Academy Award nominated screenwriter Rian Johnson met editor Bob Ducsay a little over 10 years ago when Johnson called on the editor behind “The Mummy” and “Catch Me If You Can” to cut his film “Looper.”
A lunchtime meeting would turn one job into an ongoing collaboration, as the duo has since teamed on “Knives Out,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and now “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.”
Johnson and Ducsay were honored at the 10th annual Middleburg Film Festival and presented with the inaugural Variety Creative Collaborators Award in celebration of their work together.
Here are some main takeaways from the event.
Rian Johnson and Bob Ducsay on their journey
Johnson spoke about how before becoming a famous film director, he loved making movies growing up. While he never worked professionally as an editor, Johnson told the audience, “I cut my first feature, ‘Brick,’ on Final Cut Pro on the computer in my bedroom. I just wanted to make movies.”
Johnson met Ducsay when he made the 2012 sci-fi action film “Looper.” Ducsay, whose credits include “The Mummy,” and “Deep Rising,” was someone Johnson says “through a lot of patience and grace taught me the value of a collaborative relationship with an editor and made me a better filmmaker.”
Ducsay went to USC’s film school knowing he wanted to make movies. “I thought maybe I wanted to be a cinematographer because I was interested in photography and lighting. Maybe I wanted to be a director,” he said.
It was at USC where he started editing films and fell in love with the craft. “The power of editing and its impact on storytelling was a perfect fit, and I started cutting more and more.”
Cutting “Looper” and working in the editing room
The first cut of the time-traveling thriller was three to four hours long. Johnson compared the editing process to a mathematical solution. While, in the first cut, each individual scene works perfectly, it’s not until you step back “that the movie doesn’t work as a whole,” Johnson said. “It’s much like alchemy, trying to figure out why, because it’s not like you can point to something and say ‘That’s wrong.’ It’s about intuitively feeling out what feels wrong.”
Johnson knew the first cut was too long, so the duo had to get the runtime down. “There were lots of little pieces in terms of scooting things around and rewriting,” Johnson explained.
Ducsay added that “Looper” was one of the most complicated edits he had done. In helping to crack the film, he used a wall with picture cards of every scene laid out. Together, they stood in front of that wall looking at the scenes and where they would be ordered. Says Ducsay, “Many times, [we asked], ‘What is the point of doing this?’ We want to move this scene because it’s going to be much better over here, but what does it mean for the flow of all those other things to the right on that wall?”
Johnson revealed that the diner scene with Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt was initially six minutes long and took three days to shoot. Ducsay narrowed down the important notes he had to hit. “It’s a huge character scene, and cutting [even] the tiniest, smallest things has an impact on what you think of the character. What you eliminate and what you choose to put in is very impactful.”
Why it was important to have his editor involved from the beginning
Aside from “Looper’s” edit, Johnson told the attendees that “‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ is maybe the only other thing where there was more reordering and rewriting in the cutting room.”
Having Ducsay at his side from the beginning was crucial for “The Last Jedi.” Says Johnson, “Editing a movie of that size and scope in terms of the VFX work, the post-production process is so much more exponentially complicated. It really becomes a different thing.” Yet despite the grand scale of the film, the characters and stories still needed to work.
Ducsay says all the considerations of the characters, pacing and story were still key: “You just concentrate on the things that really matter.”
From “Star Wars” to murder-mystery
The duo share a love for murder mystery. Ducsay had never worked in the genre, saying, “It was a relief to go to something like ‘Knives Out,’ which is all about character, story and the comedy in the film. You have this extra focus that you can put on everything because you don’t have the rest of the stuff going on. I found that a delightful change of pace.”
The suspects all enter the picture as each character is introduced
“It was hard because it felt like one of those sequences where no matter how much we compacted it, we kept the constant note that the opening feels long, ‘Can we get through that introduction quicker?’” Johnson says, noting that introducing the ensemble cast is the most complicated part of the entire movie.
Ducsay adds, “We were never going to completely satisfy the note that the beginning of the movie could be paced up a little bit. But we made a big stride in that direction. We could have cut more, but then it would have hurt other things, and this is particularly complicated with character because all those tiny little details add up.”
On working with one another
Johnson praised working with Ducsay, not only because he learned how to be collaborative in the edit, but he learned about storytelling and process. Says Johnson, “The big thing is having a collaborator and somebody you can work with, and hopefully make each other better by pushing each other back and forth.”
Ducsay similarly learned more about filmmaking, as staging, blocking and even coverage play into the storytelling process. “That’s the most important thing I bring with me,” Ducsay said. “You can add cuts for energy and style. But the reality of it is, if you can find the simplest way of constructing a moment or a scene with the fewest cuts that you can do, it’s extremely beautiful.”
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”
Their next film, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” arrives on Netflix on Dec. 23 after a brief theatrical run. Starring Daniel Craig, Janelle Monae, Dave Bautista, Kate Hudson, Kathryn Hahn and Leslie Odom Jr. and Ed Norton, the film is a follow-up to the wildly successful 2019 mystery “Knives Out.”
While the duo didn’t reveal any spoilers before the film screened at the festival, Johnson said there were a lot more scenes in the film with the cast in a big room talking to one another. “That’s a pain in the butt to shoot, but it’s also a lot of work to edit. If anything, there was even more pressure on Bob in terms of carving out and balancing and finding the character.”
Ducsay called the experience an incredible amount of fun, saying it was a joy having Craig’s Southern detective Benoit Blanc in his life again.
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