Zero Dark Thirty was made with a cinema vertie approach, which means it tries to get the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall. What that meant for editors William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor was sorting through over thirteen days of footage, somewhere over 320 hours of film, and with a ticking clock that had them delivering the final cut mere days before the film was set to be released.
Both are previously Oscar nominated, and both are up for the awards this season, doubly so for Goldenberg, who also edited Argo. Mr. Tichenor was delayed in picking up the conversation, so we got a chance to talk to William (or as he is referred to, Billy) a little bit beforehand.
Congratulations and congratulations, I just saw the Bafta Nominations.
William Goldenberg: It’s pretty exciting. Both movies. Cool.
It will be interesting to see what happens at this year’s Oscars, you may be going up against yourself.
WG: That would be the greatest problem anyone could have.
Did you apprentice with someone?
WG: I was Michael Kahn’s assistant before I became an editor, and he mentored me and was instrumental in getting jobs early on and teaching me how to be an editor. I owe him a great debt.
There’s the editors who become directors, the Robert Wise’s, the David Lean’s, and then there’s people like Verna Fields who Spielberg praised to no end, but for the most part, there aren’t a lot of rock star editors. As it’s your profession, who do you see as the rock stars, who do you hope to emulate?
WG: I talked about Michael Kahn, and it’s obvious how I feel about him, I worked for him for four years, and watching him and how brilliant he is, how easy it seemed to him, how easy it seemed in any situation. Calling him a rock star is hard because he’s over eighty, but he’s someone I’d put in that category. And I also worked for the late Dede Allen on The Breakfast Club, and she’s a phenomenal person and editor, a force of nature. She took a three and half hour cut, and she didn’t have much input from John Hughes at all, and made that into a great movie. And having worked with those two people, they’re my heroes because I got to be in the room with them. There’s specific movies. City of God, which was cut by César Charlone, this young guy, that movie is just brilliantly edited. My favorite edited movies run from Kubrick’s The Killing to all the way up to City of God and some of the films from the last couple years. You can make good stuff great, and great stuff sh-tty, but it’s the material given to you. When you get there a lot of the hard work has already been done, the casting the writing, you’re often subject to the material given.
I think the issue is when you talk about Battleship Potemkin, people talk about Eisenstein, when you talk about the jump cuts in Breathless, it’s all Godard, or Goodfellas, it’s generally the director first. That’s got to feel a little crappy, doesn’t it?
WG: Not to me it doesn’t I’m not the director, who has everything on the line. I don’t have that. At one point during Argo Ben (Affleck) said to me… look, what he has on the line, as star and producer, and did some writing on the script, for me I’ll get a job right away, I have a reputation, if you fall on your face as a director? The risk vs. reward is so much greater for a director, and that’s not where I want to be. I want to help someone achieve their vision, I want to help someone make their movie. I want to bring something to the table. I don’t think it’s crappy, I think it’s great.
How would you compare Argo and Zero Dark Thirty? You’ve got two movies in serious contention this year, and congratulations on that, you may lose to yourself.
WG: Or I’ll feel good as a winner and a loser. But just in terms of the experience there was a lot more pressure on Zero Dark Thirty because of the political uproar we expected and now has happened, there was also more of a time pressure. Argo we finished in June, though we didn’t come out until October, so there wasn’t that pressure of we need to finish because we have be out in the theaters in two weeks. Where with Zero Dark Thirty we finished around the first of December and came out on the 19th. So there is an overwhelming amount of pressure when that happens.
(at this point Dylan Tichenor joined the conversation)
Dylan Tichenor: Congratulations, Billy
WG: Congratulations to you. I hope I don’t cancel us out.
You could pull a (Roger) Deakins (who was nominated for two pictures in 2007, and lost). I know more about when writers work together than when editors work together, which is unfortunate. What I’ve seen documented is that when there’s multiple editors it is usually because of a time crunch, which seems to be what Billy was suggesting. How did you work together?
WG: It was time and it was amount of footage. Kathryn (Bigelow) shoots a lot, there was almost two million feet of film, though it was shot digitally.
DT: 370 Hours?
WG: It was about 320 hours.
DT: The way I described it to one of the producers was that if you sat down and watched dailies 24/7, literally twenty hours a day, it would take you more than two weeks to watch everything. It’s just a lot of material.
WG: Based on the amount of material, and the time schedule, it would have been impossible – in my mind – for one person to do it
DT: It seems that way, and it was a great thing to have two people banging away at it. I was grateful that Billy and I felt a lot of things in the same way. We worked in tandem with our tastes and what we thought the movie should do. And I think that was a big advantage to this project in particular and get it done in the time frame. We could have gone on for a long time, even with two editors, but it came together.
I know that on The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow had a 100:1 shooting ratio, and I was wondering if this was a little more focused, but this sounds like that.
DT: There’s a bigger ratio here. This is two and half hours, this was 320 hours of footage, that’s closer to 150:1.
