The multi-award winning editor of Three Girls, The Crown and Death on the Nile speaks with IBC365 about her journey to becoming one of Hollywood’s most sought after editors.
When the pandemic struck this time last year, it happened on the opening weekend of Misbehaviour, a film about the Women’s Liberation movement who infiltrated and disrupted the 1970 Miss World competition, the same year as the first black woman was crowned Miss World.
Starring Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, the film deals with serious issues of race and gender, but in a light-hearted way.
“We wanted the film to appeal to the widest audience so that people would hear their story, which lay untold for fifty years,” says the film’s editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle. “It’s a feel good film that captures the vitality and humour of the real women who helped us develop the story [including activist Sally Alexander, played by Knightley]. I hope many more people can catch it now on demand.”
Ní Dhonghaíle’s body of work includes high end TV drama The Missing, Doctor Who and Ripper Street, all of which have earned her Bafta TV Craft nominations. She’s also one of a special group of women who have edited a $120 million feature. This was for Disney+ Death on the Nile which has been rescheduled for release this year.
“I’m drawn to stories that resonate with authenticity,” she says. “They don’t have to be based on fact but there has to be a truth to them.”
International Women’s Day This interview is part of a week-long series of conversations with inspirational women in craft, technology and leadership roles. For more interviews click here
The Dubliner comes from a family with strong oral storytelling tradition. Her parents and grandparents would gather to tell stories, sing songs and recite poems, which often proved more entertaining than the telly.
During summer holidays in West Cork, cinema trips were a highlight, and the feature presentations were often projected with the wrong aspect ratio. “It meant you could see things like booms popping into shot. For the first time I was aware of things behind the camera. Aged 14 I knew I wanted to make films.”
A degree in Film and Media Studies at the Dublin Institute of Technology led to the National Film and Television School where she specialized in film editing.
“I wanted to be a director but at that time you had to choose whether to direct drama, or docs or animation and the only way to study all three was to specialise in cinematography or editing. I was only young, so I wanted to explore all three and editing was a natural step. I threw all my energy into it.”
She made 15 shorts and one feature doc while at studying at the NFTS between 1995-1998. One of the shorts was shown on Channel 4 and many others had festival lives. Secondhand (NFTS/Lodz Film School co-production with director Emily Young) won top prize in the Cinefondation Section in Cannes 1999.
After graduation, Ní Dhonghaíle spent years honing her craft by editing creative documentaries, many of which won international awards and raised the profile of injustices in the world, like Child Miners (BBC Storyville).
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Cutting to the truth
In 2007, Wojtek Szepel, the cinematographer of Secondhand, recommended her to director Hettie Macdonald for the Abi Morgan drama White Girl about the experience of working class white and South Asian families in Bradford. This was her first break into TV drama and her first Bafta nomination.
Three Girls (2017) began as a brave and bold concept by producers Susan Hogg and Simon Lewis to tell the story of the Rochdale child sex abuse ring through the eyes of three girls. They joined forces with Philippa Lowthorpe and writer Nicole Taylor for the Bafta winning BBC miniseries to which the actual girls, their families and social worker, the policewoman and the journalist who highlighted the case all contributed.
“This holds a special place in my heart because of the real girls behind the story,” Ní Dhonghaíle says. “I was humbled when some of the real people came to the cutting room and advised us on the truth. Their strength and courage deserve every praise. We couldn’t have made the series without them.”
Ní Dhonghaíle commends “the many brilliant women in our industry,” and in particular those she has had “the joy and privilege of working with.”
Three Girls, earned her a Bafta for Best Fiction Editing, as well as a Women in Film and TV Award, a RTS Craft & Design Award and an IFTA.
It is stories like this, “which give voice to people who are unheard, not believed, overlooked, discriminated against” which attract Ní Dhonghaíle. She’s also interested in genre escapism, “provided there is some sort of emotional response to the characters.”
Peter Morgan’s script for The Crown was an invitation to humanise an oft caricatured family. “What I liked was that Peter was giving a subjectivity to the Queen, allowing us to empathise with her and the situation in which she found herself.”
