Film Editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen Talks Awards, Teamwork, and ‘Sound of Metal’

Academy Award-nominated film editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen

Since it’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal has won over audiences around the world. Riz Ahmed stars as Ruben, a drummer in a heavy metal band who very suddenly loses his hearing and finds himself facing an uncertain future.

Sound of Metal has collected a number of awards and nominations from film festivals, critics organizations, and industry guilds, including 4 BAFTA and 6 Academy Award nominations. One of the film’s most celebrated artisans is film editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, who is nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA, and an ACE Eddie Award. We recently spoke with Nielsen about his journey in the industry, working with Darius Marder, and what the film means to him.

Riz Ahmed is “Ruben” in Darius Marder’s SOUND OF METAL — Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: Congratulations to you on your Oscar nomination! How did you hear about it?

Mikkel E.G. Nielsen: I was on a Zoom call with the whole team, but my computer crashed right when it started, because my son wanted to do something and he pulled out the plug from my computer {laughs}.

KP: Oh, no!

MN: So it’s like, different needs at certain times. But no, so I was on this Zoom with Darius [Marder] and Nicolas [Becker] and Riz [Ahmed] and Paul [Raci] and Sacha [Ben Harroche], producers and everyone. It was just amazing. I mean, it’s just been an incredible journey for this film so I’m very, very grateful. And it never happens… I mean, I’m a Danish editor, I commute, I work in the US a lot the past nine years. But I’m Danish. And I worked on most of the film in Copenhagen. For me, and for us in Denmark and Scandinavia, as editors, this is the first time.  It’s never happened before. It’s the first nomination ever. It just means so much, and I’m extremely grateful.

KP: It’s really exciting to see your work honored in this way. And I want to come back to Sound of Metal specifically, but first, let’s get to know you a little bit. How did you get into film editing in the first place?

MN: In Denmark it’s a little different because we have a state system that backs films, but we also have a film school that you apply to, it’s government-based. It’s just like a university, but here, you specifically try to go to the film school for four years and it’s only editing, or four years only as a DP, or four years only as a director. So you apply as an editor, but you also have to have been working as an editor previously. So I started working in the news doing sound, and then I would edit the spots for the news at night. And that was the start.

In Denmark, it’s such a small country, so in order to be able to work as a film editor — to be able to edit a film for the big screen — you need to go to the film school. I knew how to edit, but I just didn’t have a language. I didn’t know how to express myself in in terms of talking about scenes or characters or structure, or why I do certain things. Those four years at film school, you are six students for four years, and you work with the same material day out. Then you see material treated with six different pairs of eyes. So sometimes something works in my version, but it’s another student that does something else, so you get curious what happens with those eyes that look at the material and how much it can actually change it if you start seeing like this or this or this.

Those four years for me, it was just mind-blowing how much you can actually do in the edit room. And I got obsessed with editing. I just got obsessed with the playing around and storytelling and how to tell the story in different ways. So when Darius suddenly brought this project on, it was interesting for me to open my toolbox because I’ve been working the past 20 years on feature films. And nine years I’ve been working out of the US at a company called Rock Paper Scissors where we work with features and commercials and shorts and music videos. Also title sequences and trailers and stuff like that. So I’ve just been been molding my craft every day for the past many, many years.

KP: How did you first get to meet Darius?

MN: They were shooting the film and Darius was interviewing a lot of editors. I’ve asked him if it was based on some of my previous work. I know he’s been influenced by Danish cinema. So I think he saw some of my earlier work from Danish cinema, and maybe also Beasts of No Nation that I edited with Cary Fukunaga. But he told me specifically that he was looking for an editor who would challenge him. He had this film in his system for 12 years, he’s been trying to raise it, and writing it and finding the actors and everything. So he knew everything about this film. And he’s an incredible person. He’s just so open to letting another person like me do my craft, or bring something to the table, or search and turn every stone and see what can we do.

He had so many wishes for this film. His bar was so high that he wanted to tell the story so a deaf person would see the film as a whole for the first time, and me as a hearing person would feel left out like a deaf person would normally see a film. And I just found it so incredibly interesting that he would close caption the film. That’s what he told me from the start. We needed to be told from Ruben’s perspective. We needed to get inside of Ruben’s head with sound. So we need to find that language where you can go internal and external and that we actually feel that we are with our character. And little by little, by peeling off information and never being ahead of our main character, you find that language where you are with your character all the way through. That was very special for me to work on.

KP: It seems like such a unique challenge to edit a film like this. I’ve heard it was filmed in sequential order. Did that make things easier for you or harder?

MN: To be honest, I didn’t actually know this. I was interviewed like two weeks before they finished shooting, when they moved to Europe and did the last part. I was interviewed, and he was looking for an editor. He said the reason I got the job was because he told me exactly how he wanted everything to be. He wanted it to be like this, he’s been an editor himself. He wanted us to work with everything, this and this, and this, and I was just listening. And then in the end, I asked him if he wanted to hear how it would be to edit the film. He somehow got puzzled by that and he said that was the moment he knew that I should edit the film, because he’s been looking for someone who would actually challenge him and say, “That’s fine that you want to do it like this, but I actually want to do it like this.”

