Tech Support: William Goldenberg on building tension in 'Argo' and 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Posted by · 9:33 am · December 10th, 2012

Duck into any number of industry — and likely public — screenings of Ben Affleck’s “Argo” in the final moments of the film, and you’re sure to hear a big burst of applause. It happens at the same moment every time: CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) peers out the window of a plane he and six American embassy workers have boarded to flee Iran under the guise of a film crew as a number of soldiers wise to their plans at the last minute chase the flight down. The plane gains momentum then it’s wheels up and, after a tense moment, clarity sets: they got away.

It’s fair to attribute that burst of applause to the release of tension. The nail-biting final sequence of the film builds to a crescendo and is expertly assembled to play on that tension. But for editor William Goldenberg, with those kinds of sequences, you have to remain focused on the characters.

“That”s what I try to keep in my mind when I”m cutting it,” Goldenberg says. “You”re trying to put the audience in the head of these people and not just make it about the event but the story of each person and what they”re going through, always keeping it personal. And luckily for me, the actors were all so good at being in the moment, being terrified but being under control at the same time. It made for great editing opportunities.

And that was the mandate Affleck set on the film, in fact. The camera always falls on faces, rarely taking an overt observational position. For a movie about one small element of a larger crisis, that was key. Getting lost in the greater geopolitical ramifications of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis would have gone against the grain of the more intimate story screenwriter Chris Terrio had hammered out, though Affleck certainly uses those highlights to build on overall themes of America’s relationship with the Middle East, an on-going topic to this very day.

But with a film like “Argo,” there is also a balance of tone to be struck. Unlike, say, “Zero Dark Thirty,” which Goldenberg also edited (along with Dylan Tichenor), Affleck’s film deals in humor and even a bit of satire (though don’t let star Alan Arkin hear you say that word — “That’s the way Hollywood was back then!” he would shout).

“The tone was certainly the biggest challenge and it was what we talked about most,” Goldenberg says. “Obviously we did want to keep it in the same universe, the same bandwidth. You didn”t want jokes to poke out…[But] this is how these people were, and we wanted to keep all the comedic, organic characters and not have jokes for the sake of jokes and punchlines for the sake of punchlines. And then we were careful to shape the jokes so that they felt like they were in the moment and not, you know, a set up and a punchline.”

Also, naturally, he was careful to steer clear of awkward juxtaposition. They didn’t want to go from Hollywood, where Arkin’s piss-and-vinegar film producer may say something funny, right to a life-and-death situation in Tehran. But with that in mind, that kind of thing can be played to dramatic effect if handled with care, and Goldenberg recalls one such scene: a read-through of the faux film Mendez mounted as cover for his mission at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, which was framed by a mock execution scene in Tehran.

“When Ben shot the mock execution, he shot it out a lot more elaborate than it was in the script,” Goldenberg says. “The footage was so beautiful and it was so frightening that that became the sort of framework for a lot of it. And that affected the climax of it…I added and layered in more newsreel stuff and stuff that felt relevant to what we were trying to tell in that particular little story. The focus became a little bit more to the mock execution and the danger that the 50 hostages in the embassy were going through.”

On the other side of things is a film like “Zero Dark Thirty,” which builds tension in much different ways, all leading up to the riveting raid of Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound by members of SEAL Team Six. Goldenberg shared overall duties on the film with another talented colleague, Dylan Tichenor. He came onto the film halfway through and the amount of material, he says, was staggering.

“Zero Dark Thirty” was filmed on the Arri Alexa camera, so there was no “film” to speak of, but if there were, it would have been about 1.8 million feet of film, Goldenberg says. One million is a huge amount and this complicated story had yielded nearly double that.

“But [director] Kathryn [Bigelow] shoots with four cameras, five cameras much of the time and this is a complicated story,” Goldenberg says, “so we wanted to be very clear-minded about what that was. There was an incredible amount of local flavor and just beautiful stuff you could almost make a whole documentary about. So you have to resist the temptation in a way. You want to layer all that in but you don”t want to lose the story. We were constantly being single-minded about the story we were telling and sticking with the single-mindedness of Maya.”

The first task Goldenberg took on was cutting the raid on the compound, which itself was whittled down from 40 hours of footage. He says it was a “test of sanity” because he sat in a dark room for three weeks straight watching dailies for four or five hours a day and then cutting a few hours before moving on to the next part of the sequence. The darkness had to do with the way it was filmed, with infrared lights and night vision devices on the camera. The footage had not even been color-timed yet, either.

“It was so dark I couldn”t even see the keyboard,” Goldenberg says. “I had to get a special light for my Avid – like a little penlight to light up my keyboard because I couldn”t find the keys…It was so dark that I didn’t even know there was an image there.”

After making a first pass on the sequence, it went off to DP Greig Fraser to be color-timed and Goldenberg remembers the first time he could fully see how beautiful the images were at that moment. “I had never seen anything like that before,” Goldenberg says. “Because movies at night usually look lit. And I think its Kathryn and Greig”s and Mark [Boal]”s decision to do it that way. It”s so brilliant. It”s so original and it really does put you right in there and make you feel like you”re in that compound with them.”

That commitment to absolute accuracy, as opposed to the (equally valid) choices of compositing and dramatization in “Argo,” presented other challenges as well. The raid had a very specific sequence of events and keeping that timeline in order was of the utmost importance for Bigelow and Boal’s mission of turning journalism into cinema.

“There were storyboards and diagrams about, you know, who was where, what helicopter landed first and the sequence of events,” Goldenberg says. “But telling that story and keeping the action feeling simultaneous [was a challenge]…The guys all had the same uniforms. They all had the same night vision goggles, so everybody looked sort of similar and the location can look very similar. So we had to be very careful about setting up geography and not losing that so that the audience wouldn”t be like, ‘Where are we now?’…That was a very, very fine line to walk.”

Goldenberg also dealt heavily with another riveting sequence involving the tracking of a cell phone through city streets. It’s a scene he calls “unwieldy,” “sprawling” and “a mess,” but through no one’s fault. It’s just a sloppy bit of business inherent to the story and finding the throughline was no walk in the park.

“I always thought the way to work with two editors is there”s no ego and no, ‘This is mine’ and ‘This is yours,'” Golenberg says when prompted about working with Tichenor on the film. “Like, ‘Let”s just make this really good and if you”ve got an idea you work on it for a minute and if I”ve got an idea,’ you know? So it”s completely collegial and free-flowing. I’ve done that with Paul Rubell a couple of times with Michael Mann, Steve Rivkin on ‘Ali.’ As long as you trust the other guy and you think he trusts you then you get another pair of eyes on things before the director gets to see it and it just makes the movie better.”

Looking back on the year, one that could easily yield a pair of Academy Award nominations and even leave him competing with himself for the Oscar, Goldenberg is naturally thankful and gratified. He says he feels lucky to have had these two films this year, to have had a chance to work with Kathryn Bigelow and to see Ben Affleck’s refinement as a storyteller take another big leap (he worked with him on “Gone Baby Gone” but wasn’t available for “The Town”). Awards recognition would just be gravy at this point.

“The best part of all of it is there are literally hundreds of emails I”ve got from people I went to high school with who”ve seen ‘Argo’ and relatives I”ve talked to and things like that,” he says. “It”s so much fun to have people enjoy the movie that much and I hope they”ll feel the same way when ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ comes out. Obviously, who wouldn”t want that stuff [awards] to happen? But it just would be another bonus on top of an already blessed year.”

“Zero Dark Thirty” opens in limited release on December 14. “Argo,” meanwhile, hits DVD and Blu-ray on February 19.

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