‘News of the World’ editor William Goldenberg on the moment he knew Helena Zengel was special [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Throughout his exemplary career, Oscar winner William Goldenberg has edited movies starring the likes of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, Will Smith, Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Chastain. So when he says “News of the World” star Helena Zengel possesses something special despite not even being a teenager yet, it warrants attention.

“What I did with Helena was I saw her audition tape. I’ve gone back and looked at it again. It’s stunning,” Goldenberg tells Gold Derby about how he prepared for Paul Greengrass’ awards contender. “She’s speaking in Kiowa for minutes, she never blinked, never missed a word, she wasn’t reading off a page. It was spooky how good she was. What I felt most was relief, to be honest. I’ve worked on films with children, and sometimes it can be really difficult, where you have 30 minutes of the director running the camera hoping to get a moment. With Helena, it was just like, every take: bang, bang, bang.”

Goldenberg is not necessarily a household name, but his work with some of the most influential directors of the last three decades is almost unparalleled among his peers. He’s a five-time Oscar nominee, earning his first nomination for Michael Mann’s 1999 film “The Insider.” In 2013, he was nominated twice in the Best Editing category, for both “Zero Dark Thirty” (a nomination he shared with Dylan Tichenor) and “Argo.” The Ben Affleck Best Picture winner earned Goldenberg his Oscar.

“There is a moment when you look up and it’s like you’re dreaming when it happens,” he says of the victory. “I sit in a dark editing room, it’s not what I do for a living. To see all those movie stars, I was just trying to keep it together.”

Goldenberg has edited all three films directed by Affleck, and he’s a frequent repeat collaborator with Mann, Kathryn Bigelow, Michael Bay and Gary Ross. “News of the World” is his second film with Greengrass, after the two connected on “22 July.” The project, based on the book by Paulette Jiles, is one Goldenberg was part of from its earliest days — a first for the editor in his career.

Set in the years after the Civil War, “News of the World” focuses on the budding relationship between a former Confederate captain, Jefferson Kyle Kidd (played by Tom Hanks), and a young girl, Johanna (Zengel), whom he must return to her family after she was kidnapped by the Kiowa tribe. Greengrass shot the film in sequence, Goldenberg says, which allowed Hanks and Zengel to warm up to each other in the same fashion as their characters.

“Helena held her own with Tom in every scene, she never required any more takes than he did,” he says of the youngster, who was nominated by the Screen Actors Guild in the Best Supporting Actress category and is a contender for an Oscar nomination as well. “She’s just a really special little girl.”

In one scene, after Kidd and Johanna survive an attack by a group of disgraced Confederate soldiers, the two bond in ways they haven’t previously — with Zengel arriving at an epiphany for her character that expands the scope of her performance. 

“The acting there is so superb,” Goldenberg says of the moment. “I just remember seeing those dailies and thinking I don’t know many actresses of any age who could pull that off, where you see so much of what’s going on in her heart and soul by just her eyes and her face.”

In addition to “The Insider,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo,” Goldenberg has also received Oscar nominations for “Seabiscuit” and “The Imitation Game.” But there are classic films on his resume, such as Mann’s oft-imitated “Heat,” that received zero nominations.

“It’s lovely to win awards,” he says. “But there are ones I wasn’t that are just as good and worthy.”

“Back when I did ‘Heat,’ it was the third film I ever did,” he adds. “Michael Mann had seen a TV movie I had done and called the director. I had no credits. It was a miracle I got the movie. I remember thinking when I heard about the movie, I said maybe in five or 10 years I’ll be able to work on a movie like that. Three months later I was on the movie. What I realized over time is it’s about the film and the work. The awards are lovely but it’s really about doing great work and having that as part of your life story. I’m as proud of that film or any other film as I am of ‘Argo.’”

“News of the World” is out now in limited release and on video-on-demand platforms via Universal.

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