Editor & Cinematographer: Steve Mirkovich and Allen Daviau (Part 1)

Editors and cinematographers don’t always work well together, but when they do, their collaboration can smooth the production process immeasurably and result in creative benefits for the entire crew. Editor Steve Mirkovich and cinematographer Allen Daviau first met on The Astronaut’s Wife, where they forged a long-standing friendship. Both have become strong believers in the value of their collaboration and were eager to talk together for the CineMontage. Mirkovich’s credits include Con Air, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Broken Arrow and The Ghost and the Darkness. Daviau, a five-time Academy Award nominee, has photographed such films as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Color Purple, Fearless, Bugsy and Defending Your Life. In this conversation, they talk about problems with previews and video dailies, the longevity of 35mm film, changes in editorial styles and more.

Mirkovich: I’ve been lucky enough to work with some very talented directors of photography, and all have their own way of working. I find that it’s really important for me to have a good relationship with the DP going in.

Daviau: That’s critical, because the editor, the cinematographer and the production designer are the three companions who help the director get his or her vision on the screen.

Mirkovich: What I hope for from the DP, generally, is a friendly, cooperative spirit. If we need something, and the camera department can help, then I like to be able to go to the DP and ask. When I was an assistant editor, I got the idea that camera and editing sometimes bumped heads, but when I became an editor, I didn’t find any of that. I think it’s a very natural relationship.

Daviau: Obviously, the camera department is involved with things that are handled through the editorial department. God help me if I order a reprint, and it’s not going to be out until 11 a.m. or something, and you’ve got to get it in for the dailies that day. And down the line, the editor and cinematographer stay in touch through the answer print and all of the subsequent prints. So, I’m talking to the editor from beginning to end. I’d hate to think of a job where we didn’t get along with each other. The director is critical in facilitating this kind of dialog. Sometimes you can draw directors out as you’re doing the movie, particularly if it’s a first-time director.

“It’s always a bit nerve-wracking when you’re looking at something problematic in dailies, and the lights come on and your director or producer says, ‘How fast can you put this together?'” – Steve Mirkovich

Mirkovich: I’ve enjoyed working with first and second-time directors. I’ve generally found more opportunities to discuss coverage with them and the DP — not just the day before, but early enough that we can find opportunities for great movement or great shots. It’s very satisfying to work with people who are receptive to your creative input. You would think, “Isn’t that the way it always is?” but there are reputable and creative directors who really just want a pair of hands in the editing room. I’m not interested in working that way — just because it’s a bigger picture with a bigger budget doesn’t make the experience more satisfying. My idea of the perfect situation would be to alternate between big and small pictures. By the time you finish with a big picture, you sometimes think, “Oh, God, give me something where I’m dealing with smaller egos, smaller budgets, more story.” I don’t want to come off saying that big pictures aren’t worth it, but lately, I’m drawn to films that are either more character-driven or simply just more fun to make because of who is involved. I’ve worked on pictures where I’ve been beaten to death by visual effects. The challenge is fine, but it gets tiresome to me when visual effects drive the movie.

Daviau: One of the things on The Astronaut’s Wife that was really terrific was that you and Rand Ravich [the director] allowed us to see the work-in-progress while we were making the movie. That’s rare. Just about every week, you’d have us sit in and we could see what was going on.

Mirkovich: I did it for a lot of reasons. First, I want to know that I’m on the right track, and to establish a bond with the director. The last thing he or she wants to do is come to the editing room at the end of every shooting day. So you have to build enough trust to say, “I’m going to show you everything I’ve got once a week.” I also want to give the director something to show to the crew, so he can say, “Look at what we’re doing. Look how good it is.” You also show the director things that don’t work. As an editor, you have to be able to stand up quickly and say, “You need to do something else here.” You can’t wait until it’s over.

Daviau: I thought that letting us come in so frequently showed great confidence on your part, and it was great for communication. Certain shots that we would have thought were key weren’t used at all. It added to the energy of the whole production, and I wish more editors would do that.

“Commercials and, especially, music videos have been a big influence. It’s so interesting to see how they have helped loosen up editorial style.” – Allen Daviau

Mirkovich: The director is the one who says, “Come on in and take a look at my film.” But I try to make the director understand he doesn’t need to be afraid of what he’s shot. He doesn’t need to show the studio the film at that point, but it’s nice to share it with the crew.

Daviau: I remember on The Color Purple, Michael Kahn had KEM tables hidden in various buildings on the farm where we were shooting. When we would start to light a set-up, he would grab Steven [Spielberg] and boom, they’d be in some shed, running a sequence. And they’d talk about the changes, and then Steven could run right out the door and be back on the set. We wished Michael would keep him away longer sometimes, but that was very good. It helps when we see the editor on the set, particularly when you tell us, “We really need to get such and such before we leave this area.”

