Today on Art of the Cut, I’m so happy to be talking to William Goldenberg, ACE about Paul Greengrass’s News of the World.
Billy and I have talked before about Paul Greengrass’s 22 July, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, and Ben Affleck’s Live By Night.
Billy’s list of awards is longer than most people’s entire filmography. He was nominated for his first ACE Eddie in 2000 for The Insider which also garnered him an Oscar nomination. He’s had ACE Eddie and Oscar nominations for Seabiscuit. In 2013 he was nominated for ACE Eddie AND BAFTAs for both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, and he won an Oscar for Argo. And he was nominated for an ACE EDDIE, BAFTA, and an Oscar for The Imitation Game.
Other films edited by Billy include Transformers: Dark of the Moon, National Treasure, Gone Baby Gone, Ali, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Heat.
HULLFISH: Billy! It is so good to talk to you again. I enjoy our discussions so much. The last time I talked to you was on another Paul Greengrass film. And you said it was a little scary to start a new relationship. That was a new director for you. I’m assuming that you guys have a nice working relationship — now two movies in.
GOLDENBERG: Yeah we do. Thank you, Steve. Thanks for having me on. I knew immediately on the last movie that Paul was a terrific person and I had a feeling it was going to be a good working relationship but it’s turned into probably one of the best — if not THE best — working relationships I’ve had with a director.
He’s so collaborative that it really does feel like a partnership. So it’s been wonderful and he’s a wonderful person and I think at this point we’re friends, our families are friends so it’s been lovely.
HULLFISH: What’s the benefit of having a director work with an editor multiple times?
GOLDENBERG: The benefits are immeasurable. There’s no breaking in period. It’s like getting a pair of boots that are already broken in.
HULLFISH: That makes you the shoes.
GOLDENBERG: Yes. Yeah, I guess. I’ll be the shoes. That’s okay.
What’s so great about it is you’re totally comfortable with each other on day one and not on day 50. Oftentimes, in a new relationship with the director, what happens is you get hired, you’re on the film, you’ve had several discussions but then they’re shooting, and from then on — during the shoot — you get sort of a distracted director. They have so many things on their plate and when they are looking at cut footage mostly they’re looking at their own work. What do I need? What did I miss? They’re not really examining the editing in the way they will when we’re in post-production.
I’ve had several directors that I have multiple films with. With them, it’s like hitting the ground running, as opposed to sort of getting up to speed.
Also, Paul and I have a shorthand about stuff, and I came to the set a lot on this film, which I don’t usually do and Paul had me come to make sure that we were both agreed that this is the right direction for the tone of the film — the tone of Tom Hanks’s performance. So that made this show even more fun than the last. It’s also a little more upbeat subject matter than the last one.
HULLFISH: Absolutely. You mentioned shorthand. Can you explain something that would be a shorthand that you developed or just made things faster?
GOLDENBERG: The best thing is — and he said this to me on the first film, 22 July — when it was time for me to show him the cut, he said, “Show me the cut you want to show me. You don’t have to leave everything in. Take out what you want to take out. Trim it how you want to trim it. Move things around how you want to move things around and I’ll see the movie. I know my own material. If there’s something I miss or I don’t like, I’ll tell you. And if I want to see something you took out, I’ll tell you, we’ll put it back in and we’ll look at it and decide whether we want to put it back in.”
But on the first film, that direction didn’t come to me until very near the end of the shoot. So going into this one I knew right from the get go that I could basically do whatever I felt was right for the film. I showed him scenes early on where I had taken things out, trimmed it down.
He shoots with the idea of bringing things down. I mean, I’ve never had this direct conversation with him but my feeling is what he does is overwrite the scenes, add extra dialogue, knowing he’s going to take it out. With short scenes, I think what he’s doing is — in an effort to get the actors to really immerse themselves, get into their parts, being able to improv — he gives them extra stuff to do knowing he’s going to pull it back.
A scene might be only a page long but he’ll give them an extra half a page of dialogue and it gets them revved up. They get into the moments more deeply. So I instinctually know now that I can cut those things back.
When we get to post, I think we’re much further along. It’s not really an assembly anymore — editors cut or whatever you wanna call it. When we get to that point we’re in progress to a director’s cut at that point. We saved a lot of time — maybe a couple of weeks.
