Most critics agree that “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is a disappointing finale to the nine-film Skywalker saga, and many have been wondering since the film’s December 20 release whether or not it would have been stronger had the production been given more time to breathe. While appearing on “The Rough Cut” podcast via The Playlist, “Rise of Skywalker” editor Maryann Brandon admitted the film’s production was rushed, which made for a challenging editing process. Brandon is “Rise of Skywalker” director J.J. Abrams’ longtime editor, having worked with him on TV’s “Alias,” plus “Mission: Impossible III,” “Star Trek,” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” among other projects.
“We were definitely still trying to figure out a lot of stuff,” Brandon said about the sped-up editing process. “It's a struggle. It affected everything. About a third of the way through, [Lucasfilm president] Kathy [Kennedy] was like, 'JJ has got to spend more time in the cutting room.' And I knew that wasn't going to happen. Not with the schedule that we were on. Not with what he was dealing with on a daily basis...he was just exhausted at the end of the day.”
According to Brandon’s estimates, the “Rise of Skywalker” crew had three months less to work on the latest “Star Wars” movie than was the case for “Force Awakens.” Disney set a December 20, 2019 release date for the movie that could not be moved, forcing Brandon to edit on set so that the production schedule was maintained.
“I suggested I cut on the set...we had two tented rooms...so I just went wherever JJ was, usually 10 feet away from the camera, wherever the camera was,” Brandon said. “And I just mobile-y cut. And in between takes, [J.J.] could sit down with me and we could go over things.”
As for the negative critical reception of “The Rise of Skywalker,” Brandon said, “In a time when the whole world is polarized, it should not be a film that is polarizing. Basically, the message of the film is, 'Hey you know what? You can be bad and good can come into your life. And maybe if you're open-minded to it, extraordinary things can change your mind. And you have to believe there's always hope.'”
One of the biggest complaints thrown at “Rise of Skywalker” is that the movie is pure fan service, which is not a claim Brandon will try to fight. “Look, sure, it's fan service,” the editor said, “[but] if you didn't service the fans, it would be, 'Oh, he didn't go along with the history of ‘Star Wars’ and what it all means.'”
There’s one particularly telling and effective moment in The Skywalker Legacy, the feature-lenght documentary that’s included on the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker home release that sums up much of the ambivalence and consternation that some had with J.J. Abrams’ return to the Star Wars universe. After showing the intricate construction of a giant, practical snake monster, the doc cuts back to footage of Jabba The Hutt, that old analogue beast that slithered its way into our hearts. The sentiment is clear – we’re making movies like we used to! A celebration of practical effects, the dripping of k-y jelly to give viscosity just like the old costume days, it’s all there. There’s excitement on set, everyone talking about how amazing it looks, how lifelike, how this is how you’re supposed to do movies like this.
Cut to Visual Effects Supervisor Roger Guyett who shatters the myth, letting us know the creature was replaced by a CGI version in post.
Guyett’s resume is mighty. Having made his bones on groundbreaking films like Twister and Casper, he helped Spielberg bring the events of D-Day to screen in Saving Private Ryan, helped bring to life the best looking film in the Harry Potter series, Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban, and even made the theatrical version of Rent feel more than a stage production. Guyett has had many collaborations with Abrams – from the Star Trek Reboots through The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker he was even second unit director on the former, as well as working with George Lucas on Episode III to round off the prequels. He’s in a unique position to speak to these changing landscapes of epic filmmaking.
We spoke at length about the apparent contradictions and indulgences in making a Star Wars film, and he made the case for why nothing was wasted and all contributed to the final presentation. He was erudite and open to the discussion, making for a dream conversation with a man who quite literally has helped shape what amazes us on screen for decades.
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
We see practical effects being championed as almost a marketing ploy with the “postquels” as a mix of nostalgia and an attempt to delineate from Lucas’ second trilogy. In some ways the love of the practically-realized snake undercuts the extraordinary CGI you and your team accomplished, and raises questions about why the need to fetishize the on-set inclusions when they’re replaced anyway. Could you talk about that ethos, that somehow doing stuff on a computer is a “cheat” while doing an effect practically is not?
I think at the end of the day we’re all trying to do the best that we can, trying to make the best, most dramatic or emotional movie we can visually. I’m coming from figuring out how do you get the most...