Steven Mirkovich, ACE has edited over 40 pictures that include “Big Trouble in Little China” and “Con Air.” Steven just completed editing the feature film, “Risen,” which premieres February 19th.
Steven Mirkovich, ACE got his start working in editorial in the mid-70s. By the late-70s, he was the assistant editor on films like “Hooper”, “Cannonball Run” and “Time After Time”. In the early 1980s he moved into the editor’s chair and quickly earned a reputation for his editing on action and thriller films. Steven has edited over 40 pictures that include “Big Trouble in Little China”, “Broken Arrow” and “Con Air”. Most recently he edited the innovative movie “Hardcore Henry” which was shot entirely in first person POV using GoPros. As well, Steven just completed editing the feature film, “Risen,” which premieres February 19th. In this edition of Art of the Cut, Mirkovich discussed his thoughts on cutting “Risen” which tells the story of a Roman soldier charged with finding the body of Christ after his crucifixion and disappearance from the tomb.
HULLFISH: In this movie, big, paced-up action scenes play right next to slower, emotional scenes.
MIRKOVICH: This picture isn’t primarily about the action, it’s a story of an investigation. The action is there to help connect the dots. This picture is rich with solid dramatic performances in an investigation that pulls us through the story. The action scenes are solid and by their nature, should be fast paced. “Risen” is an exploration of a non-believer who uses his investigative mind to figure out who stole this body. There is no way that he believes at the start of the picture the person who calls himself the Messiah, has risen from the dead as prophesied. We see and feel the wheels turning in his mind as he goes through the process. That’s what an investigator does, right? The performances from Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis and Maria Botto is why Risen works so well. Their performances were so good. My approach to editing dialog is to give actors every opportunity to drive home what they’re trying to sell in a scene. However, I don’t necessarily believe in staying on one person because their performance is so good that we can’t cut away from them. That’s not my kind of editing. It’s not an actor’s showcase reel. When I edit, I’m part of the audience. As part of the audience, I want to move around in a scene, not sit on a performance for the sake of it. I believe there’s a certain natural quality and rhythm to cutting performance. That’s what an audience wants to see and feel as well. If a character says something that’s dynamic and gets some kind of emotion or reaction from the person they’re talking with, it’s simple, that’s where I want to go, as an editor and audience. When I hear about forcing a style, or “my style” on cutting, I don’t generally feel it’s a good idea. I let the film dictate style. I think when you cut a scene, you let that style playout in its own natural rhythm. Although I do love action, there’s nothing more satisfying to me than watching a dialogue scene that really works. Performances that are engaging, believable and propelling the story. I try to weed out the redundancies in performances like I do in action sequences.
HULLFISH: How does that collaborative relationship with the director begin for you?
MIRKOVICH: When I work with a director, I have to gain their trust as quickly as possible. As soon as they start shooting, I’m cutting right behind the company and by the director’s first weekend or day off, I try showing a cut of the first three or four days of that week’s shoot, with music and sound effects. As far as musical selection, I’ll ask the director if he’s got some specific music choices in mind, and if he does, I’ll try them. Many times when a director is also writing on the film, he does so with music in mind, but not always, which is great because I love cutting music and prefer temp tracking pictures I cut using my own choices. I like to do as much sound effects editing myself as I can but usually load up on my assistant in this area. I’m whorish. I’ll use all the tools I can find to sell my cut. I realize at the start of a new relationship; most directors will convey a keen sense of how scenes they directed should play. By gaining their confidence early on in the process, I find that directors allow me to freely bring my point of view first. I feel that a Director has enough to think about during production. I’m doing my job if he’s not thinking of editing or how his film is coming together while he’s shooting. I’ve got some experience, love what I do and I work hard, so it usually works out. It’s refreshing to most directors to see something you’ve done with their scene they never would have thought of. I comb through every single take, even if it’s an incomplete take, because you never know what you’re going to find. I don’t just pick a take and run, because it doesn’t work as well. I find that if you’re true to your art form, you really let every single take wash over you. There’s been too much effort put into the making of the movie for me to get lazy on my end. That’s doing a disservice to the rest of the picture. I put the hours in and I give every single line that’s delivered an opportunity to be the best line. I’m not saying I cut 20 versions. I don’t do that. You learn to take a look, form an opinion and go with your strong instinct. If you’re a second guesser you’re going to spend a lot more time on a scene. If you feel strongly about something, you’re probably right, for now anyway. After I deliver my editors cut, I leave my ego at the door. I’ve had my crack at it and now it’s time to work with the director and studio in bringing the directors vision to a fine cut.
