Interview: Editor Bob Ducsay talks working with Rian Johnson and peeling back the layers of ‘Glass Onion’
The best way to understand a director’s mindset might not always be to talk to the person themselves, but rather someone whose worked with them for an extended period of time. Such is the case for Bob Ducsay, who is director Rian Johnson’s secret weapon when it comes to making his movies come to life. Ducsay, an editor of over thirty years, has worked as Johnson’s film editor even since the 2012 sci-fi flick, Looper. In that time, they went to a galaxy far far away with Star Wars: The Last Jedi and created two murder mystery spectacles with 2019’s Knives Out, and this year’s Glass Onion.
Ducsay is no stranger to big budget projects throughout his career, as he has helmed as editor for hit action films like The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, Godzilla, and San Andreas. For the early part of his career, he collaborated with directors Stephen Sommers and Brad Peyton throughout their extensive filmographies. But with his four collaborations with Johnson, his editing style has brought the right balance of pacing and flare needed to make these movies shine as some of the best films of their given years. The success has even garnered him praise with a nomination at the 2019 American Cinema Editors Awards for his work on Knives Out, and just recently, he received, alongside Rian Johnson, the inaugural Variety Collaborators Award at the 2022 Middleburg Film Festival.
In our conversation the day after the Glass Onion premiere in Middleburg, we discussed his partnership with Johnson, how they met, how they work together in creating the film in the edit. We also talked about if his influences shape the project he is working on, and what going back into the Knives Out universe meant to him as he and everyone else were locked in during the pandemic. Speaking to him over the course of the weekend, one thing rang true and that Bob Ducsay loves making and talking about movies. In one conversation we had, the range of movies spanned from his work to the Fast and Furious franchise to 2000s comedies. Only a skilled editor like Ducsay could make all of these films flow so effortlessly.
Ryan McQuade: When did you first meet Rian and when did you know that this could be something special between the two of you?
Bob Ducsay: Well, I mean, I would say before I met… I mean, I don’t know how the collaboration’s going to go, but from my perspective, I just loved the script for Looper, and I badly wanted to do the movie. I don’t know if I mentioned this to you, but I had met Ron’s producing partner, Ron Bergman, I mean, maybe a couple of years earlier. I had met with him on a movie that he was making that needed some help. I read the script, looked at the movie, this was a movie that was in post-production. I spent a couple of hours with him and the studio guys and kind of gave my ideas. I didn’t end up getting the job, but he remembered me, and he wanted me to meet with Rian when they were ready to start making Looper. I love the script, as I said, and I really wanted to do it. I had lunch with Rian. We really hit it off, seemed to have good chemistry, and I got the job.
RM: When you’re working with someone as long as you have with Rian, over four films, four different films, I imagine you learn stuff from the beginning of that relationship that carries that over. What’s something that you guys have learned from that experience that has then sharpened everything and then that you’re constantly leaning on when you’re making something like Glass Onion?
BD: Well, I think it’s a whole series of details, right? Because what happens any time in a relationship between a director and an editor is… I mean, the way I see my job is my job is to deliver as closely as possible the vision that the director has for the movie. It takes a while, as you could imagine. I mean, if we want to talk about a movie to begin with, the first time you work together, it takes a while to figure out all the nuance of that, because there’s a lot. I mean, even when you have a basic understanding of what the goal is, particularly in my job, there’s a lot of intricacies and details that you can, I mean, it can be incredible minutia about particular ways of cutting and storytelling. I think by… I don’t know, when we were in post on Looper, we were really starting to click, and then over the course of making three more movies together.
Rian has a new television series, which I cut a couple of episodes for, and so it’s the equivalent in another feature film. So, we really almost have the experience of five films together. Over the course of those movies, you hope for, and I think that we’ve achieved, by the time you get to the end of this, I have an extremely good understanding of what it is that he wants to do. From his standpoint, he has a very good understanding of what I bring to it. Also, probably the most important thing that you develop over this sort of relationship is trust going both ways. None of that happens instantaneously, and it’s one of the things that’s great about a long-term relationship because each movie is better than the previous. My ability to do my job better and also to bring more of what I can bring to it that is sort separate from his wisdom, I think really makes a big difference.
