ART OF THE CUT with the editors of “Detroit”

Harry Yoon and Oscar-winner William Goldenberg, ACE

Hopefully, for regular readers of Art of the Cut, there’s a lot to be learned from every interview. I feel this one is exceptionally valuable, mainly because, in addition to interviewing a very experienced and gifted editor, in the Oscar-winning William Goldenberg, ACE we talked at the same time with his talented co-editor, Harry Yoon, who was very open and articulate about the things that he learned from editing “Detroit” with Goldenberg and their talented director, Kathryn Bigelow. Harry Yoon was editor of Newsroom, Half-Life, The Pit, Let Go and Welcome to the Jungle. He was also VFX editor on Zero Dark Thirty and The Revenant. I last spoke to William Goldenberg about editing Live By Night. He was nominated for Oscars for Best Editing for Imitation Game, Zero Dark Thirty, Seabiscuit, The Insider, and won an Oscar for his work on Argo.

HULLFISH: Harry can you tell me a little bit about the post schedule was like when you started principal photography.

YOON: Principal started around July 25th, 2016 and principal wrap was October 1st. And Second unit did some additional photography until October 6th, and then we started with Kathryn (director, Kathryn Bigelow) on October 17th. Director’s cut went until the first week of January 2017 and post continued until three weeks ago (mid-June 2017, with the film releasing in early August 2017).

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about collaborating with the director. Kathryn Bigelow. How does she like to work and do you find that with each new director you work with, you have to change your method of collaborating?

GOLDENBERG: This is my second film with Kathryn, so I kind of knew what to expect but the way we did things during shooting was, every few days we would post our edited scenes for her to see. Sometimes we got feedback, sometimes we didn’t, depending on how busy she was. As an editor you’re always anxiously waiting for some sort of feedback, but you have to learn that it doesn’t always come because they’re very busy. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same thing.

Lantana Avid bay

After principal photography ended the three of us watched the film together. There were sequences that Harry had done and there were sequences that I had done and we stayed with those sequences. Kathryn had specific notes, but she’s not someone who sits in the room with you all day watching you work – looking at every nuanced change. She likes to give you a direction and then she goes away and comes back and sees what you’ve done. Or we watch it in a screening. Kathryn is my favorite kind of director because once she trusts you, she trusts you, and she will let you do your job in a way that is really creative and really is satisfying.

You adjust yourself to every director. They’re a little bit different, but as an editor you’re there to be their right-hand person, and so however they want to work is how you work. I’ve done it so long that it’s all comfortable. You just have to adapt slightly one way or the other and make the best film you can make.

YOON: I worked with Kathryn as the VFX editor on Zero Dark Thirty and I think it was that comfort-level that made her open to having me work with Billy on this. We worked pretty closely, especially towards the tail end of Zero Dark Thirty.

HULLFISH: How did you two collaborate between the editors? How did you pick which scenes each one of you would work on?

GOLDENBERG: The beginning of the project was kind of strange because I was still cutting Live By Night with Ben Affleck, and since Ben and Kathryn know each other very well, and like each other, I asked permission to go back and forth between the two films. Harry was kind enough to come on board, and so for the first two months of shooting, I was splitting my time between both films.

Goldenberg contemplating a cut at the Avid

I think who did what was decided by who needs something to cut and who’s free and who’s not. I was literally running up and down the hall — Live by Night was in Building One and our office on Detroit was Building Four and I would be zooming up and down the hall half a dozen times or more a day. So at the beginning, Harry was carrying more of the load than me because I was splitting my time, and after that was over, we sort of shared. There were a couple of scenes where I said to Harry, “I want this one.“ But, mostly it was whoever was ready to start a new scene. We trusted each other and we both knew that whoever edited it would do a good job with whatever came our way.

YOON: Certain scenes expanded into sequences because there are large parts of the film which are contiguous, time-wise. So as more material was added to those sequences, we would organically just keep working on those sequences – even sequences that would ultimately be cross-cut with each other.

To me, the whole experience was like a dream come true. To be able to work with Billy in that capacity, even our talks in the morning, deciding on how we might split the material and then in the evening just reconvening after work and just being able to hear Billy’s comments on the cuts and then to have the privilege of being able to talk about his cuts. I couldn’t ask for a better experience in terms of dealing with material that was challenging us in really great ways every day.

