Art of the Cut: Kenneth Branagh’s Love Letter to His Childhood Home, “Belfast”

Today we’re speaking with Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, ACE, BFE, about her work on the critically acclaimed Belfast, a semi-autobiographical movie written and directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Úna is a BAFTA-winning editor with film credits that include Stan and Ollie, All is True, and Misbehaviour alongside TV shows Three Girls, The Crown, and Les Misérables.

Our last chat on Art of the Cut was about editing The Crown, and we’ll hopefully do this again when Branagh’s Death on the Nile is released next year.

Listen while you read…

HULLFISH: What a sensational movie; I love the opening montage that you see in modern-day Belfast since the whole film was rooted in the sixties. What was the reason that Ken [Branagh] or you wanted to start the movie with modern-day footage?

DHONGHAÍLE: That was actually Ken. He had that written in his script. He wanted to look at Belfast. So this is really a love letter to Belfast and it was such a beautiful script that he wrote. I did wonder whether the name would survive because if you’re going to the movies would you like to see a film called Belfast? Maybe it has connotations, and I’m really proud of Ken for keeping the name because I think he’s reclaimed that name and written a love poem to that city and championed that city.

So one of the first things he wanted to do was look at that city as it is in 2021, but with fresh eyes. So he filmed it in a very beautiful way, I think. Just trying to show the architecture, the light, the color, the hills behind and before principal photography, he and Haris [Zambarloukos] the DoP went to Belfast and, on their phones, they filmed shots of Belfast, which he then gave to me. And Ken and I had about four or five days together working to post.

We were actually remote. I cut together the phone footage while exploring the Van Morrison music track and also the voiceover. We were exploring things prior to principal photography to work out how it could work and reframing the phone footage so that when he went to shoot it—he only had two days to shoot it—he could impart the information to the Belfast team who were going to shoot it. Because the risk was, with COVID, they may not be able to get back. So we needed to have a very good template.

So I think that his vision was to show Belfast as it is today in 2021, in a beautiful new, fresh way. And then to be transported back in time. And it was always top and tail Van Morrison and color; that was always the plan from the script stage.

HULLFISH: One of the big action sequences is the opening riot. Did Ken talk to you about an intent for that scene? What did he want it to feel like? What was the purpose of it? Or did you just get the dailies, and off you went?

DHONGHAÍLE: No, this film is Ken’s passion project. But it became all of us who really respect Ken and admire him as a filmmaker and a poet—I do say he’s like the master storyteller, a poet, like Van Morrison is a poet; the two Belfast poets.

But when he gave me the script to read originally in June—we were making Death on the Nile at the time—it just chimed with me because my dad is from Northern Ireland, from Omagh in County Tyrone, and my uncles and my grandparents were working-class Catholics who lived through this time. And for me, Ken has captured the vernacular of the people, the intimacy of the neighbors, the great friendships between protestants and catholics, and the fact that there was a love of the community, people living on those terraced houses.

So, much of the script chimed with me that myself and Ken actually developed a shorthand. We’ve made three films—would you believe—in two years; All Is True, Death on the Nile, and Belfast. So it meant that when I was cutting, Ken didn’t have to talk too much to me because I got it.

So he was shooting in London, I was editing in my studio in Dublin, and I just saw the rushes, I saw the way he had shot it, that beautiful first sweeping shot as we come down with the child. So I could follow it with the subjective point of view of the child in mind. And you know that shot that circles around the boy? He shot that in 60 frames per second. So I was able to put a timewarp on that and bring it from 24 frames to 48 to 60 back up to 48, maybe even to 36.

So it’s not a continuous feel of a pan. So that you really feel what the child is feeling. And obviously, sound design was crucial to me, even from the first day of principal photography, because they shot in Surrey. I had to build a soundbed with my assistant editors until the sound team came on board proper.

Using that soundbed, which Ken referred to as “The child hears the buzzing of bees, he doesn’t quite know what it is,” which was a good little note for me because it meant we could have a bit of freedom in the sound here to do something a little bit creative with the sound before that first explosion.

And then it was just me, like a magpie, finding every shot from B camera or A camera that we could get. The guy with the chain, the people smashing a window, another person running through, the explosion… So you have to feel as if you were in the boy’s shoes. What he felt.