HULLFISH: I’ve talked to other editors about directors who dictate a specific take, and I respect and trust in their opinion of that, but the thing is that an edited film is made up of much finer moments – more granular pieces of time – and there’s always the possibility that one of the greatest little moments takes place in the middle of what is really one of the worst overall takes.
MIRKOVICH: That happens…a lot. There are definitely preferred takes. There’s no two ways about it. I’m not saying that what the director feels is the best take is wrong, or that I would ignore it, but I use it as a guide and not as a bible. I do think that you have to look at everything because there are discoveries and unexpected saves. Maybe it’s for down the line, a different scene, or it’s a look you might need to steal, or a whip pan, a camera bump or anything interesting, you’ll think, “I’ll remember that bit”. It was never intended to be used for this or that purpose but it may help me out of a jam. You have these moments where you pull a rabbit out of the hat and then you have those moments when you look at something you loved the night before and say to yourself, “What was I thinking? That doesn’t work at all.”
HULLFISH: You talked a little bit about doing all you can to sell a cut. Talk to me about how important it is for sound design to sell the cut.
MIRKOVICH: I think sound design includes music, sound effects and backgrounds…and it is very important. I’ve worked with directors that don’t want to hear anything with temp music on it because they don’t want to be misled or influenced. They want to see if something works on its own, but that’s more the exception than the rule. John Carpenter worked that way. He wouldn’t want to hear music in my first cut. That made sound effects, design and backgrounds pretty important. You had to do a good job because there was no music to hide behind. Not too many directors actually feel that way though. I think we’re expected to be quite polished coming out of the editing room with our first cuts. So music, is a huge part of our sound prep and design. As I stated earlier, I enjoy cutting music and try to cut music myself for the first cut. I feel that no one knows the intention of what I’m trying to do more than me. What is the intention of the scene? What’s the emotion I need from music to enhance that scene? Not to bombastically control or cover up but to enhance the scene. That’s the job of music. Nobody knows the film as well as I do at this point in the process. You know when something works and when something doesn’t in terms of music and sound design. The more polished you are the more it gets people excited when they see it for the first time. We’ve gone right from our Avid mixes to audience test screenings. Thorough sound design, effects and music are extremely important from day one.
HULLFISH: You talked a lot about music, can you talk about how you work with ambiences and sound effects bed stuff?
MIRKOVICH: I work a lot with backgrounds, ambience sounds and discrete effects. Whether it’s a rattling doorknob or a creaky floor, you need the right sounds to sell an idea or thought. Sometimes silence is better than sound to sell your point…there is a sound to silence. We use winds, drones and tones. Adding tonal accents is a gas and can put just the right polish on a scene. From the start, I’m very involved in sound selections and direction when we turn over the picture to our sound effects team. I make myself available so that as they’re culling backgrounds and sound effects, I’ll go over and sit with them and we’ll weed through choices. I’ll have a fair amount of input in what we will or won’t use. I go to a mixing stage with a fairly heavy hand. I need to have a strong overview of the “big picture” and don’t feel there’s anybody better qualified to make mixing calls than myself and the director. I’ve been lucky enough and privileged to work with some of the best sound teams in the business.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about the meta or macro pacing of the entire movie… the overall pacing and structure of the movie and how that changed from the first cut to the final cut and what kind of decisions had to be made to get the overall pacing of the movie.
