Stranger Than Fiction: William Goldenberg talks about Argo

Trevor Hogg chats with film editor William Goldenberg about working with Ben Affleck and the challenges of assembling Argo…

“Ben [Affleck] was a much more sophisticated director on Argo [2012] than he was on Gone Baby Gone [2007],” observes William Goldenberg who assembled the directorial debut as well as the third effort from the Hollywood actor who is becoming more comfortable sitting in the director’s chair. “I don’t think Ben felt that he had a true understanding how to tell the story with a camera like he does now.  It is interesting to watch him direct himself.  I asked him about it.  It comes from a certain amount of experience before he ever got behind the camera and directed.  Ben has done a lot of movies as an actor and was a real student of film and directing before he ever directed.”  The Academy Award nominated film editor explains, “What he does is after every three or four takes go behind the monitor and watch playback of his own performance.  When he’s doing that it’s as if he’s looking at a stranger.  He’s incredibly objective about himself and incredibly accurate as far as I can tell.”  Goldenberg states, “Ben loves movies and has seen everything on how these things are done and that’s what the great directors do; they see what other people are doing.”

The two collaborators reunited to tell the story about six American embassy workers in Iran who find refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s residency while the rest of their workers are held hostage by Iranian dissidents.   “It was 1979,” recalls William Goldenberg.  “I was 20 so I was aware of what was going on at the time.  I certainly know a lot about it now than I did then.  I was like everybody else following it on Nightline every night and getting my information that way.”  Additional research was required when piecing together the protest which turns into a hostile takeover.     “You see the first guy who goes over the wall; there is some newsreel footage of that. There isn’t a tremendous amount of footage of the embassy compound but I did want to get the feel of it.  I watched a lot of newsreel footage eventually leading up to it to get the sense of what the crowd was like, how angry they were, and how organized it was.”  There was a lot of back and forth discussion between Ben Affleck and Goldenberg about the protest which sparked an international incident.  “Early on I talked to him about not having music in the embassy takeover and having it all be real sounds, and hard edge cuts sonically and pictorially; that created a sense of urgency and panic.”  Archival footage was to be used in the sequence.  “The original intention of the script was that we would be cutting from the real newsreel shot of a guy scaling the wall.  Then it was described in the script you come from the newsreel footage and come around 180 degrees to the other side through our real 35mm footage where you’d be seeing a part of it you had never seen before.” The plan had to be changed.  “When we did that in the opening it pulled us out of it and we felt instead of being in it you were an observer.  We went with the stuff they had shot which made it much more visceral and real.”

William Goldenberg

“Ben is computer and editing savvy so he has an Avid at his house and in our cutting room,” remarks William Goldenberg.  “There was a tremendous amount of footage in 45mm, 16mm, and 8mm.   Ben would go into his room and cull through the dailies and find pieces that he liked.  We had a working cut by that point but Ben would be constantly bringing in new pieces and ask what I thought about what he had found. There are three or four cut sequences in a row Ben had put together that are in the movie.  He was a great part of it in that way because he understands the editing process as an art form and also understands it technically.”  The two men live close to each other so Goldenberg would go to Affleck’s house on Sundays to review the edited material.  “It was more of a discussion than it was a bunch of notes of what we thought was working and what things weren’t.  When Ben was done [shooting] we were in the edit room together.  He’s very hands on.  Ben is in the room a lot with me but there are times I’ll make it clear, ‘Let me have some time alone with this.’  Sometimes when you’re by yourself in a room you allow yourself to make more mistakes and try things that you might not try with someone else in the room.  When the director is sitting there and there is a big screen in front of him and you’re trying things their instinct is to react to everything.”  At the heart of the creative partnership is a friendship.  “We can be honest with each other with no bullshit and not have to worry about hurting someone’s feelings or being careful because somebody’s ego is too big.  We would be really comfortable so the tendency was for us was to be in a room together.  We were having a good time and the movie kept getting better.”

“In the body of the movie there were several times in the script that [Chris] Terrio referred to specific pieces of newsreel footage with when it aired, what time, what network, and who the reporter was; he had done a fair bit of research himself,” says William Goldenberg.  “About half or more of the newsreel pieces in the body of the movie are in the script.  As Ben and I went through we watched hours of newsreel stuff from the day and added stuff of our own and layered it with where it was in the screenplay.”  Not all that much was required to blend the archival and principle photography footage together.  “I’ve done this before on another movie.  I found that if your audience is engaged in the story and the characters it doesn’t matter.  We didn’t touch it at all.  We added little extra sound.  Somebody was lighting a flag on fire in the newsreel footage and it’s the real newsreel sound.  We didn’t want any kind of interpretation of having somebody kicked in the street and adding a sound effect.  It was the sound that was recorded at the time.  The art of it is to tell a great story.  In terms of the technical art of it Ben was worried about it and I kept saying, ‘This isn’t going to be a problem.’

