Inside Mann: William Goldenberg talks about Ali & Miami Vice

Trevor Hogg chats with William Goldenberg about bringing the life of a legend and a popular television program to the big screen…

“We’re doing a movie about one of the most famous people on the planet.  You put your head down and don’t think about those things,” states William Goldenberg who worked on the biopic Ali (2001) which chronicles Muhammad Ali defeating Sonny Liston in 1964 to his “Rumble in Jungle” comeback fight against George Foreman a decade later.  “Michael [Mann] was trying all different kinds of camera work in the training sequences and I was in the cutting room a lot cutting those scenes together trying to see what worked best.  We were experimenting with different styles, shooting and cutting it. Will [Smith] was in a conference room everyday rehearsing.  They would do read throughs for parts of the screenplay. There would be times they would playback the real Ali on the television and he would keep watching and redoing it.  There were times when I walked by and couldn’t see in the room where I had no idea whether it was Will or Ali.”  The acting challenge was the ability to portray someone who is both cocky and endearing.  “Will has the similar magnetic personality like Ali.”   The Oscars were so impressed by the performance that Will Smith (Men in Black) received a nomination along with co-star Jon Voight (Deliverance) who portrayed TV broadcaster Howard Cosell.
Not a lot of addition research was required.  “I’m a big boxing fan anyway so I’ve seen all of his fights and many of them lots of time, states William Goldenberg.  “I went to some photography exhibitions that Ali’s best friend Howard Bingham had done.”  The film editor was joined in the cutting room by Stephen Rivkin (Avatar), Lynee Klingman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Stuart Waks (Any Given Sunday).  “Stephen and I ended up cutting the bulk of the movie together.  We all had our areas and stuck with them.  I did the Foreman fight at the end, and split the first Liston fight and a couple of fights in the middle.  I had a lot of the stuff in Africa.  I cut the whole opening montage with Sam Cooke’s song under it; that was one of my favourite things I have ever cut.” 

The opening montage revolves around Muhammad Ali training and discovering what he means to the people of Africa.  “There was a tremendous amount of material,” recalls William Goldenberg.  “The script had a lot of description but trying to tell emotional story without words, and to get it to feel emotional the right amount was difficult.”  Goldenberg observes, “The montage has to tell a story and have an arc to it.  It can’t be, ‘These are some cool images.  This is fun.  Let’s throw some music on it.’  Michael refers to ‘archive montage’ meaning longer pieces that can hold the audience’s attention.  The montages we did in The Insider [1999] are ones where you get to soak things in and are not flashy.  They are the right pieces at the right moment.  That’s way more difficult letting the viewer get into the characters as suppose to a lot of quick cutting which can be fantastic as well.”
Making the boxing fight scenes exciting and believable was not an easy matter.  “It’s challenging because Will is not Muhammad Ali,” remarks William Goldenberg.  “He did an amazing job but there is only one Muhammad Ali.  Those fights were choreographed exactly as they happened and there was a story being told in each round.  In order to get those story points to work and you have to make sure that Will looks like a great boxer.”  Goldenberg explains, “We had notes that Michael had given us, and beat sheets of what is happening in each round of the fight.  Brett Reeve was my apprentice on that movie and became my fight assistant where we would go through all of the material.  Each take might cover a whole round.  Brett would break the pieces down into 15 second beats; he understood the beats of the fights like nobody else in the room.  It was helpful to me and made it so I could get through the material much quicker.”

For his next project Michael Mann turned a slick 1980s small screen series about undercover narcotic detectives into a cinematic adaptation.  “Michael didn’t want to make the TV series over again; he had basically said to me, ‘I’ve done that already.  I want to modernize the story,’” states William Goldenberg who collaborated with Paul Rubell (Battleship) on Miami Vice (2006).  It wasn’t what people expected; they expected Sonny Crocket and Ricardo Tubbs, Don Johnson [Django Unchained] and Philip Michael Thomas [Fate]. At a certain point we were saying that we need to change the name of this movie.   Some audiences were disappointed that it wasn’t the same tongue and cheek version of the TV show.  Colin [Farrell] and Jamie [Foxx] were intense.  The experience of it all was intense.”  Trouble erupted while principle photography was taking place in the Dominican Republic.  “I may be getting some of this wrong,” begins Goldenberg.    “There was a big rift between the army and the police, and they hired the army for the security.  A policeman came to the set who was drunk and got angry; he started waving a gun around.”

Security issues caused the finale of the movie to be changed.   “It was originally going to end at Ciudad del Este which is in South America,” reveals William Goldenberg who saw the production relocate to Miami where they encountered a different kind of safety hazards. “There was Katrina, Rita and third hurricane that disrupted things many times.”  Even with Hurricane Katrina being a category one it still caused a lot of damage.  “Downed power lines, and a window fell out of a building and almost hit the Ferrari that Jamie and Colin were driving.  It came within about three feet of smashing on their heads.  At the end of it I believe Hurricane Rita came through.  A lot of the crew was still down there.  It decimated our offices and flooded the main street in downtown Miami.”  When the suggestion is made that documentary could be made like was done with Apocalypse Now (1979), Goldenberg laughs, “You could make it.  There is a lot of behind the scenes footage.”

“They had shot a real boat race off the coast of Miami but at the end of the day Michael decided to take it out of the movie and start with the club scene,” remarks William Goldenberg.  “In the director’s cut of the movie he put the boat race back in.” The film editor was able to leave the cutting room and get an adrenaline rush.  “I went out when they shot the scene that took place on the drug freighter.  They took me out in the middle of the night on a fast boat.   We were going over 60 miles per hour and it was pitch black in the ocean.  It was an exhilarating experience for somebody who is seasick but we were going so fast it didn’t matter!” 

“My favourite sequence that I did in Miami Vice was when they were trying to rescue Trudy (Naomie Harris) from the meth dealers,” remarks William Goldenberg.   “It was a difficult movie to make work because we were at a grand scale at first and as the process wore on we tried to make it more lean and gritty.”  A significant aspect of the original Miami Vice was the incorporation of contemporary tunes and artists like with In the Air Tonight.  “The big thing in that was the choice of whether to use Phil Collin’s song.  We went back and forth on whether we should use it.  We ended up with a version of it that another band did and that was up to the last minute, ‘What do you think we should do?’  We didn’t know whether the audience would roll their eyes or be mad that we didn’t use it.  Originally, Jay-Z was going to do the soundtrack and that didn’t work out.  There was a lot of pressure to have the music be special in the movie.  It is special.  The soundtrack for that movie is underrated.  Michael is always pushing the envelope trying to do something new and great, and he succeeded there.”


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

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

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