Editing Star Wars: The Force Awakens
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Tim Wilson : Editing Star Wars: The Force Awakens
It all seems inevitable now, that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was going to break every box office record, and break 'em all in record time.
But just a few years ago, there was no strong sense that a new Star Wars movie was forthcoming. The lack of pent-up demand reflected the skepticism among a large swath of fans that, even if one showed up, it would have been worth the wait.
The fact is that the stunning success of Star Wars in 1977 (and even moreso, beyond) wasn't exactly a sure thing either. Sure, George Lucas's prior film, American Graffiti, had grown from a word-of-mouth sleeper hit in 1973 to become the 13th-biggest film of all time by the time Star Wars was released, but what the hell was THIS thing?
According to its 1976 trailer, "The story of a boy, a girl, and a universe," that's what.
Original Star Wars 1976 Trailer
Sandwiched on the release calendar between Annie Hall and Smokey and the Bandit, it's unlikely that even Mr. Lucas was anticipating what happened when it opened: not just setting new standards for box office success and fan attachment, but critical acclaim, and with hardware to match. Indeed, Star Wars was nominated for 10 Oscars, more than Annie and Smokey combined. (Don't laugh: among Star Wars' 6 Oscar victories was finishing ahead of Smokey in the race for Best Editing.)
We'll take the jump to hyperspace past two sequels, three prequels, revisions and reversionning, cartoons, clones, controversies, a Holiday Special, and all the love, inspiration, and action figures that generations of nerds could carry.
Among said nerds: one Jeffrey Jacob Abrams, age 11 in 1977. Calling this a pivotal moment in his life as both a movie fan and a filmmaker is an understatement, but it will do.
J.J. Abrams and Star Wars: The Force Awakens
And that's the thing about Star Wars. It's almost impossible to talk about apart from its context in relation to its fans, including the knotty relationship that so many of its fans have with one aspect or another of how the saga evolved over the years. J.J. himself acknowledged this when he confessed that he seriously considered showing the skeleton of the much-reviled prequel denizen Jar Jar Binks sticking out of the desert sands of The Force Awakens.
One reason I suspect that he was able to resist the temptation is that, for all the cheers it would surely have elicited in some quarters, it would have been gratuitous. Jar Jar had found his rest in a galaxy long ago, and the prequels aren't precisely the films to which The Force Awakens is the sequel. The direct timeline link of The Force Awakens to A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983) offered the perfect opportunity to gracefully, organically, return to the production values, and even spiritual values, of the original.
It seems likely to me that he would also not have wanted to draw (perhaps even a literal) line in the sand between eras of Star Wars fandom. There are clearly many fans for whom the prequels were their entrance into this universe.
More important, it's clear that The Force Awakens was meant for much more than a fan's eye-view, even for a passing gag. Here was a chance to, yes, delight the fans who may have given up on the idea of ever being fully engaged by a new Star Wars movie again, but also to delight people – maybe millions of 'em – who never imagined it possible that they might become fans themselves.
And not just become Star Wars fans. Become moved by Star Wars.
It's true. All of it.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer
THE FORCE AWAKENS
Which brings us to J.J. Abrams' longtime editors, Mary Jo Markey, ACE and Maryann Brandon, ACE.
They've worked together with him since the TV series Alias in 2001; Mary Jo actually going back to the show before, Felicity, where she edited the first hour of TV that J.J. ever directed, in 1997. Their features with J.J. also include Mission Impossible III, Super 8, Star Trek, and Star Trek Into Darkness.
(They've also each worked on pictures and series on their own. For example, Mary Jo edited The Perks of Being a Wallflower and won an Emmy for her work on the pilot of Lost. She started in LA working for Robert Redford, as Dede Allen's apprentice for The Milagro Beanfield War. Maryann's work has included editing How To Train Your Dragon and directing a couple of episodes of Alias. She started in New York, on Francis Ford Coppola's Cotton Club.)
Having worked with them for so long, J.J. has explicitly tasked them with being his eyes and ears in the edit room. He's a very active, engaged director, but the demands of managing enterprises on the scale of Star Trek and Star Wars means that it's impossible for him to watch all the dailies. Certainly not with the attention that Maryann and Mary Jo do.
