Academy Award nominee editor Maryann Brandon talks to Megan McLachlan about The Rise of Skywalker‘s production challenges and what it was like coming back to the franchise following Carrie Fisher’s death.
Behind every great director is a great editor, and director J.J. Abrams’s right-hand woman is Maryann Brandon, who has worked with him on more than 20 projects, including The Force Awakens (for which she earned an Academy Award nomination).
Just as J.J. returns to pilot the Star Wars ship with The Rise of Skywalker (out Dec. 19), Brandon is back to co-pilot. In the interim, she served as editor on sci-fi romance Passengers, The Darkest Minds, as well as last year’s Venom.
I had a great conversation with Brandon about working on the final film in the Skywalker saga (of course with minimal information about the plot), editing around Carrie Fisher’s untimely death, and what she thinks about J.J. Abrams’s comments about Rian Johnson that were recently trending on Twitter.
*Spoilers for The Last Jedi ahead*
Awards Daily: You had a shorter production time than normal on The Rise of Skywalker. How did you tackle that challenge?
Maryann Brandon: One of the things we did is that I moved the cutting room to my set, a mini version of my Avid. I have this incredible assistant I work with [Jane Tones] and she rigged it up so we could have these on-set cutting rooms in tents. And in addition to that, we have a mobile unit that would go wherever the camera went. So I was always within 10 feet of J.J. It really helped because I could pull up any reference at any time for scenes that he was doing as well as between setups. We could sit and try to get some of the larger actions scenes turned over to ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] for special effects. The real burden of starting later was visual effects time. We also carry the sound editor with us the entire time, so when sequences would get to a certain point, we’d turn it over to sound. [Sound designer] Robbie Stambler would do sound and punch things up, clear up dialogue. I add a lot of sound effects but he would embellish them and try to make sequences. Also Alex Levy, our music editor, would put in temp music. We were trying to get the sequences in a more polished form quicker than we usually do, even though we still spent time going over it, redoing it, and all the usual stuff we do. Everyone was just so good at their jobs, so it went pretty smoothly.
AD: You didn’t work on The Last Jedi. What made you come back to the franchise?
MB: Well, I love the franchise first of all. I’m a huge Star Wars fan myself. The way it usually works with an editor, the director hopefully is the one who chooses their editor and the editor chooses their director, because they work together and have a relationship. And I’ve cut all of J.J. Abrams’ films. Basically I came back to do Episode IX because he came back to do Episode IX. And then Rian Johnson, who did Episode VIII, he works with another editor that he’s done all this films with. So that makes sense. On the other hand, there are other projects that I do that I have relationships with a studio or producers and they’ll call me. I like to meet new directors. I did Venom last year with Sony and I have a relationship with them. It just varies. I have a relationship with Kathleen Kennedy and Michelle Rejwan at Lucasfilm now, so hopefully I’ll do more Star Wars stuff. But I don’t know yet what I’ll do next.
AD: Rian Johnson was recently trending on Twitter, for comments made about The Last Jedi, that perhaps maybe J.J. Abrams and the cast weren’t happy with the film. Is there any truth to that?
MB: All I can say about that is that The Last Jedi, I really enjoyed, but I will say it did present a lot of challenges in terms of where Episode IX had to go to finish the saga. In other words, unfortunately Carrie died, but she didn’t obviously die in Episode VIII. She’s a character that had to be figured out, and that was a huge challenge. But I think J.J. and [screenwriter] Chris Terrio did an amazing job. Luke died, which was a problem. So we had those two opposing problems, so I think what you’re seeing trend is that the setup was difficult to deal with. I think Rian Johnson is an amazing filmmaker, and I just think that when you’re doing a trilogy, you can’t just abandon a story. So whatever he chose to put in that film, those things that are dangling have to be dealt with. And you have to deal with them honestly, so you thought the whole thing through. J.J. wasn’t supposed to do Episode IX, so that was a whole other thing, because he came on late and he and Chris had to write the script in a shorter amount of time.
AD: What was it like coming back to the franchise after that break, especially following Carrie Fisher’s death?
MB: Oh my God, when she passed away, it was horrible. We dealt with quite a hit. She was so funny and vital on set. What I loved most about Carrie was that she was hilarious one minute and desperately emotional the next minute. She was somebody who was the definition of a human being. Everything she felt was out there. It was such a huge loss. I felt terrible, and yet when J.J. said to me, we can’t tell the last piece of the story without using Carrie Fisher and this is what we’ve come up with—write around these scenes that I had already cut in Episode VII and was quite familiar with—I was happy to be able to use them again and I’m happy to say that she looks amazing in our film. It’s bittersweet obviously.
AD: Yeah, I bet. What would you describe your relationship like with J.J. Abrams? 20-plus projects together is an amazing feat. What makes you guys work so well together?