GOLDENBERG: We sat together for several of the big sequences that were cross-cut and we worked on it together. We sort of laid it out from the script, but you know it never really quite works out the way it’s laid out, so for things like the timing of simultaneous action, we were able to sit down and work on it together. Two heads are always better than one in most situations. It’s really nice to bounce your ideas off someone else whose opinion you respect.

YOON: The quality that I really admired in Billy’s work is his openness to showing stuff. For somebody with his track record and his credits to open up his creative process is so generous. He wasn’t just showing it to me. His first or even second ASSISTANT editor would be in the room and he would be working out a particular editorial problem in real time and the principle of having a senior editor providing that kind of environment of openness was incredibly instructive. It’s something that I’ve tried to carry through by bringing my assistant in and showing them works-in-progress. That was one of the best parts of the editorial process for me.

(L to R): Justin Yates (VFX Editor), Harry, Alex Grosse (Post PA), Peter Dudgeon (1st Assistant Editor), and Jun Kim (Apprentice Editor). (Billy and Additional Editor, Brett Reed, were not present.)

HULLFISH: I love to hear that. I just talked to the Transformers edit team and one of the things that they mentioned was that Michael Bay would just pull a scene from one person and hand it off to another editor without even telling them. It sounds like you guys were pretty autonomous as far as work load.

GOLDENBERG: I was actually on Transformers: The Last Knight for three weeks, and I was there when you recorded that interview, but it didn’t feel appropriate for me to contribute to the interview, since I was there for such a short period.

That’s one of the things you just have to know going in when you work on a Michael Bay film. You just have to let go of the ego of that and become part of the team. It’s a real cohesive experience.

Except for the Michael Bay film, all the films I’ve done with other editors generally have stayed with the scenes that we started with. Which isn’t to say you’re not constantly seeking the other editors’ advice or help. That’s one of the beauties of multiple editors because I think the film is further along when you show the scenes to the director because you’ve got two experienced voices in the room and things can get better that way. Sometimes there are situations where there’ll be one scene plopped in the middle of a run of other scenes that the other editor has done, so it doesn’t make sense to hang onto, so one of us might take over that scene so that we can work on the entirety of a longer total sequence of scenes. There’s a tremendous amount of footage on this film, as there was on Zero Dark Thirty, so the other editor doesn’t have time to take over another scene and go through all of that footage again.

Harry Yoon

YOON: It was sort of a unique situation. So much of this movie happens simultaneously with people in different rooms, but they’re reacting to what they’re hearing in those rooms. There would always be some kind of an overlap from the previous action and post-lap as well into the following scene. The footage would come in waves, so that even after we finish a scene there would be some sort of overlap portion from a different scene and we would have to leaven that material in because there was always good stuff to be mined from there. In addition to that there were also things that were happening simultaneously which we might want to cross-cut into our sequences. So it was necessarily collaborative in that way where sometimes I would notice a reaction shot that was in an overlap portion of my sequence when I was watching one of Billy’s sequences and I would say, “Oh, I have a great reaction shot for what’s going on there, “ and Billy would do the same thing. So it really allowed that collaborative nature, especially in the portions of the film that happen simultaneously.

HULLFISH: Because of all of the cross-cutting of scenes that you shared, did you have to be very cognizant about the transitions between the scenes you shared. Obviously, it’s an important editorial concept to properly transition between scenes, and not just have the perfect cuts interior to a scene.

GOLDENBERG: There’s a section of the film that details the third night of the rebellion going into the fourth day and it’s basically one real-time sequence, so there really aren’t traditional transitions like you would be thinking. It’s basically a 40-minute scene that was shot over several weeks. Similar, in a way, to the raid sequence of Zero Dark Thirty where it’s one event shot over several weeks.

HULLFISH: What are some of the methods that you use to try to deal with the simultaneous nature of those various scenes to keep the audience understanding that these things are all happening at the same time but that you can’t show them all at the same time?