Ní Dhonghaíle edited two episodes in the first season and another in season 2, helping set the tone for the Netflix juggernaut. “We were all finding our feet with the first season, using a more elegant or cinematic style of editing, while keeping the focus on the humanity of the characters. The dinner scenes were covered by so many cameras but actually, what’s important is the subtext, sometimes holding on the person who isn’t speaking reveals the tension. The unspoken is often more important than the spoken in these types of big drama.”
Andy Harries, exec producer on The Crown (and Wallander and Misbehaviour) was responsible for putting Ní Dhonghaíle’s name in the hat for Stan & Ollie.
“Steve Coogan and John C Reilly were brilliant at recreating iconic Laurel and Hardy sketches to the exact timing of the original, but they also got under their skin of their characters to give us a glimpse of the real men behind the performance.”
After working on Stan & Ollie in January 2018, she went on to edit three features and a BBC six-part drama - an extraordinary workload for one year.
“I did this because, like my time in the NFTS, I knew I had to push myself if I wanted to break into feature film. Although I had edited Veronika Decides To Die in 2008, all my work offers were coming from high end TV and I really wanted to edit features as well.”
She went to Brussels to begin assembling all six episodes of BBC’s Les Miserables with the director Tom Shankland. During a ten-week hiatus, she edited Rosie, directed by Paddy Breathnach and written by Roddy Doyle.
“This film is particularly important for me since it shines a light on the strength and dignity of a woman and her family who face homelessness. It was shot in a cinema verité way and thrived on our shorter schedule. We relied on our first instincts and you can feel that raw energy.”
While finalising the mix of Les Mis, Sir Kenneth Branagh invited her to join him on his independent film All Is True, about the final years of William Shakespeare’s life.
“We managed to shoot and edit with speed. It was a labour of love as I really wanted to work with Ken. The film has a painterly feel to it. We wrapped that DCP the day before the first day of principal photography commenced on Misbehaviour.”
At film school she had studied Branagh’s first films as director, Henry V and Dead Again, even drawing diagrams of the mis-en-scene to see how he’d placed the camera.
“You can imagine how thrilled I was when I got to work with him years later. He is a brilliant collaborator, confident in his own taste and ideas but open to being challenged. He helps you to interrogate your own work to make the film the best it can be.”
They’d first worked together in 2009 on the BBC series of Wallander with Branagh playing the weary Swedish detective. She also cut ‘The Troubled Man’ episode in the final series when the character struggles with Alzheimers, even visiting location shoot in South Africa to discuss progress.
Death on the Nile, the director’s new Hercule Poirot whodunnit had wrapped in December 2019, and they were finishing the Director’s cut when Covid-19 forced everyone to quarantine. Ní Dhonghaíle returned from Longcross Studios to Dublin, where she has an Avid equipped studio and talked with Branagh every morning.
“It’s the biggest budget feature I’ve worked on and despite all of the challenges working remotely it proved to be the most rewarding thanks to everyone’s attitude. We were very aware how lucky we were to be able to work and blessed that none of us or our families were sick. Everyone took that as a real positive sign to just do our best to finish the film.”
Their latest production together is Branagh’s most personal to date. Belfast, due for release later this year, is an auto-fiction film charting a boy’s childhood during the tumult of the late 1960s in the Northern Ireland capital.
With her star rising, Ní Dhonghaíle commends “the many brilliant women in our industry,” and in particular those she has had “the joy and privilege of working with.” Among them Lowthorpe, Macdonald, Taylor and Hogg, Sanne Wohlenberg, Suzanne Mackie, Rebecca Frayn, Willow Grylls, Nikki Wilson, Tamar Thomas and Lucy Dyke. “I really cherish the friendships we have made,” she says.
The birth of her first child in 2009 propelled her to choose her projects with care. “If it was going to take me away from time with my children, it better be worthwhile, either financially or if a limited budget, a story that needed to be told,” she explains.
“I hope to find a balance in editing big budget studio films like Death On The Nile and independent films like Misbehaviour and Belfast. The challenge of storytelling in every genre interests me and I would love to edit some action and superhero films for all the big studios going forward. That’s my next ambition!”