Invisibly Invaluable: Birdman Editors Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrione – Part I
Yesterday we published our interview with Birdman writer/director Alejandor G. Iñárritu, and late last year, we spoke to the film’s composer, drummer Antonio Sanchez. Birdman was sufficiently strange and wonderful that it’s made us want to know as much as we possibly can about how it was made. The first and most obvious question one asks after seeing the film is how in the world they made it look like a single, continuous cut?
To achieve the film’s famously ingenious illusion, that it was all shot in one continuous take, required an incredible amount of plotting, testing, choreographing and blocking shots in rehearsal. The goal was to eliminate any visible trace of editing. So, we thought, let’s talk to the editors themselves, Stephen Mirrone and Douglas Crise, who worked very hard to make sure their effort was completely invisible.
Mirrone and Crise have worked together with Iñárritu before, starting with the second and third of his "Death Trilogy" features, 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006), with Mirrione also editing Iñárritu's 2010 film, Biutiful. Editors, probably more so than any other members of the filmmaking team, often do their level best to hide their work. They're expert at hiding the hundreds of decisions they make during a given scene. This has possibly never been more evident than with Birdman, which was filmed in a way to suggest there were no editors at all, just a single God’s eye camera that relentlessly pursued the characters in and around St. James theater and onto the streets, into the bars, and through the very air of New York City. As far as the naked eye is concerned, the camera never blinks.
We spoke with Crise and Mirrione about how they made their incredible work totally invisible in Part I of our two-part conversation.
So tell me a bit about how you had to approach this film?
Mirrione: It was built into the concept, so we knew going in that each shot was going to blend into to the next and the next and the next, and that the viewer wouldn’t see any cuts. Those decisions meant we had to be involved in pre-production, in how the camera was mapped out and how they blocked all the shots. Beyond that, the rest of our work was hidden in the same way that is on all movies.
But here it's hidden in such a way as to be nearly impossible to point out even where a cut might be. How did you do your work of cleaning up or improving a scene's rhythm when there doesn't appear to be a single break in the action?
Mirrione: For example, in a normal movie, actors perform the scene, and by the time we put the scene together, we might change the rhythm or move a few frames, make something longer, or take a moment and add a beat or a pause after the fact. By the time we’re looking at it, in context with the rest of the scene, you may need to build in a breath or a beat with that. With this, we could still do that, we just had to do that during the rehearsal process. We recorded and edited all the rehearsals, so that way we could work with Alejandro and we could talk about pacing issues moving forward. If you saw the work we did on other movies, you’d never assume we did the hundred little things we had to do. The same process happened here, it’s just even less obvious. It’s best to assume we did nothing, which was what we wanted.
Explain for us a bit about how you guys would normally effect the way we react to a scene.
Mirrione: What you assume when watching a scene is that the editor cut from, say, the front of her face to the back, but we could have cut to the back from another take earlier in a scene, before she started talking, or when she was saying completely different words when we see the back of her head. We have a lot more freedom when working in a traditional sense with coverage, to steal moments, that the audience would never realize we’re doing. An audience assumes everything happens perfectly on the day it’s shot, but when we’re cutting from this shot to that shot to that shot, that’s never the case.
And there was no opportunity in Birdman to cherry pick moments from coverage, because there was no coverage, right?
Mirrione: Right. With this we had to immediately jump into a kind of final evaluation of everything, being able to say, no, if the camera isn’t pointed at this person at this time, we can’t change it later on. We had to be prepared to give that feedback as it was going.
Crise: It was definitely a different experience, I found that it was easier in some respects, but a lot more challenging in others. There were things that we had to do that I wouldn’t do normally, like visiting the set every day. Alejandro felt that pressure himself. He said many times that on a normal film, he’d know he could fix a scene later, but here he had to feel he had the take we would use every day. We had to have that back and forth every day.
So how tense was it on set?
Crise: I think it was all right for the actors, because if they’d mess up they’d go again, and they had a day to shoot a section of the film. Because we didn’t do multiple sets up every day, you could shoot it until you had it.
Mirrione: Think of a situation when an actor is doing a single and the other actor isn’t there. So there's the actor performing one half the scene wtih a script supervisor or an AD, whose feeding them lines. With this film, every actor in every scene was present, every day, and every set up and every take is with the actors in that scene, so they always know this is it, this is the movie.
It sounds pretty fantastic for them, minus the pressure of not flubbing a line late in a sequence that has gone, up until then, perfectly.
Mirrione: Yeah, in terms of actors, we had to give up a little of the control we normally have as editors over their performance, because you really can do almost anything with coverage. You can change a scene in an infinite number of ways that will make the viewer feel differently. So in that sense, on a normal film the actors are giving a lot of control away, and they're putting a lot of trust in the filmmakers that they’re going to be protected. An actor is doing a lot of things with their performance, and they’re hoping the director and the editors are going to really represent an honest portrayal of what they did.
There was also a unique thrill in the film of never being sure which character the camera was going to follow.
Mirrione: Yeah, one of the things we had to wrestle with was the question of are you going to be able to predict where the audience is going to want to look at any given moment and be correct when the movie’s done? You couldn’t be sure that you wouldn't be constantly frustrating the audience, because they’re going to want to look at this character, but you’re showing them another character, that was very daunting.
Yet, it sounds like Birdman was sort of an actor's paradise.
Mirrione: The actors got to really feel like everything they were doing was worthwhile, because they were there when the rhythm was decided, they knew where the camera was going to be pointed, and they were really a part of that in a way they normally wouldn’t be. I think this was really a lot of fun, and even with the pressure, there was a life to this process that you know is always going to be on camera, versus when you start cutting things. They always talk about how when you’re cutting a dance scene, a choreographer wouldn’t want any cuts because she’s designing something to see the whole movement, and that’s what Alejandro was doing here.