Editing: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'
Issue: January 1, 2016

Editing: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

LOS ANGELES — While Star Wars: The Force Awakens is on the January cover of Post, featuring Jennifer Walden’s extensive interview with the film’s post sound crew from Skywalker Sound, director JJ Abrams’ award-winning editors Maryann Brandon, ACE, and Mary Jo Markey, ACE, both of whom have worked with Abrams on Alias, Mission Impossible 3, Super 8, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Markey on Felicity, spoke with us here about cutting the newest Star Wars blockbuster, which has currently grossed more than $812M thus far.

The film — which was shot in a number of locations in Ireland, the UK, Abu Dhabi and New Mexico predominantly on Panavision cameras at 35mm cinemascope, as well as Arri Alexas, Reds and 65mm IMAX — was edited on Avid. According to Julian Smirke, associate editor on the film, the team began on Avid Media Composer Version 7 and had graduated to Version 8.4 by the time the film wrapped, working at an offline resolution of DNxHD 115 and storing assets on an Avid ISIS 5000. Smirke explains that many audiences, however, are viewing the film in theaters at 70mm. 

Speaking to the experience itself, Markey says, “It was surreal that we were going to do [Star Wars], and it kind of stayed surreal. I cut the movie and I approached the film like I would any film, and it was better to work that way, but every once in a while I would stop and say to myself, ‘I’m cutting Star Wars.’ It is amazing. I never ever pictured myself doing something like this.”

Brandon agrees, “I was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re working on potentially the biggest film — ever — that masses of people will see. I have to say, the only way to approach it is like any film you do, and try to keep the emotions and story strong or it would just be too hard — the responsibility to all the fans. You have to keep that at bay.”

Here, Brandon and Markey (pictured above L-R) discuss their long-time working relationship with Abrams and what it was like to cut one of the industry’s biggest blockbusters.

How early on did you get involved in the film?

Brandon: “We usually start a week or two before we read the script. And we give JJ our impressions of the script and we organize our cutting rooms and we start a few weeks before they start shooting. And, of course, it’s ongoing script consultations throughout the whole post period.” 

There were quite a few filming locations — Ireland, the UK, Abu Dhabi, New Mexico — were you on-location at all? 

Markey: “We were in London with the company. When they went to Abu Dhabi, it was only for two weeks, so we didn’t go. It wasn’t worth setting up a cutting room for two weeks. All those other little jaunts they took, too, to Ireland, to Whales for the forest shoot, they would just go for a week or two, so we just stayed in our cutting rooms in Pinewood [Studios in the UK].”

How would you describe your style of editing on this film?

Brandon: I think both MJ and myself pretty much focus on telling the story. It’s character driven, we find the best performances, find the message of the scene and relate to the character and move the story forward. I wouldn’t say there’s a particular style. The film was shot on film and JJ really wanted it to have that real look — have as much of the visual effects and characters as practical as they could possibly be. All the pilot interiors, cockpit are all shot in actual sunlight and they are real shadows moving across their faces. He goes to extreme lengths to make it feel as real as it possibly could be. Those characters are all built be Neal Scanlan and they are as real as they were in the original.”

Markey: “I don’t really try to impose a style on the material. My approach is kind of always the same. Looking through the dailies and looking for pieces that really speak to me where I feel what the character is feeling or just the moments that really speak to me, where I feel the actor is the most invested that he can be. I try to bring those together into the scene and I do always try to create a kind point of view for the scene and a guide, a way the viewer feels guided through the scene by a single point of view. But that’s the way I always cut. The only stylistic thing that we changed for this was using the soft wipes, which was used in the original films. Other than that I just don’t think we did anything different from what we’ve always done.” 

How did you split up the work?

Markey: “We never really work on the same scenes, although we talk about the same scenes together. We watch the dailies together and talk about the material and the film on the whole — the character arcs — we incessantly we talk about that. We split up the script into large chunks and although we all come together, JJ, MaryAnn and I will come together and work on it as a whole once it’s all put together. But when it comes to making changes, we always maintain the “ownership” of our parts of the film and we always do the actual cutting in our own sections and we just keep it that way. It seems to be a cleaner way to do it. Also, we know the dailies so much better for the material that we’ve been working on than the other editor does.” 

Brandon: “I totally agree. We try to cut the film in very large chunks, so we can see it through. And honestly, it works really well for us because you become very invested in those scenes. We get the notes and we can incorporate them so much more easily that way.”

Markey: “You also know immediately whether or not a note is doable.” 

Brandon: “Exactly.”

You’ve all worked together before, and for such a long time, does that make it easier to have that history behind you when you’re going to start a new project? I always hear about that kind of shorthand in your communication?

Markey: “I think it’s absolutely an advantage and there’s also a shared sensibility that is invaluable. We all have the same goal. It’s just so different when you start working with somebody else. You just don’t know if you share the same sensibility about what is important in filmmaking. For us, I think it’s always the emotion of the character. I remember JJ saying, ‘It’s the peeps, it’s the people that matter the most.’ (laughs) Of course you want to make an exciting film. You want the action scenes to be fun and the sense of adventure to be grand and delightful, but what it really comes down to in the end are the characters. I don’t really think all directors of action films feel that way. So it’s great for us that we all come from the same place. If you don’t care about the characters, nothing else really matters.

“As for shorthand, JJ can say three words about a scene and I know exactly what he’s not getting from the scene that he wants and that just doesn’t happen with somebody that you haven’t worked with for a long time.”