The lead singer of Mumford and Sons is a friend of his and he brought him to the cutting room. They must have had a tour date in Santa Fe — this is pre-COVID when there were concerts — and he brought them into the cutting room and he says, “I have a bunch of new material. We’ll just run it.”
I’m so nervous about things when they run for the first time, but luckily everybody liked it. But that’s the kind of trust we have in each other and he has in me. So I think that’s the most valuable shorthand — this unspoken “do whatever you want.”
HULLFISH: One of the things you mentioned a second ago was about tone. That’s a big thing for a director. It’s one of their main responsibilities is setting the tone. How are you helping set the tone other than going on set?
GOLDENBERG: Well, I’m obviously setting the tone by the kind of temp music I put in; the sound design. Once you shoot something, obviously, a lot of the tone is ingrained, but you can obviously slide things one way or the other by music, by pace, by sound effects, sound design.
It depends on the variety of performance you’re getting from actors. Al Pacino is somebody I’ve cut in a couple of films and he gives you from A to Z — like screaming, whispering, and everything in between, so you can really mess with the tone there.
Getting that consistent tone is one of the most important and difficult things I think of cutting a film, so if that doesn’t work then it feels disjointed and like nothing is living in the same world.
HULLFISH: We talked several times — for Detroit, and 22 July and Live By Night — and I know you cut Imitation Game and Zero Dark Thirty. There are a lot of movies that seem to have a political or social commentary and help add to the societal discussion. Is this film like that?
GOLDENBERG: Well it turns out that it is. It takes place in 1870 about five years after the Civil War — when the country was very divided still. Even though it was five years later, Texas was deciding if they were going to get back into the union or not. There was still a lot of hatred between the North and the South.
The Southerners looked at the Northern army like their occupying army. I think that that’s very relevant to what’s happening today too. We didn’t know that it was going to be so relevant, but as things got more divided in this country — certainly this year has gone on, and obviously with the pandemic — it’s really become a lot more relevant.
HULLFISH: You mentioned COVID, and also you mentioned going on set. Tell me a little bit about when you shot and when you moved back to L.A.
GOLDENBERG: We shot from September to Thanksgiving and I was on location just in an office in Santa Fe, but the furthest I think they ever shot was 45 minutes from Santa Fe, so even when we were that far away — which is not that far — I was able to drive out, spend half a day there, come back and still be able to cut. It made for long days but that was OK.
For me to be that involved in the shooting — I’m sure you feel the same way — it’s such a rare opportunity to have that kind of input and I even worked with Paul on the screenplay for this film.
Last summer I went to London for a couple of weeks and we sat down and hashed our way through the screenplay as he was writing it, so that was nice to have input there. After Thanksgiving 2019 we spent the holidays here in L.A. and then afterward I went to London at the beginning of January and I was in London — ‘cause Paul lives there — all the way through March 14th or 15th 2020 when the whole world shut down.
I was actually coming back to the states anyway to show the studio the film and just never went back. After we got back in the middle of March — I think it was about three weeks later — our producer Greg Goodman just took the reins and said, “We’re gonna get back up.” We made many copies of the film and everybody worked from their houses. I had two assistants here in L.A, three assistants in London, a visual effects editor, a music editor — all in different locations — and we made it work.
Things took a little bit longer, but technology is to the point where it made it pretty smooth. There were times you had to wait a couple of minutes but considering we got to keep working and we got to finish the film…
We used Evercast — the director and I used Evercast to be able to communicate with each other and he was able to see my work and it was pretty seamless. We were supposed to finish in June. We ended up finishing in July.
Then we waited two months to preview because they were waiting for this situation to sort of level out COVID-wise. We previewed a couple of times, made some additional changes, and then we just last week (October 2020) with the mix. So I was on the film for over a year but it was supposed to be from September 2019 to June 2020 but it made it from September to October 2020.
HULLFISH: I haven’t had a chance to see the film, so I’m going to have to have you guide me a little bit in our discussion. Can you think of something that would be educational — a lesson that you learned or a lesson someone else could learn as an editor from something that happened on this film — whether it was something you had to change, something that occurred to you, like, “Oh, I could do THIS. Here’s this problem I have.”.
GOLDENBERG: The thing that was difficult about this film was having the distance between working — I’m talking about time now. Having three weeks doing nothing and then going back and then finishing and then having two months and then going back and then we previewed and had three weeks of everything took so much time.
