Action Man: Christian Wagner – Interview

❉ Meet the editor of True Romance, Bad Boys, Face/Off, The Negotiator and other high-octane movies.

Film Editor Christian Wagner has been one of the most sought-after action-film cutters for the last 30 years, with a list of credits that boggle the mind: True Romance, Man on Fire, Face/Off, Bad Boys, Mission: Impossible II, The Negotiator, and numerous entries in The Fast and the Furious franchise. Wagner spoke with We Are Cult’s Nick Clement about his cinematic passions and extraordinary career.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, Christian. As you know, I’m a huge fan of your work, and it was an honor to meet you way back in the day when you were cutting Spy Game with Tony Scott, I was an intern for Tony at that point. I think it’s best we start from the beginning – where did you grow up, and were films a big part of your childhood?

My father was the VP of MGM during the era of The Champ and Corvette Summer. He then left MGM to become an independent producer and that’s when he met Sherry Lansing. I can remember dinners at my house when I was growing up with some of the most important people in the business, and I became very friendly with William Friedkin, who is of course married to Sherry.

What are some of your favorite films?

A film that early-on changed my thought process was Richard Lester’s Petulia. That movie blew my mind, and it sort of led to an interesting chapter in my life where I was often quite rebellious, and getting into lots of trouble with drinking and drugs. I didn’t have any major passions when I was a teenager, and movies were just this “thing” that I’d been exposed to through my father from an early age. I took a lot of it for granted early on. I went to secondary school at Oakwood, and was taking classes with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Elizabeth McGovern. Other films that made me take notice were Apocalypse Now and Star Wars, the entire Lucas and Coppola camp was of interest. The Deer Hunter, seeing that at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, that was a big event. I had taken my dad’s Mercedes to the theater to see the film, but when it was over, I was so emotionally moved that I couldn’t even drive. I had to call him and tell him that I needed help in getting home.

How did you get involved with film editing?

Lon Bender, who was at Sound Deluxe which is now Formosa, when we were in high school, Lon was working with sound editing, and I had no clue about how any of it worked. But, he told me I should come and check it out, so I did, and that led to me working there doing daily deliveries for about six months, before Lon and sound editor Gordon Eckhart asked me if I wanted to serve as an apprentice editor. So, I left high school and went to work! And then, a big moment for me was when I made a delivery to Bud Smith, who was cutting The Brinks Job for William Friedkin. I went over there and made my delivery and Bob Lambert told me to sit down and watch for 10 minutes. So I did. I saw how he did one cut and that created an entirely new emotional beat to the scene. It was at that moment that I knew I had to get out of sound work and get into picture editing.

And so you had the chance to work with them on The Brinks Job for a bit?

They put me to work doing some sounds cut-ins on The Brinks Job, and I’d done a bad job with one portion, with lining up the sound of a door being shut. Friedkin lost it and fired me! But then Chuck Campbell, who was a big sound guy at the time, he came to my defense, and made Billy give me a break and hire me back. And years later, I saw Billy and Sherry at the premiere of Tony Scott’s Spy Game, and he came up to me and said that he wanted me to cut his next picture. I told him I couldn’t because he’d fired me in the past!

Who else do you consider instrumental in terms of setting you on an editorial path?

I ended up getting hooked up with Scott Conrad and Richard Halsey – they had won Oscars for editing Rocky and I was looking for big editors to work with early in my career. You always want to learn from the best no matter what your profession and these guys were at the top. I was working on The Bedroom Window for Curtis Hanson, when I took a break and went to see Top Gun. I can remember saying to myself the moment the film ended – that’s it – I need to work with Tony Scott! I must edit for him! I also knew that I didn’t want to be known as the guy who got his industry job through his parents, so after I worked on a Chuck Norris actioner for Cannon Films, I decided that I really needed to hunt down Tony’s lead editor, Chris Lebenzon. I got in touch with him, and he invited me to assist on Revenge. This was me just starting out of the gate. I had long hair and I was lanky and short. And Tony comes in and sees me for the first time and says to Chris, “Who’s the bird back there, she’s hot!” Tony thought I was a girl! I asked if I could cut some scenes, and Chris and Tony agreed to let me do that, and Tony really liked what I was able to put together. My relationship with Tony kicked off right there and it’s something I’ll always treasure.

And then you got the chance to work on Days of Thunder.

