Innaritu’s Birdman immersed us into a visceral world, resting on a single shot take. Editor Stephen Mirrione was a key part in helping to pull off that magic trick. It’s hard when talking to him, not to reference his work on that film. 2015 sees Mirrione collaborate once again with Innaritu and Lubekski to work his magic on The Revenant.
I sat down with Mirrione to talk to him about lessons learned from Birdman and how that helped him with The Revenant.
AD: I’m really excited to talk to you because I’m a huge fan of your work.
SM: Oh, thank you very much.
AD: Let’s go back because this isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Alejandro. When did he come to you with this one?
SM: This one, was I think five years ago when he brought me the script. He was real excited that we were going to do this and I was super enthusiastic about it and then Leonardo DiCaprio decided he had to go do Wolf of Wall Street so we had to put the whole thing on hold. At that point, I then signed on to do a couple other movies and then a month after that, Alejandro called me to tell me we’re going to do Birdman instead. That’s when I brought in Doug [Crise] who had been a part of my crew for so many years so he was able to help out while I was on the other movies. We did Birdman and [that] ended up being a warm-up to figuring out how to do this movie, I would say. There were so many things we learned doing Birdman that ended going into the planning and preparation and execution of this. There’s a lot of things that we might not known how to do, or more importantly, known not to even try to do if we hadn’t done Birdman first.
AD: Elaborating on that, what did you learn from Birdman that you took into this?
SM: A lot of the understanding of the preparation and knowing what we needed to be ready to help Alejandro with, in terms of the decision making from day-to-day. For example, knowing that we needed to not only have all the material from all the blocking rehearsals and the actual rehearsal of the actors and be able to cut those together in a way to inform how to make changes and adjustments before the day of shooting, but also taking a video tap, for example, from the camera.
So, on the day of shooting a lot of times they would start with rehearsals at the beginning of the day based on whatever we’d already determined and then they’d send me the video tap material because, occasionally Alejandro would want to have me work with the video tap from rehearsals in the morning to help decide what he was actually going to shoot in the afternoon; what was working and what wasn’t and how things would go together or not or whether the rhythm was feeling right or not. Just understanding how important that process is and being able to be prepped and ready for it. Same with a lot of the scheduling of things, knowing that, for example, that first battle which was really the first thing we shot, we’d have to have that locked and turned over for visual effects sometime before the end of the year in order to be ready six or nine months later. With Birdman we really didn’t have the same deadline so we had a little bit of a luxury of being able to finish the cut completely before we turned everything over for visual effects. With this, it was a much more of a traditional VFX movie where you have to be locking things as you’re going which means that you’re constantly in post-production and so that you don’t end up getting behind and then getting painted into a corner where you have to use something that you don’t like.
AD: On that, talk about the pre-production visualization process. What did Alejandro say to you?
SM: It was more of a situation of just working together and taking the material and working with it and then having a conversation. A big part of this was point of view. In a normal process if it’s shot with flexibility in mind, you can completely change the point of view of a scene just by cutting it a slightly different way, right? But, with this, when we have these sequences that are locked in to being a certain way, you have to be very very careful that where the audience has their brain is in the right spot. That was very carefully worked out and choreographed ahead of time through conversations and trial and error. I have to say, there’s also an energy to it, there were a lot of scenes that were done with traditional coverage in this movie. The difference is the scenes that have the traditional coverage, you can tell there’s an energy when the actors know. They may or may not be aware of everything we can do to augment and make changes within takes, but their energy is “we’ve got to get this right,” and after 17, 18, or 19 takes there’s a adrenaline going, knowing that if we don’t get it right, this is going to live as my performance and nobody is going to be able to fix this with a cutaway. That’s a great energy going into this, to have that.
AD: That’s the thing, so many times I talk to editors and I hear about basically you create the illusion of the invisibility of an edit. It’s fascinating to hear that.
SM: The other challenging part of this one was because of we’re following this vocabulary of the long takes so you have to still carry that discipline of that cutting pattern into every scene. And then, you have to look at it and say, “well, now that I’ve done that, where can I break that a little bit so that you can kind of surprise the audience so that they don’t get into this almost trance-like state where you’re suddenly not as engaged as you would otherwise be.” It was really fun to go on that journey and find how the evolution of that.
AD: On that note, what was the longest sequence to edit, in terms of time?
SM: You know, it’s funny because the sequences that you would think were the longest actually weren’t because I had to work super-fast to lock them to turn over for visual effects. I would say the sequence in the movie, that kind of middle section when Leo is finally by himself and Fitzgerald and Bridger are by themselves, the structure of that section took us, I would say, the longest to figure out and figure out what the right order was. In the script, it went back and forth a lot more, I would say, it was a more traditional mode of storytelling. But, in watching it, it started to feel very episodic and you started to lose a little bit of the connection and through-line. By rearranging and moving a few scenes forward so that they informed other scenes, something happened and the magic just kind of clicked into place. That took the longest to figure out because it wasn’t clear and there was almost an infinite number of possible combinations to find it.
