Bullet Train is a breakneck ride, and I loved every second of it. By weaving multiple storylines and action sequences together, editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir had her work cut out for her. Reteaming with director Davie Leitch, Ronaldsdóttir cut together a balanced action comedy with enough room for some emotional heft.
There has been a lot of notice of how Leitch comes from a stunt background. He clearly knows how a fight sequence should work both between the actors and translated on screen. For Ronaldsdóttir, she saw working with a stunts expert as an advantage to cutting Bullet Train and its frenetic sequences.
“David [Leitch] hires the best people. He and his producers know how to train for this sequences. A lot of the crew–hair, makeup, costumes–are all involved in the stunts, but David knows everything inside and out. It’s very comforting, as an editor, to know that he would put his foot down if I was doing something stupid. The first time that I met him–when I was working on John Wick–I thought, ‘Two stunt men want to do a movie…what is going to happen here..?’ When I met him, his passion makes you so smitten. I was almost high on the excitement after talking to him. David knows film. People don’t know that it’s all about the story and the character, and he’s very sensitive about the tone of the story. We talk a lot about character, and I just need to tighten it where it needs to be.”
Ronaldsdóttir has worked with Leitch on several films, including Deadpool 2 and John Wick. Last year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings had its share of lighter, comedic moments. Is there a key to balancing the action and the laughs?
“You have to give the audience permission to enjoy the action even if it’s not comedy. In the beginning, you have to let people know that they can have fun with it. Laugh with it. Go bananas. I think David did that early with the Seventeen Kills section. People love to talk about stunt movies without substance–that’s a go-to with a lot of people. There is a lot of substance in Bullet Train. There are emotional moments, but we need to have time get there. It’s a tightrope.”
Tightening the film throughout post-production was something Ronaldsdóttir and I frequently talked about. She opened my eyes to something in terms of the structure of the film: Brad Pitt’s Ladybug is not the lead. Pitt’s face has been plastered everywhere since the film’s release, so we naturally assume that his character is the main protagonist. But if you think about how the story is structured, we are entering the film from a side character’s point of you. Almost like stepping onto a train in the middle of its journey.
“A lot of things turned out differently from the original assembly. We use a lot of the same takes, but we tightened it up as we went along. The biggest construction work is the opening where everyone bumps into everyone. Going to Kyoto was tricky as well. Brad Pitt is giving us a new character, I feel. I do want to say is that what people might not know is that because Brad is so big, Ladybug is not the main character. He’s the main star, but the main characters are Kimura and The Elder. They are the only ones that have an arc. No one else does. Ladybug destroys things like a crazy person. Prince doesn’t change either. The opening used to be chapters where we introduced everyone. It took too long, and people would freak out if they didn’t see Brad right away. When I started intercutting it, it made more sense in terms of fate. We lose the father for a while, but it is lovely to break up this story form. They are all side stories of Kimura and The Elder, and I loved that we had a chance to experiment with the form. I was thrilled that Sony was up for playing around.”
Every character in Bullet Train gets a worthy introduction, and we never know what is going to happen to them. Without introduction to Bad Bunny’s The Wolf, his stride seems to slow down as we get his back story. It’s almost as if the film wants to feed into his swagger, his masculinity.
“We need to connect with him. For what happens on the train to have any impact, we have to follow him. It’s brutal that we just get to know him and then he lose him. It helps that we see him as a baby, his mom dies, he falls in love, and he’s in bad company. We are building expectations, but we are fooling the audience. That’s our job. Casting Bad Bunny came from Kelly McCormick, and that was so clever.”
A novice editor might be intimidate by all of Bullet Train‘s moving parts, but Ronaldsdóttir has some simple advice for someone who wants to try their hand at cutting an action epic.
“We all start cutting action movies before formally doing it before. It doesn’t matter if it’s action or something else, be brave. Tell the story. I’ve been very blessed that I work with the best directors and choreographers out there and that casts a beautiful life for me. Even with action that isn’t as well shot, you have to be unafraid to experiment and have fun with it. I watch action sequences again and again and again without any music or any sound. With David, you know there is so much happening, but you need to see it with different scenarios to give yourself an internal flow. And the pace is really flowing. The music is the icing, but the basis has to be good.”
Bullet Train is in theaters now.