MIRKOVICH: I think the pacing of a first cut is always fat – for me anyway – it’s a process. In terms of content, I like to show everything that was shot. It’s always slower than your final cut in terms of pacing. If the final movie is Z in the alphabet and that’s where you lock it, you have to understand you start at A and you go through to B, C, D and so on. You have to go through the steps. There are rarely effective shortcuts. It’s an evolution of the cut. I don’t know anybody who gets to Z without going through the steps. I think the first cut of this movie was two hours and forty minutes. It might have been longer. The finished movie, at the end of the day, was an hour and forty minutes. It’s hard to imagine but that’s an hour less movie. There was content lifted. There were certain scenes that didn’t work and we could lose them without hurting the film. Those decisions can be agonizing. What works and what doesn’t? What can we live without? What can’t we live without? Sometimes it’s easy and obvious. That’s the process and the beauty of collaboration. We wanted to make sure the action scenes were hard hitting so we hammered away on them. For example, the first cut of the opening battle sequence was much longer than the length of the finished product. We played only the best bits and there were things that we just couldn’t show because we were under the limitations of the MPAA rating we were contractually obligated to deliver. We needed to deliver a PG-13 movie. We had to tone down some of the graphic violence. The opening battle scene was probably six or seven minutes in the first cut because there was so much material, but it ended up at a minute and a half or two in the final version. A good action sequence to me is one that doesn’t repeat itself, regardless of how good the material is. You get in for the best bits and parts, make your point, show the intent and get out. When we started our cut down, the first 10 to 20 minutes we lifted came out easily. Once we lifted the obvious scenes we could live without, we tightened down all of the remaining scenes so they played with the right pace. That trimming took care of another ten to fifteen minutes. From there we hunted for more content that could be lifted. The last 10 to 15 minutes to come out was really tough. And that’s the grind of editing.
HULLFISH: Do you remember any decisions that you helped make to get them to time? I remember these struggles on “War Room” and “Courageous” where we thought, “We can’t possibly cut this!” and in the end, you can. What were some of those decisions?
MIRKOVICH: Every picture I’ve cut has those struggles. Who makes what decisions is a blur when you’re in the trenches and the ideas are flying. We all thought the overall length of the first cut was much too long. The director was a very smart guy. He had great ideas of what could come out of the picture and what we could live without but we were all part of those creative discussions. For example, there was a character named Rachel. She was Clavius’s love interest. The scenes were very good, and on their own, played very well. Although we all loved the emotional performances the scenes delivered, we realized that losing them strengthened our lead Clavius. He was a hardened soldier. The Military Tribune to Pontius Pilate and he was having a relationship that showed a soft side. Until it was lifted, we couldn’t see how much it improved the story and the character. Also, very few scenes need a beginning, middle and end. You can jump in and out of scenes without losing the audience…and we did. It’s about propelling the story, from one scene to another and staying in front of the audience.
HULLFISH: Which scenes were difficult to cut and why?
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MIRKOVICH: The opening battle scene was very difficult, just given the sheer volume of material. The crucifixion area where Clavius and Lucius were ordered by Pilate to go break the legs of those on the cross to put them out of their misery was challenging. It was a big scene. Crowds, soldiers, crucifixion, misery. A ton of parallel action. I needed to show so much without letting it feel long. It was tricky. The fishing scene for the same reasons. All of these big scenes required huge temp sound design to make them play.
HULLFISH: Was there a favorite scene in the movie that you enjoyed cutting? Or something you were really proud of?
MIRKOVICH: The scene when Clavius breaks into a room where the apostles are hiding and comes face to face with Yeshua and must reconcile how he watched this man die and now sees him alive again. It’s such an emotional moment. The Crucifixion and Ascension scenes are favorites. There’s a scene in a bar between Clavius and one of the guards who was supposed to have been guarding the tomb that is very moving as well. There are so many scenes I could call favorite. I’m proud of all of them.
HULLFISH: What was the schedule like? I understand you were brought on to this late in production to replace the original editor.
