Neighborhood Watch: Postproduction on Dark Satire 'Suburbicon'

'Suburbicon' combines an unproduced Coen Brothers screenplay with the story of an African-American couple moving to Levittown, Pa., in the summer of 1957.
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George Clooney's latest film, Suburbicon, combines an unproduced Coen Brothers screenplay with the story of an African-American couple moving to Levittown, Pa., in the summer of 1957.

Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov (The Monuments Men; The Ides of March; Good Night, and Good Luck) were writing a script based on the events that took place in the idyllic planned community outside of Philadelphia when William and Daisy Myers moved in, setting off months of violent protests. In fact, a documentary film was produced about the historical events in Levittown (Crisis in Levittown), and shots from that documentary were used in Suburbicon.

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Leith Burke as Mr. Myers in Suburbicon, from Paramount Pictures and Black Bear Pictures

Around this time, Clooney recalled a screenplay Joel and Ethan Coen had sent him, called Suburbicon, a comedy/thriller about hapless characters making really bad decisions. Clooney picked up the screenplay when the Coens decided not to produce the film themselves. He and Heslov rewrote it as taking place during the week that the Myers moved in and combined it with the Levittown story strand.

The rewritten script interweaves the tale of the black family with that of their next-door neighbors, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his wife Margaret (Julianne Moore), who respond to a deadly home break-in with acts of blackmail, revenge and betrayal.

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Matt Damon as Gardner and Noah Jupe as Nicky

Calibrating the Tone
The overall tone of the film was adjusted during production and editing in relation to actual events occurring in the country at the time. I spoke with the film's editor, Stephen Mirrione (The Revenant, Birdman or [The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance], The Monuments Men) about this process.

Mirrione explains, "The movie is presented as 'over the top' to exaggerate events as satire. In feeling that out, George started to tone down the silliness based on surrounding events. We were shooting during the U.S. election last year, so the mood on the set changed. The real world was more over-the-top than imagined, so the film's tone didn't feel quite right. George started gravitating towards a more realistic style, and we locked into that tone by the time the film moved into post."

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Julianne Moore as Margaret and Oscar Isaac as Bud Cooper

Production took place on the Warner Bros. lot in September 2016, with Mirrione and first assistant editor Patrick Smith editing in parallel with the production. Mirrione says, "I was cutting during the production period. George would come in on Saturdays to work with me and 'recalibrate' the cut. Naturally, some scenes were lost in this process. They were funny scenes but just didn't fit the direction any longer.

"In January we moved to England for the rest of the post. Amal [Clooney, George's wife] was pregnant at the time, so George and Amal wanted to be close to her family near London. We had done post there before and had a good relationship with vendors for sound post," Mirrione continues. "The final sound mix was in the April/May time frame. We had an editing room set up close to George outside of London, but also others in Twickenham and at Pinewood Studios. This way I could move around to work with George on the cut wherever he needed to be."

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Karimah Westbrook as Mrs. Myers

Traveling Light
Mirrione is used to working with a light footprint, so the need for mobility was no burden. He explains, "I'm accustomed to being very mobile. All the media was in the Avid DNxHD 36 format on mobile drives. We had an Avid ISIS shared storage system in Twickenham, which was the hub for all of the media. Patrick would make sure all the drives were updated during production so I was able to work completely with standalone drives. The Avid is a bit faster that way, although there's a slight tradeoff waiting for updated bins to be sent. I was using a 'trash can' [2013] Apple Mac Pro plus AJA hardware, but I also used a laptop—mainly for reference—when we were in L.A. during the final steps of the process."

The intercontinental workflow extended to color correction. According to Mirrione, "Stefan Sonnenfeld (@stefansonnenfeld) was our digital intermediate colorist and [Deluxe's] Company 3 stored a backup of all the original media. Through an arrangement with Deluxe, he was able to stream material to England for review, as well as from England to L.A. to show the DP [Robert Elswit]."

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Music was critical to Suburbicon, and the job of scoring fell to Alexandre Desplat (The Secret Life of Pets, Florence Foster Jenkins, The Danish Girl). Mirrione explains the scoring process: "As we built the temp score in the edit, it was very important to understand the tone and suspense of the film. George wanted a classic 1950s-style score. We tapped some Elmer Bernstein, Grifters, The Good Son and other music for our initial style and direction. Peter Clarke was brought on as music editor to help round out the emotional beats. Once we finished the cut, Alexandre and George worked together to create a beautiful score. I love watching the scenes with that score because his music makes the editing seem much more exciting and elegant."

Suiting the Edit Tool to Your Needs
Stephen Mirrione typically uses Avid Media Composer to cut his films and Suburbicon is no exception. Unlike many film editors who rely on Avid-specific features, like ScriptSync, Mirrione takes a more straightforward approach. He says, "We were using Media Composer 8. The way George shoots, there's not a lot of improv or tons of takes. I prefer to rely on PDFs of the script notes and placing descriptions into the bins. The infrastructure required for ScriptSync, like extra assistants, is not something I need. My usual method of organization is a bin for each day of dailies, organized in shooting order. If the director remembers something, it's easy to find in a day bin. During the edit, I alternate my bin setups between the script view and the frame view."

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Oscar Isaac as Bud Cooper

With a number of noted editors experimenting with other software, I wondered whether Mirrione has been tempted. He responds, "I view my approach as system-agnostic and have cut on Lightworks and the old Laser Pacific unit, among others. I don't want to be dependent on one piece of software to define how I do my craft. But I keep coming back to Avid. For me, it's the trim mode. It takes me back to the way I cut film. I looked at [Blackmagic DaVinci] Resolve, because it would be great to skip the round-trip between applications. I had tested it but felt it would be too steep a learning curve, and that would have impacted George's experience as the director."

In wrapping our conversation, Mirrione concluded with this takeaway from his Suburbicon experience: "In our first preview screening, it was inspiring to see how seriously the audience took the film and the attachment they had to the characters. The audiences were surprised at how biting and relevant it is to today. The theme of the film is really talking about what can happen when people don't speak out against racism and bullying. I'm so proud and lucky to have had the opportunity to work with someone like George, who wants to do something meaningful."

Suburbicon, distributed by Paramount, opened in U.S. theaters on Oct. 27.



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