When Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu approached longtime editor Stephen Mirrione about shooting a wholly different movie—one that looked as if it were filmed in one take—Mirrione assumed Inarritu’s reputation as a control freak would quash the project quickly.
“He’s the first to tell you he’s very neurotic about his movies, down to the little choices and alterations you can make,” says Mirrione, who was nominated for an editing Oscar for Inarritu’s Babel. “I thought it would torture him so much he wouldn’t be able to take it.”
Instead, the director became so enthralled with stitching tracking shots over the 30-day shoot that he had Mirrione and co-editor Douglas Crise remove most of the “happy accident” safeguards the editors provided for the frantic POV narrative. “You had to capture the chaos then and there, because you couldn’t fix it later (in post edit),” says Crise, who was co-nominated for Babel. “This was a different kind of animal. You had to move fast.”
But in blending a string of takes that routinely ran longer than five minutes, the editors created a time-lapse drama that has become the buzz du jour of the early awards season. And while the pair is tight-lipped on trade secrets (down to the number of cuts in the film), Mirrione and Crise concede they still aren’t sure how they edited a film into looking unedited. Inarritu “said he wanted to shake himself up,” Mirrione says, “but we all were changed by the experience.”
Shot in a month at the St. James Theater in Times Square, as well as on a Queens soundstage, Birdman tells the story of a washed up, ex-superhero actor looking to revive his career with a Broadway play. Michael Keaton is Riggan, the frenzied fallen star whose tenuous grip on reality (including conversations with his alter-ego Birdman) provides the fulcrum of the story, told through the hurtling gaze of handheld cameras and Steadicams.
If most films deliberately present the world, Inarritu told his editors, Birdman’s mission was to desperately keep up with it. “I could see that he had been, through course of his last several films, moving to having these long, unbroken moments,” says Mirrione, whose recent work includes The Monuments Men and The Hunger Games. “We always had the safety net in a film, that if he didn’t like something, we could go back and change it. But you could see we wanted to do something very different.”
To prepare for the unusual shoot, Inarritu provided footage of rehearsals to allow the editors to cobble a rough sketch of the story. He also asked Crise to show up every day to discuss editing strategies with Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Kevin Thompson. “I’m normally not the type to want to be on set; I don’t want to know what they had to do to get the shot,” Crise says. “Just get me the footage. But on this one, you wanted to be there every day. It was the only way to make sure you had what you needed.”
To strategically remove edits, Mirrione and Crise panned on actors’ bodies, posters and walls to remove the seams. But both say the trickery was meaningless without well-rehearsed actors, which included Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Ed Norton and Zach Galifianiakis. “A lot of the takes go longer than you think are actually possible,” Mirrione says. “Even knowing the magic tricks, you can’t believe the amount of preparation and rehearsal it took to pull it off.”
And without cutting points, the editors used the percussive beats of jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez, whose rhythm (and occasional appearance) dot the film. As with the rehearsals, Inarritu provided rough score tracks to the editors to cobble a schematic. “I had never used that much music in a movie, particularly something as dialogue-heavy as this,” Crise says. “At first I was timid. Alejandro encouraged me to draw it into other places.”
While the film spends most of its time on and behind the stage, the editors said their favorite scenes are the ones shot in Times Square. For Mirrione, it comes when Keaton leaps from a building and flies to his theater, descending gracefully among unimpressed pedestrians. “It took months to work out the special effects and real-world elements,” Mirrione says. “Maybe that’s what made it so rewarding.”
For Crise, it’s Riggan having to stroll through a packed Times Square only wearing white briefs (the editors are quick to point out that the Times Square scenes were all shot on location, not a set). “There was so much going on, so much we had to capture,” Crise says. “You have all of this chaos, and yet it all comes together and turns out.”
Kind of like the movie, Mirrione says. “It was this weird, manic crazy energy. And it worked.”