Very few films this year will spark as much joy as Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. A true love letter to Branagh’s hometown took a village of dedicated cast and crew members to bring this story to life. One crucial piece to this puzzle was frequent collaborator and editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle. The award winning editor first met Branagh in 2009 on BBC’s Wallander and would later work together on his 2018 film All is True and upcoming Death on the Nile.
The two have created an almost effortless partnership that is on full display in Belfast. From opening to closing shot, Dhonghaíle’s edit seamlessly weaves in, out and around the neighborhood where Buddy and his family live. She is able to perfectly capture the tension of the riots, intimate moments of love and timeless adventure.
Dhonghaíle has been nominated four times for the BAFTA Award. Her one win comes for 2017’s Three Girls. She has also been nominated eight times for the Irish Film and Television Awards. Her three wins come from Misbehaviour, Three Girls, The Invisible Man.
Belfast stars stars Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, and Jude Hill.
It premiered in September at the Telluride Film Festival and won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival just weeks later. It will be released theatrically on Friday, November 12.
I was able to speak with Dhonghaíle after Belfast screened at the Dallas International Film Festival in October. We chatted about how quickly the film came together, working during COVID, her own relationship to Belfast and going all in for Ken.
Jackson Vickery: Where did you first meet Kenneth Branagh?
Úna Ní Dhonghaíle: I edited Wallander, the BBC drama, and Ken was the lead and one of the producers. I did the first series back in 2009 and then I did the finale. I met him as an actor, but he was one of our producers and I think that’s how I may have come to his attention, But, Jackson, he might have to confirm this, because this is only me. I’ve never asked him how he actually came to ask me to work with him, but I think this is why. I was afraid to ask him, in case he just said, his usual editor wasn’t available or something horrible.
But on Wallander, I assembled episodes two and three. They were the finale. And we set ourselves a challenge. The producer convinced me to just say, “Could we pull them together as one film? And could it possibly be a film?” Because it was such a beautiful performance. And I did that. So I think that’s how I came to his attention, but I don’t know. That’s where I first met him.
JV: If I ever get the chance to talk to him, I will ask him that question. So how were you approached for the project?
UND: Ken asked me to edit his personal film, All Is True, in 2018. So 2018 was a very productive year for me, because I finished Stan & Ollie and I was assembling six episodes of Les Miserables. I edited episode one and two, but I assembled all six for the first 10 weeks of the shoot. And then I took a hiatus to do an independent film, Rosie. Basically, I did three feature films and one TV show in 2018. And one of the feature films was All Is True.
And from All Is True, I then joined him on Death on the Nile. And we were finishing Death on the Nile, when he said to me he had a script that he had been writing during lockdown, and if I would like to join him on it. I read the script and I was immediately emailing him to say it was the most magnificent love letter to Belfast, to the city of his birth, to his beautiful family and to that community of neighbors of all persuasions who lived so peacefully in Northern Ireland prior to The Troubles. I just was immediately captivated and wanted to join him and said, “Yes, please.”
JV: No hesitation?
UND: No hesitation. My dad is from Northern Ireland. I’m from Dublin. So I’m technically from the Republic of Ireland, but my dad always spoke about great friendships between Protestants and Catholics as I was growing up as a child. My granny is from the north and my uncles and everyone’s from the north. When I used to travel up there, of course, during the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, there was a border. I was very aware of the complexity of Northern Ireland, but I was also aware of the great friendships that existed. It was one of the things that I often said prior to even meeting Ken – we never had a film that actually celebrated love and friendship, because so many films focused on The Troubles, which all came later. So really, as soon as I read the script, I just knew this was sort of beating the same drum that I’d been beating myself. I just knew I was privileged to be asked to join him as the editor.
JV: I love that. I absolutely love that. So what were the early conversations that you had in regards to the film?
UND: You know what, Jackson. It was so fast because we were editing Death on the Nile. And while we were editing “Death on the Nile”, Ken was actually writing “Belfast”. I read the script, I think in June. And very quickly, we were mixing “Death on the Nile”, and then we went straight into shooting Belfast. So it was beautiful. His script was beautiful. It’s incredible that he wrote it, but he obviously had decades of thinking about it. But I’ll tell you what I really liked about what he’s done, he’s actually captured the vernacular of the people, how people speak, because you can hear it.
He’s just absorbed whatever turn of phrase his parents had and his grandparents had, he’s captured it. Because so many of us, even non-Irish people, you can recognize yourself in there. You can recognize your grandparents in there, if you had lovely grandparents like that, who were able to tell a story or recite a poem or sing a song to emphasize the point. And I think his script was so brilliant that we shot it. And then in the cutting room, Ken and I restructured. That’s where we had some restructuring to do with the story.
