Oscar Nominees for Best Editing: “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” – Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey
Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey have a long and fruitful collaboration with the prolific J.J. Abrams, extending back to their days on the TV shows “Alias.” Their features together include “Star Trek into Darkness” and “Super 8.” The team’s latest collaboration, “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” has earned Brandon and Markey Oscar nominations for Best Editing.
HULLFISH: What was the rough editing schedule?
MARY JO: It was long. They shot from May to November of 2014. We really did not finish cutting until sometime in November of 2015. Near the end of the schedule on a JJ film things are moving simultaneously. The DI is happening and changes get passed on to DI. The sound is being built. Changes keep getting fed to the mixing stage. John Williams re-recorded several cues because our changes were so extensive on some scenes that it just wasn’t going to work to just edit them.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about collaboration and your style of collaboration as you work together and with JJ Abrams.
MARYANN: I started with him on “Alias” and both Mary Jo and I have collaborated on all of his features. Mary Jo edited with him as far back as “Felicity.” Our collaboration is very close. We discuss everything and it’s really a trusting, “I’ve got your back and you’ve got my back” kind of thing. A couple weeks before the shoot we get the script, we give him notes, he responds to those notes. We were in the UK for the six months. They shot there with the exception of the time they shot in Abu Dhabi for two weeks. We pretty much jump in and start working. We usually never watch anything altogether until we perfect every scene.
MARY JO: I would say that the collaboration with JJ is really one of the best I’ve ever had in my career. He is extremely open to ideas early on in the cut. Even in a first cut if we realize if a scene would be better if we lifted a section out, he is not a director that freaks out. I can show him the scene the way I think it will work best. I always make a point to mention, “By the way, I took these things out.” Sometimes he’ll say, “I think we need that.” Or he always wants to know why I took it out. Or he’ll say, most often, “Wow. I didn’t miss it.” He’s definitely somebody who wants to boil the scene down to its most essential parts. He’s not a writer who’s extremely precious about his words. He just wants his scenes and the movie to be as good as it can be.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about the editor as storyteller. You guys are in the enviable position that you get a chance to give notes on the script up front. Were you able to supply that kind of story input on this movie as well?
MARY JO: The story contributions were more during the break we took when Harrison Ford broke his ankle. That gave us a chance to sit back and look at what we had and we had some script input at that point. JJ spent a lot of time re-writing.
HULLFISH: What were some of the changes?
MARYANN: They had already shot Harrison’s entrance through the door on the Millenium Falcon. In the original scene Finn and Rey weren’t hiding, they were just standing there. It didn’t give Han and Chewy enough of a moment. And we figured it could be a bigger, better moment if they were hiding and afraid and let Han have this moment where the audience could applaud and give it a breath.
MARY JO: It’s so much better than the original. And one thing that JJ had an instinct about right from when he was shooting it, was the first meeting between Finn and Rey, when BB-8 recognizes Poe’s jacket on Finn and Rey chases him. The writing of that changed during the hiatus and he did re-shoot it. In the first version, Finn acknowledged to Rey immediately that he was a Stormtrooper. JJ and I felt he wouldn’t do this. He doesn’t know who this girl is. She also just chased him down. So why is he, in that moment, going to speak the truth to her. It just turned out to be a plot turn that had resonance through the whole script, because then he has the moment where he has to confess to her that he didn’t tell her the truth and it becomes this much deeper moment between them.
MARY JO: Plus it gave Han the chance to say, “Women always know the truth.”
HULLFISH: And it gave the audience a chance to wonder when he would get discovered. So: nice tension.
MARYANN: Emotionally, Finn had a ways to go to figure out that not only was he going to be a defector, but he was going to end up fighting for the right side. That’s a big journey and you’ve got to space that out.
MARY JO: In that original scene it didn’t really help you fall in love with Finn right away. Now, I think he’s so charming where he sees the way Rey looks at him and says, “Absolutely! I’m with the Resistance!” It’s a much more charming scene than it was before.
HULLFISH: Even without making script comments and suggestions, the editor is a storyteller in the edit decisions themselves. Every single cut is an example of the editor as storyteller, but can you think of a specific example?
