Today, on Art of the Cut, we’re talking about the film, The Banshees of Inisherin, with Oscar-winning film editor, Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, ACE. Mikkel, who is from Denmark, joined us previously on Art of the Cut for the Sound of Metal, which won him the Oscar and a BAFTA, and an ACE Eddie nomination. His other films include Beasts of No Nation, A Royal Affair, and The Outsider.
Oscar winning editor Mikkel Nielsen discusses editing The Banshees of Inisherin
When you got this gig, did you watch or rewatch In Bruges or any of the director's other work?
I didn't, no. I read the script and then went to Ireland for a meeting with Martin. Mostly just to talk about chemistry and personality between the two of us and if this could work out. It had to be a very fast turnaround because Jon Gregory, who was the editor of In Bruges and Three Billboards, died right before they started shooting. He was supposed to do the film, of course. I was brought in because of these sad circumstances. So I read the script, went for a meeting, then we shook hands that this could hopefully work out.
Is there any research at all that you do when you're working with somebody new to see what their style is or anything like that? Or do you figure it's a new project, new circumstances, and the director's previous work doesn't matter?
No, obviously, it matters because they could have a language. But I knew of Martin, I had seen the films, so I knew what kind of films he's doing. But then I read this script and somehow felt it was very different. I haven't seen his plays — I know of him as a playwright — but I've never seen them, given that I'm from Denmark. But I knew of him, and I felt when I read the script it was more hybrid. Somehow it's a hybrid of his earlier stage work and his films. Then given that it was taking place in Ireland, I knew of his backstory that he himself has Irish parents and grew up in England.
I just found the whole thing very intriguing. I was very interested in seeing if I could work with comedy and drama, which I've never really tried. That’s the craftsman talking: just to see, as an editor, what can I learn from this experience besides what I can give to the project. But it's something that I can learn from working with a writer and director like him, especially on finding a balance between light and dark, this comedy and drama. That was super intriguing for me.
Are you more careful with a writer/director, especially somebody like him, deciding you're gonna cut a couple of lines of dialogue?
I would treat this just the same way that I would treat everyone because it's about treating everything with respect. But that said, there's a huge quality to working with people who've also written their own scripts. Because it seems like you can dig a little deeper about understanding the characters and why they do what they do. Also, just plot-wise, if you have an idea, it's easier just to say, "No, you can't do that because of this, this, and this." I think there's a huge quality to that, for sure. I always treat material with the deepest respect, and I always come up with suggestions and options of what is possible and what we can do. But I didn't treat Martin's material completely differently than I treated Darius's material on Sound of Metal, for example. Darius also wrote his own script and directed.
It's more about me sometimes asking a lot of stupid questions and just trying to understand why the characters are actually doing this. But with this script, I found it interesting what a laugh can do in a scene, how it opens you up, and you almost get open to taking other things in. I found it incredibly funny but also very moving. Character-wise, I could see myself a little bit in some of the characters. Then it's about finding that balance and simplicity and making it as simple as possible. The premise is so simple. It's almost like an onion. You put layers on, you add layers all the time. It's all about these characters, and if you believe in them and if you understand them, you almost buy everything.
It's interesting that you say that it's almost easier to ask some of those questions when it's a writer/director because they're so familiar with everything, with the meaning of a line.
Meaning of the line, but also the meaning of why the character does what the character does and understanding the characters. It has to come from somewhere. I'm not asking Martin, for example, "What does it mean?" or "What are the topics?" or "What are you trying to say?" Because I actually do like people who try not to explain their own work. But it's more what I put into the characters, and then sometimes it goes hand-in-hand. On this one, I had a really good relationship in the edit room. It was a very nice edit process.
You were able to work side-by-side?
I did what I normally do to get all the material and did a first assembly. Didn't talk about the script at all. I showed the first assembly. That's where we start working together. I did everything from Copenhagen, then I moved to London, where we sat on day one and showed him everything. The dream is that the person will like at least some of the ideas. It's more about the pace and more about the understanding, the structure, and even the rhythm of things. It's to try and find these things because you know that you're gonna work on character work, you know that you're going to work on structure, on all these things that have to be found together.
