Contracting Contagion

Call me lazy, but rather than actually write another post about the struggles to make and get an independent film seen, I will post another one of the articles I wrote for CinemaEditor.  One of the great aspects of writing for this publication is I get to pick which films I want to cover.  In this case I practically begged to do a story on Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and editor Stephen Mirrione.   Mirrione won an Oscar for his work with Soderberg on Traffic and it was an honor to get to chat with him.  He gave great insight in to what it is like working for some of the best directors working today.  So, it is with great pleasure that I share with you this article that originally appeared in CinemaEditor.

Contracting Contagion

By Nathan Cole

Contagion (2011), the late-summer release from Steven Soderbergh, astutely charts the spread of a viral pandemic and the lives it affects. The film begins on day two after a previously unknown lethal virus first comes into contact with humans, closely examining the lives of those fighting for survival, seeking to profit from the chaos, and racing against time to find a vaccine. Contagion is so relentless in pace and authentic in tone that it is hard to appreciate the skill of the filmmaking while watching it. Yet, upon reflection, the aspect that makes the film compelling is not the horrific images of a civilization crumbling, but the precision by which the story unfolds and how it reveals human behavior in a crisis.

In order for Contagion to play as effectively as possible, Soderergh and his team had a tremendous amount of information to pack into the film’s economic 105-minute running time. With dozens of characters (played by such notable actors as Matt Damon, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet) and their respective intermingling story lines it is clear that this film would have been a challenge to convincingly convey. The film provides the viewer with a copious amount technical information–scientists assessing the biology of the virus, military men sorting out the logistics and doctors trying to manage the overwhelming number of ill—all without sacrificing the drama of the characters and their individual struggles. Making sure that none of this information was lost while keeping the story on its toes was frequent Soderbergh collaborator Stephen Mirrione, A.C.E.

After discussing the project with Mirrione, it would not be much of a stretch to say that Contagion was made during post-production. Although it had a very effective script and was helmed by an extremely talented director, it was apparent after principle photography that there would need to be adjustments to better serve the final film.  A prime example of how editing helped accomplish this is the opening sequence.  In the film we are introduced to several different individuals that have come in contact with the virus, including an American businesswoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow. In the script the activities of these characters unfold simultaneously, but as Mirrione assembled the footage it became clear that the scenes as they were playing did not convey this fact.  In order to better express the intent of the script, Mirrione decided there was more value getting all the information quicker.  A 20-minute section was trimmed down into the three-minute montage that now begins the film letting the action unfold more viscerally.

The first cut of Contagion was over two hours long and Mirrione recalls that although it was very scary and the reality of the story was very present, it didn’t quite feel right.  It felt too cynical and the negative aspects that arise resulting from the destructive force of the virus were too prominent. By the time the first version ended it was so convincing that the reality and inevitability of the events seemed to eradicate any sense of hope. Fortunately, they had a potentially very good solution. Mirrione explains, “What we realized was at the same time, because of what the actors were bringing to their performances, a lot more of the heroic moments stuck out and what we did was design a way to bring those more into focus … to pull back a little bit on the cynicism.”

To accomplish this would mean adding new scenes. Before they even screened the first pass for the studio, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns made some fairly significant changes to address the concerns. Then, in a somewhat unconventional move, they screened the film to the studio with place cards indicating where a new scene would appear and provided notes on a corresponding sheet describing the scene. The studio was very receptive, leading the filmmakers to have to make a choice as to whether or not to screen this version to a test audience.  Mirrione says that they were hesitant, “It can be dangerous. When you are doing a preview you want it to be as finished as possible because you don’t want to accidently affect people’s perception of it. It can be problematic if [test] scores go down because people aren’t watching something that is completely finished.  But at the same time it is such an incredibly useful tool. If we have a chance to go back and reshoot a significant amount of material we want to have all the information possible.”

In the end, they opted to move forward with the test screening, but Soderbergh wanted to try something first.  “Steven knows the value of just doing something even though it doesn’t makes sense … to try something, shake things up and discover things out of that.” At first they had done a lot of reimagining of the scenes, putting them together in ways different from what was in the script. The goal was efficiency.  Yet the results were that the movie became more comfortable losing some of the sense of danger. Soderbergh’s idea for the pass before the test screening was to get ruthless, cutting down the film as short as possible. They expected they were going to lose too much information. To their surprise the new cut was even scarier.  It provided just enough information to keep the viewer wanting to know more and created a pace that added to the film’s tension.