Mirkovich: It’s always a bit nerve-wracking when you’re looking at something problematic in dailies, and the lights come on and your director or producer says, “How fast can you put this together?” As a perfectionist, you want to do everything you can to sell your cut. It’s now almost unacceptable to show anything without sound effects or music. I get very offended when I hear “rough cut.” Or, ‘It’s just an assembly.” What does that mean? You’ve cut the head and tail slates off and put the shots together? I don’t know anybody who just rough-cuts.

Daviau: I remember on The Falcon and the Snowman, I went to London to see the “first assembly,” as it was called, with director John Schlesinger and his editor Richard Marden. It ran three hours and fifteen minutes, and they were supposed to deliver something not over 2:10. It was heartbreaking to see what had to go. When it got down to 2:10, it was still amazingly good. But in your heart, you remember scenes no longer there.

“I always edit for the big screen, even though everything you do ends up on the small screen eventually.” – Steve Mirkovich

Mirkovich: DVD has made it so that you can go back and see some of that material. There’s always the “director’s version” —the way it was going to be.

Daviau: You live with movies for years. Every decade, I do new video transfers on some of these films. We just re-transferred The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun to high-def, because they’re finally coming out on DVD. We used our original transfer as a guide, then made some things gutsier. With both movies, we went back to the original interpositives and did our transfers from them. And there’s so much more information that we didn’t get out the first time, because transfer technology is better now. This is why I always say, start with film. People don’t realize how much information is in a piece of motion picture negative. If you’re recording digital data, you can tweak it, but there’s not that much in there. Do you get calls in terms of re-transfers?

Mirkovich: Not as much as I would like.

Daviau: It’s in our contract in many cases, although I’ve had movies where I couldn’t do the re-transfer because it wasn’t in the contract, and the studio and I weren’t very friendly. But if you’ve made a film that you’re really proud of, you want to make sure it looks its best all the way through into the next generation.

Mirkovich: People watch older films and performance-wise, they still play well — but pacing has changed. They might hold on a car going down the street away from camera for forty seconds. You usually can’t get away with that style today.

Daviau: Commercials and, especially, music videos have been a big influence. It’s so interesting to see how they have helped loosen up editorial style.

“Obviously, cinematographers want to keep film dailies, so that we can really make sure that everything is working. That we know what the tonal range, the dynamic range of the film is.” – Allen Daviau

Mirkovich: Information is presented so quickly — and it’s made audiences a lot smarter. If you get a group of 14-year-olds who are zooming through MTV, then show them a long, dramatic picture, they’re not going to sit through it. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that audiences are smarter and quicker — but not everything should be cut and styled like a music video. I like to watch a movie that doesn’t make its style so apparent. When something is too obvious, when it’s done only for the sake of itself, it’s not valid to me anymore. There is something great about staying on a shot, on people performing.

Daviau: I’m really curious to see how high-definition video will affect television, with the wider screen, the greater detail. I think it’s going to be analogous to when 70mm pictures started playing in the ’50s and ’60s. Suddenly people thought, “Whoa, we can look at this shot a lot longer, because there’s more to look at.” That car, as you say, may be just driving away slowly, but the shot is saying a lot because of the motion and the shimmer of light. And because more will be visible in high-definition, we might want to stay there a few more beats. In cases like that, when you enrich the technology, you enrich the vocabulary of the medium.

Mirkovich: There’s a definite difference between what you can and should do for a big screen vs. a small screen. I always edit for the big screen, even though everything you do ends up on the small screen eventually.

Daviau: We’re going to be shooting features on film for a long time. There are certain things for which I’d use a digital camera right now. But people forget that electronic formats change frequently, and you need to constantly re-transfer. I call it the John F. Kennedy-as-President-of-the-United-States-in-black-and-white-video syndrome. Whenever you see footage of Kennedy, you’re looking through every generation of video recording equipment that has existed since 1963, because the footage has always been dubbed up. The machines that originally recorded it no longer exist. Film — 24-frame-per-second, four-perf film — has been with us a long time. We will use digital formats for image capture in some cases, but it will be a process of evolution rather than revolution. Some people, those who want the big headlines, say it’ll all be digital next year, but it’s not that way. George Lucas’ next Star Wars film will play on digital projectors in every major city in the country, but the majority of people will see it on film. We’ve got a serious transition to make — putting digital projectors in the cinemas.

“When you preview, you have an audience that’s jaded, no matter what city you’re in. If you don’t show them something that looks good, something that sounds good, they’ll know it.” – Steve Mirkovich

Mirkovich: Those projectors do have an amazing image.

