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Shutter Angles

Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

“I Would Cut with Scissors if I Had To”: Editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir on Bullet Train

Aaron Taylor-Johnson on the set of Bullet TrainAaron Taylor-Johnson on the set of Bullet Train

by
in Columns, Editors, Interviews
on Aug 24, 2022

In Bullet Train, a half dozen assassins, the screw-up kid of a Russian crime lord and a lethally venomous snake are among the passengers on the titular mode of transport travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto. 

Balancing the sheer volume of characters and orchestrating the intricately choreographed tussles of action maestro David Leitch (John Wick and Atomic Blonde) already present ample challenges for an editor. For Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, the Icelandic cutter of both Wick and Blonde, the degree of difficulty was further embellished by an array of flashbacks, Thomas the Tank Engine metaphors, surprise cameos and Engelbert Humperdinck needle drops.

With Bullet Train in theaters, Ronaldsdóttir spoke to Filmmaker about cutting with LED backgrounds versus greenscreen, editing scenes without the sound and her early days in flammable, cigarette-filled Danish editing sheds.

Filmmaker: When you were a kid in Iceland, you delivered newspapers and one of the perks of the job was free movie tickets. I’ve heard you tell the story a few times, but I wanted more details. Were the free tickets a reward from your parents for having the job or were they from the newspaper?

Ronaldsdóttir: It was from the newspaper. They probably had some kind of deal with the cinema. You had to go deliver the papers and also sell a certain number of them, then you got a free ticket if you met the quota.

Filmmaker: Did you usually hit it?

Ronaldsdóttir: Absolutely. We worked so hard just to get that movie ticket.

Filmmaker: How old were you?

Ronaldsdóttir: It was when I was 9 to when I was 11, something like that.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the theater.

Ronaldsdóttir: It was in an old U.S. army barracks where they would screen all kinds of movies—mainly family-friendly movies, but we did see some cowboy movies as well, which I thought were fun. There’s only one title that struck with me and it’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. [laughs] We always got a program, which was four pages with pictures. There was an outline about what the movie was about—how it started, what happened in the middle and how it ended—because often they weren’t subtitled. I collected those programs. I had four or five boxes, like shoeboxes, filled with them.

Filmmaker: Did you hold on to any?

Ronaldsdóttir: I gave some of them to the Icelandic Film School, but I probably still have a box left somewhere.

Filmmaker: Let’s get into Bullet Train. Walk me through the timeline of your involvement with the project.

Ronaldsdóttir: I was working on Marvel’s Shang-Chi in Australia when Bullet Train started shooting. Evan Schiff, another editor, held down the fort until there was maybe a week or two left of principal photography, then I came on at the beginning of February [2021]. I’m very grateful to David and producer Kelly McCormick for waiting for me. That always feels good. Then I just dove in. At the time the studios were closed [due to COVID] and we were told we had to work from home. I politely pointed out that home for me was Iceland and they agreed to let me work from there. It actually surprised me, but I’m very grateful. So, I got a hard drive, hand carried it back home and worked in Iceland until probably mid-June. At that point I went back to L.A., because the studio had opened back up, but we were still not really allowed to be in the same room. David and I would have to talk through a computer [even though we were in the same building]. That was not really working for us, so in the end I just moved in with Kelly and David. It was actually a really good set up and we worked until Christmas. Then I went back home with the drive and kept working, because we still had visual effects coming in. I worked until probably April [of this year], then I went back to L.A. for the sound mix.

Filmmaker: Normally, when you start to edit at the beginning of principal photography, you’re cutting the scenes in the order they are shot in. Since you came on toward the end of the shoot, did you get to work on scenes in the scripted order?

Ronaldsdóttir: Basically, yeah. We did have an assembly when I started, but the third act was missing. I still did my due diligence. I went through all the footage. Also, while I was finishing Shang-Chi, I was still watching [Bullet Train’s] dailies on PIX.

Filmmaker: One of the stylistic hallmarks of the first John Wick and Atomic Blonde were the long takes and these sprawling fight scenes against multiple opponents. You’re dealing with a bit of a different style in Bullet Train, necessitated by the confined spaces of the setting. There are a lot of one-on-one fight scenes in tight quarters.

Ronaldsdóttir: Well, the first thing is Lady Bug [Brad Pitt] is against using guns and John Wick and Atomic Blonde were definitely not. (laughs) [What the films have in common] is amazing choreography and cinematography and a director who knows where to put the camera. When I’m working on those action scenes, they always work even in the first round [of edits], but then we just watch them again and again and again trying to find ways we can add to them through editing, from taking out frames to get a harder punch to trying out different takes. The acting is also extremely important in those scenes, because we are on the faces of the actors a lot. The Quiet Car fight scene, for example, is a great piece of physical acting.

Filmmaker: David has talked about Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan as references for the film.

Ronaldsdóttir: He was very inspired by both of them. Lady Bug was very inspired by Keaton and the Quiet Car fight scene is absolutely a Jackie Chan set-up. David is a master of action—it’s his forte—but the beauty of working with him is that he’s also extremely careful with character and story and puts a lot of effort into getting that right. 

Filmmaker: When he was working as a stunt coordinator and second unit director, one of the things David and his team were known for was making these StuntVis videos. Basically, they’d shoot and edit a version of the fight scenes during preproduction. Do you like to watch that stunt previs before you start to edit those scenes?

