J.J. Abrams called on trusted, long-time collaborators for his newest film.
By Brady Betzel
Star Wars fever! Who’s got it? From where I sit, almost everyone — from the long-time fan to the newbies discovering the franchise for the first time. I fit somewhere in the middle. Up until recently I hadn’t seen the original three Star Wars, only the prequels, but thanks to my four-year-old son’s interest in the new action figures we got to experience the first three together, followed quickly by a viewing of the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
When my family walked out of the theater, my son asked when the next one was coming out, and my wife wanted to see it again! So when Randi Altman approached me to interview the editors of The Force Awakens, I jumped out of my chair, screaming, yes! As a working editor, mostly cutting TV fare, I was very interested in their story and process.
I spoke to editors Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon — who joined our call half way through — as well as associate editor Julian Smirke, who offered up a great Avid shortcut for any editor or assistant editor that deals with conforming different types of audio. Matt Evans, another associate editor, wasn’t available for the interview. Both Markey and Brandon have worked with Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams before on his TV series and films, such as the Star Trek and Mission Impossible franchises.
When talking to the editors, I was taken with an overwhelming and poignant feeling that enveloped me in a way; it was a sense of comfort and family that extended beyond our phone call to the set and production process. The best way to explain it is by using this example: I asked the editors how they would approach director Abrams if they had ideas on re-shoots or story points, and they all responded in kind: J.J. listens to everyone! If he had signed off on a scene but the editors felt something was missing, they still felt empowered to go in and address their concerns. This is a director who truly values the input of his editors.
Without any further ado here are highlights from our conversation.
Did you do anything special to prepare for editing this film as opposed to other films you have worked on with J.J.? Or did you walk in and say, “Let’s go”?
Mary Jo: I don’t think you can really cut in an authentic way while trying to imitate something else; we still cut the way we cut. Stylistically the only thing we did keep were the soft wipes between scenes. For me, I really don’t try and impose a style on material; the material kind of tells you what to do in a way.
Mary Jo Markey
How do you decide who edits what? Do you divide the movie scene by scene or pick and choose what you want?
Mary Jo: We divided up the script according to page count and did it in very large pieces so we had a good run at a section. That way when J.J. was editing with us he didn’t have to be bouncing back and forth between rooms. I cut the beginning and end of the film and Maryann cut the large middle section. We also watched the dailies together and talked about the movie incessantly.
While cutting we would go to each other’s bays and talk about things we are surprised by and what we weren’t sure was working. We would ask questions like, “Why do you think he did it that way?” or, “What do you think that performance is getting at?” If we are really confused about something, which doesn’t happen much, we have a direct line to J.J. on set. But for the most part we do our own thing and come together after they are done shooting.
How close were you behind shooting when watching dailies?
Mary Jo: We were a day behind shooting.
If something wasn’t working, were you able to re-evaluate and re-do?
Mary Jo: Actually, that did happen. It happened in part because Harrison Ford broke his ankle on set, which we all felt really bad about. We shot all we could without him on set, but unfortunately, he still wasn’t able to come back, so we took about a three-week hiatus. During that time, J.J. was able to sit back and see what he already had and how it was working. There were two things re-conceived during that period: Rey and Finn’s initial meeting in the trader’s tent and Harrison and Chewie’s first interaction with Rey and Finn.
Did you ever look at your sequence and have to “kill your darlings,” if you know what I mean?
Mary Jo: It was more like killing beats that we liked — there were some little jokes that got lifted. We are all really committed, J.J. in particular, to getting our films down to two hours if possible, so if things weren’t working or weren’t absolutely necessary they were lifted out of our sequence. We all have had to lose something that we really liked, but we always knew we needed to be clear-eyed about what we needed. I don’t think there is anything not in the film that I regret it not being in the film.
Maryann: There were a few whole scenes that we took out. So while they were fun scenes, they didn’t really advance the story or take the characters where we wanted them to go. There were times when we cut a little extra moment or a little extra joke, but there were scenes that J.J. thought weren’t working and we thought were, but in the end we all needed to agree a scene was working. Sometimes we would even dive back into a scene that J.J. had signed off on because we still thought we could do better.
So you have no problems going back into a scene and re-presenting it to him even if he already “approved” it?