The test audience’s response was very positive. The questions posed at these screenings mirrored the questions the filmmakers planned to answer with the reshoots. Mirrione states that, “We went into those reshoots with a lot of confidence knowing that the things that we wanted to do were also the things that somebody who knew nothing about the movie was hoping for.”  Without this process, some of the better scenes in the film would not have existed. One such scene is when Dr. Ally Hextall, played by Jennifer Ehle in one of the film’s strongest performances, injects herself with a prototype for the vaccine and shares the information with her father, who is sick with the virus. The scene originally took place off screen, but having it in the film was crucial. Mirrione sums it up, “It put into focus the heroic things that people would do in this situation.  Even though we are going to make mistakes, that people’s intentions are to do the right things … and I think that made a big difference in how you felt at the end of the movie.“

Mirrione sums up his work on Contagion, stating, “Steven created a very specific visual vocabulary when he designed the film and I feel like part of my job is to discover that.”  This is an approach that seems rooted in who Mirrione is as an editor.  When asked about his influences he says, “I don’t sit and study other movies or go into a movie thinking I want it to be like this or that.  I treat every movie like it is documentary footage coming into me and whatever that footage is I put on it as little restriction of what I can do with it as possible, so that I am totally free once I get that material.”  He thinks that it’s a mistake to begin work on a film with a rigid point of view because you risk missing some of the creative opportunities in the material.  “As an editor I think my talent is in taking that material and communicating the point of view and the weight of the scene in a way that makes it feel like it was on purpose from the beginning.”

Mirrione first discovered editing while taking film classes at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  He loved it immediately, feeling he could do it day and night without growing tired of it.  After college he headed to Los Angeles where he volunteered on student thesis films at the University of Southern California.   It was there he met Doug Liman, who ended up giving him work on his first feature film.  This was a few years before Swingers (1996), the film that pretty much launched the careers of everyone in it.  Looking back Mirrione says, “The same types of themes that were going on in Swingers we were all going through and I think it created an authenticity and honesty that struck a chord.”   Until that point Mirrione was trying to be what he thought an editor should be, not what came to him naturally.  After Swingers he only took movies that he picked, that interested him.  The film helped define who he was going to be as an editor.

After Swingers, Mirrione had many opportunities to work on a variety of films, but he and Liman were both looking for something exciting creatively.  That next project came in the form of Go (1999), a film he is very proud of despite not being a commercial hit. The financial success of the film aside, Mirrione’s work on it attracted the attention of Soderbergh, who brought the editor on board to edit Traffic (2000). Their effort on that film would win them both Oscars® and the two have been collaborating together ever since, having done a total of six films together. When asked what makes for a successful director-editor partnership Mirrione states, “Flexibility, having a similar sensibility and sharing the same taste.” According to Mirrione, their working relationship has really evolved, with him editing in Los Angeles while Soderbergh is out on location in various parts of the world.  The post-production process makes it easy for Mirrione to quickly get the footage, cut the scenes together and send them back to Soderbergh. There is not a lot of communicating back and forth other than the work itself. He muses, “It’s funny, in the same way that the movie reflects this lack of contact and social distancing, I would say our process has developed into some social distancing … but it works.”

Mirrione describes Soderbergh as very low maintenance as far as directors go and very clear about what he wants.   He says, “I am very keyed into the things that he likes or the way he likes to communicate things.  When you are dealing with a master storyteller it’s very easy to look at what he shot and let that guide you into how to do it.” The process by which they got Contagion to its final cut is a great example of what it is like working with Soderbergh, who always lets the process be fluid.  “He is very keyed into all the aspects that can change how the film will subtly be altered from what was initially written in the script and sees it as a chance to keep making the film better,” adds Mirrione.  Soderbergh gives him freedom to try anything he wants, but at the end of the day if it works it is kept and if it doesn’t they keep trying until it does work.

For Contagion, the post-production process was very straightforward.  Soderbergh is known for keeping things on set moving quickly, and using the RED camera allowed for the media to be processed quickly and sent back to Los Angeles to Mirrione. Corey Bayes, the first assistant, travels with Soderbergh and is responsible for getting the footage from the camera, making copies and creating the media.  Back in Los Angeles assistant editors Brian Ufberg and Jade Chatham prepare the media bins and manage the data traveling back and forth between Soderbergh and Mirrione. They used an AJA Ki Pro to record and playback ProRes files, keeping the process in the digital space for all their needs, including all screenings. Mirrione says the whole process of keeping all the work internal complements Soderbergh’s aesthetic and style of working and it saves the production money. Mirrione explains that, “There are a lot of movies that are making the transition to digital and finding that it’s not really less expensive than doing film right now because there are a lot of procedures involved that Steven doesn’t bother with so he is able to streamline and make the process more efficient.”

When asked what it takes to be a successful editor, Mirrione says, “For me, knowing that I wanted to be an editor early on, my attitude was to be as indispensible as possible and make sure that whomever I am working with can’t imagine doing it without me.” This approach has definitely served him well. It would appear that Mirrione has had an ideal career thus far and he has worked with some of the top filmmakers in the world on multiple occasions. He considers himself lucky to work on projects that fascinate him and thinks that he is equal parts fortunate and careful.

And he continues to stay busy. While finishing up work on Contagion, which had run longer than expected due to the reshoots, he began work on The Ides of March, a film he had already committed to for George Clooney. Not long after that film he began work on Gary Ross’s highly anticipated The Hunger Games.  It is no doubt that he will be contributing to the success of many more films in the future. Mirrione reflects, “For me it is about the day-to-day work, the relationships and the collaboration. When you work with people who you are a match with artistically, creatively and philosophically, you want to continue to do that.”


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Filed under Film Editing, Filmmaking, Steven Soderbergh, Uncategorized

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