William Goldenberg gives us a behind-the-scenes look at editing this year’s most Oscar-worthy film, Argo
William Goldenberg is a seasoned film editor with two Academy Award nominations and a resume of feature films like no other. His most recent work, Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, is one of this year’s top contenders for Oscar nominations.
I had an opportunity to talk with Mr. Goldenberg about working on the film Argo, and the post-production process for a feature film. I also asked him his thoughts on what it takes to become a film editor. He gave us some great insight into the world of feature film editing, as well as some key attributes that are necessary, if you are looking to break into the world of post-production in Hollywood.
Production Apprentice: First off, fantastic job on Argo. It’s been a while since I found myself on the edge of my seat throughout an entire film.
William Goldenberg: Oh Thank you we are really proud of the movie. We hear that from a lot of people and it’s obviously what we intended. I have gone to the theater a couple times, whether it be industry screenings or to take my kids to see it and we get a great reaction from the audience. It’s really exciting to be around.
pA: What is it like putting a movie together that’s based on historical facts? On the post side, how did you hold true to the historical facts while still trying to tell a compelling story?
WG: Well that’s exactly it. The movie is based on true facts; I mean most of it is true, there are liberties taken, as movies do, to help the drama. But we were really careful and we were constantly going back to the source material in terms of what happened; what the political climate was like, what the people were going through at that time, what the political climate in America was, what the political climate in Iran was. We also tried to stay a-political about the movie. We wanted to get it right but we also didn’t want to express a political point of view while we were making the movie. We just wanted it to be a gripping story that would hold true to what those people went through but we didn’t want the film seen as something that was expressing a left leaning or a right leaning point of view, because we didn’t think that was what this was for – this was for entertaining and educating people.
pA: Right and it’s an interesting story in itself anyway, so you had a lot to work with from the start. How close did you work with the director, Ben Affleck? Is this something you kind of sculpted together or did he give you a little bit of freedom with it?
WG: Well while he’s shooting, I’m editing. So at that point I’m obviously doing it on my own and using a script as a guide. I’m presenting him with my first impression of how I think the scene should be edited – so in essence – I’m on my own during the whole shooting process. I work with Ben on the weekends, showing him the material I cut the previous week. But in general, during the shooting I’m on my own.
I think most directors like the idea of editors taking a shot at it without their input so that they know that you bring something fresh and new, a fresh point of view to what they’re doing. They don’t want to tell you exactly what to do because then you’re just a pair of hands and they don’t want a pair of hands they want someone who is going to bring something to the table. But when the shooting is over and we get together, Ben and I worked hand in hand. We were in the room a lot together. We talk about what the scenes are suppose to do, why they’re not doing them if there not and how we can make them even better if they are working. It’s a collaborative process once the shooting is done. While the shooting is going on I’m on my own. What I like to do is have a lot of conversations with the director I’m working with and even though they’re not saying specifically what to do, I find it easier and I can get into their head. And just by having discussions about the material, I find myself getting into their mindset and understanding what they are trying to do, trying to get out of each scene or out of the whole movie. It’s sort of an osmosis type of thing while were shooting I like to have constant contact with the director so I can get the feel on how they want to feel.
pA: For the younger readers, who might not understand the entire process of editing a feature film… What does your job consist of when you agree to become the lead editor for a feature film?
WG: Well in terms of the technical part of it, I have to hire a crew, which usually means an assistant, who runs the editing room and sets up all the equipment. Together we will hire the rest of the crew. Which would be a second assistant, an apprentice, and a production assistant, somebody who runs errands and picks up lunch…things like that. We find a place to work, which is sometimes our decision and sometimes the studio gets to decide. We get set up probably a week before shooting starts. We set up our rooms and get all the equipment set up and running and get ready to get the film. In terms of the creative part of it, I have a lot of discussions with the director about what he’s intending, how he’s going to shoot. Then we’ll discuss how we’ll work together. Will I show him material during shooting or will he not want to see it because it’s too much for him? Do we want to go watch dailies everyday or do we just want to talk about dailies? So that’s about what goes into it.
pA: Let’s talk about what a typical day to day looks like once you’re getting close to the release date.
WG: Well as you get close to the release date, like any project, it’s like when you get close to a test in school. As you get closer to that date, the pressure mounts and you get more uptight because you get that one day, that one release day. Everybody, the critics and audience, makes their impression of the movie you’ve worked so hard on, most likely for a year, and you feel an overwhelming amount of pressure. But at the same time, you don’t want to make any rash decisions because you start to unravel mentally. So you want to keep your head on straight. But what we’re generally doing the last couple of weeks is mixing the dialogue, music and sound effects down to one finished track. We’re doing the color timing, which will go to a digital color timing lab and sit with a color timer and make sure all the color matches and the film looks the way we want it to look. Mostly at that point it’s finishing the movie.
