Spotlight is not flashy but is fairly dazzling in its efficiency. That’s what I’ve loved about Tom McCarthy‘s film from the start. Clean, true and always on-point. Tom McArdle‘s cutting doesn’t call attention to itself, but every transition is smooth and fleet as a fox. Not for nothing has McArdle, a longtime collaborator of McCarthy’s, been nominated for an editing Oscar. I ran into McArdle at a party the weekend before Sundance, and a day or two later we did a q & a:

Spotlight editor and longtime Tom McCarthy collaborator Tom McArdle

HE: You and McCarthy go back…what, 12 or 15 years? What’s the history?

McArdle: In 2002, my agent sent me Tom McCarthy’s Station Agent script. It was really good. Very thoughtful and funny. I’m L.A.-based but I travelled to New York to meet with McCarthy. We talked about the script and other films that might have a similar feel. I brought up that I was a fan of Local Hero (’83) and that it felt somewhat comparable in tone to The Station Agent. Tom also liked Local Hero a lot, so that was a good thing. We got along well. The Station Agent was a quick edit — 13 1/2 weeks total, due to the Sundance schedule and the budget. We followed The Station Agent with The Visitor in 2006, and then Win Win in 2010.

HE: I for one would love to see a longer version of Spotlight. Was there a longer cut that you personally liked but had to be trimmed down for the usual reasons?

McArdle: We cut out about 18 minutes total from the film. The final version that you see is also my favorite version of the film.

HE: There must have been some scenes that you or McCarthy loved but which didn’t strictly serve the narrative. What were those scenes?

McArdle: We cut out five scenes plus some other shots here and there. We cut out a scene of Robby (Michael Keaton) and his wife after golf where she mentions that the church is important to the community. We dropped a scene with Marty (Liev Schrieber) and the publisher Gilman (Michael Countryman) where Gilman asks to be kept in the loop about the church story. We also dropped a scene of Marty and Ben (John Slattery) talking about getting back on the case after 9/11. We dropped a scene between Mike (Mark Ruffalo) and the receptionist for the judge where Mike gets frustrated that the judge is not around. We also dropped a scene of Mike getting the morning newspapers and ignoring a phone call from his estranged wife.

In a lot of places we would just cut a line or two out of a scene to make it tighter. In some other scenes, we would take out more. For instance, for the porch scene between Mike and Sacha (Rachel McAdams), we took out about half of the scene. We also added some new scenes during the cut. We had a couple of pick-up shoots over the winter.

HE: Will any of these turn up on the Bluray as extras?

McCardle: I don’t think so.

HE: Where did you physically cut it? How long did it take? Two, three months? When was it first shown to test audiences? What was cut out? When did the testing process begin? Late last spring?

McArdle: We cut in NYC at Post Factory, which is in Tribeca. We cut Tom’s last four films there. The cut lasted eight months. Six to eight months is average for us. We had little screenings in the edit room for about 8 people every 3 weeks starting about a month after I showed my first rough cut. We would serve people wine and try to get honest feedback about where there were clarity or pace issues. We would also learn a lot just by sitting behind people while the film screened. You could feel where the problem areas were in your gut. We had an official test screening in Pasadena for 300 people in late April and that went well. After that screening we cut for another month and cut out 2 or 3 minutes more before we locked it.

HE: How do you and McCarthy work together? Do you assemble a rough cut of a given scene and then he yays or nays? Is it all pre-cut in a sense?

McArdle: I cut the first rough cut on my own for 10 weeks. After that, Tom was around a good portion of the time. We would either work together or he would give me time to work on things. I would also often do alternate or experimental versions of sequences on my own.

HE: When did you become fluent with the Avid? What kind of software do you like for amateur editors?

McArdle: I started using the Avid in 1996. I also like Final Cut Pro. I have used it on a few lower budget jobs.

HE: What’s next on the horizon?

McArdle: I’m reading some scripts, meeting with people.

HE: You cut Lake Bell‘s In A World…, which I really liked. How’s she doing these days? Did you see that godawful Asian escape movie she costarred in with Owen Wilson?

McArdle: Lake is doing well. She had a table reading of her latest script last week. It was very funny. She got a lot of good actors to take part in the reading: Ed Helms, Gillian Jacobs, Jeff Garlin and others. A lot of the cast from In a World were there too, in the audience. And no I haven’t seen No Escape yet but I want to check it out.

HE: What are some good examples in your own mind of films like Spotlight, films that are subtly edited but very effectively for that? High Noon is one of my favorites in this regard.

McArdle: Some people have mentioned Zodiac to me lately and I remember being totally engrossed in that film for two and a half hours. I think that was very well edited by Angus Wall. I also recently re-watched The Breakfast Club and Wonder Boys and those were both masterfully cut by Dede Allen. She was great with reaction shots, among other things.

I think, with editing, the first priority is to serve the story — to make sure that it flows and that things are clear. I don’t think the edits should call attention to themselves. If a viewer is thinking about the edits, then that person may be getting bumped out of the story.