By Chris Visser
Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is not an easy film to watch. It deals with some very ugly moments in our nation’s history — specifically, Detroit’s 1967 12th Street Riot — and the challenge of adapting that history into a narrative feature film was no easy task. What do you show? What perspective do you give space to, and which ones do you avoid?
I sat down to talk to William “Billy” Goldenberg, ACE, and Harry Yoon, the editors of the film Detroit, to tackle these and other questions related to the film and their careers.
First, here are some details about the edit: Detroit was cut on Avid Media Composer 8.5.3 using an ISIS 5000 shared storage solution. The film was shot on Alexa Mini in ArriRaw. Dailies were delivered at DNX36 and then swapped for identical DNX115 media at the end of each production week.
In addition to Goldenberg and Yoon, other members of the Detroit editorial team were additional editor Brett Reed, VFX editor Justin Yates, first assistant editor Peter Dudgeon and apprentice editor Jun Kim. The film will be available digitally on November 28 and on DVD/Blu-Ray December 12.
Ok, let’s dig in…
How did this project come about?
Billy: Kathryn called to meet several months before the project started shooting. She sent me the script, but it soon became clear that I wouldn’t be able to start the film because I was still finishing Ben Affleck’s Live by Night. Kathryn said, “Look, let’s bring another editor on until you’re available, and then both of you can finish together.”
I thought of Harry because he had done some great work on The Newsroom, he knew Kathryn, and I knew he was a smart and talented guy. I ran it by Kathryn and she thought it was a great idea. So Harry was able to start the film.
At the beginning, half of the time I was at an editing room for Live by Night down the hall from the editing room for Detroit. I would sort of run back and forth throughout the day cutting and doing the stuff for both films. We did that for two months, and then I came onto Detroit full time. We did the rest of it together up until the end of the director’s cut. I finished the film from there.
How did you guys approach tackling the project together?
Harry: We had our key assistant Peter Dudgeon — who had worked in Billy’s cutting room on Live by Night and on a couple of other projects — there to prep dailies for Billy. It was fortunate because the way Billy likes to organize his bins and media is very, very akin to what I like as well.
In the mornings we would get dailies, and Billy and I would talk about who would take different scenes. Sometimes Billy wanted to really work on a particular sequence. Sometimes, I did. We would split scenes in the morning, and then go off and do our work. In the evening we’d come back together. This was my favorite part of the day because we would watch each other’s scenes. I would learn so much by seeing what he’d done and how he would approach the material. Getting critique and feedback from someone like Billy was like a master class for me.
I was also impressed that as Billy was working, he would ask the opinion of not just me, but the assistant as well. To have somebody be so transparent in his process was not only incredibly instructive personally, but really helped us to have a consistent style and approach to the material as we were working day by day. That consistent approach is apparent, especially during the entire Algiers Motel sequence in the film. It was one of the most visceral and emotionally draining things I’ve ever seen.
When I saw the film for a second time, I timed that sequence at 42 minutes. Seeing it the first time, I remember thinking that the sequence felt realtime. It felt like you were living through 42 minutes of these people’s lives. How did you approach something of that magnitude?
Billy: They shot that in sequence order, for the most part, for about three weeks. But they did shoot sections at a time that ultimately had to be mixed together. We got everything cut individually and then sat down together and decided how to work all the simultaneous action. We used the benefit of having two heads as opposed to one and talked about where things should be. What we would see and what we wouldn’t see. How to make this all feel simultaneous, but at a certain point, it’s just a feel thing.
Harry: One of the interesting challenges of this segment was that because Kathryn was shooting in realtime, and because the annex building was an actual building — it wasn’t a stage — camera people would be positioned in areas of overlapping action because Kathryn really wanted to make sure that the actors were in the moment every step of the way.
We would often finish a scene but then get new material for that scene that we could mine for better moments. Or, it might make sense to use the new coverage instead of the coverage from the day before to better show which character was where at what time. It was like having a puzzle and you would keep getting new pieces for the puzzle every day. It was definitely difficult, especially as the scene started to take shape. It was impossible not to feel a kind of resonance with everyday events that we were seeing on the news or on YouTube. I think it was tough to grapple with, but at the same time incredibly motivating for both Billy and Kathy and I — really everybody involved with the project — to say, “We have to get this right.” But, also, you’re adapting history. This is historical fiction; it’s not a documentary.
At the end of the film it says, “No one knows fully what happened. This has been pieced together through testimonials and interviews.”
Billy: I don’t know that I’m objective about what happened, obviously, but I did feel like I was just trying to portray the events as they occurred. And, Kathryn and Mark [Boal, Detroit’s screenwriter] did extensive research. They had police reports and ballistic reports, and this is what happened to the best of anybody’s recollection.
I tried to tell it as it happened and not bring my own feelings to it. We wanted people to experience that hallway sequence and the film, as a whole, in a way so they could draw their own conclusions. Let the audience experience it and understand this is why attention needs to be paid to this kind of violence.
Harry: Our conversations with Kathryn were critical throughout that process. She and Mark did extensive interviews with eyewitnesses. So, I think she was relying upon them for some of the factual elements, or at least what they remembered. But, I think any time where there was some ambiguity we tried to be true to that to a certain extent. We checked in with her about what to show and what not to show through that process.
