Creating the World of 'The Rise of Skywalker' with Editor Maryann Brandon

According to one of J.J. Abrams' most trusted long-time collaborators, crafting this vital final chapter in pop culture history presents a unique set of challenges and pressures in the cutting room.

The Rise Of Skywalker Daisy Ridley
Lucasfilm

The Skywalker Saga, the long-running primary focal point of the massive mass media franchise that is Star Wars, has come to an end. With the release of The Rise of Skywalker, more than 40 years of space gallivanting and legacy storytelling culminated to finally decide the fate of the eponymous heroic clan, their friends, as well as their sworn enemies.

I spoke to one of the movie’s editors, Academy Award-nominated Maryann Brandon, and sought insight into the process of putting together the closing chapter of the Skywalker Saga. Over the phone, our discussion spanned her close, long-time collaboration with director J.J. Abrams, the joys of watching Daisy Ridley flourish onscreen, and the difficult task of balancing screentime, among other topics.

Needless to say, there will be spoilers for Episode IX in this interview. Read on for our full, lightly edited conversation.

First of all, congratulations on The Rise of Skywalker. It’s been a great four-year run for the sequel trilogy and the whole Skywalker Saga in general. For me, knowing how emotionally rich J.J. Abrams’s Episode VII is made the news of his return for Episode IX comforting and even exciting. And you’re back too!

Yes.

I wanted to start by asking what your creative partnership with J.J. is like? You’ve done all his movies and you worked on the TV show Alias as well. How has your collaborative spirit evolved over the years?

I think we’ve both kind of grown up in the film biz. I mean, look, he’s been in the film business for a long time, and I’ve been in the film business for a long time. So, when we came together, we brought whatever we brought to our relationship. And he’s got relationships with other filmmakers. As do I. Whatever knowledge we’ve gathered, we’ve managed to bring it to our work. And so, I think each project we do together, we’re both much more willing to try a lot of new things. It just feels like it gets better and better, and you know, we’re very close. We have an easy communication. That makes it a lot easier; there’s no “getting to know you” period you have to go through.

What’s your favorite thing about working with him? What are some of the best lessons you’ve learned?

Oh, I would say for sure he’s one of the kindest people I know. And I mean, I think you have to be kind to the people who are working with you because it’s such a hard thing to do [making movies]. He has an amazing sense of humor, which really from day one I’ve appreciated. Because when you start to take yourself too seriously, things can get really intense. I would just say as a human being, he’s just delightful to be around and so I feel like I’m really lucky that I got to do that. I’ve had close relationships with other directors I’ve worked with, but he’s very special. He’s a really special human being.

The thing is, I’ve watched him and his company over the years mature. His company’s called Bad Robot but also part of it is called Good Robot, and it’s all about giving back. It’s great to be around someone who’s just so hyperaware of what’s going on in the world and wants to make it a better place. And I think doing Star Wars and doing all the films we’ve done together, from my point of view, has made the world a better place, because it’s certainly entertaining and emotionally satisfying.

I love that you mentioned kindness because that feels integral to Star Wars. When The Force Awakens came out and I saw it for the first time, that was actually my first real introduction to Star Wars. I didn’t grow up with the originals or the prequels, but Episode VII is this perfect blend of action and heart; this engaging story that was very kind, very loving to all its characters. It’s, I think, one of your greatest collaborative triumphs with J.J., and of course, your co-editor Mary Jo Markey (who was Oscar-nominated alongside Brandon for Best Film Editing for the movie). How did your experience on The Force Awakens affect how you approached The Rise of Skywalker?

Well, Mary Jo didn’t do Rise of Skywalker. My co-editor is a man called Stefan Grube, who J.J. and I had worked with before. And he’s super smart, and he’s an avid Star Wars lover. It was great ‘cause he has just this sort of encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars, [like] J.J. has and [screenwriter] Chris Terrio. Every time I needed to have a question answered, I didn’t have to go very far.

Mary Jo and I approached [editing] one way, which was we kind of split the film into sequences. Stefan and I decided to approach it another way this time, which was to try and get everything cut without splitting it up. Whoever was available to work on a sequence that J.J. wanted to work on would [do so] while the other one was working on another sequence. I think ultimately, both ways of working are good because when you do a collaboration like that, you end up collaborating on everything and the entire film anyway. This was just a good way to get our ideas out there quickly and to keep going.

When you say you edited “sequences” with Mary Jo, what do you mean by that? Could you elaborate on the differences between working with her and Stefan?

