With its dense, real-life narrative, “Straight Outta Compton” posed a unique challenge for editors Billy Fox and Michael Tronick. Their dilemma? How to streamline F. Gary Gray’s biopic of hip-hop group N.W.A to make it accessible to a wide audience, while remaining true to subjects Ice Cube and Dr. Dre—both producers on the film. The result is a portrait of N.W.A’s “reality rap” as a cultural document of gang life, drug dealing, and police harassment in ’80s and ’90s L.A. that’s rooted in the fascinating stories of its three central figures: Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell).
Not surprisingly, focus and pace were crucial to the narrative effectiveness. Fox (“Four Brothers,” “Law & Order”) was actually considered a year before production started when asked to cut some screen tests. Gray was impressed (“You get it”) and he got the gig. “The vibe is that there was a fair amount of improvising and it’s just a rhythm of keeping the dialogue going,” Fox said. “[Gray] was all about the energy maintained.”
But it was an unusual process. Fox usually gets dailies for numbered scenes and compares them to the script. But he noticed that nothing was the same. He cut it and then would cut the next scene, which was a hybrid of various scenes with some footage cut out. “And I would collect five to seven scenes every other night and send them to Gary. At a certain point, I took the script and put it away and never used it again because the scenes were so completely different.”
One of the challenging moments was [N.W.A’s first national tour in ’89, shot at the Santa Monica Civic and the Sports Arena]. “At one point it was about 40 minutes,” Fox recalled. “And those little vignettes of them in the hotel room, or all those varying pieces that were in between the concerts, did not necessarily have a home. They looked at the true order that they performed in and tried to stick to that, but the in-between pieces were moved around a lot, fixing one problem but causing another. Eventually we fell into a place where everything seemed good, but, more importantly, as we brought the songs down, it had an interesting flow.”
However, when Gray became satisfied with a three-hour cut, Universal brought in Tronick (“The 33”), a former music editor, to help trim it down. This is not unusual, of course, but Tronick’s role quickly expanded when he became part of the trusted inner circle.
“I’d worked with Gary on ‘Law Abiding Citizen’ and knew Billy from ‘Footloose,'” Tronick said. “I initially worked on length issues but three weeks turned into five months and our interests merged. For me, it was very challenging to get it to a running time (147 minutes) that was more engaging to an audience. Billy nailed performances and I juxtaposed scenes, especially in the second part of the third act, playing them in a different order, coming up with the best through line.”