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Stephen Mirrione: The Revenant

Gordon sits down with film editor Stephen Mirrione who won the Oscar for editing "Traffic" and was recently nominated for editing the film "The Revenant". Stephen has worked with Alejandro Iñárritu since "21 Grams" and joins Gordon to discuss his editing work on "The Revenant". The full transcript is available below.

Go to aotg.com/cuttingroom for more interviews.


The Cutting Room: How did you get involved with the film The Revenant?

Stephen Mirrione:I've been working with Alejandro ever since 21 Grams, so he came to me, I can't remember if it was four or five years ago, even before we did Birdman and had the script for "The Revenant" and was ready to go and we were all kind of preparing and getting ready to do that [film] when Leonardo had to put [the film] on hold to do "Wolf of Wall Street," because that came together.

So everything got put on pause and Alejandro shifted gears. We did Birdman instead, and then once we were done with Birdman and, you know, around this time of the release, everything got back on track to do "The Revenant" with Leo.

The Cutting Room: The scene everyone is talking about is the bear attack scene and I want to get to that scene. However, first I want to talk about the opening of the film. We have two moments occurring with alternate tones and pacing, we have the battle occurring back at the camp and we have the others hunting. How did you edit these two moments to create a smooth flow, feel, but more importantly, get the tones right.

Stephen Mirrione: That was a sequence that came together fairly easily. Part of that is because we had the luxury of so much rehearsal time with that, um, so we were able to really have a good sense of, of how all that would fit together even before starting to shoot with the actors, um, you know, by cut-cutting together all the rehearsals and, and everything.

So by the time we started really shooting the film we had a very, very clear sense of what the beats were in those moments. The thing that became tricky was the rhythm of the overall sequence and we actually removed a scene that was part of that sequence just to get the rhythm correct and to not have anything feel redundant. Also because the dream sequence or the hallucination at the beginning of the movie that wasn't really fully fleshed out until long after we finished cutting the rest of the movie, so they shot the pieces for that around the same time we shot the the final sequence, the final scene of the movie.

Once we had all that together, then it was a matter of taking it and really trying to, I don't know how to say... There's a creative rhythm, a creative rhythm that still had some, I would say there was a sense of urgency that, got lost a little bit in the original cut. So we had to be a little bit more surprising, a little bit more shocking than, than it originally was, but within that context, obviously, it's still played as a very long and elegant, immersive sequence.

The Cutting Room: In Canada we learn about fur trading in schools and that scene really shows the difference between what they tell us and the gruesomeness of the actuality.

Stephen Mirrione: Right.

The Cutting Room: You know, they told us, "The natives brought the furs and we said thank you and sent them to Europe" [laughs]

Stephen Mirrione: Right.

The Cutting Room: But this is a very different perspective

Stephen Mirrione: Right. No, exactly, I mean it really, I think one of the things that everybody on the production worked really hard for, was to portray that as realistically as possible and to show, to really show that this was the first, in terms of American capitalism, this was one of those first moments where, you know, before the Gold Rush, where you had people from all the world really working towards this goal of just taking resources.

And it's not like the native people that were working with them, you know, they were working for barely anything but so were all the other trappers and settlers, they were being taken advantage of as well. You can see what miserable conditions those really were and how desperate it was.

The Cutting Room: That's what was so amazing about the film is it's authenticity, in my research, I found that the scene where they hang the Pawnee and place the sign around his neck, the sign reads "We are all savages" and this was actually taken from an event where a French fur trader carved that into a tree.

Stephen Mirrione: That's something that Alejandro is always after with all the films I worked on with him, even the contemporary ones. I can remember one of the first times I went on one of his sets, on 21 Grams looking in the bedroom of one of the characters, (laughs) looking in the drawers, he had the set dresser actually put objects in the drawers that the characters could, that the actors could look at to understand their back stories better and, you know, he really creates the space for the actors so that there's nothing that's going to knock them out of the reality that we're trying to create, that reality on the set.

For me, that's just such a gift, because, I'm relying on painting essentially with all of the performances and the photography and what they're creating on the set and it's always at such a high level, that's really a gift.

The Cutting Room: The other scene I want to talk to you about is when, I believe I'm saying the names right, Bridger and Fitzgerald are tasked with watching Glass. It's a moment where we are just watching two characters wait, yet you've made it flow so smoothly, how did you approach this time in the middle of the film so it didn't feel like it dragged?

Stephen Mirrione: Are you talking about specifically when they're all still togetherwaiting for him to die, or are you talking about after they've buried him essentially and left?

The Cutting Room: When they are waiting for him to die and up to the burial.

