The story of a world-class footballer who falls in love with a Spice Girl is very well known, or is it? Michael Harte, ACE, reveals his editing process and the decisions that helped make Beckham another huge hit for Netflix.

A key sequence, among many in Fisher Stevens’ Beckham, the short but enthralling Netflix series about the footballer, takes place during the 1998 World Cup. England’s David Beckham is sent off after kicking out at Argentina’s Diego Simeone. His team are subsequently eliminated from the tournament, with most of the blame landing on the young Manchester United player. Bookended before by revelatory interviews with Victoria Beckham and Simeone, and afterwards by archive footage showing the vitriolic reaction of an enraged English press and fanbase, the emotional story of the incident and its impact is expertly cut by editor Michael Harte, ACE.

“This is a huge anchor point in the story. It defines him and that time in England,” says Harte. “It defines what it means to love football and to hate football when it goes wrong. The key to that section was also telling David and Victoria’s story almost in tandem. It’s about their love story, and then it culminates with Simeone.

“That was one of the first things I started to play around with in the edit to show to the guys,” he continues.  “This wasn’t just David telling his story. We’re using Victoria to tell it, we’re using Simeone, doing something different to what you’d normally get in a sports story.”

Michael Harte – Irish editor (and Liverpool fan) Michael Harte, ACE, is known for Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (2023) for which he has recently won the Critics’ Choice Documentary Award, Three Identical Strangers (2018), On the President’s Orders (2019), and Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (2019), for which he won a BAFTA for Best Factual Editing. Harte also directed and edited Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes (2021).

Kicking off

“When you have a story like Beckham that’s so big, the secret weapon you have is that you can subvert the audience’s expectations because they already have an idea in their head of what they want it to be,” says Harte.

The interview with the Argentinian Simeone, where he reveals that he goaded Beckham in 1996, was being shot as Harte began work on the project. It starts powerfully; the camera follows the protagonist as he enters the massive Atletico Madrid stadium, where he is now the manager.

“When I watched the interview with Simeone, it was totally different to what I expected,” Harte confesses. “It’s almost tongue-in-cheek, but he’s being very honest. That’s a huge testament to Fisher. His contributors are so relaxed, and he did it with 80 interviews.  I was also thrown by the way Victoria was so candid about the night before [the ‘red card’ match], about when she revealed her pregnancy to David.”

Harte is “obsessed” with interviews. “I spent several weeks, going through all the interviews. I like to get to a stage where I feel confident that I’ve seen everything,” he says. “I try to get to the end without cutting anything, just keeping an open mind.” 

That also goes for the archive material, of which there was a massive amount. Again, Harte watched all of it: “You’ve got film of David with his family, film of him with his dad, the [early] games, the football matches, and then the extra stuff around it like the fans in pubs watching these games. You’ve got the analysts at half-time and full-time. Then, because of the way the story pans out, you’ve got endless news items after the game. 

“I like telling stories chronologically, but I love thinking about structure a lot,” he adds. “Once I get to the end of the material, I’ll spend a weekend asking myself: where does the story start?” 

According to Harte, that starting point should have excitement to hook the audience, but it should also encapsulate the character in the story.

“It had to be when he scored the goal from the halfway line [for Manchester United against Wimbledon in 1996] because it says everything about him, about football,” says Harte. “He’s doing something that is going to grab the attention of the audience. It’s very much a David Beckham thing: he’s trying something so audacious; it pays off, it works. It sets the tone for the rest of the series. We could jump in and out of that chronological narrative into his backstory, but from that point on, we were moving forward on a timeline. Once we figured that out, it became much easier to figure out where the start and the end of each episode was.”

Mixing old and new

Harte loves mixing interviews and archive. “You can use a piece of archive anywhere in a documentary to juxtapose it against something someone says, you can be creative with it, and you can get them to contradict someone else,” he notes. “The biggest sin for me is using archive to cover edits in an interview. When I find myself doing that, I need to take a break because I’m not thinking creatively anymore. The second sin is when they’re saying the things in interviews that we’re seeing in the archive.”

Instead, he will use the archive to ‘echo’ what people are saying. “We have so much archive in this series that we’re unlimited in how creative we can be.”

As an example, when Beckham plays against Liverpool in the first episode, it’s revealed halfway through the sequence that he was on the phone with Victoria at three o’clock in the morning before the match. “So, he’s going to be tired,” says Harte. “And then before the players came onto the pitch [we found] a small piece in the commentary saying, “A very strange situation here where they’re going to have to play the match at half 10 in the morning”. 

“There’s gold everywhere, and every editor will tell you, if you take the time, you’ll always find more.”

This was aided by the process that Harte had set up while reviewing the archive material on the Avid timeline. “I had a couple of assistants to help me go through the material and they would mark things up. Every time we saw David, we’d mark it, every time it cut to [Sir Alex] Ferguson, we marked it, anytime we see any of our [interviewees] such as Cantona, Neville, doing anything – turning their head, tying up their boots– we’d mark it.  We’re not talking about every single game he’s ever played, but in the context of the story, we have maybe ten games through the mid-90s where things are happening in his personal life. 

“The pitch became a stage for the drama that was unfolding not just in the match, but in his life,” he adds. “And the more we infused those games with the things that were going on around in his life, the better. That’s what people are there for. It’s not just about football.

“When I spoke to Fisher at the very start of the project, his directive was: go big or go home. continues Harte. “He said, ‘Make it as epic as Spartacus, Beckham’s life feels like a movie. So don’t be afraid to make it feel like a movie’. 

“When he plays against Simeone for the first time since the red card, it’s the same night as Victoria is having a baby for the first time. So visually it was important to make it feel as dramatic as it was in in real life. When Simeone is walking out onto the pitch [in the archive] or into the stadium for an interview, we’re drawing it out as long as we can because there’s so much tension here. Those amazing close-ups of the players and David’s face also gave me a lot of clay to make these beats in the story very cinematic, very tense and dramatic.”

Team effort

“A [documentary] director has spent a long time with these [interviewees]. The material will speak to them differently than it will speak to me, and the audience,” he says. “So, I love having time on my own just to go through all the material, watch it and come up with some ideas, and then I will do an assembly, which is more like a fine cut.”

Harte doesn’t like to watch that initial cut in a room with the director. “They can watch it fresh, then they will call, or they will send notes, and then I’ll work on it once more. That’s when both of our ideas are starting to come together. Then there comes a point in the edit where we need to be in the same room together, where we’re trying to tell stories, and everything’s organised with different versions of different scenes. Rhythmically, by about episode three, it became quicker to cut. Things were starting to re-emerge, so it was easier to leave stuff out.”

Perhaps surprisingly the series also reveals a lot of comedy gold, particularly in Beckham’s interviews and his on-screen interactions with Victoria.

“I was surprised by how much humour we had at our disposal,” agrees Harte. “The most surprising was Victoria, and how honest and candid, and so funny she was. More than anything it was the humour that was the unexpected thing to come out of this. To make people cry in a doc is the easiest thing in the world, but to make people laugh, that’s the hardest. And that’s what people weren’t expecting.”

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Michael Burns

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