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The Unsung Hero Behind ‘Argo’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Has Two Chances to Win Oscar Night

The Unsung Hero Behind 'Argo' and 'Zero Dark Thirty' Has Two Chances to Win Oscar Night

When William Goldenberg came to talk to Sneak Previews about editing Ben Affleck’s “Argo” back in October, he was still in the throes of finishing Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” on a tight deadline to deliver a final cut in November. Oscar night Goldenberg is up for not one but two Oscars, for two very different Middle East movies, and is favored to win for best picture frontrunner “Argo.”

Hitchcock and Reville, Scorsese and Schoonmaker, Spielberg and Kahn, Lee and Squyres, Tarantino and Menke are among major directors who rely on their editors as creative partners, almost as an extension of themselves as they finalize their choices in the editing room. In fact, Affleck turned to Goldenberg–who is legendary in the film community for being able to handle directors as diverse and exacting as Michael Mann and Michael Bay–to edit his first film, “Gone Baby Gone,” which turned out so well that Warner Bros. chief Jeff Robinov called the actor-director in to do another project for the studio. Affleck went with someone else to edit “The Town,” which went through a long preview process before emerging in its final state.

For $44-million “Argo,” which would set a challenge for any filmmaker, Affleck returned to Goldenberg. Affleck, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and a group of cameramen carrying 8 mm and 16 mm cameras did such a convincing job of shooting the opening mob scene that Goldenberg didn’t need to use any stock footage. Throughout the film, Prieto’s hand-held cameras “make everything feel grabbed and accidental,” says Goldenberg, “finding things and pieces, like the film accidentally landed there.”

Goldenberg and Affleck expertly navigated “Argo”‘s tricky tonal balance–while making the final escape more thrilling than it really was. In real life Mendez and his six “house guests” wound up stranded at the airport  as their flight was delayed for three hours; the CIA agent kept them calm. “Tonally each part of the film meshed together,” says Goldenberg. “This time we got it right…We didn’t want to point to things. Or Hollywoodize it.”

“As an editor you can only use material given to you,” Goldenberg says. “Great movie moments like ‘make my day’ have to be done within the bandwidth of movie so that it feels organic to the film. On ‘Argo’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ with Ben and Kathryn, two of the best directors who understand performance and what a movie needs, I had the material I needed. As an editor you’re trying to make this moment organic to the film. ‘Argo’ jokes have funny lines, there were all kinds of versions of Goodman or Arkin. I was cognisant of using ones that felt like something was said on the spur of the moment, with a sense of humor organic to the situation, not the biggest laugh. A lot attention was paid to the overall, how it fit into the movie. If it was for the sake of jokes, we took them out, the focus was on six people getting out of a situation, who happened to be funny in life and death situations. Finally it’s about using the right read, the one organic to the movie. With the editing process, you put all the pieces together to make the story feel real.”

Affleck admits that he shoots a lot, trying many colors–at his editor’s behest, of his own performance as well–and figures out the movie in the editing room. Affleck is his own toughest critic, says Goldenberg: “He is brutal.” That shot of Afffleck removing his shirt (revealing a six pack) was written as Mendez emerging naked from the shower and wrapping a towel around himself. Affleck was “self-conscious” about it, Goldenberg says: “We kept trimming it. It was to show the vulnerability of the character.”

For “Zero Dark Thirty,” Goldenberg came in late in the process as Dylan Tichenor was well under way with three hours of edited footage on a very abbreviated schedule. So Goldenberg took on several key sequences among the last things filmed, the tricky car/cellphone tracking scenes and the Navy SEAL Osama bin Laden compound raid. He started on January 20 with a Studio City editing room meeting with Bigelow and Boal, just back from Jordan.

He had to tackle an overwhelming amount of archive material–the raid alone had 40 hours of untouched dailies, he says, “enough to make a movie on its own.” The production sent him the Jordan dailies on his laptop. “I had no idea, on my hard drive was a bunch unorganized stuff,” he recalls. “I put it up on my laptop and I couldn’t see any image. They didn’t tell me anything about the night vision. I see they’re SEALs in there, some shots are brighter than others. The dailies were a couple of generations away on an uncalibrated laptop, that did me no good.”

Goldenberg is an expeirenced editor, but the enormity of the responsiblity of cutting that sequence and the logistical difficulty of the hours of footage gave him pause. “How long will it take to get a really great scene?” they asked. “A couple of days,” he joked. “I learned not to be funny around Mark.”

