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Children of War: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen talks about Beasts of No Nation

Trevor Hogg chats with Mikkel Nielsen about assembling a passion project for filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga called Beasts of No Nation

beasts of no nationChild soldiers are a fixture of Western African conflicts and filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre) explores the disturbing subject matter by writing, shooting and directing a cinematic adaption of Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala.  Newcomer Abraham Attah portrays the mischievous Agu whose idealistic village life is torn apart by government troops killing rebels and civilians indiscriminately; he flees and is discovered by the Commandant (Idris Elba) who recruits him for his revolutionary force consisting of armed and drugged young boys.   The project, which has been in development since 2006 by Fukunaga, involved 35 days of principal photography, 22 locations in Ghana, and 75 hours of raw footage assembled by editors Mikkel E.G. Nieslen (A Royal Affair) and Pete Beaudreau (All Is Lost).

“We were going to be staying in a room together for half a year so there needed to be a connection between us,” notes Mikkel E.G. Nielsen.   “I had a dinner with Cary, read the script, talked about the project and he asked me if I wanted to edit it.  At that point Cary was going to shoot it at Ghana but he hadn’t found the actor yet to play Agu.”  A hamstring injury to the Steadicam operator on the first day of shooting presented a unique situation to the Danish editor.  “It was the first time I worked with a director who also shot the film so Cary knew his footage.  I was given a lot of creative freedom to try things.  He is interested in seeing various options.  Cary wanted to see what the footage can do and where we could take it, especially in the montages.  When Agu is captured and we go into camp that whole section you lose the sense of time.”


The 30 minute long first act was critical to get right as the audience needed to be able to care about Agu.  “We worked a lot on the opening,” reveals Mikkel E.G. Nielsen.  “It is almost like the script.  It took so long to cut the scene because they speak in a different language and we needed to decide how funny it could be, how much you could jump in time, and you have to know who is Agu and what he comes from in order to take this journey with him.  You also realize that he is a child who can survive.  It is easy to say, ‘Let’s shorten the opening to get to what this film is about.’   But Beasts of No Nation also deals with whether Agu is able to go back to being a kid after all of these horrible experiences.   We need that time with Agu at the start to learn about where he came from.”

“Additional editor Victoria Lesiw was in Ghana and I started the first assemble when they got back,” remarks Mikkel E.G. Nieslen who was based in New York for the project.   “I spent six weeks with the material.  Since we needed the first assemble quickly and I had all of the footage, I did it chronologically.  We immediately know that we had a film as there were no structural problems.”  The first cut was three hours and forty-five minutes and eventually paired down to two hours and thirteen minutes for the final theatrical version.  All of the montage sequences were playing out as scenes so then you had to go in and make changes.  You feel immediately when things work.”  A voice over was incorporated into the storytelling.  “The voice over was in the script.  A lot of times I cut without it to see how the scene would work.”  The war drama was assembled on an Avid and with temp music.  “I used a lot of electronic music for tonality or something that drives the pace of the whole scene.”

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“The most important element throughout the movie is that it is told from the point of view of Agu,” states Mikkel E.G. Nielsen who used the creative choice to heighten the suspense.  “For me, it was always to try to see it from a child’s perspective.  You’re listening but not really sure what is going on.  It puts you in the middle of the action and makes you wonder what is going to happen in the next scene.  Is this the worse situation or is going to get even worse?  Then out of the worse try to make happiness as well.  After the first killing Agu meets Strika [Emmanuel ‘King Kong’ Nii Adom Quaye], and out of that comes a playfulness with them running around blindfolded trying to touch each other and shooting an animal which they eat.  I’ve never been a war situation but I would expect that things are not always bad.”


“I don’t feel that we see that much [of violence],” observes Mikkel E.G. Nielsen.    “When Agu makes his first kill that is a hard scene but it has to be.  From there on you don’t see that much.”  Outside of Idris Elba, a majority of the cast had never acted before.   “It is a blessing and curse working with non-actors.  The movie becomes like a documentary.  You feel like you’re there.  The main thing was that Abraham Attah was incredible as Agu and you could always stay on him.  There is a huge difference between doing and seeing a movie.  All of the takes would end with a laugh because they were kids having fun playing these characters.  It does not feel for real on a set. It’s afterwards when you see the film that you realize that this scene is quite intense.”

A 360 degree approach was taken with the principal photography which utilized an ARRI ALEXA camera.  “Cary could shoot all around the place which gave him more creative freedom.”  Extensive research was conducted to ensure that the story was told authentically.  “Cary knew what the sound needed to be like when you’re in Africa and it had to look the right way.  “There is some artistic license that takes place such as the green leaves of the jungle turning to red in an effort visually depict the state of mind of the drug-induced Agu who takes part in a killing spree.  “This guy cuts him and puts Brown-brown [mixture of powdered cocaine and smokeless gunpowder] into the wound.  We see things strangely from the prayer of the Commandant to going into the small village and time is suddenly nonexistence. It ends when he is talking to God after killing the woman.”


beast_key_002_h“The process of working on the initiation scene where Agu comes to the camp and hears the first speech by the Commandant who baptises him took a long time,” states Mikkel E.G. Nielsen.  “I’m happy with that and the taking of the bridge.  We knew that it needed to be special.”   A bond developed between the protagonist and the editor.  “I was away from my family for seven months and somehow I had a strange connection with Agu because he was also separated from his family.” A schedule conflict occurred which resulted in another editor being brought in to finish the movie.  “My problem was that I had an exit date in February so I didn’t do any of the sound work.  I had to go onto another job so Pete Beaudreau came on around Christmas and we worked for a few weeks together.  Pete followed it through the whole process of the sound design.  I am impressed with the sound work which adds to the intensity of the movie.”

“I don’t see a difference in the work process from one movie to another as it is all about being organized, structured and trying various things,” observes Mikkel E.G. Nielsen.   “Beasts of No Nation was an important project for everyone.  When I met Cary, he explained to me what this was about and that he had tried to finance it for seven years.  Cary wrote the script while doing his first film Sin Nombre [2009].  People who are that dedicated and passionate about a project I will work with anytime.  I love that.  It’s a film with the heart in the right place.”  Beasts of No Nation will be released on Netflix and theatrically in the US on October 16, 2015.  “I hope that people will see movie on the big screen because it was nice to see in a cinema with the sound and music.”

Many thanks to Mikkel E.G. Nielsen for taking the time to be interviewed.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.


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