MARYANN: In a big way, one of the things we did was to pull the introduction of Leia out of the beginning of the film so that you could meet her again through Han Solo. That’s a big build up in this film. In fact, throughout the film, introducing the old characters kept moving further and further back in the story. They used to all be introduced in the beginning, and we realized that the power of their introduction became much more emotionally satisfying by pushing it later. Things like creating a point of view in a scene and seeing it through the eyes of the character and understanding it through them is a very powerful tool that editors use.
MARY JO: In the cutting of a scene, especially when you’re cutting a character like BB-8 – we have all this footage of this little droid doing little things like rocking back and forth or cocking his head or looking up at her or looking out at the desert and you really do end up creating the beginnings of a bond between him and Rey just by those little pieces of film. I tried to create this idea that he’s almost immediately enamored with her. He’s just fascinated by her and thrilled by her. There’s a lot of material to choose from in all that BB-8 footage. I think that’s a perfect example of the editor as storyteller. You’re creating that relationship between those characters with no dialogue.
HULLFISH: A big thing for most editors is performance.
MARY JO: I try to only go with what works for me and what is really speaking to me or making me laugh – whatever speaks to me with the full intent of the dialogue.
MARYANN: I would 100 percent agree with that. Sometimes there’s a physicality to something the actors do that makes the way you cut a scene work. For instance when Rey touches the light-saber in what we used to call the “Force Back.” She comes out of this dream state and she’s running in the snow and she sees Kylo Ren step out from behind a tree and she had this great physical reaction on her face which I used before the audience sees Kylo Ren and JJ thought, “You should do that the other way.” But I said, “No. There’s a physicality to it that I read as ‘scared’ and then you see what she’s afraid of.” I usually decide on an emotion that I’m trying to convey and then look for it.
HULLFISH: For me it’s always a matter of finding that moment where it feels honest and that the emotion is closest to the story.
MARYANN: Right. You can always tell when it’s not working or they’re not believing.
MARY JO: I also spend a lot of time building line readings that work better for me. The readings have a greater intent than the take that has the perfect look or the perfect eyes, but the reading isn’t quite what I was looking for so I’ll swap out the reading. I do a lot of that. Also, I find stillness to be a lot more convincing than a lot of gesturing.
HULLFISH: You’ve got this iconic soundtrack. I can’t believe you guys would have used temp score from anything other than the other six movies. And, do you cut in temp at all? Do you cut it in after you’ve done an initial picture cut of the scene?
MARY JO: We have actually worked for quite a long time with Ramiro Belgardt, who is John Williams’ music editor. He’s worked with us as a temp music editor going back to “Star Trek.” I think it was temped with almost all John Williams music. We rarely moved outside of that sound library. We concentrate on the picture editing for the most part and when a scene is pretty close to being in a screen-able form, then we pass it off to Ramiro and he comes back with a couple options and we all take a look at them. We’re constantly refining scenes and the music has to constantly be recut to fit the new cut. At some point, because John started recording early, we were able to start putting some of his real music into the cut as well, which was great.
MARYANN: We also had a lot of temp tracks that we got from Skywalker Sound. There were some iconic sounds – some sounds that we had them make. Some new sounds for the Rathtars which Gary Rydstrom spent a lot of time concocting and the sounds of BB-8. JJ is very sound sensitive. If a sound is not right it throws the whole scene off. Both of us would rather watch a scene silently – especially an action scene – than have the wrong sound in a film. And as Maryann said, John Williams started early so we had that music. We also had another music editor, Christ Westlake, who was incredibly helpful in trying to bring other music in that sometimes helped. And on top of that, you don’t have completed visual effects, so you’re temping it with sound that Skywalker is providing but we’re changing those visual effects constantly.
HULLFISH: So you’ve kind of switched the topic from temp music to temp sound design. How important is the sound design – and my specific note that I have here is the sound design where Rey discovers Luke’s light saber.
