Editor William Goldenberg on Crafting The Imitation Game
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Kylee Peña : Editor William Goldenberg on Crafting The Imitation Game
In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays computer scientist Alan Turing in his race against time to crack Nazi Germany's Enigma code to decrypt secret messages and help end World War II. No stranger to constructing tension, film editor William Goldenberg, ACE, brings with him a lifetime of editorial experience that includes working beneath legendary editor Michael Kahn, editing alongside directors like Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow, and winning an Oscar for his editorial work on Argo.
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch
The post-production process for The Imitation Game saw the crew shooting in London while Goldenberg and his assistant (Andrew Eisen) edited in Los Angeles. Since he began work so late into the film process, Goldenberg didn't meet any of the producers or crew until after production wrapped. In fact, his only face time with director Morten Tyldum before wrap was a few moments at a BAFTA party before he even committed to the film. "We had one Skype call where we could actually talk face to face, just to talk about the film and tone, and what kind of film he was making. That was the first time that's ever happened for me but I could tell right away that Morten and I would get along great. He's a really bright guy and we have a terrific working relationship."
The Imitation Game had few technical challenges in a solid Avid Media Composer workflow that left no room for complaint, with Goldenberg cutting dailies transferred by Company 3 each day. The one glitch that did occur was actually an analog problem -- mishandling of film negatives that caused dirt to get on them -- could be solved in the Avid by Eisen cleaning up "only a thousand places in the movie."
William Goldenberg: The challenges with The Imitation Game were mixing three different time periods into one coherent storyline, and having those time periods each inform each other to move the story forward, and to learn about Alan Turing and what made him who he was. It was always three storylines intercut in the script, and we had to do some moving around of sections to make them clearer. Finally, a big creative challenge -- and similar creative challenge I had with Argo -- it's a serious subject-matter, but at the same time because of Alan's awkwardness, and inability to blend in socially, there's a fair amount of humor to the film. And it gets some pretty big laughs in the theater. We were constantly checking ourselves to make sure the humor wasn't for humor's sake, that it was organic to the film. There was a lot of modulation in terms of how things that were funny would play, or if some things needed to be removed from the film because they were too silly.
When you're cutting a film with a great actor like Benedict Cumberbatch, does his performance lead the edit just as much as you shape his performance?
With an actor like Benedict, there wasn't anything that wasn't good. Sometimes you have to shape someone's performance, but Benedict gave us a lot of shades. It wasn't like one take being a scream and one being a whisper, but rather they were different layers and levels. We could really change his performance in very careful ways. He also did varying amounts of stuttering [since Alan Turing had a stutter]. In real life, Alan Turing stuttered quite a bit more than Benedict did but we felt it would be a little bit much for an audience to have him stuttering all the time. So we decided to only rachet it up at a big moment or confrontation.
I think a lot of judging performance is personal taste and interest: what moves you. What feels like you're watching reality and not an actor. Are you completely lost in someone's performance, do you feel this is a real moment? And when I find those moments where I feel it's really transcended and it's not a movie anymore, like I'm watching a real person, I try to build a scene around those moments. It's something I learned from working with Michael Mann on The Insider. With Russell [Crowe]'s performance especially, we'd pick these moments where it felt like you were watching inside someone's soul in a way. They were the anchors of the scene. I find that it's a really great way to tell a layered story, and not just tell the text of what's going on, but all the subtext of what's going on inside somebody.
Between Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, you've some tense films recently, withThe Imitation Game adding plenty of its own tension too. How do approach these kinds of scenes?
I think each movie lives unto itself. It's strange, I did Zero Dark Thirty and Argo in the same year, but the tension in those two movies was very different. For example, in the raid on Bin Laden's compound in Zero Dark Thirty, the tension came from the detail. It was from never knowing what was around the corner and the methodical approach of the Seals, the extreme quiet and not knowing if somthing was going to jump out. Obviously everyone knows they were going to kill Bin Laden, so all the tension came from those details and showing every move along the way. Whereas in Argo, it was more about a race against time. It was 'will they or won't they get out', so that was a different style of tension. It was about cutting out of things just at the height of the tension in terms of the next beat, leading the audience into a continual cliffhanger.
CUMBERBATCH in a cliff-hanging moment...
