Film editor William Goldenberg at LA Digital in Santa Monica. (Christina House / Los Angeles…)
Winning an Oscar isn't easy, but film editor William Goldenberg has stacked the odds in his favor this year: He's competing against himself.
The veteran splicer is nominated twice for his work on this year's CIA-themed films: Ben Affleck's "Argo" and Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty."
Since August 2011, Goldenberg has been working nonstop: first spending 15 months pulling together Affleck's 1970s Middle East drama before jumping into Bigelow's Osama bin Laden manhunt alongside co-editor Dylan Tichenor. His first days on "Zero Dark" were particularly harrowing, specifically his initial task of cutting together the 35-minute raid sequence that provides the climax to the film.
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The editor spent 3 1/2 weeks, six days a week, 16 hours a day compiling the sequence from more than 40 hours of grainy footage, which was shot mostly with night-vision cameras in Jordan and had to be edited in an extra dark room just to see it clearly.
"It was a little mind-numbing," said Goldenberg, 53, in a Santa Monica edit bay, where large monitors loomed above a slew of intricate keyboards as he helped out a friend on a film project. "I'm used to being alone in a dark room, but that was exhausting."
Now his work is being well rewarded. He already nabbed a prize from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for "Argo," along with an ACE Eddie Award for the same film from his peers.
Over a 20-plus-year career in Hollywood, Goldenberg has been nominated for an Oscar twice before, for his work on Gary Ross' "Seabiscuit" (2003) and Michael Mann's "The Insider" (1999), but has never won. Pundits following this year's race, though, believe Goldenberg is the favorite for his work on "Argo." (And if he's worried, he can take heart that the presumed nearest challenger is Tichenor and himself for "Zero Dark Thirty.")
"Out of all the people that I worked with on this movie, Billy has had the most profound effect on me. He's an editor who wants to accomplish his director's vision, but my vision wasn't enough. The only thing I fell in love with was our shared vision," said Affleck, who worked with Goldenberg on his debut feature, "Gone Baby Gone."
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"You have to remember you spend enormous amount of time together, and it's not on-set time. It's one-on-one time. You go through the agony of the movie not working. None of the stuff you want to happen is happening, you have to come up with solutions. I think Billy's greatest strength is his ability to take directors' mistakes and make them look like they were meant to be."
With "Argo," Goldenberg was charged with the difficult task of marrying three disparate tones — comedy, drama and suspense — into a cohesive whole that integrated three camera styles. Adding to the complexity, Affleck used special film stock to shoot the Iran-set scenes so they would look grainier and aged. He used a specific digital intermediate process with the Hollywood-set footage to make it look seedy. Scenes set in CIA offices were shot with a straight 35 mm camera.
"The challenge was having it look like one movie. Ben was always more scared of it than me, in terms of the looks and cutting back and forth," said Goldenberg. "But if the story is great and the characters are engaging, the audience will go along for the ride."
For "Zero Dark Thirty," the film was such a sprawling piece of filmmaking with a tight deadline — Bigelow shot close to 2 million feet of film, or 320 hours of footage — that he and Tichenor worked around the clock to bring it together on time.
Besides the raid scene, Goldenberg worked for months on the lengthy section of the movie where the CIA operatives are tracking the cellphone number of Abu Ahmed, the courier who leads them to Bin Laden. Filmed throughout the busy streets of an Indian marketplace, the scene required a slew of cameras that followed the CIA agents as they drove around, tracking the location of the courier via GPS.
"It was the most challenging section of the movie," said Goldenberg. "Just the driving around took me three days to watch the dailies. Kathryn shot five, six, seven cameras from all different angles, and it was a big challenge to organize it, pick out the pieces you like and try to make sense of it."
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According to Ross, who worked with Goldenberg on both "Seabiscuit" and "Pleasantville," what differentiates Goldenberg from his brethren is his nuance with character and performance.
Ross, himself an Academy Award nominee, is certain that great performances are found in the edit bay and believes that Goldenberg has a touch with characters and storytelling that makes him stand out.