By Amy Leland
In the interest of full disclosure, I have been a fan of both the Star Wars world and the work of J.J. Abrams for a very long time. I saw Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope in the theaters with my big brother when I was five years old, and we were hooked. I don’t remember a time in my life without Star Wars. And I have been a fan of all of Abrams’ work, starting with Felicity. Periodically, I go back and rewatch Felicity, Alias and Lost. I was, in fact, in the middle of Season 2 of Alias and had already purchased my ticket for The Rise of Skywalker when I was assigned this interview.
As a female editor, I have looked up to Maryann Brandon, ACE, and Mary Jo Markey, ACE — longtime Abrams collaborators — for years. A chance to speak with Brandon was more than a little exciting. After getting the fangirl out of my system at the start of the interview, we had a wonderful conversation about her incredible career and this latest Star Wars offering.
After working in the world of indie film in New York City after NYU film school, Brandon has not only been an important part of J.J. Abrams’ world — serving as a primary editor on Alias, and then on Mission Impossible III, Super 8 and two films each in the Star Trek and Star Wars worlds — but has also edited The Jane Austen Book Club, How to Train Your Dragon and Venom, among others.
Let’s dig a bit deeper with Brandon…
How did your path to editing begin?
I started in college, but I wasn’t really editing. I was just a member of the film society. I was recruited by the NYU Graduate Film program in 1981 because they wanted women in the program. And I thought, it’s that or working on Wall Street, and I wasn’t really that great with the money or numbers. I chose film school.
I had no idea what it was going to be like because I don’t come from a film background or a film family. I just grew up loving films. I ended up spending three years just running around Manhattan, making movies with everyone, and everyone did every job. Then, when I got out of school, I had to finish my thesis film, and there was no one to edit it for me. So I ended up editing it myself. I started to meet people in the business because New York was very close. I got offered a paid position in editing, and I stayed.
I met and worked for some really incredible people along the way. I worked as a second assistant on the Francis Ford Coppola film The Cotton Club. I went from that to working as a first assistant on Richard Attenborough’s version of A Chorus Line. I was sent to London and got swept up in the editing part of it. I like telling stories. It became the thing I did. And that’s how it happened.
Who inspired you in those early days?
I was highly influenced by Dede Allen. She was this matriarch of New York at that time, and I was so blown away by her and her personality. I mean, her work spoke for itself, but she was also this incredible person. I think it’s my nature anyway, but I learned from her early on an approach of kindness and caring. I think that’s part of why I stayed in the cutting room.
On set, things tend to become quite fraught sometimes when you’re trying to make something happen, but the cutting room is this calm place of reality, and you could figure stuff out. She was very influential to me, and she was such a kind, caring person. She cared about everyone in the cutting room, and she took time to talk to everyone.
There was also John Bloom, who was the editor on A Chorus Line. We became very close, and he always used to call me over to see what he was doing. I learned tons from him. In those days, we cut on film, so it was running through your fingers.
The truth is everyone I meet influences me a bit. I am fascinated by each person’s approach and why they see things the way they do.
While your resume is eclectic, you’ve worked on many sci-fi and action films. Was that something you were aiming for, or did it happen by chance?
I was lucky enough to meet J.J. Abrams, and I was lucky enough to get on Alias, which was not something I thought I’d want to do. Then I did it because it seemed to suit me at the time. It was a bit of faith and a bit of, “Oh, that makes sense for you, because you grew up loving Twilight Zone and Star Trek.”
Of course, I’d love to do more drama. I did The Jane Austen Book Club and other films like that. One does tend to get sort of suddenly identified as, now I’m the expert on sci-fi and visual effects. Also, I think because there aren’t a lot of women who do that, it’s probably something people notice. But I’d love to do a good comedy. I’d love to do something like Jumanji, which I think is hilarious.
How did this long and wonderful collaboration with J.J. Abrams get started?
Well, my kids were getting older. It was getting harder and harder for me to go on location with the nanny, the dog, the nanny’s kids, my kids, set up a third grade class and figure out how to do it all. A friend of mine who was a producer on Felicity had originally tried to get me to work on that show. She said, “You’ll love J.J. You’ll love (series creator) Matt Reeves. Come and just meet us.” I just thought television is such hard work.
Then he was starting this new show, Alias. My friend said, “You’re going to love it. Just meet him.” And I did. Honestly, I went to an interview with him, and I spent an hour basically laughing at every joke he told me. I thought, “This guy’s never going to hire me.” But he said, “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.” That’s how it started.
What was that like?
Alias was so much fun. I didn’t work on Felicity, which was more of a straightforward drama about a college girl growing up. Alias was this crazy, complicated, action-filled show, but also a girl trying to grow up. It was all of those things. It was classic J.J. It was a challenge, and it was really fun because we all discovered it together. There were three other female editors who are amazing — Mary Jo Markey, Kristin Windell, and Virginia Katz — and there was J.J. and Ken Olin, who was a producer in residence there and director. We just found the show together, and that was really fun.
