Tuesday morning was a big day for Everything Everywhere All At Once, the quirky sci-fi action comedy that came out of seemingly nowhere last spring to be a big hit and, not incidentally, receive more Oscar nominations than any other 2022 film, including one for Paul Rogers, the editor who rode herd over the film, balancing its relentless, sometimes ridiculous momentum with quieter scenes.
Rogers, whom I talked with a couple of days after he won the Critics Choice award on Jan. 15 for editing EEAAO, acknowledged that he hadn’t in the past thought much about industry kudos, but this year’s experience definitely had changed his opinion.
“I tend to have a bit of a cynical outlook on award shows as a spectator,” Rogers said. “But I think being there and seeing the kind of love for other actors and other directors that was just being shown amongst colleagues and friends, that cynicism started to wash away the more that I was there, and the more that I saw that genuine celebration of a lot of people’s hard work and sacrifice and histories. It was great.”
The film has been in the market for a long time, debuting at the South By Southwest Festival in March, and hitting theaters in April, where it stayed for months before moving to streaming.
It’s been a fan favorite, by just about every measure a hit. Its box office is a hefty $104.1 million in worldwide grosses, huge for a small indie project that brought in a modest $500,000 from 10 theaters on its opening weekend. The Rotten Tomatoes critics score is a superb 95%, and RT’s audience score is an excellent 89%.
It helped that EEAAO is a gleefully silly, occasionally perplexing and completely over-the-top film that got to stay on screens in theaters when little else was in the market besides Top Gun: Maverick and a few other summer blockbusters.
The film also had some influential champions, like the Russo Brothers (makers of the last two billion-dollar Avengers movies and Netflix’s
The Grey Man, among much else), who were executive producers of the film. But initial ambitions for the movie itself were modest.
“We weren’t aiming for the Oscars, or award shows,” Rogers said. “And I think that was clear in the (spring timing of the) release of it. And it was clear to me in our making of it, it was like a joke amongst us of like, wouldn’t that be funny? When we were working on the silliest parts in the movie we were like, ‘This is real Oscar material right here where he jumps onto a butt plug.’”
The aforementioned butt plug is technically part of a rather unique award, and is wielded at a key moment to fend off attackers who, well, you have to see the movie (maybe twice) to understand. That said, once the film was finally finished after months of pandemic-related delays, at least one cast member thought they’d made a keeper.
“Actually the first person that really mentioned it to me was (lead actor) Ke (Huy Quan) after we did the friends and family screening. He said, ‘You know, I think this could really win some awards,” Rogers said. “I was like, ‘There’s no way, Ke, there’s absolutely no way. This is not the type of film that awards shows or Oscars are excited about.’ I was just so wrong. And I realized like, I just don’t doubt Ke. He knows what he’s doing. This guy keeps proving over and over again that he’s not the one to be doubted, but yet we keep doing it. He was right.”
Rogers first met the Daniels soon after he moved to Los Angeles, when a fellow Alabaman invited him to a birthday party at a roller rink. The birthday boy turned out to be Daniel Scheinert, whose directing partner Dan Kwan was also there. Together, they go by the nom de directeur of The Daniels.
Fast forward a decade, and the Daniels had a new project, and early on, they talked through the script with Rogers, “to workshop it, without any kind of presumption of involvement on my part.”
Rogers expected another editor, whose work he loved and who had recently finished a film with the Daniels, would eventually work on the new project.
“But I was lucky,” Rogers said. “Eventually, we all went to a Korean spa, and while we were cooling off after a soak, they said, ‘Do you want to help us make this movie?’ And I said of course. And then they sent me the script, and I thought, ‘Oh, boy, I am going to get my work cut out for me.’”
The story originally was about a relationship between a father and daughter, but by the time filming began in late 2019, it focused on a messy relationship between a relentlessly ordinary working mother and her perpetually frustrated young-adult daughter.
When Rogers saw the shooting script, he called up that previous editor, Matthew Hannam, for advice. They met for a drink in Los Angeles’ hip Echo Park neighborhood, just a few days before lockdown hit, and just as filming was about to wrap.
“He gave me a lot of good advice in general, but one of the pieces he gave me was at the very beginning: don’t think big picture, because you’ll drown, you’ll get overwhelmed,’” Rogers said. “’Just take it scene by scene, moment by moment, and just follow that. And then once you get through everything, you can take a step back, look at the big picture, realize what’s not working and start thinking in those terms.’” That helped me just give myself permission to not try to figure it out from day one.”
