of music and sound effects.”
Meanwhile Mike learned Avid, the computer editing system that replaced the old Movieola method of hand-splicing pieces of celluloid. Eventually he was bumped up to associate editor, cutting scenes and sounds. For Identity, directed by James Mangold in 2002, Mike put in every gunshot, every footfall. A year later he was billed as “additional editor” for The Day after Tomorrow — and met a producer named Deirdre Morrison; they moved in together in March of that year, found a house in Glendale that once belonged to Don Knotts, and decided to get married.
“Jim Mangold wanted David Brenner to cut Walk the Line, but Dave didn’t want to do it. Jim and Kathy, his wife and producing partner, offered me the job. And my reaction was, ‘I’ll take it, but why me? There are a lot of editors out there.’ And they said, ‘You’re smart, we appreciate your point of view and think you can pull it off. This is our passion project — we’ve been developing it for eight years — and we don’t want to be in a position where we’re fighting a more established editor. We know that in you we will get what we want.’ They said it in a nice way, but they were saying we share the same sort of style and had a certain shorthand. I said okay, I just wanted to know what the deal was.”
In June 2004, six weeks after his daughter Helena was born, Mike left for location shooting in Memphis, where he stayed for three months, rough cutting the footage. Filming was completed in September, with the customary twelve weeks of editing to follow.
Walk the Line premieres at the Beacon Theatre, New York, November 13, 2005
The film’s stars, Reese Witherspoon (who subsequently won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance) and Joaquin Phoenix, walk the black carpet (in honor of Cash, the Man in Black) along with June and Johnny Cash’s son John Carter Cash and country stars Shooter Jennings, Trace Adkins, Glen Campbell and Shania Twain. Actors Anne Hathaway, Ryan Phillippe (Witherspoon’s husband) and Jane Seymour are there too, as are Mike McCusker’s parents, his brother James and his sister Kelly.
“i lived on the Upper West Side for eight years, working for ABC, then CBS television,” said Jamie, a public relations consultant who lives in Fairfield. “It was weird to go back to that area for my brother’s premiere. Even though I’ve worked with celebrities, you couldn’t help but be a little starstruck.”
Said Kelly, a graphic designer and Pilates instructor who lives in Stratford, “The premiere was very exciting, but the biggest thrill was seeing his name in the credits.”
Both siblings remember their brother as meticulous in all things except keeping his room clean. “He was always the boss,” said Kelly, who’s a year younger than Mike. “He was the usual teenage boy, but very detail oriented.”
According to Jamie, who’s three years younger, “Mike was the typical oldest child, the responsible one. We even worked together, he and I and Kelly, on a painting and sandblasting crew in New Canaan. He was the foreman. He was always very responsible and took pride in his work.”
Any editing room, Hollywood
Three shots: a pained face, a bottle of pills, a happy face. Cut in that order, finding the pills has obviously turned a sad person into a happy one. Cut in the reverse order, and the effect suggests a downhill slide.
Celluloid goes through the camera at twenty-four frames a second. Knowing where and on what exact frame to cut is the basis of film editing, affecting rhythm, variety, even meaning. What angle to use? Should we stay on the person talking or show another person’s reaction? Dissolve or cut from one portion to the next? Use a montage, compressing events in a quick succession of shots to show the transition of time?
These are the editor’s, not the director’s, decisions, although, of course, the director has the final say. Editor and director agreed that Walk the Line was a story of redemptive love and took it from there.
I asked Mike about watching him work. He demurred. “On Avid, it’s sitting in front of a computer screen, looking at time lines,” he explained. “It’s like watching someone type on a word processor. There is nothing interesting to the watcher, only to the person doing it, creating it. I love what I do but I’m also aware of how unglamorous it is.”
Still, when we sit down to watch part of Walk the Line together, I get a primer on film editing. He shows me the opening at Folsom Prison, which, building slowly, weds sound and image as the increasingly impatient inmates stamp their feet while Johnny pensively inspects a saw that reminds him of his brother’s fatal accident.
The diner scene between June and Johnny switches point of view subtly. How they look at each other contrasts with their purposely mundane conversation. Various angles and lengths of shots reinforce their falling in love without their actually saying so.
Further into the film, a ninety-second montage covers years. To the music of the title song, cuts and dissolves show both emotional and physical progressions, going through the results of June and Johnny’s estrangement, news of her marriage to Edwin Nix, and Johnny’s increasing — and increasingly lonely — fame.
In the Thanksgiving scenes, filmed in spring, digital editing turned green leaves brown. That same sequence contains Mike’s favorite cut, one he had to fight
for, a nanosecond insertion reinforcing Johnny’s recovery from his drug addiction.
Thanks in part to the fast cutting found in television and the fact that audiences are more used to sophisticated film language, editing has changed. In the early days, directors did their own editing, aiming for undetectable, seamless cuts. Nowadays, time and space are fragmented. No longer do we need to see a person walk through a door, speak to someone, cross a room, and get into an elevator. Off-screen sounds, reaction shots of the person addressed, and the closing of the elevator doors will tell the viewers all they need to know.
“You’re essentially asserting your point of view,” said Mike. “The why is not important. Is the scene working dramatically? In film the subtext is in the actor’s eyes, mouth, expression. Editing is a dance of the eyes. It’s not just splicing two pieces of film together but compressing time, leading the audience, telling the story through images and dialogue.”
Peter Kingsbury and I meet and talk about teaching. “If I was able to help some kids find their way, find who they are or were or could be, I was just doing what [former art teacher] Bernice Hall did for me,” he says. “It’s why most people become teachers, I think.”
He and Mike haven’t seen each other since those high school days. (Editor’s note: They reconnected at the photo shoot for this article.) But Kingsbury remembers him well. “I remember his doggedness and his intensity. He had some sort of vision of how the film ought to be. He was frustrated at times, but he didn’t give up. What made him stand out was a subtle level of anxiety. A lot of kids want to get it so it looks good or pleases their friends. With Mike, it was pleasing himself. He had some sort of internal standard that was obsessive, imagining a future that he needed to inhabit.”
Mike McCusker’s house, Glendale, California, May 2006, and Allen and Pamela McCusker’s house, New Canaan, June 2006
Mike: The thing my parents drilled into my head was, whatever you do, do something you like. It’s a lot easier that way. But be the best at it. They didn’t want us to float through. If I’d decided to be a rock star, there might have been more of a frown.
Allen: The country is based on winning. We don’t stop to think about the people who aren’t the best.
Pamela: He turns to his father if it’s a business issue. With me, it’s ‘I had a really crappy day.’ And I say, ‘Hey, Mike, it’ll be all right.’
Mike: I wanted the challenge. I didn’t go into editing with an analytical or academic approach. It was literally emotional because that’s how I reacted to it. I knew I wasn’t a guy who could shmooze as a way of life. But I also knew that sitting there and never being secure that you were actually moving forward in your career was not something for me. I always want to feel like I’m moving forward — it doesn’t have to be fast.
Allen: I want them frustrated. That’s the only way you’re gonna take chances.
Mike: Sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind and not do something just to please somebody else. I try to do what I think is best. I have a very dark attitude as to where we are in society. If I were still writing and directing films, they’d all probably surround the theme of disenfranchised people, people who are on the outskirts. Being the new guy all the time because we moved around so much was about fitting in and having friends and being accepted. It was always an issue, and I worked it out in my mind in the films and the film course. I try to integrate everything I’ve learned. Everything I’ve done helped me in what I’m doing now.