Maryann Brandon has experience working as an editor, director, and producer in film, animation and television. Her last film PASSENGERS was released December 2016. Her other work as an editor can be seen on Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Universal’s Endless Love, Paramount’s Star Trek and Star Treck into Darkness, and the DreamWorks animated films How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Ku Panda 2. She has also edited JJ Abram’s Super 8 and Mission Impossible 3 and is currently editing The Darkest Minds for 20th Century Fox.
She received an Oscar nomination, Eddy nomination, and won the Saturn Award, for her work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Other awards and nominations include Star Trek, Star Trek into Darkness, and How to Train Your Dragon. She collaborated with JJ Abrams on ALIAS which she received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Single Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series.
In addition to editing Brandon served as Director on two episodes of ALIAS, (“The Road Home” & “After Six”), and served as the Producer for the fourth season. Her previous feature credits include Jane Austen Book Club, A Thousand Acres, Grumpier Old Men, Born to Be Wild, and Bingo.
Could you talk to me a little bit about how you discovered that you wanted to be an editor and the career path that you took to get into editing?
Maryann: Sure. Let’s see. Well, I always really loved movies. I went to the movies a lot as a child. I spent a lot of Saturdays in triple-feature matinees. When I went to university, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I got involved in the Theater Department and from there I got involved with the filmmaking, like a group of kids. It was not really a filmmaking major or anything where I went to school and at that time. I got involved with a group that made films. There were five of us, literally, making these little shorts that would show at the Student Union.
From there, I got recruited by the NYU Graduate Film School, I think because they needed women, that they were looking for. Some teacher of mine had recommended me to them, a set design teacher who was at the time working for Saturday Night` Live. I ended up going to film school. I had no idea what that would encompass or what that would mean, but in the end it just meant, basically, spending the next three years running around New York City with a camera and a bunch of kids who are students making everyone’s films, including my own. I got thrown into the deep end because I had no idea what it took. You had to write a screenplay; you had to shot it; you had to cast. It was a very daunting and informative three years. And it wasn’t easy because it was New York City.
No one in my family was in the film business. I just had no idea what it was about. I just knew that I liked films. I ended up having to, in order to graduate, I had to finish my thesis film and because there was no one else, I ended up editing it. I ended up in New York at the building where all the feature films ever done in New York were being edited. I sort of met that crew because I had to find a place to cut this film. I exchanged working at this place for time on an editing machine. In those days, it was just Moviola in a dark room with film. I realized that I really … editing came really naturally to me. I liked the whole idea of putting it together and having the final say on how to tell a story. I just kind of followed that path. That’s not to say I might not go a different direction, but editing really suited me.
When you’re sitting down now working on editing films, how long does that process usually take for you, in post-production?
Maryann: Well, I usually start around the time a film is starting to be shot, although I’ve read the script, and I’ve talked to the director, and sometimes the writer, or a print producer. I prefer to come on early and for me, it’s really valuable to sit during the read-through and hear the actors perform, just read through the script. When I read a script, I read it with my own intention and my own spin on it, but I find that, if I hear the words and can sit and watch them, then I can get a more objective ear to the whole thing. That’s my preferred way of working. And then, it really depends on the director, and how they shoot, and how much they shoot, and the kind of film it is. If it a big action green screen film, then it takes a little longer because I have to figure out those shots. They don’t come in complete. But if I have all the footage, it doesn’t take as much time. I really just sort out the dailies, and size in, and put it together, and look at it, and see what I have, and then try to figure out what’s the best way to tell that story is.
With the big action pictures and the green screen, what does that look like when it gets to you? Do they have kind of rough special effects in there or is it still totally just a green screen?
Maryann: If it’s a big action sequence, they usually have something called previs (previsualization). That’s a computer-generated mock-up of the scene, like a cartoon, but it’s really rough. I try and use that. Usually that’s just picture, it doesn’t even have dialog. Obviously, a lot of big action teams don’t have a tremendous amount of dialog. I use that as a base and then a lot of things will come in where it’ll just be an actor on green screen. If that is the case, I use the drama to drive the action. So I figure out the story and then I build the action around it. Then little by little, I fill in the blanks. I usually have a B-effects editor who I can go to and say, “Can you composite this? Can you put this person in this environment?” Then I just imagine the time-frame. I imagine how long it will take whatever I’m not seeing to happen and I’ll rough it in. It takes a while to get it figured out.