I also have to understand what he likes and what he doesn't like. Sometimes I take chances, maybe I don't choose necessarily what I like the best. It's also about trying things with the characters, with the different actors. Just to see what it actually does when you see it with fresh eyes or with someone in the room as well. Especially on this one, it was super interesting 'cause Martin goes through all the dailies, and he writes down line-by-line what he likes from which take, which is a dream scenario. 'Cause of the way I select and the way I structure things, I can easily find all the different lines very fast. I put everything up after each other (in a selects reel, by line), and I can do a very fast first assembly.
We would go through all scenes based on his notes, based on what he wanted to try on the different takes. Then we would see it and work on structure to see if any structure work needs to be done. But I didn't feel that there were a lot of structure changes. Obviously, there's a lot of tightening and maybe things that you don't necessarily need to explain. Often, we do try to hold back on things that — if it's possible — we don't have to explain. I tend to choose that road if it's possible.
We got to a pretty good point on the movie. Then it's about the different characters. 'Cause then, at the first pass, one of the characters would obviously be much stronger than the other one. It's about status in the scenes. For me, it should feel as natural as possible. Where does the eye want to look, and what characters do you want to look at?
It's not showy, but it's bringing you into this world, and you're in it for an hour and 54 minutes. Then you end it without really noticing the techniques or how we're trying to move your eye around.
Actor Brendan Gleeson as Colm Doherty and writer/director Martin McDonagh
I would say that was the case. I take a lot of notes usually when I watch a film. This one, I had none 'cause I just got so engrossed in the film that I forgot that I was supposed to be watching it for work. You accomplished a great thing.
Well, thank you. It's not supposed to be showy. It's all about these characters. It's character, character, character. Martin's script is so rich, and the dialogue is almost like duels in a Western. You would have these two just firing at each other — or all the characters doing that — which I really liked. I enjoyed working on these dialogue scenes. But then we would create these chapters in the film, which would allow you to bring your own stuff in and look at the beauty of the island and the animals on the island with music.
You actually almost don't have any music score in a scene. It often starts at the back end of a dialogue scene and then ends before a new one. It's like small transitions. At a certain point towards the end, we start implementing these things to highlight or darken our main character's way of seeing things. But in the third act, when we start playing with time, it's much more about the voiceover. It's like a montage of time passing. You show something, but maybe you tell something different. You have this piece of music with elements from all the themes building through the whole film and sums up everything in the end. You have a theme of friendship, a theme of the island, and a combination of all these things in the end.
That was one of the things that I noticed: the music was definitely themed. You knew when you heard a given piece of music who it belonged to and what the purpose was. Was that hard to temp with because you didn't have those themes?
We temped a lot with classical music. Then when things go wrong, Martin had this amazing Indonesian music called Gamelan. We use that for the montages of time passing where he's not supposed to talk to him, and they pass each other. But then Carter came up with the elements from what we had, but in his own complete world, and it works really, really well. But it has that strange feeling of the awkwardness of time. Martin brought in all these tracks, like in the opening, a Bulgarian choir. He just knew that had to be the start. But it also has that quality of a fairytale that brought this idea of, "What happens if we enter the world to this island through the clouds, we find this person, we walk with him, and it ends?" That's where you start the most simple premise. “What's wrong? What's going on?”
It is the craziest simple movie that I have ever seen in that question, "What's the premise?" Well, it's not even that they have a fight. It's one guy who stops liking another guy. That is literally the premise of the movie, and it is so riveting.
But what's really interesting about perspective is that we experience it with him. We question everything the exact same way as Pádraic does. Then you start questioning, “Okay, what about this guy?” I found that it's a brilliant hook 'cause it's so simple. But you engage me as an audience like crazy 'cause I get interested in the backstory. What kind of relationship was it? What happened between the two of them? Why is he not talking to him? Then when he starts explaining, I think that sounds reasonable enough. The other one asks, "What are you talking about?" It's just good, normal chatting. Then you start adding the plots and elements and more characters into it and ask different questions. So you engage everyone. Martin engaged everyone with the script. But the balance of all the characters works really, really well. The sister, Siobhán — almost like the heart of things — says a lot of the things that we're thinking too.
