How the ticking of a clock helped editor William Goldenberg pace 'The Imitation Game'

Posted by · 2:42 pm · December 18th, 2014

Two years ago, William Goldenberg took the stage of the Dolby Theater on Oscar night as the Oscar winner for Best Film Editing on “Argo.” This year, he is firmly back in the race, having cut Morten Tyldum's “The Imitation Game.” I recently spoke to Goldenberg about the film, his approach to editing and his career to date.

HitFix: When did you come aboard the film?

William Goldenberg: I was offered the film probably six months before the movie was going to start shooting but I was booked. I had all of these people calling me saying I had to do it but I said I couldn't do it. But I became available and luckily for me they hadn't hired an editor yet and I was thrilled that they hadn't!

How would you describe your approach on a macro level?

My main goal when I'm cutting is always story. By that I mean what's the story of each scene? What's the story of each character? What's Alan [Turing] thinking? He's saying these words but he means this and how do I convey that and juxtapose to convey that? This was challenging because of the three time periods and making them clearly delineated but also all part of the same film.

How did you seek to create suspense while telling a very human story?

We realized that the ticking clock of the movie is the war and the failure to break the code. And we tried to accentuate that the war is an unrelenting thing to remind the audience and remind our heroes that this isn't a bunch of people in a village outside of London but the whole world is at stake here.

I originally tried to give the film a pace that was a bit of the pace of a thriller. We did that in some early versions and quickly realized that we had gone too far and we realized we needed to let some of the characters truly breathe. We went back to the film and opened things up and lots of key moments open up, and it cements you and draws you in. It's a constant balancing act because every moment cannot be as important as every other moment. And that's something as an editor you feel, that “this is the moment” and “this isn't the moment.” And it's also just experimentation and hard work.

Could you expand on Alexandre Desplat's role?

We didn't have a composer and we were sort of running out of time. I knew Alexandre [the duo have also worked on “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Unbroken” together] and I asked him if he would look at it even though he said he didn't have time. Magically, space opened up in his schedule and he wrote the whole score in three weeks. I watched him go to the piano and saw him play a theme he wrote in his head 30 seconds before!

It didn't really affect how I cut but we were always hoping that the music would reflect the mathematics of the movie and would reflect the sound of Christopher. In many ways, he's the “other central character” in the film and everything Alan is doing is to make Christopher proud of him. Benedict [Cumberbatch] said he was hoping that Christopher was proud of him and Alexandre was able to reflect that in the music to have the feel of the machine. It's hard to explain something that feels like magic but he managed to do something that was incredibly beautiful. The music is also so elegant and fits the time period and makes you really feel like you're there.

Does anything stick out as a particular challenge?

The movie is a serious story with a lot of humor to it. We experienced the same thing on “Argo” and it really helped me in the cutting of “The Imitation Game,” to make sure the comedy was organic to the film and organic to the characters. We had things in the film that were really funny and we took out because it seemed a fumbly moment that was going to get a laugh but was beneath the level of our film.

Was there anything here that you hadn't done before in your career?

It was the first time I cut a movie about a gay mathematician who was persecuted by the British government! Every film is sort of a unique challenge though you learn not to panic after a while.

Changing the topic a little bit, how did you get into film editing?

I'm from Philadelphia originally and my father was very intent on me being a doctor. I went to Temple University intent on doing that but luckily for me, I bailed after a semester. I came under the tutelage of this professor who encouraged me to edit and I liked it. I came out to Hollywood and I ended up working for Michael Kahn, Steven Spielberg's editor. He was my “graduate school” and he said, “You don't know you're talented but I know you're talented.” I get chills thinking about it. He taught me everything, including being a good psychologist for your director because you're there to help make them feel good about what they're doing. And when I went out on my own, he'd say, “Hire Billy and if it doesn't work out, I'll cut your movie for free.” I had cut one movie before working for him and it wasn't very good. I jumped at the chance to work for him because I took the time to really learn it from someone like that. That was the single smartest thing I'd ever done in my life, to work with him.

I take it you like your job?

I have the greatest job in the world. I get to sit in a room by myself and tell these stories and I don't ever take it for granted because it's a lucky spot I'm in. All the time I hear about people who hate their jobs and I love my job!

What was it like to win an Oscar?

It was fantastic. It was surreal. The luck starts to roll your way and it goes all the way to the end, with the film and the screenwriter [the other Oscars “Argo” won]. I think about it sometimes and it still seems like it really didn't happen. The highlight moment was after I won, I went back to my seat and I stopped at the TV monitor and George Clooney had just presented an award. I was standing beside George Clooney, who had produced “Argo,” watching Barbra Streisand sing. I said, “This is the most surreal moment I've ever had in my life.” And he said, “Yeah, probably.”

When you look back on “The Imitation Game,” what do you think you'll think of the most?

Hopefully people will learn about Alan and what he did for the world and what a tragic end he had. But it's really the people who you work with. I was so proud for [producers] Nora [Grossman] and Ido [Ostrowsky] as this was their first movie, and [screenwriter] Graham Moore. We're going to try to do something together. I won't forget these friendships.

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