About two-thirds of the way through Revenge, I get tapped to work on Days of Thunder, which was at the time being called Top Car, because of its narrative similarities to Top Gun. I went and assisted on the editing of Days of Thunder, and I had the chance to work with roughly 11 other editors in assembling the film – heavy-hitters like Michael Tronick and Lebenzon and Billy Weber were working on that one for Tony and that was a crazy shoot with an even crazier post production process. On Days of Thunder, the crew had shot 70 hours of racing footage with 19 cameras, including lots of footage from the Daytona 500. They also shot five laps with Cruise doing the driving in a full stadium. Lebenzon cut that fantastic opening credits sequence, and because Tony was shooting with such long lenses, you can see the title bouncing on screen when the Days of Thunder credit appears. I’ve always loved how they built that scene all the way up to a huge crescendo, and that was Hans Zimmer’s first full-blown feature score, and that music just pops. We spent a ton of time with George Waters recording the sounds of tires running on concrete and doing sound blending and making little cuts here and there that really amplified all of the on-track dynamics. But then Tony came in and said he didn’t want too much blending, and that he wanted every cut to “explode” off the screen – he wanted everything to have its individual moment for fear that it would all thin out.

You cut Tony Scott’s mid-career masterpiece True Romance. Everyone loves this film. How did it all go down?

We cut True Romance on film over at Totem in West Hollywood. I cut the film for three months on my own, and then Michael Tronick came in and we worked together for a month. We’d watch the dailies every night and Tony would pick his selects with the producers and cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball. I got assigned “The Sicilian” sequence and my girlfriend at the time, Karen Fields, she’d go on to marry Joel Silver, and she came in and watched me cut that sequence together. And it was done in my first pass. Tony loved it when he saw it, he approved it, and he absolutely loved all of the cutaways to the various guys in the room while Dennis and Chris were doing their thing.

I’ve heard a rumor that Quentin Tarantino was allowed to do his own cut of the film at one point or another, is this true?

Yes! When we finished the movie, Quentin looked at it. He asked if we could make him a black and white dupe, and if he could do a cut of his own. Tony said sure, go for it! Quentin used one of the assistants and he cut together his edit and he showed it to Tony. The thing was – Tony was so impressed with Quentin’s writing, he was in awe of him. He’d have let him do pretty much anything. The movie that was released was Tony’s vision, but that he allowed Quentin to do his own cut says a lot about who Tony was as a person and collaborative partner.

True Romance certainly had to have ruffled some feathers, both with the MPAA and with the distributors.

There was some concern with True Romance. It only had a $10 million budget, and some of the people were wary of the actors, especially with how over the top Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette were taking it. But that’s what Tony wanted, he was always telling them go “bigger.” Even I wasn’t 100% sure when the dailies were coming up, but deep down, Tony knew it would work. He really guided me through that film. But a lot of the concerns stemmed from the level of violence. We did 42 MPAA submissions with True Romance, and it kept getting an X-rating. They were just so taken back by the violence, and Tony was adamant that the film retain its level of intensity. It got extremely political, lots of phone calls were made, and we finally got an R-rating after Tony basically said “stop trimming” because they’d never realize from cut to cut what had been taken out! At the Lakewood premiere, half of the audience walked out because they were turned off by the violence. And critics were mixed and the film only grossed $10 million. But then, of course, the film took on a second life after the success of Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers. We were ahead of the curve by a year.

Then, in 1995, you worked with action maestro Michael Bay on Bad Boys, which still stands as one of the best buddy-cop movies in the genre. The film has a propulsive rhythm thanks to Bay’s visual style and your sense of speed as an editor – what was it like working with a then-young Bay, and cutting together a movie for Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer?

So after Michael Bay saw True Romance, and keep in mind, Bay idolized Tony Scott, he said, I want the guy who cut True Romance to cut my first movie, which was going to be Bad Boys. All of the executives at Columbia told him I was a “no-name editor” and I didn’t have enough experience. I really had to fight to get that job, and Michael wet to bat for me big time. He and Don and Jerry gave me a chance with Bad Boys, and it was a great experience. I had a great time working on it. We fought like cats and dogs, and that’s the thing with Michael – if you show fear, he bites. But if you stand your ground, he backs down. I really learned to love the process while working on Bad Boys.

What are some of your favorite highlights from your career in general?

Two of my favorite films I’ve had the chance to work on have been Face/Off and The Negotiator, the latter of which really helped me with my dialogue cutting skills. I learned how long to really hold a frame when someone was speaking. And another cool bit was cutting together that trailer for Face/Off, which was created by producer Steven Reuther. Working on Face/Off was extremely intimidating, because this was like, here’s “John Woo,” the guy who did The Killer and Hard-Boiled. And he spoke like five words a day, in broken English. I remember cutting together the opening sequence on the carousel and John loved it, and it was exactly how I wanted to cut it.

What was it like to get phone calls from Tony Scott?