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MARYANN: I cut that scene and that scene had many incarnations. JJ’s direction was that he wanted it to be like an acid trip and she has to be super-scared when she falls out of it. I tried many variations and in the end realized that what worked the best was that it be sound driven. I decided to use the sound of her as a little girl screaming – that’s what eventually brings her down there. At one point it was a Force voice or a Yoda voice and none of it seemed to work until it became personal. When I put the screaming in, it started to help me visualize what I needed to show. So she follows that screaming voice and goes through and see R2-D2 and Luke’s mechanical hand and the knights of Ren in the rain and finally sees herself as a little girl. And it wasn’t until I put that scream in there that JJ started to respond to the cut or whatever we made up for that scene. Sound was incredibly important in designing that. And the music also became a sort of sound effect because I tried to find something very disturbing and metal-on-metal, so that became something that scared you as well. Eventually we added in a little bit of the sound of Yoda saying whatever he’s saying about the Force, “Don’t resist” and Brian Burke, one of our producers put together a line of Alec Guinness’ where he just says, “Rey.” And then we ended with Ewan McGregor saying, “These are your first steps.” So if you go back and listen to that scene, a lot of it is in the sound. I couldn’t be happier with it. But it was a long journey to get there and it’s less than a minute long.
HULLFISH: I am having trouble understanding what you are calling that scene…
MARYANN: Oh, it was called the Force Back. It was from an original incarnation in a much earlier script about how the Force used to take them through the history of the Force. Very early on we decided that it was not going to be a lesson about the Force, but the name stuck. Now it’s really: “Rey’s Acid Dream.”
HULLFISH: Film editing has evolved tremendously since the first “Star Wars” movie in 1977 and much more is expected out of a “rough cut” than back when audio was a single mag stripe on a 35mm work-print. Talk to me about the finish and polish that is necessary nowadays when you show something to JJ or the producers.
MARYANN: It’s interesting that you asked that because there was an idea at one point of trying to make the soundtrack of the film very simple: to try to mimic the sound design of “A New Hope” (the original Star Wars movie from 1977). Keep it simple and only have very simple, needed effects and otherwise let the music lead. It did become clear that, at a certain point, audiences had changed too much for that sort of approach. But it was an interesting experiment.
HULLFISH: That’s an interesting look into what could have been! But what about the idea that nowadays you have to present a very complete look at temp effects and color and music and tons of audio and video layers way beyond what was possible before the advent of digital NLEs, like Avid.
MARY JO: Truthfully our assistants take the first stab at that stuff. I definitely put in certain things because I know I want something there. Usually something that I’ve stolen from the production effects. But Matt Evans, my first assistant, and Julian Smirke, Maryann’s first assistant, do a lot of that initial work for us. Something like the Falcon chase with the two Tie fighters, that’s something beyond what we can do in the Avid. We send that to Skywalker Sound and they do a pass on it for us. Matt did an awesome first pass in the Avid of putting together the sound for the saber fight near the end of the movie. Sound is extremely important to JJ. And like Maryann was saying earlier, if the sound isn’t the way he’s conceived it, it really throws him out of the scene and he just wants to watch it silent. So it can really be make or break. In that case, we usually end up watching it silent, which isn’t so bad either because it gives you a chance to see if the picture cut is working unsupported by sound effects and music.
HULLFISH: Exactly. That’s something that’s come up in several of my other interviews. The picture cut should work on its own.
MARYANN: When we work with JJ on our scenes, we don’t usually have a complicated sound track. We try to show it pretty simple because I don’t want sound to influence the drama until we get the drama and performance right. Once we do start showing it, though, it’s a lot of prep and we want it to be as perfect as we want it to be.
HULLFISH: One of the things that you guys do that is a bit different from the other editors I’ve spoken with is that you really don’t try to put the whole movie together until each individual scene is cut. A lot of other editors say that as soon as they can string a couple of scenes together they do.
MARY JO: Really this is a process that’s driven by JJ. He, from his experience working in television, learned that it felt too overwhelming to watch a full first pass. And when I hear of people watching a first cut that’s like three hours and twenty minutes long, I can really see his point. Really in a way, “why?” Why put yourself through that? His method is, “let’s pick a scene. Let’s work on this scene.” And on this film, he tended to go chronologically. On a lot of projects, he’ll just pick a random scene.
MARYANN: Sometimes the order is driven by visual effects.
MARY JO: Yeah, that’s true. But I think it takes an onus off of everyone’s shoulders. We’re just going to look at scenes. We’re not going to assume that we have anything that we’re going to remotely call a complete film because we know we don’t. We probably have way too much material and …
MARYANN: … and we’re going to change the order.