With digital shooting that seems more and more the case. Do you think that gives more power to editors?
WG: I wouldn’t say it’s a position of power, but I think it’s a position of responsibility. The way Kathryn shoots, she has an idea of what she wants and what she wants it to do, but she’s obviously not cutting in the camera. She’s shooting everything with four or five cameras. An actor said to us, “I never had to find the camera, the camera will find me.” So it was that sort of style she was shooting in, the footage felt more found and immediate, so as an editor you don’t have as much of a blueprint as you might with a director who storyboards every shot, and everything is a master with a little bit of coverage. At the same time, that’s not a lot of fun.
DT: It gives us a lot of opportunity to shape things, to make it what it really wants to be. You’re not constrained by shots not doing certain things, you have lots and lots of choices, but that’s also the pitfall. Which ended up being a great thing in this movie. Another way to look at the time ratio is that for one minute that’s in the movie there’s a hundred and fifty other minutes that could have been in that same place. So there’s a lot of stuff.
It seems today that there’s more shooting, more coverage, and less storyboarding, is that accurate?
WG: It’s right and wrong. I think there’s a tendency for more coverage. But you talk about an action movie, those are all heavily storyboarded and pre-viz’d, you know, video versions beforehand because they want to keep down the cost. So it’s a yes and no. I think with dramatic movies there’s a tendency to shoot a lot more stuff and make it in the editing room. I don’t know why that is.
DT: Digital is certainly doing it.
WG: But I worked on the third Transformers movie, and believe me those scenes, there’s individual shots that cost a million dollars.
DT: Good Lord.
WG: But the idea of not storyboarding action sequences, you can’t do that. The costs would just run away.
So in situations like that are you editing the Pre-Viz too?
DT: We had very little pre-viz, Kathryn’s not into that.
WG: Every time I stuck a piece of Pre-viz into the film she was like “get that out of there.”
DT: Kathryn style is very much a realistic approach to everything, so when she saw early versions of visual effects and pre-viz things that didn’t immediately strike her eye as “I see that I understand that as real” she didn’t go for it, so she didn’t do much of that at all.
How then is the division of labor on something like this? Are you working on sequences? Are you working on each other’s stuff at some point?
WG: I came on right about the end of shooting, and one of the last things they shot was the raid on the compound, and I started with that and worked it into a cut, and then at a certain point we switched off, and Dylan worked on that and I worked on different things, we kind of went back and forth, but not in any kind of competitive way, more like “I’ve been on this for a month, you work on it for a while.” We worked in this run down house in studio city, so it felt like a college dorm in a way, and we were all working toward the same goal. It was free flowing.
DT: Yeah, that sounds good. I think we both end up touching most things in the movie, batting ideas back and forth, and the benefit of one person doing a pass, and the other person doing a pass, so you go back and forth until all the ideas are tried and refined, and it was an effective way of doing things.
WG: The two editor thing, or the multi-editor thing can be really beneficial to a movie.
We touched briefly on this, but it sounds like you guys knew there might be something of a political minefield with this movie, and obviously the film has stepped into it, and some of the reactions have been incredibly stupid and frustrating. It seems to me that there are a couple of films that are a model for this, All the President’s Men, but also Z and The Battle of Algiers.
Were you thinking about those things, but also do watch Kathryn Bigelow’s films beforehand to get a sense of what she likes?
DT: I think we had seen all of Kathryn’s movies and an idea of what to expect, but also she talked about All the President’s Men from the very beginning, and another film that influential on her was (Olivier Assayas’s) Carlos. Both of those things were touchstones for the feeling she wanted to give the film, and the sequences.
WG: It’s funny because All the President’s Men was a touchstone for Argo as well. Because of the feeling of the inside of the CIA wasn’t filled with high tech stuff. Certainly the production design was modeled after it as well.
I think Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men definitively shot cubicles and work spaces.
WG: As far as the political, we tried to ignore it. We were just trying to make a great movie of the screenplay and leave the politics up to, you know, the big boys.
DT: The press and definitely the congressional stuff we try not to pay attention to that, and as it’s been said so many opinions were formed before people even saw the movie and they were completely off base, it became – I wouldn’t say amusing – but you sort of shrug it off because it didn’t have anything to do with what we’re doing. I know for me and for Kathryn and Mark (Boal) as well, I wasn’t interested in working on a movie that was going to make a big political statement because I don’t know if that’s what’s interesting. What was interesting was showing how and why things happened the way they did in actuality. And illuminating the conflicts and moral thinking that comes out of that. Not to say we’re picking one side, I think one of the more interesting things about the movie is you get an understanding of what it’s like to go through some of those things. There is some sympathy and understanding there that even though there’s a way to look at that as those people being our mortal enemies, there’s reasonable depth of humanity on both sides to be interested in.
It feels like the people critiquing this film don’t understand what a procedural is, it’s not about saying this is good or bad, but this is what happened.