AD: I’m going to ask you about this and I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times about it, can you talk about editing the bear sequence?
SM: This is one of the first times I’ve been doing interviews so quickly after having just finished it so the movie is still very fresh, for me, in terms of seeing all of the mechanisms underneath what you’re actually seeing as the audience. You know, all the hidden stuff that we did to actually make things work. So, for me, it’s still very difficult to watch and not just be thinking, “oh, does that actually work or not?” I don’t want to say something, especially now because the movie’s not even out yet, that’s going to ruin somebody’s experience of watching the movie and thinking about how we did it.
But, I will say the approach to this scene was to be very very realistic and make it feel like this is a documentary, to not make the bear look heroic; to not have the bear be this monster of the forest, but as a real bear. The way we approached that was to get lots and lots of reference material on YouTube, etc. and take those and cut them together so that we could see the different moments of what that sequence would be and what the real behavior of a bear would be and then use that as a reference to create the scene itself. Then, of course, all the special effects and stunt work that went into how they rigged that to actually work, I was just astonished and thought they did just an absolutely brilliant job of doing that. Once it came to me, it was just a matter of finding ways to put it together and combine the best takes of it so that when it got turned over for the rest of the process, we were already starting from a great place.
Then, on top of that, making sure, for example, the sound of the bear I was really careful with because normally for my job, I’m going to do some kind of blueprint for the other departments, whether its sound or music, to just give a sense of what we want the point of view to be and how it should be. The first half we got back, for the sequence, the bear had suddenly felt like it was a character out of Jurassic World, [laughs] it was like, “no, no, no it’s got to feel real!” It can’t have that heightened sense of movie reality. Sure enough, as with any great artist, they took that direction and came back, it was pretty much the second pass at it, just perfectly dialed in. It’s so much scarier if you think it’s really happening versus like if you’re just watching a movie. That was super important.
AD: Just you talking about it gives me goosebumps. I remember there were times when I flinched and closed my eyes and I have a pretty high tolerance for being able to watch stuff.
SM: I’ll say this, I knew just in the dailies, before we had done any work on it, I was already flinching just looking at those. I knew they had done something pretty spectacular and special, for sure.
AD: Oh yeah! What about working with Chivo? I mean, does it help to have one of the best in the business creating such incredible shots?
SM: As an editor, you’re limited to a certain extent with the freedom of what you can do with what you are given. That goes for not just Chivo’s work, but the actors, what they’re doing in terms of the production design and the level of detail, all the little details in the props and extras casting and all of those things. If all of that is perfect and it’s coming to me perfect, I mean, I can just do anything with it. That is the ultimate goal of loving what you’re doing, for me. So, in that sense, it’s great and, at that point, I just have to make sure that I just don’t completely ruin everything they’ve done.
AD: I have to say it’s such a beautiful film and you’ve got a great team there between Alejandro, yourself, Chivo, and then also the score and the music as well.
SM: For as much as we all put in the hours and work, all of our supporting crews just went so above and beyond what’s normal. There were many times where the studio was saying that the movie’s got to come out on Christmas Day or January and Alejandro and I would look at each other like, “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” but at a certain point, we pulled the trigger and committed to doing this. I just can’t thank enough or appreciate enough all the entire team and what they sacrificed to support all of us being able to do this. It was really amazing and fun.
AD: When did you lock the final print?
SM: I would say we locked right before Thanksgiving. We were making changes up through the mix. In fact, there was a day when we finished and were completely done, we had checked the final DCP, and Alejandro pulled me and Chivo, who was doing the color timing, up into the little booth that we had on the stage where the editing setup was and [Alejandro] says, “Okay, there’s this change I want to make. Is it possible?” [laughs] And we looked at each other and we’re like, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” But we followed it through and figured it out, and of course in the course of doing it, we realized it was not a good idea and that we shouldn’t be making this change. But that’s the thing, until it’s done, you’re always watching the movie and thinking of how you can make it better, how you can do it differently. You never stop until you’re told you can’t work on it anymore. We were really really up the absolute last moment possible.
AD: What are you working on next?
SM: I’m going to be working on a vacation next [laughs]. I’m going to take some time off. Then, there’s a few things maybe happening in February or March, but I’m not really sure yet. I’m most likely going to be doing George Clooney’s movie, Suburbicon, in October.
AD: Oh wow. It’s been great speaking to you, Stephen.