In this interview, we discuss the film Everything Everywhere All at Once with the film’s editor, Paul Rogers.
Paul has also edited the feature film The Death of Dick Long—which I saw in a packed house at Sundance a few years ago— and another called You Cannot Kill David Arquette. He’s also edited the TV series Dream Corp LLC and The Eric Andre Show.
Listen while you read…
HULLFISH: This is quite the title! It really fills up the movie poster well!
ROGERS: There was a point where we were experimenting with titles because there’s a couple of moments in the film where bits of the title come up as chapters, where we had it stretching and filling the entire frame and expanding.
It’s that kind of movie where it feels overwhelming on purpose. It reaches a point where—as the viewer—it overwhelms the senses and the emotions. Within a thirty second span we’re trying to make you cry and then laugh and then be scared. There were a lot of pieces that we were trying to set up as a foundation in the beginning.
It’s the kind of film where if we didn’t set a solid foundation for the viewer and a route for who these characters are and what kind of language the film was speaking, that an hour into the film when things really start to hit their pitch, people would just fall off the train.
I remember we were doing a lot of early screenings of the film and what we were running into a lot was each time we would tweak something, if we would tweak a scene from the first five minutes, that people’s reactions to the final 15 minutes were drastically different and it really had to do with subtle things like a look that Joy (the daughter) would give Evelyn (her mother).
Leaving that out or putting that in—lingering on that or cutting to the father. Whether people were saying they cried at the end when the father said this, or crying at the end when the mother and daughter did that.
A lot of our experimentation throughout the process was figuring out how to keep all of those in balance with each other and prevent people from going all in on one story arc and completely losing another.
As much as sometimes we would get these incredible reactions to one thing, we wanted to make sure that everything was getting its emotional due. It can really be the difference of holding on a look for a second versus cutting away as the line is over.
There ended up being a couple of shots that we added, especially with the mother and daughter. The story centers around a mother-daughter relationship, Evelyn, played by Michelle Yeoh, and Joy, played by Stephanie Hsu, who start off the film in different places and are struggling to connect.
During the first couple of screenings I was feeling what I think our audience was feeling: which was that they felt that difficulty to connect, and they didn’t feel like they cared that much. They really wanted something to hang on to that let them know that these characters’ connection was important.
You can narratively lay out that these two people aren’t on the same page or emotionally connected to each other and people will accept that but whether or not you make them care about that is a whole different story, just laying that out by itself doesn’t make people invest in it.
Towards the end of the process, they realized that they needed to shoot one little shot of Joy driving away in tears. like many children do with their parents when they’re around them and they’re getting this emotional abuse. They have a hard face on.
They’re just taking it and they’re moving past it and they’re trying to give it back. It’s only when you see them away when that dynamic is split into two individuals, that you can really start to identify with that.
HULLFISH: Is the mother-daughter dynamic of the film something that you felt connected to as a father?
ROGERS: Yeah. This film couldn’t have been better or worse timing in terms of the emotional impact than it had on me and also the circumstances of the world while it was being made. We wrapped in March of 2020 and we got maybe two weeks of post in before we all had to go remote due to the pandemic.
The directors are my friends so I had this great dream of being in the edit suite together all day, having fun, eating lunch, cracking jokes, and then all of a sudden we were all thrown into our homes, terrified, but we had this salvation in this film, which couldn’t have felt more timely.
Also —aside from the story—just the emotions of these characters. It’s about isolation, it’s about struggling with identity, which I think we all were as a country with everything that was going on in the past couple of years. It was this really wonderful thing to have, and it also was an excuse to be together with my friends over Zoom.
At the time my son was three years old and it was interesting because I didn’t have a home office. We lived in a two bedroom tiny house so I threw my iMac with a hard drive up in the living room next to my kitchen table. My son and wife were at home constantly, there was no daycare.
So as I’m cutting, he’s running around behind me, he’s watching Mr. Rogers. He’s just part of the environment, so I’m hearing him as I’m cutting a flashback to the baby Joy in the film.
This film was made by a lot of friends, so every day I was spending time with these people that I cared about. Even if I wasn’t seeing them, I was looking at their work and I was proud of them and excited for them but also I felt a lot of pressure because I didn’t want to do wrong by them.
