'Detroit': How the Movie's Editor Vowed "Not to Be Exploitive in Any Way"

Detroit Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

In her new film Detroit, director Kathryn Bigelow re-creates the 1967 riots that took place in that city with blunt, often intentionally brutal force, but in doing so, the movie's film editor William Goldenberg actually had to perform a delicate balancing act. 

The central portion of the film is set in the Algiers Motel, where, as police interrogate several black men and two white women, tense and horrific events unfold. "I wanted to be so careful and so respectful and not be exploitive in any way. These were real people that this happened to, and we tried to be respectful to the families," Goldenberg explains, adding that to do that, he tried to keep it real and keep it simple.

In some cases, he chose to show the victims reacting to violence, rather than showing the violence itself. The result is nonetheless powerful. "I looked for reactions and behavior that was real," he says. "We wanted to put the viewer there and make them understand what it was like."

At the same time, he had to juggle the multiple characters crowded in the chaotic situation. "We had to keep everyone’s story alive, including when the police officers and victims are in separate rooms, and made sure attention was paid on keeping the geography straight so the audience knows where everyone is," the editor says. "There was also the question of what to let the audience in on — and what not to."

Goldenberg is no stranger to bringing real-life events and individuals to life. His impressive body of work includes his Oscar-winning work in Argo, the nail-biting story surrounding the rescue of six Americans from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis. Others include his Oscar-nominated contributions to The Imitation Game, the drama about how Alan Turing helped crack Germany’s Enigma code during World War II. He also received one of his five Oscar nominations for Zero Dark Thirty, his first collaboration with Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, on which he worked with editor Dylan Tichenor to follow the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Goldenberg says that he followed Boal’s carefully constructed screenplay, but his work also required what he describes as "free-form editing. Kathryn shoots a tremendous amount of footage — three or four cameras — and it’s shot documentary-style, so every single take is different. You get a tremendous amount of choices."

He explains that having done Zero Dark Thirty together, he and Bigelow already had a shorthand. "She can say paragraphs with two sentences," he says. "She just knows how to be very to the point about what’s working for her and what’s not. That's really great as an editor. There’s a real synergy between us. When Kathryn trusts you, she really trusts you and it's freeing to know you are allowed to make mistakes on your way to finding the right solution."

The film was lensed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker), who Goldenberg says used vintage 16mm lenses on the Arri Alexa camera. "So it had a feeling of Super 16 and blended really well with newsreel footage (which was also used in the project).

“He did such a phenomenal job," the editor says of Ackroyd. "This was first time I worked with him. He and his operators are such great storytellers; the camera is so alive, always with an eye and ear toward the story — both the narrative story and the emotional story. The way it was shot was vital to the visceral feel of the film."

One of Goldenberg's favorite scenes occurs early in the film, as aspiring musical act The Dramatics are ready to take the stage at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, only to have the theater evacuated due to the escalating riots. "It was really challenging to figure out how to play the onstage performance, backstage rehearsal, the crowd, and make it feel real — and the gut punch it was for [the group's leader, Larry, played by Algee Smith] just as he was about to get his big break and have it all taken away from him."

Goldenberg says he hopes this film will further humanize incidents such as the one at the Algiers and spark conversation. "All human beings deserve to be treated with respect. I'm hoping it continues the conversation about equal treatment. And there's a line in the movie that police criminality needs to be treated the same as any type of criminality. I hope that's what the conversation is about"