HULLFISH: Let’s move on to that discussion, then. Once you’ve done all these scenes and JJ’s happy with them and you’re kind of happy with each individual scene, there’s a huge amount of editing to be done just in the structuring and what I call the macro-pacing of the entire movie.
MARY JO: No question.
MARYANN: The other thing I was going to say, which I think is very smart on JJ’s part – and I’ve adapted it myself – the first time you see a movie together, that’s your impression. And it is really smart to save that viewing until you feel really good about every individual scene.
HULLFISH: How long was the first pass?
MARY JO: It wasn’t too bad. I think it was about two and a half hours, right Maryann?
MARYANN: Two and a half. And JJ really wanted it to be two hours.
MARY JO: Which we never got to.
MARYANN: But we tried.
HULLFISH: Where did you end up? Two hours ten?
MARYANN: Something like two five or two oh four. But then we had ten minutes of credits on top of that.
HULLFISH: So twenty or twenty five minutes has to come from someplace…
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MARYANN: One example is in the castle battle we used to see how Han and Finn and Maz escape from under the castle. It was a very funny scene. Harrison was very funny in it. People laughed. But we ended up taking the scene out because we were juggling too many stories. You really wanted to be back with Rey and Ren and move the story forward.
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MARY JO: A lot of these big set pieces just have too many elements. We took out elements in the opening village raid where the Stormtroopers destroy the small village where Lor San Tekka and Poe are at the beginning of the movie. You can’t make those sequences into twenty minute long sequences. And if you put in everything that was shot, you just end up with too much. We did also lift scenes that – even though they were good scenes – we found that we could live without them. And if you CAN live without them, you probably SHOULD. We moved some things earlier in the film. We moved some things later in the film. We changed a number of the scenes with the droids only. The scenes where C3PO comes on BB-8 trying to talk to R2D2. They were shortened. They were made much more specific. The ending of the film – which, as far as we were concerned was everything that followed the Millenium Falcon and Star Killer base being destroyed – we tried to make the sequence after that as streamlined as possible so the movie didn’t feel like it had seven endings. We took out a number of things there.
MARYANN: As I said before, a big thing was moving the introduction of the old characters later in the film. I think that worked tremendously.
MARY JO: At one point, in the first reel (approximately the first 10 or 11 minutes) we saw Leia, we saw C3PO, we saw R2D2. It was so much more fun to kind of sprinkle that out throughout the film.
HULLFISH: What are the challenges of editing with so much visual effects? Determining the pace of a scene from shot to shot is so often based on the action and the movement within the scene, but with VFX you don’t see a lot of that action. So how do you determine pacing? Imagination?
MARY JO: Imagination. Plus the scenes get recut and refined as the shots come in. You’ll realize, “Oh, we need to be longer there because the shot is so cool.” And other times we realize we don’t need as much real estate as we had allowed for that moment. It’s a constant recut and refine as visual effects come in. But we really start with the core material which is the footage that JJ shoots with the actors. That’s the start of the official effects sequence. Everything kind of grows out of that, which is one of the things that keeps our effects sequences or our big set pieces feeling personal.
MARYANN: I would totally agree with that. Like in the Falcon chase – the pacing of their banter back and forth, even though they’re not even in the same part of the ship, definitely affects how and what you want to see. We also have a very close relationship with ILM and Roger Guyett who’s our effects supervisor and Marty Cloner who’s our effects editor and we will say, “We think this will happen here. Can you mock something up for us? Can you give us a post-viz of this shot?” And they’ll do it based on what we’ve asked them to do or what JJ’s asked them to do. Usually there’s a bunch of plates because JJ likes to keep it very real, so we’ll use a plate that says, “This is a desert and they’re going to go from here to here” and we’ll put a card over the plate. But it’s definitely driven by the live action.
MARY JO: I do think that JJ is a master of that: of keeping the big sequences grounded in the emotion and psychology and intent of the characters. For him, and for us too, it’s not worth anything if it’s not rooted in something that you care about… somebody that you’re hoping is going to be OK… someone that you want to succeed at that moment. It’s a tremendous strong suit of his.