So Goldenberg did what he learned to do a long time ago, he says. “You have to go into a room, keep your head down, work on the shots in front of you, and not think about how this is the definitive hunt for Bin Laden, costing many millions dollars, and the responsibilities of money and time schedule. If you do you’ll freeze up and not be able to do anything.”

So he sat down with the footage and started with the beginning of the raid, with the blackhawk helicopters arriving at the compound and looked at four or five hours of dailies a day. “I’d mark and pick the pieces I liked, cut three to five of those, go on to the next day and do the next section and piece it together,” he says. “The first cut took a month, around 40 minutes.”

Goldenberg had to struggle with the tension between getting the pivotal moment in American history right, exactly the way it played out in real time, and giving it enough tension to keep people glued to their seats–even when they already know what happened. There was a temptation to do “action beat explosion to explosion, that’s more exciting,” he says. “Kathryn and I had to fight against that, saying to each other, ‘this is not a traditional action sequence, that’s not what this is about.'”

They wanted to show how this is “what these guys do for a living, and not what you expect, like picking up briefcase and going to work, there were at least 12 other raids that night. ‘They methodically go in, it’s a wave of death,’ is how Kathryn used to explain it. These guys are killers, that’s what they do, professionals. Their job is to go into these raids and capture or kill someone. This happened to be a raid on Bin Laden’s compound. It could have been any raid on any night.”

Goldenberg created a quiet raid with a lack of action highlighted by unexpected bursts of energy and sound, when a guy shoots through a door, “we lull the audience with a false sense of sound, blasts, knowing they don’t know what’s around reach corner, or if a person has gun.”

They didnt take the Paul Greengrass “Bourne” hand-held point-of-view route either; we’re watching the SEALs experientially from outside. Bigelow had to shoot everything twice for the different lighting situations and night vision, wanting it to be what it looked like on that moonleess night. “We wanted the audience to experience what that looked like, the SEALs lost in darkness, a sniper on the rooftop, cut to his POV with night vision, juxtaposed with what it was really like for the people in the compound without night vision.”

Then Goldenberg took the movie to the end and then addressed the tracking of Abu Ahmed’s cell phone and finding the white SUV that led the CIA to the bin Laden compound.  Just watching all the footage shot by four to six cameras from different angles took three days. “That’s where experience as an editor comes in,” he says. “You don’t panic. For a young editor to tackle it would have been overwhelming because it’s being able to process that information. It takes tremendous experience to figure the way to tell that story.”

The trick was to speed up the information by doing two things at once with sound looping and overlapping, and keep everything clear. Shots of satellite maps, call tracking via phone lines and computer banks were added in post-production to impart more information in fun visual ways. A sequence like this isn’t as straightforward as talking heads, Goldenberg explains. “When you have an enormous section that is free form it’s more of a challenge to tell an exciting story.”

What was Boal’s role? “He did the best thing a producer can do. He stayed away.  He’d come in to screenings and was able to maintain the big picture in his mind, and solved some big problems. He was able to have objectivity, did what a producer does: ‘This is your problem, here.'” Clearly Bigelow and Boal make a great team, he says. “Whatever happens with them, as partners the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Some magic happens between the two of them; they are destined to work together. ”

The two films are very different, he admits. “Argo” was more of a crowd-pleaser: “You leave ‘Argo’ feeling exhilarated, although it was a complicated ending, you feel when they get rescued a sense of exhilaration, so that you applaud in theater. That’s an amazing feeling as an editor, when you see the movie and tear up, it still works after you’ve seen it 50 times at least. Leaving ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is more like being punched in the stomach, it’s a different animal.”

Bigelow was influenced by French mini-series “Carlos,” although “she’s got her own style,” says Goldenberg, “that was something we talked about, the feeling of watching a real event. There was a similar feeling with ‘The Insider,” which was more of movie movie. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ breaks the mold of a traditional Hollywood movie.”

“All the President’s Men” influenced both movies. It influenced Affleck for the CIA material, “he wanted the CIA offices to look like the reporters pit,” says Goldenberg. “It was the idea that this stuff gets done by people with sleeves rolled up and coffee stains on their clothes and messy desks, working hard, not just running info through computers. They’re hardworking unsung heroes. That was a similarity in the way we portray the CIA in both movies.”

As for the music the two directors used Alexandre Desplat’s score sparingly, says Goldenberg: “They both don’t want typical movie music, they don’t want it to drive a scene to make make people feel a certain way or to make the action more exciting is the opposite of what they both wanted. They want music as the underpinning of a scene.”

Diplomatically, Goldenberg says he loved working on both movies and has no idea how he will ever top this year. 

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