JV: How involved was he in the editing process? Because I mean, it must’ve been somewhat daunting to tackle such a personal project to him. I mean, I can only imagine how involved he wanted to be in that.
UND: Yeah, he was great actually, because it was so personal. And because I think he knew that all of us who worked on this film, we got it. We wanted to do it, we wanted to do justice for him, for his parents, for his grandparents. And I was even saying to him, I was really sorry that his parents aren’t alive to see it. They would be so proud of him. And his brother and his sister, his family, his wife are obviously proud of him.
We were all behind him. But he also is a very gracious man. And because he knows his own worth and he knew he wrote something brilliant, but he also had lived it. Then he’s very open. If he’s going to collaborate with you as his editor or cinematographer, he invites collaboration.
So it was really good actually. And the real thing, I think, that myself and Ken should probably give ourselves a mutual pat on the back, we did all of this through lockdown.The first two weeks of the shoot, we were together. And we were finishing off a few things, and I was assembling at night. And then I came back to Dublin because COVID didn’t allow we stay in the studios. The studios were closing down. So I have my suite here at home in Dublin. So I came home, and then we did the entire edit remotely. So we put an Avid [editing tool] into Ken’s house. My assistants are in London. I was here. There was Avid attached to a beautiful big screening room, so he could look on the big screen. And I could basically email my cuts over. We have matching drives in every household. And then Ken could either just hit the space bar himself and watch it, or the assistant could team view in, set it up and play it for him.
And then we were on the phone every day. We were just talking. And if there was some ideas that we had, I could send Ken option one, option two, option three. He was brilliant because he was able to look at them, discuss them very frankly, and then we’d try what I had to put them in. And it was great.
It’s crazy. I think when you work with someone who is confident, they really encourage you to collaborate. The worst thing I could have done is to cut something together, not think that it worked and just think that the flow wasn’t right, and not say anything. I owed it to Ken to be vocal.
JV: It seems like you two have your own language that you two can speak together. So I think that’s beautiful. And to have a collaboration and a partnership like that is, I mean the best way to do it.
UND: Yeah. I love working with Ken. And I’ll tell you why I love working with him as well, because we agree with so much, but we also challenge each other nicely. Even though obviously he’s the director, he could have the final say. But we’re both good at sort of challenging each other. And actually, Ken’s brilliant. If he isn’t too sure, he’ll think about it. And he might come back two or three days later and say, “Okay, let’s look at that again. Or maybe there is something in there.” And he’s got a brilliant memory. So if we had gone through things and I was sort of saying to him, “Do you remember this?” He remembered it. And that was really good. Because sometimes with other directors, they might not know the material so well, so you’d have to keep sending clips and options.
JV: I wanted to dive into a couple of scenes that really just stood out to me. The first one being the opening. How did you approach that cut? Because the way that it transitioned from color into black and white. I’m so curious about what you did with that scene and what the conversations around it were like and what the edit editing process looks like there.
UND: So that was really good, actually. Ken had gone to Belfast, and he had shot modern day Belfast with the cinematographer, using just ordinary cameras, even sometimes phones. And I had cut that together with the Van Morrison tracks. The two things that Ken always had in his script were the Van Morrison songs at the beginning of the film and the end of the film. That was actually scripted. And he also had the transition of modern color going over the wall to black and white. That was scripted. And that at the end, came back to color.
I cut together the phone footage first, because there was also a voiceover, there was an interview. There were other elements with those images. So I cut those prior to principal photography beginning, so that Ken and I could sort of work it out.
Very quickly we realized, the voiceover wasn’t working in conjunction with Van Morrison. So we had the voiceover with just the score and then Van Morrison. And very rapidly, I think even before he began principal photography, we changed that. And we just went for imagery of modern day Belfast with Van Morrison, and then going over the walls. We sort of configured the opening prior to the official shoot beginning, using the film. And then we had a team who went out there to film. So Ken was able to show them what we had cut together, using this phone footage and camera footage from himself and Harris the DOP.
They were able to offer new ideas and also emulate what we had done. So it was really exciting. And then coming to the street, I mean, it was just beautiful, because Jim Clay, our production designer had done such a great street, a real street that the camera could just go down. And it took us a while I think, to just get that opening right, but it looks really good. I think it feels right. And it feels like a tribute, again, because Belfast now is a very different city. And I think Ken wants to show that. And he wants to look at modern day Belfast with an eye of not just showing you the ordinary stuff. Normally, you see the murals and the remnants of the violence, and he wants to show it with a fresh eye.
JV: The cut was just so clean, and it felt so organic and just like you’re being welcomed into this neighborhood.
