If things had gone differently, William Goldenberg (known as Billy) would have been treating patients in 2012 instead of picking up the Academy Award® for Film Editing for Argo.
“I was originally planning to be a doctor,” he confirms, “but after six months’ study I realised it wasn’t for me.” Unsure of what he wanted to do, Billy transferred to film school in his home town of Philadelphia following a suggestion from a relative in the film industry.
“During film school I met a professor who was visiting from California State University who thought I had an aptitude for editing. It was the first time anyone had encouraged me to do anything in the arts; I liked editing and he said I was good at it, so I thought this might be something I could do.”
Then Billy met the editor who would be the most influential in his approach to editing. “For around four years I assisted Michael Kahn, who edits most of Steven Spielberg’s films and who I believe is among the very best editors in the world,” Billy says. “He was so generous, he taught me everything he could about editing – his methodology, how he approached specific scenes… And it wasn’t just about the editing but also how to operate in the film industry, how to take criticism, how to work with people – all this was invaluable to me.”
When the survival film Alive came along, Michael moved Billy up to the role of editor and the two shared the editing credit, effectively launching Billy as a fully fledged editor.
“Michael has been incredible to me in my career and my life, and we’re still very close,” says Billy. “The 2012 awards season was really special, as I was nominated for Argo and Zero Dark Thirty [with Dylan Tichenor] and Michael was nominated for Lincoln, so we got to spend a lot of time together. It was amazing for me to be nominated beside Michael, and he was incredibly gracious when I won the Oscar® for Argo.”
Billy started his career working with film, and while he has since worked predominantly with digital formats his film background still informs his working patterns.
“When working with film you had quiet time to think while you changed a reel, and I try to build that thinking time into the digital process.”
“I only cut two or three projects on film before making the transition to digital, but I still go through similar steps that I would with film – studying the entire project before making any cuts rather than jumping straight in, so that by the cutting stage I know what I want to do,” he explains. “When working with film you had quiet time to think while you changed a reel, and I try to build that thinking time into the digital process – although there’s a tendency when you’re sitting with the director that they think you’re not doing anything – just because my hands aren’t moving doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it!”
Digital editing has provided many other benefits, however. “With digital I can try things I wouldn’t have tried with film because you wouldn’t want to physically cut the reel. Plus of course the functions of the editing systems have improved so much over the years and the visual quality now is so good, it’s amazing.”
Billy has been using Avid Media Composer since 1999 when he worked on The Insider for Michael Mann. “I told Michael I could use the Avid…so then I had to learn it!” he admits with a laugh. “I love the Avid, it’s sometimes hard to believe I did it any other way. Over the years they’ve been really great about adding features that make things better, they are attentive to the needs of the editor.”
The versatility and advanced functionality of Media Composer is invaluable in today’s fast-paced world. “I need to show cuts to producers, directors and studio execs, and these days they are used to seeing a much more finished project than in the old days of film rushes,” says Billy. “Avid affords me that opportunity to include temp music, temp sound effects, some grading, some visual effects, to give a visual representation of how the finished movie will look. I like doing all those things that I couldn’t do before, it’s great to have those tools to create something that represents your vision. It gets better and better all the time, and it’s really fun to play with music and effects.”
Avid’s shared storage and collaborative tools have been particularly useful in many of Billy’ projects that have seen multiple editors working on one project.
“I’ve been on a couple of multi-editor projects, like The Insider where I worked with David Rosenbloom and Paul Rubell, and Zero Dark Thirty with Dylan Tichenor. The ability to share media is great in terms of giving the assistants or other editors your media without having to drop it onto an external drive, it makes things so much quicker and easier.”
In those two examples, each editor was responsible for particular scenes; however, working with Michael Bay on Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Transformers: Age of Extinction were where sharing media was crucial. “These movies were unique in my editing career,” says Billy. “We had several really talented editors working together, there was a very collegial atmosphere, and everyone worked on everything rather than owning your own scenes so we would dip in and out of the media all the time. There were no egos involved, it was an ‘all hands on deck’ mentality which lent itself to the style of the movie. We all benefited from having another pair of eyes on something and having those conversations – “What do you think? What if we did this?” – to build on ideas. I also got to work with editors I really like so they were great experiences.”
Going from the size and scale of Transformers to Billy’s latest project, The Imitation Game, would seem to be a giant leap in terms of style, but he takes it in his stride.
“I find I can switch quite comfortably between genres, even from one day to the next,” Billy says. “For me, it’s a question of where my mind is, whether it’s a big action adventure or a more subtle story. I can see all my choices on the Avid and get a clear idea of the story, then once I’m happy that I know where it’s going I can get started.”
The Imitation Game, which opened the 2014 BFI London Film Festival, is a drama exploring the life of Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park code breaker who helped to turn the tide of WWII yet was demonised following the war. “Morton [Tyldum, the director] was already prepping before I started, and we talked at length about the feeling and the style that he wanted. We were in constant communication during the shoot, then we worked beautifully together in LA and had a great working relationship. We were able to feed off each other – there were some disagreements but we were on the same page and fighting for the same vision, and I think the movie reflects that.”
The next two years are booked up already for Billy. He is currently working on Unbroken with director Angelina Jolie; then he moves on to an as-yet-untitled movie starring Will Smith about the life-long problems that American football players suffer as a result of repeated concussions; and then he will work for the third time with director Ben Affleck, on Live By Night.
“Recently I’ve done a lot of true-life dramas, and those are very interesting to me,” he says.” Don’t get me wrong, I love doing big Transformers-style pictures as well! But true stories that no-one’s ever heard of, like Argo, or the behind-the-scenes elements of news items like Zero Dark Thirty, are fascinating. I feel so lucky that my job is not only fun but provides a great opportunity to learn things I didn’t know.”
“There’s no typical road map to becoming an editor, but on a practical level, you have to have perseverance and a great attitude.”
If he were to start his career now, what advice would he give a young Billy Goldenberg? “There’s no typical road map to becoming an editor, but on a practical level, you have to have perseverance and a great attitude. Be prepared to start at the bottom running errands, and work your way up. Take an interest in what’s going on, don’t overstep the mark but be aware and available and work really hard. So many people these days come out of film school and feel that these jobs are beneath them, but they are a great way of learning, meeting people and getting a good reputation in the industry – then you get noticed and offered a better job, then one day you’re cutting,” he says. “But the greatest thing about starting now is that you can practice. When I came up it wasn’t so easy to get access to an editing machine, but there are so many inexpensive software tools available that it’s easy to practice and work on your craft, so my best advice is don’t wait – just edit.”