Risk and Reward Deep in the Woods on a Project That Pushed the Limits

Like its ferocious 19th century protagonist Hugh Glass, The Revenant has hewed an arduous path toward redemption. Filmed in remote locations in the Canadian Rockies and Patagonia under extremely difficult conditions, the production was as unique and challenging as it was rewarding for nearly everyone involved. It was also among the last films in contention for Oscars to arrive in wide release before winning big at the Golden Globes and unleashing a flurry of additional honors. It now leads the Oscar race with 12 nominations, including nods for director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, and its editor, Stephen Mirrione. We spoke with Mirrione, who cut Iñárritu's Oscar-winning Birdman, about the project's long, illuminating haul across technically and artistically difficult terrain.

StudioDaily: Where were you when the cast and crew were famously out in the wilderness?

Stephen Mirrione: Just by necessity, because of the way we were shooting some of the sequences, I needed to be very close, in Calgary, and then depending on the day I would go on set for several pivotal scenes or meet with Alejandro. I needed to be able to put things together and discuss with Alejandro how, for example, the things they might be rehearsing in the morning might best be shot in the afternoon. As an editor, that's a really tricky position to be in. You generally want avoid being in the middle of whatever the cast and crew are experiencing in real life. You want to be able to base every single one of your decisions completely on what's coming through in dailies, just by watching it on the screen. In this kind of situation, you have to be much more careful that you're not bringing in your own experience into what you're watching. An editor really has to take on the role of the audience, making sure that they can see and taste and feel the film just by seeing what is on the screen. It was also about flexibility and being as mobile as possible, trying on any given day to support whatever the scene needed. That meant there was a massive amount of variation in the way we worked day to day. It wasn't like there was a routine we settled into, either. We were constantly shifting and maneuvering.

How and when did you watch dailies with Iñárritu?

We'd meet up at the end of the day to watch the previous day's dailies projected on a large screen and we'd have a conversation about it. There were a lot of times, though, where we couldn't do that because I needed to be in Calgary or even in Los Angeles. Even though we had a long production schedule for principal photography, we had a very short window to finish the movie once we'd wrapped. Compared to the scale and scope of what we were doing, it was a major challenge. There were many times where certain sequences, like the bear attack, had to really be pushed through our entire VFX pipeline, necessitating my feeling like I was in post-production at the same time we were in production.

So your own fortress of editorial solitude was back in Calgary?

Yeah, it was essential. I had my usual setup there. When I'm on set in a trailer on a laptop, I can work on scenes in a particular way, but it's a very different kind of space. I'm not going to be able to sit down and take my time to find the rhythm of a scene, especially when I'm putting together a scene for the first time. In order to look at all the dailies in the right environment, I need to go back to the edit suite, where I know I won't have any distractions for four or five hours. On set, it becomes more about going through things in a more technical way. I was on the version of Avid Media Composer just below 8. We considered bumping up to 8, but there were just too many moving pieces with the production as it was, and we wanted to go with a version we were already very comfortable with and we knew was stable. 


Was the VFX editor with you on location?

Yes. Often times, when I was back in Calgary, VFX editor Harry Yoon [Zero Dark Thirty] would be on set and I'd be in communication with him through the Internet via some sort of satellite hookup. Very often, he would be the go-between me and Alejandro, if needed, and also the whole VFX crew. One of the things we did that was a little bit unusual is we actually used all the media from the video tap. Normally, footage went off overnight to get processed, transcoded, synced, etc. and given at least some kind of base grade. Then I got it the next day. But sometimes we would need to work with footage they shot in the morning so Alejandro could review it and have a sense of how to proceed in the afternoon. That could be rehearsals or even the real stuff. We would take a feed off the video tap and that would be given to the VFX editor or assistant editor or PA, who could then give it to me if I needed to work on that material before I got the real dailies.

This film had a much bigger budget than Birdman. How big was your editorial team?

It was a pretty good-sized crew. We had my first assistant editor, plus two other assistant editors and a PA (mainly because there were so many technicalities that went into being able to screen the dailies), and the VFX editor, coordinator, producer and supervisor Richard McBride. We were all in the same space together, both on set and in Calgary. Richard's team also had several more people on set. 

The film was shot mostly with the Alexa 65, ARRI's new 65mm camera. How much did the camera influence your workflow?