Daviau: But right now, they’re very expensive. And it will take a while to develop the means of distribution. I don’t think the studios are going to put movies up on satellites, because they would be asking for piracy. What coming technology do you see affecting you?

Mirkovich: A lot of new systems are coming up, but not all are proven. I still like to cut on the Heavyworks. I’ve cut on the Avid. Both are okay — instant access is instant access. It’s just about who puts out the latest and greatest in terms of picture and sound quality. The optical features are less important to me, because I don’t want optical and titling work to become a bigger part of my day than editing. It really becomes an issue of what one is comfortable using. I think digital technology has made us better filmmakers. There was a more reflective time before, but we’ve learned to build that into what we’re doing now.

Daviau: A cut used to be a serious decision, because you were physically making a splice.

Mirkovich: Now, your mind’s working faster. I find that I’m much more tired at the end of a day of cutting digitally than I was at the end of a day of cutting film. My eyes are wearier. When cutting film, we found more reason to get up and take a walk for a minute. But now, we have to tell ourselves to get up and walk away, or we don’t move. On set, you walk around. You talk to people. By the time you get a shot together, there’s been some time to reflect on what you’re going to do.

Daviau: Do you still have film dailies in most features that you do?

Mirkovich: Most of the time, but I just re-edited a small picture and it was the first time that we did not have film dailies. Had I come in at the beginning, I might have tried to insist on film dailies, and I might have won that battle. But you’ve got a picture with a budget of $6 million or whatever it is, and they just don’t have the money — so they say.

 I thought that letting us come in so frequently [to see the cut] showed great confidence on your part, and it was great for communication. Certain shots that we would have thought were key weren’t used at all. It added to the energy of the whole production, and I wish more editors would do that. – Allen Daviau

Daviau: Obviously, cinematographers want to keep film dailies, so that we can really make sure that everything is working. That we know what the tonal range, the dynamic range of the film is.

Mirkovich: By the time you finish shooting without film dailies, and you finally look at your first answer print — everybody melts. “Ahhhh! Look how great it looks.” But this shouldn’t just be a reward — it should be part of the process.

Daviau: A friend of mine did a picture, and the company insisted on doing video dailies and it drove him crazy. Then at the last minute, they said, “Oh my God, we have to preview it.” And they dashed in and started getting timed dailies of the selected takes, and it just drove him out of his mind, because you don’t control dailies that way. Suddenly it’s a panic thing. I really think everybody needs to say, “Please, folks, this is going to be an essential part of the filmmaking process, just to see what we’re getting, so we can show it as a film on film.”

Mirkovich: When you preview, you have an audience that’s jaded, no matter what city you’re in. If you don’t show them something that looks good, something that sounds good, they’ll know it — and then the studio executives use those reactions as the basis for their judgments about what you should do with the picture from that point on. And there’s always a handful of people in the audience who are critics for some Internet site, so your picture’s going to be reviewed.

Daviau: It’s game, set, match. It’s all over after the preview. Everybody’s been on a movie that got killed in one preview screening. You’ve got enough chances that you have to take — the technology representing the image should not be one of the chances.

Mirkovich: I agree. At the studios, in their eagerness to see something sooner without spending money, they will sometimes say, “Oh, we can look past the lack of polish. We’ve been doing this for a long time.” I find that they often can’t. You’re killing a scene that may be on the fence, if you’re not showing it in its best light. Unfortunately, we are in the caboose of the train, and at the end of a picture, we don’t always have the budget we need to properly crew and finish the project. Editors need to look ahead and deal with potential budgetary problems before they arise.

“When I was an assistant editor, I got the idea that camera and editing sometimes bumped heads, but when I became an editor, I didn’t find any of that. I think it’s a very natural relationship.” – Steve Mirkovich

Daviau: No matter what the budget, schedules can really tighten. And it’s really interesting to see what can cause panics.

Mirkovich: I believe in previews, I really do. Sometimes you’ll learn the most from people’s body language — the way they chuckle that they don’t remember. It’s a mystery that you can sit through a picture, and the lights come on, and you think, “That really played well.” Then the focus group rips it apart, and you think, “Did we just sit through the same movie?” You make changes based on the focus group and the cards, and the movie doesn’t play as well, and you say, “Okay, what went wrong here?” I think it goes back to the process of previewing a movie in the same cities — the same people are going to preview after preview. Everybody has become a critic. I don’t know how you get an honest preview anymore.

Daviau: The year E.T. was released, I was going around the country and in every city, I’d go see the movie. I’d sit in the front row, and I’d turn around and just watch the audience. It was really educational.

In our next issue, Mirkovich and Daviau talk about protecting their crews, the need to avoid being typecast, how they deal with tight schedules, and more.

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