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Mary Jo Markey, A.C.E. and Maryann Brandon, A.C.E. have worked as a team to cut all of J.J. Abrams movies from Mission Impossible III onward. Markey's individual credits include Perks of Being a Wallflower and the LOST pilot; Brandon's individual credits include How To Train Your Dragon. And, yes, they are both slated to edit J.J. Abrams' Star Wars Episode VII.
In this article, they share with Creative COW their process of editing Star Trek Into Darkness.
Debra Kaufman: How did your relationship begin with J.J. Abrams?
The old saying is that the edit is the final version of the script. For editors Mary Jo Markey, A.C.E. and Maryann Brandon, A.C.E, their work on Star Trek: Into Darkness began far earlier than that -- when they were asked for their advice on how to shape the script in the first place! In conversation with Debra Kaufman, they describe the role they play in the storytelling process itself, in a way that far transcends the cutting of scenes.
Maryann Brandon, A.C.E.
Mary Jo Markey:
Mary Jo Markey, A.C.E.
I actually started working with J.J. on the TV series Felicity
. We both worked on the editorial team of his TV series Alias
. Our first movie as an editorial team for J.J. was Mission Impossible III
. I believe Tom Cruise had seen Alias
and really liked how it was done, which is one of the reason he wanted J.J. to direct it. J.J. brought us along to that movie, and everything went well, so he kept asking us to do the subsequent films. He's very loyal; he tends to keep hiring the same people as long as things go well.
You don't edit everything as a team. Is it difficult to switch gears to work as a team?
Even when we work as a team, we each have our own sequences. We discuss the film as a whole and get our notes together and then go back to the sequences we have ownership of, and we finesse the sequences and then put it all together as a film. So it's the same working experience as when we work alone.
Maryann, J.J., and I have similar sensibilities. That makes it a lot easier to come up with a cohesive final product. It would be very difficult to work as a team if one person was pulling left while the other was pulling right. I have had the experience of working with people who are trying to make a different sort of movie than the filmmakers are, and it's not a happy situation.
Mary Jo and I have a shorthand language now. She'll say one thing, and I'll say absolutely. We are both thinking in the same direction and that is a luxury. It makes the creative process so much more enjoyable.
How would you describe that sensibility vis-a-vis J.J. Abrams' films?
On a lot of action films, the goal is maximum excitement. With J.J.'s films, our action is really cut differently. We always want our movies to be exciting, but we're also really interested in being inside the characters' heads and seeing it from the characters' point of view. The action in J.J.'s movies has to be attached to what the character is experiencing in that action moment. We're always trying to play it through that character's eyes, and not every director is as interested in that.
I would totally agree. We find a way to make the action sequences come out of the emotional sequences. It's important for us as a team of filmmakers to find the emotional journey to, say, if a planet is going to blow up. And that's hard to do. We talk about it and sometimes go back and add lines. J.J.'s films are very nuanced.
Was your collaboration on Star Trek Into Darkness different in any way than your previous collaborations?
It keeps getting better and better. It's familiar to us, we feel very generous towards each other, so collaboration in the cutting room is easy going. I think it goes back to all of us having the same goal in mind.
From Day One, J.J. never tried to make us feel like we were in competition with one another. It would have been easy to go there but he always handled everything with so much tact. It's always been a real collegial atmosphere.
What did J.J. want in Star Trek Into Darkness?
It's always a learning process for all of us, every day. You have a script, shoot it and then, in the editing, learn the strengths and weakness. We set out to make one thing and what we come out with is often slightly different but well thought through. We were following Kirk's emotional journey as a young captain as he fails and has to figure out what was important to him, which is family and friendships. We shot a couple of additional scenes early on to make it land more emotionally when he lost his mentor early on, which is what drives him to seek revenge and then sacrifice.
We were asked early on, at the beginning of production, to look at the script. Because the script was too long to shoot, we were asked to see what we could lose. The writers work on it for so long, they can lose sight of things. Amazingly, we had so many of the same notes. Maryann and I had almost exactly identical notes on this speech that Bones was giving Kirk about his maturity. From working on the first movie and knowing Kirk viewed Pike as a mentor our reaction was, it should be Pike saying this to him, not Bones -- and J.J. was about to shoot that scene! The whole point being made about what Kirk needs to grow up, and that's how the bar scene between Pike and Kirk was created.
This wasn't the only example. We realized along the way that certain issues that we thought were embedded in the whole story just weren't clear enough; they couldn't be implied, they had to be stated.
So some scenes were shot after we thought the movie was done. There's a three-way scene between Kirk, Spock and Uhura, which was going to be an argument between Uhura and Spock, when they're on the way to Kronos, and she's angry that he didn't think about her feelings when he risked his life in the volcano at the beginning of the movie. It played like a lover's spat. Then parts of it were rewritten and shot to give more emphasis on Spock's way of thinking and handling his emotions, and give viewers more understanding about how watching his planet die reaffirmed his commitment to not being emotional. These are all things that came after the fact, but it always comes down to a character's emotions is what drives these movies for us. Although it walks and talks and quacks like an action movie, Star Trek Into Darkness
- and all of J.J.'s movies -- are rooted in that for us.
It always comes down to the fact that a character's emotions is what drives these movies for the editors.