As they put the pieces together, they have so thoroughly embodied the adage that the picture edit is the final draft of the script that J.J. has also explicitly asked for script advice over the years. We spoke to them about this process in 2013 for Star Trek Into Darkness in particular, where J.J. called them in to help decide which parts of the script should be reworked before shooting even began.
How Editors Shaped The Story of Star Trek Into Darkness
That wasn't the case this time. A first draft of the script had been completed by Michael Arndt before J.J. came on, and when he and Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark among many others) turned their own attention to writing. He was of course still counting on Maryann and Mary Jo to do the heavy lifting to get him something that was well along the way to completion before he sat down to take a first look in the editing suites.
Mary Jo: A first cut is never a first cut. It's usually my fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth cut by the time I'm ready to show it to J.J.. It's one reason why I absolutely detest the term 'editor's assembly'. We are taking a point of view, and cutting something with intent. We are not 'assembling' anything.
Maryann: We thought about those versions we were showing, and other versions that we'd tried. I think both of us have what the script version is, what we have in our minds as what it could be, and potentially what it should be.
Mary Jo: I have a bin that says "Alt Scene 1 through 20" and every time I finish something or decide to start a new version of a scene, I'll throw a copy of what I had before in that Alts bin. It's so frequent that if J.J. says, "I wonder if we should try this. Or I wonder if..." that it's like, "Yeah, well, I tried that. Here. You wanna see it?"
Creative COW: Out of curiosity, were either of you Star Wars fans in a major way before this?
Maryann: I was a big Star Wars fan. I had my kids sit through it, and insisted that they be major Star Wars fans. It's part of my culture.
Mary Jo: I was not a fan. I mean, it's not that I was anti-Star Wars, I just wasn't particularly into the films and I didn't see them until it turned out that I was going to be working on them.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens..R2-D2 and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). Photo by: David James. ©Lucasfilm 2015
Creative COW: Really? That seems late in the process to me.
MARY JO: You know there are people like that in the world, Tim.
Creative COW: I'm laughing because there was this woman I really wanted to go out with, but she wouldn't give me the time of day because she'd seen Star Wars 17 times in 1977, and I'd only seen it once!
Her feeling was, anything in the single digits, why even bother wasting time on a date? My priorities were clearly all wrong. She relented because I'd seen The Empire Strikes Back enough times to make up for it, and we're still married 30 years later. So I relate to both sides of this myself.
Han Solo and Chewbacca
Maryann: The beauty of what's going on now is that people who weren't particularly interested in Star Wars are actually going to the movie now. I've gotten emails from people going, "I never was a Star Wars fan, but I loved this movie."
Mary Jo: I just think it's a feel good movie and people are relating to it. I think that's beautiful.
I also think there was an actual advantage to that. I didn't have this feeling of things being sacred. I could just look at it, maybe at times a little more dispassionately. "Well even if it is true that you're making this reference to this thing that you all hold near and dear, it's not really working here," or whatever.
And I think J.J. felt that too. In fact, when I first told him that I hadn't seen the Star Wars movies, he said he didn't want me to see them. That was his first response. "Oh that's great! Don't see them! You'll be be like the person we want to attract who's never seen the movies."
It became clear very quickly that, to me anyway, that it was just not going to work, to try to work that way, but I think it was a real advantage to have the two sides of the coin.
Creative COW: You still both knew that there was obviously a sense in which this was never gonna be "just a movie," right?
Maryann: J.J. is obviously aware of that, but for our approach, we approached it as "just a movie," knowing that certain characters were established, but it's a new story, and we had to treat it as such. We had to reach a new generation, but also, we were hoping that the movie would speak to people who weren't Star Wars fans. So there are things in the script that are a tip of the hat to Star Wars, and are directly pulled from the DNA of Star Wars, but I think it works as a standalone film, and I think that's an incredible feat on everyone's part.
Mary Jo: I know that for J.J. it was really important that this film have the feeling of delight and adventure and fun – the spirit of the original – and I do think that that was something we kept in the forefront of our thinking.