I guess I learned patience. I’ve always sort of been a fairly patient editor but it’s just amazing how if you use that time well, you’re able to see the film in a completely fresh way and I think that was ultimately for the better because I was able to see it fresh so many different times.
I assume it’s the same for other editors — you see a film so many times. Some screenings are very valuable and you feel like you’re seeing it for the first time. And sometimes it feels like, “Oh my God. Here we go again. This scene. Now this scene.” And it just kind of washes over you. You’re seeing it but you’re not really seeing it as an audience sees it.
So I relearned that the process is important. Patience is important. You won’t know in Week 1 what you’re going to know in week 10. Don’t be very drastic with your changes. Let it evolve. On so many levels it made me even a more patient editor. Sometimes I can get very “How do I fix this now? How do we do this now? How do I get it perfect right now?” I just need to understand that that’s going to take some time.
The only editor I know who can do it seemingly perfect every time is Michael Kahn. He just seems to cut it and it’s perfect. But I think most mere mortals take a little more time. Unfortunately, I’m not going to be afforded all that time on a lot of films but I think it’s going to be valuable going forward is to have that sort of trust that it’s going to work out.
HULLFISH: It’s interesting that a couple of films that I’ve heard of — especially films where a lead actor gets injured — those films really benefit from the time off.
GOLDENBERG: It’s one of the curses of the movie business. You don’t really finish. They just sort of take it away. You’re on film nine months to a year, but then you get reinvigorated every time another movie comes. It’s a whole new set of people, a whole new set of challenges, a new story to tell. So that’s wonderful.
I know the movie is sharper and better for having had the time. So I guess that’s one sort of small tiny benefit of having this horrible pandemic.
HULLFISH: As I said, I haven’t seen the movie but in the trailer, there’s a guy that says, “They pay you to tell stories? I didn’t know that was something a man could do.” Did you feel a kinship with Tom Hanks’s character?
GOLDENBERG: I never thought about that actually! Now that you say it, I think there is a kinship in that. You’re guiding the audience to see a story a certain way, and that’s what he was doing.
He would go from town to town and a lot of these towns didn’t get all the papers from different parts of the country and from parts of the world, so people went and he charged a small amount. He’d set up in a barn or a church and read the news and he was a master storyteller.
HULLFISH: Is it a fairly linear story? Were there jumps in time?
GOLDENBERG: There are jumps in time because it’s a four-month journey that we’re obviously compressing into two hours. But it is a pretty linear story. The challenge of it was: there’s no B-story, so you’re with them the whole time. There’s no “Oh let’s cut to the other story and we’ll overlap and cross-cut.” You can’t do that in this film so it’s a question of keeping the pace going but still making it feel like it’s a journey.
You don’t want upcut it so much you think, “That wasn’t four months… that was four minutes.” If it’s all slow, or it’s all really fast, it’s going to feel boring. You can make a two-hour movie into an hour and a half and it’ll actually feel longer because you need dynamic range. You need highs and lows.
For me, where things should slow down or speed up — sometimes it’s just obvious in the script, but other times it’s just by feel. You’re just feeling like, OK. We’ve just had this very big set piece, so after that, we don’t want to fly into the next bit, you want to let the audience settle because the characters are sort of regrouping. In their mind, they’re trying to figure out what just happened.
You want to let the audience experience what the characters are experiencing. You want to put them in that same mindset. Paul Greengrass would refer to it as “living in the scene” or “skating over the scene.” Even in the fast-paced stuff, you want the audience to live in it not skate over it.
But then when it’s time to slow down you have to slow down with the characters so the audience will slow down and be able to absorb things. So a lot of that — to me — is feel. You just sense it when you’re watching it. They’re just zipping through this. People aren’t going to get this. People are going to feel it.
It’s one thing to intellectually understand something — whatever the characters are going through — but it’s another thing to let them feel it. For them to feel the characters — to get inside them and really understand so they feel like they’re experiencing it along with Tom.
Because there’s always something relatable in every character, even if it’s a bad guy. You want to make everybody three-dimensional and you want to make everybody feel like you understand where they’re coming from. the bad guy’s not just some guy with a black hat. You need to see how he got there.
That makes stories really sing. That makes stories really deep and people walk away from your film and they’ll remember it. I think that’s the difference. You want to really let the audience soak in that world. So you just have to figure out what those moments are.
