‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’: Inside the Process of Assembling the Best Edited Film of 2022

In the early days of filming “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” nonfiction filmmaker Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour,” “The Oath”) didn’t have a clear grasp on what the shape of her latest documentary would be, but she was clear what her portrait of famed artist and activist Nan Goldin wouldn’t be.

“We weren’t gonna make a biography,” Poitras told IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “One thing I try to do as a filmmaker is to not hear the story that people repeat about their life over and over. We all do that. We all tell a story and we go into a kind of a mode of repeating, but how could it feel in the present in a really meaningful way.”

While Poitras filmed Goldin risking her career by challenging global art institutions to cut ties with the Sackler family — major philanthropic donors who fueled the opioid epidemic through the manufacturing of OxyContin — it was readily apparent how this moment in Goldin’s life was connected to her personal experience and history. In other words, her biography. There were seeds for how Goldin’s passion, pain, and fearlessness was fueling her latest activism in how she reacted to the HIV/AIDS crisis decades early, and it also mirrored her journey as an artist and the raw power of her photography itself. Capturing the way these threads of her life converged, with that sense of feeling in the present that was so important to Poitras, would be the central challenge of the film. How it was ultimately solved is a masterpiece of editing, and what makes “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” such an incredible portrait.

Poitras points to January 2020 as a significant breakthrough, when she sat down with Goldin for their first intimate audio (never on camera) interview, which would later become the basis of the film’s narration. “It was immediately apparent that there was something special about [the audio interviews],” said Poitras. “It just opened up a different space. There was something about Nan’s voice, and how she spoke, that I didn’t know would happen.”

Joe Bini — an old filmmaking friend of Poitras, and one of the best editors working today — had just joined the project that winter. Poitras recalled how the editor of “Grizzly Man” and “You Were Never Really Here” instantly knew there was something in the audio as he started to listen to the recording, “[Joe] said, ‘I need to write, let me step back. I’m not gonna talk to you for a few days.’ He came back with this document, which he described as a dramaturgy document, which was divided into these chapters and had themes around each of the chapters that created a sort of focus.”

An example of one of Bini’s themes was “merciless logic,” a phrase taken from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which, as Poitras came to understand it, spoke to “the cruel society we live in.” It’s a theme that would take on different meanings throughout the film and at different moments of Goldin’s life, but could serve as an organizing principal in how various threads could be woven together. “That there’s this kind of  history repeating itself: Nan experiencing, in her life, two crises in this country [opioids and AIDs],” said Poitras. “They’re devastating, and she loses so much and we wanted to put those two things in dialogue with each other.”

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Bini’s four-page document was less an outline, and more a compass that pointed “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” in the right direction long after he had to leave the project. “That document was really our guiding principle, especially for [Nan’s] inner stories,” editor Amy Foote (“Hail Satan?,” “Father Solider Son”) told IndieWire. Along with Bini and Brian A. Kates (“Fire Island,” “Succession”), Foote was one of three all-star editors credited on the film. “It was always trial and error and intuitive, and the magic of not knowing the connection and then feeling it once you put things together.”

Watch Laura Poitras and Amy Foote break down the editing of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” in the video below:

The connection between timelines is often an emotional connection, and avoids the linear cause-and-effect logic that can so often be reductive, but as Poitras and Foote admitted, finding that right combination was rarely easy. It took a while to get the film to flow like a story unfolding toward its conclusion. To solve the seemingly impossible problem of how to transition out of the climatic section on Goldin’s famous “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” exhibit and into the Sackler’s Zoom bankruptcy proceedings, Poitras at one point even proposed an intermission — an idea the editing team quickly dismissed.

Yet for all the challenges of the long edit, Poitras returns to the power of Goldin’s voice in those interviews and the film’s greatest asset: the photographer’s archive. “Nan has an amazing visual archive that is very rare to have in a film, which is what makes [‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’] possible,” said Poitras. “Once we put [the audio interview] next to Nan’s photographs, something really special happens.” Poitras later added, “The material tells you what stories you are able to tell.” And that may be true, but it took a lot of patience, experimenting, and a handful of our best nonfiction storytellers to hear this near-perfect tale.

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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