You mentioned that Martin watches the dailies, so you are getting not just script notes from the script supervisor of what he thinks is the best, you're getting a note based on Martin rewatching outside of production?
I'm just interested in when he watches dailies as a director who's got to shepherd a production all day long.
But the production is just us in the edit, right? 'Cause they're done shooting when I show the first assembly. Then let's say that I showed it two weeks after they finished shooting. Then little by little, we can start with these scenes. He gives me notes or what takes to try. But also, what I really liked about the whole process was that we were very focused. It was very pleasant but very focused.
Actors Brendan Gleeson as Colm Dohertyand Colin Farrell as Pádraic Súilleabháin
I thought that you were saying that he watched the dailies and gave you all those line-by-line notes before you started editing, before the editor’s cut.
No, no, no. He saw the whole thing, I even added temp music from other things just to see and just to try. Then we take it from there. We start over again. But it's more to see the whole and say, "Hmm. It's definitely a movie. Let's find it. Let's start digging in, right?” Very fast, you can say, "Well, that's not right. These things. Let's take this scene out. Let's move this around. Just find the structure extremely fast. Okay, this completely works. Now let's start with the right take, so we can see what it actually does with the characters and where they are.” Then you find out that maybe it's a little too much. You start playing around with it. It gives me an understanding of what he likes and what he's going for in the scenes with the characters. To be honest, I try to be as open for as long as possible. If I can at least point out, "This is what I like. This is what I don't." It's playful because then we are open to the whole process.
A very astute observation. How long do you take before you even try to inject your opinions into the process because of what that would do?
To not have an opinion as long as possible, there's a benefit in the end.
Not that you don't have an opinion, but you're just not voicing it to him.
No, and I'm not even sure that it's something that is necessary or that he wants because maybe he questions it himself. Maybe he's also trying, and me just saying, "That's good, that's bad," isn’t very useful commentary.
Did you show him any cuts of scenes before you showed him the entire movie all at once? Were you sending him anything through Pix?
Not at all. My assistant, Nicola, used to be Jon Gregory's assistant. So the whole team really invited me in. She would do assemblies for the shoot as well. But I never really looked at these things. I was just taking my time on my own just to organize things the way I like. Which I take a lot of time on. I look at footage, organize it, and put it in the right order the way I like it to be structured. But it also gives me an idea — or at least for the first assembly — the rhythm of the film.
So maybe I look at dailies or material for the first three weeks. Then I start editing a lot of the things.
Are you organizing in a bin? Or are you organizing in sequences like selects reels? Or both?
I'm selecting in sequences. The way they shot this, you have a master, and you have a close-up. So I would organize it by sections. I would take all the takes, marking what I like when I watch it. But I'm not saying that "This is the best" or "This is the one." I put everything in that sequence, including the things that don't work. Because sometimes there's just a small thing from a look or something that's valuable.
Then obviously, I have the script notes, which is helpful in that process. But given that Martin would bring this up afterward. He told me that was how he liked to work. So I would say, well then, it for sure makes sense that I would put everything up against each other. Because then you can easily see the different takes up against each other. I would probably do that for the whole film.
I think it's very valuable, especially when you're working with a director later. To be able to say, “Here's the thing, here's the setup, here are the takes.”
But it's also just the feeling of you knowing what was shot and the material. You have laid it out. You can see it, we have this much. We have wides of this, the opening, the closeups, and the tight ones It's very visual.
The film does start out as a comedy, and it goes on as a comedy for a while. Then there's a big tonal shift when the film turns a little darker. Was it a big question of how long you go before the tonal shift? Were you really trying to figure out, "We need to move this closer," or "We need to push it back, so people have more ‘fun time?’"
** SPOILER ALERT **
Well, how long can you walk back and forth before you actually have the two of them have their first conversation? Why does this man not want to talk? Then the introduction of all the characters. But the darker thing is when he starts saying, "I'm gonna cut off one of my fingers." It takes a turn, which you don't really guess, which is what I really liked. Reading the script, it's very unpredictable. But given that you might have seen other works of Martin, a character who talks about cutting off his fingers might actually do it.