There is a beauty in the way Ken and Haris shot it. That stillness, that circular track, to suddenly the visceral, elliptical style of editing, out of a psychology and a subjective point of view to the opening sequence. And then the sound enriched that further.

So I did contact our sound team, and Simon Chase was very kind, and although he wasn’t officially starting yet, he fed in some sound design effects to me like the chain, some ship horns, or anything that I could use to enrich the edit. Otherwise, we were using any sounds that I had already on file. It was the real psychological or visceral style of editing to keep you identifying with what it felt like for Ken because that’s a very real memory for him. I really like the fact that we kept that scene without music because I think that’s a vital element.

HULLFISH: That’s what I was about to point out. There was no music for that shot.

DHONGHAÍLE: We did have a version with music at one point. Even though our edit time was short, myself and Ken are a good team, so we can work swiftly and interrogate the footage together, and although we were working remotely, we worked as if we were in the same room.

I had an Avid with the drive in my house; he had an Avid with the drive at his house, my assistants had the same. Normally, if the director’s in the room with you, you can show them ideas and cuts quickly. But because Ken wasn’t physically with me, I’d build a few options and have my assistant render it and send it over to his bin, and he could just press play and get on the phone with me. It was brilliant because it meant that Ken was actually very hands-on and could watch these different versions. It was a really great experience. It meant that both of us were crafting and exploring anything that could happen.

So back to your point, we originally did have music on that shot, but then we agreed to take the music off and just feel it. We had a brilliant team. They were all coming in with some good ideas, and saying it does work without the music, and there’s a confidence to it actually that really makes the audience lean in. If you had music on, it somehow softened the experience, or maybe it just made it just too toe-tappy. Whereas, by letting it be a barren explosion, you get to be with the child, and it felt more authentic and real.

HULLFISH: Was there any score in the film?

DHONGHAÍLE: No, not really. Van Morrison supplied two cues called “Instrumental One” and “Instrumental Two” both of them were roughly five minutes each, and I was able to cut them in different moments in the film where we didn’t want to use a Van Morrison track that might be lyric-led, where we just wanted a motif. So it kept us tonally with Van Morrison, but we’re really just two cues that I could use to segue from one to the other, and sprinkle throughout the film. And whenever the Billy Clanton Jr. character came in we used some motifs that sounded like a drone, or a bit musical.

Van Morrison was working with Ken since the script stage, and he obviously wrote the joy piece specially for this film based on the script. So I had that prior to shooting. Originally, we had some other music ideas at the time, but then very quickly, we moved away from that and went for a more sparse score using only Van Morrison tracks that resonated on a sort of human level with Ken.

HULLFISH: Those songs were not written into the script for specific scenes?  

DHONGHAÍLE: No, they came organically, but very quickly actually. After watching the first cut, Ken felt from a memory point of view that Van’s music and the lyrics really chimed with him.

As we were shortening the film, the first cut was two hours and twenty minutes, and we found, as we were cutting away, we could take the best of any of the imagery that was now leaving the film and we could make them into little montages with Van Morrison’s music. Those montages provided a vital element of pace. Because we have all these beautiful scenes that were shot in a tableau style with depth of field, these little vignettes of the passage of time with Van Morrison’s music added a lyricism to the film, which was right for Ken’s memory.

HULLFISH: I love the pacing of the film, and the performances were incredible. There is an amazing scene with Buddy, played by Jude Hill, where you stay on his face during an entire conversation of other people talking. You never cut to anyone else talking.

DHONGHAÍLE: No, we didn’t cut to anyone; we deliberately did that because Ken had devised a very simple style, which really works with a memory-based film. You have the wide shots and then a couple of close-ups. And in that particular scene we could have cut around to others, but it felt more confident to just stay with the boy. We felt that it actually was quite brave to stay with him. When you have footage, you don’t want to over-cut or overuse shots because sometimes you get less than the sum of the parts.

We thought that there was more boldness staying with the boy and setting our ground very firmly that this is the story of this child through whose eyes we will mostly see the film. Although we do have different moments where we switched the subjective point of view, that conversation scene was a really important one to just stay with him.

HULLFISH: Why would you say staying on Buddy is a confident choice?