Getting back to your question, I wouldn’t say that only someone with children could have cut this film in the way that I did but it definitely was a little bit of a crutch I could fall back on.
Knowing that fear that you are screwing your children up and that desire to connect deeply while also the desire to instill in them a toughness that will let them get through a pretty tough world, which I think is what the mother really thinks she’s doing. She is building armor in her daughter to survive the world that she has struggled to survive in.
HULLFISH: Can you just talk about your connection with the actors or your connection with a sense of truth when you’re watching dailies?
ROGERS: I think, in a big way, the role of an editor is to be a kind of barometer of truth. Empathy was something that we discussed a lot on this film. In a way, one of the goals was if people come out of this with a greater sense of empathy, that would be a huge success.
I think, in a big way, the role of an editor is to be a kind of barometer of truth.
I’ve always felt that there’s a lifespan of a shot and you’re in it with this person or with the story or whatever. That’s also something that I think that the directors lean on us for. They have all these other memories of the shoot and loving this thing on set, but then we see it and it may not be something that we love.
So they may have these little inklings and insecurities so they need someone to say, “Yes, this is magic, this shot is incredible.” Or “No, I didn’t believe this take.”
I like to watch dailies as if I’m just a fan of the story: to find those moments when you’re leaning in, and when you don’t want it to stop.
HULLFISH: How do you watch those dailies? Do you watch individual clips? Do you string them together?
ROGERS: I love a stringout. If I’m clicking on clips in a bin, I get lost in the hierarchy and the structure. There’s just something not seductive about “Scene 36, take 5″. I love when it’s on a stringout and I’m watching it as if it’s a film reel, so I can also scrub through and maybe be reminded of something.
I love a stringout of a scene, but I also love a stringout of everything and I try to rely on those because as I’m looking for one thing I will happen to see something else that sparks an idea or something that’s really helpful for me as a little memory jog of inspiration.
I think you’ve got to be able to give yourself a break and say, “I’m going to go work on the thing that I’m excited about.” Maybe it’s not as important to the film in general, but at this point, it’s important for me to be excited again, and that can happen by skimming through footage.
I think there’s a natural progression to a lot of projects for me, I’m feeling great but then I reach a point, or a scene where I feel like everything I try is terrible, that’s when you need an easy win to remind yourself that you know what you are doing.
I feel like that sensitivity is important and with that comes doses of insecurity and self doubt. I feel like I’ve learned this little magic recipe for myself; a little dose of technical knowledge, a little dose of confidence in my ability, a little self doubt and need to prove myself. It’s all a balance and if one of them gets out of whack, then I’m in bad shape.
HULLFISH: So often I think the editors that get work and the editors that people want to work with are not necessarily the greatest editors. They are someone you can hang with.
I think that we are in a lot of ways, therapists between the directors and the film.
ROGERS: Totally, and it’s the same with editors when selecting movies to work on. We have to be so careful with who we decide to spend a year with. I think that we are in a lot of ways, therapists between the directors and the film.
There are points where you become frustrated with the film as a director, or you become scared or it’s not working out how you wanted or you just get sick of it after you’ve been writing it for four years, you shot it for a couple of months, you’ve been in post for six months. You just don’t want to look at the film anymore and I do feel it’s our job to make them love each other again, and understand each other.
Sometimes I find it necessary to remind ourselves that we’re making a movie, it’s fun and it’s silly that we’re getting to do that. We are like kids who were never told to stop playing and then we’re rewarded for it and given money to do it. We should embrace that and not get so serious about it all the time.
So sometimes I’ll take a dramatic scene and I’ll recut it, I’ll change everything and cut it as a comedy scene or an action scene or a horror scene, just to surprise the directors and show it to them as a joke or put a funny sound effect just for the next screening to make them laugh. That’s when we realize “Oh, we can do anything, This is a playpen for us.”
It unlocked the realization that there might be comedy in this drama scene or maybe drama in this comedy scene. I think those silly exercises sometimes can be really valuable .
HULLFISH: We were talking about the multi-verse and how complex it was editorially to have the audience realize how crazy it’s going to get. Let’s talk a little bit about that challenge and what happens editorially
ROGERS: So early on they brought me into Dan Kwan’s office and they went through it for two hours. I remember having this kind of counter on my hand every time I cried during the pitch. It was so emotional when they pitched it to me.