So the time from him saying it, to the time when you start seeing something with it, that was a section that we really worked a lot on. 'Cause somehow you can't have too much time passing, 'cause then you disengage your audience. But it's more about, “Let's try and be as simple as possible and tell this natural story and always go with our main character.” Except when you bring in the other one. Then you can bring in Colm's character, and see him sit alone.
The space between claiming he's gonna do something — and whether he does it or not — that's really the critical thing more than just getting to that point from the beginning of the movie.
The thing is, how many repetitions can you have of such a thing? From that point to cutting off his finger almost takes 20 minutes.
** END SPOILER ALERT **
Actor Colin Farrell as Pádraic Súilleabháin
I love the little short montages you were talking about that were like chapter breaks. Did you try to theme those? I noticed birds. There's a lot of religious iconographies, landscapes, that kind of thing.
We wanted the island and nature to be characters in this whole thing. There's loneliness, the sadness of these things. But then all the animals are looking at you. You almost have an arc that the animals are the only characters alive on this island. Because they're just so trustworthy and nice, and they're just looking at you, the goats, the birds. But also use them, not as metaphors, but as warnings of what's gonna happen. Like the two birds, the one bird jumping, the goats looking at you. It just opens up some awkwardness. You get intimidated sometimes by these things, which is very interesting, especially if you are in a cinema with a full audience. Because someone would laugh at this, then it opens up, and then suddenly you start laughing about the things that you don't necessarily find funny, and suddenly you choke yourself, can I really laugh? We had screenings for friends of Martin. Watching it with an audience, you learn little by little how long can you engage people. How long can that pause be? Is this the right way to enter the scene? Or is this the right way to go out of the scene? It had to feel very fresh. Even though some sections are very slow, it shouldn't feel slow at all. Martin wanted to create this beautiful, sad film.
When did he tell you that?
The first meeting.
Did that drive anything when you were looking at dailies? When you were looking at rushes? Did that thought, "I wanna make a beautiful, sad film," drive any of your decisions?
No, because it's also about "what is sadness?" and "what is beauty?" He also said, "I don't want it to be Irish in the show, music-wise. It shouldn't be traditional Irish music. We can go to different places with the music."
Like Indonesian and Bulgarian music.
He would send them while I was editing. He would give it as suggestions for me. He wanted to try it when he got into the edit, but I think he wanted to say, "This is what I thought for the opening," or "This is what it could be for this and this and this." Then little by little, you try finding these things. Then should it be much darker? Should there be score in the scenes?
As we talked a little earlier on, it's basically just about exploring and trying different things, right? Then there's no right or wrong. To be honest, the most nerve-racking thing for me was to show Martin the first assembly. I knew he had a really, really good relationship with Jon Gregory, who was an absolutely amazing editor, especially with character work. Suddenly I found myself sucked in and just really enjoying the whole process. But then, a week before I had to show the full assembly, I said, "Hey, wait a second. I didn't even think of the consequences. What if he doesn't like what I'm doing? What if I didn't put anything in the right way?" So I texted him and said, "I don't know how you normally work, but I hope that you know that the first assembly doesn't have the character. These are things that we have to find. It's more like an idea of the whole thing.”
You're saying, "We're gonna get there even if the first assembly isn't correct." Which it never is, right? Most directors say the first assembly is the worst thing they've ever seen, which is hard to hear as an editor.
Martin was very honest. He said that's how he normally feels as well. But I had a sense that he liked it. I don't know if he was surprised by anything, but he said, "This is a good starting point."
How long did you have — after you showed him the film — before you locked?
Maybe November last year (2021), and then we worked until we started having previews in February or March, and we locked by April or May (2022).
What changed? What did you learn from those previews?
It was mostly trying things with the characters. Also, the pace, the feeling, the emotion, music-wise. Should this be heavy? But that's the beauty of what we do. It's everything, little by little. You learn so much just from one round. The fact that you sit in a room with friends — or it can be just an audience — and you sense, "Is it lacking? Is it slow? Is it fun?" I was very surprised at how long a laugh can be, for example. 'Cause I've never really tried it (editing comedy) that much before. So I needed to feel, "We're giving too much information right after the laugh. We need just a little moment of a horse or these things."
