‘DETROIT’ editor devoted to honesty in historical film


Preston Barta // Editor

By all accounts, Kathryn Bigelow’s DETROIT is a massive film in terms of scale and scope. It boasts a powerful ensemble cast, shows a grueling story that covers an obscure moment in history, and jumps from one location to the next in its titular city.

The job of assembling all of these components was given to Academy Award-winning film editor William Goldenberg ― a veteran splicer who has cut the works of notable filmmakers such as Ben Affleck (ARGO) and Michael Mann (HEAT).

Goldenberg studied under the wing of legendary editor Michael Kahn (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN). Since the inception of his filmmaking career, Goldenberg has taken what he learned from Kahn and molded it into something of his own. The way Goldenberg establishes tone, incorporates history and gives still moments movement proves him to be a master of his craft.

Based on first-person accounts and found documents, DETROIT takes us back to summer 1967, where rioting and civil unrest started to tear at the seams of the city. Two days after Detroit erupted into chaos, a report of gunshots coming from the Algiers Motel prompted police and the National Guard to search and seize the location. The confrontation between the uniformed officers and motel guests escalated into a night of relentless violence, ending with three unarmed men gunned down and several others savagely beaten.

To capture the reality of the brutal situation, the film required many long hours of research. The sensitivity of the material and the filmmakers’ devotion to share a true event with the utmost respect drove them to search areas high and low.

Fortunately, they found a valuable source of credibility through hours of archival footage.

Editor William Goldenberg arrives at the premiere for ‘DETROIT’ at the Fox Theater on July 25, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images)

“We had the advantage of having three-to-four hours of newsreel footage that was found in the basement of the Michigan Film Archives,” Goldenberg said. “[Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal] discovered the reel before I came onto the film. They sent me the footage and I cataloged it, so we could use certain pieces as springboards, or to simply incorporate them into the body of scenes.”

Many of these clips can be found at the film’s opening, where DETROIT vividly paints rebellion as it spreads throughout the city. The grainy, documentary-like appearance and Bigelow’s signature handheld style blends seamlessly with their findings.

“Often stock footage can be a distancing experience for the viewer. It provides us with a sense of comfort, knowing we can watch the world’s adversity from the safety of our couches. So the idea in DETROIT was to include footage as a way to pull audiences into the story and not push them away.”

The Algiers Motel, the central set piece, is a major factor in laying the film’s evocative foundation. As well written as the dialogue is, so much is said in the way Goldenberg chooses to show every minutiae detail at that location. Whether it’s the fixed, hellish look on one of its cruel officer’s faces or the nonstop sense of dread that can be felt by those held against their will, the structure takes a hold of you and never lets go.

“We shot over several weeks there,” Goldenberg recalled. “There were so many different rooms and parts to that motel. So my attitude was to put the audience in the shoes of its characters; this way there would be a tremendous amount of empathy for the victims and their families during the aftermath.”

Although it was Goldenberg’s goal to accurately capture the feelings of the night, he didn’t want to overstep his bounds and manipulate audience’s emotions.

“You don’t want to be exploitative and use any editing tricks. I’m always conscious of the viewer when I edit. You never want to feel like you’re being manipulated. There are so many things you can do to do that to an audience, like messing with time and place to heighten reality. I want to be an honest filmmaker.”

At its most profound, DETROIT is an unblinking immersion into a historical tragedy. Don’t be surprised if Goldenberg and his team find themselves with a few golden statues come next year’s Oscars.

DETROIT is now playing in theaters nationwide.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.