HULLFISH: I’m cutting a car racing scene right now and I’m struck by the fact that – of course you want to care about someone – but it’s also that the audience has to understand the geography of where everybody is in relationship to each other. I remember this classic episode of the old TV comedy “Police Squad” where there’s a big gun battle, and when you pull out the two shooter are on opposite sides of the same garbage can.
HULLFISH: So you need to know who’s in danger and who’s not and where they are in relationship to each other.
MARY JO: That’s a big deal. That’s a big deal: that understanding of where everyone is and what’s happening to everyone. Sometimes it’s just a matter of backing up one shot. It’s something that’s important to all three of us I think. We don’t like that sense of “Wham! Bam! Pow! Something just happened. I’m not sure what, but our guy seems to be OK.” We want you to be able to understand what happened and why he’s OK or why he got out or who landed which punch.
HULLFISH: On a technical note, editing on Avid I’m assuming? Collaboratively? Tell me a little about the set-up and the team.
MARYANN: We’re on a shared ISIS system and each of us are on an Avid. They set up the dailies for us and organize it the way we like it. We do use ScriptSync. It’s a big, valuable tool for us, especially in heavy dialogue scenes with lots of cameras.
HULLFISH: Tell me specifically what your assistants do for you. Do they organize things differently for Mary Jo than Maryann?
MARY JO: Yes. We each have our own first assistant and they organize our bins the way that we’re used to cutting. It’s not all that different, but it is a little different. And we have one assistant dedicated to getting the ScriptSync in order for each scene and we share that.
HULLFISH: ScriptSync prep is very labor intensive. Do you do ScriptSync for every single scene?
MARY JO: Yes. Every single scene that has dialogue. It makes it so much easier when JJ’s in there and he wants to look at a different take of something. It makes it so much faster to find what he’s looking for. As far as who’s on the ISIS it’s us, our 1st assistants, our second assistants, the VFX editor… who else, Maryann?
MARYANN: Because of the way Bad Robot’s wired, we can pull off our cut from the Avid and screen it in the screening room without having to export it and download it or make a tape and bring it over.
HULLFISH: How do each of you like your bins organized? Or are you strictly working from the ScriptSync script?
MARY JO: I definitely need the takes in bins so I can watch everything – little gestures, little moments that aren’t going to be ScriptSynced that I need to know about. We view the dailies straight through. I only use ScriptSync when I want to compare line readings and that sort of thing.
MARY JO: I have the takes group-clipped first (multi-cam). Then I have each individual camera separately shown lower in the bin, not group clipped. That’s so I can quickly look and see, “Oh, in take three the B camera was doing something different than what the B camera was doing in take two. And C camera was picking up little moments that he wanted to grab along the way.” So I do like to have them shown separately along the way. I also have a locator placed in each take that’s set at action. JJ does a lot of pickups during a take where he’ll stop and say, “Can you do that line again?” And each one of those are marked with a locator. It’s a big job actually to get all of that stuff set up. And doing all of that also helps the person who’s doing the ScriptSync make sure that he doesn’t miss any extra line readings and things when he’s putting that together.
HULLFISH: Looking at Frame View?
MARY JO: I’m looking at Frame View most of the time. Occasionally on an action sequence I’ll go to Script View if I need to make detailed notes about something in the action sequence, but most of the time I’m looking at Frame View.
MARYANN: I pretty much set up my bins like KEM rolls. I will have all of the A camera together, B camera together of a certain sequence. I will locate where each one starts so I can just whiz through them like when I used to cut on a KEM or a Moviola. I also have a set of grouped clips like Mary Jo where I can switch between cameras. But I pretty much use that in the big action sequences, but I use the KEM rolls because out of the blue JJ will change a C camera and it will totally be shooting something else and I like to be able to pretend that they’re each individual set-ups so that I don’t miss anything. I mostly keep it all in thumbnail view (Frame View in Avid.) And I use the KEM rolls because it keeps the bins a little smaller so that I don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of little tiles up there. I’ll look at a Frame and it’ll be takes 1 through 25, and I think, “Oh this is going to be a big one.