Stephen Mirrione: Right. Yeah, that whole sequence was really tricky. It was a really tricky one for us, as written, it was a much longer scene and it just became about really pulling into focus and focusing in on... I would say, Fitzgerald's point of view during that sequence, to show him waiting and his frustration, so that by the time he acts you've really followed his entire thought process.

The entire sequence of Glass trying to return to the fort those took a lot of structural changes and just changes internally within the scenes to try to really bring that into focus.

And again stretching it as far as you could stretch it, so it breaks and then trying to compress it again to make sure you also still got that sense that they were really in danger by staying there as long as they did.

The Cutting Room: Now when you say stretching it until it breaks, do you mean... well, can you tell me what you mean?

Stephen Mirrione:Yeah, sure, so for example, you know, there are a lot of threads going through that entire sequence. So you've got the Arikara, who are obviously after them, you've got the rest of the trappers who are left to try to get back to the fort, you've got the two guys who were on the flat boat, well, it becomes one guy, because they catch them.

In other words, you've got one, two, three, four, fi-, about five different parallel groups of people moving at once and through that whole section and we really didn't find the perfect blend of that until we were in post.

So when I say "stretching it", we always want to put in everything that was shot and draw the moments out to see what it is, to find the best moments and to find what we're really going to connect with, and then from there, when I say "broken" it's like, it obviously gets to a point where it gets to be so many things and so many threads that you're not able to focus on anything and they start to feel redundant, and then you stop caring [about the characters].

And so it became a matter of starting to pull pieces out and rearrange where things were happening, in order to, again, in order to keep the focus where it needed to be so that the audience doesn't become either narratively lost or emotionally lost during the sequence.

The Cutting Room:It's funny that you'd say that because you go into the film and see that it has a runtime of two hours and thirty minutes. Yet, I am pulled through it the whole way and engaged with the various storylines and Glass' struggle. You did a great job!

Stephen Mirrione:Thank you.

The Cutting Room:The other scene I have to ask you about is the scene with the bear. It's quite visceral and raw and feels almost documentary like, how did you approach the edit of this scene?

Stephen Mirrione: That's one of those sequences that's not just- how can I say it? It's not just everybody working separately, and then it all comes to me and we find a way to put it together. That's a sequence where everybody production, the camera department, VFX, stunts, everybody, including myself, were all working together at the beginning of the process to make sure we know exactly what it is and exactly what the beats are, and really the main, the driving force of that was to have it feel like you're watching this, documentary style scene unfold in front of your eyes-

For example, in that opening battle sequence, one of the things we did was, after it was all done, to work really hard to have there be moments where it goes from objective to subjective, where we go from just watching this thing happen in front of us to suddenly experiencing it through Glass's point of view and using the sound and using the music in a subtle way to take the audience back and forth.

In this sequence, with the bear, we were pretty sure early on that we just wanted it to feel like you're just there. You're there, you're watching it, your mouth is open, you can't believe what you're seeing, and you're feeling it in the most realistic way possible, but without going into some, either poetic or heroic, or romantic, I mean, it was just laid there in front of us to experience it.

Part of that came from all of the research in terms of studying bears' real behavior, watching a video of a real bear attack with a human, with a man, watching bears fighting with each other, just seeing what does a bear do- to make sure that we weren't falling into any kind of movie stereotypes

Even in some of the early versions, I remember when sound first did a pass it came back and there were these moments where the bear suddenly felt like a monster from Jurassic Park or something, and we had to be really careful and say, "No, no, we've got to pull that back," and of course then they reshaped that to to conform to what we were trying to do.

You know, things like, things like just the heavy breathing and knowing that at a certain point the bear is just- the bear doesn't have a moral outrage. It's just existing and at some point he's [Glass] just meat.

Then other things like even there were certain moments, because again this was so planned out in advance, as we started getting the final pieces put in place we realized that there was a moment where the bear was kind of in danger of feeling too ferocious, and so we were able to scale that back a little bit to, you know, again, just to really nail it, to really get it perfect. We were all really super sensitive to that. So, that's absolutely why you felt like you were watching a documentary, it's 'cause that's exactly what we were trying to recreate.

Another example [of working on the scene as a group] is for example, Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki's nickname'], you know, our great cinematographer, as we were starting to see certain moments, I remember him commenting, "Oh, there's too many shots of the back of the bear," the bear's ass or whatever it was and we were like, "No,", yeah, that's your instinct, to not do that, but then, once you see it in context it actually makes more sense. You're not going to be able to set the camera up for the perfect shot the entire way through, even though we could have if you did that. Again, it takes away some of the raw real feel of it.

The Cutting Room:Did you and Chivo develop a vocabulary for this film together?