As Billy said, what we didn’t want was to try to be manipulative for cinematic effect. The nature of events were so tragic and so brutal that it was still a very difficult thing to go through. Even though we tried to be as measured as possible while we were putting it together, it was a tough balancing act.
What kind of prep work was involved in this for you?
Billy: A lot of movies in my career are based on true events and true stories. With the first couple, I did a tremendous amount of research, and it seemed to get me into a little bit of trouble. I would start to think, “Well, it really happened like this, or it really went like that. How come we’re not using this part of the book or that part of the book?” It took my mind away from the story we were telling. So, I’ve learned over the years to do just enough research to where I feel like I have an understanding of the subject at that time in history.
But with the specific events of the Algiers, because they’re disputed somewhat, I tried to learn as much as I could about that time in history in 1967. What was happening in the country, and how we got there. In terms of the specific events, I tried not to learn too much. I relied on Kathryn and Mark’s research to have gotten it as close as they could get it. It’s not a documentary, I was still trying to tell the story. It’s a little bit of a balancing act in these types of movies.
Harry: I agree with Billy, it’s best to not focus on research for the particular story at hand, but to understand the context. One thing that impacted our editorial process was we received several reels of stock footage from the Michigan Film Archive. It was a lot of news footage from that time — aerials of fires, street-level shots of the National Guard stopping people, store fronts and things like that. That was really inspiring to see because it just felt so real in the feel of things and felt very of the moment. This led us into an additional hunt for material that took us through YouTube and a lot of period films, including documentaries that were done either during or right after the rebellion that focused on questions of, “How did this happen?”
It was a really wonderful way to sort of deep dive into that moment. We actually ended up using some footage from those documentaries throughout the film. Not just adding original film from the archives, but using it as source material as well. It was a great way for us to sort of hear the voices and see the footage of the time versus through the distance of history.
Let’s pivot away from the film a little bit. Let’s talk about mentorship. What does it mean to you? How has both being a mentor and a mentee been beneficial for your careers?
Billy: I assisted Michael Kahn, Steven Spielberg’s editor, for four years. To say that he was my mentor is sort of short-changing it. He was like my graduate professor. Being his first assistant, taught me almost everything that I needed to know about editing and how to be an editor. Obviously, he couldn’t give me talent, but he made me realize I had talent. At least he thought I did. He taught me how to handle myself politically, how to take criticism and how to approach scenes. If it wasn’t for his mentorship, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am right now.
He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I’ve in turn tried to help others. Brett Reed has been with me for 17 years. He started out as my PA and has been my first assistant for about 11 years. He just got his first job as a film editor, so I’m losing him. I hope that I’ve done for him what Michael did for me.
At the end of my assistant career with Michael, he called up Phil Gersh of the Gersh Agency and said, “You know, you should sign this guy. He’s going to be a really talented editor.” He signed me when I was still an assistant. I was able to do the same thing for Brett at ICM. They signed him without him ever having cut a film. It makes me so happy that I was able to do something for somebody that worked so hard and deserved it. Brett made my editing better. He’s smart and he was able to be a bit more objective sometimes since he wasn’t the one working with the footage all day long.
The people I have working for me are really good at running the room and prepping the dailies, But I also picked them because they have a lot of creative talent and they help me. Harry touched on it earlier about me having the generosity of having other people in the room. Well, it’s a little generosity, but it’s also a lot that I value their opinions and it makes my editing better to hear other smart, talented people’s opinions. It really is a give-and-take relationship I don’t think that there’s ever been a more important relationship in my professional life than the editor/assistant mentorship one.
Harry: After a couple of years working here in LA, I was lucky enough to be part of a mentorship program called, “Project Involve” at Film Independent. I was paired up with Stephen Mirrione. To be able to speak to someone of his level and with his dedication to the craft — and his understanding of not just the hard skills of editing but also the people skills — was an amazing introduction. It gave me a very vivid picture of the kind of things that I needed to learn in order to get to that place. And consistently through my career, I’ve been given timely, incredible advice from people that I’ve sought out to be my mentors, including Troy Takaki and Lisa Lassek and, most recently, Billy. We worked as colleagues, but he modeled every day.
So much of what you don’t know is the soft skills. You can be a good editor in front of your Avid, or whatever system, but so much of what determines success is how you are in a room… your people skills, your work ethic. Understanding when to speak and when not to. When is it appropriate for you to give a note? How to read the dynamic going on in a particular room. These are things that are probably as critical or more critical than whether or not you can make a good cut.
I could listen to you guys talk all day, but I want to be respectful of your time. Anything you want to leave our audience with?
Billy: I know this sounds cheesy, but I think it’s how lucky I feel getting to work with someone like Kathryn on Detroit. Or to work with some of the directors I’ve gotten to work with, and I put Katherine at the top of that list. I can’t believe how fortunate I have been to have the career that I have.
Harry: What that speaks to in relation to Detroit is what I’ve seen consistently in the people that I’ve been mentored by, and whose careers I’ve most admired — how important it is to continue to love the craft. I find it inspiring and endlessly fascinating. What I see in people is they’re motivated by this sense that there’s always more to learn. The sequence could always be better. The scene can always be better. That’s something that I definitely saw in Billy through this process.
Chris Visser is a Wisconsin kid who works and lives in LA. He’s currently an assistant editor in scripted TV, as well as the VP of BCPCWest, the Los Angeles-based chapter of the Blue Collar Post Collective. You can find him on Twitter (@chrisvisser)