YOON: One of the things that was really notable – and that evolved as we worked – was to use sound design and especially sound you hear off-camera, to indicate the simultaneous nature of the scenes. There’s a point in the film where a number of people are camped inside of the location where most of the action has taken place and calibrating the different degrees of that sound design and calibrating who hears whose music when, that allowed us to create a kind of connectivity from room to room and also the hard sound effects and voices allowed us to connect the dots in terms of who’s hearing what and what’s happening at what time. That was really, really fun to play around with. In addition to managing all the different eye-lines and who is looking at whom and reacting and what they’re reacting to. It made it a really amazing puzzle to try to figure out.

GOLDENBERG: I should point out that Harry’s not talking about score but source music where different people are listening to different music in different rooms. It’s an incredible puzzle of hearing different perspectives from different rooms and where the music and the sound was placed and it made for an incredibly challenging mix including the panning of each particular piece was this overwhelming back and forth, back and forth and what speaker does it come out of and how do you EQ it? It was really a challenge that creates this really incredible tapestry that scores the film in a much different way than a traditional score because it’s music played like it’s coming out of people’s radios or record players. It works as edible tension-building device that really suits the movie.

HULLFISH: It’s a very Scorsese thing too, that use of diegetic or source as music score. One of the other things you’ve been mentioning is this difficult puzzle of figuring out how to work with time. Talk to me about how or why it becomes necessary to change the way two scenes intercut in the final film compared to the way it intercuts in the script.

YOON: The film plays in three acts. There’s the “prologue” of the first act which sets the stage for the event at the Algiers and it’s very much creating a landscape, both physically and emotionally to help the audience understand the context in terms of the heightened tensions that existed at the time and how very specific things were in terms of a mix of emotions and tension. We tried to stay true to the historical nature of things but also really wanted to convey the emotional specificity of those first days, and then there is a big chunk of the movie which is the second act which happens contiguously.

And then there’s the third act of the aftermath and how things are dealt with afterwards and how they impact the characters. What was really interesting about this film were the distinctive demands – from a time management standpoint – of each of those. The first hour has this emotional momentum and as the emotional momentum builds, time accelerates as well until you get to the moment in which the second act begins and then time stretches. Then the third act has more of an impressionistic quality because what we to deal with then is that there are consequences and an aftermath that affects characters over a number of years. Each of these acts demanded a different style. So the treatment of time was different for each of the acts.

HULLFISH: That’s a really great answer. I’d love to get an answer about how things change from the script and why you felt – if you can remember a specific example – of you know, “There are these two scenes together and we decided they need to be separated. Or they were separated and we decided to join them.”

GOLDENBERG: This editor that I used to work for, Sean Barton, said, “Editing is simple. What does the audience want to see next.” Harry and I would sit down together and have a discussion that something doesn’t feel right rhythmically.

YOON: What was really interesting creatively is that – because the action is happening in different rooms – you can really calibrate what characters know (or don’t know) about what’s happening in another room for dramatic effect.. Seeing that process was really amazing for me. It was a process of winnowing in a way where our initial cuts delivered 100 percent knowledge: all the lines were present, and all the action was shown. We kind of laid out a palette as if to say, “This is everything we have to work with.” Then as we moved through the director’s cut, there was a winnowing process that was happening where we were shaving information based on: Do we need to really know this? Will it increase tension here if the characters in one room don’t know what’s happening in another room? We experience it the way that the witnesses experience it; so that when they enter the room what they do is a surprise. Calibrating from room to room was really amazing to decide what’s going to help the audience.

GOLDENBERG: In this film we were very careful about not being manipulative in any way. We wanted to be very, very careful always about being respectful of the subject and of the people involved. The film is very real and very visceral and we didn’t want to feel the hand of the filmmaker.

HULLFISH: Billy, you’ve done many films that have been based on true stories. Zero Dark Thirty and Seabiscuit – a huge list actually. Do you feel a responsibility or is there some difference in the way you feel about doing those films than the fantasies, like National Treasure?

GOLDENBERG: Much different. Yeah, I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility especially if there are people who are alive – or relatives and friends are alive. All I want to do is to be as true to the subject matter and be as objective as possible. At the end of doing a film like this, you feel like you know the people involved. Such attention was paid by Mark Boal and Kathryn and all the people involved to be as true to this subject and to really tell the character’s stories. It’s overwhelming how much you want to get it right. I felt the same way on Imitation Game and Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, you want to do justice to the story and get it right and have people experience it in the right way. I put my heart into all of my movies, of course, but I feel a sense of responsibility that wakes me up in the middle of the night. But at the same time, I also find it truly satisfying.