Stephen Mirrione:Not specifically. It's interesting, a lot of what I do is really a response to what happens, what they're able to capture on set. And so if for example they're trying to emulate some other style of another movie, chances are when I get that material, that's going to come through and I will interpret that in a way that makes sense with what they're doing, so it was very similar with this.

The thing with this that was tricky editorially was, it took actually quite a while for Alejandro to even find the rhythm of the movie, whereas, especially after coming off of Birdman, where we had to find that rhythm and we had to find, in a very close percentage, the proximity of where the final movie was going to be, kind of at the moment that that was being shot, this was a very different thing.

So because he [Alejandro] had just gone through that, I think it put a lot more stress and pressure as they were going for him to realize, "Oh, you know, I want to have some more flexibility. I need to have flexibility in terms of rhythm and pace and how I can change certain scenes to shift point of view or to, just shift the urgency," so luckily, we had the resources, we had a, a really long production schedule that we were able to do a lot of experimentation and find that as we went, you know?

The Cutting Room:I had heard that your post schedule was quite long...

Stephen Mirrione:Well, not... not really. Yeah, I mean it was long-

The Cutting Room:Sorry, I meant long in because it included production which was quite long-

Stephen Mirrione: -it was long when you consider that we were really in post, within the first month or two of shooting. We were already turning scenes over for final VFX and sound to start working on within the first two months.

So in that sense, yes, it was a very long process, but really, by the time we finished shooting, around April, and again, when I say "finished" we weren't really finished. We just ran out of good luck with the weather. By the time we finished that, we didn't have actually as much time as we would've wanted.

You know, we were able to get a first pass together by June. Again, still having to have big VFX scenes, able to be turned over, which is tricky. I think people don't understand that it's very difficult to lock a scene in the middle of a movie if you don't know every scene that came before it and every scene that came after it, because the smallest detail 10 minutes in can have a huge impact on something that happens an hour later and any change, you really have to take a minute to step back and watch the entire movie to understand what those small changes, what the impacts are.

So in that sense, you know, we really only had, May, June and then into July, at which point we had to switch gears to prepping to shoot the final sequence of the movie, as well as a lot of the material that would be used for the dream, uh, hallucinations and also that entire river sequence, that wasn't shot until, until then as well.

So there was a significant amount of movie left to be shot. Once that was done, that was done by about the end of August, we had to shift gears to really finalizing the sound and the mix. We had to shift to the mix, and so I really only had a couple of weeks to take everything that was shot, put it all together incorporate it with the rest of the movie and land on a final locked version of the movie so that we would be done in time for our release.

The Cutting Room:That sounds really difficult! How do you edit a film if parts are locked off and... well a scene at one part could have significant impacts on others that are locked...

Stephen Mirrione:This really comes just from experiences, when you're working with something like this that has so many things that are VFX-dependent, in other words, you're putting the building blocks in place, you have a really good sense of it, but you don't absolutely know the impact until VFX has done their work and you see it completely done.

The danger is, when you're doing something like that, let's say you've got a scene that doesn't have any VFX in at all, you finish the cut, it looks great, it feels great, it feels actually exactly like it's going to feel when everything's completely finished.

And then the next scene after that is a scene that's got a lot of missing elements that you're having to imagine as part of the scene, or you're having to imagine certain things being cleaned up or whatever the VFX elements are, if they're incomplete, that scene is not as emotional or visceral- You know, you have to use your imagination to determine whether it, it's good.

So, the tendency is to not trust those scenes as much. And when you get to those scenes, you're thinking, 'Ah, maybe that scene's not working. I don't know, you could just cut it out or just make it shorter,' and you have to really discipline yourself to avoid making those kinds of big decisions until all the work is done, and then evaluate it from a more equal footing with the scenes that are actually complete.

So I don't know if that makes sense, but, inevitably, you end up with a movie like this having to cut it and keep it in a fairly fat state for a very long time, and you have to really fight the urge to trim certain sequences down until you've got it all done and you can look at it altogether.

So that's part of it, and part of that, too, is having just done Birdman with New Regency and Fox they trusted us and they understood our process that some of these things we're going to spend money on to see through to the end and knowing that we may have to cut them in half or take them out completely that's why these things a lot of times add up.

And you see that on other movies where they either didn't have time or they didn't have the money, where they're making those decisions ahead of time and then they get locked in to something, and then there's a whole sequence that they painted themselves into a corner. They can't take it out, they can't make it better, and it just ends up in the movie and it's like a weed sitting in the middle of the movie that you can't remove.

That's always the scary part with a schedule like the one we had is that you might not really get to see the movie all the way through until maybe a month before you're completely done, and will you be able to maneuver if something doesn't equal what your imagination thought it was going to be.

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