For film editor Kristi Shimek, assembling a movie is a bit like working with a giant puzzle: you have to place all of the pieces perfectly. Each shot needs to help achieve the goal of the story, all of the sequences must flow seamlessly, and no detail can afford to be overlooked.
The seasoned editor has worked on numerous TV shows and movies over the years, including Zooey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Falling for Christmas, Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin, and Guardians of Time. Most recently, she dipped her toes into the murder mystery genre as the main editor on Lionsgate’s new film Invitation to a Murder.
Described as an “homage to Agatha Christie,” Invitation to a Murder is set in 1934 and stars Mischa Barton (The O.C.) as Miranda Green, who “finds herself caught up in a real-life whodunit” when she’s invited to stay at a billionaire’s mansion with five strangers who seemingly have nothing in common. But when one of the guests turns up murdered, Miranda must put her amateur detective skills to the test before anyone else winds up becoming a victim. In addition to Barton, the film stars Chris Browning, Bianca A. Santos, Giles Matthey, Grace Lynn Kung, Seamus Denver, Amy Sloan, and Alex Hyde-White. Gérard Miller conceived the original story idea and Brian O’Donnell crafted the screenplay. Stephen Shimek (Guardians of Time), directed the movie.
To commemorate the film’s release, The Nerds of Color chatted with Kristi Shimek about her role as editor. Below, she dives into her careful placement of clues, the unique challenges of working in this genre, and what she believes is the key to a successful murder mystery film.
Warning: The following interview contains spoilers!!!
THE NERDS OF COLOR: So first, if you could just tell me a little bit about your job as an editor and what role you play in the project?
SHIMEK: As an editor, I get all of the footage that comes in as they’re shooting during production. I cut off the pieces together within the scenes, as well as in the entirety of the movie. So that includes restructuring and actually putting the scene together, because everything is shot out of order.
You’ve been an editor on projects across so many different genres. What are some of the unique challenges of working on a mystery specifically?
One of the things that’s so interesting with the murder mystery [genre] is that it’s all about the information that is divulged and how much to divulge. And so that was something we really focused on [with] this movie — that information, how it’s given, [and] how the audience receives it.
Once we got our first cut [of the movie], we watched the whole thing and kind of talked about, ‘What could we lose? What is giving us too much [information] too early?’ We would [also] preview it for people, which was always helpful in a case like this where you want the audience to be able to understand everything, but also receive that information at the right time so that there’s the mystery element. So we’d remove information, we’d show [the movie], we’d get notes and feedback, and then we’d go back and try new things.
The feedback portion of this movie was very helpful for us, because there were specific shots that I would be like, ‘No, we can take it out.’ And then we’d show it in a preview, and [the audience] would be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t really understand this one clue.’
Can you tell me a little bit about how you used reaction shots to convey clues without giving away too much or too little?
Reaction shots are one of the things that I love to use in an edit. I feel like it’s a part of my inherent style. In murder mysteries, it’s totally essential to the story, because we need to know what all of the characters are thinking and feeling about what’s going on, and also whether they trust the person that’s giving the information [and] whether they trust the information they’re receiving.
There’s so many aspects of a scene that really revolve around the reaction shots. And I think in this movie, it was especially important, because we would have these long scenes with monologues where information was being given. But what was really important was the characters themselves and the emotional reaction they were having to those moments.
Since this was an ensemble cast with a lot of characters to keep track of, how did you ensure that viewers got enough time to see each character’s reaction and weren’t confused?
That really is one of the most delicate processes of a movie like this, because with eight to nine characters on screen at a time, it’s really easy to lose a character… You find that as you’re cutting it, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh! I haven’t seen that person in a while.’ Or you watch the whole scene and then they pop in at the end, and you’re like, ‘I forgot they were in the scene.’
