The Banshees Of Inisherin Editor On Piecing Together Martin McDonagh's Tragic Comedy [Exclusive Interview]

Martin McDonagh's "The Banshees of Inisherin" is another battle of words from the storyteller, and editor Mikkel E. G. Nielsen pieced it all together. Nielsen, who previously worked on "The Sound of Metal," edited the film with elegance; it's an intricate story, but the audience never overtly feels the hand of the filmmakers. 

The editor earned an Academy Award nomination for his work on "The Banshees of Inisherin." The film was a new experience for him: he had never edited such an extreme yet delicate balance of comedy and drama, and a Martin McDonagh film is basically a crash-course in that regard. Recently, Nielsen told us about his collaboration with the filmmaker and editing some of the finest performances of the year. 

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'It's finding complexity within simplicity'

Martin is so well-known for his dialogue. In the editing room, how do you want to preserve how it flows on the page, but also maybe deviate from what's on the page?

That's true. I read his script as a piece of music that has so much rhythm. Bringing it into the Irish language, it is such a beautiful way to play with the words and also the repetition of the things. It was very interesting in the sense that I have never tried it before. I've never tried to work with a film where you have to balance comedy and drama in that sense and then turn it into something else like a tragedy.

Little by little, you find that balance. It's the tone and the pace and how much a pause actually means to that thing. Then taking out one word maybe and how much it all shifts and staying on a look. Also, seeing it with an audience and how much, if it's information given, how much pause do you need before you actually give some information? That was a learning experience for me.

For the scene at the beach in the end, how crucial were those pauses?

First of all, it's all about character, and you have to build your character so you believe in them. To be honest, in the end scene, almost everything has been said. You need that silence with the two of them. You also know that you have somehow changed the balance of the two characters, whereas Pádraic has been that open person trying to solve the things and now it's almost the opposite. For example, who gives the first word? That's almost a duel of two people standing looking at each other. Who says the first word? Who breaks the silence? And then what is actually being said?

Were there times where you thought, "Well, would this reaction shot make you feel more empathy for this guy?" Was it always questioning whose perspective matters the most during this conflict?

Absolutely. All the time. It really is. It's about earning the moments for the characters. It's about trying to find simplicity, because by being as simple as possible, you can open up for a much more interesting world. It's finding complexity within simplicity.

There are certain ways to color everything, and you have a color palette where you can always dial things up and down. With this film, you find the island and you leave the island. In a way, that's where it tells you the pace and how this story wants to be. Then you also meet your main character with a huge smile and even a rainbow in the background. It's the first impression you get of this person. I bet that you actually might even like him very much because of these things. You also invest a little bit of yourself with him. 

You're going with him and then you experience everything with him and you question the same questions as he questions. You are like, "Why is the guy not answering the door?" And little by little, you hear a sister and a friend and the man asking a question, "Have you been having an argument?" Therefore you start putting your own images into the relationship between these two characters because you've never seen the backstory. You don't know what is going on.

'Little by little, you open up him as a character'

When we see Colin Farrell and Brennan Gleason's characters alone, did they both require different paces?

It's a huge difference between the two of them, and also how they play their characters. I think with Pádraic, it's much more about trying to find those small moments of being honest and true. Whereas Colm, if someone puts a little more mystery on the surface, you see him. We're not too close with him until we are very close with him, until he helps Pádraic by putting him on the wagon. Little by little, you open him up as a character. Maybe you even see a little bit of yourself in both characters, hopefully.

We try to work with the performances as real characters and treat them as real characters. At least I do. I try to see Siobhán and have as much love for her as a character, so I really want her to succeed. The same with Pádraic — he's such a lovely guy, right? He's such a caring person for the animals, the way he treats Jenny, the way he treats his sister, the way he treats Dominic, all of them. But he's been forced into finding this dark space, somehow, out of sadness. So that's where you find these characters in the material and you try and find that balance of, how much do we need to stay with Colm and play his fiddle, or how much do we need to stay with Pádraic?

We need, from my perspective at least, to have some idea that I have a main character. A person I meet first and I go with and he has that journey, that would be my main character. You could also see Colm as an equal, in that sense, but we spend so much time also in Pádraic's world with Jenny and Siobhán. You try to find that balance all the time with your characters and then peel back and hold back.

You said you try to treat the characters as real people, but what about the performances? How did they inspire you and certain choices you made?

