Editing <I>Star Wars</I>: The force behind <I>The Rise Of Skywalker</I>
Issue: January/February 2020

Editing Star Wars: The force behind The Rise Of Skywalker

Lucasfilm teamed up with director JJ Abrams once again to take audiences on a journey to a galaxy far, far away. Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker opened in theaters on December 20th and stars Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and John Boyega, along with franchise legends Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Billy Dee Williams. To date, the film has taken in more than $1B internationally.

The project also reunited Abrams with editor Maryann Brandon, who co-edited the project with Stefan Grube. In addition to Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens, for which she received an Oscar nomination, Brandon has collaborated with the director on a range of projects over the past 20 years, including Super 8, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Mission: Impossible III and Alias. Recently, she took time to speak with Post about collaborating with Abrams, her workflow and how she approaches VFX-heavy feature films.

Was it your past work with JJ Abrams that led to this project?

“I am hired, usually, on most my projects, by the director, and so I’ve worked on all of JJ Abrams’ feature films…I had just taken Venom on when JJ told me he had agreed to jump on to IX. So I knew I was going to go from Venom to Star Wars.”

As an editor, did you intentionally set out to work on VFX-driven features?

“I think my knee jerk reaction is, I kind of fell into it. But the truth is, I’m very interested in visual effects and sci-fi and fantasy, and adventure films anyway. I’m also interested in dramas and emotional films. I’d love to do a great comedy. But I feel — when I started working with JJ — that all of those things are encompassed in his films. So I feel like I hit the jackpot by getting to work with him because his films have a great sense of humor…One of the things I would say about The Rise of Skywalker is…that I feel it’s a very emotional story.”

How does a Star Wars film evolve in editorial, knowing that completed visual effects will be coming in down the road?

“I cut the scenes together using the performances. And if it’s a performance on green screen, I kind of imagine I know what the background is going to be, or I make up what the background is going to be. And then I check in with JJ and the visual effects supervisor. And, I’ve got a script in front of me. So I know what’s what. 

"Sometimes I’ll put in title cards and say, ‘This is a wide shot of the (Millennium) Falcon arriving on a planet.’ And sometimes I have previsualization, which I use. But I’ve learned over the years to use it as a guide but not [to be] set in stone. You’re not set in stone because, obviously it transforms into what you want it to be.

“I’ll sit down with the director and we’ll talk about how it’s going to go together. So with Star Wars, or Venom, I’ve got a visual performance to use, and that helps dictate what ultimately the visual effects are going to be. And then, of course, I make adjustments down the line, but in my head, I’m still telling that story. I try to put it all together so JJ and the writer and producers can see what they have and what they might need or want down the road.”

Does your cut influence the VFX or vice versa?

“Yeah, and vise versa. I’ll talk to Roger Guyett at visual effects and say, ‘What’s your intention here?' Or, like in the speeder chase, I said to JJ, ‘I want to know what’s going on here?’ A lot of times in the script, it just says, ‘They take off and drive.’ 

“JJ gave me a set of storyboards that he had put together, so I knew what his intention was. I don’t want it to feel like my cut is influencing. It goes both ways. I feel like they influence me — I influence them. And together we get to it. And sometimes what I do is completely wrong, and I have to backtrack it and rethink it…It’s a very creative process, which I really, thoroughly enjoy. And also, it is very daunting.”

Where were you working on this?

“Well, when we were shooting in London, I had a cutting room at Pinewood, where they were shooting. And [I’d move] to a cutting room on the set, because they, a lot of times, were on sets. And then from the set, I moved on to a little mobile unit, like ten feet from the camera. So JJ could come and see what he wanted to see whenever he wanted to see it. And also, I was right there, so we could have visual effects meetings as we were trying to develop these scenes or [were] shooting these scenes. And I cut something together, and then we could bring the visual effects person over and we could talk about it.”

When did you get involved on this project? 

“I got involved probably two weeks before production, or a little before that, I got to read the script. I read it and made notes, and then we’ll talk about it and talk about how we want to work. We’ve done it so often, a lot of that is short hand. I know how to work with JJ…They started shooting August 1st or 3rd, 2018.” 

You had a co-editor on The Rise Of Skywalker. How did that work? 

"Yes. Stefan Grube, who was also incredible. Our thing was, get the scenes cut and get a version to JJ, and get the dialogue going. On this [film] in particular, Stefan and I were like, ‘I’ll take this.’ I’ll be working on, say, the speeder chase, and then if another sequence started shooting before I finished that, he would take that sequence. And then while he was doing that sequence, I would take the next sequence that came in. And then we’d get JJ’s notes and I’d make changes in something I’ve done, and he’d make changes. And then sometimes I wasn’t available or would be doing something else, and he’d make the changes in those scenes. I’d make the changes in the scenes he cut. It was a real team. He and I discussed a lot. And when we got a scene to a place where we got notes from JJ or JJ was in the room, we all talked about it. This particular experience was a great collaborative effort.”

You are cutting on an Avid? Is that the system you typically use?

“Yes, I am. For me, I have no need to change. I try to keep up with technology. I’m really story driven, so the Avid is really a tool for me to try and just get it done.”

How often are you communicating with JJ Abrams? 

“If I’m on the set, obviously I see him all day long. And he comes and goes as he can. He’s got a million people constantly asking him (questions) so he’s quite busy, so I’m just there when he needs me. Otherwise I’m working away on something else. And if I have a question, of course he’ll answer. I’ve probably talked to him at least every day, if not more. With texting and email, there’s no block to communication these days.” 

Who was handling the dailies?

“Company 3 in London. We were shooting on film. The film went to them and they provided the files.”

There’s so much action going on throughout the film. Is there a scene that you would call attention to?

“I guess the whole end battle. The balance between what’s happening below to Rey and what’s happening above to the resistance. And then there’s the side plot of what’s happening to Finn and Jannah, and then the galaxy showing up and the emperor underneath, goating her. And then, obviously, Ren showing up. We were really editorially careful about at which emotional point we left each scene to join the other scene. We didn’t want to bounce anyone’s emotions around too much, but we wanted there to be this balance like, you’re winning — now you’re not winning. And I’m really proud of the way that came out. I think it feels well balanced.

“Whenever I cut a sequence like that, I kind of try to let it hit me so I can feel my way through it, as opposed to force it to be something, one way or another.”