DHONGHAÍLE: It forces the audience to watch it. We’re unconsciously saying to the audience, “This is important. We want you to see this.” If I were to cut back to the mob, Pa, or brother Will, it might just become an ordinary scene. We don’t want that; we want the audience to listen to what’s been said here and remember this moment.

I think it took the ordinariness away. You can imagine if we cut to the other people, it just becomes a dialogue scene or a scene between the family, and the subtext was more to instate the child as our protagonist through whose eyes we would see and to really let the audience lean in.

What I think is extraordinary about Jude Hill (who plays Buddy) is that he was only nine or ten when he acted in this. Ken basically said to him, “Listen to what is happening. Listen to the words spoken from Ma and Pa.” And you can imagine from his perspective, there’s this great big camera in front of him, but he kept focusing on Jamie, or Caitríona, or Judi, or whoever was in the scene with him. Ken would give Jude direction and he was brilliant; he never lost a step. He lived in the moment. He listened to what was said as if it was his own parents.

HULLFISH: What was the schedule and review process like while filming?

DHONGHAÍLE: Our schedule was so tight; once Ken started shooting, we had to hit the ground running. Let’s say he started shooting Monday morning; that meant I was editing Monday night so that we could show him the first assembly of that week by Friday night. He would wrap at 7:00 pm and be with me by 8:00 pm, and we watched everything until midnight just to make sure we got everything or if he needed anything extra. While we were filming, Matthew Glenn, our VFX producer, was working on backdrops and helicopter scenes which helped us be more economical with our time.  

HULLFISH: How much coverage were you looking at in dailies?

DHONGHAÍLE: At times, there was less coverage insofar as Ken may have had a very clear vision, but we did have a lot of long takes to perfect the performance. It’s an extraordinary achievement for a little child who has never really acted before to do these long takes with a lot of dialogue and to make sure that everyone hits the ground running.

As Ken was shooting, he was getting the tableaux and he was picking up a few closeups. As an editor, my challenge from a pace point of view, was how to marry those tableau style scenes with keeping the film moving and the audience engaged. We found that sometimes if you have too many of those tableau scenes in a row, there could be a risk that the film would plateau. So that’s where Ken and I made a good team; we kept just forensically looking at the rushes and questioning what we could move around.

I asked Ken what his audio memories were from his childhood so I could have them ready in anticipation for the shoot because we shot in Surrey, and needed to create a soundbed of Belfast for the first day of principal photography in editorial. Sound and music, for me, are rich characters to add to the film, and Ken mentioned a few things like the ice cream van, the ship horns, the constant trains, the rag-and-bone man, the coalman, the milkman, and so on. He had these very beautiful memories that meant we could add these sounds at any moment that helps the audience, on an implicit level, fully realize this is an ordinary city devastated by this extraordinary rise of violence.

HULLFISH: When adding those sounds, did the mood or tone dictate which sound you chose? Like if you are in a happy moment, you might add the ice cream van, or if it’s a more tense moment, you would add the train horn.

DHONGHAÍLE: Yeah, or maybe rather you’re in a scene of danger, and you put in the ice cream van. It was more like the counterintuitive stuff of trying to convey that this is a city with children going to school, and the ice cream man is coming despite the fact that the British army has arrived and is putting up barricades. And even the people in the streets are putting up their own barricades. This builds and builds -the tension while also continuing the normality of everyday life.

So when you see the little kid, and he’s looking at the little girl getting her hair brushed, but you also have the men being stopped and searched at the barricades. So you want to explain that this normalization of those barricades is something that was quite frightening to see, and it’s something that unfortunately continued throughout the 30 years of The Troubles.

So I think Ken was very brave in the way he’s told this story. Even in the beginning during the riot where the protestant vigilantes are smashing the windows to get the catholics out, that was a very brave thing for him to do as a man with a protestant background. He’s telling that story, and telling the truth in as authentic a way as possible, which I think is mirrored in our editing style, the psychology of our edits, as well as the sound design.

We had a great sound design team who joined us to bring that level of sound to the film. So you didn’t miss the music or the score, you could feel that this is a film that is trying to be more truthful and more simple in its style, and that maybe resonates more with the audience as a result.