UND: It had to feel joyous. That was the big thing. So when we have the voiceover, as well as that, there was actually too much going on. So I think once we went just with Van Morrison, it meant that we could build to the moments when the child hears that sound and that the camera rotates around him. So that’s sort of one movement, to have the child witnessing this sort of out of focus gathering of people that then escalates into a riot, a horrific riot.
JV: I did want to speak about sort of one of the rioting scenes, but it’s at the end of the film, where Buddy and his mom are going to the store to return the item that he took. And then they’re going back out into the street again, and they’re confronted on sort of both sides. Can you talk me through that?
UND: I think the secret was always keeping the subjective point of view of the child’s life, even when we were going to other characters. So that things happened and you experienced them as the family sort of experienced them. It has happened obviously in the north and in any sort of war-torn country or anywhere, where there’s a riot. Suddenly those police, they swoop down and it’s quite frightening. But also, I think Ken wanted to have an eye to the imagination of the child. We blur a little bit, where we go to something with High Noon, which is the expression of where he saw his father as the goodie and the John Wayne character, and he saw the other guy as the baddie. And there was echoes of the Western coming into this lawless city.
So we were always moving a fine line, I think, through sort of painterly remembrance, social realism, and also allowing the imagination of the child, but for us as an audience to experience through his eyes. So that scene, we didn’t have extensive footage, so I had to cut a lot of footage. If you ever watch it again, you might see some extra shots flipped and things. So we built it up to make it really resonate for the audience of just this moment for his father to step up and be the hero in the child’s eyes. Nobody is at blame really, because it’s just a situation of intolerance. And the guy who’s saying, “It’s our town now,” it was better to see him through the eyes of High Noon, I think, and just not get too deep into what came next. I think staying with the point of view of the child allows us to do that.
JV: That’s beautiful. Were there any challenges besides the COVID aspects on the project?
UND: No, it was a smaller budget film and a tight schedule, so that was a challenge, but it was so beautifully written. And as I say, we all had such good will, and Ken was leading the way for all of us. Someone who’s really good and visionary at the top, actually just inspires you all to do something really good. And so many of our friends were on productions that had shut down. So I really felt quite blessed to be able to continue to work and to be working on a film like “Belfast”. It was a real blessing for all of us. And I think the challenge, a good challenge, from a storytelling point of view that Ken and I, was just how to keep that pace and energy alive when some of the scenes were shot in one or two cameras.
There was a sort of statuesque beauty in those wide shots, where he had depth of field. So we had Granny at the very back say, and Ciarán Hinds and Buddy in the foreground, and it was just held. And there were many of those scenes, but he used a beautiful composition to tell the story with the three planes.
But as an editor, too many of those in a row, if they’re all equally the same length, can bring sort of a steadiness to the pace, which doesn’t allow you that visceral experience. So I think that’s the thing that myself and Ken were very mindful of. We just kept watching structure and where we should move things, or how we could use the Van Morrison music, or using the sound to become more lyrical or to push the story forward, so that you never felt that we were just in a series of tableaus. It had to feel organic and have movements through it. So I think as an editor, that was my challenge, but it was a good challenge.
JV: And where did you see the film first?
UND: Ken had very kindly decided that we should do a few little discreet COVID-safe test audience screenings in London, Dublin, and Belfast. So we had Van Morrison see it up in Belfast, and I hosted a small test audience screening in Dublin. And then whenever we were mixing again, very kindly, they were mixing in Twickenham and sending me the files, sound files. And I was able to review the mix on this exact same day, just like a little bit later than them in Dublin as well.
Myself and Ken were able to talk through anything that was happening in the mix. So we were sort of all watching it in different cinemas or sound mixing theaters in Dublin and London.
That was great. I mean, that’s a great gift to be able to do that, that he could be mixing, and I could be looking at the mix that they’re mixing in a different country. It’s really a gift as an editor. We’re quite good in the mix, I think, editors. We’re always good in the mix, because we know the sound so well.
JV: What was the biggest takeaway from the project for you?
UND: The biggest takeaway is just, I’ve so much respect for Ken that he managed to write it during lockdown and that he managed to shoot it during lockdown. And thus he was able to, I think, pay tribute to the community of Northern Ireland. I really hope that the Belfast people love the film, everyone, all sides. I think that’s my biggest coming away. I just think he did really good. He’s done himself proud. He’s done his family proud. He’s done us proud, and it’s just a real honor to be associated with the film, because I just think it’s a wonderful thing. If any of us were able to make a film and pay tribute to our parents and our grandparents like that, I think that’s a very to blessed place to be.
Focus Features will release Belfast only in theaters on November 12, 2021.