I was a pretty new dad. The first year or so after you have a kid, you’re just an emotional wreck and just so vulnerable and open. The film is also an emotional story, but they pitched it to me as “We want to make a film and then we want to break that film and then we want it to rebuild itself.”
HULLFISH: Explain that “breaking the film” to me,
ROGERS: It’s hard to describe. It just reaches a point where you—as a viewer—have to let go of trying to hold it in your mind, and trying to make sense of everything and fit everything together.
You’re going on this journey with Evelyn, the character, and part of her journey is learning to let go. But we did find that if we did that haphazardly, or if we did it carelessly, you get frustrated and you get angry at the filmmakers and also you just lose trust if the film starts breaking and it just feels like a broken film and you don’t have any faith that there’s a hand behind that guiding you into a place that’s going to be worthwhile.
So we really had to work hard to set up—especially in the first act—to really center people and these stories and editorially, that meant a lot of paying attention to performances.
Michelle’s superpower as an actress is her incredible ability to listen when someone is delivering a line around her.
We learned pretty early on that Michelle’s superpower as an actress is her incredible ability to listen when someone is delivering a line around her. I could just be on Michelle listening and reacting and internalizing. You can see the words seeping into her through her face. It’s incredible.
The movie spans a lot of different genres and is oftentimes switching genres within a couple seconds and so we had to make sure that we knew the genre tropes so that we could easily access them.
Dan Kwan was saying in an earlier interview that he didn’t think that this movie could be made 10, 20 years ago because there’s a film grammar that is recognizable to almost everyone at this point, that kind of playpen mentality, they have it when they write, they have it when they shoot.
There’s a lot of improvisation on set and it’s the same in the edit. They love to be surprised. They give so much freedom. They love it when you say I have a really strange idea for this scene, I’m going to wipe the timeline clean and start over, instead of saying, “Oh, I don’t know if we have time for that.” They say, “Oh, that’s exciting. Don’t tell me anything! I’ll come back and watch it tomorrow.”
HULLFISH: The big successes creatively often happen because you’re given the ability to fail.
ROGERS: Yeah, you always learn something about the footage or maybe you just find one new thing—like a new look.
I’m a big fan of failure on a micro level. Not on a big macro level, but yeah they definitely give you that freedom, which is really nice. It felt like a bunch of buddies in a dorm room, just trying to make something that they liked, which was a nice way to do it. There are no fences up and there’s very little ego and it’s all just about whatever makes the film better.
If it’s in service of the film and Dan Kwan needs a week to experiment with the footage and experiment with a scene, I love that. Sometimes people know what they want, but they don’t know how to tell you what they want and you’re trying to figure it out and you’re experimenting, but at some point if they can take the clay in their hands and build it and show you a rough version of that? Then great.
HULLFISH: I’ve never worked with two directors on the same project. What was that like? And how did the collaboration happen between the three of you?
ROGERS: They’ve been buddies since college and they’ve been making little student films together and music videos and short films, and they made another feature called Swiss Army Man, which I thought was incredible. They have their own relationship and I’m friends with both of them separately and they were some of the first people I ever met when I moved to LA.
I moved to LA in 2013 and I had this rule of, “I’m not going to say no to any invitation that I get, no matter how terrible it sounds” and I went on some weird adventures because of that. But somebody invited me to Daniel Scheinert’s birthday party, which was weird, he didn’t invite me to his birthday party, but somebody invited me and it was at a roller skating rink and so I went and roller skated with these guys.
Daniel’s from Alabama and I’m from Alabama so we had that in common, I didn’t know that they directed films but I did know they were in film somehow. By the end of the night, I remember thinking “These are my people.” It was two or three weeks into LA and I knew these were my people.
I had this idea coming from Alabama to LA that it’s not a great place. I think that Southern people have this idea of LA as a kind of concrete jungle full of assholes. So I’ve known these guys for a really long time and they’re just wonderful people, but they’ve just worked together for so long that they obviously have their own shorthand.
With the directors, I’m not tuned into every little aspect of their communication so it was definitely a learning experience. We’d worked on a lot of smaller projects together, music videos and short films. I knew the way that they worked together a little bit, we had a good working relationship, but this was so much bigger and so much longer and so much more complicated.