HULLFISH: How much of that is contextual? When you’re cutting — usually out of order — maybe you cut a scene too fast when it’s out of order and then when it gets in context you see that you’ve got to open this up?
GOLDENBERG: Yeah. One example is, one of the readings in the film where things go a little sideways because of the butting of heads between the North and the South — and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is able to sort of calm things down so they don’t blow up into a fight or even something worse.
My 20-year-old son came to Santa Fe and I showed him the scene — and I hadn’t looked at it in context. I had looked at it, but I hadn’t REALLY looked at it. So I showed him the scene. He thought it was good and said, “I think it’s good, but I think what’s happening at the end is happening a little fast for me. It doesn’t feel real.”
Then I looked at it through his eyes, and I thought, “He’s absolutely right.” And I slowed things down at the end. It wasn’t like he didn’t believe it before, but then it became real. Now, the scene has time to breathe at the end where you feel like, “OK. This could happen in this time frame.”
That’s why I love having somebody else in the room. I see it through their eyes. You cut it with your best guess about where it sits in the movie and I’ll always read three scenes before, the scene I’m about to cut, and three scenes after, to get my mind fixed as to where we are in the story but nobody’s perfect.
You do your best. Then you think, I’m jumping into this scene so fast, or you might find out that you don’t need the first half and this next scene because it’s all clear. So just jump into the middle of the next scene.
That’s part of the process that we were talking about before. As you get through the 10 weeks of the director’s cut then however long the producers have, and the preview process you start getting to know the film even more intimately than you did before.
In context, everything changes.
HULLFISH: Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
GOLDENBERG: He’s got a good education, I have to say. He really gets story in a way that I find very impressive. He sees things all the time that make me think, “Wow! that’s actually great.”
When you’re impressed by something your son says, as a father you feel like, “Wow! I did something right.”.
HULLFISH: How important is perspective? Do you have a discussion with Paul about perspective?
GOLDENBERG: We had a lot of discussions about that because there are very few characters in the film. It’s Tom and the little girl. The actress’s name is Helena’s Zengel but her character’s name in the film is Johanna. It’s gonna be one of their points of view or both of their points of view.
We had a lot of discussions in the screenplay phase about what the point-of-view of the story is going to be. Is it going to be the two of them? Are we going to meet them individually? We went back and forth about how to start the film because we decided it was important that it would be told mostly from Tom’s perspective or from his point of view.
So we had to keep adjusting the front of the film to stay with that vision and we got away from it at one point in the cutting, and then we came back to it at the end.
It would be from Tom’s point of view. You really were able to feel what Joanna was feeling and see things through her eyes as well, but it really mostly came down to: This is Tom’s story — Tom’s character’s story. Both characters need healing, but he is the one we’re gonna concentrate on.
It really was a constant discussion from the beginning of the screenwriting phase in June all the way through the shooting, because Paul is constantly rewriting during the shooting. He’s constantly honing and honing and honing every day, and that’s why it’s important that I’m on location with him because not only is he seeing cuts every day but he’s also feeding me pages almost every day.
We have a whole system. I get pages at night and in the morning I talk to his development person — Emily — and we then discuss our notes on these pages and we whittle them down to the really core stuff and then we give them to Paul and he takes some of them and doesn’t take others.
In the scriptwriting phase, sometimes I would say, “We could drop these lines.” And he’d say, “We could, but I’d rather shoot them and have you drop them.” It’s just a wonderful way for me to get inside his head and get inside the story, inside the film’s head.
You get immersed to the point where you feel like you’re in the world with them.
HULLFISH: I’m really impressed that he asked you to come out to help with the script. Obviously, editors consider ourselves storytellers. What do you think made him say, “This guy knows story and he can help me.”? How did that relationship happen that he would ask you?
GOLDENBERG: On 22 July, I met him after the screenplay was written. He wrote the screenplay. I think he finished it in August and they were shooting in October. He called me in September and asked, “Do you want to come to Norway in three weeks?” So we didn’t have any time, in the beginning, to even know each other.
I met him in person the night before the first day of shooting in Norway at the hotel we were all staying at. It was a little slow in terms of getting that relationship started because he was shooting and they were on these different locations and there was no daylight because it’s Norway in the winter and it was just a really crazy shooting schedule.
