Full speed ahead: Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir on her career and editing tentpole films from all over the world

Icelandic native Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir is one of Hollywood’s most talented action film editors. 

Working in Europe for years, Ronaldsdóttir’s first US film was the 2012 crime thriller Contraband, a remake of a film she edited in Iceland. Recently she edited the new blockbuster Bullet Train and the Marvel hit Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Ronaldsdóttir’s most frequent collaborator is stunt-man-turned-action-director David Leitch; the duo worked together on John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2 and most recently, Bullet Train: a neon-infused, violent, and hilarious Agatha Christie-style romp starring Brad Pitt and an ensemble of who’s who, including Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Sandra Bullock. It all takes place on a bullet train speeding from Tokyo to Kyoto.

I sat down with Elísabet to discuss how her career got started, transitioning from Europe to Hollywood, and remotely editing Shang-Chi and Bullet Train from Iceland.

What initially drew you to editing? Was there a film or TV show that started it all? 

Well, I have to say, I was very fascinated by cinema photography and that’s what drew me to film school. And then during and after film school, I kept getting pregnant. Which made it hard to get on set and have 50 people wait because daycare didn’t open until ten or something. It’s just a really difficult thing to navigate. So, I found my way into the editing room. First because it was easier for time management, and then I absolutely fell in love with the process, and I’m still there.

What drew you to film school? What made you more than just a casual fan of the art?

I’ve always been interested in movies. I’m from a small country, Iceland, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. So I didn’t have the same kind of cinema experience as people might have somewhere like LA. But I used to go to the cinema at least once a week. And in Iceland, because we speak Icelandic, sometimes they couldn’t translate or subtitles the movies, so you always got a program explaining what the movie was about, including spoilers. I would collect them as a kid. I used to be a critic and would rate them. So I guess my fascination with cinema has been there for a long, long time.

Then when I was around 19 I started working for a production company that produced commercials, and through working there for about two years, I got experience running different jobs on set and at the office. I was just so fascinated by cinema photography. I also had been an avid photographer for a long, long time. Working with the frame, moving images, lights, shadows, I had a romantic fascination with cinema photography and that’s why I went. I think I learned a lot of very important tools to bring with me into the editing room, actually.

Once you got into editing, what were the big breaks that helped to get you to where you are?

I worked a lot in Iceland and in Europe. In Iceland, I worked a lot with a director, Baltasar Kormákur, who is also a film producer. He produced an Icelandic movie directed by Óskar Jónasson called Reykjavik-Rotterdam, and I edited that movie. Then what happened is that Universal and Working Title decided to remake that movie with Baltasar directing it and they brought me back on as the editor as well. [The remake is the 2012 Mark Wahlberg vehicle Contraband.] And that is how I got a foot in the door. We edited most of it in Iceland and London, but we did have to go to LA for screenings and meetings. During one of my trips over there, I met another editor, Dody Dorn, through a mutual friend. Dody and I had dinner, hit it off, and she introduced me to her agent who I ended up getting signed by.

Then at some point, they brought me this project, John Wick, with two stuntmen-turned-directors. I remember I wasn’t too thrilled, I was like, “That’s weird.” David [Leitch], was somewhere else working, so I met with Chad [Stahelski] first and we hit it off right away. Eventually I met David, and it was just so thrilling, just their fascination for the action genre. And I got the job, which was kind of weird, but I was so happy. We’ve had, especially David and I, a long working relationship now, with John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and now Bullet Train.

Since you are currently in Iceland, were you in the US editing Bullet Train? 

Covid really threw us off any routine or normalcy. All the studios were closed while they were filming and we had to work from home. I politely pointed out that home for me is Iceland, and they gave me the thumbs up to work from there. So I took a hard drive with me to Iceland and edited it up to the director’s cut. After almost half a year I went back to LA and we finished.

How was that? Can you talk a little about the benefits of working remotely?

There are pros and cons. The pros, obviously, being at home with family and friends but there are also cons. Moving making is a collaborative art and you need your team to bounce ideas off of. I would love to keep on having a hybrid of the two, where there are periods of working from home and then you go to work. 

Can you tell me about your experience using Evercast and the projects you used it for?

We used it for Marvel’s Shang-Chi. Photography ended in February 2021. The director was in Hawaii and it was very helpful.

Bullet Train has a fun Agatha Christie quality to it with a lot of setup and payoffs. Can you talk about balancing all the Checkov’s guns in the film?

It was a lot of work. We had to experiment, especially with how much information people were getting when. We did add some ADR to make the story clearer because it is a complicated story, but we also worked hard to not be contrived and to keep the audience excited. 

I love the non-linear style. How much was scripted and how much was discovered in post?

It was scripted that way from the beginning. The script embraced the style of the book, where you have a chapter to get to know each and every character. We actually made it more linear in post so that the stories would bump into each other more, so you get a better sense of fate when they start gathering on the train.

Was there an especially hard sequence to crack?

No, there were no hard sequences. I mean, this movie is hilarious. We had a lot of material. It was just painful watching the dailies because they’re so funny, the whole body ached from laughing. They were constantly cracking jokes, it was fun. There were some really tough decisions that had to be made, like what to cut for length. It was a bit tricky finding the balance of all these really strong characters. Allowing each one to shine without overshadowing anyone took some time.

Any favorite moments from the film?

There are so many dances in this movie that were so much fun to work with. The whole history of the Wolf was so much fun, just to build that life. All the bathroom scenes with Brad and the smart toilets were hilarious, but with a lot of tough decisions to make. Yeah, it’s just the movie for me. The Hornet! Prince! All so much fun. These are such highly professional actors, it was just a privilege to get such material where you could really work and experiment with characters.

As a fan, anything you’ve watched recently, old or new, that you especially liked?

Oh, I have to say, I loved the Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Favorite. I left with my mind blown, I was so inspired by that. I’ve always been a fan of his.

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