Tech Support: William Goldenberg on building tension in 'Argo' and 'Zero Dark Thirty'
Duck into any number of industry -- and likely public -- screenings of Ben Affleck's "Argo" in the final moments of the film, and you're sure to hear a big burst of applause. It happens at the same moment every time: CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) peers out the window of a plane he and six American embassy workers have boarded to flee Iran under the guise of a film crew as a number of soldiers wise to their plans at the last minute chase the flight down. The plane gains momentum then it's wheels up and, after a tense moment, clarity sets: they got away.
It's fair to attribute that burst of applause to the release of tension. The nail-biting final sequence of the film builds to a crescendo and is expertly assembled to play on that tension. But for editor William Goldenberg, with those kinds of sequences, you have to remain focused on the characters.
"That’s what I try to keep in my mind when I’m cutting it," Goldenberg says. "You’re trying to put the audience in the head of these people and not just make it about the event but the story of each person and what they’re going through, always keeping it personal. And luckily for me, the actors were all so good at being in the moment, being terrified but being under control at the same time. It made for great editing opportunities.
And that was the mandate Affleck set on the film, in fact. The camera always falls on faces, rarely taking an overt observational position. For a movie about one small element of a larger crisis, that was key. Getting lost in the greater geopolitical ramifications of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis would have gone against the grain of the more intimate story screenwriter Chris Terrio had hammered out, though Affleck certainly uses those highlights to build on overall themes of America's relationship with the Middle East, an on-going topic to this very day.
But with a film like "Argo," there is also a balance of tone to be struck. Unlike, say, "Zero Dark Thirty," which Goldenberg also edited (along with Dylan Tichenor), Affleck's film deals in humor and even a bit of satire (though don't let star Alan Arkin hear you say that word -- "That's the way Hollywood was back then!" he would shout).
"The tone was certainly the biggest challenge and it was what we talked about most," Goldenberg says. "Obviously we did want to keep it in the same universe, the same bandwidth. You didn’t want jokes to poke out…[But] this is how these people were, and we wanted to keep all the comedic, organic characters and not have jokes for the sake of jokes and punchlines for the sake of punchlines. And then we were careful to shape the jokes so that they felt like they were in the moment and not, you know, a set up and a punchline."
Also, naturally, he was careful to steer clear of awkward juxtaposition. They didn't want to go from Hollywood, where Arkin's piss-and-vinegar film producer may say something funny, right to a life-and-death situation in Tehran. But with that in mind, that kind of thing can be played to dramatic effect if handled with care, and Goldenberg recalls one such scene: a read-through of the faux film Mendez mounted as cover for his mission at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, which was framed by a mock execution scene in Tehran.
"When Ben shot the mock execution, he shot it out a lot more elaborate than it was in the script," Goldenberg says. "The footage was so beautiful and it was so frightening that that became the sort of framework for a lot of it. And that affected the climax of it…I added and layered in more newsreel stuff and stuff that felt relevant to what we were trying to tell in that particular little story. The focus became a little bit more to the mock execution and the danger that the 50 hostages in the embassy were going through."
On the other side of things is a film like "Zero Dark Thirty," which builds tension in much different ways, all leading up to the riveting raid of Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad, Pakistan compound by members of SEAL Team Six. Goldenberg shared overall duties on the film with another talented colleague, Dylan Tichenor. He came onto the film halfway through and the amount of material, he says, was staggering.
"Zero Dark Thirty" was filmed on the Arri Alexa camera, so there was no "film" to speak of, but if there were, it would have been about 1.8 million feet of film, Goldenberg says. One million is a huge amount and this complicated story had yielded nearly double that.