You kind of get to a point where it’s really clicking, and you really understand. Because the thing is, no matter how aligned your taste and judgment are at the beginning, there’s always going to be differences. Those differences sometimes are the things that really make the relationship great because you might see something slightly differently, and if he trusts me, he’s open to those things, right? Again, the idea is always… so he serves the vision of the director, but there’s also this movie, which is the sort of top line thing that we’re both serving, and the movie talks to you. I mean, because you have a screenplay and with Rian, it’s always really great. Then you shoot the movie and it’s a little bit different, and then you get into post and it’s a little bit different again.
I mean, no matter how great every part of those first two segments worked, the script and then the shooting, there’s still a lot more that happens in post, in the edit in the movie. Hopefully between the trust and the alignment of taste and vision, and then also the differences of those things, hopefully you have a really good collaborative relationship, which I think we do.
RM: I have to believe that when you get a script like Glass Onion, like Knives Out, like The Last Jedi, these are editor’s dreams.
RM: How is yours and Rian’s dynamic in the editing room when you’re trying to get to final cut, how all of it works together. Are there different phases of which you’re working together or is it all just consistent around you two from the start?
BD: No, no, no. I mean, it varies because… It varies from movie to movie a little bit. I mean, the same general approach happens on them, but it varies a little bit from movie to movie, depending on what the demands of the film are. I mean, Last Jedi is a much more… In addition to all the complexities of the storytelling and everything else that you have on every movie, there’s a lot more logistics involved in a movie like that and a lot more areas that I have to take care of and do as many things in the background when Rian is not there, that… I’m not talking about anything having to do with the editing. That one I is probably the most different out of the four films.
But as far as the sort of general approach to it, I mean, in pre-production, my main impact is I get the script really early on, and that’s always a delight. We get together soon after I’ve read it and we go through it. Usually, I’ll read maybe two or three drafts as the writing process goes on and give my thoughts. That’s the main part in pre-production that I take part in. In shooting, that varies also, because again, it’s a little bit of an outlier, but the one movie that I actually spent some time on the set was Last Jedi. It doesn’t mean that I never visit the set on the other films, but there’s just generally more of a need, and also just the way those movies are made, it takes a long time to make.
Because of that, being involved while it’s being photographed happens, but again, it’s not camped out on the set. Most of my time is spent in in the cutting room cutting. Then when we get into post, two weeks after we’ve wrapped, I have a cut of the movie and Rian comes in and we work our way through the movie tops to tails. It’s like five days a week, we’re in there from 10:00 until 7:00 together, and we make the adjustments that… changing a performance or eliminating part of a scene, doing those sorts of things. Then after that part of the process, it really varies from movie to movie, how much time we spend together. But I mean, Rian is a very active participant post-production because he loves it. I mean, obviously there’s an enormous relationship between editing and writing, and it’s another opportunity to make adjustments to the script of the movie in post, so we do that. I mean, it’s a close collaborative effort in post, which is really nice.
RM: We’ve talked about the responsibility of making the sequel and Rian being in that editing room with you, especially on this film, Glass Onion, which was built from Knives Out, a franchise already building a big running of fan base and everything. When you’re in that editing room and decisions are being made to maybe kill some darlings, was it a little bit more pressure?
BD: Yeah, I can’t speak for Rian. He’s extremely easygoing, but I personally felt pressure on this movie because the first movie, I mean, people really seemed to like it. There was such a great response from the audience, both in the screenings that we did before the movie came out, but then just in the number of people who saw it. I mean, it really became something, and it was the very next movie we made together, we made a sequel to it. I always thought that that was pretty ballsy to do that because you’re going right into something else. I mean, you’re going into another movie, and the fan’s expectations will be high. But I felt a lot better once I read the screenplay for Glass Onion, because it does a lot of the things that you hope for in a sequel, in that it’s actually a very different movie than the first movie, in many, many ways. But it also delivers a lot of the things that I think that the audience enjoyed about the first film.