Then it's about simplicity, really. To ask, "Do we really need to tell this?" It's all what's in between the edits, right? Why do I need to edit? There has to be a reason for it with the characters and to try and find little by little about other characters. Then can we strengthen the character? Is Siobhan too strong in the scene compared to how Pádraic is in the scene? Or what if we did this and this? How much do we tell about Dominic's character? It's about trying to find that balance.
Actors Colin Farrell as Pádraic Súilleabháin and Kerry Condon as Siobhan Súilleabháin
Did you have different temperatures for some of the performances where you could say, "I want Siobhan to be angrier, I want her to be sweeter?"
Yes, we did, with all the characters, especially the places where it's not necessarily known where they should be. Should it be higher, or should it be lower? It was all there. You could really play with these things. Especially with Colin's character, Pádraic. 'Cause it's a very fine line from being a dull, dim person and then just not trusting him. It's also that they're trusting him as a director with giving all these different nuances. Martin is really good at knowing the temperature of where he wants things to be. I really trusted him on that, 'cause I know that he's really good with the funnier parts.
But also on the Irish because I'm not at all Irish. So just to understand the differences and the nuances of the language as well. That was really nice because I could lean back, look at other things, and then trust him. 'Cause, he obviously knows what he wants. Then I could come up with suggestions. He was extremely open to any suggestions but also very convinced if something has to be exactly right. I would ask, "Are you really sure?" "I'm very positive. It has to be like this." Then we try it, you see it, and it works.
You mentioned that when he watches dailies early on, he has specific line readings that he likes, but I'm sure those things changed as you saw them in context, and you chose those tonal performances.
Absolutely. Sometimes you would go with less comedy, and it's more serious. Especially with Colin's character. He would do it more naturally or more neutral.
With the screenings, did your chapter breaks expand when you saw how much the audience needed to think, or they were getting bored? 'Cause those chapter breaks are short. For those who haven't seen the film, some of the little montage breaks are only maybe three shots.
If the movie changes, they have to change as well. Everything has to have a certain pace. If you certainly shorten one section, the next section has to follow up. But we would give those sections in the temp score a theme. Pádraic questioning, "Why does he not want to be friends with me anymore?" We would have a small piece of piano from the American composer Amy Beach. But you start thinking, it's repetition. So you say, "Okay, now it happened. Then, oh, now it's happening again. Why doesn't he wanna be friends? Was he smoking? Of course, you can't smoke when you're asleep."
It's repetitions, repetitions, repetitions — just like the language. The Irish language — the whole idea of them repeating a lot of the lines — which almost makes you take things in a second time. Just understanding a little bit, which is interesting, and we played with that. Just some of the things I felt in the script when I read it — and I might be completely wrong — but I felt it has these universal questions and these universal things.
** SPOILER ALERT **
For example, the music when Pádraic loses his pet. It's very sad, but it also becomes a very universal feeling. You see the sky, and you see the landscape, and it becomes very moving. Using that same piece in the end when he starts burning the whole house. So that's where you start bringing the emotions from the earlier scenes to the other one when he's burning down his house.
** END SPOILER ALERT **
Somehow you just have a little bit of time to contemplate what actually just happened. But maybe you also bring in your own stuff. Sometimes you engage people, and sometimes, you don't. It also depends on the mood. But there was something about this story for me that felt very emotional. How this small, simple thing can create this much drama. It's so simple. It becomes about everything around it and less about the thing itself.
You mentioned a couple times that you were using those little chapter breaks as a place for someone to put themselves into the story. It gives you the time to think about how you feel. Or even outside of the story, I found myself thinking, “This has happened to me. I had a friend. He stopped being my friend, but how did that happen?” You start injecting yourself in those chapter breaks, giving you a chance to do that. 'Cause otherwise, you're watching the film, and you're engaged in that story.
Had Martin seen Sound of Metal?
I don't know. We didn't really talk about it in that sense, no.
No, I never asked why he brought me in. Why me? There are a hundred other people.
Actors Brendan Gleeson as Colm Dohertyand Colin Farrell as Pádraic Súilleabháin
The tone of the performances is big for me. The fact that maybe his favorite take of a performance wouldn't be the right tone, and the tone is more important than the specific performance if it’s taken in the wrong direction.