MB: I think our history is familiarity. I can tell if he’s in a good mood or bad mood, upset or happy with what he’s done, or needs something. I know him so well. A lot of times we’ll finish each other’s sentences or I’ll present something I know he’s not going to love but I’ll pretend it anyway just to give him food for thought. Sometimes he’ll come around, sometimes he doesn’t. I think it’s mostly that we have very similar sensibilities and like the same kind of films. I think one of the big things is that I admire him so much that there’s a mutual respect. It lends for a really great working environment. And when we’re really stressed, we both tend to make a lot of jokes, which makes it a lot easier than tearing each other’s hair out. He’s a lovely person. I know his family and wife well. I feel lucky that I’ve been let into his family, and my family loves him. My kids grew up with him. It’s nice to have that kind of relationship in a business like this.
AD: Is the editing field mostly a man’s world? If so, how do you mine through that as a woman?
MB: I have a lot of editing friends who are women. I have a lot of friends who are women who do other things—producers, couple of people behind the camera, directors. I’ve mixed it up. I’ve worked with quite a few women directors in my career. Shana Feste [Endless Love], Robin Swicord [The Jane Austen Book Club], Jennifer Yuh Nelson [Kung Fu Panda 2]. So I kind of mix it up. I never view it as a thing, so I kind of turn a blind eye to it, unless it’s brought to my attention or it’s something I need to deal with. Sure, there are times where you get the message that maybe you’re not part of the bro-hood [Laughs], but I never let it become a thing. Quite honestly, I don’t strive to be part of that anyway. I’d rather not be around that kind of vibe, so I’ve been lucky enough to skirt it. There are probably other women who’ve had a much harder time than me. I’ve been lucky. J.J.’s not like that. [In our projects together], that’s never come up thankfully.
AD: That’s good to hear. You worked on one of my favorite movies — The Jane Austen Book Club, a movie where the action on-screen is internalized. How did you get on this streak of being the editor behind action flicks? Do you prefer it to over more acting-heavy films?
MB: Robin Swicord who was the director/writer of that film [The Jane Austen Book Club] called me. We had this meeting and I said, ‘How did you get my name?’ and she said, ‘I’ve looked at all your episodes of Alias, and I just love the way you cut all the action. I want you to bring that style to my film.’
It depends on the film. I like cutting action as much as I like cutting narrative and drama. A lot of times, to be honest, the drama stuff is more interesting because it has more nuance, and you really have to pick a performance based on both physicality and emotionality. A lot of times you have to go a lot deeper and it’s a lot more subjective. There’s a lot of cool cuts you can do in an action piece that you won’t get away with in a dramatic piece, because you can’t hide a feeling.
I guess Alias really started the ball rolling in both directions for me. That show was unique in what it was trying to do and it was also very personal to J.J., because he likes both action and drama and always brings emotion to his action. It was like the perfect culmination of both those things. I also really enjoyed designing visual effects and figuring out where they fit and what they need to say. I spent a lot of time doing that on a lot of films that I did. Sometimes visual effects people don’t hear it so much from the editorial department; it becomes its own thing, but I always make the two overlap and like to get super-involved in it. I don’t have a preference. I like both, I try to do both. It’s hard these days, but I’m always looking for a good drama.
AD: There are so many reboots now. Have you and J.J. ever talked about rebooting Alias?
MB: We’ve talked about it. I’ve often asked him about it, and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, maybe.’ I have no insight whatsoever other than that. [Laughs] I mean, I love Jennifer Garner. She’s extremely good at what she does and so I would be happy if they did reboot it.
AD: I think that would be one that everyone would be excited about, too.
MB: I agree.
AD: I know you have edited animation. How is editing animation different from live-action?
MB: I ended up doing some animation only because I was working on something and my neighbor, who lived across the street, called me. She was producing Kung Fu Panda  and she said, ‘We’re having all this trouble with this chase scene. Do you know anyone who could come in and help us?’ And I said, ‘I’ll do it on the weekends.’ I went in, I was just curious, and I knew nothing about animation. It was so interesting because I ended up saying to the directors, if you get me these 10 shots, this is how you can put it together. It was a fascinating job for me, because it was backwards. They only create the shots you need; there’s no extra stuff on the cutting room floor. I used my experience from cutting chase scenes I’ve cut or how many I’ve watched and learned from. That was really fun, and a couple of years later, they asked me to consult on How to Train Your Dragon. And it was a time when I just didn’t want to go on location, because my kids were busy and I wanted to be home with them. Not that I didn’t always want to have time for them. I did it, and I ended up doing it for a year and it worked out great. I’d go in, consult for a few hours, put some stuff together, say what shots I’d want, and get to go home to be with my kids. It worked on both levels. It was fascinating. I loved those guys, and I think the film turned out really well. I got to learn how animation was done. It’s like most things—you get there, and go, ‘I think I can do this!’
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in theaters Dec. 19.