Speaking to editors on the awards circuit, the name that comes up over and over again is William Goldenberg. An Oscar winner for Argo and a five-time nominee, Goldenberg has collaborated recently with the likes of Kathryn Bigelow and Angelina Jolie, working with the former most recently on Detroit, alongside Harry Yoon. Fortuitously rising from assistant visual effects editor to visual effects editor on Zero Dark Thirty, Yoon is experiencing his breakthrough year, coming off a “master class” in picture editing alongside Goldenberg and Bigelow.
With Detroit, the pair tackled the riots in 1967 Detroit and the tragic, disturbing incident that transpired at the Algiers Motel, involving racially-motivated police brutality against a number of African American men, some of whom didn’t make it through the night, the remainder of which undoubtedly carried this experience with them for the rest of their lives.
Per Goldenberg, there is a “magic” to Kathryn Bigelow, in her ability to communicate effortlessly with her editors—but the pace and seamlessness of Detroit‘s cut is the product of a deep and rich collaboration between three artists on a unified front.
How did you both come to work on Detroit?
William Goldenberg: Kathryn and I had worked on Zero Dark Thirty together—as had Harry, as a visual effects editor. Six or seven months before the project started, Kathryn called me and sent me half a written script that they were working on, and asked if I wanted to be involved. I thought it was a fantastic project and was anxious to jump on board.
It was a situation where we needed to have two editors because I couldn’t start the film. I was still finishing a film. She said, “Pick somebody you’re comfortable with.” Harry was available, and had been doing a lot of cutting on his own at that point. It just came together and worked out—one big happy family.
How does Kathryn communicate her intent to her editors?
Goldenberg: Kathryn has a unique ability to communicate volumes with just a few words. It’s almost by osmosis. I can’t really figure out how it works. She just manages to speak volumes, whether that’s an innate thing that the three of us had together or just the magic of Kathryn Bigelow.
Once Kathryn trusts you, she gives you this incredible freedom to try things, to make mistakes, to do things outside the box, and to try and tell the story in the best way possible. She and [cinematographer] Barry Ackroyd, they really do something special with the camera. It’s this glimpse of reality. It gives you the opportunity to tell this immediate and real story with the footage that they provide.
During shooting, we didn’t communicate all that much with her. Maybe two or three times a week, we’d cut footage that she would look at. She was going to shoot an enormous film in a very short amount of time, so sometimes we got feedback, sometimes we didn’t. It was a very fluid, seamless working environment.
Yoon: Because Kathryn shot this film with a tremendous sense of immediacy, it was important for her to give a clear sense of where we were at a place in time in the story. She would often overlap previous action, especially if it was in a different room before she shot the main body of a particular scene on a day. It was that sense of really bringing the actors into the moment that helped us see how her priorities and the things that she was looking at evolved. Because Take 1 would be very different from Take 8.
Generally in dailies, there was a real specificity that we started to recognize. Billy and I, as we would show one another our scenes at the end of each day, we would comment on things that we may have seen in an overlapping portion that may work with the aesthetic and the rhythm that we started to see emerging from the dailies.
Bigelow was generally running three cameras per scene. How did you wrangle the quantity of footage that must have produced?
Goldenberg: It’s a real credit to Barry Ackroyd, who operates the “A” Camera and his two other camera operators. They are real storytellers in their own right. It makes our job that much easier to have somebody who understands how to communicate a story with a camera in a way that’s hard to teach. As the scene would develop, they would get more in tune with the story beats, and you would find these amazing shots.
What was the level of difficulty in stitching together these sprawling, complex scenes shot from several angles?
Goldenberg: It’s a lot to go through to watch it all, and to really study it all. But strangely enough, once you start cutting it, it’s actually easier in a way because you have so many different angles. If you get into editorial issues or story issues, there’s so much footage that you can always find an emotion or a story beat in footage you didn’t expect would be helpful. Then later on, you go, “Oh! There’s all this amazing stuff that we didn’t use.”
Especially in the sequence in the annex where there is so much footage of the actors up against the wall, being held hostage, we were able to utilize different looks in different parts of the film because we had so much material. It’s a lot more homework, but ultimately I think it makes our jobs a bit easier.