We started with the dialog between the characters, and their actions. We might have something to slot in if there was a previz done for the scene, but most of the time, we didn't have that. The fact that we start with the actions of characters creates a personal way into the action of the scene.
Maryann: Any action sequence is better if you're in it WITH the character.
Mary Jo: We take our cues from the script. If the script says "Finn and Poe are shot from the sky," and we don't have a piece of previz that shows that, we put in a card that says "Finn and Poe are shot from the sky." LOL Then when we eventually start to get very raw pieces from ILM that show that, then we slot that in, and the cut gets more and more refined.
(John Boyega) Finn at the crash site.
Maryann: Mary Jo and I do a lot of designing of it in our heads, we time it out, and we cut the pieces we have around them, and as Mary Jo says, we put in placeholder cards in the sequence. Then we talked to ILM – Roger Guyett, our visual effects supervisor, we conveyed what we're going for, and they talked to us about what they could do.
Creative COW: How did you divide the work?
Mary Jo: We go through the script and, say, if it's 120 pages, and we know we each take about 60 pages, that maybe I'll take 30, and then Maryann will take the next 30, and then I'll take the next 30 and she'll take the last 30, or something like that. In this case, I took the beginning, Maryann took the long middle, and then I took the end.
We used to split it up in smaller chunks, but it just makes it easier for J.J. if we have really big pieces, so that he's not bouncing back and forth between us as much.
Maryann: I think it's also better for us, as well. We get to put really long chunks together and follow the emotional thread. We eventually all come together and talk about the film as a whole, and that's why you wouldn't really notice where the scenes are that one of us worked on.
Mary Jo: Although J.J. has never gotten involved in how we split it up before, on this film he actually suggested, 'One of you take the first half and one take the second half.' That just didn't sound right to us.
Creative COW: Why not?
Mary Jo: It just felt like your work would feel kind of incomplete if you weren't – this is maybe the wrong word to use, but if you didn't have an investment in both beginning material and end material for the character's journey. It wouldn't feel right.
We really mine our dailies, so so much. We both watch all of them, but I don't know the dailies from Maryann's material quite the same way that I know my dailies. And I just felt like if I only knew, say, the dailies for the first half of the movie, I wouldn't have a complete picture of the film.
This is so important because we were moving scenes around, and using shots originally meant for one scene for other scenes.
The thing about having so many characters with masks on, is that even without re-shooting you can change the content of the scenes with new lines in ADR. And with characters who are CG or motion capture, you can change what they're saying.
Creative COW: What are some of the scenes that you moved around?
Mary Jo: We had one problem scene near the end of the film. The scene where the missing piece of the map that BB-8 has been carrying around, fits into the larger map. It just was such a nightmare to try to figure how to make that scene work, without having a long expository scene at the end of the movie, where you absolutely don't want a long expository scene.
And so we just took some footage from another scene that had been eliminated, and dropped it into the middle of the movie where C3P0 sees BB-8 trying to wake up R2D2. And then at the end of the movie we could just say, "Okay he found it" and that's what makes him wake up. This just worked so much better.
Here's the other thing, harking back to your other question about it being "STAR WARS!!!," because there were so many older characters to reintroduce. Han, Leia, C3PO, R2D2, Luke obviously. We started to jam them all in up front, and in the course of the film we realized, no, we really have this great opportunity to hold off. Things started to reveal themselves as to where footage would be more useful. It just worked out better to hold off introducing those characters, and make the audience hunger for it.
Maryann: It's exciting when those things happen. But we also, it used to be that C3P0 used to reveal R2, and it was, "Oh two old friends." And in our version we finally came up with having BB-8 reveal him, which makes it so nice. It's like a hand off between the new, it's the new droid asking advice from the old droid, and that kind of you go, "Oh my god, there, we're discovering new emotions."
And I think for Mary Jo and I, it was really exciting to keep doing, finding these moments that we could create, and make the film really fun to cut and work on.
Every time one of those moments would work on screen after we think in our heads it would work, and then it actually worked, we'd be like, "Woohoo!"