Ronaldsdóttir: Yeah, I watch everything, so I understand better how they thought about the choreography. People put so much effort into that choreography and you absolutely don’t want to mess it up in post. We’ll watch those scenes again and again, then watch them without sound and music. I want to find the scene’s internal rhythm before putting music on it. Music is such a powerful medium. You can have a really badly edited scene, but if it has great music it might still feel like it’s working. It’s my job to make sure that the movie could live without it, then the music is the icing on the cake.

Filmmaker: Part of David’s style on his last few films has included needle drop pop songs. Do you have a favorite from Bullet Train?

Ronaldsdóttir: There are so many. I love all the Japanese covers, “Staying Alive” and “I Need a Hero.” The score from Dominic Lewis is also a musical feast. On Bullet Train, and really on all his movies, David will sometimes play the music on the set. (Lewis) had already composed some stuff during principal shooting, so David would even play temps of his music on set. Sometimes that music changes [during the edit] and David finds something else he likes. We usually have really good music supervisors that feed us all kinds of music to try out and have fun with.

Filmmaker: In the credits I only see A and B camera listed. For dialogue scenes do you prefer two camera set-ups just to make continuity easier?

Ronaldsdóttir: Yeah, it’s very convenient, especially when people are ad-libbing a lot of the dialogue. 

Filmmaker: I enjoyed the dynamic between Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). How did you find the right rhythm for the rapid-fire banter between them?

Ronaldsdóttir: It was a bit tricky, also because they’re speaking with very thick English accents. David was very adamant that he wanted them to be almost shooting the words at each other. You just try to find the line. When is it too much? I think we landed it. Both of those actors ad-libbed so much. It was hilariously fun just going through the dailies. Their characters are almost like football hooligans and the music that follows them through the movie is “(I’m Forever) Blowing Bubbles,” which is a football song in England.

Filmmaker: If you have someone who is a skilled ad-libber, how do you determine which bit to use if you have six funny alts? Humor is so subjective.

Ronaldsdóttir: Yeah, it absolutely is. I’m not a big fan of testing, but with a comedy it’s a great tool. I like sitting in the audience and just listening to people. You can actually record the audience, then test the jokes and see which gets the most laughs. But we still have to choose the one that will fit in that moment with that character.

Filmmaker: Some of the train sequences were shot with LED screens out the window rather than greenscreen. Is that easier for you as an editor, being able to see early on what’s going to be speeding by those windows?

Ronaldsdóttir: Yes, it’s absolutely helpful. It really speeds up the process to have those LED screens. It’s just easier. You don’t have to wait for visual effects to fill them in. Of course they’re always going to have to fix some stuff—like when [the background on the LED screens] starts repeating in the middle of a take—but it’s minor things. 

Filmmaker: Along with the human passengers, you also have to sprinkle an on-the-loose poisonous snake into the plot. How did you find the balance of when to cut to the snake? You need people to be aware of it, but at the same time you need them to forget enough that the snake’s reemergence gets a reaction.

Ronaldsdóttir: That was a hard balance. There was some worry that there was too much snake, but there was something so fascinating about that snake as well, because it’s kind of a symbol of nature. He’s unpredictable. The snake is written into the script, then we have to play around with when to show it and when not. We would take some of it out, then put half of that back in. The snake is actually one of my favorite characters on the train. I also find the characters of Kimura [Andrew Koji] and The Elder [Hiroyuki Sanada] fascinating. They are the ones in the story that have an arc, this father and son. No one else does: Lady Bug doesn’t change, Lemon and Tangerine don’t change, Prince [Joey King] doesn’t change. But the Elder and his son have an arc, something that they have to work themselves through and come out on the other side.

Filmmaker: Deadpool 2, which David directed and you edited, opens with a montage of the title character carrying out a series of hits set to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5. I remember wanting to see more of each of those little snippets. I felt the same way about Bullet Train’s flashbacks. Did any of them exist in much longer versions?

Ronaldsdóttir: Some of them were always shorter, like Bolivia and South Africa. They were snippets, like a memory flash. Then you had The Wolf [Bad Bunny], who has his whole life told in flashbacks and that obviously could’ve been so much longer. With the story of White Death [Michael Shannon], at first it’s a tale that Tangerine is telling us, then later on in the movie we get a similar flashback but from a different perspective. All of that could’ve been much longer too, but you have to keep the pace and keep the story going.

Filmmaker: Let’s finish up with editing software. What do you like to work on?

Ronaldsdóttir: I would cut with scissors if I had to. I started out cutting 35mm film a long, long time ago, but I don’t have any romantic ideas about that period. With computers today, you just have so much more control. You can do so many versions of the same scene. It’s so much easier and cheaper to test things out. As far as software, I’ve used Avid for the longest time. With Avid, all the pipelines are in place, so it’s extremely easy to go back and forth with visual effects or with sound, because those pipelines have been tested for years and they work.

Filmmaker: In film school I remember someone’s 16mm class project catching on fire in the projector. What was your worst film-related mishap back in the day?

Ronaldsdóttir: I don’t think I had any that bad. The worst was just losing a frame in that cloth bag and having to dig around to find it. That was always terrifying. I used to work at Nordisk Film in Denmark, and we would sit in small sheds that were full of people smoking around all this flammable material. [laughs] It’s amazing we all survived it.

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