“News of the World,” the post-Civil War road trip of healing and unification between Tom Hanks’ ex-Confederate captain and Helena Zengel’s 10-year-old orphan, marked the first western for both director Paul Greengrass and editor William Goldenberg (who previously collaborated on the “22 July” docudrama). But, tellingly, it was also the first time that the Oscar-winning editor (“Argo”) had been part of a movie from the very beginning, allowing him greater input on story and characterization, which helped streamline his editorial process.
“Paul sent me the book [by Paulette Jiles] and the original script by Luke Davies and outlines, and I went to London the summer before filming [in Santa Fe in 2019],” Goldenberg said. “For 10 days, we went through the script and I gave suggestions. It was a great collaborative process that allowed me to really get into his head.”
Set five years after the Civil War in northern Texas, “News of the World” explores a time when the country was bitterly divided and Texas was under army occupation. Hanks’ Captain Jefferson Kidd, still battling his own demons, wanders from town to town as a news reader, trying to inform and unburden the citizenry. His life is shaken, however, when he encounters orphaned Johanna, no longer a part of the Kiowas that kidnapped and raised her. Kidd decides to deliver her to her surviving aunt and uncle on a four-month journey across the harsh Texas plains, as they slowly bond and heal each other.
“Obviously, Paul’s usual shooting style, with a very alive camera and a documentary-like approach, didn’t suit this genre,” added Goldenberg. “But more than that, he and [cinematographer] Dariusz Wolski wanted that part of Texas to be a character in the film, so they went with a more traditional way of shooting, which was a smart move because you’re able to really live in scenes.”
The editorial challenge for Goldenberg was trying to make this two-hander between Kidd and Johanna work without a B-story. Most of their scenes took place in a wagon, so there was no opportunity for overlapping or inter-cutting scenes. This allowed the editor to create a slower, more contemplative rhythm, taking advantage of the non-verbal communication between them. “We would do scenes and then we’d make it much shorter and bring it down,” he said.
But they quickly realized that they often rushed through a scene too quickly, “skating over” the emotion, as Greengrass described it. So they would go back and let the scene breathe some more. The opening sequence that introduces Kidd at one of his readings was the most difficult because it had to establish the tone. Was he a salesman? Was he a preacher?
“The first day that Paul shot with Tom for the first reading, he did about six or seven takes,” Goldenberg said. “They were really long and stuff had to be cut down. And he asked me to come to the set to see what I thought. And we had a long discussion with Tom and finally found the sweet spot where he’s one of the [audience members]. He’s reflecting back to them what they’re all going through, as opposed to being a salesman or a huckster. He’s a bit of a showman and it seems so logical now in retrospect.”
With Hanks, you get the quintessential everyman of his generation. And the movie explores Kidd’s deeper understanding of war, the political temperature, and the power of storytelling. Plus, the allegorical implications of the story were immediately apparent. “As things progressed, we thought this was like a mirror image of what we’re going through in the world right now,” Goldenberg recalled. “It’s a beautiful love story set against the backdrop of a very difficult world.”
There are a couple of external obstacles along the journey, the most important being a shootout with three ex-Confederates, who want to steal Johanna and traffic her. It’s a well-choreographed sequence with Kidd and Johanna making a great team, which Goldenberg pieced together from several locations into a seamless fit. “Paul shot all the first unit stuff with Tom and Helena, but that was maybe half the material I needed,” he said. “So then second unit kicked in and I went to set everyday and made lots of lists and made sure they got all the shots we needed. And then when I was cutting, the challenge was the characters had to evolve at the end.”
Indeed, this was the moment when Kidd falls for Johanna, followed by the next scene when she sings a song about their victory, and then he lays his jacket on her in the next scene. But the end was difficult to resolve after they separate. They went through several iterations, including a scene they shot where Johanna finds Kidd during one of his readings, before Greengrass realized that Kidd has to find her. And it’s topped off with the final reading about a man rescued after being buried alive.
“Once Paul came up with it, we were all in,” Goldenberg said. “Here a man has risen from the dead and is whole again. And that’s Kidd with Johanna by his side.”