Yoon: Billy has a great technique he uses that we employed on the show called the “line-by-line string-out” because we would have actions that would overlap from scene number to scene number. If you had Scene 10 in the hallway, Scene 11 might be in one of the rooms, but because they have to go from the hallway into one of the rooms, you would be Scene 11, but you’d still have overlapping action from Scene 10 in the hallway.
What really helped was when Peter Dudgeon, our amazing assistant editor, would put together these line-by-lines where he would break up action not necessarily just by scene number, but by lines of dialogue, or by action beats, and then put them into a string-out for us, varying by camera angles and sizes.
Our initial path was to watch through the dailies, and come to understand what Kathryn was focusing on, but later on during the crucial re-edit of the scenes, we had this as a resource to say, “Okay. For this moment, is there something that’s a little bit more dramatic, or something more punchy or something more calm—something that features a character we haven’t checked in with in a while?”
It was an essential resource for us to comb through the footage again in a very hunting kind of way. That ended up being essential especially as we started to knit together room-by-room, scene-by-scene action.
Goldenberg: Trying to keep all those storylines alive was a real challenge. There’s no scientific formula for it.
Yoon: One of the layers that really made it evocative at times was once we started to play with sound, and hear what was happening in the next room or down the hall. Having music be a part of the connective tissue, as well—once we started to play with that, it got pretty exciting, as far as hearing music or a TV in the next room being the signal that told the character that somebody was there, or told us what the proximity of the room upstairs was. Particularly, hearing songs that play counterpart to the horror of what was going on in a different way. It provided a mood that I think is really haunting. It felt like you were in a cohesive space.
What do you consider to be the key in splitting editorial duties successfully between two people?
Yoon: We initially just divided scenes according to who was available. If I was in the middle of something, then Billy would take on the next scene. We would often make that determination in the mornings. There were a couple of times where there was something that one of us really wanted to dig into, and had a passion for. It was very easy for us to be like, “Of course. You should take that on.” For example, Billy did this incredible work inside the Fox Theater. All of the dailies that came for that went to him as I was continuing on with a different storyline.
What was amazing was at the end of the day, we would both show each other the scenes that we had worked on, and I think it was that ability to look at one another’s work and provide feedback that helped to provide a stylistic continuity through the film. For me personally, it was like a master class, not just in terms of the feedback that I got from Billy, but seeing that an editor of his caliber was so open and so willing to show early cuts, and work through particular editorial challenges in real time together. It was an incredible experience, and very liberating.
Once the dailies cutting was done, then it was a process, as Billy mentioned, getting together and saying, “Okay, how do we transition from this room to this room? How do we strike a bridge on Boyega’s storyline into the annex? At what point does it make sense to do crosscutting?” That was a very exciting part of the process.
Did the rhythm of the piece come part and parcel with the way Bigelow directed scenes?
Goldenberg: I think the way she directs gives an inherent pace, and an inherent feel and style. Each scene is like its own little movie while you’re cutting it. Obviously, when you get the whole thing together, it’s usually too long, and the pace is a little uneven. Then, you realize where things need to speed up, things need to slow down, things need to be clearer, or certain scenes are made too clear—you’re hitting things too hard.
That’s the process that begins when Kathryn comes into the room, and we start watching the film as a whole together. My favorite expression of that is “You can’t know in week one what you’ll know in week ten.” It’s living with the film, sleeping on it, and coming in day after day, trusting the process and the length of time it takes to cut a film. It’s a painstaking but exciting process because you know that over time, you’re going to whittle it down to the film it should be.
Yoon: On this film, that process was particularly fascinating because the film is essentially in three acts. You have an act in middle in the annex where it’s much more in real time. There are critical plot points that you need to understand, and critical, emotional relationships you need to understand. I think that was about really calibrating the subtleties of all of that. Whereas, the first act and the third act lent itself to more room to make changes. Because the first act is really about, how much character do you need to establish before you go into the annex?
Even before that, the beautiful animated sequence that was put together to set the context of what was going on in Detroit economically. How much of that do you need in order to understand the context in which this very violent act took place? In Act 3, it’s everything that happens afterward. What do you need to understand both intellectually and emotionally is the aftermath of this. What does the film have to say about its resolution or lack of resolution, as far as what you’ve seen? I think that was where the lion’s share of our discussions were, in terms of how to shape the overall film.
Following its August release, Detroit returns to theaters in select cities today.