MIRKOVICH: I finished editing another picture on a Thursday and by the following Monday I was in Toronto starting “Risen”. It was a whirlwind. I received a call from the producers on behalf of the director. The producers knew my work because I had done a couple of fix-its for them. They knew I had a strong point of view but was at same time collaborative and could handle pressure without drama. When they called me, they had been shooting for 10 weeks of a 12 week shooting schedule. They asked me to take over the project from the original editor and start over from scratch. That was my preference as well since they were still shooting. They knew there would have to be some adjustment to the schedule because I was basically coming into the picture 10 weeks or 50 days of shooting behind. I proposed to the producers that I would try to cut 1 day of shoot to 1 day of editing. Sounded ambitious to me but my logic was that I would essentially be cutting up to camera. They just needed to add 50 days to the post schedule. They agreed and I went to work. I attacked the bigger sequences right away – the ones that were the most troubling to the director so I could gain his confidence right away. I was under the gun the whole time. I worked long hours and seven days a week for months. I arrived in Toronto on November 1st and by the time I left for a prearranged Christmas break around the 20th of December, I was only about 20 days behind the company. I was catching up. When Christmas break was over they still had a little bit of shooting to do. I ran a first cut for them on my proposed schedule. I was honestly surprised I didn’t need more time than that because it’s normal for me to run a first cut 1-2 weeks after wrap. When I was ready to show my first cut, the director was back home in the Seattle area. We set up Slingbox so he could initially stay and work in Seattle while I cut in Toronto. He would be viewing his monitors in real time along with me while at the same time we face to faced using Skype. He could “drop in” on the cutting room anytime he wanted. It was great. I would show him scenes and changes we had discussed. There was a 3-hour time difference so sometimes he liked me to send him the day’s work which he would look at after I went home for the night and we’d work together the next day. It was a good way to work. As we closed in on his cut, he came to Toronto for two or three weeks until we locked the picture down to show the studio. I was in Toronto from the last week of October 2014 through the first week of September 2015. Just over 10 months.
HULLFISH: Some nuts and bolts stuff: How do you like your bins and project organized and was that different from the way the previous editor had it set up?
MIRKOVICH: As far as what I normally do for set-up…that’s a question better answered by one of my regular assistants. Seriously nothing out of the ordinary. Bins big enough to see all tiles for each scene if possible. I like to see everything in front of me. Because I was coming in late in the game and there was no time to re-do everything, I had to show some flexibility and work with how the show was already prepared. I inherited the prior editor’s assistant, Mary Juric. She was a solid and competent assistant. I’d work with her again in a heartbeat. She knew the footage and where the bodies were buried… which is always a huge plus in these situations. She was meticulous and did a great job keeping our VFX straight.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about viewing dailies. Do you rely on script notes or lined pages? What’s your process?
MIRKOVICH: Sure. I look over script notes and lined pages but then I look at all of the film. I don’t rely on other people’s notes. I’m old school. I sit down with a legal yellow pad and make my own very detailed notes on every take for the sequence I’m about to cut. Funny thing is, when I’m done taking my notes, I almost never refer to them while initially cutting the scene. Once I’ve written them down, they’re imprinted and refer to them when cutting changes down the line.
HULLFISH: What is it that you want in an assistant?
MIRKOVICH: Number one is a great attitude. I look for assistants who feel it’s a privilege to be doing what we’re doing. I want an assistant to be there when I get there in the morning. I want my machines on. I want things set up. I don’t want to wonder and wait. I want to walk in and go. I like an assistant to be a smart, meticulous self-thinker with common sense and understand cutting room etiquette. I want an assistant to look at as much cut footage as they can so if we have a conversation about a particular scene or story point in the picture they don’t just look at me like, “huh?” I want an assistant who wants to cut if time permits. What I say to my producers and directors when I’m hired is, “I don’t bring drama. I don’t like drama in my cutting room. I like my department to be as self-sufficient as possible”. I want to have the department everybody wants to work in and with. I expect respect.
HULLFISH: Let’s get back to your approach to a scene. You described that you start by thoroughly watching dailies and taking notes with a yellow legal pad. With a simple scene, what do you do from there?
MIRKOVICH: If there is a preferred take or notes from the director, I’ll always look and consider those preferences first. Then I look at everything. I check the lined script pages to make sure I’m not missing anything. Then I just sit down and start cutting. I don’t pull six takes of the same line and string them one after the other. I cut the scene in a linear way. I go from beginning to end and when I’m done I’ll decide if that’s working for me. I’ll decide if it’s too cutty or not cutty enough. Is there a reaction that I’m missing? Is the flow right? Are the rhythms good? I look at it very closely until I feel like, “It’s time to move on. I’ve got a lot more movie to cut.” But the scene has to be working for me to put it aside.
