Invisibly Invaluable: Birdman Editors Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrione – PART II
Yesterday we posted Part I of our interview with Birdman editors Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise. As you know by now, Birdman was shot in a such an ingenious way that it made you feel like you were watching a single, 119-minute continuous shot. Watch it and try to find a single cut, a single break in the action or a clear transition that would alert you to the work of an editor. But there were editors, of course, two of Alejandro G. Iñárritu's long time collaborators, so what we wanted to know is how did Mirrione and Crise hide their craft so well? Here's Part II of that conversation.
What sequences stood out for you as particularly daunting challenges?
Crise: Everything was equally challenging, really. Some were tougher than others, but the movie was actually done so well that it’s hard to say anything really stood out. You’re just in a different wheelhouse with this film and how you’d normally carry it out. I’d say it was all equally one big challenge.
Mirrone: Normally, that question is usually pretty easy to answer. I ask myself, 'When I was editing, what was the one sequence or scene that took us the longest?' But we didn’t have the opportunity to sit and think about it on this movie. An early challenge would have been the scene where Riggan’s being interviewed by the reporters. I remember in rehearsals, and during the day of shooting, we talked to Alejandro about where the camera was going to be, and Doug made a comment of where he’d cut to Keaton, but Alejandro reminded us, ‘There are no cuts,’ so he went back to reshoot the scene and had the camera pointed at different place. So a lot of things that would have been difficult in post, we were actually participating very early on in the process so our normal perspective got completely shifted.
How did you figure out ways to pre-edit the film in rehearsal?
Mirrone: For me, one of the things I found early on was, once we began filming I started seeing all the ways I can manipulate this scene and have it be invisible. I presented these ideas on how to introduce invisible cuts to Alejandro, and he wisely said, ‘Listen, I know we can do these types of cuts, but I don’t want to think that way, I need to commit to the philosophy of how I’m doing this, that at the end of every day, if I have no other choice, I can take this one take and feel okay if it’s in the movie. If I don’t do it this way, it’ll feel like I’m working with a net and the whole thing is going to crumble.’ That’s when the editor part of me had to let go and commit to this idea as well. I just told myself that we were going to be evaluating and judging the scenes with the same kind of discipline and perfection as Alejandro is. Thinking that way, in general, was most difficult thing.
Crise: I’d say, too, that this style also opened up some ideas in my head that I hadn’t thought of, and that influenced me. Alejandro was so adamant that we were going to film it this way, there was no changing it. This film was going to be in one take and we’re not steering off that path. He was committed, there was no turning around and shifting gears.
Mirrone: In the past three or four movies with Alejandro, he’s been gradually adding a lot more of these very long takes, and some of them get joined together where you don’t notice the cut. So he’s been doing it a lot, the only difference is they’re being done in movies that has obvious cutting, so if he decides he doesn’t like it, he could throw it away, introduce those cuts, and do all the things you usually do. He let go of that safety net on Birdman.
I imagine it was a huge help to have Emmanuel Lubezki as your cinematographer, one of the best in the business and someone whose already created stunning single-take shots?
Mirrione: There’s no question in my mind that the things that Alfonso Cuaron and Chivo (Lubezki) have been developing and learning throughout the years have helped. They're part of this filmmaking family with Alejandro. We're all family members. We talk, we share techniques, so that definitely had an influence. All the things that we did were a result of a lot of practice. The diference is, with Gravity, since it was essentially CGI expect for the actors faces, the technical way they pulled that off was astounding. Birdman is not the same kind of story that will afford you the same kind of budget, so we had to find a way to get this done much quicker. And you had to be able to do this story in a theater, and shoot everything practically. We didn’t have to shoot everyone in front of green screens, we didn’t have to create environments digitally, and I don’t think it would have worked otherwise. There’s an honesty and authenticity to our film because of it, and an energy.
What was your post production process like?