YOON: I think that was kind of an amazing thing about working with a filmmaker like Kathryn. As we were working or discussing she would share stories and first-hand accounts and anecdotes from the subjects: some of whom visited the set and many of whom she spoke with directly. She would share those things to really underscore that these were stories of real people. And these were stories of their experiences so that definitely added to the responsibility. One of the amazing things about getting to see Billy and Kathryn work together was to witness how tuned-in they are to the aesthetics of the real. What is it that makes something feel more authentic and less like a movie? And being able to pick out little characteristics, like a quality of “messiness” in a way where something doesn’t feel perfectly choreographed or the timing of something that doesn’t feel perfectly choreographed.

One of the things that we noticed as we were watching this footage was that there was a restlessness with the camerawork that I think was a result of these really talented operators constantly having to find the shot. Sometimes they didn’t allow the operators to watch the rehearsals so that there was a certain energy to the camera work where they were discovering the moments as they were happening in the same way that documentarians would. That really informs the shot choices that Billy and I were making because we would find that quality again and again of real-life messiness and imperfection that still works beautifully for whatever moment emotionally we were trying to communicate.

HULLFISH: That sounds like the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi: finding beauty in imperfection. I know what you mean: there’s a predictiveness to certain things like a focus-pull that happens before somebody speaks that you know is planned and rehearsed.

GOLDENBERG: What Harry touched on was the way Barry Ackroyd and Kathryn shot this film so that no one shot was the same as any other shot, and she shot with three or four cameras on everything. There are only two scenes in the film with only one camera and the rest used three and four and each time they did a setup. Take one would be a medium shot of an actor and take two would be a wide. Then they were constantly finding things so it made the editing a real jigsaw puzzle. And sometimes Harry and I would be in each others’ room saying, “Wow! This is so hard!” Six, seven, eight hours of dailies and every shot was different from every other. But the satisfaction you would get out of putting something together and having it be this fluid, well-told story of a scene was incredible, but the unpredictability was sort of built into it in a way. The camera operators are incredible storytellers themselves. They would always be finding shots to help illustrate what was happening with the text of the story or on the emotional story. So it was our job to figure out how to put that all together and make it seem like one beautifully constructed scene. We didn’t have to worry about the unpredictability because it was all sort of built in for us. But it does give it this visceral reality that you could never duplicate.

HULLFISH: You were talking about the unpredictability of the dailies. Normally you get a series of set-ups that are all the same with various takes. But if there’s that much difference in set ups and takes, do you have to approach it differently with how you lay out your bins? How you watch dailies? Are you doing select reels?. How are you approaching that?

GOLDENBERG: I think Harry and I were doing the same thing… my process was to watch all the film and write lots and lots of notes on locators and then pull selects and organize selects in a really rough scene. Then start whittling it together almost like sculpting. What’s telling the story? How are these pieces of the film telling the story? What was so time-consuming was that I would take all those selects that I pulled and make a scene, but then I’d go back and go through all those locators again to make sure I had all of those pieces doing their best jobs possible. I had one seven minute dialogue scene in the film that had seven hours of dailies.

YOON: With eight different characters.

GOLDENBERG: Yeah! Plus three different source music pieces playing at the same time, AND two TVs. So the mind-bending nature of that took me weeks to get a cut that I was happy with. I think it took three weeks to get a cut I was happy with – because it was so tricky to keep everybody “in play” and keep all the emotional stories going and get the text of it straight. It was a very time-consuming process to make sure you had the right shots in there and get the scene to make emotional and story sense. You know when you watch the seven hours of dailies that it’s all in there, but it takes time and patience to get to the point where you think it’s great.

YOON: That encapsulates it beautifully. It was a master class in directorial choices because as scenes progressed, Kathryn would sometimes change blocking. If it was clear that the actors were constrained in some way or if a blocking change would communicate a beat better, she would allow for that to evolve. Sometimes actors would switch positions in the room or one would be standing, instead of sitting on the bed. So, one of the things that I got used to doing was jumping forward to later takes and spot checking middle takes just to see how that blocking evolved so that as I was watching earlier takes, it was useful to see how much of this might be usable considering this is where she ended up. Obviously, you never want to lock yourself into a particular thing depending upon some nuance of performance that you might find beautiful in earlier takes. But I think that really helped us to start to prioritize what was usable and not usable by understanding where she ended up directorially. Sometimes we would get a whole scene and then you could tell that something had bothered her about that because later on she would reshoot that scene with different blocking or in a more efficient way or maybe sometimes even with a different actor. It was fascinating — through the dailies — to get a glimpse into that directorial rigor.

