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When American Cinema Editors unveiled the nominees for its annual Eddies Awards on Monday, two of J.J. Abrams’ longtime collaborators, editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, received a nod for their work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The pair’s storytelling prowess helped Abrams and the team hit a home run — the film has grossed $1.54 billion worldwide and continues to climb.
The duo recently talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the editing, as well as what might have been the world’s most secure cutting room. (With that box office figure, we’ll assume you have seen the movie, but to be safe we’ll still mention there are spoilers ahead.)
For starters, we discussed the scene during which Kylo Ren talks to what’s left of the Vader mask.
“That originally came much earlier in the film,” explains Markey. “It was scripted to happen after Poe and Finn escape from the Star Destroyer, and Kylo Ren would be berating himself for having seen that Finn was a traitor on the battlefield and not have done anything about it. But we realized the moment was wasted there. It wasn’t a big enough event and and it came too early in the film.”
“We moved it to later in the film and made it about his fear about his father’s coming to the planet and his feelings of being pulled toward the light. It had a greater resonance there and greater importance for Kylo Ren’s character.”
Another scene that involved some tinkering for the filmmakers was the introduction of Leia. “At one point, we introduced Princess Leia very early in the film, but [it was decided] we’d see her first through Han’s eyes,” Brandon said. “It makes the audience hungry to see her and you are as scared for Han as he is. … I think it also made her character stronger.”
“It also introduced her with such affection; there’s clearly so much feeling between the two of them. It made her introduction more personal,” added Markey.
The editors also put emphasis on showing the actors’ performances during the action scenes, to ground the scenes in the emotion of the story. “We put extreme effort into searching through the dailies and finding the performances that bring to life the [action] sequences,” said Brandon. “It was a big challenge because [the VFX action sequences] take a big center stage. But they [also needed] the human, emotional component.
“[VFX house] ILM did a fantastic job and [VFX supervisor Roger Guyett] was fantastic because he was always trying to find the emotional way to the story,” she added. “In the cutting room we really tried to make them alive and [let the audience] feel it through the character. … We did a reshoot because we needed a little bit more of their faces to [for instance] see Rey’s fear during the sabre fight with Kylo Ren.”
The pair emphasized that it was a very collaborative process, working with the team including Abrams and the rest of the writers, producers and VFX pros.
Due to the heavy security surrounding the film, while working at the U.K.’s Pinewood Studios the editors actually used self-contained Avid Media Composer editing systems on local storage drives, meaning that they weren’t on a network that could be accessed from other computers.
“There was no Internet capability. We just had local storage that nobody else was able to access,” first assistant editor Matt Evans said, adding that back in L.A. their Media Composers and Avid ISIS5000 storage were connected to a secure network at Bad Robot.
“During finishing, we had a security guard with us, wherever the film went,” added Brandon.
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