Talking Zero Dark Thirty Editing

Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg help put us right there in the decade-long manhunt to get Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. I recently spoke with the two editors about the acclaimed, if controversial Oscar contender directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

Dylan, you were there from the very beginning and Billy, you joined after Argo. So what was the big editorial challenge?

Dylan Tichenor: We wanted to do it in a non-Hollywood way and relied on Jessica Chastain’s brilliant performance. The through line for her character was worked out ahead of time but she did a lot of the work for us, quite frankly. It was finding the key moments in the torture sequences to show how she’s a little bit of the deer in the headlights. She still has a lot of strength but is taken aback by what she sees, and then the progression of her mission when she’s even taking part in the enhanced interrogation herself and evolves into a different person. But we wanted to weave that in the subtlest, human way possible.

Handling the torture sequences must’ve been the most challenging. Everyone’s debating the efficacy issue, but I think you handled it very sensitively.

DT: The material that Kathryn and the actors brought was all top-notch, but there is an inherent, difficult, challenging quality to that stuff. I remember there was a ton of footage — hour upon hour upon hour — and our job as editors was to find the salient moments that speak to us and tell the story and the performance. As such, we had to watch every bit of it and pay attention and take notes and pull our bits. I remember thinking between takes of the character and not the actor. We were able to tease out some depth-producing moments from him to give the film some real balance, some sympathy for this terrorist.

William Goldenberg: And you also have to remember after months of working on it what your first impression was. That’s what your audience is going to feel so you have to really be cognizant of it. Because it’s overwhelming when you see it the first time and you can’t lose sight of that as an editor. So we had to be very careful about the amount we were going to show.

The Marriott bombing works on two levels, the casual conversation and then dealing with the blast itself. We’re lulled into a sense of false security.

WG: The tricky thing was not tipping it off in any way so the viewer suspects he’s being set up. Also, Jessica in that particular take is so fantastic. Her reaction to the off-camera bomb is perfect.

The middle section is also full of tension and humor as Maya goes up against a bureaucratic roadblock at the CIA.

DT: It’s one of my favorite parts of the movie: showing the risks that were going to be taken to pull this off. As an audience member, you’re following Maya and believe she’s right but then you see them discuss Iraq and the WMDs and that they had pictures and that blew up in their faces, so in all the political discussion that goes on. Editorially, that was one of the first sections that felt just right early on because it came together so well. We didn’t mess with that area too much.

What about the challenge of the NAVY Seal mission, which could’ve taken up the whole movie?

DT: We were so careful to be accurate and not make it a rah-rah, gung-ho action scene. We wanted the tension to be from the detail to show exactly what these guys do. It wasn’t a charge up the stairs — it was a slow, methodical action that these guys do all the time.

WG: One of the great things about the construction of the film is that you see her getting indoctrinated in the ways of eliciting intel from people on the ground and then she takes her theories and information and pushes it up the chain, through the bureaucracy in a separate section, and then we get to the boots on the ground operation that in a lot of ways subverts the expectations of the movie and the genre in general. It’s not inflating anything: it’s surprisingly kind of prosaic in its matter of fact [approach], and that’s for me a very interesting end to the film. After all of that, what we get is what Kathryn described as ‘a wave of death’ from the Navy SEALS. It’s just a scarily real feeling; nobody’s having fun.

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Editing, Movies, Oscar, Tech, Trailers

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