HULLFISH: I’ve heard several different editors speak about watching dailies front to back or back to front and I could see how — on this project — maybe watching the dailies from last take to first might make more sense.

YOON: One of Billy’s techniques, that I’ve come to find as being kind of essential when there is either a lot of footage or an improvisational quality was to have the second assistant or the apprentice go through and cut a selects reel that was just line after line, with all the takes and setups of a specific line. Not slavishly line-by-line but logical chunks of character action and group those together in a sequence as an alternative catalog of the dailies for a scene. And this became really essential as we got iterations or overlaps of that same action in later dailies. These “line by lines” became an efficient way to go back and review those choices because the choices evolved as certain character relationships became emphasized.

HULLFISH: That’s exactly the way I work. Not really line by line but in small groups especially based on blocking of the scene. I would think that with the scene that you described, Billy,  that was six hours of footage for a seven-minute dialogue scene –  that’s the only way you can get your head wrapped around that, right? You can’t remember six or eight hours of footage.

GOLDENBERG: Normally I like to do that breakdown of the footage myself, but on this film, because of the amount of footage, I had my second assistant do it, and that became really valuable in terms of his knowledge of the footage, so not only did it take a load off my plate in terms of man hours of doing the selects reel, but then he became another resource about the footage. Harry and I were talking about this yesterday about trusting the process. Carol Littleton once said, “You can never know in week two what you’re going to know in week ten.” The process is set up this way for a reason: It takes a certain amount of time to discover things and to solve problems. In films like this that are so intricately shot and there are so many interesting and different ways to put it together, it really does illustrates the reason why there is this process, because scenes just tend to get better and better and you keep mining the footage. The thing you can never do is be complacent. Because there’s more great stuff in there. We’d be constantly finding great shots. You’d be looking for something else to help a moment or complete a note from Kathryn and Harry would come into my room and say, “I found this cool thing in the mirror. You should see if you can use it.” It just made you really want to go in there and work the film as much as you possibly can before they take it away from you.

HULLFISH: Editing is editing. In other words, revising. I’ve heard editors say, “I did it first cut and that’s the way it ended up in the final film.” It’s absolutely possible that you just make this great, perfect cut on the first try, but so much of editing is refining and not being satisfied and trying new things and going back into the dailies.

GOLDENBERG: Absolutely. And I have had scenes that were pretty much the way they showed up in the final film on a first cut, but when I hear “that’s mostly my first cut” there’s always a part of me that thinks, “well didn’t you work on it?” Maybe there was something better in there? It feels like maybe we should have dug in there a little more because it’s like you say, “Editing is Editing.” Part of the job is to never be satisfied.

YOON: I’ve learned so many things working on this film with Billy, but one of the things that I think really stays with me is that. It is kind of paradoxical considering what we just spoke about, which is to know when to rework something and trusting that you don’t have to do all the changes or suggest all of the lifts right up front. I think one of the big challenges — at least in the first act — was to say, “How much context do we need? How much riot do we need? How do we encapsulate this huge event and the scale of this event but also to give an audience the context that they need about Detroit in the 1960s or American race relations in the 1960s? How much context do you need to truly understand how remarkable a time period this was — emotionally or politically?”

My inclination was to make all these radical changes in order to try to get the main story faster and Billy was much more measured and much more mature in the way he first approached the process and would say, “Let’s trust the process” and allow it to work itself out. So what I learned from that is that you don’t have to make all the changes right away. There’s a way in which the lifts and changes that are most important evolve over time. Only by not being impatient and living with the material does the right work become evident. It reminds me of that quote from Goethe which says, “Never hurry. Never rest.” One of the things that really encapsulated a big lesson of working with Billy is that there isn’t a rush to make changes but at the same time there is a desire to always refine.

HULLFISH: Anything you guys can tell me about these scenes in the movie?

