Editing: 'The Revenant'
Issue: January 1, 2016

Editing: 'The Revenant'

Film editor Stephen Mirrione, who won an Oscar for Best Film Editing for Traffic in 2000, has been working with Academy Award-winning director (Birdman) Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu since Amores Perros in 2000. The two have gone on to complete a series of critically-noted films, such as 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful and, in 2014, Birdman. Most recently, Mirrione joined Inarritu for a most highly ambitious project, The Revenant, which was shot (on an Arri Alexa 65 large-format camera) chronologically and relied solely on the sun and firelight, bringing in no artificial lighting. The film, which tells the tale of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frontiersman in the 1820s and his brutal story of survival in the American wilderness, brought both cast and crew on location to wintry Calgary, where they faced bitterly cold temperatures, limited daylight hours where the window of opportunity for shots was brief and extremely high pressure, and an unpredictable environment. 

While still mixing the film on the Hitchcock stage of Universal Studios in LA, Mirrione discussed his latest project with Post and some of the editing challenges the film presented.

How early on did you get involved in the film?

“From the very beginning, even before pre-production. In the discussions about the script and then especially in terms of all the preplanning and talking about how we were going to tackle a lot of what we were trying to do, technically as well. Things that we learned from doing Birdman; things we wanted to apply to [The Revenant] and improve upon.”

Were you on-location during the shoot?

“Yes, we shot in Calgary in some very remote locations. Going in, knowing we were going to be up in the middle of nowhere, we wanted to limit the number of people who were on location. We had all these grand plans. Of course, once we got into the reality of it, Alejandro wanted to have access to as much as he possibly could. So, for example, we had a trailer just for editorial. So what we wanted to do was take everything the video playback operator was doing and at various points of the day, shuttle that to editorial. Because what they would do was, rehearse all morning because they were shooting with natural light, there were only a few hours in the day that were really the prime time for getting the actual takes. And so, I would get all that rehearsal material via the playback — the video tap —and I would be able to cut [on Avid Media Composer] that together with maybe some options, show that to Alejandro and that could inform how they would shoot the real stuff at the end of the day. 

“Technicolor did set up a digi lab there, but instead of having to wait until the next morning or afternoon when we would get the actual processed and colored footage from Technicolor, I could cut with the video tap material that night and in the morning, or sometimes that night, I could give Alejandro a cut of that day’s material so that he could feel confident that he had it and know what he was doing the next day.”

How would you describe the overall look of the film?

“It’s beautiful. It’s very realistic. The story takes place in a very brutal environment where there are these wonderful contrasts between the beauty of the natural surroundings as well as the brutality of being in the middle of nowhere with no luxuries, nothing to kind of help in terms of your own survival. Those are the contrasts that we were constantly seeing ourselves while we were out there but that come up as themes in the movie. Even if you’re in this horrible, brutal situation that feels hopeless there’s still the beauty of nature around you and yet at the same time, there’s almost this oppressiveness and relentlessness that nature is just going to keep going regardless of what’s happening to you.

“In terms of all the things that you have control of when you’re making a movie, you can’t control the weather. You can’t control whether it’s going to snow that day or be sunny. You just have to give in to what the planet was going to give us that day.” 

The whole movie is shot outdoors, right?

“Yes, the whole movie is outdoors with natural light. And again, that’s been part of Alejandro’s creative process all along. He’s always shot in sequential order as much as possible, always using real locations as much as possible, because he knows that infuses the material in this way you can’t exactly match that if you’re shooting in front of a greenscreen or on a set. It was amazing to see how Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance was affected by the environment. His performance is largely without any dialogue. Which not only means, we’re not hearing him talk, but you have to also remember, that means nothing is written in the script either. All of his interior motivations, all of the looks, the journey that he’s going on in his face isn’t necessarily written on the page, which means he’s having to do a lot of amazing work to interpret and bring that character to life without those words that’s easy to take for granted.

“There were these moments where he’d be in the middle of a performance and you’d suddenly hear a crow, way off in the distance. And, his reaction to those natural moments…he was reacting to the reality of that thing, and was able to do things that were so emotionally charged, based on that. We wouldn’t have been able to recreate it in exactly the same way if that had been done on a soundstage or on a set.”

What was your understanding of what Alejandro was looking for in the editing style on the film? 

“We were always very clear that we wanted this to have a very deliberate and elegant pace that we would be trying to do things with point of view in a slightly different way than we usually do. Whereas on Birdman where we really were flipping all the choices, in terms of rhythm and tempo and things like that, we knew that that wasn’t going to be the case on this. But what that means is, it’s a more difficult, in other words, we have a lot of sequences that are these seemingly unbroken, long take sequences within the film but it’s not the whole movie. The whole movie does not break that way. It’s not the same kind of story that Birdman was. And when we’re doing that, we have to be careful because there are times where you are, within the set, same long take, you’re moving from subjecting to objective and the point of view is shifting and do so for those sequences we were trying to figure those things out as we were shooting. And then of course for the other sequences, he was shooting in ways he could be flexible, but the tricky part is to not betray the language of the movie. That we don’t set something up that suddenly becomes very disjointed when you watch all the way through. And, to do that, and also, structurally, I would say the movie has these moments where the power comes from just stillness and being in these open spaces and places and that’s something that finding a way to do that without it becoming a repetitive — if you do that, and do it again, you still have to be careful you’re not being redundant. You’re not doing the same note over and over again. We had to be really careful to shape it in a way that every time we did that, there was something new — new emotional information.”

Any challenges?

“In the film, Hugh Glass, who is our main character, is left by Tom Hardy’s character, Fitzgerald, so we’re following both of these characters. What’s interesting with Tom Hardy’s character is, he has a lot of dialogue. We learn more of his backstory. So he becomes a character you can really understand his motivations a lot more. So the challenge became, how can we affect the balance between how much we understand Fitzgerald’s backstory and who he is with Leo, because again, Leo doesn’t have the luxury of having all these great dialogue scenes to understand who he is and what motivates him.

“Another tricky thing for us was, we never had a chance to shoot the very first scene of the movie and the very final sequence of the movie [due to weather limitations], so, while you’re on the set, during production when you’re cutting, you’re cutting in a way that you know that everything that comes before and everything that comes after is going to affect what you’re doing at any given moment. So you don’t want to go too far with making certain decisions until you’ve seen the movie all the way through. But that meant that we were waiting months and months trying to figure those things out without having the benefit of seeing those first and last scenes. That definitely affected the rhythm and pacing of the interior, too. We were trying not to become impatient with things because we knew, once we got that first scene of the movie, it was going to frame and inform other things that would, in a sense, fill in certain blanks. It would be very easy to watch the movie through, before we finished it, and said, ‘Oh this shot is going on too long.’ But when you take a step back and remember, ‘Oh no, we’re going to shoot a scene at the very beginning of the movie,’ that kind of framed how you viewed the shot. It meant we had to be really patient before we started to cut things down. So a lot of it was spending time analyzing and figuring what we were probably going to do and then waiting to execute that until we had the whole thing in place.”