I think the first film that they made, Swiss Army Man, was probably like they had gone to therapy and then I was benefiting from that, but they each have their own way of doing things and they balance each other out in such a great way that it really wasn’t difficult.
HULLFISH: So much of editing is not in the timeline.
ROGERS: I feel like it’s a good lesson to learn that in order to make a scene work, if you feel the need to tell someone, “Let me tell you what went into it and how bad the performances were,” or “Let me tell you why I like this look from somebody,” then you’re in trouble, that stuff should all be there.
I also think that their work is exploring these really deep, valuable and vulnerable parts of our psyche through these sometimes silly Trojan horses.
You think this is a fun, silly movie and then by the end of it, you’re questioning your ideas of masculinity, parenthood and empathy. That’s why we work well together, because these are things that we think about a lot as people. It’s hard for me to answer that question because it’s not in the timeline, but it’s also not something that I’ve verbalized or talk about.
HULLFISH: I want to dive more into the idea of the multiverse. How do you set up the fact that this woman is who she is.
ROGERS: Early on we experimented with how we hold the user’s hands as we start making these transitions from universe to universe so they’re not confused. Like, “Why is she in a new place?” I always thought of the first and last time I watched The Matrix with my grandma and she was angry and we had to turn it off.
I love The Matrix, not to say they did anything wrong, but with this movie I know we’re asking a lot, so let’s help people, let’s guide them.
Early on it was trying to figure out what the sound of the actual transition is. We ended up using a little bell ring and reverse that would lead you and then snap you into a new universe. We experimented with a lot of stuff, I threw everything at it, like the flapping wings of a bird, or just anything that I thought could be interesting.
A lot of the times throughout the film, the universes start leaking into each other as Evelyn stops being able to hold these universes all in her brain. So what does that sound like? Is it a low pass of a voice coming in? Is it a high pass? Does it sound like it’s radio? Is it static?
We ended up settling on this kind of staticky, almost metallic sound of voices coming through.
HULLFISH: Did you sound design that stuff originally before the sound team got to it? Did you do that all in Premiere Pro?
ROGERS: Yeah, we had to. We had to know if the film was going to work and in general, I feel like there’s so many scenes where if I don’t sound design it almost finished, I don’t know if it’s going to work.
If we don’t nail that, then we’re just kicking that down the road for someone else to figure out.
If we don’t nail that, then we’re just kicking that down the road for someone else to figure out, but at that point the edit’s locked. There’s nothing we can do about it if it doesn’t work. So we spent a lot of time figuring that stuff out.
HULLFISH: Tell me about some of the hints that you were explaining that you dropped early on that allows the audience to understand, “Oh, she’s always been the person she is.”
ROGERS: There are things early on, like in the laundromat, in the first five minutes, there are these little clues that things aren’t going to be the way that you think they are—that there’s something else coming.
They were obviously shot and scripted that way but it was our job to make sure that those really landed. There’s a shot where she’s making her way through the laundromat talking to her husband and daughter. All these conversations happening at the same time, she’s kicking this stool along with her and getting up and getting laundry down and as she kicks the stool a foot comes in the foreground and stops the stool.
All of a sudden you feel like you’re in a Kung Fu movie and then you’re out of it. A lot of that is done with sound design, but also picture editing. Just holding on that and the sound design that makes the audience question, “Why are they emphasizing this so much?”
Dropping these clues was really important so that once that stuff starts happening, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of nowhere. It doesn’t feel like the movie just dropped it on them and they weren’t ready for it.
One of the things we struggled with was, “What does it sound like?” These characters, especially women, are getting taken over by the ultimate versions of themselves. What does that sound like? Making sure that we had a cue that was different enough from everything we had heard and recognizable enough to where—whenever we heard that—we would know, “Oh, someone was getting taken over.”
We had to figure that out early, before we even finished our first cut to know to stay on that shot or if we were going to have to go to VFX and do some type of weird thing.
At one point, part of the conversation when we couldn’t quite nail that sound effect was to make it a VFX thing, but that was one of those problems that we were able to solve just in post and save money down the road and a headache.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about the NLE. What was the decision? Why did you choose Premiere Pro?