We also have our secret weapon of Daniel Craig and Benoit Blanc, who again, certainly in my opinion, delivers another fantastic performance, and so that helped as well. But still, all that said, you are worried because you don’t want people to be disappointed because they think so highly of the first film. Sequels are really tricky. I mean, we all have the examples of the sequels that we think maybe are even better than the first movie, or we can argue about which movie is better, but there’s also a lot of sequels that… I understand, having been involved in a number of sequels, it’s really hard to do. I hope that we’ve managed to make a movie that the fans of the first film are going to enjoy at least as much as the first one, and I think we probably are going to have sort a happy audience, I think.
RM: Were there certain influences, certain other films, certain other mysteries maybe, that you sort looked into? Or do you try to separate yourself from any of those influences?
BD: I’m not saying that you never do any kind of research when you’re going to cut a movie, because directors often have references in mind for certain ideas. But I think that the most important thing, and is usually my approach, is I really think you start with a script, but the script and the dailies and what we’ll just generally call the movie, speak to you, right? Because I find it’s best not to force something on the movie, and sometimes you can’t avoid it. Sometimes you have to force some things on the movie because some things don’t work, and you have to maybe break some of the rules or some of the things that you had in mind in how the editorial would be approached on the film. But I generally don’t find this to be a problem because I really do think that the screenplay is a good blueprint, but then even more so the dailies, the movie, that really dictate if you’re doing it right, how it’s going to turn out and how you’re going to approach it.
Style is certainly a consideration. But, for me, sort of top line items, and I think anyone working on a movie generally thinks this way, character and story and theme, they trump most of the other stuff. You really need to be serving those things first, and I think worrying about what style you might use should be down the list. I also think one other thing too that I think that we always try in all of Rian’s movies, and I certainly try to apply in all of the films that I work on, is there’s a focus, a goal of simplicity in the edit. If you can avoid cutting, if you don’t need to cut, if you don’t have a good reason to cut, don’t. That’s hard and it requires discipline.
Because of the way that movies are cut now, and certainly not a criticism because I certainly enjoy a lot of films that will say or got a lot more going on in the edit, I think that there’s sometimes a little bit of concern that maybe we should be a little more intrusive with the edit. But I try very hard just in general to be disciplined and try to avoid that and just be as simple as possible, which is sometimes easier said than done because sometimes you have to fix something, so you have to sort of jam it a little bit. But I think just as a natural goal, that’s what we try for.
RM: You mentioned to me earlier yesterday and to the panel at the conversation in the morning that how much Benoit Blanc meant to you. Was there a sense of relief in that you’re going to be going back to a character that you guys know and then you’re going to be making this film that will not only entertain the audiences, but also be like, “Oh, okay, I get to be back in the Knives Out universe.”
BD: There no question about it. I mean, especially when it’s a character that you love, and I love Benoit and I love Daniel’s interpretation of… I mean, he created the character with Rian’s words. The thing is that, I mean, I can’t speak for everyone who does this, but for me, over the course of cutting a movie, these people become my friends. I look at them all day long and this is what Bertie is like. I know her really, really well. This is what Claire is like. I know her really, really well. But when it’s talking about a character like Blanc who is in now two movies, he’s family, because we’ve already made an entire movie together. Because of that, I really love being back in this world because I’m back with one of my movie friends.
RM: Yeah. No, for sure. I mean, probably the next call’s going to be about a third one.
BD: Yeah, no, no, exactly. And I’ll be happy to do it because I know we’ll go on another fun adventure together.
RM: Absolutely. Thank you, Bob. Thank you so much. BD: Real pleasure. Really nice talking to you again.
Glass Onion will receive a special one-week theatrical engagement beginning November 23 before streaming globally on Netflix December 23.