WG: And that was certainly Kathryn and Mark’s goal. Reportage, not glorifying anything.
And also, if I can walk out of the film saying I feel like this film is anti-torture, and someone else says “but look what those techniques got us” I feel like that’s part of what the film is trying to say. Am I wrong here?
DT: You’re exactly right. I’ve read a lot of the stuff out there, and half of the stuff written seems to have been written by people who haven’t seen the movie.
WG: Absolutely, and you have journalists asking questions of them who also haven’t seen the movie. I wish at least people would take the two and half hours to watch the movie before they critique it.
DT: A lot of it seems to be feeding off the press stories, which is not only wrong, but detrimental to everything.
It’s detrimental to art. I was reading about people protesting the film, and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Why are you protesting a film that shows something, why aren’t you protesting the thing itself?
DT: There you go.
It’s infuriating to me. You guys finished, I think of the barrel in Jaws – “Time!” – when Dreyfuss ties it off, you delivered just under the wire.
DT: That’s great. I love that scene. That unfortunately seems to happen a lot, where you finish and they rip it out of your hands. You could continue with some stuff, but I think you have to be a perfectionist to do this, but nothing is ever perfect, so there comes a day when the take it away.
WG: Every movie seems to be like that no matter how big or how small, it’s rare to have room to keep creating and polishing so you can walk away. But there’s a formula for the bottom line, and things get slotted in, and that’s when things need to happen, so it’s like that thing about water or air filling up whatever container you put it in, you use up as much time as they give us, because you can always do something.
Unfortunately you are at the end of the process, and having done some post production work, often the people at the beginning think they have time and try to do things in the set amount of time, but being in the ass-end of things tends to create a greater crunch, though I guess as soon as footage starts coming in you can hit the ground running.
WG: We started cutting as soon as any film is shot. I always feel bad that we’re at the ass end of it, but composers have it worse.
DT: And VFX. They get pounded.
WG: Music is such an important part of it, but when you’re down to the wire and there’s no chance for revisions, it’s really unfortunate. You want a composer on from the beginning.
DT: To live with it for a while.
Often these days you’ll hear a composer do a riff on a temp track, and now we’re seeing – like in Argo – “Fudge it, let’s go with the temp track.”
WG: Well that was a unique situation, there were two cues that we purchased. I don’t know if it’s fortunate or unfortunate, we got music that worked really well with the movie. Had there been more time we could have reworked some stuff, but we ran out of time.
Because of time pressure, do you feel like you do less four hour rough cuts?
WG: Well, it all depends on how long the script is. I had an almost four rough cut, first cut of a movie that had a script that was 175 pages, so there was no way it was going to be any less. They’d take out three pages and add in six. You’re subjected to what’s given to you.
DT: Given what Zero Dark Thirty is, I don’t think we had an unwieldy assembly. I think there were big chunks of the middle section where we are tracking that cell phones that was four times as long as it needed to be and wasn’t figured out, but in large part – other than that – we knew it would come together once we sorted it out and did some trimming and refining. It wasn’t massive amounts of stuff overhanging. We tried to be as tight as could on the first cut knowing our schedule and volume of footage, you have to commit at a certain point. When you watch five hours of material for a three minute scene there’s many, many options, so early on we were definitely making choices that stuck to the final cut, because that’s what it had to be, and I was particularly trying to be focused on keeping it tight and getting the best stuff in from the beginning because we knew we wouldn’t have forever to keep looking at things.
It seems like with a film like this you can always fall back on “Does this advance the narrative?”
WG: Certainly that.
If you’re looking at five hours for three minutes, how much variation is Kathryn giving you?
DT: Well for one thing there are many camera angles, many set ups to choose from for any given moment and then the actors found their tones and their performance approach largely instinctually, so I think we did have a lot of different options performance-wise, so yes there were a lot of options.
Having been on an Apatow set, there’s way more variance there, I assume here people were mostly sticking to the script.
DT: Not a lot of ad-libbing that’s true, it’s such a dense script to begin with. Yeah people stuck to the script dialogue wise.
WG: There were sections of the film that weren’t dialogue driven that were more like a documentary.
DT: A collection of shots, huge amounts of stuff.
WG: Yeah and that stuff is more finding it in the cutting room, but in terms of dialogue they pretty much stuck to it.
I’m talking to you right before the Oscar nominations have been announced. Can I get your reaction to both being nominated, and not being nominated?
WG: My reaction is it was really great to be on the movie either way.
DT: Yeah, it’s an honor just to not be nominated.
WG: I feel lucky to be on this movie, and to have that credit, so either way I’d say the same thing.
DT: I think we all worked really hard, and we’re happy that people appreciate it.
Well, I hope that both of you win and if not, I hope one of you wins.
DT: Me too.
WG: Me too.
DT: Well, Billy’s going to win no matter what.
Zero Dark Thirty opens nationwide January 11. Check it out.