I always started with a baseline cut: this is the information we need, [and] this is the person who’s saying it. I would start there, and then I would start to build in those reactions from all the characters. I tried to kind of build it in layers. I was always checking in with each character [and asking], ‘What are they experiencing in this moment?,’ and then [I would] use the most effective reaction.
It was interesting [in] that way, because this was such a large cast. We have the full ensemble in a lot of scenes, not just a few. So it was essential to balance out who we were seeing, when, and how frequently.
Were there any scenes that were especially challenging to balance?
Yeah, I would say [there were] two scenes [that] were pretty challenging. They were both ensemble scenes. One was when [the characters] first meet downstairs and they’re playing two truths and a lie. That scene is how we meet everyone in their more raw stage — they’re being a little more truthful, they’re divulging a little more information about themselves, and they’re being a little bit more true to who they are. And so that was an interesting thing, because all nine characters [are there], and then there’s also stuff that’s happening during the scenes that’s supposed to be shocking. That was one [scene] where I definitely started with that baseline of, ‘Okay, who’s talking on screen?’ And then we built in the reactions, the inserts, the pace.
[The other scene] was after the crime, the initial murder, occurs. Not only are the characters now being more aggressive, but we have to definitely hit on what everybody thinks about what has just happened. There’s a couple of characters who speak very little, but have very important impactful moments happening on the side… We really had to be able to focus on every character as the insinuation starts flying that one of them is the murderer. You have to be able to see how each person is reacting to that.
The tone of the movie bounces around a bit — some parts are a little funny, others are obviously grim. Was that also a challenge to balance?
We wanted to make sure that we were never in the deep dark and the seriousness for too long while still having it be a very traditional murder mystery. I feel like the slight levity and the way we shot it kind of modernized it a little bit. A lot of the really classic murder mysteries were very serious throughout … a more modern take on the murder mystery delves into the characters more and has a little bit of that levity. You get to know [the characters] a little bit more. It’s a little more intimate. That’s something that we talked about early on. We definitely wanted to balance that out in the movie.
What was it like editing all of the characters’ reactions to that big twist at the end?
That was interesting. First of all, [Donald’s] monologue was so long. It’s actually significantly shorter than [the version] originally shot, like, by minutes. We found that it was so much information that we were actually losing the audience. And so we had to really [scale] back what he was actually saying in the big reveal and how he was revealing information.
Miranda in that scene… she’s almost the secondary explanation, like, she kind of clarifies when Donald is saying something. We wanted to make sure all of that — the actual what happened and why — was extremely clear.
We had to make sure that the reactions [to the big reveal] were very true to the characters and that we [saw] everyone, because it’s such a huge reveal for them personally as characters and for their arcs. We ended up trimming out a ton of excess information to solidify what was actually being said and revealed, and then we built upon the character arcs from there.
Are there any Easter eggs or little details viewers might miss the first time around?
Well, one fun little Easter egg was that one of the clocks is set to 6:31, and that is [the title of] a short that me and my husband, Steve, shot years and years ago. He is the director on this film, and we’ve been working together for years. I’m trying to think… Alex Hyde-White, who plays Sean, was the hand double in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for Sean Connery.
One thing that is interesting about the film is, it’s revealed in the final scene that they have been doing video surveillance. And at first when we first got the script, we were like, ‘It’s a little early for that to be involved.’ But then we started looking into it, and it did actually exist in 1934. So that was so interesting. Obviously, it was in a slightly different form — like, they would have huge cables that were running for miles to get to a small video surveillance hub. But the idea that that still existed as early as 1934 was really fascinating to us.
In your opinion, what is the key to a good mystery?
I think the key to a good mystery is actually in how and when information is divulged, because it really is the main aspect of keeping the edge of the thriller going. It’s such a delicate balance on a movie like this to be like, ‘We’ve given you enough to keep you interested, but there’s still so much more to be revealed as the movie continues.’ The fine balance on how information is revealed is really the key to a successful murder mystery.
Invitation to a Murder is now available to stream on Digital and On Demand.