Sometimes we would look at the script and say, just looking at the schedule, “You’ll take this and I’ll take that and you’ll take this.” In this case, Stefan wasn’t on location with me. He had just had a baby, so he stayed in LA while I went to the UK. We didn’t have a lot of time to split up sequences on the page. It turned out we really didn’t need to because it naturally falls. If I take one big sequence, the next big sequence is gonna go to him. And like I said, ultimately whether you split it up upfront or split it up later on, everyone ends up working on everything. I would say ultimately, it’s really under J.J.’s hand. It is his baby.

You mentioned the onset editing, which I’d read a little about beforehand. How did that influence the rhythm of the final cut?

We just wanted to get a jump on visual effects, because it was just a long—it was, I guess, five-month shoot? We just had a lot of effects we needed to get in the pipeline. Obviously, the earlier you get them in, the more you can change them when you need to! Cutting on the set, for me, was great, because I felt like I was part of the crew, I was part of the shoot. I mean, I know all those people ‘cause I’ve worked with them before, but to be part of it was just awesome for me. To be there and to have people ask me questions and me asking questions and watching what they were shooting. There’s no reason for an editor not to be on the set because everything’s so mobile anyway these days. It just seems [like] the natural progression of things.

Because of the dynamic nature of you being onset, what kind of conversations did you and J.J. and the rest of the crew have?

Oh! Basically, the conversations were happening between J.J. and I and ultimately, they’re not open to the entire crew. They’re just between us, and so we decide what we want and then we bring in the visual effects supervisor because he’s massively involved with the pre-production. He knows what he wants and then that’s where the discussion ended. So, it works out really well.

On a film this big with this many moving pieces, what goes into cutting these big ensemble films? How do you prioritize everybody?

That’s a good question! Well, you know what? It’s really hard! But here’s the thing. For me, as an editor and a storyteller, I’m trying to tell a story. Yes, of course, especially with a film like Star Wars, you’re gonna have fan favorites and characters who people wanna see, but I’m following the story and I’m following the emotional thread. And what works for the story, I feel, ultimately, works for the film. So, I have to be true to that. If a character is particularly adding to the story emotionally, with a funny joke or a funny look or a great moment, of course, I’m gonna put that in! And if it’s dragging a scene down, because there’s just too much, even if it’s great, I have to think of the bigger picture, right? And make the film flow. It’s a hard, daunting task. God knows, in this film, there are a lot of characters and a lot of elements to pay attention to and I think we had massive discussions as we went along about every one of those things you’re thinking about. We thought about, talked about, reworked, figured out, and tried to come up with the best version we can. And by the way, that’s true on every film I do! The first cut sometimes doesn’t resemble the last cut, and sometimes it does. You find the story in there.

Sort of as an extension to that, how did the actors bring fresh elements to their own characters that enhanced the way you edit? I’m thinking specifically of Adam Driver here. What he does in The Rise of Skywalker is much more evocative and less verbal. How is it any different putting together expositional or less wordy sequences?

Look, I have a script, and I have a director who I can talk to about it. We talk about it, and for instance, Adam’s performance is pretty amazing. I look through the dailies and I find the performance that speaks to me, and I construct it that way. Then when we watch it back, I hope that it speaks to people and I try to figure out if it is or isn’t. You know, sometimes when you put two shots together, it enhances meaning, and sometimes it takes away. So, yeah. I experiment a lot and then figure out what I’m happy with. It’s hard to say, it’s like how do you write a letter, right? [Laughs] Sometimes you write a line and you look at it and you go, “Oh my god, that made no sense! Okay, I’m gonna re-write it.” Or sometimes you just write the first thing that comes to your head and it’s great. But I really do try to get into the performance and understand, for me, what speaks to me and then expand that to, like, what J.J.’s reaction is. And a lot of times, J.J. will say to me, “I love that take,” and I’ll look at it and try to use that take that he loved. And he’s probably right.

Did you two ever disagree?

Sure! We disagree and agree all the time and change our minds all the time. There are times when I’ll be like, “I like this take,” and he’ll be like, “Well, I like this take!” Then we live with it for a while and sometimes [we] end up [with] a completely different take. That’s the magic of film, isn’t it? And sometimes it just doesn’t matter! I don’t wanna be precious about it. I mean, I’m not. I’m not precious about anything. And when I do get precious, I kind of knock myself out of it, because I’m trying to convey something to an audience. It can’t just work for me, it has to work for them as well. That’s what happens a lot of the time when you watch films, right? People will ask me questions. “Did this character think that or that?” And I’ll be like, “Well, what do you think?” I’m in the know, so I know what [those characters are] thinking! But if you don’t get it, if it doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t matter that I know what I intended.