Absolutely. Again, that's little by little. You find these things because they're so generous and they feel so secure working with a director like Martin. From my table, it feels like, as actors, they're open to giving you something, which is sometimes not necessarily what they would go for the first time. Martin has a clear vision of what he wants, but he also works with different levels of how to get the performances. He'll continue until he gets what he really senses is right. It's not necessarily what is going to end up in the film, but at least it's from a feeling or an emotion that he knows he needs. Then you'll sometimes get surprised in the edit, that it can actually be the take which is a lot less, or you need it to be much more. 

I often think that the actors who deliver really good performances have also to do with that secure space that they're in, that they feel that they're willing to try something which might be out of their comfort zone. I sense it sometimes when I get the material and you feel the way they have the dialogue with Martin, between the takes, all these things, the way he talks with them, I have a feeling that he's searching often for that truthfulness. It probably also comes from his work in theater, working with the actors, seeing the actors rehearse. Martin even writes down in the script all the takes. He's precise in what he likes from what take, and then we can play around with it.

'How can I get a miniature donkey these days?'

Does Martin shoot many takes?

I would say he doesn't. He always has options, yeah, but he is very precise in a lot of his material, especially with the actors. For a film like this, there's a huge material base which is creating the island and the animals as characters. Obviously not dialogue scenes or anything, but there's a lot of B-roll stuff where they would go out and shoot in different variations of the island. For the animals, they're almost the sane ones on the island looking at us and asking, "What on earth is going on?" They're so trustworthy and always following you, the humans.

How did you find the B-roll helpful? When did you feel the island needed to be the focus of the story?

Well, that's fun about it because that's little by little. It's almost like playing with LEGO. You try the different sizes. How much does it color if it's here? Working with it, it is quite easy with a film like this because it became very clear, very fast. It's also often in the script that you need these montages between the scenes where we can have these musical montages of island and animals where I as an audience also can put some of my own stuff into what might just have happened.

When you see the bird jumping after the other bird, suddenly it becomes almost a commentary on what you've just experienced. There's the goat looking at you, and you become very aware that it is actually looking at you as a person in the cinema, and it's very intimidating. Little by little, you add so many things — even the way Jenny's treated. He has so much love for animals and you really sense that. We put a lot of time and a lot of effort in trying to make it as effortless and real as possible with the animals.

Jenny is a prominent character in the movie, as well. How did you interpret her place in the story?

There's probably a lot of Google [searches for] "How can I get a miniature donkey?" these days. Pretty cute, right? I found it interesting Martin gives Jenny a voice with the bell. That goes for the whole sound design, that if you peel back and if you hold back all the ambience and make it very sparse, a very quiet movie, then these plot sounds, little by little, you can place them. They become extremely present. You can have a small bell, even before Jenny enters the scene and you instantly know that it's something related between Pádraic and Jenny.

The movie isn't exactly violent, but of course, the loss of fingers have a visceral impact. How much did you want to or not want to linger on the self-inflicted pain?

We didn't have so many [options there]. I don't think Martin at all was interested in that. I think it shouldn't be too on the nose. It's not something we want to dwell on, but it's more of a character study of a person who behaves this way and who does that and why does he do it? Martin said when he was writing the script, it's something suddenly the character said while he was writing it. It wasn't an idea [he always had]. There are a lot of ways you can interpret that I'm not going to go into, but you could see it in many different ways why he does it and how he does it.

It's more about what he does compared to what we show, because we don't show a lot. I mean, maybe that might even be worse for some people, which is interesting. I remember this show, this Danish show, where everyone was talking about the scene that was never in the movie [of chopping off fingers]. Never had that scene, but it was like the visual of the whole story. The first time you heard it, it almost became a scene that everyone was 100% sure you showed. I'm almost sure someone will have experienced in this film that you've seen Colm cut one of his fingers up, but you've never seen any of it.

I like how you describe the process of little by little. In your gut, when do you know the bigger picture is accomplished?

Well, it's over a period of time, of course, but this process was really nice. Sometimes you still work with structure up to almost the end of it, trying to find the balance of the film. Here, it was very clear what we had and where Martin wanted to take the film and what scenes we didn't want to be present in the film and how to find that rhythm of the length of film. You can also be much more precise in some of the smaller elements which you normally wouldn't put so much time into. I would say we've turned every stone. I think Martin would feel the same — that he tried most of the things and it's an active decision to do it this way more than out of a need of, "Why didn't we have that?" Suddenly, you just know that it clicks.

"The Banshees of Inisherin" has been nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Film Editing.