It's funny because initially, they were adamant about shooting on film. We essentially spent months preparing a pipeline based on doing the movie that way. I don't think they were even able to do tests on the Alexa 65 when we started, but two weeks before filming started, they had some kind of breakthrough and decided we could actually do this with the Alexa. So we had to really scramble to shift gears. The video tap actually came out of the film pipeline we'd put together. Had we shot on film, we'd be stuck waiting for four or five days before getting dailies. The way we were making this movie—setup and rehearsals in the morning and filming intense bits of scenes in the afternoon, before the light waned—shooting with that kind of turnaround would have been impossible. So that's why we thought of the video tap, which has been around for years. Although, had we actually shot in film, it still would have been really difficult to work that way. With film, the video tap looks horrible. You can't judge focus [and] it has a lot of drop-outs. But at least it could give us the information we needed to make the decisions we had to make. Using the tap with the Alexa is a much better thing. You have a slightly better sense of things like focus. But it's still a tap. You don't have the color, the resolution's not there, and sometimes it's wireless, so you'll have drop-outs. But it reminded me of the old days and the first couple of movies that I worked on, cutting on film. I moved to Avid at a time when the resolution was really, really low. In those days, you were really working a rough cut solely based on the performances and basic shapes moving across the frame!


Why did the production move all the way from Canada to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina near the end of shooting, and did you go with them?

There was no more snow up north, so they needed to head toward Antarctica! But because it was so short and specific, and because I was deep into assembling sound and music, I stayed behind to keep sound and music rolling while Alejandro and everybody else went down to Argentina. My first assistant, Rich Molina, went with them, and they added another assistant editor there. Essentially, as they were shooting, I was getting stuff online. That's how we worked at that specific point. But we had had months to refine the cut before that, so the southern shoot was very planned out. We had to be very precise about the pieces we were getting during that part of the shoot because once they came back, we had to be ready immediately to turn it over to visual effects.

Technically, your editorial challenges were steep. What about artistically?

From the beginning, Alejandro approached this film as a very, very literary project. There were a lot of strands and a lot of character development and characters that ended up taking away focus from Hugh Glass. The hard part was then measuring that development and focusing the strands without focusing so much that it lost the depth and the beauty within the original script. That was tricky, not to mention the fact that as we were going, we had these placeholders for the very beginning and the end of the film (filmed in Argentina). We had to imagine them. Our usual tool of screening it for other filmmakers who we trust to get feedback wasn't really there. We could let them see it, of course, but the film didn't have a beginning and an end. We were really having to trust our instincts all the way through, and that's scary. You always want to have something more concrete that you can screen and say, "Yes, we got it right." It's pretty hard when you say, "I think we got it right so far." The silver lining in that was it gave us a chance to really understand what wasn't working and use that time to bolster those deficiencies. It helped us hone the hallucinatory dream states, for example, and go in and get material that would give us everything we needed to tell the story.

Was this more difficult to edit than Birdman?

It was different and, in a way, much riskier. Birdman was shot in 30 days, so the focus of the scenes themselves and how they were shooting them was based on a lot of pre-planning that I was involved in, including cutting rehearsals. All of those same things happened in The Revenant, but it was without the same kind of pressure of "we get it right or we don't get it at all." And even though we had many of the seemingly long-take sequences shot over the course of a week or two, those were just scenes that still had to fit into a broader tapestry that had a lot of structural change that didn't happen in Birdman. Because all of Birdman's decisions were made up front, when we finished shooting it was a fairly quick process to get to the point where we felt the cut was done and we could turn it all over to visual effects, who also had a lot more time to get the effects right and for us to work all that out with them. With this, and especially for Alejandro, the idea that you have to take a sequence and lock it for visual effects before you've even shot 50% of the rest of the movie is a very risky and scary thing for a director. You don't really know what you want the scene to be until you're all done and you can look at it in context. Psychologically for Alejandro it caused a lot more stress than on Birdman. Birdman was its own kind of survival, though. It was a sprint to get through the shoot in just the right way, with Chivo's fluid, fast and responsive handheld shots. Then we had more time to massage it during the edit and with VFX. With this, it was completely different. Even though there were a lot of sequences shot the same way, the level of difficulty goes up exponentially on the back end because of all the other moving parts.


Like the incredibly realistic grizzly bear attack, which was all done in CGI?

Yes, but we knew that had to be very planned out, not just to be able to shoot it on location but also to be able to afford the final result! It has to be planned down to the frame; if you add an extra 10 seconds to the sequence, that could be another $1 or $2 million. The prep for that was really ingenious. In addition to the original reference, we would cut together other bear reference footage for ILM based on what we wanted to see the bear doing. And normally, you'd set that all up and be locked in, and about half way through the process, we shifted gears a bit. We never wanted the bear to appear too monstrous. It had to always just be a bear, deadly as it is, doing what's natural for a bear to do. It's not heroic or evil. It's just survival. There was a moment in that sequence, toward the end of the process, where the bear just lunges at Leo that we felt crossed the line. It became a big deal for us to go back to ILM and ask if we could change the rhythm and the pacing of this moment, and they did. Like so many of the decisions on this film, New Regency was really amazing in terms of trusting us. That little change did have a big financial impact, but they never said, 'Absolutely not. The scene is fine as it is.' They knew that if Alejandro was going to try something like that, it's going to make a big impact. And it did. That's about trust. And if we hadn't done Birdman with them, they might not have been as willing to go along for the ride.