Mirrione: Post was different because the whole movie got turned over and became a visual effect. A lot of times I’ll use the analogy that all the people on set are sprinting to get to the end because they’ve got this limited window that they have to finish everything. For the editor, it’s more of a marathon, you have to pace yourself, you don’t want use up all your energy in the beginning because you know a lot of the hard work comes after, in post production. For this, we had to join in the sprint early on. That being said, by the time we got to the end of shooting, it really didn’t take an enormously long time, and we still did a lot of work fine tuning, but once we locked picture, for all the other elements; visual effects, sound work, and music, we had the usual amount of time to ply our craft and execute.
Is it rare for you to have this level of involvement in the actual shooting script?
Mirrione: Directors will always give me the script to get feedback and notes, but my relationship with that is always very different. I know I’m going to comment on things that are going to limit a director’s flexibility moving forward, but I also know they’ll learn things as they’re shooting. You do it enough and you learn what’s important to correct. With this film, we knew we had to immediately start making those decisions, giving final notes kind of feedback, very early on, so I was much more present in terms of the script and making comments and, certainly, in the collaboration during pre-production and the blocking and cutting the rehearsal.
Tell us a bit about using the work of composer and renown drummer Antonio Sanchez to help you move in and out of sequences.
Mirrione: It goes back to Alejandro, when he decided to do this movie this way he probably sat down and made checklist about all the tools he was giving up as filmmaker, and one of those was just the rhythm of a scene, which you can change dramatically with when and how you decide to cut. Every single cut creates a heartbeat throughout the whole movie that the audience might not be aware of. So we can speed that up, slow that down, etecetra. By eliminating the cuts, we no longer have that tool, so by adding in drum tracks, that gives us the ability to adjust and change that rhythm after the fact, if we need to. That was very important. Alejandro always works in a similar way, by delivering us tracks at the beginning of the movie that he’s recorded with the composer. I always sat down the first day with this great library of music, written by the composer based on the script.
Crise: Alejandro delivered those tracks to me early on. I wasn’t used to it, but he told me I had to lay these drums in and try them, that it would help with those transitions. We had to pick out a drum track early so the people playing drums on set could match the beats, so a lot of that was figured out ahead of time. Of course, when they were done and everything was cut in, they went back and looked at the picture and matched the drums again and re-recorded everything.
What was it like to shoot in the physical space of the St. James theater?
Mirrione: There was an incredible amount of pre-planning and engineering that went into the production design and the designing the shots. We knew we’d be moving from the St. James into a sound stage for some of the sets. The sound stage was for behind the stage and some of those backstage rooms, and even simple things like getting up to the roof and having that all exist as a real space.
How much was the crew forced to abandon moments Alejandro had dreamed up because it was just impossible to shoot?
Mirrione: Usually, you get a script that’s written perfectly, then you go out and start shooting and something in the production process will force you to change it. So you adjust, and every director is faced with moments when you have to shift your vision to the realities of what you’re able to get on film. With Birdman, Alejandro had to be so ahead of himself, anticipating those problems, it would have been very easy to say, ‘I’m just going to shoot this all indoors, I’m not going outside because that will be too hard,’ but he was able to figure it out. By the way, I don’t think he’d do this movie again, I don’t think he’d say, in any responsible way, ‘I’m going to attempt this again.’
The way the camera’s capable of melting through walls or vaulting over the building and down again through a window, it’s the definition of movie magic. How slim was the margin for error?
Mirrione: Letting the camera have the freedom to go outside, I just thought designing that was really amazing. There’s a level of directorial difficulty that’s almost impossible to comprehend. Knowing everything we know now, we can see that if that one thing went another way, this wouldn’t have worked. Even the actors, if any one of the actors wasn’t prepared, it wouldn’t have worked. When you start shooting a normal movie and the actor doesn’t have the character quiet yet, when it takes them a little while to figure character out, in editing you can hide that, you can shoot some pick up to help them. If any of the actors had showed up not totally dialed in, we couldn’t have hid it.