MARY JO: The other thing is we have B negative. I have all of the B negative lower in the bin so when I’m looking for something and I’m not finding quite what I want or I’m looking for a pronunciation of a word I can also go down and look at all the B negative takes at the bottom of the bin. They’re usually hidden, but I can just scroll down to the bottom of the bin and look at all of that as well.
HULLFISH: Excuse my ignorance of the term B negative…
MARYANN: With JJ basically everything is printed. It’s all there. It’s just organized as preferred and not preferred. We can use that term because we know what it is.
HULLFISH: B negative, got it: “the non-printed takes that are actually printed anyway.” I learn something new every day.
MARY JO: It’s a tremendous advantage having those at your fingertips. We both started on film and if you felt like you didn’t have what you were looking for, you’d need to order up B negative to be printed and sometimes it was a big waste of money and there was nothing in the B negative, but it’s fantastic to just have it there. “Is there anything here that would be useful at this moment?”
HULLFISH: I’m too much of a rookie. Printed takes and B negative, I just have all that stuff together with notations on which takes the director wanted “printed.” I have the scripty’s abbreviated notes put in to the name of the clip after the scene and take and set-up info. Printed takes have asterisks. So I know the “printed takes” but I don’t distinguish between the printed and non-printed.
MARY JO: Oh… that’s a good thing.
HULLFISH: What is your approach to a basic, simple dialogue scene? Obviously there are the big set pieces which take weeks to put together, but with a simple scene, the assistant editor has prepared it for you and you walk in in the morning. What do you do?
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MARY JO: Well the first thing I do…
MARYANN: Get coffee.
MARY JO: Procrastinate. Answer emails.
MARY JO: Although we watch the dailies together, when I actually sit down to cut the scene I watch them again and I make very careful notes about something like, “This is a fantastic reading, or this is such a great moment, or this works really well in a long run…” I’ll just make all of these notes about what’s working for me.
HULLFISH: How do you make those notes?
MARY JO: Oh, pieces of paper. I’m very retro.
MARY JO: Sometimes I’ll make a different color locator – not the color that the assistants use for “action” or “pickups” but a different color that I’ll use, and when I see a different color I know that where the color marker is is the moment I was talking about. And I usually have a pretty good idea of what I think the scene should be and what weight the scene should be given or who the scene should be weighted towards, or whose eyes the scene should be seen through. Although, sometimes when I’m watching the dailies, the way that JJ has directed it or the way the actor has performed it will change my point of view a little bit. I’ll see something and say, “I’m seeing something about this scene that I didn’t fully realize before. Then I just start putting it together. I try to start without too much of a pre-determined decision that “I’m going to go from here to there to here to that shot to that shot.” I try for an organic approach, where when I put one piece of film in, it is asking me to go here next. I realize that after I put one shot in, I really want a reaction shot from that person before I go to this person responding. And my goal is always to make it feel like the scene happened. Not like I cut the scene. I just try to make the timing and the sequence of shots feel as organic and natural as possible and not constructed. Not like I imposed some structure on it… that it evolved.
HULLFISH: Love it.
MARY JO: I get that feeling much more if I don’t do too much of a premeditated “I’m going to do a master then a two shot, then the over then back wide…” It just feels like I get to a better place if I let it lead me organically.
HULLFISH: Yes, but to do that you have to start out with the first shot. Does JJ usually direct a “special” that starts it? In some scenes it definitely felt like there was a shot that was directed specifically to start the scene. Like “there is no other choice but to start with this shot.”
MARY JO: Except that there almost always is.
HULLFISH: So you succeeded.
MARY JO: Steve, I have to say, the hardest thing is picking that first shot. I feel like JJ almost always gives us a lot of ways into scenes, don’t you Maryann?
MARYANN: I always spend a lot of time figuring how to get into the scene. That’s probably my hardest time.
MARY JO: Yeah!
MARYANN: It has to be instinctual. Everything Mary Jo said, I totally agree with. Ultimately, it’s hard to put into words because it’s so instinctual. Just like what feels right. There are no rules. It changes all the time. It also depends on the performance.
HULLFISH: Or it depends on the previous scene or the next scene.
