Many would agree that 2015 was the beginning of peak outrage over the lack of women in behind-the-scenes roles in the film industry. Hollywood was buzzing with what we already knew--it’s difficult to be a woman in Hollywood. In the Top 700 film of 2014, only 18% were edited by women. While female directors and writers often get publicity over this issue, editors remain as they are often most comfortable - -out of the spotlight and behind-the-scenes.
Film editors are paramount to successful films, yet they are widely underappreciated and often unrecognized. While the director is charged with the vision of the film as a whole, they depend on their editor (or editors) to choose the best takes and begin to form the narrative of the picture, often while the director is still on set shooting. Film editors are as much storytellers as technical problem-solvers. Nothing demonstrated this more than a panel at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival with editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, who left their work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens to join a packed house of film lovers and makers to discuss the art of film editing.
The panel ended up being a masterclass in how editors shape film as a whole. Bringing rough and finished scenes from Star Trek Into Darkness, Brandon and Markey demonstrated how they each cut various scenes, but also how through editing, the narrative of the film changed, plot problems were uncovered, and ultimately a cohesive film was formed. An old Hollywood saying states that “There's the film you write, the film you shoot, and the film you edit.” Brandon and Markey revealed the truth of that proverb that day before the stunned audience. Yes, editors matter and these are two of the best.
The 18% of Top 700 films edited by women was actually higher than directors (13%), writers (13%), and cinematographers (9%). Mary Jo told Michael Martin at NPR she believes “one advantage that women have had in editing is that women were editors from the beginning of the film business” and that “it was considered women's work at one point”, but not necessarily a creative aspect of the industry. Over the past 10 years, Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey have quietly and brilliantly edited the most high-profile films released and fostered a consistent working relationship with J.J. Abrams - -one of the most powerful forces on planet Earth, at least as far as moviemaking goes. Editing all of Abrams’ feature films, Brandon and Markey have truly joined the upper echelon of film editors and demonstrated just how creative film editing is.
Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey both began working with J.J. Abrams as editors on his TV shows (Felicity and Alias). So, when it was time for him to direct his first feature film, Mission: Impossible III, in 2006, he called on the two of them to work as a team to edit the film. Mary Jo told NPR that “there was talk because it was [J.J.’s] first feature film about, you know, bringing in some heavy-hitter guy that had cut other action movies. But ultimately, J.J. just felt like he wanted us.”
Next, they joined forces again in 2009 to work on one of the most anticipated science-fiction films of the last decade: Star Trek. Later, they'd also work on the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). In between the two Trek films, they also edited J.J.'s Super 8. In a 2013 interview with Creative Cow, Maryann discussed how J.J.’s films aren’t your “typical” action films and that his films typically “find a way to make the action sequences come out of the emotional sequences”, which is “important for [them] as a team of filmmakers to find the emotional journey to, say, if a planet is going to blow up”. Meaning there’s heart behind every action sequence and a reason behind every scene.
After Star Trek Into Darkness, Maryann and Mary Jo began working on what would be their biggest and most high-profile film to date: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Maryann has said she “love[d] the fact that [they] made a film that not only the whole family can go to and enjoy but, you know, it's actually having an effect”. Obviously, Star Wars impacted the masses, but especially the character Rey and her impact on younger girls who feel like they “can pick up a lightsaber now and go for it.”
At the end of the day, editing is a collaborative effort and Mary Jo and Maryann each treat it as such, dividing up scenes equally and working with one another to make a film the best it can be. In an industry that fosters big egos and recognition-seeking, editors rarely have either. As Maryann stated in an interview with MovieMachine.tv, “the editing room is really leave your ego at the door and you’re a team player.” What is it like in the editing room with J.J. Abrams? According to Mary Jo “[J.J.’s] totally involved during the Director’s Cut” and “sometimes [the editor’s cut] wasn’t what he expected but he’s intrigued by what we did". Both speak highly of their experiences with him, and considering they’ve been working together for over a decade, you can assume all parties involved enjoy working together.
But editing isn’t known to be a glamorous job in the film industry. According to Maryann, the work is “intense”, however “it’s really rewarding to see a film on the screen and know what you put into it and know every intimate fact about it”. If editors are doing their job correctly, the audience doesn’t even notice their work and that in general “nobody notices really in the bigger, greater world” the work of the editor. But whether you'd heard their names before or not, Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey have edited some of the biggest science fiction films in Hollywood. So even though they aren't expecting it, let's give them the recognition they deserve. After all, they've earned it.
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