On May 10, 2019 Ben Hoyle of the Times had the pleasure of interviewing John Williams and subsequently wrote the following about their conversation:
“Williams beams when he talks about watching an early cut of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which will bring the nine-film space saga to an end this Christmas. He likes what he has seen “very much” and has so far written about twenty-five minutes of score in about a month.”John Williams Beams About Episode IX: Score Underway
What exactly was this cut that John Williams saw in the early spring of 2019 that he liked so much? Is there any reason to believe that the cut he saw represented a different vision for the film than the movie that was ultimately released in theaters?
To answer those questions some explanation of the process of film scoring is in order, specifically John Williams’ scoring process.
John Williams prefers to score his films based on his initial emotional reaction to the film itself as he explains at 0:55 in the interview below.
The job of a film composer isn’t just to write pretty music that plays in the background of the movie, it’s to shepherd the audience’s emotions throughout the story. John Williams prefers to experience the film the way an audience member would, so that he can feel what they would feel, so that he can then know how best to accentuate those emotions with his score.
The first viewing of the film will be with the film’s director and there will be some general discussion about what type of music to use where. The cut of the film used for the initial viewing can be rough cut, a first cut, a fine cut , or even a final cut depending on the production timeline. Music composition is a very time consuming process, though, so typically the cut of the film initially shown to the composer will still be in the refinement process editing wise and won’t have all of the special effects or sound effects finished.
For Star Wars, John Williams uses a style of composition called Leitmotif. Leitmotif simply means that the composer uses repeated themes and cues or “motifs” to musically represent characters, places, objects, ideas, etc. Motifs can also be used as foreshadowing or to express thought or memory or to show that past events are affecting what is happening presently. For the motifs to be effective, they have to be very precisely synchronized with the film. John Williams describes the process a bit at the beginning of this video.
What he’s talking about when he says “take measurements from the film” is a painstaking process by which the composer goes through the entire film and picks out, down to fractions of a second, where the music will start and stop, where certain motifs need to align, where musical beats need to hit to punctuate the action of the scene, etc.
To get some idea of just how important the precise alignment of the music can be, imagine a horror movie scene that is building to a jump scare. The music is quiet and ominous then suddenly becomes loud when the monster appears. The combination of the sudden appearance of the monster and the music suddenly increasing in volume both serve to startle the audience. If, however, the music gets loud a fraction of a second too early then it acts as a spoiler that the monster is about to appear and the audience’s shock at actually seeing it is lessened. If the music is a fraction of a second too late then the audience has already jumped from seeing the monster before the music hits. The music can only serve to amplify the scare if the musical cue that corresponds with the monster hits at just the right moment.
Typically, it’s entirely up to the composer (and the conductor of the orchestra, if that happens to be a different person) to ensure that the music lines up with the film. It’s very rare that a director will go back and re-edit the film to the music. In all their collaborations, Steven Spielberg only did that for John Williams once as he explains at 4:26 in the video below. Even then, it was only because John Williams, as a conductor, was having difficulty getting the orchestra to hit all of the necessary sync points for the music to line up with the film.
After the score for a scene is written, small changes to the film made to polish things up can be compensated for with minor changes to the score or even conducting the piece slightly differently. Sometimes the director will present the composer with multiple cuts of the same scene because they want to watch the scene with its score before deciding whether to use a longer or shorter version of the scene. (This was the case in the first Harry Potter film where the director ultimately chose to use a longer cut of the scene where the first year students take the boats across the lake to Hogwarts because Williams’ score absolutely brought the scene to life.) If, however, the director decides to make a major editing change to a scene after the composer has written the score for that scene then the music for that scene will need to be rewritten because the old music will no longer match the new scene. Ultimately, what all of this means is that major edits to a film need to be finished before the director hands the film over to the composer or the director is wasting the composer’s time.
Working on the Rise of Skywalker
John Williams states in the interview with the Times that as of May 10, 2019 he had already written 25 minutes worth of music. The run time for the Rise of Skywalker ended up being 142 minutes, so as of May 2019 John Williams had written the equivalent of over one sixth of the score needed for the film. That means he was well into the process of taking precise measurements of the film and composing music to sync with those measurements. For John Williams to be able to do that, JJ Abrams would have had to have given him a cut of the film that was polished enough for him to begin to craft a score that would sync with the finished film.
There’s little reason to doubt that such a cut of the film existed in the spring of 2019 as JJ Abrams and his editor Maryann Brandon took the unusual step of editing individual scenes while the film was still in principle photography.