ROGERS: I learned Avid in school, It was funny. You’d use Avid in the classroom, and then everybody had their cracked version of Final Cut at home. Eventually I moved on to Premiere once I started editing professionally. Premiere has always been wonderful because it disappears when I’m using it.
I love to split the screen and combine performances or just change the timings between actors, make someone react or speak over a line versus waiting their turn. And I love to be able to do that in a two shot or a wide shot, but that’s just not how the scene plays out.
So I use Premiere all over this film to do that, to the point where I just didn’t tell them. When they got into finishing the VFX supervisors, Zak Stoltz said there were about 30 VFX shots that he wasn’t aware of. There are all these little split-screen things or changing an extra out in the background, or, even a prop.
Sometimes the way a prop was placed was better in one shot than another shot, so I would throw that in. I can temp together VFX in Premiere in a heartbeat.
A lot of this movie relied on us being able to show what the heck was going to be there eventually. So we would mock together so much in Premiere without having to go to After Effects. It’s really powerful in that way. Not having to get a bunch of temp VFX and get a temp mix or some temp sound designed from anywhere except for ourselves.
We’d be working up until the hour before the screening and that was really valuable to be able to do that. I think that in Premiere, that’s the only way that I imagined that could have happened.
HULLFISH: Where you monitoring in 5.1 or Stereo?
ROGERS: Just stereo. I just trust Brent Kiser who did the sound and part of the fun is once I go on the stage and hear it for the first time, it blows me away.
HULLFISH: You mentioned Productions, some people know what Productions is, but to explain it, it’s new enough that maybe some people don’t. Could you explain that?
ROGERS: It’s a way of sharing bins and projects, it’s a way of allowing a team of people to work together. We’ve had 12 editors working on a project, we’re all sharing sound effects, we’re all sharing music footage in a really fast kind of seamless way.
You’d have a project with little folders in there, now each folder is its own project, but that project is shared and can be opened by anybody at any time, anywhere as long as they are keyed into that production. You don’t store your media in your main project which means that your project is not bloated, it’s quick. It’s quick to save. It’s quick to open.
The way that we work and the way that our company Parallax has always worked and the way that I’ve always worked with the Daniels is incredibly collaborative, passing sequences back and forth. Whatever it takes to make the film better, whoever wants to take a crack, go for it.
Productions is the first time that we’ve been able to do that without having to email a project file or make a whole new project for somebody. So basically it just allowed Daniel to jump into my sequence and see live what I was doing. I could just hit save and he could jump in and he could see exactly what I’d just done 10 seconds before.
HULLFISH: I’ve been on Premiere for a long time and one of the early knocks was the project files would get too bloated and Productions really is the solution to that.
ROGERS: I think that was a result of the fact that Premiere can do so much that people were just going nuts with their timelines and the effects they could add. They were sound designing the crap out of it and you could build these 60 track monstrosities of a timeline, layering stuff, and doing this insane color work.
Of course our projects got bloated—we had no limit. What they finally figured out is how to let us do all that stuff and on the back end, just take care of it so that we’re not working in these monstrosities of a project
HULLFISH: Outside of the editing timeline itself, what are some other tools inside of Premiere that you found that you used on this project?
ROGERS: There’s a lot of untapped stuff in Premiere that I really need to get more into.
What I did use a lot of in this project was Frame.io as a plugin. So we use Frame.io to post our cuts and do our screenings. We would all get on Zoom. I’d send out a Frame.io link, and then we would say “three, two, one,” and everybody hits play, and I could watch everybody’s face.
It’s such an important part of it, which is nice actually about the Zoom screenings. When you’re in a room for a screening, it’s awkward if you’re sitting directly in front of someone and staring at them, but that’s what you get to do on a Zoom screening. And if you like someone’s reactions, you fill the screen and you just watch them.
We would do these remote sessions where they would give me verbal notes. But what Frame.io allowed us to do was to sit and watch a scene over and over and over again, frame by frame, draw an idea, draw a thought then leave me a well-thought-out note or idea versus the pressure that’s in the room.
Sometimes with a director and editor they’re like, “I need to tell this guy what I want, but I don’t quite know what I want.” Frame.io allowed them to take their time, and it was nice for me because I would get these well-formed ideas and they would also be in the comments on Frame.io.
