‘Trial of Chicago 7’ Editor Alan Baumgarten on Cutting Between Trial and Action

Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” intercuts between a courtroom trial and protests surrounding the Democratic National Convention of 1968.

Little did Sorkin know how uncannily the events of the film would mirror contemporary America. His main goal was to get the film out before the 2020 election.

Alan Baumgarten reunited with him after cutting Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game” to set the rhythm of the film.

The opening sequence, Baumgarten says, is “a six- to seven-minute sequence, and that’s very long for an intro.” It’s a sequence designed to show a country going off its rails.

Baumgarten folded in archival footage of the event. He admits that was his biggest challenge, initially. “It’s a long sequence and it has two different styles going on. One is the faster-paced news footage, the flashes of the events. And we also have introductions of characters, which is more narrative-based and more real-time as traditional scenes.”

The challenge was in finding that perfect rhythm, which evolved through discussion. Lucky for Sorkin and Baumgarten, they had the director’s cut before COVID lockdown, so the two could collaborate. Part of that discussion led to adding sequences and sculpting of the scene. “[Chicago] Mayor Daley was mentioned in passing by Abbie [Hoffman],” he says. “There was no context of really who Daley is. He didn’t even say, Mayor [Richard J.] Daley. So, we wanted to establish this was Mayor Daley.”

Baumgarten says adding a simple clip with context would help the audience understand that sequence better. “We showed clips of Mayor Daley with a journalist asking a question and hearing him respond to these ideas in a way that keeps the flow going, but also gives us a bit of context.”

Additionally, the Vietnam War needed a little bit more expansion. “We wanted to make sure we had the right amount of footage for that in there as well, because that was very brief in the intro, and then we just pulled back in a few places and added to get the rhythm and information where we wanted it.”

Composer Daniel Pemberton’s score was the key element to move the different explanatory elements in the opening sequence to gel. “Abbie is a little irreverent at times. The tactics that he’s pursuing are through shock, outrage and humor. So we were juggling and balancing those things.”

But from the get-go, Pemberton’s score was going to be used sparsely. “Early on, Aaron had specified the big cues: one for the opening intro, one for the first riot which is about midway through the film, the second riot and then an ending cue.”

While the initial plan was to hold back, both Sorkin and Baumgarten realized that emotional and underscoring tension “could serve us well.”

Baumgarten notes he was able to balance the tension within the courtroom and the protests because it was on the page, a nod to Sorkin’s meticulous detail.  “The integration of the stock footage and the cross-cutting between the present day, which is the courtroom and the flashbacks to the events of the riot and the protests that was written into the script.”

While he did vary things sometimes by folding in longer stock footage or protest material before cutting back to the courtroom, he was guided by the performances and the script.

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