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Interview with editor Stephen Mirrione

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Stephen Mirrione. Winning the Academy Award for editing Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), Mirrione’s portfolio includes Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), and The Informant! (2009). He has also edited Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006, with Douglas Crise), and Biutiful (2010); George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), and Leatherheads (2008); Jill Sprecher’s Clockwatchers (1997), Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001), The Convincer (2011), Soderbergh’s action-thriller Contagion (2011) and George Clooney’s political drama Ides of March (2011).

“There is an alchemy in film editing that is difficult to articulate, partly because so few people are even aware of it. It’s a common misconception that editing a film is like editing an essay or a newspaper, that its primary purpose is to determine content. In fact, it’s completely its own discipline. Obviously it’s heavily influenced by music, rhythm, movement within the frame, and emotion. As an editor, you are largely molding and shaping the emotional content of a scene and affecting the point of view of the audience.

I had always been interested in storytelling and writing, particularly the way, psychologically, you could manipulate language to send the reader in one direction or another. I had also played the viola growing up, so I knew from an early age that it’s never enough just to like something or be good at it; if you want to master something, you have to practice. When I was taking film classes in college, I soon realized editing was the one part of the process that I had the discipline to do over and over again. So I really threw myself into it and practiced, practiced, practiced.

I learned a lot when I was editing Doug Liman’s first film, Getting In (1994)—such as how to change written dialogue in a way that it doesn’t feel as though it was changed, and how to motivate a cut if I didn’t get quite the angles I wanted. I really appreciated the fact that we were cutting on film. They were shooting on 35mm stock, and I was using a KEM, which forced a certain discipline. The physicality of it made you really think about what you were doing before you did it.

…It was a big leap to go from with working with Doug to working with Steven Soderbergh on Traffic (2000). Doug and I had been learning together as we went along, but suddenly I was working with someone who was such a master at understanding what a scene is about, who knew how to shoot a scene for editing, specifically how to create coverage for these moments. Because there was so much material and so many great choices in terms of how to put it together, the big challenge for me was to find a way to limit my choices.

With Traffic, the trick I used to keep myself from going crazy was to imagine the film as a documentary, with only one camera in any given scene, and therefore any cut I made had to be possible within those confines, as if the cameraman had been able to turn and get another angle. It would’ve been very easy for me to cut from the looser B camera to the tighter A camera without any discontinuity, but having this other condition in place forced me to consider other takes, and it helped me find moments I might otherwise not have found.

A lot of people ask me about the party/overdose sequence in Traffic, because it’s very flashy editorially. After Steven and I had worked on it for a while, he asked me if I could start using quicker and quicker cuts. I decided it would be exciting to go in there like a jazz musician, as opposed to a classical one. So, using the music I had, I started tapping out these offbeat rhythms. I took all the different camera angles and stacked them in the Avid timeline, and I just started snipping out pieces to those rhythms. I had done something similar in the title sequence of Go (1999, Liman), and here I wanted to capture the emotion of this overdose moment; I wanted it to feel more out of control and visceral and build a rhythm that accelerated, but not in a predictable way.

…Because I’ve worked on a number of movies with multiple storylines and/or nonlinear construction, I get a lot of credit as an editor for elements I really had nothing to do with, such as the arrangement of scenes. That’s largely all in the script. The structure of the script is the DNA, the foundation. It’s got wiggle room, and you can bend and shift things. But I did just as much structural reworking on, say, a linear story like Good Night, and Good Luck as on a multi-narrative epic like Traffic.

…My satisfaction comes from an intimate relationship with the movie as it’s being born; from being able to touch the footage, move it around, be alone with it, share that with the director. That dialogue with the director, fine-tuning, sculpting performances, the one-on-one relationship it’s simple, but that moment of back and forth is the real, driving satisfaction for me.

As an editor, you’re usually committing about a year of your life to a film, and it does become part of your identity. I don’t want to have that year go by and feel like I’ve wasted my time. I tend to choose directors and projects based on character and content, rather than following a financial motivation. I’m not complaining about my compensation, because I do very well in spite of these choices. I’m very aware of how lucky I am that I’m in a position to do meaningful work, and that I’ve worked with people who find that as important as I do.”

Excerpt from FilmCraft: Editing by Justin Chang © 2011 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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