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“Ben shoots a lot of footage in general but most takes were on him because what he told me was when he started to direct he went to other actor-directors.” Ben Affleck consulted legendary industry veterans such as Warren Beatty (Reds) and Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby).  “There is a tendency to shoot yourself last and the entire crew is sitting there looking at you and they think you’re the vainest in the world.  ‘Let’s move on and go to the next set-up.’  They all told him don’t short change your own performance.   Make sure that you shoot enough of yourself because there is a tendency to short change it.  Consequently there was a lot of it; he is obviously the lead in the movie.”  The seasoned cast members such as Affleck, Bryan Cranston (Drive), John Goodman (Sea of Love) and Alan Arkin (Wait Until Dark) varied their performances but not to the extent Goldman experienced while working on Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999).  “The most varied actor I have ever been able to edit is Al Pacino where in take one he’d be whispering and take twelve screaming with spit flying out of his mouth.  Not like that but enough variations if the scene needed to be shaded one way or the other I always had the material.”

With the CIA declassifying the material about the rescue operation it was revealed in an article by journalist Joshuah Bearman that the six embassy workers led by an extraction specialist sent by the government agency left Iran under the disguise of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction film to be shot in the Middle Eastern country.   The absurdities of the movie industry and spy trade provide a satirical edge which adds much needed levity to the historical thriller.  “We embraced it,” states William Goldenberg who had to balance the comedy with drama.  “What we didn’t try to hide that. We wanted to make sure that the jokes were organic to the movie.” Discretion was required.  “You don’t want to cut from Alan Arkin saying, ‘Argo fuck yourself.’ to a guy getting gunned down on the street by the Iranian Republican Guard. There were times where we said, ‘Lets not cut here because tonally it is too hard edge.’ Sometimes we put in an establishing shot or move the placement of a scene around so tonally it wasn’t such a bump that we would lose our story and emotion.”

“The dialogue [scenes] were interesting, especially, in the Canadian ambassador’s residence,” states William Goldenberg.  “What Ben did was he had the actors all live together for a week before filming started in that house, in their period clothes, no cellphones, no computers, no access to the outside world, thereby, putting them in there as if they were really stuck there like the real house guests were.  It gave the actors a familiarity and rapport that was crucial to the tone of those sequences. When Ben shot it he did a lot of improv and some of it is in the movie.” A lot of cameras were used and allowed the freedom to capture verity pieces such as landing on an actor in the middle of his line.  “Making everything feel coherent was a real challenge.  What is the story we’re telling in a scene?  What’s the emotional story?  What’s the subtext of each scene?  A lot of times it’ll take care of itself in a dialogue scene so what I’m trying to edit for is what the subtext of the scene is. What are people feeling emotionally?  What’s Ben’s underlying emotional feeling and how do I bring that out with all the other characters as suppose to just cutting the words?” When it comes to art of knowing when to insert reaction shots, Goldenberg notes, “That’s the difference between a good editor and someone who is not because there is a feel. When I was an apprentice I worked for an editor named Sean Barton who cut Jagged Edge [1985] and the third Star Wars movie [Return of the Jedi].  He said to me, ‘It’s simple.  As an audience what do you want to be seeing at that moment?’”

“It took weeks because it was shot over a series of weeks,” remarks William Goldenberg when discussing the Airport Chase Sequence.  “My favourite part of it even when I read the script was when they first leave the house to go to the airport and are driving.  Ben is talking and telling them what to expect at each checkpoint; you were intercutting between that and the CIA in the background scrambling because they are on the way to the airport and their tickets have been cancelled.  I love the way we play around with time there.”  The initial design of the scene was altered.  “There were a lot more exterior shots of that little van driving around the streets in Turkey which was doubling for Tehran. We found that staying with the faces of our house guests and Ben amped up the tension because the actors were so good at looking appropriately scared and not over-the-top.”  The movie industry veteran reveals,     “When I’m cutting sequences like that I wouldn’t even call it action. We call that a hugely long tension piece until the end when they’re on the tarmac and the police are trying to run down the plane.  I learned that early on when I was cutting stretches of it.  I was trying to put music into it and see what felt right.  I tried some action music and it all felt stupid. It felt like I was trying to impose a pace on it.   It was a weird feeling so I pulled all that out and put in low tension beds, and all of a sudden it came to life.  It felt like now I found the right musical architecture for it and also an editorial architecture for it.  It wasn’t fast cuts and action.  It was about tension and holding moments.”  Goldenberg recalls a conversation he had while cutting a picture which resulted in him receiving his second Academy Award nomination.”   When I did Seabiscuit [2003], Gary Ross and I used to talk about that the key to action sequences is the story.  There is not a moment of action for the sake of a moment of action.”

