News of the World

February 13, 2021

Tom Hanks reunites with director Paul Greengrass for the first time since their 2013 Best Picture nominee Captain Phillips for a Civil War Western which also teams Greengrass with editor William Goldenberg, ACE, for their second collaboration after 22 July. News of the World takes place five years after the end of the Civil War and charts the journey of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a widower and war veteran, who now moves from town to town as a non-fiction storyteller. In Texas, he crosses paths with Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old taken in by the Kiowa people six years earlier and raised as one of their own. Kidd agrees to deliver the child to her biological aunt and uncle albeit against her will.

Based on the novel by Paulette Jiles, who shares a writing credit, the script by Luke Davies was refined by Greengrass in a process that Goldenberg was, uniquely, on hand to witness. “Paul sent me Luke’s screenplay around June 2019 and I read it and the novel and immediately felt it was a fantastic story to be made into a movie,” Goldenberg says “The country in 1870 was divided and it took a long time to heal. Arguably even now it hasn’t. Whether it’s race or religion or truth versus fiction these are universal themes all of which are in the book. It’s about broken people in a divisive world and that’s what makes it current. At its core, it’s a father/daughter story and how two people from two different worlds can come together and heal each other by sheer force of their personalities.”

His involvement began that summer, as the screenplay developed. “Normally when I read a script I feel like it has been through a hundred different hands and has had thousands of notes. So, it was a unique experience to be that deep into a script long before shooting. Paul sent me various drafts and I would give notes. Then I went to London to work in person with him on the screenplay. I’m not saying I had any great hand in writing it but the process was invaluable in understanding what was in his mind so when it came to the shoot and editorial I knew it inside and out.”

As with any film, Goldenberg explains that his approach wasto offer advice and reaction to the material. “It was the same process I would go through if I were cutting the film, only this time I was doing this editorial in pre-production. I’m asking, ‘Does it feel human?’ ‘Does it feel real and dramatic?’ ‘Is there enough humor and action?’ We discussed that Captain Kidd is someone who is world weary, but no matter what that costs him and in spite of his political leanings being North or South, he is a truth teller and a healer. I saw in his character something that the world needs.”

The editor was also in town for the duration of the shoot in Santa Fe which doubled for south Texas. “I spent a fair amount of time on set which I don’t usually do even if do go on location. I normally try to stay distant so I don’t see all the sweat and effort that goes into getting a shot and so I don’t feel weird when I cut them. I prefer not to know any of the interpersonal dynamics on set because I just want to cut based on the film. “But Paul loves to have somebody at his side to give him input and express an opinion. He is incredibly collaborative and constantly rewriting and revising. We talked three or four times a day, including in the morning over breakfast and at night as just a way to discuss what was shot, maybe go over new pages, act as a sounding board.”

Although they can’t have known it, spending so much time working on the material was a godsend when the pandemic severed normal editorial connections last March. “For the first time in my career it was almost more important to be on location during production [than] it was to be with the director in post every day. I was in London for the start of editorial but was required to travel back home when the virus hit. Paul is in London and I’m in Santa Monica and we were able to work online remarkably easily. We used Evercast which enabled us to see each other and he could see my Avid.

“Because I had his voice in my head it was always something to draw on if I was stuck wondering about the tone of a scene or where we were in the story. The more of his voice in my head I have, the closer I am going to get to what he envisioned.”

The style of the film is a departure for Greengrass whose signature kinetic cutting, notably in his Bourne trilogy of action films, is largely absent here. News is of course a more traditional period story where Dariusz Wolski’s (ASC) photography of landscape, open skies, all-weather terrain and rudimentary towns sprawling out of the desert is given ample space to breathe.

“In order to have the environment be a character the quickcut verité style is not suitable for this film,” Goldenberg says. “When we tried to overcook the pace, Paul said it would feel like skating over scenes and not living in them. We were very conscious of letting moments breath and letting the audience into the scene with the characters.”

There are scenes of action in the film, including a pivotal one in which the aging Kidd and his young charge are cornered on a rocky plateau by three ruffians intent on murder and kidnap. “Not only is this an intense action scene but there is story involved. Kidd and Johanna bond as they team up to save each other. The best action scenes are the ones that are story driven.”

The story is also a road film in which the central characters  journey from town to town never returning to the same place. The film was shot largely in chronological order too, which was helpful for the actors and the editor in being able to keep assembling the movie as it unspooled in camera. “Being able to watch the story from the beginning as we shot gave us a sense of the film a lot earlier than normal,” Goldenberg says.

Often the editor would be joined in the cutting room on location by Greengrass and other trusted crew including the first AD Eric Heffron, Wolski and, sometimes, celebrity friends of the director. “It’s always a little unnerving showing a cut for the first time to a lot of different people when the director hasn’t even seen it,” Goldenberg confesses. “Paul has no ego about his work. You can say anything to him and there’s no fear he won’t take it the right way.”

When it came to music, Goldenberg set the scene for preview cuts with temp music culled from original Civil War songs and soundtracks from other tonally-related features. “There’s an expectation these days to show a pretty finished cut with music. What I do is try to listen to a lot of scores after I’ve read the script, best guessing what the feel of the music might be to match the emotion of the film. I cut my own music and when I show Paul a scene it has temp sound and music FX and backgrounds. It’s a lot of extra work but I love it.”

In January he was joined in London by music editor Arabella Winter. “Her room was right across the hall from mine. She replaced pieces of temp music and cleaned it up and made it feel unified. I worked with her hand in hand throughout the whole process. She did a brilliant job.”

Goldenberg was first assisted by Peter Dudgeon, his apprentice on The Imitation Game. “He is such a bright talented guy that he’s moved up faster than perhaps others would,” says Goldenberg. “We threw him in at the deep end on 22 July as additional editor and he’s formed a great relationship with Paul. He has a Masters in screenwriting; he’s been an actor so he can temp ADR and he can draw for storyboards.”

The team also included first supervising assistant Pani Scott, assistants Jun Kim and Holly Burn, apprentice Dustin DellaVecchia and VFX editor Tina Richardson Smith. In March the team was sent home due to the pandemic, and three weeks later they were up and running with a remote workflow. “Four of the editorial team were in London including Tina and Arabella and three in L.A. but the file sharing worked virtually without a hitch, the wait time was minimal and everybody was unflappable.

Despite the distance, the credit goes to all of them for working so professionally and courageously in an incredibly stressful situation,” remarks Goldenberg.

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