And then, a lot of times you see very little. Sometimes I literally put in a title card and say, “Try a Rocket in space”, or something like that.
Well, speaking of space, working on Star Wars, a project like that, does it present kind of an extra level of complexity for a title that already has a pre-existing world, and previous films, and a pre-existing storyline?
Maryann: Sure. It depends on how you want to look at it. Obviously, Star Wars has a certain look to it, obvious things like the wipes and how the first couple of films established that language. They have characters that you love and the fan base expects to see. On the other hand, it’s always good if you can inject some originality into something so you’re not just retelling the same story. Yeah, of course, Star Wars comes with an enormous amount of pressure because the fan base is so big and there are people who consider themselves experts on Star Wars. I’m not one of them (laughs).
How much research did you have to do going into that to kind of try to alleviate some of that pressure for yourself?
Maryann: I was pretty familiar with Star Wars. I grew up, obviously, with the films. I really didn’t want to do too much research because I really wanted to have a fresh take on it. So I kind of approached it like I approach any film with a sort of … I let the dailies kind of tell me their strengths and weaknesses. Then at some point, I will try to impose my own vision onto it. Does that make sense to you? For me, doing Star Wars, a lot of it depended on the new young actors that were involved in the film and what they brought to it, their attitude, and their take on the character. Of course, J. J. Abrams had his own vision of the film and I had to answer to that as well, as well as the fan base, as well as every other creative position on a film. If I see a great set or a great piece of action, I’m going to try to enhance it because it’s cool, and if it fits the story, then I’ll go in that direction.
With J. J. and the editing process, how involved is he at that stage? Or does he just hand it off to you and check in periodically? What’s that relationship like during that?
Maryann: He’s pretty hands-on. I usually start when they start shooting or a week before they start shooting. I’ll get the script early on, and we’ll talk about the script, and talk about, particularly, problems he’s having or things he wants resolved, or if he feels that something’s running long or isn’t connecting. So we’ll talk about that and then as he films, I have scenes that I’ve cut. If I have a problem with them, I go to him. I try to send him scenes that are nearly impossible, so if he wants to get additional footage, he has accessibility. Or if he wants to change a performance or something happened since, he can do that. We’ll talk about it. I’ll go to the set. Especially with things like CGI characters, where you’re on a stage or something, I’ll usually be there on the set with him, saying, “This isn’t going to fit in” or “This will fit in” or “Maybe we could make this moment bigger or shorter.” So pretty close. He’s definitely involved the entire time.
I noticed a lot of the work that you’ve done has been kind of genre sci-fi stuff. Is that just something that kind of happened or is that kind of your own interest area?
Maryann: Yeah. That’s an interesting question. I love sci-fi, and it’s very appealing to me. It’s not the only thing I’m interested in. Of course, I love to cut a good comedy. The truth is, the action stuff is not that difficult for me because I know the connective pieces. What I’m really more interested in are the performances and the emotional pieces. Is an audience on the emotional journey? I know I can get them on the action journey because we’re so used to that and people are … it’s like a fun ride. I know how to do that, but to make people laugh or to make people cry, that’s awesome. That’s really what I’m much more interested in. You know what I mean? Who doesn’t love that?
On that note, what is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered with editing, whether it’s sci-fi, or comedy, or whatever genre it may be? What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Maryann: Making sure that the emotional journey that an audience will go on. Is it interesting enough to them? Is it emotional enough for them? Is it connecting with them? And the trick, because I have an opinion, but of course, I’m not working in a vacuum, so there are producers, and writers, and a director who has an opinion, too. If I see something a certain way or something means something to me, I’ll voice it and it might not mean the same thing to them or they might have a different problem.