How has your collaboration with J.J. changed over time?
It’s changed in terms of the scope of a project and what we have to do. And, obviously, the level of conflict and communication is pretty easy because we’ve known each other for so long. There’s not a lot of barriers like, “Hey, I’m trying to get to know you. What do I…?” We just jump right in. Over the years, it’s changed a bit.
On The Rise of Skywalker, I cut this film with a different co-editor. Mary Jo [Markey, Brandon’s longtime co-editor] was doing something else at the time, so I ended up working with Stefan Grube. The way I had worked with Mary Jo was we would divide up the film. She’d do her thing and I’d do mine. But because these films are so massive, I prefer not to divide it up, but instead have both of us work on whatever needs working on at the time to get it done. I proposed this to J.J., and it worked out great. Everything got cut immediately and we got together periodically to ask him what he thought.
Another thing that changed was, because we needed to turn over our visual effects really quickly, I proposed that I cut on the set, on location, when they were shooting. At first J.J. was like, “We’ve never done this before.” I said, “It’s the only way I’m going to get your eyes on sequences,” because by the time the 12-hour day is over, everyone’s exhausted.
It was great and worked out well. I had this little mobile unit, and the joke was it was always within 10 feet of wherever J.J. was. It was also great because I felt like I was part of the crew, and they felt like they could talk to me. I had the DP asking me questions. I had full access to the visual effects supervisor. We worked out shots on the set. Given the fact that you could see what we already had, it really was a game-changer.
What are some of the challenges of working on films that are heavy on action, especially with the Star Wars and Star Trek films and all the effects and CGI?
There’s a scene where they arrive on Exogal, and they’re fighting with each other and more ships are arriving. All of that was in my imagination. It was me going, “Okay, that’ll be on the screen for this amount of time.” I was making up so much of it and using the performances and the story as a guide. I worked really closely with the visual effects people describing what I thought was going to happen. They would then explain that what I thought was going to happen was way too much money to do.
Luckily I was on the set, so I could work it out with J.J. as we went. Sometimes it’s better for me just to build something that I imagine and work off of that, but it’s hard. It’s like having a blank page and then knowing there’s this one element, and then figuring out what the next one will be.
There are people who are incredibly devoted to the worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars and have very strong feelings about those worlds. Does that add more pressure to the process?
I’m a big fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, as is J.J. I grew up with Star Trek, and it’s very different because Star Trek was essentially a week-to-week serial that featured an adventure, and Star Wars is this world where they’re in one major war the whole time.
Sometimes I would go off on a tangent, and J.J. and my co-editor Stefan would be like, “That’s not in the lore,” and I’d have to pull it back and remember that we do serve a fan base that is loyal to it. When I edit anything, I really try to abandon any kind of preconceived thing I have so I can discover things.
I think there’s a lot of pressure to answer to the first two movies, because this is the third, and you can’t just ignore a story that’s been set up, right? We needed to stay within the boundaries of that world. So yeah, there’s a lot of pressure to do that, for sure. One of the things that Chris Terrio and J.J., as the writers, felt very strongly about was having it be Leia’s final story. That was a labor of love for sure. All of that was like a love letter to her.
I don’t know how much of that had been decided before Carrie Fisher (Leia) died. It was my understanding that you had to reconstruct based on things she shot for the other films.
She died before this film was even written, so all of the footage you see is from Episode 7. It’s all been repurposed, and scenes were written around it. Not just for the sake of writing around the footage, but they created scenes that actually work in the context of the film. A lot of what works is due to Daisy Ridley and the other actors who were in the scenes with her. I mean, they really brought her to life and really sold it. I have to say they were incredible.
With two editors co-editing on set during production, you must have needed an extensive staff of assistant editors. How do you work with assistant editors on something of this scale?
I’ve worked with an assistant editor named Jane Tones on the last couple of films. She is amazing. She was the one who figured out how to make the mobile unit work on set. She’s incredibly gifted, both technologically and story-wise. She was instrumental in organizing everything to do with the edit and getting us around. Stefan’s assistant was Warren Paeff, and he is very experienced. We also had a sound person we carried with us and a couple of other assistants. I had another assistant, Ben Cox, who was such a Star Wars fan. When I said, “I’m happy to hire you, but I only have a second assistant position.” He was like, “I’ll take it!”
What advice do you have for someone starting out or who would like to build the kind of career you’ve made?
I would say, try to get a PA job or a job in the cutting room where you really enjoy the people, and pay attention. If you have ideas, don’t be shy but figure out how to express your ideas. I think people in the cutting room are always looking for anyone with an opinion or reaction because you need to step back from it. It’s a love of film, a love of storytelling and a lot of luck. I work really hard, but I also had a lot of good fortune meeting the people I did.
Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, Echoes, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.