The Trial of the Chicago 7

December 8, 2020

Aaron Sorkin’s new historical drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 looks at one of the most tumultuous trials in U.S. history after a group of activists were charged with crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The defendants, played by an all-star ensemble cast, represented a range of different political movements, from pacifist conscientious objectors like David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) and student activists like Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), to cultural revolutionary Yippies like Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), as well as Black Panther cofounder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who had left Chicago by the time of the riots and was denied legal counsel at the trial. But they all came to Chicago with a common purpose – to protest the Vietnam War.

It was a tumultuous time in U.S. politics, as a generation of activists rose up to protest an unpopular war that seemed unwinnable, or at least, not worth the cost in casualties. When Sorkin first wrote the script over 14 years ago, he couldn’t have foreseen how it would resonate with the current events of 2020. Paramount originally planned to release the film theatrically, but due to the pandemic, the distribution rights were sold to Netflix with an Oct. 16 release date, landing right before
one of the most contentious U.S. elections in history. (This issue of CinemaEditor went to press prior to Election Day).

After shopping the script around for several years, Sorkin decided to direct the film himself. Fresh off his 2017 film Molly’s Game, he shared the script with Molly’s Game editor Alan Baumgarten, ACE, in 2018, who was keen to work with Sorkin again.

Baumgarten was nominated for an Oscar® in 2014 for his work on American Hustle and has been nominated for five ACE Eddie Awards, winning two for American Hustle and the 2008 TV film Recount, which also earned him a Primetime Emmy®. Shooting started last October with eight days in Chicago to film the riot scenes and get other authentic location shots.

Over the course of two months from October to December most of the rest of the film was shot in a courtroom set built in New Jersey. “During production, I was here in Los Angeles, editing the dailies with my crew,” explains Baumgarten. “We used the same editing rooms we used on Molly’s Game [Pivotal Post’s Sunset Ave. facility]. They’re very close to Aaron’s house and it made it easy for him to come and go whenever he liked.”

During December, the editor had some time to explore the material while working on a first cut, before really getting down to business in the beginning of January. But of course, they didn’t see COVID coming. “We finished Aaron’s director’s cut and we were prepared to screen it for the executives in a theater on the lot, as one normally would, but that was literally the week they introduced the stay-athome protocol in Los Angeles and the State of California,” says Baumgarten. “So we all quickly disassembled the editing systems and brought our Avids home to our individual workplaces.”

From that point on, the film was posted securely online and Zoom calls replaced in-person meetings as the team quickly adapted to the new normal. The post team was geographically quite spread out, with the visual effects company in New York, the music editor in Hawaii and the composer in London. Baumgarten reports that while COVID was probably the biggest challenge he faced on this film, “we figured out a way to do it. We all just communicated remotely and sent the material back and forth as needed and continued to refine the cut and fine-tune it to a place where we eventually locked the picture and went into the final finishing parts of post-production – the sound, music and the DI.”

“There were delays due to the pandemic that we just had to work with,” he adds. “[For example] there was no orchestra that could perform the score until things opened up a little bit more in London. So we were set back about a month for that. But we managed to work and communicate in a very fluid way, and I think that’s partly because of the stage we were at in the process.

We were in really good shape and ready to fine-tune the film when we had to separate and start working remotely. Had it been earlier in the post process, it might have been more of a challenge.”

Baumgarten says that while they reviewed certain films like Haskell Wexler’s critically-acclaimed Medium Cool, which is set during the riots, as well as films like Argo, Detroit and Straight Outta Compton. “As an editor, I really take my lead from the script and the material that’s there. And Aaron is very specific with his dialogue and also the structure of his film. There’s freedom to experiment and explore, but Aaron gave us a great launching-off point from which to build the film.”

Still, much of the film’s dynamic tension really came out in the editing room. In particular, the film frequently jumps between the riots, the courtroom and scenes of Hoffman describing the events to a crowd of college students.

“Some of that jumping back and forth was created editorially because it just felt right,” Baumgarten recalls. “Aaron had laid that out for the most part, as he likes to jump back and forth in time. So he will indicate it in places, but that specific area became a little bit more intricate to build more tension leading up to the riot. So we jumped into the riot, but then we paused for a brief moment as Abbie describes the use of tear gas, and then we continue on.”

He explains that he cut based on the energy and rhythm that came out of the riot sequences, “but for other areas where Abbie’s talking about the convention and narratively giving us a run-through of the story, we followed the script and then adjusted as it felt right to illustrate some of the things that were being said.”

Humor also helped break the tension at times. “There’s a clever type of humor in the film that provides ironic commentary on something that may have happened or is about to happen. And that certainly helps when you have a buildup to a tense moment, and then you can deliver a bit of a commentary on that.” For Baumgarten the trick is knowing when to hold the tension, and when to break it up. “It’s fun to play with that as we refine the edit.”

In one of the film’s most intense scenes, Bobby Seale is dragged from the courtroom, roughed up by guards and then brought back, bound and gagged. It was a key moment to hold the tension, as we see the expressions on his co-defendants’ faces, before even the prosecutor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) felt compelled to object to his treatment and move for an immediate mistrial.

Baumgarten reports that they did a lot of work to build the tension between Hayden and Hoffman – co-defendants with very different ideas of how to proceed. Hayden is basically a straight laced kid who is legitimately afraid of going to prison. Hoffman, on the other hand, sees the trial as political theatre and seems determined to turn it into a circus. “From the very beginning of the prologue, we juxtapose Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman back to back, and right away, you get that they are coming at it from different points of view.”

At one pivotal moment, the defendants pass around a note, deciding not to stand up when the judge calls them to rise. But Hayden ignores the note and stands for the judge. The moment lingers long enough to see the reactions of the other defendants and underscores the tension between Hayden and his co-defendants.

The editor explains that Sorkin was very involved in the editorial process. “He primarily focuses on the pacing and rhythm of the dialogue and the tone of how the lines are being delivered. He likes to get the dialogue right first, and then we’ll work on swapping out shots, whether it’s a close-up or a medium shot or a different reaction. But as far as the visual, he encourages me to assemble a structure that I think is right.”

Baumgarten explains that he’s worked with his assistant editor Christine Kim a few times before. At the end of post-production, she was bumped up to the title of additional editor. “She’s a very talented editor in her own right. She was very involved creatively and ran a great cutting room as well. I looked to her with every sequence I put together to be my first viewer. “She has a great sense of clarity and precision and I trust her taste and her judgment, and I was able to give her sections to work on and say, ‘Here, have a go at this.’”

They were joined by assistant editor Brandon Marchionda, whom Baumgarten says mapped out some of the visual effects shots, doing comp work and temp VFX elements that would serve as a guide. Machionda coordinated with the VFX vendor, New York’s Brainstorm Digital.

Kaitlyn Ali rounded out the team, serving as editorial production assistant. “She had great energy and great ideas and was also very involved in the discussions,” says Baumgarten. “We were all very passionate about this project, about the subject, the opportunity to tell this story and to work with Aaron. It was really a pleasure and a lot of fun for all of us.”

During this interview with Baumgarten, conducted in early October, he said he hoped that the film would inspire people to vote. “It’s part of this film – how important voting is and the need to be involved in the process of our democracy – that it does take work and how important it is to fight for our rights of free expression and dissent.

“While we were working on it, we had no idea of the events that would be happening the past few months,” he concludes. “But now more than ever, it feels urgent that those things are not only respected, but upheld and it requires people understanding that and responding.”


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