Mary Jo: You probably have heard that Harrison Ford's ankle was broken during shooting, and J.J. has said jokingly in interviews, that in some ways it was the best thing that ever happened to the film, because it really gave him, and us too, a chance to kind of sit back without new material coming in at us every day, and kind of assess where we were, and how things were working, and what maybe needed to be kind of retold a little bit. He really used that time to do a lot of rewriting.
Some of it was at our behest. In the first draft of the script Finn tells Rey right away that he's a Storm Trooper, and J.J. had an instinct, and I did too, that it wouldn't be likely that he would admit to that on first meeting. He doesn't know who she is, he doesn't know who he can trust, and he's terrified of being captured by and sent back to the First Order.
Maryann: Another scene that none of us thought it was working was Han coming back on to the Millennium Falcon for the first time and stumbling on the kids. They're kind of arguing with each other, and I think we were all like, "Well, they're standing right there. Wouldn't they be hiding?" We eventually would have gotten there anyway, but I think it helped everyone stop and take a breath.
Another was the Han-Leia scene when they are talking to each other about the loss of their son. It was all very convoluted about Han being guilty and her being guilty – it didn't really ever land, so he went back and rewrote that scene as well.
Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford reprise their familiar roles with grace and charm.
And I think for Harrison Ford, it gave him a chance to see the work. He came back eight weeks later incredibly miraculously healthy, and raring to go with an entirely gung ho attitude that just infected the set, I think, wanting to make it great.
Mary Jo: Another scene that wasn't working for me is the scene where Unkar Plutt tries to buy BB-8. BB-8 says to Rey that he's got to stay there and wait for someone, and she had said at one point with a lot of vulnerability, "Oh, I'm waiting for someone too."
And I remember saying, "It's too early in her character arc for her to be so open and vulnerable, even if it's to a droid." She still kind of says it in the final version, but it's not in this very vulnerable, sad, way. It's a lot of little things that I think got cleared up, and some big things that ultimately just made the movie and the characters more consistent and better and deeper.
BAD ROBOT'S AVID EDITING SETUP
The name of the game for everyone involved was speed. Requests for studio screenings came with as little as an hour or two notice, with changes being made up until the final minutes.
WHEN IN DOUBT....
Maryann: Do you remember when we first started, Bryan Burk, one of the producers came to us and said, "When in doubt, cut to BB-8."
Mary Jo: I mean first of all, the design of that little bot is just genius. That was J.J.'s design and he drew that. And then the puppeteers that operated him were brilliant. I remember, I cut that scene where Rey rescues him from Teedo, that's got the net over him, and there's just this one moment where he's just tiny bit rocking back and forth, and he's just looking at Rey while she's fixing his antenna.
An emotional identification takes place between the droid and Rey.
I don't know, you sort of just look at that, and you somehow see this affection or this kind of thrill, that he feels about her already. You just invest that emotion in that little droid, he's just adorable.
Then, figuring out when he should say something and when he shouldn't say something was a long process. The puppeteer made little noises for him and for a while we used that as kind of an experiment of like, should he say something here or should he just be quiet here?
One of the things that we discovered was that a little went a long way. He was more charming if he wasn't too chatty, then the sound team kind of followed what we had done, and put the final sounds in where we had put them.
REY, SYDNEY, AND THE EMOTIONAL WEIGHT OF ACTION
As an editorial aside, I'm a huge J.J. Abrams nerd. I'm especially a fan of how he approaches the intersection of emotion and action. Mary Jo, Maryann and I touched on this earlier in our conversation, and before I dive back into it again, here's what they had to say when we spoke to them about Star Trek Into Darkness:
Mary Jo: 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.And now as we return to talking about The Force Awakens, I find myself thinking a lot about Daisy Ridley's Rey, who reminds me a little of J.J. Abrams' very first woman action hero, Sydney Bristow in the ABC TV series Alias, which ran for 105 episodes from 2001-2006. As noted earlier, Alias was the first of J.J.'s projects that Mary Jo and Maryann worked on together. Maryann also directed episodes in Season 3 and Season 4.