YOON: The “Coffee” scene was mine but this clip is just a sample of the overall scene. One thing I remember about that scene is how important it was to help us show that the geographical focus was closing in on the Algiers. The office building where the soldiers are stationed is within sight of the Algiers Motel and the grocery store that Dismukes (John Boyega) is guarding. We used a combination of sound design (music heard from afar) and visual effects (e.g., compositing the Algiers motel sign into a follow-shot of Dismukes walking toward the soldiers) to tie these locations together in subtle but notable ways. This sets the table for the moment when one of the characters from the Algiers fires a starter pistol out of his window at the soldiers, setting off a chain of tragic events that leads to second act of the film in the motel annex.

GOLDENBERG: The interrogation scene we shot first. I think that was the first scene I cut on the movie. They shot a lot of the movie in sequential order. Boyega was just stunning in that scene. It’s probably one of my favorite scenes of the movie in terms of just pure acting. The subtleties of him slowly realizing that he’s not there for information, he’s there to be framed. He’s there as a suspect. I think he just did a beautiful job. That scene is my first cut. It’s probably the only scene in the movie that I think that’s true about. It’s the first scene I showed Kathryn. We messed around a little bit with the beginning of a scene. There was a shot that went out and came back in again but the body of the scene is my first cut. The thing I liked the most is that when they start talking about, “We do these things in stages. Stage One is this Stage Two is this” and I play a lot of that dialogue from the cops on John and not on the cops because the slow realization on his face is so beautiful. I thought, “this is way more powerful how it impacts him as opposed to watching the cops.” Slowly realizing and then getting very panicky. The acting was so beautiful that I just thought that whole performance was gold. When I saw that moment in dailies I knew I wanted to do that before I started cutting. I do that quite often, where I find a performance that is so real it doesn’t even seem like you’re watching a movie any more. I’ll base the whole cut around that performance and sculpt it in a way that makes it feel like it’s natural and it flows to that moment but that moment gets to stand alone.

HULLFISH: I’m assuming that many of the takes of that scene were good. What led you to that particular take? Was it an early take or a did he come to that performance later?

GOLDENBERG: I believe that it’s like the next to the last or maybe third from the last. I think he did about nine takes. She shot three cameras on almost everything so I believe there are three cameras, each on a different size of John. He was good in everything but when I’m watching the dailies — and I’m sure it’s the same for you — a lot of things are going to be good but there’ll be one thing that just really knocks you out and that take was the one that did that to me and you just feel like you’re the audience and then something really has an emotional impact on you I tend to try and use that. There’s were times in this movie where Harry and I’d be watching dailies and we would both be crying and generally we tend to use those performances.

HULLFISH: So with three different shots how did you choose which of the cameras you wanted to be on at that time?

GOLDENBERG: Well I would say that in this particular case if there was ever a time to use a close-up, this was it. One of the interesting things is that he doesn’t tell the truth. He tells the cops that when he walked in, the three boys were dead. It’s not true. One of them was dead and two of them died while he was there. And it’s just such an interesting idea of what you remember and what you’re willing to admit and what you think is safe to say and he actually tells them something that isn’t true even though he’s innocent. But even though he was innocent, he told a version of the truth but not the complete truth and the cops pick up on that and I think that’s what got him in trouble.

HULLFISH: What about the backstage clip?

GOLDENBERG: It was one of the more interesting editorial challenges I’ve had in cutting a scene because Martha and the Vandellas were on stage and these guys are just off in the wings rehearsing because they’re about to go on and Martha’s loud and it has to be boomy to feel real and then how do you play it? Cutting back and forth between them on the side of the stage and Martha on stage and make it feel unified… I was nervous about being able to hear them. And how I needed to cheat that and still having it feel real but you have to cheat the on stage performance down. I was messing around with different ways to cut it. And at one point I was trying different ways to play the audio and it was a real challenge. At the same time I was trying to show how talented these guys were and how they would have been stars except for this unfortunate series of events that are about to happen. And I was trying to show Fred, who is the best friend who is there as the manager and there’re some really fun shots where he’s being really supportive and there’s a wide shot where he is sort of mimicking the dance moves as the guys are rehearsing, which I love. I just loved them all in that scene and I think that’s the idea — to see how talented they are and to fall in love with them

HULLFISH: And I’m sure that getting that blend of the two simultaneous musical numbers was very difficult to do.