HULLFISH: So you don’t use a KEM roll or selects reel or any of that stuff?
MIRKOVICH: No. I don’t do selects reels. I did when I was starting. My cutting process has probably changed over the years, but I found putting a selects reel together got to be just another step in what is already a jammed up schedule. I eventually felt that for me, spending the time putting a selects reel together was unnecessary double work and took time away from doing something else.
HULLFISH: I’d say that out of the 20 interviews I’ve done so far, maybe a third or just less than half use selects reels.
MIRKOVICH: We all have our own style and methods. Whatever works is good. The selects reel approach is generally not for me. There may be an unusual situation or circumstance that might have me creating a selects reel, but it’s rare. For example, selects reels are useful if you’re doing a comedy and it’s one joke after another with multiple options and/or adlibs. A selects reel would be helpful in that case to show a director who may want to make the call on a joke he wants to play. When we did “The Other Guys” I was brought in on that movie to do all the action sequences. I worked six months cutting the action sequences and the comedy that was in and around those sequences. Adam McKay was the director. His lead editor used Script-sync to quickly access every joke or option, one after the other. It’s a very labor intensive process to set up and requires a full time assistant exclusively to work on that alone. Many films don’t have the budget to allow them to use this system so a selects reel is another way to go. If you’re dealing with more of a conventional scene, I think a selects reel is overkill.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about the way the editor is a storyteller.
MIRKOVICH: I think the editor is a storyteller when he decides where you go in the scene. Where is the editor putting you? Is he putting you on a character in the scene for his reaction? Or is it more important to be on the man delivering the line? Is it more important to be delivering half the line or…? You get the point. It comes down to “feel” when I’m editing. It’s subjective and we all tell stories differently. I think “as an audience member where do I want to be. Who do I want to be on, and for how long? Where does my eye want to go?” My gut instinct is my guide. I trust it. Also, I don’t like to telegraph reactions by going to somebody too soon. People process very quickly now, so anytime you telegraph and the audience catches up with you, you’re dead. As I mentioned earlier, I remind myself this is not an actors show reel. This is a scene in a movie. It’s about the story. The performance is still going to be terrific if you move around. Never let the audience feel like you’ve been on something too long. Keep it moving. It’s about rhythms.
HULLFISH: Is that a matter of telling the story, or is that a matter of trying to be the audience and know when you want to be looking somewhere else.
MIRKOVICH: I think it’s probably both. I’m not sure how to separate the two. Our job is to tell the most interesting story we can with the footage given.
(right – Mirkovich, with his assistant editor)
Avoid stutters. You can create stutters by staying too long or by artificially “rapid firing” your cuts through the scene. You can force the pace on something, whether it’s slowing it down or speeding it up, but if it feels like a stutter…you’ve failed. Your audience will feel it too. They may not know how to identify what they don’t like, but they know it doesn’t work. The film often dictates what you should be doing to it. At least it does to me. I see it in films all the time – where I’ll think, “Whoah! What happened there?” Why did we get off them so fast? Why didn’t we sit on them for just another beat? You need to allow the audience to exhale so that when you do cut, it’s got more impact. I let you exhale so I can punch you in the gut while you’ve got no air in your lungs. Again, it really is about rhythms that editors need to pay attention to and if successful in accomplishing that you’ll be making a better movie.
HULLFISH: If you’re a voting member of the Academy or the EDDIE’s, how do you judge Mad Max versus Spotlight?