About six weeks prior to the release date, we’ll take the movie out and show it to like 500 or 600 strangers in a theater and get their impression. At that point we are trying to put our best foot forward, trying to get the best version or what we think is the best version of the movie. We can get a fresh reaction from an audience that has nothing invested in our movie. We’re trying to make the best decisions about the editing of the movie; make the drama play the best and the comedy play the best we can and see what people think. That’s another nerve-racking hurdle to get over.
pA: I’m sure there are a lot of revisions going on towards the end as the studio comes in and gives you their opinions. Is it more of a collaborative effort among many people at this point?
WG: Yeah it is a collaborative effort and luckily for us the movie was working. We took it out and screened five or six times for small groups before we ever showed the studio. We had what you call “family and friends screenings,” people we can trust that aren’t going to tell the rest of the world about the movie, but also people that we trust to give their opinion. We’ll screen anywhere from 12 – 18 people and get their reaction and then adjust accordingly to what they find confusing or what they find unfulfilling. What parts of the movie are too slow and what parts of the movie are too fast. We do about five or six of those before we ever show the studio the movie. You don’t take everything they say literally, but just having them in the room gives you a different point of view of how the movie is playing. Because you’re sitting there everyday, just you and the director, things may seem a certain way but when you put it up on a screen and there are people who have nothing to do with the movie in the room, all of a sudden a lot of things become very clear where they might have not been before.
pA: What’s that like, when your film is up there on the big screen in front of a group of people, how does that make you feel?
WG: Well I find it very exciting. There is a fear part of it, where you’re saying, “what if they don’t like it and there’s nothing we can do about it,” that’s the movie and you can’t fix the things that are broken. But mostly, I feel excitement because I want to know what people think. I want to make the movie better. I think it is thrilling, especially when you get a great reaction. But I find it thrilling because you get to experience it with people fresh and it makes it fresh for me. I’m seeing it through their eyes, so I find it really exciting. When we screen for at a preview for 500 people, I think it’s great because you learn a lot and it’s also a good way to overcome your fears about such things. You put yourself in situations that scare you and it makes you stronger, I guess.
pA: It sounds like you really love what you do?
WG: Yeah I’m a really lucky guy. You know I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I was in film school or before I went to film school. My father grew up in the restaurant business and there isn’t anybody in my family who has ever done anything in the arts in any way, so when I decided to go to film school it was a departure from anything anybody in my family has ever done. I didn’t get that much encouragement about it so when it seemed that I was good at the editing part of it, it was exciting. I was able to come to California and come to Hollywood and get a job in editing which is lucky. It came from a lot of hard work and I feel incredibly blessed to do something that I’m good at. People seem to appreciate my work and that’s what I really love. I think it’s a rare thing and I don’t take it for granted.
pA: What’s it like for an inspiring editor? Let’s say someone comes out of film school or maybe a university and really wants to be an editor. What does that path look like? If you really dedicate yourself and you want to become a film editor what does that mean? What do you have to do?
WG: There are a few ways to go but I think the best way is to learn from the ground up. I started out as production assistant, which meant driving scripts around and dropping them off and picking up lunch and doing errands for people. I was working for a small production company doing that and I asked them if I could be an apprentice editor on one of their television movies. They appreciated my hard work and they gave me a job as an apprentice editor and I worked for a couple years doing that. I was able to move up the ladder and I got into the editors guild. I was able to become an apprentice and did that for several years, then I became an assistant and then after being an assistant for seven years I was able to move up to be an editor. I found doing it that way I was able to learn. I knew how to do every job from every aspect and it made me a better manager of the editing room, a better manager of the editing process, because I knew everything from the ground up. There are people that don’t do it that way. There are people who start out as music video editors and can make the jump over to feature film editing and they have done just great. I just felt like for me it was better to learn from the ground up.
I was able to secure a job as Michael Kahn’s first assistant who was Steven Spielberg’s editor. I worked with him for four years as an assistant editor and he mentored me and has continued to mentor me through the years. He trained me to be an editor. The film school was great but my true film school was working as Michael Kahn’s assistant. He taught me everything about editing from the creative aspect of it, which you can only teach so much, to the politics of editing, the psychology of editing, his methodology of how to approach scenes and how to take a point of view. I was able to do things in a methodical and organized way, which allowed me to be creative, if that makes any sense.
Because I was Michael Kahn’s assistant I was able to step across to being an editor at a higher level than I would have if I just tried to be an editor without anyone’s support. I was able to have a resume with a lot of big movies where I was an assistant, but they were movies that people recognized. When I went to move across to be an editor, Michael was behind me and he would tell people to hire Bill Goldenberg to cut the movie and if he doesn’t work out I’ll come and cut the movie for free. People were like “ok that sounds good, I’ll do that,” and thankfully (Michael) never had to do that. But his support meant everything to me at that point and I chose that path specifically. Because I was able to get the support from an editor like Michael, whom I think is the best editor living, it was invaluable and it turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done.
pA: Your resume is impressive. A couple of Academy Award nominations for you as well?