But as we went on, he started sending me pages every night. “Take a look at these. See what you think. Tell me what your thoughts are, but tell me as soon because I’m shooting them tomorrow.” My sense is that he must have thought what I was doing made sense. Even before that, he had two versions of the script for 22 July: one where the attacks were told in flashback and one where it was in real-time.
And I felt strongly that the film should be the way it is now — in real-time, and we talked about that a lot before we ever met. Very early in our relationship, I think we both landed in the same place and I think he respected the reasons that I had for doing it that way.
When we got to shooting and he was giving me pages and I was giving him notes — which I assume he liked — and then when I showed him the film — because I think I took 40 minutes out of the film before I showed to him the first time — and I restructured things.
As I was watching with my assistant I would say, “This feels like it should be here. And this feels like it should be here.” And I move things around and he seemed to like everything I did. He didn’t undo any of it. I’m guessing that he saw that I sort of knew instinctually how that story should be told.
And then, in all our discussions about other movies and theater and books or whatever he had a sense that I maybe knew what I was talking about or I probably fooled him into thinking I knew what I was talking about.
HULLFISH: (laughs) You were simpatico.
GOLDENBERG: Yes. We were seeing the same movie. With News of the World, there was an original screenplay which Paul rewrote and there was the book. Paul’s similar to me in that I think he doesn’t always listen to what the suggestion is, but he hears it and he takes it in. He would listen and then take the ones he wanted.
I get the feeling he likes that as part of the process because it pushes him. Usually, he’ll do something that does what I was talking about, but it’s better.
HULLFISH: That’s something that I’ve talked about with many people — that a lot of times a bad idea — not saying your ideas are bad — a bad idea can lead to a good solution, right? Or, better put: an idea that is not the final solution can still lead to a better direction.
GOLDENBERG: The director may say, “I think we should do this and do it by doing x y z.” And you do X Y Z and you know that is not what he was intending in terms of the outcome. So of course you want to show him that, but then you also want to say, “Well, I think what you were going for is this. And so I did what you said, but I think what you’re trying to get to might be THIS, so I did another version or another two versions that might be more in that direction.”
I think those are the kinds of things that enable trust in the relationship. You’re doing exactly what he said. You’re not ignoring him but you’re also trying to bring something to the table and say, “I see it another way. Maybe we can get there by a more clever way or just a different way that’s a little more outside-the-box.”
I think that’s a similar process that Paul goes through with his writing because he also includes Greg Goodman — one of his producers — he’ll include him and he has a terrific relationship with my first assistant, Peter Dudgeon, who has a Master’s in screenwriting. He was a theater actor and he just knows story as well, so he’ll ask Peter to read the script and give him feedback as well.
He likes to have a lot of voices but then he’s very good at tuning all of it out and then doing everything better than we all suggested. He really is an auteur in terms of that. He knows what he wants. He knows how to get there. He is incredibly thoughtful. It’s all his film, but he accepts all the help he can get from the people he trusts.
HULLFISH: This is NOT a usual thing of a director saying cut the editor’s cut the way you want to cut it. I’m assuming you have worked with other directors as well where the editor’s cut is not really an editor’s cut it’s an assembly made exactly the way the script is written.
GOLDENBERG: Yeah. In fact, when Paul first told me to do it on 22 July, I thought it was a trick. I thought, “Is this real?” Because it’d never happened before.
Michael Kahn and Steven Spielberg had a similar relationship. Paul even lets me go further. Michael and Steven had been working together for something like 40 years at that point.
But yes, in most films, I would never do that. I would cut the script. Make everything work as best as I could. It would be long and it would be a movie, but you would see places where you knew that half that scene would come out, or where you KNEW lines would be deleted.
For the editor’s cut, I might ask to do that. I would say, “Do you think we need these lines on the phone?” And they would say, “Maybe not, but leave them in just so I can see them.” So it’s the first time and the only time that I’ve ever had that kind of relationship with a director. He’s seen every scene cut. He knows what he shot and I’ll show him the scenes separately and he’ll say, “Yeah, you’re right. Take that out.” Or there were one or two scenes in this film that I did take out that we did put back in.
He’s brilliant and he knows the story he’s trying to tell. I think trusted input just helps him move the ball down the field.
HULLFISH: Did you read the book before you edited the film?
GOLDENBERG: Yeah, I did.
I generally tend not to when there is a book, but he asked me to read the book. He hadn’t written the script yet. The other books I’ve worked on Unbroken, Seabiscuit, Imitation Game — well, on Seabiscuit I did read the book. I read the screenplay, which I loved, and then I went back and read the book.