J.J.'s movies are a great combination of emotion and action. He does the popcorn stuff amazingly well but the emotions are always there, and he's always willing to go for the emotions.
I'm presuming you cut with Avid?
Yes, we used Avid
Media Composer, as it evolved from versions 5.5.3 through 6.5.2. Version 7 is coming out this summer. We used a 64-TB Avid ISIS 5000 to manage media.
We've cut all of J.J. Abrams' movies with Avid Media Composer.
What were the challenges in cutting Star Trek Into Darkness?
For me, it was definitely the gun battle on Kronos. I think I spent half of my time on this, not because it was difficult to cut but because we couldn't decide what we wanted it to be. We changed so many little battles, who started the shooting, whether or not there was a stand-off in the middle of the battle, what Uhura said the Klingon guy. It just went through so many permutations, it makes my head spin to think about it. There were times I thought it would never end. At one point, we turned it in, thinking it was over, and the guy who runs post at Bad Robot
got a cake with a glass of scotch in the middle of it for me. But then it started all over again and I went through another two months of cutting. J.J. was thrilled, then he sent it to Damon [Lindelof], one of our producers, and I had the first good night's sleep I had in ages. But then, the next day, J.J. told me Damon had problems with the Kronos sequence, and I wanted to run out of the room screaming. But I took a big girl deep breath and asked what his issues were. It was quite the adventure.
For me, one of the biggest challenges was the middle section when Admiral Marcus shows up. You have Benedict Cumberbatch playing Khan, this incredibly great bad guy. Then Marcus shows up, and I had to keep him slightly mysterious and interesting. We don't know...is he a good guy or a bad guy? There was a lot of manipulation of a lot of that footage and a lot of dialogue. We'd show the whole film, and everyone would say they loved it...except the middle section that got boring. In some ways we had to tone Marcus back a bit so he's a little more ambiguous.
I understand the post was able to work with a 5.1 temp mix, as it constantly evolved. Did that impact your job at all?
It was great to have that mix, but it did add another layer of work. Each time the sound department did a new mix, we had to review it with them and give them notes about what was good and bad. It's always a battle to have enough time to do everything. You're reviewing VFX shots, the music, the 3D, plus a billion other things...and now also this new layer, the 5.1 mix. But it was also great to have that mix.
Did you have to take into consideration that the movie was going to be converted to 3D?
I don't know how much it impacted the shooting, but it didn't really impact us. In some sequences, J.J. thought, this will be an incredible big screen shot. But he told the story the way he's used to and we cut it the way we're used to. Early on, we were nervous -- I went and saw a couple of 3D movies and saw they were cut the way movies are always cut.
We had control over how much 3D there was. The thing about 3D is the wider the frame, the better it looks. With emotional storytelling, the tighter the frame, the better. When you convert, you pull back on the shots that don't need 3D.
They would show us scenes in the conversion and we got a handle on the style of it...then time ran out. I think a tone and style was set and then everything, as usual, converged in the push to finish the movie.
Was there any take-away for either of you from cutting this movie?
I'm always trying to think, what did we learn? Maybe it's different on every project. Maybe you can't predict. In our early cuts, I wasn't feeling emotionally involved, and we did solve that problem. It's trying to think about why that was missing and how to fix it. That is my lesson I think.
I would agree -- how do you read a script and know what you might be missing? And how do you put that into your frame of mind?
For example, in the original script, Pike takes the Enterprise away from Kirk, and in the final version, Star Fleet takes it away. On the page it never occurred to me that it would be a problem with Pike taking away Kirk's command. That little stuff is always surprising me. It's working scene by scene, and realizing I know what I want to feel, but I'm not feeling it.
In the original, you never felt like you were on Pike's side. There he is in the office scene, yelling at Kirk and taking command of his ship...and then he dies. You need to feel good about Kirk's going off to seek revenge for Pike's death if you're not so keen on Pike. Without the bar scene we added later, you never felt like you were on Pike's side.
You could argue that when two characters love each other at the height of conflict and one dies, the one left might feel more terrible...in theory. On paper, it seemed right. But when you put it together, you don't feel it. We had to figure out that translation from the word to the screen.
If this were the 5th film in a series of seeing Pike and Kirk as sidekicks for many years in well-observed scenes, perhaps we wouldn't have needed that bar scene. But it was only their second outing, and the memory of the first film isn't enough.
Then what was interesting is that speech at the end of the film that also changed a gazillion times. Until then, none of us knew what we wanted Kirk to say. The Enterprise has been through this horrible event, and then you see it pristine and brand new. We were all highly challenged on how to get back to the new pristine Enterprise. There were many, many discussions to get there.
Lots of flying speeches up the flagpole!
Sometimes you work backwards. The bad version is, do I need to see the Enterprise with a big BandAid on it. Ultimately what we came up with was to set it in the future, a year later. We moved the iconic speech forward, so it doesn't end the film but is a discovery, this is the first time he's said the speech. It took a lot of discussions -- and quite interesting ones -- to get there.
I don't think a lot of people understand what Maryann and I and all editors do. The saying about editing is that it's the final rewrite of the script. What we've been talking about today is the big picture...how we try to make the whole film work after we cut all those individual scenes.