Film Editing Lessons from Oscar-Winner William Goldenberg

This article was originally published on PremiumBeat’s blog.

Feature film editor William Goldenberg’s panel chat at the annual Sight, Sound and Story event was full of fantastic insights and anecdotes. Here’s some of the highlights.

Feature film editor William Goldenberg sat with Bobbie O’Steen as part of Sight, Sound and Story’s annual New York City event presented by Manhattan Edit Workshop on June 13th. William Goldenberg has a storied career, with film editing credits including Argo (for which he won an Oscar), The Imitation Game, Zero Dark Thirty, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville and Miami Vice, just to name a few. He had tons to say about his experienceworking with directors and other editors, as well as the craft in general. Here are some highlights:

“It’s taken me a whole career for me to gain confidence. I think my insecurities, wanting to make everything perfect, are what makes me good at editing. It seems with every film I’m as terrified as I was when I started 22 years ago. Every film creates its own set of problems unique to that film. Often, there are sequences in films where you don’t know how to put it together. When I look at all the footage for a scene sometimes, I think, ‘Where do I even start?’ You get that anxiety feeling that never really goes away.”

On apprentice editing on The Breakfast Club, where he observed editor Dede Allen at work…

Film Editing Lessons: The Breakfast Club

“I was around her long enough to get a lot of pearls of wisdom, like how she conducted herself, the things she said, how she took charge of the film and bent it to something she wanted it to be. She laughed at the ‘rules’ of editing. She’d make a cut and you’d say that that broke the rules and she’d laugh like it was the funniest thing in the world. It was a huge deal when I got credit on The Breakfast Club, because she wouldn’t tend to give apprentices credit. The first cut of the film was three hours and forty minutes long and she cut it down basically by herself.”

On working with veteran editor Michael Kahn…

Film Editing Lessons: Alive

“It was like free graduate school at the highest level. He really took it upon himself to help me. He used to say, ‘You don’t know you’re talented. I do.’ When somebody like that says that to me, I couldn’t believe it. He taught me his methodology, how he approached scenes, how to handle myself politically, how to take criticism, which is probably the most important thing I learned because it can be painful when people don’t like things that you’ve done. When I was working on a scene from Alive he gave me all these notes. He made me recut it something like twenty times. He just kept giving me more and more changes, and I finally said to him, ‘I just don’t think I’m very good at this. I’m clearly not getting this right. You always have notes and I’m not making you happy.’ And he said, ‘It has nothing to do with the scene you’re cutting. I’m just trying to get you to learn how to take criticism.’ It was the most valuable thing I ever learned. Criticism is about the film, not about you. You have to take criticism with a smile, say it’s a great idea, and hope it sparks another great idea. Take it in a positive light, even though it may feel soul crushing at times.”

“He would say things like, ‘If you want to go faster, slow down,’ meaning don’t worry about all the footage or the budget and how much pressure there is. Worry about the cut that’s in front of you, worry about what you’re doing. Shut the rest of it out. Lose yourself in the footage. When I listen to that those are the best days I’ve had.”

On collaborating with Michael Mann…

Film Editing Lessons: Heat

“When I was working on Heat, my heart was pounding as I sat there in the editing bay on the first day, so hard I couldn’t even work. I thought I was going to hyperventilate and pass out. But then I started to lose myself in the footage and I cut the first scene, and Michael gave me some notes, and I recut it and showed it to him again. At the end all he did was bang his hand on the table and say, ‘That’s just what I wanted!’ and he walked out of the room. And then I didn’t see him for four days. So I thought, ‘I guess I’m done?’ After a few days I ran into him in the hall and asked him if there was anything else he wanted done. He said, ‘oh yes, yes,’ as if he had forgotten I was there. I gradually inherited a lot of the film, but it was a strange beginning.”

“When he watches the dailies he dictates notes into a tape recorder which are then transcribed. So there might be seven takes of an angle, and he’ll just say ‘great, good’ and you sort of have to figure out what he means. If you did everything he said in the notes the scenes would be a mess. I mean, a lot of what he mumbles into the tape recorder is unintelligible. There are five to six binders of notes on cut footage at the end of the movie that are all five inches thick. So you’ll have a screening and there will be twenty pages of notes, and then another screening with another twenty pages of notes. Even near to the end the notes never get less.”

“Michael’s like a scientist. He has to look at everything from every possible point of view and angle and try every possibility. That translates into a million hours. There were many, many twenty-four hour days on Heat. My last ‘day’ was forty-six hours, but at the time it didn’t bother me because I was single and it was such a huge break. He shoots a tremendous amount of film and he has everyone working those hours.”

Read the full article on PremiumBeat’s blog.

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