GOLDENBERG: When I first started cutting it, I wasn’t really sure how to do it and it was one of those scenes when I saw the dailies – this is one scene where I said to Harry, “I’m going to cut this scene.” It was such a challenge and the footage was so great and later in this scene, the audience has to disperse and Larry is so heartbroken that he actually ends up – when theater is clear and Larry and Fred are the only two left in the theater – Larry walks out on stage and sings anyway to an empty theater and it’s just heartbreaking.

HULLFISH: It reminds me of a great athlete who wants to be up in that at that critical moment.

GOLDENBERG: There’s a great story — and I have to say, in absolutely no way do I compare myself to this man, but there’s a great story about Miles Davis. At one point someone asked him, “How come you never play ballads anymore?” And he said, “Because I love playing ballads so much.” Because he was looking for the next challenge. I in no way compare myself to him, but I just love that idea: You always look for a challenge — for something hard — to broaden yourself and expand your horizons

HULLFISH: Amen I’ve heard that from probably the last three or four straight interviews that “the day I stop learning and stop stretching is the day that I’m going to quit.”

GOLDENBERG: For me, it’s the day I’m not terrified. I mean, when you start a new film, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done before because it’s all new. It’s a whole new set of problems and a whole new set of opportunities. So the day that I’m not terrified, I know I’m finished. I’m sure it’s the same with you. There are just some of these scenes that are so enormous that I look at the dailies and I think, “I have no idea how I’m going to put this together.” I’m clueless while watching. Then you just start and ten hours go by and you say, “Wow, Look at this cool. scene.” Your instincts take over and you do what you’ve been doing for 20 some years. Slowly but surely you sort of figure it out but it’s scary every time.

HULLFISH: Somebody asked me about what I learned from writing the “Art of the Cut” book and the two main ones are: 1) Getting my ego out of the way, and 2) Patience. Finally, I heard someone say, “The day I stop making mistakes is that the day I stop learning.” Can either of you remember a mistake that you made that led to learn something about editing?

GOLDENBERG: I’m sure I’ll hang up and remember ten things…

HULLFISH: It was wonderful to hear from Harry about the things that he learned from you, Billy.

GOLDENBERG: Thanks for that Harry.

YOON: Oh man, I could go on and on with the things I learned from you.

GOLDENBERG: Harry has been so nice to point out the things he learned from me: and most of what I learned I learned from Michael Kahn who had been my mentor. And to add to what Harry was saying about patience, Michael would say to me all the time, “If you want to go faster, slow down. If you slow down and you’re patient everything will happen faster.” You learn a thousand things and maybe ten of them will stick in your head and never go away. That was one of those… take a Zen approach and go slow… be methodical. So, Harry, you thought you learned it from me, but you learned it from Michael Kahn!

YOON: Steve, you were asking about things we learned from making mistakes and I was actually fired from my first job as a PA over a decade ago. I came from the start-up world. I came from a world of technology where it was a much flatter organization and, so everybody wore a lot of hats, and there wasn’t as much of a hierarchy. I remember after a “friends and family” screening, I tried to give the director notes on the cut because I thought, “Who cares where a good idea comes from?” (Goldenberg laughs) Anybody I tell that story to who’s in the film world laughs because they know how ridiculous that is. The point of the story isn’t that a good idea can’t come from anywhere. But the point of the story is that there’s a delicate nature to the creative process that you need to pay heed to. You have to understand where you are. You have to understand who you are in the room and how best you can contribute. That’s not to say that you don’t have good things to contribute. But if you don’t have an awareness of when you should contribute, you can be really disruptive, and it hurts more than it helps. That ability to read the room and to know when to apply your desire to help is something I was so ignorant of when I was first starting out. That understanding is something that I now know is as important a skill as knowing how to make a good cut. Billy is almost ninja-like in understanding the room.

HULLFISH: I had the same experience, Harry. As an editor without a real mentor warning me against the dangers, I felt like I could look at a scene early on in the process and say, “These three lines are never going to make in the final film so I’m just going to cut them out now.” And I would do that and piss off the director. By the time the end of the film rolled around, those lines were usually gone, but that doesn’t mean I was right in doing it when I did. I needed to show some patience. Let the process work. Let the director be a part of the process and get to the same point.