Sydney was an English lit student recruited by who she thinks is the CIA but turns out to be an even shadier-than-usual shadow group, in a genre-bending mix with mystical artifacts, hard science, family drama (especially the tension between family you're born into vs. the family you choose to build around you), and more – but at the heart of it, a smart, tough, hero who keeps finding ways to survive, while avoiding cliches like "pluckiness" or indestructibility. Her success seems assured, not because the script says so, but because this vivid character so clearly refuses to be denied – a compelling distinction that applies to Rey as well.
Photo by David James
Creative COW: Male, female, TV, movie, doesn't matter: one of my all-time favorite action characters is Sydney Bristow from Alias.
Maryann: You have to love her because she's totally vulnerable.
Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow in Alias.
Creative COW: She was vulnerable, but she was also fierce. And I liked that she was...
Maryann: She kicked ass, yeah.
Creative COW: You talked earlier about the rootedness of J.J.'s approach to action, and I think that's a big deal. Some of that is the power of Jennifer Garner's performance, but whether she was fighting or running, you could see the weight of everything she knew, and everything she didn't know.
And I think, especially when Rey untethered herself from the past, and acknowledged the truth that she was no longer waiting, she became to me almost a first in the Star Wars universe, because a lot of the characters are so weighed down by their pasts, but Rey pushes herself forward. To me, she's really the first major character in all of Star Wars to decide, "I'm pushing myself forward." I was really moved by that.
Maryann: She has an inner strength that speaks to everyone, I think.
Mary Jo: And she takes the advice of the wise, the 1000-year-old wise woman, Maz Kanata, which is, "The belonging you seek is in front of you, not behind you." It takes her a little while to get there, but she gets there.
If we could go back to Sydney Bristow for a while. The thing I think that was really great about her was that she had both those qualities that you mentioned, that she was vulnerable, she was human, but she's strong. That was always the idea when we were cutting her: you show her in that fight, but you show that she's not a superhero. It is hard for her, but she does it. She pulls it off. She succeeds.
For me when I heard Obi-Wan say that the Force surrounds us and binds us all together, there was no judgement about who you were. This was something that we could all access. Being strong with the force didn't mean something scientific, it meant something spiritual. It meant someone who could believe, someone who could reach down to the depths of your feelings and follow this primal energy that was flowing through all of us. I mean, that's what was said in that first film!
That's the stuff that speaks to the "not just a movie" aspect of the Star Wars saga in general, and The Force Awakens in particular. There are plenty of wonderful, very popular movies that don't necessarily give the impression that they're going to alter the trajectory of somebody's life.
No matter how a movie turns out, of course, the making of it leaves its mark on the artists.
Creative COW: What are some insights you gained from working on this that you might take into your next projects as editors?
Mary Jo: It's funny, I was just thinking about J.J. and I struggling with the structure of the village raid, the opening set piece of the movie, but we finally got it when we put all of the scenes with Finn together, and all of the scenes with Poe together, and I just turned around and looked at J.J. and said, "Mission Impossible." It was a reference to something that we had figured out during the bridge shootout in Mission Impossible III, that sometimes these things just work better when you don't intercut too much.
Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac) Photo by David James
Maryann: Yeah, I totally agree. What I would take from this experience is, if you want something to work, just put it in there and see what happens. [Laughs] Nobody knows before you've done it. Never turn down an idea.
Mary Jo: That's true.
Sometimes I think I'm not forthright enough early enough with my concerns about things. You know, you want to be really positive during shooting, and you don't want to call up the director and say, "Hey dude, what you shot yesterday, it's not working for me." But sometimes I think that you just have to make yourself do it earlier in the game if it's really not working for you.
That does depend on the director. I mean, I think some directors would completely freak out if you did that, but J.J. does expect us to do that, and I guess it's a case of see something, say something. [chuckle]
Maryann: Yes, I agree. It's a very tricky thing to do, because you want to be positive, and you want to also be constructive – and sometimes you have to be de-structive to be constructive. Which I guess just means it's hard work. It means try everything.
All images with the exception of "Alias" are from Star Wars: The Force Awakens..Ph: Film Frame or listed photographer, David James..©Lucasfilm 2015