Then when I start talking to Gary about the film — and I think it was even when we were shooting I would say to Gary Ross, the writer-director, “Well, in the book, blah blah blah…” and about the third time, he stopped me and said, “This isn’t the book. We’re making this script about this particular story part of the book, so I don’t hear about the book.”
So it got me a little bit of trouble. He didn’t yell at me or anything, but it got me a little bit of trouble and I thought, “It’s better to concentrate on this script and the story I’m making,” because Seabiscuit — what Gary did, which was so brilliant — he took the book and themes and he made it a story about family and a father and son relationship which is in the book but not really and he made a specific story confined to this little slice of what was happening in that grand book.
It made it more micro instead of macro, and I think that’s what made it a great story. Where I’ve seen other adaptations of books where it’s just rehashing what’s in the book. It’s not really getting inside the story and making it a relatable story. It’s a great book but I think the book as the book wouldn’t have been a great movie. Gary was able to grab onto threads that were universal and made for great stories of that length.
HULLFISH: I worked on a movie that was based on a book and I didn’t read the book. Where that helped was that I was able to see numerous holes in the script that the producers and director were filling in with information that they knew because they’d read the book. But to me, I wasn’t tracking the FILM story because I hadn’t read the book.
What do you do for inspiration? What’s your muse? What do you do when you’re not cutting?
GOLDENBERG: Oh I do so much cutting!
I think the thing that helps me is I listen to a ton of music, especially with these lovely Airpod Pros. You put them in noise-reduction mode and it just recharges me. I think it helps with rhythm and that tells its own story.
Watching other films, too. A lot of people ask, “How do you watch movies after you’ve worked on a movie all day?” But that’s not the same thing. I’m not working on THAT one. I’m just enjoying it.
I think that seeing great films – or now there’s so much great television – I think it gets me charged up, like, “I want to do that too!” and I go in the next day with a real head of steam. I think it’s seeing other people’s work — whether it be music or art or other movies, television shows, reading books. I get so excited about stories that I feel like I don’t want to let this one down if that makes any sense.
I want this story to be everything it can be because I just saw something, or heard a piece of music that is so perfect that it feels like a challenge almost. And then there’s also the fear.
GOLDENBERG: The fear definitely keeps me on my toes. I don’t think it’ll ever go away. I think if it goes away I’ll stop being an editor.
I’ve been cutting on my own for 25 years and I still feel the same anxiety of wanting to get it right and going in every morning and not wanting to disappoint the director or disappoint myself or disappoint the studio. If it’s channeled correctly that fear really keeps an edge.
HULLFISH: You’re certainly not the only one. I think it’s wonderful that you can admit to that because there are so many less experienced editors than you that probably feel the same way.
You go in in the morning and you don’t know if you can cut another scene. “I don’t know if I can do this.” I talked to Carol Littleton — she’s an iconic editor — and she said the exact same thing. She doesn’t know when she goes into the office whether she can cut the scene or not.
GOLDENBERG: Almost every scene I cut — especially big sequences — especially when you get seven hours of dailies for a four-minute dialog scene and you think, “Oh my God! I have no idea how to cut this. None. I don’t know where I’m going to start.”
But then you watch the dailies and watch the dailies and watch dailies and you find things to grab on to and “I know I can start on this shot.” or “This shot’s gonna be a great end shot.” or “This is the middle.” “This performance is definitely the one for these four lines.”
Michael Kahn, who is my mentor, used to refer to it as “losing your forebrain.” You just go in in the morning at 7 a.m. and then you start cutting and all of a sudden it’s 8 or 9 o’clock at night you think, “What happened?” And there’s a scene.
I feel like doing it instinctually is the only way I know how to do it.
HULLFISH: How much of that feeling is empathy or is that what you mean by feeling? Are they two different things?
GOLDENBERG: I mean “feel” like a “feel for the craft.” Like you have a natural inclination for it.
Making an audience feel something is I think a skill that could never be done by some machine. I think you have to be a sensitive person who is in touch with their emotions to be able to do that.
When I’m cutting an emotional scene — I watch dailies and something hits me really hard emotionally — one take as opposed to another — and I use that because it makes me feel a certain way, so I feel at this point in my career I do know that a lot of times what I feel is what the audience is going to feel because of the experience I had at the beginning.