The Imitation Game, in a way, is a weird combination of both in that we're talking about mathematics and the intricacies of all that, but it's a race against time because every day they that goes by when they don't break the code, thousands of people are dying. The weight of that responsibility brings a certain amount of tension. I always try to put the audience in the shoes of the people that are in the movie, so they feel that tension and weight on the shoulders of the characters in the film. I think it's a little different in each movie, so you try to feel out the core of what is making the tension and try to really emphasize that.
You've worked with many different high profile directors that are known for their very personal visions for their films. How did you learn to work with each director?
There's a little bit of a learning curve, in terms of their style of working. Do they want to be in the editing room all the time, do they just want to give you notes and have you show them, or some combination? I like what I do so much, whatever they want to do is fine with me. If I have a director like Ben Affleck with me, he's with me all day long. He's really give and take with collaboration. Whereas with Kathryn Bigelow, she's there all the time and she has this brilliant way of saying just a few things that get right to the heart of what she wants. Both of those ways are great for me and I've done everything in between.
My attitude is that I'm there to help the director make the best version of their movie, not to make my own movie. I try to read them and listen to what they say, and I have what they say in my head when I'm cutting. I try to really hear them and see what they like, what shots they like and cutting patterns they like. At the end of the day, I'm trying to help them make the best version of their movie and hopefully guide them in a way that it does that. Sometimes that means editing, and sometimes that means being a psychologist -- in terms of knowing when to push things, when to back off, when to ask certain questions and when not to, or when they're tired and when they need a boost. At the end of a long week when they're exhausted, you want to show them a scene that really works to get them excited about their movie again. It's such a fight to get a film made, you want to pump them up.
I read once that you said working with editor Michael Kahn taught you how to work with high-power people. Can you expand on that idea and the politics behind the edit room?
Charles Dance and Benedict Cumberbatch
Michael taught me so many things. To this day, I still have his voice in my head. Whether you're dealing with producers, directors, studio heads or whoever, everybody just wants to be listened to and considered. I really try to make it my business to make sure everyone is on the same page. I'm either lucky or I'm good at it because there have never been any major political firestorms on films I've been on. I think there's always a way to find common ground. We're making a movie, not trying to solve world peace. I think there's always a way to make people see eye to eye on things and understand we're all just trying to make the best movie possible. If you're open to listening, there are often good ideas coming in. These are smart people and they have their jobs for a reason. I find that I need to keep that in my head: never get in a battle. You want to stand your ground and what you believe, but you need to do it in a nonconfrontational way.
I feel like a lot of editors leave projects wishing they had more time, especially earlier in their careers. At this point in your career, having so many great films and an Academy Award to your credit, do you still get that feeling? Or are you completely satisfied now at the end of every film?
It's probably somewhere in between. Usually you're happy and you want to feel you've made the best film you could with the material given. Editing is a process. I think it was [editor] Carol Littleton that said you can never know in week two what you know in week twelve -- because it's a process. You learn as you go, so sometimes I wonder if you had more time, would you learn more as you go. If you cut the movie for ten months and put the film away for a few months and went back, maybe that would be an amazing thing, and you would be able to see things fresh and clearly and make a better film. I don't know. Usually at the end of it, I feel we've turned over every rock and stone and tried everything we could possibly think to try to get the best out of the material. I'll often go back and see movies I've cut and say oh my gosh, why'd I do that. I'm always questioning things. But usually at the end I feel we've gotten the best film possible from the material.
What's a piece of advice you carry with you to every film?
I try to never say the words "that'll never work." You never want to put an idea down. You want to stay open-minded about an idea someone has and never turn up your nose or roll your eyes at any idea you may think isn't a good one. There may be something about it that turns out you just had to give it a chance, that what they're saying just isn't well-communicated, but there's a reason they're saying it. Michael Kahn always told me 'do what they mean, not what they say' because sometimes you'll get notes from people that seem nonsensical. But if you think about why they're saying it, there may be a lot of validity to it. What I always try to say to myself is be open minded, listen, and don't say the words 'that'll never work.' If you're wrong, you look and feel like a fool, and you close off what may be a great possibility.
Title graphic: (L-R) Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Allen Leech star in THE IMITATION GAME. All film photos by Jack English and are © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.
Headshot of William Goldenberg, ACE by JEFF ZUCKER PHOTOGRAPHY.
ACADEMY AWARDS® and OSCAR® are the registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. ALL RIGHTS ARE RESERVED.