That’s fascinating because I didn’t really think about it like that. About it not being precious. As a film lover, I’m always curious about what other people’s reactions to films are. Honestly, I was actually wondering about how you personally responded to coming back to editing Rey. Since The Force Awakens, her story has developed significantly. What was it like revisiting her and crafting a send-off for her?

I remembered how much I love and adore Daisy Ridley. I will just say, she is one of the hardest working actresses I’ve had the pleasure to work with. If she doesn’t get it right, she just keeps going. Her physicality in this film was amazing. She trained hard and got in the headspace of Rey and what was interesting to me, a more mature Rey, both on and off the screen. And what she’s trying to convey, I thought it was really exciting. I thought her performance was amazing, so I’m a big fan of hers. There was never a moment where I looked at her performance and went, “No, she didn’t get there.”

Daisy’s incredible. She’s very much the anchor of this film, not just in terms of the emotional threads of it, but also in the action sequences. Like the training course scene? I was so beyond myself to see such a dynamic re-introduction to her, especially after how The Last Jedi left off. What’s it like putting together an action sequence like that?

[Laughs] I could talk for, like, a day about it! You look at all the performances, you try and shape the scene, you try to create a story. I don’t wanna stay too long, I don’t wanna be too short. There are sound and music that affects it. There are so many elements that go into cutting a scene like that. There are so many versions I could do, obviously, given that usually on action sequences like that, two or three cameras are being shot at all times. So, you [choose] the most dynamic shot of the best performances. It’s like having a big empty page and a lot of stuff to put on it and figure out what order it goes in. It’s a big puzzle sometimes. You have the guide of the script, but then you have to throw out the script after a while and feel your way through it. By the way, everyone else has an opinion! So, I’m really open about trying stuff. But I do have to make it my own to try. I can’t just try something if I don’t understand it. I have to understand it to make it work.

Sure, because it is your creation as much as J.J.’s. You have such a strong role in shaping how we perceive The Rise of Skywalker. And you mention sound being a big part of these action sequences and that’s actually one of my favorite elements of the movie, especially John Williams’ score. How closely did you and Stefan work with the sound and music department on this film?

First of all, I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world to be able to work with John Williams; even to be in the same room with him. He’s really amazing, and he writes music for movies that are like scripts. When you realize what he’s done, it’s so subtle and yet so effective. Obviously, we temped all the scenes with his music, but then whenever a sequence was done, we would turn it over to him and let him do what he needed to do. We tried to keep him in the loop the whole entire time we were working and the same with sound. We had a sound editor who was working with us. Skywalker Sound — we’d send sequences to them […] then we’d get it back and put it in the AVID and then work with it. Sound and music are so important in a film like Star Wars or any action film that you can’t really do without it. I mean, it affects so much of the story, it affects so much of the humor, the banter. It’s a big deal.

From what we’ve talked about so far, the sheer experience of working on a film this impactful is huge. There are so many factors that go into crafting Episode IX, especially with all the outside influences as well, with fandom and pop culture. Do you ever think about stuff like that?

It’s hard not to! Every time you open your emails, there’s some Reddit post claiming to know what the story is. There’s so much written. Everyone seems to have an opinion about Star Wars. It’s not like a film where you’re putting it out there and then you’re seeing what’s happening. Already, a lot of people go to it with what they wanna see or what they believe they should see and it’s hard. I try not to [pay attention to] it. I just try to tell the story. I just look at the characters, I try to follow the script, make suggestions about what could make the story better, follow an emotional throughline. But there’s no question that the fans are loud, and God knows, where would we be without our fans? I mean, you walk down the street in London or New York, you’ll pass five or six people wearing some sort of Star Wars symbol. It’s incredible. So, you can’t not; it’s just in everyday life. I was listening to something on the radio. Some people were coming to do some sort of music thing and I heard one guy go, “May the first be with you!” And oh my God! [Laughs] There you go!

So, when thinking about all that – the nostalgia and presence of it all – especially when The Rise of Skywalker brings back someone like Palpatine, how do you make sure something like that pays off for the audience?

If you’re excited to see Palpatine again and we were successful in telling his story and the purpose he served in the film, then we did what we set out to do. If you didn’t get it, or you were like, “You were superfluous,” then we failed. It’s a hard question to answer because the truth is, everything in a film — when I put anything in a film, it’s important. I’m making a point, right? Even if it’s just to make an impression or give you a feeling.

Well, I think you guys succeeded! It’s a great, fulfilling send-off chapter in many ways.

Good, good. I’m pleased to hear that! That makes me very happy. Our aim was to tell an emotional story that people would feel that it was epic and moving, and that’s what I hope we did.

(Contributor)

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Particularly loves writing stuff and things with a feminist bent here at Film School Rejects.