Awakening the Force in the Cutting Room

Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon on ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

A scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm.

by A.J. Catoline

Following a screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the evening of December 23 at the Pacific Design Center, Maryann Brandon, ACE, and Mary Jo Markey, ACE, spoke about their collaboration with director J.J. Abrams, and how he has incredible trust in his editors, giving them the time and space to shape the film in the cutting room. Scott Manz of Access Hollywood was the moderator.

“What I enjoy most working with J.J. Abrams is the incredible freedom he gives us as editors,” said Markey. “He’s an incredible collaborator; he’s open to ideas,” added Brandon. “J.J. writes fabulous characters — especially female characters.”

“J.J. doesn’t give us any direction in how he wants us to put a scene together,” Markey explained. “He doesn’t want to see anything until he is done with shooting. So you can cut something, put it aside and, weeks later, you can go back to it to take a look. You have this opportunity to fix things, find things, do any version. There’s so much freedom in being left alone with your footage for a long period of time before you have to present anything.”

Mary Jo Markey, left, Maryann Brandon and Scott Manz of Access Hollywood. Photo by Mary De Chambres.
Mary Jo Markey, left, Maryann Brandon and Scott Manz of Access Hollywood. Photo by Mary De Chambres.

This level of collaboration comes from the editors and their director working together for over 15 years. “We have a long history,” said Markey. “We’ve both been working with J.J. since Alias (1999), so we have been ‘J.J.-ized.’ “

“Or perhaps J.J. has been ‘Maryann and Mary Jo-ized’,” posited Brandon.

The editors gave specific examples of scenes from the film that were changed and literally conceived in the cutting room.

Brandon recalls the “Chewy, We’re Home” scene in which Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) enter the deck of their old ship the Millennium Falcon, and meet the castaways Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). Brandon was initially cutting the scene and was confused with the dailies. When Han enters the ship, he would have presumably seen the two on board. “I kept e-mailing J.J. asking, ‘Doesn’t Han see them? They are just standing there,’” Brandon recalled. “And J.J. replied, ‘No, there’s a bend in the set.’  And I said, ‘I don’t see the bend.’”

The editors and Abrams watched a rough cut of the scene and agreed it needed to work better.  In the cutting room, it was re-written so that Finn and Rey are hiding under a grate on the ship’s deck. The scene was re-shot.

“Now it works brilliantly,” Brandon reported. “I stole a few shots from the original shoot to make it work better. Now it gives Han Solo and Chewy a moment to re-discover the Millennium Falcon before they see the kids, and the action continues. Once Harrison arrives on set, the audience is with Han Solo. The whole scene now is his point of view. And that is the beauty of editing; you can say, ‘I want this footage and not that.’”

Rey and Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm.
Rey and Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm.

Markey says that as editors they feel comfortable to suggest changes to their director. “If I know a scene would work better without a line of dialogue, I can just take it out,” said Markey. “I would never do that with anyone else, especially a director I didn’t know; it would be just so out of line.”  But the Force is strong in the cutting room between Abrams and his editors.

Brandon recalled cutting the “Force Back” scene, where Rey enters a room and re-discovers the light saber once owned by Luke Skywalker. The way the scene was originally shot, Rey picks it up and looks at it, though in the cutting room Abrams got an idea that she should also have hallucinatory visions of her destiny to be a Jedi. And so the “Force Back” scene was created in editing. Brandon remembered that Abrams wanted a “crazy drug trip” feel, but it was unclear what she was going to see. The editors were left to work with a lot of footage to create the sequence.

“I finally conquered it using sound,” Brandon revealed. “We see Rey in a flashback, when she was a little girl, and J.J. started to respond to the cut when I used temp sound of a little girl crying and afraid. Also, you hear Yoda’s voice in the sequence. We brought in Frank Oz and recorded hours of him saying things about the Force, and we ended up not using any of it. If you listen closely, you hear Alec Guinness’s voice in it, saying ‘Rey.’ And we used Ewan MacGregor’s voice saying, ‘These are your first steps.’”

Markey continued: “We don’t string the whole film together in the cutting process. We work on individual scenes before we put them all together and watch it as a whole. J.J. does not want to make a two-and-a-half-hour film, he believes a film should be two hours at most.”

Brandon conceded that with all the footage, “We could never get it down to two hours; the best we could do was two hours, 11 minutes.”

Watching the film in previews, Markey was concerned that it “had a thundering pace, so we asked to put moments back in to slow it down, let it breathe and have moments to sit with the characters.”

Chewy and Han Solo return in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm.
Chewy and Han Solo return in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm.

An example of a moment they reinserted was the scene in which Han Solo and Chewy are confronted by pirate traders, and Rey manipulates electronic fuses in an attempt to save them, accidentally opening the cages of dangerous, captured alien creatures called Rathtars. Rey looks to Finn and says, “Wrong fuses!”

“J.J. did not find the line funny and originally requested it be cut out,” Brandon remembered. “But I said, ‘It may not be funny, but it’s a beat people like. She realizes she had made a mistake and that makes her human.’”

The film’s opening scene in the hut on the desert planet Jakku was a challenge to edit because it kept going around in circles with various creative notes, the editors reported. Yet there were other scenes that were never a problem — like the escape scene in the Tie Fighter, which never changed from the first cut.

Markey admitted that it has been phenomenal to be a part of the cinematic adventure that is Star Wars. “I’m from Ohio; I never thought I would experience anything like this. We just got back from the London premiere, and we got invited to go on a party bus for Steven Spielberg’s birthday. And we drove around LA to watch the fans waiting in line to see The Force Awakens at various theatres.”

When a member of the audience asked when the editors generally start work on a picture, Brandon replied, “We editors get to start the week before shooting — and we stay on until we get on the party bus!”

About A.J. Catoline 10 Articles

A.J. Catoline is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program, and a Board Member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, IATSE. He is a picture editor working in Los Angeles. He can be reached at ajcatoline@gmail.com

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