MARYANN: Right. Where you’re coming from. Where you’re going to. How much of an overlap you want. Or how much of the last scene you don’t want. JJ does some shots where he really plans his way in and sometimes those stick and sometimes they don’t, which goes back to being objective in the cutting room. It’s like, “I don’t know what it takes to get that big crane shot, but that’s not going to influence whether I use it or not.” Obviously, I’ll start there, but it doesn’t necessarily end up there.
HULLFISH: I know we talked a bit about collaboration, but I want to touch on that again. I talked recently to Dan Hanley and Mike Hill – Ron Howard’s long-time editors – and they basically swap out every scene. “I’ll do scene one, you do scene two.” But that’s not how you guys work is it?
MARYANN: No. We take long sections.
HULLFISH: Why and what’s the value?
MARYANN: Well, because you become the expert in that part of the story and you mine those dailies and then we all come together and discuss the film as a whole, but when you’re trying to do intricate changes, it helps to have the intimate knowledge of how to get through that area. A lot of times a whole sequence – instead of individual scenes – comes together and the scenes influence each other. Both of us would rather have that whole emotional journey than try to checkerboard it. I don’t think that would work for me. It would be very frustrating.
HULLFISH: On my first movie, “Courageous,” we basically split the movie in two. Alex Kendrick took the first pass at all of the scenes in the first half of the movie and I took the first pass at all the scenes in the second half of the movie, but we played out scenes for each other and gave notes to each other, editor to editor. But that’s something I saw you guys also said you wouldn’t want to do.
MARY JO: Normally JJ doesn’t make any suggestions about how we split up a script, but for some reason on this one he said, “Why don’t one of you take the first half and one of you take the second half.” But that just didn’t sound right to us. I didn’t want to cut only in one half of the movie and not being as deeply involved with the dailies and the shaping of the second half of the movie, even though we work together at a certain point, I didn’t feel like I would have the full experience or be as valuable a participant when we got to the other half of the movie. It didn’t feel right to either one of us.
MARYANN: MJ did the first half hour, I did the middle hour and she did the last half hour essentially. We both got a sense of character development and it definitely does keep you invested in the whole thing.
HULLFISH: How do you come to a collaboration with a director? Is it something that adapts and evolves?
MARY JO: To start with, there’s no way that JJ would have been working with Maryann or me for this long if we weren’t offering him something that he found valuable and that fit with his own sensibility. When I started working with him in 1997 on “Felicity” I was cutting the way I had always cut. It was always character based, meaning based… trying to draw out as much emotional connection between the viewer and the story as I could and I think that fit totally with JJ’s sensibilities. So the collaboration evolved as a natural thing. I think that’s why he’s brought us along with him as he’s continued to work. We share the same approach to material and the same sensibility about material and about what’s important about shaping a story.
MARYANN: As far as sharing about working with other directors, when you meet in an interview, you get a sense of whether you’re going to get along. It’s like any relationship, Mary Jo and I approach every project that we do the same way.
HULLFISH: Some directors want to talk it through and discuss the “Why” of the edit decisions. Other directors are just: “Show me.” So how do you like to collaborate with a director?
MARY JO: Both of those things. When JJ comes in, we look at the scene and start working on it, but there are definitely times when my hands are not on the Avid; where we’re just sitting face to face talking about a problem in the scene and what is it that’s not working for us. I think we’ve all had this experience: “I don’t really love this scene, but WHY don’t I love it? What is it that’s missing? What’s in there that shouldn’t be? Or what’s missing that SHOULD be in there?” We do spend a lot of time talking, but not usually before we watch the scene.
MARYANN: I think it’s the same for me. Even for a director that just wants to be shown, I’ll still do a lot of talking if it’s not working for me. It’s like any relationship. My personality is my personality. I use my assets as an editor to make the best film I can. Different personalities work differently together. And JJ and I and Mary Jo have a language that we speak and that’s why we continue to work together and our collaboration has been so successful.
HULLFISH: Directors and editors spend a huge amount of time together compared to other people on a production. How much of your “editing talent” is actually social skills?
MARYANN: We’ve known each other so long, it’s more like family now. But with a new editor, I think social skills, like ANY type of job, social skills are important. It’s important to be respectful. It’s important to be honest. It’s important to know when to be honest. That’s a very large question. We really get along well and we really like each other.
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