HULLFISH: The film is black and white, but there are moments of color. Can you talk to us about the reason for those and the psychological purposes behind it?

DHONGHAÍLE: I’ve loved Ken’s work before I even started working with him. When I was a student, I loved Dead Again, where he used black and white, and I think that’s a motif of his to represent the past.

For Belfast, the black and white is a motif to represent the past, but when they went to the cinema that would be in color. He was trying to show the impact on the child, that cinema was an escape. It was very vivid and real in the midst of all the ordinariness of life. Everything was shot in color and then put into black and white. So we have the opportunity to do it in color, but he always envisioned it primarily in black and white with the cinema and beginning and end of the film in color.

Knowing that this child is based on Ken, I loved the fact that he sprinkled in the Thor comic book, his favorite football team, and all these little elements that are noticeable to anyone who knows him.

HULLFISH: I loved the scene in the theater where they are watching A Christmas Carol because you can see the color of the film reflected in Dame Judi Dench’s glasses.

DHONGHAÍLE: That was really important because we thought that Granny was also inspired by the theater, which related to my background a lot. My parents and my grandparents are amazing oral storytellers, and I think the same is true for Ken’s family. So it was really important that Granny was given that gift shown in the reflection on her glasses because she also loves the theater—perhaps that’s where Ken also got this appreciation for theater—so it’s a nice little nod to Granny.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about your collaboration with Ken. You mentioned having to do this largely remotely. Were you using any special tools to achieve that?

DHONGHAÍLE: No. [Laughs] We were so old school. He had a drive, I had a drive, my assistants all had drives, and that’s it. We had three second assistants because people stayed with us for two months at a time—which is the nature of independent film—and the same thing with the first assistants. Carly Brown was a first assistant who stayed for the duration, but Simon Davis and Matthew Tucker both did two months each just to help with the sheer volume of turnover for sound and preparation for grade and everything.

We did really well because when you think about having people for only two months at a time, that adds an extra challenge alongside Covid because you have to get people up to speed. But we were blessed that we had brilliant people to join us for those two months. The other second assistants are Lydia Mannering and Tímea Kalderák, and they helped a lot with all of that turnover.

HULLFISH: It sounds like most of your collaboration was just over the phone?

DHONGHAÍLE: Yeah, it was just the phone; even when we did the sound mix, it was all over the phone. They were mixing on Monday, and at lunchtime, they would send me the files of what they had done so that I could watch in a sound studio in Dublin because COVID stopped me from returning to London. We were able to talk through the sound mix over the phone; editors, I think, are always quite strong in the mix, we can spot things that might be helpful to the director.

HULLFISH: Can you elaborate on the value you as an editor can add to the sound mix?

DHONGHAÍLE: The value I think of any editor in sound mix is the fact that before the sound team begins, we are already building an edit throughout the assembly, using sound and music as characters and tools for storytelling. So we can see things or know the intention of something on the subtext level. When we’re in the sound mixed with you, we might spot something someone else might miss. I think we’re invaluable just on an implicit level of having another pair of ears. I think that’s where my skill is.

There’s a telephone conversation, for example, in the previous film I worked on. I’d put the person’s breath on the phone, but when it got to the mix, the sound guys cleaned it up, which removed a lot of the tension. I was able to spot that and bring it up to the director and mention how that breath helped the tension and let the audience know there was someone else on the phone. There are subtle things like that which we can spot. Even if it’s not in the budget for me to go to the sound mix, I’ll often do it for free because I think it affects my editing.

For the film Belfast, there were a few small things I got to interject, like with some of the ADR lines, which was fun. I recorded myself and my son on my phone, and they ended up keeping those performances which were fun. My son especially had a certain energy and vitality to it that felt right.

HULLFISH: This is your third film with Ken; how did you guys initially connect?

DHONGHAÍLE: You’ll have to ask Ken that, but I think it was through my work on Wallander. He was the producer and the actor, and I did series two and the finale of series four. Ken’s performance as Wallander with Alzheimer’s was exquisite, and I believe that’s how I came to his attention, but I am not too sure.

HULLFISH: That almost reminds me of what Joe Walker said when he was called out in Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar acceptance speech. If you’re aware, you must be able to see your performance shaped by the editor.