The lockdown, which was so devastating for so much of Hollywood, proved a secret blessing for the complex editing work needed to piece together the Daniels’ intricate mix of sci-fi hopping between alternate worlds, outrageous visual jokes, slow-motion action sequences, talking rocks, and so, so much more.
Unlike the rest of the industry, Rogers said, “I had this really wonderful project that I cared about with my friends who I could get on a Zoom (call) and talk to every day and then keep my mind off the world by focusing on the story. And the story really seemed to lend itself to what I was going through at the time, which is these feelings of isolation and longing for connection, and nihilism, and cynicism. And that’s what this movie was about, and about ways of fighting that by embracing it. It was a great form of therapy for me to work on this film. It was great.”
In fact, Rogers called that editing process “a really wonderful time. The worst day on the movie was the day we locked (the print) and I realized it was over. It was a very depressing day.”
The lockdown, in a mild irony, ultimately gave Rogers about twice as much editing time as typical for such a small-budget film, or as originally scheduled. With the entire industry on hold and theaters shut across the planet, distributor A24 “just basically told us to work on it ‘til you think it’s done. And so we were working on it for 11 months. If we had stopped at that (originally scheduled) five-month mark, we would have had a pretty good film, but it wouldn’t have been the film that we have now.”
To edit the project just as the lockdown hit, Rogers “grabbed an iMac from work,” and plunked the machine in the living room of his family’s small Highland Park bungalow. He put on headphones, fired up Adobe’s
Premiere Pro, and set to work, using the program’s project-sharing functions to remotely bat around trial edits with the directors.
“The way that Dan, Daniel and I work is incredibly collaborative,” Rogers said. “And they are editing with me. They’re both talented filmmakers in all aspects of filmmaking, because they came of age during the time where if you wanted to make a music video, you had to shoot it, write it, act in it, and edit it, and color (grade) it, and do the visual effects.”
Premiere’s flexibility and can-opener capabilities were particularly useful in building those trial versions of a scene, adding in rough visual effects, or doing tricks like speeding up a background character’s movement, while keeping the main figure at normal speed, Rogers said. That kind of flexibility gave him the ability, for instance, to tweak fight scenes or remix bits of multiple takes into a single scene in a way that made the final images look like they came from a film with a much bigger budget.
“All those things are really helpful for evening the playing field between these big-budget action films and these smaller indie action films,” Rogers said.
Premiere was particularly useful in allowing the directors and Rogers to remotely collaborate in fashioning the flashy, 2001-style rapid cuts needed as characters shifted between alternate worlds, or possibilities, or their own life history in rapid fashion.
“Those were really fun things to work on,” Rogers said. “But I will say that they were not the things that kept us up at night, right? They were the things that we knew were almost an escape from trying to figure out the more intricate mechanics of the story.”
The bigger editing challenge came during the film’s more reflective moments.
“How to make sure that the audience was invested in these characters emotionally and that we were staying true throughout this two-and-a-half-hour film to the characters’ journey,” Rogers said of the challenge. “That was the stuff that you just stand in the shower with the water rushing over you, with your head in your hands, just saying, ‘I have to figure this out or the movie’s not gonna work.’”
A scene in the first 15 minutes might need to reprise late in the movie to generate emotional resonance, Rogers said as an example. More importantly, it was crucial to have such scenes balance the frenetic action and provide humanity and connection.
“There was so much visual experimentation, and ‘bombastic-ness,’ there are a lot of opportunities to lose the thread or to lose the connection to the characters and just get get washed clean with explosive, visual filmmaking,” Rogers said. “So it was a lot of figuring out when we needed to give the audience a break, which was not that often.”
Unlike the start-slow-and-build approach of many action films, Rogers said EEAAO took a different approach, launching at an explosive pace, before ending, more or less, with a scene featuring two rocks “talking” in the forest. Scheinert patched together a trial version of the rock scene in the woods near Los Angeles that ended up “basically intact” in the movie.
“Sometimes, you just got to know when to get out of the way of a good scene,” Rogers said. “I think that movie has proven that you can tell the story all kinds of different ways. And yeah, you don’t have to follow a formula.”