The Oscar category of Best Film Editing is historically dominated by war epics, action pictures, multicharacter dramas and musicals. But two years ago, in a rare and wonderful exception to the rule, the statuette was won by Mikkel E.G. Nielsen for his delicate work on the “Sound of Metal,” a film in which the editing was crucial in synching the audience to its main character’s sonic experience.
Nielsen’s mastery of rhythm and tone also proved invaluable for the sly currents of Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin,” the acclaimed tragicomedy for which he is nominated this year. The 49-year-old Danish editor made history in 2021 as the first Scandinavian winner in the category, and this year he’s the only previous nominee in the category.
Chatting from London, Nielsen discussed his repeat trip to the Oscars, the difficulty of mixing comedy and tragic tones in the cutting room, and his personal opinion about the running time of movies.
When you won the Oscar two years ago for “Sound of Metal,” the ceremony was held in a train station. So this year will be a different experience for you.
It will. I liked the show a lot last time, but it’ll be interesting to see how it normally works. And I get to have my family with me this time. Two years ago, that was not possible.
Now that you’re an Academy member, have you seen a lot more films?
Yes, and that has been a real eye-opener for me. Because I also get to see the 100 or more foreign-language films that were submitted, which is so good because a lot of them would never come to the cinemas and they’re so difficult to find anywhere. Having the possibility to watch these, that’s very special.
Aversion to backstory is something that is shared by both director Darius Marder (“Sound of Metal”) and Martin McDonagh. Neither of them are particularly interested in flashbacks or big exposition scenes. But that must bring some challenges for you?
Yes, but it could also be used as a force. What is so interesting about how Martin has written “Banshees” is that the audience is invited into the story with the characters. The film isn’t showy but it’s much more about character, character, character. You see everything and experience everything together with your main character. It’s the simplicity of that which creates the possibility for the audience to get hooked into the character. And if you can create that kind of simplicity, then it can become really complex.
There’s a very potent mix of comedy and drama in the film. How did you work to balance them?
I’d never worked with the mix of drama and comedy at all, like in “Banshees.” Martin explained that he wanted to make a beautiful Irish film about a really sad breakup. And there was such a sense of musicality in his script, so it became about the balance of the whole thing. Honestly, I wondered if I could do it. And who would I be to challenge Martin about the tone?
Did he give you a lot of options in the editing room, in terms of footage?
Oh yeah. Martin had all these options. To be clear, he knows exactly how he likes things. He looks through all the footage and all the takes. I think it’s probably connects to his background in theater. It’s like watching rehearsals.
And that’s an amazing way for an editor to work with footage, in terms of tone. Should there be a smile between the characters in one moment? Should there be a funny moment after a sad moment? Martin is very generous as a director, because there were ways that we could tone or shape the scenes differently with the material we had. Martin has all these options. Often you don’t really know for sure until you’ve tried it both ways and found the right language for it.
The film is dedicated to Jon Gregory, the film editor who had worked on all of McDonagh’s previous features and most of Mike Lee’s films. He died in 2021. What did his work mean to you?
Jon was a huge inspiration to me. Before I started film school, I saw Mike Leigh’s “Naked” and I remember the raw, simplicity of it. And just that quality of staying with the lead character, which has to do with the acting and writing and directing, of course, but also the editing. Jon had done that so well throughout his whole career. He treated those characters like real human beings and that was why we followed them.
Is it important for you to show the film to friends or family while you’re working on the edit, just to get an honest reaction?
It’s more than an honest reaction I’m looking for. It’s actually more about feeling the presence of someone else in the room. If I were screening the film for you, I’d spend most of the time observing and sensing your mood. And if I saw your interest in the film fading, we might look to five minutes before, to see where that started. But it’s also about me looking at the material with completely different eyes, because someone else is present in the room.
You’ve mentioned that the first cut of “Banshees” was about two hours and 40 minutes and the finished film is under two hours.
Yes, luckily. I’m grateful for that. Because you need something to work with as an editor.
Of the 10 movies nominated for Best Picture, only “Banshees” and “Women Talking” are under two hours. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
Well, there are films over two hours that I love, but if you go over two hours, there really has to be a very good reason for it, in my opinion. If you look at all of Martin’s films, they are all about the same length and none are more than two hours. This one is about one hour and 50 minutes. I think the running time comes to him naturally when he’s working on the script.
Can you talk about some of these scenes that were cut?
Well, Martin doesn’t do flashbacks, as you said, but he does write backstories for a lot of the characters, which we have in case we need it. But sometimes we don’t mind if the audience asks questions.
For example, why are Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Siobhán (Kerry Condon) living together in the film? What happened to their parents? In one scene, we hear Mrs. McCormick ask, “Is it six or seven years since your mommy and daddy died?” So we know that they lost their parents. Martin did have a scene in which Pádraic goes to a graveyard where his parents were buried. So there was a chance to bring in that backstory there, but we didn’t need it.
And the same goes for Dominic (Barry Keoghan). How colorful should the relationship be between him and his dad? We had options there, too, in the editing. But it was all about finding the right amount. But you never really know unless you have it.
Did you have a lot of options in the cutting room for the film’s final scene?
Martin provided a lot of options, for sure. But again, it became obvious that the most important thing was simplicity. It’s about the two of them standing there together, looking out at the sea, talking about the war on the mainland. That’s where you have these options. So it really clarified for me what was actually needed.
You mention the war on the mainland, which is an extremely important detail for understanding the themes and the meaning of the film. But it’s only mentioned occasionally.
That’s all Martin. The biggest learning lesson for me in the editing room was that you can often have too much. It’s like eating candy. You can just eat and eat if there’s a lot of candy, but you can enjoy it more if there’s only one piece. I’m so glad that Martin got a nomination for Best Director, because he really did such a good job of thinking about everything thematically while also working with the actors and using the camera and all that stuff. And in the end, I learned a lot of things to put in my own toolbox.