Awardsdaily TV talks to editor Joe Beshenkovsky about editing hundreds of hours of footage to recreate the Gombe landscape and soundscape where Jane Goodall made history in her observation of chimpanzee behavior.
When Brett Morgen and Joe Beshenkovsky talked about working on a Jane Goodall documentary, they were excited about creating an immersive experience for viewers from the hours of footage in the National Geographic archives.
Instead, their footage was hours of unorganized film which resulted in both Morgen and Beshenkovsky creating an entire Gombe soundscape as they pieced the puzzle of the footage together. The documentary was one of the longest projects both worked on, but the end result is a glorious tribute to a woman who followed her dreams, defied odds as she uncovered the world and communication of chimpanzees.
Jane focuses on that. I caught up with Beshenkovsky to talk about editing Jane and working with Brett Morgen to deliver the ultimate experience which Jane Goodall said brought her back to back to her 1960’s Gombe.
You and Brett Morgen have worked together before. What did he tell you about Jane?
When we were having conversations about it, it was very much a conversation about this footage and about creating an immersive experience and that’s what got me excited. It was this whole idea of taking people and dropping them into the jungle and being there with Jane in that whole soundscape and being enveloped by this experience. That was the thing we talked about more than anything else at the beginning.
Talk about the footage and finding it, at least from your point of view.
There are a lot of instances when you’re handed footage in a sense. It was unique in that this is iconic material that a lot of people haven’t seen and it’s in pristine condition. It was unique in the sense that you also have two people who are starting up their careers and happened to be geniuses at their craft. In the process, they fell in love with each other and that’s something we witness through the camera which was really exciting.
You’re seeing her going out and interacting with these chimps for the first time. As you’re watching the footage, you seem to get closer and closer to the point where she’s handling them and watching that in the sequence is pretty breathtaking.
What’s the story behind the reels in the National Geographic archives?
We were told everything was organized and categorized. We planned to start laying things out. We started to put them down and it became clear very quickly that there was no rhyme or reason to the way the material was presented.
They had these reels and at some point, somebody was cutting it and the nature of the film and the nature of that film was that they would cut from the actual negative and when they reassembled it, it’s as if they took a million scraps of paper, threw it on the floor, scrambled it up and taped it back together. Many shots were missing and there was no continuity so just the process of organizing everything so it could be watched in a tangible manner so we could see the development of things. We’re watching the footage to see what themes are in the material and what we could make the story be. Just getting to that point was a lot of work.
How many hours did you spend in the editing room?
It was one of the longest. We spent over a year on it, and just finishing and doing the mix and coloring was many more months. We did the music too with Philip Glass. In contrast, I cut a four and a half hour film about Garry Shandling and I cut that in less time than that took to cut Jane.
What scene are you the proudest of when you watch it?
The scene where she meets GreyBeard for the first time is one. He welcomes her. There is no actual scene shot of that. Everything is constructed from these shots. Jane walks up. There’s GreyBeard looking at something. I don’t know what he’s looking at, but it’s not her. Constructing that so it felt like a scene, the music kicks in and she’s following him and it almost feels as if he’s expecting her to follow him.
If you read her books it feels as if it’s what she wrote when you read about it.
She found it so magical. Were you aware that you were creating something so special for her?
She said it felt like she had been put back into that time, physically recreating that experience and it’s a wonderful thing to hear. I think we were taking her text and trying to interpret it visually. I think on an emotional level we had captured it.
For you as an editor, where was the first time you saw it outside of the cutting room?
I first saw it at the New York Film Festival. Seeing it for the first time, it felt like we had accomplished what we had set out to do which was to immerse people in Jane’s experience and create something to inspire young girls.
We wanted to open people’s eyes to what Jane Goodall was. She’s not simply this conservationist. She was someone chasing her dreams despite the odds and what people said, she was always pushing forward.
She deserves that recognition.
What scene did you love to watch the most?
We meet Flint and there’s that lovely moment. There’s that transition where the camera changes. It goes from being on a tripod and things are static. She has now crossed the threshold and the camera is handheld. They’re walking right next to the camera and they’re right next to us and there’s a visual shift.
It opens to the scene where Flint is playing on the tarp. Jane is petting and grooming them and you can’t get anything better than that.
How was that footage?
It was closer and more intimate because Hugo had come along by that point. A large process of the film was to get closer to the chimps through the camera so you’re progressively starting from far away and you’re getting closer and closer. Eventually, she shares the same scene frame as them and we end up inches from them.