When informed I had received an email from a film extra inquiring about his performance as an Iranian Republican Guard stationed at the airport in Tehran who becomes bewitched with the movie storyboards given as a gift by the departing fake film crew, William Goldenberg chuckles, “It’s a great moment.”   He continues, “I changed those shots probably more than any shot in the movie.  It was important to Ben that the storytelling aspect of the movie was coming through.  Ultimately, the movie is about the stories parents tell their kids, and the stories governments tell their citizens.”  The scene was to put the situation in the proper context.  “It was important to him that those guys who are trapped in that world too are enthralled by that as well.  Ultimately, they are 20 year old kids with guns and they’re like, ‘This is cool.’ And they’re into it.  We worked hard on getting those moments right.  It was all improv stuff.  They were speaking Farsi and Ben didn’t know what they were saying so later we had it translated to make sure what they were saying was appropriate for the movie.  Ben would keep giving them direction about what to do in terms of interacting with the guy next to him.”

“For the most part I would say it was what he originally intended,” states William Goldenberg.   “There was a little bit more stuff with his family that got cut out of the movie.”  The issue was to do with the overall focus of the picture as suppose to performances of Taylor Schilling (The Lucky One) and Aidan Sussman as the wife and son of the CIA extraction specialist portrayed by Ben Affleck.  “It felt like we were taking a left or right turn at those times.  One screening we were having for some friends and families we said, ‘Let’s try this without these scenes and see how it plays. When we ran the movie for 30 people and it clicked.  We knew we had found the movie.”  Upon further reflection, Goldenberg remarks, “Maybe it was too much of it.  We got as much out of him sitting with Alan Arkin talking about his family as we did by seeing and hearing him talk to his wife and maybe have an argument with her. What the audience imagined his relationship to be with her was in a way better than what was by seeing it.  Not because of what we had done wasn’t good.   We decided to let the audience to fill in the blanks for us.  We realized that we had a lot of references to his family and his family situation but it was within the context of his mission we were finding out about it and not going off into a slightly different movie.”

“The comedy versus the human drama was the big [overall] challenge,” reflects William Goldenberg who upon looking back at the Embassy Takeover Sequence remarks, “The trick was to let the audience play catch up a little bit.  Not to spell everything out. There was more material where you saw the ABC’s of how it all happened.  Our intention was to have the audience feel breathless at the end of it.”  A particular section of Argo stands out to Goldenberg.  “One of the things I was looking forward to when I read the script was the script read through they did at The Beverly Hilton Hotel where they are reading through the screenplay and you’re seeing what happening with the hostages in the embassy, the house guests and politically around the United States. The combination of all of those tones, things and the mock execution of the hostages in the embassy go through in that sequence is probably my favourite editorially and was one of the two or three, I was most looking forward to when I read the screenplay.  It came out great and I worked really hard in getting that right because it was a lot of different things to juggle.”

Argo has become an international awards darling on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and is considered to a major contender to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  “It’s hard to know about those things.  It’s a great piece of entertainment that also has something to say” states William Goldenberg who went immediately from Argo to co-editing Zero Dark Thirty (2012) which has resulted in him competing against himself at the BAFTAs and Oscars.  “As an editor when the time comes that you get to work on movies like that you relish every moment of it. We all thought that the movie had potential to be something special and I feel that we did it justice.  It’s a great thing when people you went to high school with and some friends I haven’t seen for a long time have wonderful things to say about the movie. These are people who aren’t in the movie business; they go to the movies because they like movies.”

Argo production stills © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Many thanks to William Goldenberg for taking the time for this interview.

Make sure to visit the official website for Argo as well as read Classified Material: Matt Dessero talks about Argo.

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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.