By Peter Caranicas
When editor Stephen Mirrione, A.C.E., an Oscar winner for his work on Traffic, read the script for 21 Grams he knew immediately he wanted to be associated with the film. He already admired the work of Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose Amores Perros was honored in Cannes, and was intrigued with his new project, a sweeping tale of the human condition that examines how previously unrelated lives are thrown together by a tragic accident. Ambitiously tackling universal themes of life, death, redemption and love, the Focus Features release, which stars Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro as part of an ensemble-like cast, has one of the most complex narrative structures ever seen on screen. The aim, according to the director, was to get the filmgoer to participate in creating the story, which progresses emotionally rather than chronologically. Accomplishing that goal required editorial skills beyond the ordinary.
Below the Line: How did you become associated with 21 Grams?
Stephen Mirrione: I had read about it in the trades, asked around to see if anyone had access to them so I could get the script. They agreed to send me a copy. I read it, loved it, had an interview, and a month or two later got a call that they were interested in me.
BTL: Had you met anyone on the team before?
Mirrione: I collaborated with Benicio Del Toro on Traffic but not with anyone else. It was one of those things where I had seen and absolutely loved Amores Perros, and knew that these were filmmakers I would love to work with.
BTL: Did you visit the set?
Mirrione: Occasionally I was on set in Memphis, to talk with Alejandro, but in general I don’t tend to visit sets. I like to wait and see the stuff after it’s coming in.
BTL: What did you and the director talk about?
Mirrione: About editing in a general sense, but a lot of the communication came directly from the material that he shot. A lot of what I did was inspired by the way they shot the scenes, the way the scenes were performed, the way the camera moved. I knew from conversations I had previously that he didn’t want this to be a neat and tidy story. Things would be chaotic. In everything—in the way they shot it, the way performances went, in the cutting—there would be this anxiety building throughout the entire piece. So for me it was really a matter of breaking down some of the things and tricks I would do, and do things in a more unsettling way. Those are things we talked about.
BTL: What were some of the things that guided your decisions?
Mirrione: They shot handheld 35mm. Shooting handheld actually makes my work easier because as an editor I’m always looking for things to motivate a cut. A lot of times that handheld camera adds a life, it adds another kind of human perspective to what you’re looking at, because you can feel the presence of the camera operator. There are times in the movie when you are so close. It immerses you in a way that something that’s locked down wouldn’t. There’s another human being, and you can sense that while you’re watching it. So it helps tremendously when you’re putting it together. It helps guide you.
BTL: Did you talk to the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC?
Mirrione: Not really. He and Alejandro had their conversations and went about doing their thing. What I have to say wouldn’t really affect it because it’s more after the fact. I’m really responding to their collaboration on the set. My conversations with Rodrigo were of a technical nature. I don’t really see a value in me intruding on what they’re doing.
BTL: Talk about all the material you got.
Mirrione: There was a lot of material. For one thing, they were printing everything. Normally on a movie you’re circling takes and only printing about 75 percent of what’s shot. On this film, Alejandro wanted to print everything because he didn’t want to have to pick and choose on the set. He wanted more freedom. As a byproduct, it was much more difficult for me to have to wade through all that material to find the best stuff. And when you’re dealing with all the people involved in this, there’s a lot of great stuff. So it’s not like you can easily dismiss stuff. You’re constantly judging, say, a great performance against a great camera move. That became time consuming.
BTL: How did you edit?
Mirrione: On Avid, both in Memphis during the shoot, and back in L.A. in an office in Culver City.
BTL: How was the film’s unique look achieved?
Mirrione: Very little of it was achieved in post. Going into it we were conscious that we wanted the film to have that very extreme look—the grittiness, the skies, etc.—but at the same time, every time we weren’t achieving that we wanted to have options. Originally we were planning to do a digital intermediate of the whole movie, but when they starting shooting the film just looked perfect.
BTL: Was there anything unusual about the post?
Mirrione: We did 100 percent bleach bypass. Rodrigo has done it many times before. He was comfortable in terms of how to light for it.
BTL: Can you elaborate?
Mirrione: While you’re developing film there are chemicals it gets run through. Bleach bypass refers to a step removed from that process. What that does is give you that very grainy, desaturated look. But you are married to it. Because it’s being done as it’s being developed, you can’t go back. Normally you keep the neg pretty unaffected, and you can be extreme after the fact when you’re doing final prints. But this way, you’re committing to that at the beginning. It’s risky. It’s one of the things that makes it more exciting. Some people would have said, shoot it normally and then we’ll deal with it digitally; we can make it look pretty similar to that digitally. The problem with that—and this is how Alejandro responded—is that he wants that kind of dangerous. When we started seeing dailies we were blown away by that very extreme, powerful look. So we ended up deciding not to go to DI except for maybe 25 minutes of the film where we wanted to enhance some things. For that we went to Efilm. The rest was done conventionally.