Oscar nods for Tom McArdle ’91 and Matt Heineman ’05

by Nalini Ramanathan | 4/7/16 5:01pm

Tom McArdle '91 and Matt Heineman '05 were both up for Oscar nominations this past cycle.

Good things often come in pairs. Such is the case for Dartmouth alumni Tom McArdle ’91 and Matt Heineman ’05, who were both nominated for Oscars this past year.

McArdle received a nomination for Best Film Editing for his work as editor for the movie “Spotlight,” a biographical drama which depicts The Boston Globe’s investigation into the widespread and systemic sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

Documentary filmmaker Heineman received a nomination for Best Documentary Feature for his film “Cartel Land,” which depicts the attempts of vigilantes in the United States and in the Mexican state of Michoacán to curb the violence of Mexican drug cartels.

McArdle, who has edited movies such as “The Visitor” (2007), “The Station Agent” (2003) and “Win Win” (2011) became interested in film while a student at Dartmouth.

An English major, he found himself taking several classes in film during his last two years, and attained a film minor as well.

During his first year of film classes, he took a few classes on film history, which he said were instrumental in kindling his interest in film, providing him with a solid background and allowing him to see film as a potential career.

However, it was in his second year of film classes, which focused more on the process of filmmaking, that McArdle found his love for editing.

Film and media studies professor Jim Brown, who had McArdle as one of his first students at Dartmouth, said that his work ethic as a student showed his potential for success as a film editor.

The project McArdle did for Brown’s class was a Tarantino-style film. He decided to work with video, although students were not required to produce a film with sound, a particularly difficult feat at the time.

Brown also noted McArdle’s determination to finish his work. While many of his fellow students were often perfectionists and would often throw out works that they were not pleased with, McArdle would finish everything he started. Brown said that McArdle acknowledged that although his first film, like many others,’ was not great, the editing process clicked with him while doing the project.

McArdle appreciated the control he had in the editing process over the final form of the piece. Thus, almost right after graduating from Dartmouth, McArdle began working as a film editor, with the help of the College’s career services.

Although McArdle has edited many acclaimed films, “Spotlight” is the first film for which his editing has received Oscar recognition.

Longtime collaborator and producer Tom McCarthy approached McArdle to edit the film for their fifth collaboration.

Although McArdle had no personal connection with The Boston Globe investigation, he said that he has an appreciation for the importance of doing good work, exemplified by the reporters represented in the film, as well as print journalism, which allowed for such thorough reporting.

As an editor, McArdle said that his main goal is to make the film more cohesive and concise.

Initially, McArdle edited the footage into a long “rough cut,” which he then showed to McCarthy. The two then collaborated every few weeks and worked on trimming down the film, looking for ways to further develop the story and make it more interesting and cohesive. Every two weeks, they would have a test screening to look for audience feedback.

Much of the style of McArdle’s work lies in his subtlety.

“One of the marks of good editing is that you don’t notice it,” his former film history professor Joanna Rapf said. “I was so engrossed in the film that it was invisible, and that’s the way it should be.”

Instead of being in the spotlight himself, McArdle works behind the scenes, doing what he can do to move the story forward.

McArdle feels that his English background shaped him as a good storyteller who focuses more on the big picture rather than the smaller details. Along with McCarthy, McArdle tried to create a story that focused more on the investigation rather than the personal lives of the journalists.

Dartmouth Film Society director Johanna Evans ’10 said that the melding of emotional narratives created a true ensemble film.

“You really get the sense that a piece of the film belongs to every one of the characters, and I think that the editing actually has a lot to with that,” she said.

One of McArdle’s favorite things to work with is dialogue, and his new editing prospects, which include serious films and dramas, seem to reflect that.

“I just want to work with great scripts, like this film,” McArdle said. “It’s very exciting to work on something that good.”

Heineman, unlike McArdle, had no formal training in filmography, and he initially planned to go into education after majoring in history at Dartmouth.

However, after being rejected from Teach for America, he decided to go on the road with a group of his friends, filming a documentary to create a greater understanding of his generation.

Like many history majors, he quipped, he was unsure what he wanted to do with his life. This all changed, however, after he started that documentary.

“I’d never made a film, I’d never held a video camera before, but through this process and this journey, I absolutely fell in love with filmmaking,” Heineman said.

Heineman has since worked on several documentaries, including “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare” (2012), which was nominated for Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

After production, Heineman said he wanted to try something different. After reading about American vigilantes attempting to curb drug trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border, he wanted to learn more and began working on a documentary.

When his father sent him an article about the vigilantes, called “Autodefensas,” attempting to fight against the oppressive rule of drug cartels in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Heineman decided to go to the area.

Throughout his work in film, Heineman said that he gains trust from subjects when working in dangerous situations by coming in without an agenda. He emphasized that he wanted “the story to fall naturally before him” and tried to avoid the trap that many opinioned documentary filmmakers fall into when they “use certain characters to fill their agenda or this thesis that they’re trying to prove.”

“A friend of mine once said, ‘If you end up with the story you started with, then you weren’t listening along,” Heineman said.

DFS directorate member and MALS student Kevin Warstadt, who wrote the society’s film notes for the documentary, said that as part of the genre of cinéma vérité, “Cartel Land” was edited to create more of a linear story.

The value of the film, both Heineman and Warstadt note, lies in viewer involvement. Rather than providing hard statistics or data, the goal of this film, Heineman said, is to ensure that viewers become more emotionally involved with the situations in the area. Heineman particularly wanted to draw attention to a conflict “happening right on our doorstep.”

“By putting you right on the ground in the middle of the it, you gain a greater understanding, and really [puts] you at face with those conflicts, and it was my goal,” Heineman said.