I adored Tony. At times, I’d be afraid because he was always so adamant about what he wanted, but I loved getting his phone calls. It was a completely different relationship than I’ve ever had with another filmmaker. We’d eat dinner four nights a week and we’d spend a lot of time with each other on the weekends. Tony was always opposed to franchise movies. He was always heavily involved in the creative process of his films, with the construction of the scripts, and he decided at a certain point that he wanted to focus on mostly original properties, and to try and do things people hadn’t seen before or wouldn’t expect. At one point he was offered Die Another Day, but the Bond producers weren’t interested in him making a “Tony Scott Picture” so it obviously never happened. I remember how I hadn’t worked in a while after Mission: Impossible II, and Tony called me up to go and cut Spy Game, and I realized how wonderful it was to be back in his orbit.

Man on Fire is yet another incredible cinematic experience from Tony Scott that you worked on. The editing in this film is aggressively brilliant, and when it was first released, I’m not sure if anyone was prepared for how radical the aesthetic would be during this movie. Man on Fire took time-tested genre ingredients from a story perspective, and shot it through with a sense of jolting style that’s rarely been achieved elsewhere.

Man on Fire was the pinnacle of my experiences working with Tony. I think that’s his masterpiece as a storyteller and I think we did some radical stuff that nobody had ever seen, which of course now has been copied into oblivion. We treated that film as if it were a science experiment – what could we do on any given day? Tony spent six months researching film stocks, and as usual, he pulled from his previous experiences. On Spy Game he wanted each era to have a different visual signature, and the idea with Man on Fire was to make something that had its own unique visual identity which felt bold and uncompromising. He and Paul Cameron were using 16mm hand-crank cameras, and they shot over two million feet of film while in production. We were transforming the footage on a daily basis, as Tony wanted the film to have a roughed-up, Nine Inch Nails aesthetic. I had to throw away every lesson I had ever learned about editing while I was cutting Man on Fire. Like JFK and some of the stuff that Oliver Stone had done, we went for something non-linear and avant-garde – being normal just wasn’t going to cut it. Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing are heroes of mine so this was my chance to do something along their lines.

Did the style keep evolving while you were in the editing room?

The first cut of Man on Fire wasn’t nearly as stylish. Tony would keep coming in and say, “Let’s try this,” and we basically cut that entire film together, he was with me every step of the way. It was a complete collaboration. There were many heated days and nights while working on that movie, but how could that not have been the case? We were making an acid-trip of a film, with flash-forwards and every trick you could think of. And the great thing is, our creative fights – they’d end 30 seconds after they started, because it was always about the work and doing something sensational for people. Tony had a “shoot from the hip” mentality which I always loved and respected.

Then, in 2005, you had two big films see release: Tony Scott’s Domino and Michael Bay’s The Island. This had to have been an insane period of your life.

I think Domino went too far. It became too much about style over substance. I would tell him, “Tony, this is too much!” And he’d always come back with, “No, man! It’s going to get even better!!” We used that acid-style to tell a more coherent story in Man on Fire, but because Domino is being told through the mindset of a woman who is still tripping out on mescaline, I guess it also works in Domino, even if I personally think we took it too far. That was a crazy period, too. Because I ended up cutting Domino and The Island, for Michael Bay, simultaneously, while also working on The Amityville Horror. It got very complicated. I’d be cutting for Tony all morning and early afternoon, and then I’d go and cut for Michael in the afternoon and evening. And I was always late going from one suite to the next, and Tony and Michael would be having these wild arguments about keeping me late. The situation blew up in everyone’s faces and I ended up getting totally burnt out. I was working 20 hour days. I just got fully exhausted. I think I just end up always trying to make everyone happy.

In 2009, you entered the realm of The Fast and the Furious franchise, and you’ve gone on to become a key artistic voice in the series. What has this ride been like for you?

All of these movies are just gargantuan, and it takes a particular type of person to be able to keep up with all of the moving parts to a franchise like this. I’ll say that working on Furious 7 was intense, because of Paul Walker’s tragic death, and the effects work that needed to be done by WETA to pull it all off for the final cut. That took its toll on everyone, and Paul was a great guy in so many respects.

What sort of film would you like to edit?

I’d love to do a Wind River, or a Perks of Being a Wallflower. Just get in there and do a straight-drama. It’s very hard getting those jobs when you’re known as “the action guy.” That’s my resume – action blockbusters, and that’s how people see me within the industry. I want to cut a film with meaty performances and a story that carries emotional weight. The Negotiator, I feel, is a great blend of my skills, with both action and the dialogue and character moments. I’m very confident that I could do it, but over the years, I’ve positioned myself into a lifestyle where I need the action editor salary!

What do you have coming up on the horizon?

This summer I’ve got Mile 22, which is the new action-thriller from Peter Berg. I helped to cut that one together, and that’s going to be a complete rush.


❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.

❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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