MIRKOVICH: Gut instinct. Be the audience. You’re judging your personal experience. I’ve been a member of the Academy for 25 years in the Film Editing Branch. I was sponsored into the Academy when I was 32 years old. I’ve also been a member of the ACE for the same amount of time. I take judging very seriously. It’s a privilege to have a voice. For those that don’t know, here’s how the Academy voting works. There’s two votes in the Academy. The first, initial vote, depends on your branch. Editors vote for editing and Best Picture. Cinematographers vote for cinematography and Best Picture. Actors vote for actors and Best picture, and so on. I’ve always felt that to be nominated was the biggest honor because it came from your peers in your respective branch. With the ACE, you nominate and then vote for your favorites. When judging, I don’t have a list that I check off, but I have a feeling at the end of a picture whether that picture works. And if it does really work, how did editing come in to play for that. Did it enhance what I saw? Did it move things along really well? Was the flow good? The editor who cuts “Freddy Meets Jason” may have done just as good of a job as the editor who cut “Whiplash” but you are going to steer yourself to pictures that have the most meaning to you. Whether that’s fair or not, that’s just the way it is. Everybody’s going to have their favorites and they’re going to have their favorites for different reasons. It’s a personal preference. It’s an artistic gut instinct. I believe there’s about 7,000 members worldwide in the Academy, and in the Editing Branch, probably less than 300. I’m not sure about the numbers in the ACE…but I believe the numbers of voting editors is greater than the Academy. I consider it an honor to be a member of both organizations.
HULLFISH: The studio released a few clips from the movie… probably not the most exciting example of your editing prowess, but I was wondering if you could walk us through them.
Claims to be the Messiah
MIRKOVICH: This scene at the start of the picture sets a tone for the relationship between Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) and Pilate (Peter Firth). I love watching Peter Firth work. He’s got a big presence. He’s exactly what you think Pilate should be. In this scene you can feel that Clavius disapproved of Pilate’s judgment. Clavius knows Pilate is weak and would sacrifice another to save conflict and face. Pilate must present a strong Rome when the emperor Tiberius arrives. An uprising and another messiah was bad for his image. But Clavius was still a soldier of honor and knew his obligation to serve.
It is Finished
MIRKOVICH: This scene starts as Clavius and his right hand Lucius (Tom Felton) ride out of the fort to go to the crucifixion site. We created the earthquake. Once at the site, we learn that this is not just another crucifixion. The soldiers feel something is wrong. Clavius is not buying into it. Clavius tells the Centurion to “finish it”, meaning that he wants the Centurion to order the legs broken. This clip is just the start of the scene at the crucifixion site. There was loads of film shot on this scene making it a challenge. Lots of parallel action in this scene. Also, we added dramatic stormy clouds and then faced challenges in color timing to make our sunny day’s shoot look and feel like there was an unnatural storm brewing. Every sky in this scene was generated in VFX.
Secure the Tomb
MIRKOVICH: Clavius and Pilate listen as Caiaphas, the Roman religious’ leader, comes up with a scheme to keep the zealots from stealing the body of the alleged messiah from being stolen. He wants Roman guards to guard the tomb so it doesn’t look like the religious leader pulling strings. Clavius thinks this is a lot to do about nothing, after all, the man is dead. Another good solid dialog sequence and a pleasure to cut.
What made you follow him?
MIRKOVICH: In this scene, Jesus cures a leper in front of the disciples. It was originally scripted to show Jesus appear to be healing the leper but when they part, the disciples saw no physical difference in the leper. They wonder and ask Jesus why he didn’t heal him? Jesus replied “I did”. The intent was that Jesus healed the leper spiritually. We didn’t think it was playing the way the writers had thought it would. When we tested it with an audience, they were confused and unsatisfied, like the disciples. So we shot a pickup and healed the leper. The audience loved the moment when we tested it again. They expected to see a miracle with their own eyes and we realized we were shorting them by not giving them what they wanted. This is a great example of re-thinking the concept of a scene while in editing.
HULLFISH: Thanks. Those were great insights. Any final words of editing wisdom for me?
MIRKOVICH: Editing is a fantastic profession. I love every day that I go into the room. I wish there was a better apprentice system in place and that it was supported by the guilds. Young filmmakers who want to be editors would learn more about what goes on in the room before having to jump into the fire. They would be better prepared. And that’s good for the business and art form of editing. It’s a business of longevity and I’ve always thought there’s enough time to learn to do things right. There’s a lot more to editing than simply editing.
HULLFISH: Steve, thanks for talking with me, this was really enlightening.
MIRKOVICH: Thanks for listening. Cheers!
Read more interviews from the Art of the Cut series HERE. And follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish for updates and reminders of upcoming interviews with editors like Lee Smith of “Spectre,” Julian Clarke of “Deadpool,” Katie McQuerrey of “Hail Caesar!” and Margaret Sixel of “Mad Max: Fury Road.”