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

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood February 24, 2013 at 6:06PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article is related to: Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, Benh Zeitlin, Awards, Awards


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