But that's little by little, right? Because you try and take what you really like, and then you find out that cheese on cheese is not better on the bread. But it's also about status in the scene and about the characters in the scene. It becomes almost like a battle. Sometimes you have an actor who's just killing it, and then the other one's down here. Then what do you do? Do you go with that, or do you try to tone that down so everyone becomes equal? Suddenly everyone is good. Then you find that small look and that completely changes everything in the scene. Or who actually has the last word in the scene? We definitely played a lot around with that. Martin knows exactly what he likes, but he's also very open if you have a suggestion of something different, and he senses it. He's very open to saying, "That's better. That's interesting. Let's go with that for sure."
You were deciding who to end the scene on. Did you find that even with someone who had written the script, you were getting in and out of scenes differently than the script? Shortening things, coming in later, leaving earlier?
Of course. It's also about rhythm. If there's a scene that you take out and there's a natural way to that scene, you have to find a solution. Let me give you an example. Normally we wouldn't talk so much about it, 'cause it's giving a little bit away. But anyhow, who's listening to this if they haven't seen the film?
** SPOILER ALERT **
The moment where Colm throws all his fingers at the door, and you have this wide drone shot of him walking away from the house. It almost becomes like a slow motion sequence of him where you go down and you see his bloody hand, and it becomes like, "Holy shit." They see it and they're walking towards it. So you sense that they are definitely gonna meet now. What the fuck just happened? Then Siobhan is saying, "Pádraic come," and she wants to leave immediately.
It's such a strong feeling of this interaction between Colm, Pádraic, and Siobhan, 'cause she's really engaged in these scenes. It's, "What the fuck did you say to him?" She's packing and she's leaving and it becomes extremely sad. Then suddenly, you have to go back and you say, "Ah, now he's walking. Oh, wait a second, what's that? What's the blood over there?" Often these things can be very difficult. We want you to think immediately about walking towards the trace and feeling, "Oh my God, no. That's not what they're gonna do." How do we do that? How do we bring your memory to Jenny because he just waved at his sister? It was solved by a very simple way that after Colm leaves them in front of the house, and she's saying, "Pádraic come on." You start the scene on Jenny just standing in the doorway because we had put her in multiple places and she's just looking at them, then she's leaving the house. So you bring him as a natural story. Obviously they come back, she's there. What's going on? She's a curious creature, this miniature donkey. But the next time when he's coming back, you've already noticed that of course she's interested in these things. She's also present because she hasn't been there for a long time.
That would be the key to understanding how emotional it becomes when he's walking around and watching the death of Jenny.
How do you reveal Siobhan leaving? What happens after Siobhan leaves? Talk to me about trying to figure out how to end the movie.
What's great about Martin's script is that it gives you the options to try different things. Sometimes you need to go on a high note or low note, right? But you need to find the simplicity. It's also about where you end up with the two characters standing on the beach. Where are they? How much do you believe Pádraic natural travel towards that? There's no way out now, right? He lost everything. There's no way he's gonna come back and have a two o'clock beer with this guy. Maybe, or maybe not. That's what raises the question. Then the circle was to find that you dig into the island and you also go into something where you find a guy walking towards us. Then you have this same guy walking away and you leave the island the same way.
** END SPOILER ALERT **
That's almost like a circle again. We actually discussed it the last time we talked on Sound of Metal. You have the similar shot of the same character, but in two completely different ways, and it's a little bit the same. It bookends, it's a little bit the same approach that we were trying to find in this. You enter something and then you go out. Almost like it's a slice of time that you dig into how many days or weeks you are there. Almost like a fable, you go into this and then the story ended on the narrator. That was the idea, but just with music. It's more about trying to find the simplicity in the scenes and just go with the story all the time. Go with the character, move with him. How little do we need to know about all the different things? The natural story basically. Hopefully we succeeded on a lot of these things. Then also it should feel like the more animals coming into the film, which is like a whole check itself, how do you work with animals? Because it's beautiful, but it's also just so sad when he's lying there on his own, longing for his sister.
How little can you tell to get the story and to get the emotion? That's a great description of an editor right there.
Mikkel, thank you so much for all your time. It's a beautiful, beautiful film. I just loved it. Thanks for your work on it.