It’s like collecting all of that and then finding the best version you can do, because an editor in the end, or in my opinion, for me, has to … I have to deal with everyone’s personality. We sort of get everything dumped on us, and then we’re also meant to have an opinion, and we’re also meant to bring to light their opinions. It’s sort of like being a therapist. You’re listening. I know what you’re trying to get out of it. You’re trying to guide everyone in the direction that you think is best, but also by giving them your vision, or convincing them that their vision might be your vision, or understanding why they see something a certain way that you perhaps didn’t see. And even if you did, why your way might be better, but they’re in charge so you’ve got to do their way … there’s a million scenarios. But the hardest part is coming to a point where … I can’t personally make cuts and make a scene out of something unless I understand where it’s coming from, and why it’s coming from there, and why it needs to be that. So I take a lot of time to figure those things out.
Well, kind of on that note, Hollywood is such a harsh industry and in moments when maybe you’re not seeing eye-to-eye with the writers or the director, how do you back yourself up and reaffirm yourself in moments of doubt that you’re having?
Maryann: I go home and drink heavily. No (laughs). I don’t actually drink. Yeah, it’s hard. Part of it is trying to leave your ego out of it, but you need your ego to put forth an idea that maybe isn’t going over. It’s so complicated. On the other hand, I do have the advantage of actually showing what I mean. So I can go in and cut something, and even if a director, or a producer, or a writer doesn’t want to see it, I can say, “Just have a look.” So I can, “Look at the picture I showed you so you can see that this can work, or maybe you didn’t understand.” I mean, I’ve been in a room with producers where I’ve had to explain an idea over and over. Half an hour later, the producer will say, “Oh, yeah. I get what you mean.” You know what it’s like trying to convince someone when they have another opinion. For me, showing that version is the best way to do it. Sometimes that’s hard because it’s tiring to cut a million different versions.
Sometimes you want to get a version in, but you’ll need an extra something, like an extra shot or something, and that’s something they’ll have to do, so you put in a title, and nobody quite understands it. You’re there explaining it, but, on and on.
Well, what three pieces of advice would you offer to others that are looking to pursue a career in editing?
Maryann: What piece of advice? I would say if you really enjoy solitary, pensive work, it’s very rewarding if you can stick to it and you can concentrate on something for a long time. You also need to have the ability to understand, to look at the world and see it from many different sides, I think, personally. Other people might actually come at it from a completely … you have one vision, even better. But I don’t, I think you look at things from many, many different angles.
It’s a very labor-intensive job; however labor-intensive you think it is, it’s more. Even I, to this day, go in and think, “Oh, I’ll just get through that scene in an hour.” And two days later, I’m still trying to find a piece that makes it work. It’s hard. And then sometimes, it just happens and you’re like, “Whoa. That was easy.”
The story makers that are out there that are just getting into making their own films themselves, what is the biggest editing tip that you could give them as they are just getting started?
Maryann: I guess I would say, “Don’t say no to anything until you’ve really thought it out and lived with it. Like don’t be impatient.” Because a lot of really good ideas start as really bad ideas, but if somebody … obviously you can’t listen to every opinion. But I find that if somebody has a problem or cite something, it’s not always the thing they cite, it’s something in that area isn’t working. I’ll give you a really good example. When I did Passengers, a film that I really … that script was … everyone loved that script, in Hollywood. For years, I heard about that script. It’s a great script. When I read it, I thought, “This is a great script.” Then when the film came out, it was very heavily criticized for – I don’t know if you saw the film – something that happens early on in the film.
But when we previewed and when we showed it to people, nobody actually would articulate that thing. They kept saying, “Oh, at the end, I don’t like …” or, “Why didn’t they do this?” Ultimately, I realized that they were all talking about the same thing, the thing that nobody articulated it that way. They kept finding other things, that because this one thing happened, it was a problem for them. I really learned to sort of listen, but not be too literal and not be impatient, and not dismiss ideas, but try to figure out how to have a point of view on it. I’m not saying all ideas are good; they’re not. You can be running down a lot of rabbit holes, which, again, in a labor-intensive job, you do not want to do. You have to have an opinion. With anything creative, there’s sometimes other ways to look at it. Patience is really good, and clearing out the politics. Because Hollywood, as you said, is a very difficult town. People have very big egos, and they make a lot of money. They want to feel that the more money they make, the more they are right (laughs).
Catch Maryann Brandon on TCM this October as the guest on TCM Spotlight: Trailblazing Women!