I asked him to give me the material, and sit with it alone without knowing too much about intention of the scenes or anything in order for me to get into the material. Because he’s had it in his system for 12 years, he knew everything, so I was way behind. This way, I could show him a first assembly which was 3 hours and 45 minutes. And I also had the possibility of making these small mistakes, which are extremely valuable sometimes that I see the material maybe in a different way than its intention. The intention, how he shot it might have been put together in a different way. And sometimes, it’s actually interesting what happens, because it’s very easy to change all these things. And we know we have to go through everything anyhow.

First assembly is to see the whole and to see if the structure is there. And then you start the next pass on the structure. And then you start the next pass on the character work and you start a pass on internal/external, and then you find the rhythm and the beat and how the film breathes. And so it was just really interesting that he allowed me to sit with everything and find myself in this project.

So what was really interesting, I didn’t really know that they shot it chronological. But I somehow felt it. And I had all the materials so I just started from scratch. I had all the scenes up to that point that came in from Europe. We had a talk where Paul Raci, the guy playing Joe, told me that’s also how it felt being an actor. The first time he meets Ruben is the first scene they shoot. The last scene where Ruben is leaving and he had the Cochlear operation, that is the last scene, they will never see each other again. Which is kind of an interesting approach to the whole project, because somehow I feel that tension is there. I know, they’re really, really good actors. But I also think it adds an element to the way they work.

(l-r) Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, and Riz Ahmed star in SOUND OF METAL — Courtesy of Amazon Studios

KP: Sound is so important to this film. Did you work more closely with this sound team than you would on an average project?

MN: I would say it’s kind of the way we work with film in Europe, how I would work with a sound designer in Denmark, for example, very close. But the way we work, I mean, there’s two different levels on the sound because there’s the sound which is the quality of the sound and how it affects you. And sound is such a powerful storytelling tool. Because it’s actually physical. It’s like something that you feel. The other thing is something that we can see and think. But losing a sense like sound is a physical reaction. When it happens to Ruben, and when we get into his perspective, and we feel the things that he feels, we are inside of Ruben, right? Which is incredible. We knew that Nicolas, the sound designer, could create all the sounds from an internal sound.

But for me, it was more important as a storytelling tool, when to be in and out of Ruben’s perspective. And more importantly, actually, how much do we know as audience? How much do we know more than our main character? And the key to everything was to find that language of when to be internal and external, but also never be ahead of our main character with information. We could never know more than Ruben. I even had a sign in my edit telling me, “Never know more than Ruben.” I can never, ever know more than him because by knowing the exact same thing as him, we become partners and we go on this journey with him.

We knew that the slide scene was crucial for awakening that sense again of the drama. The dream was that it would hit the exact mid point in the film. Because from that point, he goes into sign language, he knows sign language, and everything is subtitled from then on. And he’s ahead of us. We don’t know his project, he’s suddenly on the computer, he’s calling, he’s selling things in his Airstream. We are observing or we are almost left behind with Ruben, and we just observing him with the kids. It’s so heartbreaking, for me, these scenes with the kids because they’re so tender. But we’re actually left a little bit behind up to that point.

KP: Besides being nominated for an Academy Award, what has it been like hearing the reception and seeing the way people have embraced Sound of Metal?

MN: First of all, I’m extremely grateful for the fact that Darius made the film and spent, I mean, most of his kid’s life trying to make this film. And that it comes out and it gets received and people watch it. I was lucky to be in Toronto seeing the film with a huge audience of deaf people. They were laughing and they were laughing at moments where I didn’t know what was going on. So his intention was received in the right way. And there’s so much love for that whole community, that, for me, was very, very rewarding.

And then I have to say all these things coming along right now with nominations and the film winning prizes and stuff like that, that’s just a cherry and something I would never ever have… I mean, you can never wish for these things, and coming from a small country, as I said, it never happens. I mean, it’s never happened that a Danish guy gets nominated for Best Editing. So we’re just grateful for everything.

KP: Final question, how has this experience impacted you personally?

MN: I have gotten a lot of really close friends. It’s almost like a family from the film and there’s so much love between people who did this movie together, which is incredible. I can’t wait to meet Nicolas, for example, because we’ve never met, we’ve only been working remotely. I edited the film in Denmark, he was in Paris, we mixed it in Mexico and then I edited again after the final mix to tweak it, so I love that whole thing.

But then I would say it resonates with me personally. I come from a background, I’m a drummer myself as well. I could relate to the thing. My dad is a musician. My dad lost his hearing in one ear. He’s been a musician for 55 years. So there’s a lot of elements in this that resonates to my own personal life. Being an editor, it’s very lonely sometimes and I could just really connect to the material and Ruben’s character in a way. Like also being addicted to work and maybe work too much or these things.

When it was finished I actually went to a silent retreat for a long time, which was which was absolutely beautiful.

And I’m very thankful for meeting Darius and everyone at the team, of course.

We would like to thank Mikkel E.G. Nielsen for speaking with us.

Sound of Metal is now streaming on Prime Video.

 

Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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