Brandon: “Thankfully, we can skip over the ‘getting-to-know-you’ part which can be awkward at times. And he does this to me all the time, and I know he does this to Mary Jo, he’ll just walk out and go, ‘just make it work,’ (laughs). And him saying that, you’re like, “I got it.’ And that just opens the door. I think we’re all respectful of each other enough, we never go too far. It’s a very comfortable relationship, which allows the creativity to flow.”

Markey: “Also the fact that Maryann and I have known each other for such a long time, the trust between us is really valuable. Nobody is playing it close to the vest in our cutting room. We just share our ideas very openly and freely and we’re very comfortable with each other. There’s not a competition between us — it’s all for the good of the film. It just makes for a really nice environment.”

From a technical standpoint, was there anything on this film that you thought was more challenging than other projects?

Brandon: “Aside from the massive responsibility to all the fans? (laughs) It definitely had its challenges not really any different than other films we cut; or that I’ve cut.”

Markey: “In a weird way, the fact that we couldn’t really show it to an audience. So the feedback that we got was kind of all friends and family and internal and until we actually saw it at the premiere, we didn’t see it with an audience. We didn’t know how people would really react and until the day it opened, we didn’t see it with a paying audience. So that was a little challenging. We had a limited amount of feedback. Sometimes you just have to go with your instinct.” 

Is there a key film or sequence related to the editing that stood out for you?

Markey: “I have certain ones that I really like and I’m sure MaryAnn does. I was really happy with the way the dialogue between Finn and Poe when they’re in the fighter escaping from the First Order. I just love that dialogue between them and the way they were with each other. And you see Finn starting to understand what it’s like to be a free person and the bonding that happens when Poe gives him his new name. That dialogue for me just turned out great and everyone seems it.”

Brandon: “For me, there were several – Maz being a character who was CG, so we had to really work her out and that was a hard one because there was no character there. That’s a real example of the film dictating what the character needed to be. All of us spoke endlessly about what she should talk about until we came to the conclusion that it really needed to be a moment for Finn to express himself. At one point, she was more magical, strong with the force, through all these iterations until she became that solid person who we just had to adore her. I think she was really successful.
But I think ultimately, was the part of the film when Rey goes to get the lightsaber and she has what we used to call the ‘Forceback,’ although that term has no relevance. JJ shot a bunch of stuff for it and all he kept saying to me was, ‘It’s like a bad dream, like an acid trip. At the end, I just want you to be really afraid.’ It ended up being a sound driven thing which was the best thing I could come up with and I’m really proud of it — I think it works, I think it is scary and you can track it. It’s not too long. It doesn’t overstay. But it was the bane of my existence for a long time. [JJ] kept walking in and looking at it going ‘nope’ and walking out. And then one day he walked in and went, ‘That’s it.’ And I was like, ‘Thank the Lord!’” 

Do you feel like there are more roadblocks or challenges for women in Hollywood than for men?

Markey: “Well I think there’s definitely more roadblocks and difficulties for women doing these kinds of jobs — the full action movie. I do think we’ve been very fortunate in working with somebody who doesn’t define people by their gender. I remember when I was trying to make the transition from assistant editor to editor and I would go on these low budget movie interviews and the producers or the directors would ask me, ‘Have you cut action?’ Truthfully, I hadn’t. But you kind of BS your way through that and it didn’t work. But I had done two and a half seasons of Felicity and then I’d gone off to do something else, but when I heard JJ was doing Alias, I called him up and said, ‘How about me?’ and he said, ‘That would be fantastic.’ And that was it. He didn’t say, ‘Have you cut action?’ He just assumed I would do the job. It was hard at first but after two or three episodes in, it was second nature to cut some dialogue and cut some action.

“I want to tell you a story that I think is absolutely stunning. I went on a job interview since I finished Star Wars, for an action film, I went on just to go on, but about three quarters of the way through the interview, the director or producer said to me, ‘All that action in those movies you do with JJ, you cut that?’ (laughs). I couldn’t believe it. No, we keep a guy in the closet. I thought to myself, ‘It’s like it’s 1990s all over again.’ They still don’t believe we can do it. I did not know what to say. And to me, that says everything about what is going on in this industry.”

That’s a great story, in an awful way. Thank you for sharing that. I’m happy there’s a lot more discussion about the topic.

Brandon: “I think I’ve had similar experiences to Mary Jo. I think I would credit JJ for understanding that the relationship between an editor or any crew person and a director is trust. It’s in how well you get along and how much you see eye to eye and I think a lot of times I’ve come up against a guy-guy buddy thing. I once had someone in a cutting room tell me that women will always have to go early to go to their kids or go to their therapist. I didn’t even know what to say.

“There’s no question that there’s a struggle. If you look at the pay scale of women to men, we’re still right on that curve of being 77 percent of what men get paid. I feel very fortunate to be in a position where I can try and make some inroads into any of the perceptions. Certainly the pay and types of films women should be doing.  We’ve had such good fortune — everyone we’ve worked with is so respectful. I have to remember that it’s not like that everywhere else.”

Markey: “I just want to add, there have been some occasions where I think there are some directors who specifically want women and I think I’ve benefitted from that. So, I don’t want to say that it’s only one-sided. It’s not for these kinds of movies, but when the whole filmmaking team is male and they feel they need another point of view to be brought to it. So I do think there are times when it’s benefitted me as well.”

Are you happy with the final film?

Brandon: “It’s hard not to be.”

Markey: “I am. Aside from a couple of jokes that I think we could have gotten away with that we cut last minute, because they were too jokey, how can you ask for a better response?”