There wasn't as much handheld footage in this, I'm guessing, given the icy terrain.

Right, this was mostly shot on cranes, unlike in a controlled environment on the stage, which means you're not going to be able to move the camera as quickly. That's for safety's sake, with so many people on set. But Alejandro was still asking Chivo to do these impossible camera moves! Chivo had to find a way to do it without having the shot look completely ridiculous. Just the physicality of what he had to accomplish on this film was crazy. But with the crane, that also means that several scenes are going to have very similar rhythms. And that was very new to us as we started production, so Alejandro had to then readjust and rethink the rhythm and the language of how he was doing certain scenes. For me, what became a challenge, but what was also really great, was that at a certain point, I had these great shots, like I had in Birdman, but I wasn't confined to setting it in stone and never or very barely changing it again after we were done for the day. So I had more of the editorial flexibility here that I'm used to, in terms of making changes to rhythm and to structure. Certainly we learned a lot from Birdman that we could apply to this film, but they were completely different. We learned discipline, that's for sure, but this was a much longer haul. We were constantly moving. Normally you'd work 10- to 12-hour days. This was 12-hour days where you'd get to the end of the day and think, 'If I just put in another one or two hours, it will make a big difference. I may never get that time back again." So you pushed through. And that carries over to everyone. If I'm there for 14 hours, my crew is there for 14 or 15 hours every day. That starts to add up over the course of a year.

And then, as you've said, a lot more post started seeping into the process?

The dailies come to me with a base color on them, supervised by Chivo and Alejandro while they're shooting. While I'm working on it, if Alejandro wants to make a slight change and it's something I can do in the Avid, I'll do that, rather then sending it out to have it redone. But yes, sound started working early, VFX was working early and constantly, and we started color timing back in June, when Chivo and the colorist were working on a far-from-locked version of the movie. There was a lot they wanted to be able to do to fine-tune what the frame looked like. As for the music, that was different. The way we usually work is we have a composer from the beginning and have a lot of music from them to work with up front. But because Mr. [Ryuichi] Sakamoto had another project, we worked with more temp tracks this time. For Alejandro, he wants to be able to see it, as we're going, as finished as possible. That's why I spend a lot of time with sound and with music. It has so much [to do] with shaping the point of view, whether a scene is subjective or objective. Those things come from all those elements. It's important that I'm laying that blueprint out while we have the time so that when everyone else jumps on toward the end, they're starting from a place of knowing what we want the scenes to be, and then we all can continue to explore from there.


Can you give an example?

It was so cold, for example, that the breathing became visible. Usually you'll see a digital fog coming out of the actors' mouths because they are usually on a sound stage with a green screen. Here, they are in an icy forest or a camp and it was really happening. But then that condensation also gets on the lens, so what Chivo and Alejandro were able to do was find what was beautiful in that, not avoid it. And they found a way to bring that intimacy to the audience. That, to me, was the great thing. It gives you an intimacy and understanding of how close the camera really was to the actor, and how close and intimate the moment is for the actor. There's a transition that happened that completely came in the editing room, and affected structural changes, just because the breath was fogging the lens.

How much material did you have to work with?

They shot almost 200 hours of material over the course of 100 days. But any time they had something that took a while to set up in rehearsals, they might experiment with shooting material meant for a dream sequence. Then we would send that material out for stabilization tests very early on. That was the key for a production like this: having the ability to try things, to test camera moves, to really push them to see what the limits are during rehearsals. We really had to know what we could do and get away with because inevitably, I'm going to start doing things with material that is necessary for the story that isn't always going to use the most perfect execution of a shot during production. So the higher the percentage of everything that is perfect and can be perfect out of the gate, the better the movie's going to be when we finish. You don't want it to come down to choosing between making a shot perfectly steady vs. making the audience cry. 

What most impressed you about Leonardo DiCaprio's performance?

The thing that amazed me the most was how he was able to create this incredibly complex interior life of the character without dialogue. Normally, an actor's going to read a script and they'll understand the character from the words he or she says. Tom Hardy's character, on the other hand, has a lot of really terrific dialogue. You understand his backstory [and] his motivations, you can sympathize with him at times, you can hate his guts, all based on dialogue. He of course spins it in his own amazing, unique way. But with Leo, he's having to perform scene after scene with no dialogue. The fact that I was able to watch his internal thought process in dailies, and really feel it, meant he was 100% in the moment without the benefit of those words. It's really remarkable. It's a really, really difficult thing for an actor to do. One of the things that Alejandro was saying to me was that normally you'd expect an actor was going to get into a situation like that and have a million questions for the director: "What am I thinking in this moment? And what about here?" Leo came totally prepared and they were able to just start shooting. He already really knew who the character was. If he hadn't, it would have eaten up a lot more time. Because Leo was so in tune with who this guy is, it allowed Alejandro and Chivo to go even deeper with camera moves and be more creative with how they approached every scene.