DHONGHAÍLE: Yeah. That’s such a good point. That is very possible.

HULLFISH: What’s your approach in dailies? How did your assistants set up your bins, and when you come in the morning and you don’t have anything in your timeline, what do you do?

DHONGHAÍLE: I am very old school and particularly for a film like this I watch absolutely everything. So I just asked the assistants to have it on frame view in Avid. I used to have it on text view, but I’ve moved and grown from frame view because in some films you just have to be in frame view, but really I begin by watching and I start to pick out things that really resonate with me and start building a palette.

By doing that, it immerses me in the footage. So then, when I actually come to edit, I can remember the specific takes that are really interesting, and I can put them into my timeline and build around them.

I always work with sound early on because I think sound can enrich a film to such a degree that if you didn’t do the sound work, you might end up cutting something that actually could be held. So I watch everything and keep anything that I think is really interesting—like shots of the actors before or after the take—that’s going to have a truthfulness or authenticity. Then I began to build it and work the sound design, and figure out how we’re going to use music, particularly in a sparse way, to keep the movements through the film and not become too indulgent.

HULLFISH: Are you cutting something out of a daily that you’re watching and sticking it in the timeline, or are you putting a marker to indicate it?  

DHONGHAÍLE: I actually don’t bother with markers unless there are a few different things to think of that are good. Let’s say, for example, with Jude, there could be rolling takes, so there could be many performances on one take, so it might be a very long take. I do ask the assistants to put little markers on every new performance on a rolling take, and whatever I liked, I would actually cut onto a timeline, and it’d be all my favorite bits.

I’d go through all the rushes and do my “Úna Selects” for those different bins. Then I would go back and begin to build it. If time was precious and I didn’t have time to do sound design, I would send that to my assistant, and either the first or second assistants with some direction and they’d build it and send it back to me while I was editing other scenes. That way, I could watch it and tweak it if the sound was perhaps not totally correct, or if it was good but needed a little bit of volume modulation. Or if it was great, I would just say “Thank you so much!” And then give them another scene. It’s a real labor of love, and by the end of that day, I’ll have crafted scenes that feel rich, not only editorially but also in sound.

HULLFISH: I’m interested in how you pull all your selects for a day. What do you think the value is in not starting to cut immediately.

DHONGHAÍLE: When I pull all the scenes first, it allows me a little bit of thinking time to digest the overall impact of the characters and what’s going to happen. It gives me a little break as well from what I’ve just watched. So when I watch it again later, I’m watching it again with fresh eyes, and I can re-interrogate that material.

I think I’m good at being fearless in diving back into the rushes if need be. I don’t get too attached to something; I’m brave enough to go back in and reevaluate edits and scenes. Particularly with films like Belfast. You won’t see it, but there are scenes where we’ve removed dialogue, so we found really clever ways to get around the dialogue edit without drawing attention to itself, and that’s thanks to knowing my rushes. It’s a very important feat of memory as well because it helps you just lift the film.

[Laughs] Sometimes I have to hide my “Úna Selects” bin because they could look too mad. There are elements that I can find that I think have a lyricism or poetic realism value for me and where I think myself and Ken are well-matched in some of the things we both like. But then there are other times where we are not on the same page and what I enjoy working with any director is being challenged. I could edit something and think it’s magnificent, and Ken can challenge me and say “Hang on. What about doing X, Y, and Z?” Which makes me think, “Oh my gosh. You want to destroy that masterpiece we’ve created!” But he is fearless, and we see what it looks like with it out. It’s all great conversations to help us lift the edit.

HULLFISH: I could listen to you all day, but I know you have other things to do and more promotion to do.

DHONGHAÍLE: Thank you, Steve, for chatting with me. I’m such an admirer of your work. So thank you so much.

Steve Hullfish

Stephen Hullfish is an internationally respected producer and editor, and has written six books about the professional scene in Hollywood. He has edited seven feature films, including "Courageous" and "War Room", as well as "The Oprah Winfrey Show". Steve has also worked with industry leaders like Avid, Adobe, Blackmagic, Fujifilm, and Tektronix on technical and creative projects, and produces bespoke training for companies like the NHL, MLS, NBCSports, and Turner Networks.

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