YOON: That kind of attitude is what creates trust and rapport and creative collaboration. Otherwise, you could win the battle but you lose the war ultimately.

GOLDENBERG: That’s probably happened to all of us as editors. There’ve been lots of times when I thought that a scene or a line will NEVER make it to the final movie, but if you trust the process, eventually it works itself out and you discover that that line or scene NEEDED to be in the movie. There were scenes that we took out early in the cut of Argo, and then a few weeks later we were all thinking, “I can’t believe we took that scene out!” and it’s in the final movie. There are a lot of times at that early part of the process that we don’t really know the film yet, and that’s where I’ve been wrong about things. If I had pushed really hard to do something that I thought I was so sure about at the beginning of the process, I probably would have ended up with egg on my face because it ended up being proven that that scene or that line actually is necessary, but it didn’t show itself yet because we haven’t gotten down to the brass tacks of it and made the film lean yet. That’s a big reason I like to let things evolve: so that I can really, get to know the film well. At the very beginning when you’re just putting it together, you just can’t know. I just want to make sure when I make those strong suggestions that I am really positive and that I know the film as well as I can know it before I really stand up for something and feel so strongly that it shouldn’t be or should be in the film.

Before we wrap up, I just want to make sure that we’ve been clear about the genius of Kathryn. We’ve talked a lot about ourselves, but Kathryn is a one-of-a-kind director — and I’ve worked with some great directors. I can’t say enough about her genius, her heart, and her caring about the people who were making the film and the people that she’s making a film about. Everything she does is from a place of having a wonderful heart and incredible intelligence, and being a really gifted and unique storyteller. She is just a superb director and human being. I’m not saying that because it’s a politically smart thing to say. She’s a true friend and a wonderful person to work with.

YOON: Beyond being a great filmmaker, there was a cultural, political and social literacy that she had. She would reference artists or politicians or academics, and Billy and I would look at each other and say, “I’m not sure who that is but it sounds really smart.” She would elevate the discussion in a way that we all felt enriched. There’s a way in which she pays attention to things but also enriches people’s understanding of the world as you’re working with her which is truly remarkable. I think we all feel smarter and more aware by having worked with her on this film.

HULLFISH: I’m sure that was also a challenge for you to know the quality of material she had provided and that you were going to have to show it to her and meet those standards

GOLDENBERG: (both laugh) Her standards and this being a true story and just because you’re a professional … so it really does feel like quite a responsibility and a privilege.

HULLFISH: That’s a great place to end this interview. Gentlemen thank you so much for giving me so much for your time.

This interview was transcribed with Speedscriber.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINKand follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 Art of the Cut interviews have been curated into a book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV editors.” The book is not merely a collection of interviews but was edited into topics that read like a massive, virtual roundtable discussion of some of the most important topics to editors everywhere: storytelling, pacing, rhythm, collaboration with directors, approach to a scene and more. CinemaEditor magazine said of the book, “Hullfish has interviewed over 50 editors around the country and asked questions that only an editor would know to ask. Their answers are the basis of this book and it’s not just a collection of interviews…. It is to his credit that Hullfish has created an editing manual similar to the camera manual that ASC has published for many years and can be found in almost any back pocket of members of the camera crew. It is an essential tool on the set. Art of the Cut may indeed be the essential tool for the cutting room. Here is a reference where you can immediately see how our contemporaries deal with the complexities of editing a film. In a very organized manner, he guides the reader through approaching the scene, pacing, and rhythm, structure, storytelling, performance, sound design, and music….Hullfish’s book is an awesome piece of text editing itself. The results make me recommend it to all. I am placing this book on my shelf of editing books and I urge others to do the same. –Jack Tucker, ACE


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Steve Hullfish

Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured at NAB, DVExpo and the Master Editor seminars. He has edited on Avid since 1992 and was named to Avid’s first group of Master Editors. His client list includes: Universal Studios, Sony Pictures, NBC, PBS, Turner Networks, The Oprah Winfrey Show, “Investigative Reports” and “Cold Cases” with Bill Kurtis for A&E, Jim Henson Home Entertainment, Major League Soccer, The Chicago Cubs, Wilson Sporting Goods and Exxon/Mobil.

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