So it was useful for me to see the way that they’d go through that, but I also had the Frame.io plugin for Premiere. They could give 70 notes or ideas, and then I could import them directly into my timeline. I think our first cut was two hours and fifty minutes and I think we got it down to two hours and ten minutes, which was a lot. We lost a lot of fun stuff.
HULLFISH: What were some of the reasons why scenes had to go? Everybody always says “It was a great scene but it had to be dropped.” Explain how it can be a great scene and yet it had to be dropped?
ROGERS: In general, I think there are a lot of moments where you’re thinking, “God, this moment is so good, but it doesn’t service the film.” Maybe it slows it down, maybe it hints at another narrative between two characters but you just don’t deliver on it later, or you can’t because you don’t have the footage or that just complicates the film in an unnecessary way.
We had this one scene with Jamie Lee Curtis and in this scene she was incredible. She was so compelling and mesmerizing to watch, but I kept struggling with this scene and it took us like five or six months to eventually say “Gosh, what if Jamie Lee wasn’t in the scene. Can we just try it?”
It’s this really intense scene and all of a sudden it becomes this weird existential crisis/comedy tragedy scene with her character and it’s a little ping pong back and forth between these two places. So we just took it into After Effects and did a rough job cutting her out because she’s in all the shots and we realized it’s feasible, so let’s give it a shot and then all of a sudden it unlocked the scene.
HULLFISH: Are there any features and capabilities inside Premiere you especially love? The biggest thing for me that you already mentioned is that Premiere feels like it just disappears when you’re editing.
ROGERS: There’s very rare circumstances where I will have to think about how to do something at this point with Premiere. It’s second nature. I got really hooked on time-remapping keyframes as opposed to a universal change.
We were doing so many fight scenes and a lot of crazy multiverse transitions, so having something go from 100 percent speed to 136 percent back down to 115 percent for a split second and then up to 200 percent and back down to 100 percent without it feeling jumpy with a push-in and the aspect ratio changing. We were doing that on the timeline.
So that was pretty incredible. I can’t imagine the workflow of having to do that in any other NLE.
HULLFISH: Did you ever use Lumetri while you were cutting to do a quick color grade?
ROGERS: We did it occasionally, especially as we were doing our genre stuff. Sometimes it was a little color shift to make something a little more moody. We played around with everything. That was the thing: they’re just open to any way you can get your point across. Whether it’s sound or color. We would throw it all at the film.
In a lot of ways, of our abilities as editors, the most valuable is our taste. Do we have good taste? Do we know when something’s working? When it’s not working?
HULLFISH: Did you use Frame.io for the entire workflow? Even back into the dailies?
ROGERS: If we had been on this remote workflow the entire time, we probably would have. Early on in the edit, I was exporting scenes for them to watch and my work hours were so strange because I was also providing daycare. I was daycare for the first half of the day when my wife worked, then she’d take over and I would work through the nights. So I would send them a scene at 1:00 AM and they’d review it while I was at the park, playing with my boy.
I would get their notes and we’d talk when I came back. That was really when Frame.io started becoming the thing that we were using every day.
HULLFISH: Had you used it before on any productions?
ROGERS: Yeah, we use it at Parallax a lot. That’s how we do all of our client reviews. We post dailies in there. We get transcodes from set. We’ve been using it for years.
HULLFISH: Is there any way to quantify what that’s worth? For me, one of the things I thought was the most valuable that you mentioned was when you’re doing a real review—which you want to do. I would rather have the director there with me then review through some remote thing, but having that remote Frame.io capability allows them to be more critical or more intentional about their notes.
ROGERS: It’s true. We were talking about empathy earlier and I don’t think you can discount the fact that when you show something that you’ve done, people want to be complimentary. It’s just human nature.
Even if they are not consciously doing that, they might be pulling their punches a little bit and occasionally it was nice to let them go away, watch something on Frame.io and come back and be like, “You know what, We thought it worked in the room, but we were caught up in the moment. Can we look at that moment on its own? I’ve replayed it 50 times and we’ve got to keep working on it.”
That’s really valuable because we’re all human beings, and sometimes it’s late at night or early in the morning, you haven’t slept and you need time to just sit with it.
HULLFISH: Thank you so much for your time. It’s super interesting to talk about this film.
ROGERS: I’m excited, You are the first person I’ve gotten to really talk about it with, so this is great. Thank you so much for having me.