“When we did The Force Awakens, we started in May and we finished shooting in October, and we were out [the following] Christmas. For [The Rise of Skywalker], we didn’t start until August, so we weren’t done until February shooting – so we have four months less time, and it’s a very big film. So I convinced J.J. to let me cut on the set… I had the [director of photography] right there to ask questions. If I needed a shot, or if J.J. decided we needed another shot, we would set up in a corner and get a green screen shot of something. Getting to know the cast and having them be comfortable with me, it was a really great way to understand what they were going through.”Maryann Brandon – ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ Was Edited on Set Despite Initial Objection by J.J. Abrams
So principle filming went from August of 2018 until February of 2019 and the film was edited along the way. At some point in March or April of 2019 JJ Abrams had compiled a cut of the film that he was satisfied enough with to hand over to John Williams to begin scoring. JJ Abrams’ intent was likely to continue polishing the film, add the sound and visual effects, record and add the score, and have this version of the film ready to be released by December.
That isn’t what happened though.
From July through September of 2019 reports of re-shoots for the Rise of Skywalker swirled around the internet.
- Cantina Talk: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Reshoots Are Happening, Apparently
- Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker Set For Major Reshoots As Things Aren’t Looking Good
- Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Continues Reshoots
How Much of the Film was Changed?
These reshoots beg the question: Just how different was the cut of the film that John Williams viewed in the early spring (prior to the reshoots) from the film that was ultimately released in theaters in December?
A good way to estimate how much of the film was changed is to look at how much music had to be rewritten. Let’s start with The Force Awakens as a baseline. The Force Awakens is 2 hours and 15 minutes long. According to a report by Variety, John Williams said that 175 minutes (2 hours and 55 minutes) of music was recorded but that nearly an hour of that was discarded, modified or re-recorded as Abrams re-edited the film.
For The Force Awakens, the excess and modified music can be mostly explained by known edits made to the film. We know that a number of scenes were cut, including many of Carrie Fisher’s, as many of these scenes were included with the home release of the movie. We also know that JJ Abrams made some changes to the film at the request of Rian Johnson which very likely also led to music being re-written.
“[Rian Johnson] had things that he came up with where he asked if it was possible if we could make some adjustments with what we were doing at the end, most of which we did — there were just a couple that didn’t feel right, so he made adjustments”JJ Abrams
That explains the excess music written for The Force Awakens, so now let’s look at The Rise of Skywalker. The Rise of Skywalker is 2 hours and 22 minutes long, so only 7 minutes longer than The Force Awakens. The amount of music written for The Rise of Skywalker, however, was 226 minutes (3 hours and 46 minutes)! That’s 51 minutes longer than the amount of music written for the Force Awakens for a movie that is only 7 minutes longer! That’s enough extra music to re-score nearly two thirds of the final movie!
The answer to that question is ultimately a simple one. The same thing happened to The Rise of Skywalker that happened to The Force Awakens: scenes were cut, scenes were modified, and that required the score to be rewritten. Only for The Rise of Skywalker it happened on a much greater scale. But don’t take our word for it. Here’s what John Williams, himself, had to say in an interview with KUSC radio:
“The process went along for about six or seven months for me where we’d write a scene that [JJ Abrams] had given me and then I’d complete the scene, possibly even record it, and he’d say “well that scene is not in the film any more. We’ve done something else. We need to replace it.” And so on. So I can tell you Jim, this, I think, is a record. We’ve recorded 226 minutes of music, which is over 3 hours.”Listen to Interviews with Oscar-Nominated Film Score Composers On Demand
John Williams says this was a record for him. He has never had to write or rewrite this much music for a single film. When he says that, keep in mind just how long and storied his career as a film composer has been!
According to John Williams himself, scenes were not only being modified but cut and replaced in their entirety with different scenes. Where did those different scenes come from? The obvious answer is the extensive reshoots that took place from July through September.
This is further supported by The Rise of Skywalker’s co-writer, Chris Terrio, saying that he has never rewritten a film as much as he rewrote The Rise of Skywalker.
This poses another question: If JJ Abrams was happy enough with his movie in the spring of 2019 to hand it over to John Williams, why would he then decide to change his film so much with the re-shoots?
The Answer: Usually when re-shoots are ordered that end up making profound changes to a film it’s a sign that there are creative differences between the director and the studio and the studio is interfering to try to get their way. JJ Abrams didn’t order the re-shoots, Disney and/or Lucasfilm did.
John Williams was shown a cut of The Rise of Skywalker in early spring of 2019 and began working on the score for the film. From July through August the film underwent re-shoots and new music was required for the new or altered scenes. This led to an inordinately large amount of music being written for The Rise of Skywalker. The re-shot scenes were then used to entirely replace scenes from the earlier cut. The final theatrical cut of the film then is a combination of scenes from the older cut and scenes from the summer re-shoots. This means that the theatrical release is also almost certainly quite different from the cut that John Williams saw in the spring that he liked “very much”.
Given that reception of the theatrical release of the film has been quite poor (to put it mildly) among fans and critics alike, we would like to advocate that the older cut of the film be finished and released. We think that we also might like it “very much”.