Joy and Pain of Sitting in the Editing Seat

From left: Norman Hollyn, Stephen Marrione and Hank Corwin

What defines success as an editor?

According to panelists at an NAB Show discussion on Tuesday, the answer is a fruitful relationship with your director, trusting your own instincts, infusing emotion into your work and knowing when you’ve spread the cream cheese too thick on the bagel.

While there’s no one path to success as a film or television editor, two of the industry’s more creative editors spoke about their individual success and struggles in the session “The Path to the Statues — ‘The Big Short’ and ‘The Revenant.’”

With those Oscar-nominated films on their résumés, as well as titles like “Natural Born Killers,” “Traffic,” “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” and “The Tree of Life,” editors Hank Corwin and Stephen Mirrione revealed that there are lessons to be learned from each and every edit.

“There’s something rewarding from any small piece of a film or [music] video, like a camera move that I was able to harness,” said Corwin, nominated for an Oscar for his editorial work on “The Big Short.”

“Everything else about the experience might not be happy, but because I get such satisfaction from that part of the process, it’s a happy experience for me.”

Both editors have worked repeatedly with the same directors, in part because an editor is more than a simple technical position. “You are in a partnership position,” said Mirrione, nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing for “The Revenant,” his third nomination. Mirrione received an Academy Award for Best Editing for “Traffic” in 2000.

“You are in a partnership with a director, and I do think of it kind of as a therapist/ patient type of relationship,” he said. “You give the director a safe place to work out his emotions while you’re also doing a performance for the director.

“Once you have that trust, there’s so much value in that, that directors want to work with you again and again,” Mirrione said.

Both editors showed clips of their films. Mirrione walked the standing-room audience through an emotional scene in “The Revenant” in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Hugh Glass is rescued from a winter storm by a Native American healer. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s open-ended guidance to Mirrione on the scene: Make it mysterous. Mirrione responded by using the fire in the scene as a spine for the entire sequence.

“There were a few moments that visually sync up pretty nicely, such as [the healer] trying to warm [Leonardo’s character] and then breathing into the fire. [He’s] trying to build the fire at the same time he’s trying to heal.”

Mirrione’s edited scene shifts perspective, slows down, cuts back and forth between images, and retains extended focus on unexpected objects like a wiggling tower of ants.

Editing the film was an emotional process. Mirrione said that as he reviewed the dailies with Iñárritu, who won an Oscar for directing the film, both had strong emotional reactions.

In the case of “The Revenant,” the director was dependent on the editor’s involvement early in the process. “So much of these scenes are extremely choreographed sequences that have to have precision [edits],” he said. “You can’t leave it until we’re done with the movie.” The work is also striking for its absence of sound in certain sections. After watching his fellow editor’s scene, Corwin said, “Sometimes [a director] assigns massive sound teams [to a film], but sometimes I think it’s like smearing cream cheese on a bagel. I loved how quiet the scene was.”

Pay attention to the power of sound. Sometimes a description like an “abstract cricket” or a “deer hoof” is just what a sound team needs.

For Corwin, one of the least successful scenes in “The Big Short” ended up one of his favorites. “This scene was in terrible trouble. It was maudlin, and [when the actor] was articulating [his feelings], it rang false.” Corwin’s answer was to get rid of the dialogue to articulate the painful emotions Steve Carell’s character, Mark, was feeling.

“Basically what Steve and I do [as editors] is to create moods,” Corwin said. “When you have too much sound, it really grounds your scene and makes things you’re working on really leaden.”

And when it comes to developing a style for a film, the key is the relationship developed between the editor and the director, Corwin said. “If you’re not collaborating with the director, you are doomed. You will not succeed,” he said.

A passage in “Babel” succeeded powerfully because the editor and director related to it in a personal way. “I knew how I wanted to feel moment to moment,” Mirrione said. The scene in a nightclub involves the main character, who is deaf, reacting to the world around her. “The obvious way is to play it silent,” Mirrione said, “but the problem is the audience is never going to relate on an emotional level without understanding a lifetime of silence [before this scene].”

Music was the answer, punctuated with stark blasts of silence.

“We wanted the audience to feel separate and lonely,” he said. The resulting scene is a mix of glee, warmth and, finally, sad, dejected humiliation.

In the end, the beauty and magic that come with being a film and television editor are the same attributes that make the job a painful one.

“If you don’t want to suffer, you shouldn’t be an editor,” Corwin said. “It’s a painful thing.”