You hope that the audience feels what you feel. I don’t know how else to do it.
HULLFISH: You mentioned trying to work your way through seven hours of dailies for a dialogue scene. Are you a selects reel guy? Or are you literally building the scene itself as you’re watching dailies and finding that stuff?
GOLDENBERG: There was one scene in Miami Vice that I cut for Michael Mann that had nine hours of dailies for a five-minute dialogue scene. There are SO many different performances, so many different angles.
I have my assistants build line-reading assemblies where you have all the readings in a row. I don’t like to do a first cut from that because then you get very robotic. It’s like: this shot for this like and this shot for that line. So what I do is, I’ll have my assistants do that for the re-cutting or for when I go in and examine to make sure I got the best out of the scene.
But when I’m watching, I just make a lot of notes — whether I handwrite them or type them — everything I feel — and I’ve heard Walter Murch say this, because he’ll write “the Banana take” for whatever reason because it made him think of a banana. It may have nothing to do with a banana. But I’ll write every little thing that I like about every take, whether it’s a visual moment or it’s a performance thing.
It might just be how the characters wipe by the camera that looks gorgeous or the cars go by or some little piece of special sauce that you put on the scene. Just an intricate, cool image or a cool series of images that really don’t have so much to do with the storytelling but it makes it feel a little special.
I will make tons and tons and tons of notes and then pull those pieces aside and start working with those pieces. Then, time permitting — and I did this on Detroit and it took forever — because I had a lot of dailies — but it was shot all hand-held. No take is the same as any other take.
My assistants would do those select rolls of the line-by-line thing. I would go through and take every piece I liked and put it into one big scene with repeats of action, repeats of lines, all in scene order.
I would call that “All In.” Everything I like is in one giant edit, and then I just start going through and sculpting. I don’t want to say I’m a sculptor… but just, “that one’s better than this in conjunction with that” and “this works better to tell this story point” and I just sort of instinctually start whittling it down and getting it to a point where I feel like I have a good scene and then go back through all of the line-by-line stuff to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
I don’t know how YOU feel, but sometimes I feel like there’s so much footage you don’t want to miss a great moment. What will happen inevitably is….
HULLFISH: The director will say “Hey where’s that moment?”.
GOLDENBERG: Yeah. Or you’re going through dailies later on — recutting — and you find some moment that you missed. And then you think to yourself, “Oh my God! If I missed that one moment and how many other moments did I miss?” And your head starts playing tricks on you. You think, “Do I need to go back through all the footage again?”
At a certain point, you have to trust yourself.
HULLFISH: And that’s part of that patience thing of understanding that the scene is going to evolve. It’s going to get to where it needs to get by the end.
GOLDENBERG: Yeah. Michael Kahn used to say to me, “There are three great versions of any scene and you just want to make sure you show the director one of those three.” I still hope that what I show to the director is one of those three versions.
Michael Mann loves to go back and look at earlier versions of edits. He’ll say, “Show me this September 12th version,” because he’ll remember certain things and he takes such fastidious notes that he remembers everything.
HULLFISH: That’s a good lesson for an assistant editor right there: Remember to catalog all of the cuts.
GOLDENBERG: Oh! My! God! Is that important! I’m really organized but sometimes there’ll be little sections and I know I have them somewhere. I’ll throw them in a bin but occasionally I can’t find them because I’ve done it so fast and I didn’t label it properly.
As Michael Kahn used to tell me, “To go faster, slow down.” Because if you try and go too fast you’re going to do what Paul Greengrass said, you’re going to skate over things.
Worry about what’s in front of you. Worry about the cut that’s in front of you. The scene that’s in front of you. Shut the rest of the world out and concentrate on what you’re doing and things will happen a lot faster than if you start stressing out about, “Oh my God! I have four hours of dailies and how am I going to keep up?”.
HULLFISH: I’m glad that not only did we get an interview with Billy Goldenberg, we also got some sage advice from Michael Kahn today. A bonus.
GOLDENBERG: Everything I know is from him or because of him. Everything I have is because of him. He just was so wonderful to me and took me under his wing and mentored me and — with a hammer and chisel — molded me into an editor.
HULLFISH: Awesome. Billy, thank you so much for talking to us today.
GOLDENBERG: Thank you. I really appreciate it. It’s always fun.
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed, and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.