Interview with editor Tom Salvaggio


Tom Salvaggio is an American writer, director, and editor based in Los Angeles. Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Tom attended Savannah College of Art and Design (2007-2011) where he won the Outstanding Artistic Achievement Award and The Savannah Silver Screen Society’s Award for his thesis film “Bone’yeerd” (2011). As an editor, his documentary work has earned him three LA Area Emmys and two Golden Mike Awards for Best TV Video Editing. As a writer/director, his work includes narrative and experimental shorts, branded content, and music videos and his award-winning short films have screened at international film festivals.

  • When did you decide that you wanted to be an editor? Did you try your hand at any other type of filmmaking positions?

I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I was four years old so I’ve always been very interested in all aspects of filmmaking, but have always concentrated on writing and directing. And because my path never crossed with any editors, editing was simply born out of necessity. Fortunately, all these roles inform each other so my hope is that they make me a better filmmaker over time.

  • How do you prepare to start editing (organizing scenes, takes, files and folders)?

While organization is important, I tend to be more driven by concept or emotion so breaking down the script into sequences is the most elemental part for me. During this process, I like to think of the story like a piece of music – what’s the shape of the narrative structure, what’s the tone and rhythm at any given moment, where can there the tempo changes, what can be shortened in order to compress, what can be elongated in order to emphasize, and how each of these decisions support the story and communicate its themes. When editing for others, another special moment for me is watching all of the raw footage for the first time without context and emotionally reacting to everything with fresh eyes. Holding on to that first impression helps inform my decisions throughout the process.

  • How do you decide when/where to make a cut?

Many variables determine this since it all depends on what psychological effect you want to have on the viewer. Cuts can be practical like cutting on actions and tracing eyelines or they can be based on an idea, such as cutting between two very different images to create a juxtaposition. Sometimes deciding when to cut comes from an abstract place – my emotional, visual, or physical reaction to a sequence. This guiding force of both intention and intuition was developed over time simply by doing and experimenting. One of the beautiful things about editing is that while there are textbook rules, there doesn’t have to be any rules at the same time, which to me means there’s no right or wrong way to edit something.

  • How can editing change the tone or emotion?

In an extremely foundational way. The emotional versatility of editing really amazes me. With the basic building blocks of images and sound, anything can work in a variety of ways. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve at any given moment. In that way, editing is really assigning emotionality – having the power to transform innocuous footage into something sinister or something comedic. Music and sound effects are obvious tools for influencing tone, but the absence of music can also have a stark effect as well. Rhythm can be another tool – a series of rapid-fire shots has a very different effect on the viewer than a series of very long shots. Another powerful tool can be subjectivity (i.e. if a character is having a panic attack, the cuts can be frenzied and disorienting in order to match their state of mind). There are many more tools or techniques to manage tone, but for me, the intention behind using them and the degree to which they are used are just as important as the tools themselves.

  • What kind of problems come up during editing?

Beside technical issues that may present themselves, I’ve found most fundamental editing issues trace back to the script because writing and editing feel intrinsically linked. I like to think the script provides tangible information – what ideas need to be conveyed and when they need to be conveyed. Then, to enhance those ideas, directing and editing can provide intangible information – tone/emotion, subjectivity, pace, etc. Issues arise in that translation between the two – the pacing slows too much here, what’s written didn’t translate enough, translates too much, an aspect of the story needs to be further explored or completely deleted, etc. That’s why some projects take on a life of their own once editing begins and deviations from the script occur. And because these are all subjective issues that involve discussions with the director, I like to think of them less as problems and more as opportunities to get creative.

  • How does your work as the visual editor feed into the work of the sound editor?

When things work best, I like to think of them as one entity. I’m especially drawn to the musicality that can be created by picture and sound editing. In order to achieve that, editing both picture and sound together is crucial. Fortunately, my good friend and sound designer Nick Interlandi understands this, so for him, it’s a matter of elevating a sonic foundation that’s been roughly established. When submitting edits to others, solid soundscapes make the watching experience more engaging and also has the ability to make your edit stronger. Viewers can better perceive your cutting rhythm and ideas or emotions can be greatly enhanced with working sound.

  • With all the adjustments, how much can a movie end up deviating from the original script?

A lot! “Bellingham’s Belief” is a prime example because of its unorthodox process. It was a passion project made during lockdown so I was a one-man crew with the luxury of tweaking while shooting and editing. The short is told in an abstract documentary format, so the narration that guides the entire story was written first. Pacing out a temp voice over with music cues and sound effects helped me delete 15% of the narration in order to streamline the structure. Because the visuals were consolidated into what I could shoot, what could be archival, and what could be neither, only 40% of the visuals were initially scripted. So the editing process became the writing process for some visuals. I’d shoot an idea for a mini-sequence, see how it edited together, then commit to it or further tweak it, all while writing ideas for other sequences in the script at the same time. This may sound tedious, but it actually felt incredibly organic because it allowed me the much needed time to exhaust every creative impulse. For context, the majority of my previous work is often very tightly scripted and storyboarded with little room for creative deviations.

  • How much creative input the editor has, or how do you get your director accept your ideas?

In my experience editing with others, every project is unique and requires adaptation – some may want me to bring a particular style, others may want me to accommodate their ideas, or others may need help in discovering what they want. For every instance, it’s less about trying to force my ideas on others and more about catering to the needs of the director or the project. Trust-building starts with making sure my collaborators and I share the same common creative goal from the very beginning. Not only will that inform my decision-making, but it will allow everyone to have open and honest conversations about their opinions and ideas. Another important thing I like to remember throughout the process is that I’m there as an editor to ensure that the project reaches its full potential.

  • Were you influenced by any directors or film editors in the development of your craft over the years?

Film, music, and fine art fuel my creative personality. Film history is deeply interesting to me so the list of filmmakers and films that inspire me is very long and always growing, but classic arthouse in particular is especially exciting and special to me because it taught me the importance of discovering and exploring your own singular cinematic voice. As an editor, I appreciate Hank Corwin.

  • Quite a few directors that once they find their editor, that’s who they continue to work with. Do you find that that’s the case with you?

The same people will approach me as an editor and I’m very fortunate that is the case, but I’m always open to working with new people too. For me, the best parts of collaborating with new people is finding a shorthand form of communication and understanding their creative language; learning how the storytelling part of their minds work. That’s what makes every project different and stimulating and ultimately rewarding in the end.