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On Location: Busy 'Argo' editor turns footage into breathless action

A million feet of film became the Ben Affleck hostage drama. Then nearly 2 million feet of film became Kathryn Bigelow's 'Zero Dark Thirty.'

November 29, 2012|By Cristy Lytal
(Warner Bros. )

In the making of "Argo," editor William Goldenberg cut a million feet of film — more than 185 hours of raw footage — into a two-hour movie. "Argo," directed by and starring Ben Affleck, tells the story of the 1980 CIA-Canadian operation to rescue six fugitive American diplomatic personnel, disguised as a film crew, from revolutionary Iran.

Goldenberg selected shots and assembled them into sequences ranging from the suspenseful intensity of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran to the comic absurdity of a Hollywood read-through of a bogus sci-fi film. And when he had sifted through it all and was ready for a break, what did he do next? He signed on to help edit another thriller set in the Middle East, Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty."

When you were editing "Argo," what discussions did you have with Affleck?

In terms of the movie and the feel of it, we talked about other movies that it would be like. We talked about "Network" and "All the President's Men," "Three Days of the Condor" and great movies of that era. For the CIA stuff, it would be the feel of the pit in "All the President's Men" where Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman worked, that feeling of people doing their jobs in a giant bullpen. And the CIA wouldn't be all glamorized and high-tech. It would be these guys with their sleeves rolled up working really hard.

And "Argo" has got lots of different tonal landscapes in it: There's comedy, there's intrigue, there's human drama and there's the thriller aspect of it. We talked a lot about how to keep that all feeling like it was one movie — not making the comedy too broad and not making the suspense too much like an action movie.

What went into editing the embassy takeover sequence?

I probably did more work on that embassy sequence than I did on any other sequence in the movie in terms of trying to get it right, because it was so free-form, and you could move things around and change the order of events slightly here or slightly there. The idea was, at the end of it, you would feel breathless.

We shorthanded the story more than it was in the script, and we tried to move really fast and be really visceral. We used a lot of Super 8 and 16-millimeter. It felt like you were watching newsreel footage. We also decided to not use any music and let the situation be the drama. We used all real sounds to make it feel as immediate as possible.

After the chaos of the embassy takeover, how did you transition to Washington, D.C.?

We fade to black, and we come up and it says "69 days later." I wanted it to be overwhelming but in a really quiet way, like, "Oh, my God, it's been that long." So that's why we chose really quiet music and still shots of Washington and the wide shot. And there were shots of basic life with the yellow ribbons tied up on trees, and there were "Come home" signs that were in this dry cleaner.

What are some other sequences that stand out for you?

Well, one of my favorite sequences, which was very challenging, was the script read-through [of the fake movie at the heart of the rescue plan] at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. I just loved all those juxtapositions of the silliness, the absurdity of the script read-through up against what the real hostages were going through, what our six houseguests were going through and all the stuff that was swirling around it.

I loved the opportunity for that to create all those different tones and fit them all together. And there was obviously an unending amount of stock footage, historical footage, newsreel footage that we could use. One of my other favorite sequences is when they drive to the airport all the way through to the ticket counter — when the tickets are first not there, and then the CIA gets the White House to clear the tickets. That I loved, because of the way we play with time there.

So it seems like "Argo" would have kept you busy. How did you end up working on "Zero Dark Thirty" in addition?

"Argo" had a million feet of film, and "Zero Dark Thirty" was at 1,700,000. So [Bigelow] shot a tremendous amount of film, and they had a slightly accelerated post, and they needed another editor to come in to help. The first thing I had to do was cut the raid on Bin Laden's compound. Kathryn had over 40 hours of material for that. It took me about a month to cut it. It was overwhelming at first, but it came out great. We feel like the movie's a piece of living history.

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