WG: Yeah for the Insider and Seabiscuit. Both historical dramas just like Argo. I’ve done some others besides that so that territory was pretty familiar to me. That was obviously a thrill for me to be nominated for an Oscar a couple of times. It was something I never thought would happen to me and it was really thrilling experience both times. It was fun.
pA: Pleasantville is another one that jumps out at me. I really like that movie.
WB: Me too. I think it is an under appreciated. Reese Witherspoon and Toby McGuire, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, such solid casting. Especially Reese and Toby before either were big stars and I feel like if the movie were released now, they’re so much more visible as actors that they would have generated a lot more interest…though it did fairly well. I’m really proud of that movie. It was groundbreaking technologically with the colorization.
pA: Yes, it was something different and truly amazing. That takes me into my next question…about technology. How has technology changed for you over the years? Do you wish you were still editing on film or did the move to digital make your life easier?
WG: It makes my life hundreds and hundreds of times easier than it would have been with film. I resisted it at first…for about ten minutes. When it first happened some people were doing movies digitally and some were still doing them on film. I liked editing on film but then it became clear that I didn’t have a choice, so then I embraced it. It changed my life. It frees me up to do so many things. It’s hard to put it into words how much more you can do and how much easier it is. In terms of experimenting with different version of the film or looking at the material more easily. Being able to work faster, being able to make the sound tracks more richer and more full, dealing with visual effects. Just simply doing visual effects within the Avid…the list is unending as to how much it’s helped.
For me I felt lucky to have started and to have learned on film. I find that the methodology I use is the same. How I look at the film, how I study the film before I start editing. I haven’t changed the method that I use. I just now have this machine that makes everything that much more easier and more fun. I’m freed up to do all kinds of things that I would have never had the ability to do before.
The technology is always changing too, which makes it better. Now that we can look at a full high definition image on the Avid, the image is so much cleaner…It really looks like a film image. In the beginning, that was the complaint…that the resolution on the monitors was not very good. But now they’re so close…you don’t have any problem at all. It’s wonderful.
pA: Are there still directors and editors in Hollywood still editing on film these days or have they all switched to non-linear systems?
WG: Spielberg was the last to edit on film. I think he did Warhorse on the Avid. I know that he did Lincoln on the Avid. Quentin Tarantino cuts on the Avid but then he makes a work print and they screen the movie on film. I believe he’s the only one at this point. Everybody edits on the avid.
pA: That brings up a good point, you mention Avid quite a bit…is Avid the editing platform that an aspiring film editor needs to know?
WG: Often I get college students asking me how to get ahead and how to secure jobs and I tell them to take an Avid training course.
If you walk into an editing room, your first job is as a production assistant. If you have Avid skills, and when there’s extra time, they’ll put you on an Avid and have you help because nobody turns down extra help.
As a production assistant your job is to run tapes and hard drives around or to get lunch, but if there’s time and you can work on Avid – you’ll get experience. If you can’t (edit on Avid), then you’re going to sit there and answer the phones. So if you can find a way to learn the Avid, it’s going to help you. You’re going to have to learn it eventually, so if you can walk into the room having those skills it’s going to help you get ahead faster.
pA: What’s next for you?
WG: I’m working on a film called Zero Dark Thirty, which we’re about to finish up in the next two weeks. It’s about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. It’s the same writer/director, Mark Ball and Kathryn Bigelow that did the Hurt Locker. It’ll be out December 19th and we’re frantically trying to finish. It’s another wonderful movie, an historical drama that I think people will find incredibly interesting…a really powerful film and incredibly acted. I’ve had a lucky year with two films that I’m very proud of. It’s a rare time when you can do two movies in a year at all and to have these two, it’s a blessing.
I’m hoping to continue those type of movies. I had a great time doing Transformers (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) and I may indeed work on the fourth one, we’re discussing that right now. But my real interest is to do films like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. I like movies based on true events, stories about the event that people didn’t know…I find those fascinating.
pA: One last question, what advice would you give to someone out there that’s aspiring to become a film editor?
WB: Attitude is everything for me. I would say is that if you have a great attitude and can work a fourteen-hour days with a smile on your face and you can treat people well, that’s key.
I’ve seen editors that are incredibly talented fall on their face because they’re argumentative and they’re grumpy. You have to have the skills, but you also have to be a positive and hard working man or woman. It doesn’t happen without all those skills. You have to understand, as an editor, it’s the director’s movie and you’re trying to help them make the best movie. If you want to direct a movie, go ahead and direct a movie, but this is about helping this director make his or her best movie.
I think it’s that kind of attitude that’s helped me so much through my career. I think I’m good at what I do but I also think that (my attitude) has meant so much to me moving myself ahead. Attitude has also helped the people that I bring along with me. I’ve had the same assistant for thirteen years. He started with me as my PA and he’s been my first assistant for six years. I have people that work with me for a really long time because they do a great job but they’re also great to be with.
William Goldenberg is an American film editor with more than twenty credits since 1992. He has been nominated for the Academy Award for Film Editing for the films Seabiscuit (2003) and The Insider (1999). He has also received nominations for nine other editing-related awards. He is a member of the American Cinema Editors (ACE) society.