Last night's BAFTA win for "Argo" editor William Goldenberg certainly bolsters his Oscar chances, especially given the way the movie is steamrolling its way through the awards season. Then again, Goldenberg, who's also nominated for the controversial best picture contender, "Zero Dark Thirty," with Dylan Tichenor, is in very good editorial company. All five contenders (which also include best picture nominees "Life of Pi," "Lincoln," and "Silver Linings Playbook") are about strong-willed people on improbable missions, whether it's to free American hostages in Iran or kill bin Laden in Afghanistan or unite the country during its darkest hour or save a marriage or survive a life-threatening ordeal.
However, "Argo" is definitely unique for combining a fact-based political thriller with a surreal kind of Hollywood absurdity. The gallows humor of Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) sets the tone with his ability to be funny in every situation, epitomized by his "Argo fuck yourself" tag line during moments of high tension.
And Goldenberg is the first to admit it. "In the editing we just tried to make the jokes play as real as possible. For me, it was a matter of making sure it was grounded," he says. "But what makes it something new is that they really did come up with this idea to disguise them as a movie crew."
It was all about keeping the tones within "the same bandwidth." But for Goldenberg, it all comes together in a sequence that deftly plays with time in which Ben Affleck coaches the houseguests during the drive to the airport while the CIA frantically tries to reinstate the mission.
Yet talk about surreal: imagine taking an immediate left turn onto "Zero Dark Thirty." Fortunately, when Goldenberg joined Tichenor and the editorial team in post, he was hurled into the climactic mission. It was dark, intense, and nothing like "Argo." Hold up in a pitch black room, Goldenberg had no problem getting into the claustrophobic vibe.
For Tim Squyres, Ang Lee's long-time editor, "Life of Pi" was unconventional in the sense that there was no assembling of coverage to construct a scene. Here, the elaborate previs by Halon dictated how most of the spiritual adventure was shot between Pi (Suraj Sharma) and Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger, except for the India scenes and framing device. Even so, there was editorial wiggle room to change things around, despite the technical difficulties.
For example, there's a crucial moment when Pi's losing his grip in the power struggle with the tiger, and they try to figure out how Richard Parker should respond when the boy attempts to communicate with it. The director suggested a quiet puffing sound tigers make to express friendliness.
But Squyres disagreed: "I think the only thing Richard Parker is saying in this is, 'What are you saying?'" he explains in "The Making of Life of Pi" (Harper Design). The editor persuasively made his case in his attempt to help shape the most effective performance from the animated tiger (courtesy of VFX Oscar frontrunner Rhythm & Hues).
With "Lincoln," long-time Steven Spielberg editor and two-time Oscar winner Michael Kahn found himself assembling an actor and dialogue-centric movie with the celebrated director for the first time in their 36-year collaboration. He says it was liberating for both of them to delve into Lincoln's complex psychology and power of persuasion. Everything revolved around Daniel Day-Lewis' commanding performance, so there was a much simpler and theatrical approach to the narrative and use of visual space, and a much greater opportunity to linger on the solemn moments amid the battle to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.
"During war, it's hard to be a commander-in-chief," Kahn suggests. "But I learned things about Lincoln that I didn’t know from school. He kept the union together, he opposed slavery, but it's how he did it — how he handled people. You have the opportunity to see how he felt, what was inside of him. He had a lot of doubts and fears, but he was able to handle it. It's well-known that he was a great storyteller, and he used that to his advantage. And you really like him."
Meanwhile, what's fascinating about "Silver Linings Playbook" is how brilliantly it juggles a rom-com with a bi-polar social issue drama. It's full of eccentric charm and refreshing unpredictability. But like "Argo," editors Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers had to ground it in a believable reality so the eccentricity didn't overwhelm the movie.
Nevertheless, director David O. Russell's free form shooting style of discovering and exploring the characters in the moment was editorially challenging. Cassidy was therefore given enough material and latitude to "fit the character" in the editing room through a continual process of calibration and recalibration. But the first act was the most challenging because Bradley Cooper (who also served as exec producer) needed to find the sweet spot for his quixotic protagonist.
"The best example of that is he's a ticking time bomb and how much of his manic behavior should come through in the first act?" Cassidy explains. "And if there's too much, then you've upstaged the climax of the act — the scene with the parents in the attic. And you don't want the audience to see him behave in such a way that they say, 'Send him back…he deserves to be in the hospital.' So Bradley, who was very involved in all post-production issues, had the time to explore Pat so that we liked him and believed in this second chance to remake himself."
As Goldenberg says, "It's all about keeping the eye on the prize."