Mary Jo: No, he takes it very seriously if we don’t think a scene is working, even if he has approved it. We have a great working relationship and we always feel heard and considered. He takes it very seriously if we are unhappy or dissatisfied about something.
Clearly, there was a great story being told in this movie, was the motto always story first?
Maryann: That was our aim. Even in the heavy action sequences if you don’t know who’s doing what or where they are going, then the action scene isn’t as enjoyable.
What systems were you working on, and what codec were you working with in the offline edit?
Julian: We worked on eight Avid Media Composer 7 stations with ScriptSync, and eventually Avid Media Composer 8.4 alongside an ISIS 5000. We had an offline working resolution of DNxHD 115. On previous films we worked in DNxHD 36, but with Star Wars we jumped to 115, which worked and looked great for our needs.
Did you ever do any work in other programs such as After Effects?
Julian: We worked with our VFX editor Martin Kloner, who primarily worked in Media Composer. Once we were further along in the process, the VFX were sent out to various vendors like ILM but also Kelvin Optical, who were especially helpful because they worked out of Bad Robot where we worked.
Maryann: It was invaluable to have someone like Martin do temp VFX, speed ramps, split screens, or backgrounds — anything we could do to simulate the end product would help when watching various cuts tremendously.
Do you edit with keyboard, mouse, Wacom tablet, etc?
Maryann: Mary Jo and I use a keyboard and mouse, but also a Logitech controller.
Julian: I use keyboard and Wacom tablet, but when I really need to speed up I’ll jump back to the keyboard and mouse, which seems to work faster for me.
Julian, since you are technically an associate editor on The Force Awakens, have you been able to edit scenes and work in a creative position more than just wrangling data?
Julian: So, technically, I have been the first assistant editor along with Matt, but with Star Wars — more so than previous films because of Maryann and Mary Jo’s generosity — I’ve been given more creative input. We get to sit in the rooms and be apart of the creative process. Sometimes we make suggestions and sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t (Julian laughs a little here), but everyone is very supportive and it’s nothing more than trying to make a scene better.
I was an assistant editor for a while, and it’s great to see editors like you — Maryann and Mary Jo — keeping the traditional sense of an assistant editor alive.
Mary Jo: Matt has been my first assistant since Super 8, and he’s just incredibly valuable to show a cut to. If he says something isn’t working I have to believe him because it always turns out to be true.
Maryann: It’s great to have someone like Julian involved before it goes out to the bigger world, meaning J.J.; it’s great to bounce ideas off of someone you have a short hand with.
Julian, how did it make you feel to that kind of creative input on something like Star Wars?
Julian: It’s amazing; a dream come true! Matt and I have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work. Sometimes if Maryann is slammed with dailies, I can grab a scene and assemble it for her so she can use that as a starting point. To learn from these great and talented editors is a dream come true.
Julian, could you describe how your time is divided?
Julian: It’s hard to describe precisely, because it depends on where in the process we are. During dailies it’s very labor intensive with grouping multiple cameras and syncing sound, or even just dealing with the huge amount of footage that comes in. You need to make sure all of your technical work is solid so it doesn’t become a problem a year and a half away.
So you and Matt were responsible for syncing sound?
Julian: Yes. So we shot primarily on 35mm film, and the telecine facility didn’t receive sound. Matt and I grouped and synced sound and every take manually and then prepped dailies for Maryann and Mary Jo. Once we finished with the more technical side with dailies we could move more into the creative side with temp sound design, 5.1 mix and such.
Do you have any favorite Avid shortcuts?
Mary Jo: Copy to Source monitor.
Maryann: Fit-to-Fill for quick speed ramps.
Julian: Because I live so much in the sound world with temp sound design, I would have to go with Option + Command + U, which allows you to insert any type of audio track in between other tracks. During large scenes like the Falcon chase we would use up to 20 tracks or more and need to insert a stereo track into the middle of that with that shortcut.
Mary Jo: I feel like we should have a meeting about all of this because I don’t know the ones you are talking about!
Maryann: Me too, I was like copy? We can copy?
Mary Jo: We’re going to have put a pamphlet together.
Brady Betzel is an online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood. Previously, he was editing The Real World at Bunim-Murray Productions. You can email Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter, @allbetzroff.