Nothing about Everything Everywhere All at Once – an R-rated, two-and-a-half-hour-long absurdist sci-fi action extravaganza that features hot dog fingers, butt plug battles, and talking rocks – screams “Oscar,” and yet, the film has inexplicably become the Best Picture frontrunner this awards season, additionally netting major nominations (and wins) for writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, actors Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, and editor Paul Rogers, with all except for Yeoh prevailing at this year’s Critics Choice Awards this past Sunday, where the film took home their Best Picture trophy as well. And though the Daniels, Yeoh, and Quan deserve all the acclaim in the award for the innovative imagination they brought to this film and its subversive storytelling, the movie would easily fall apart were it not for Rogers and his beautiful blending of a plethora of parallel universes traversed by Yeoh’s Evelyn, Quan’s Waymond, and Stephanie Hsu’s Jobu Tupaki. His editing has been highlighted by fans ever since the film’s release, with many a tweet going viral spotlighting just how skillful Rogers’ (and his team’s) work is, and he’s quickly becoming an Oscar frontrunner too, especially following his CCA victory. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rogers and two of his team members – Aashish D’Mello and Zekun Mao – where we talked about the unique difficulties presented by a project like this, their editorial influences in pop culture, and more.
Zoë Rose Bryant: My first question is for you, Paul. I know that you’ve worked on music videos with the Daniels before and The Death of Dick Long with Daniel Scheinert, and I was wondering how they pitched this project in particular to you. How did they sell Everything Everything All at Once?
Paul Rogers: Well, [when] they pitched it, it wasn’t like, “hey, we want you to work on this thing.” They had a script and they had the story – at that time, about a father and a daughter – and they basically just texted me and said, “hey, we have this thing, we need some ears and eyes on it, and we think it will be helpful if we pitch it out loud to somebody so that we can just kind of work through it in the room.” And so I just sat in Dan Kwan’s back office at his house with him and Jon Wang, the producer, and they just talked through the script and acted stuff out. It was a two hour live show basically, and I was very emotional. I cried a bunch and was just really excited by the project. They asked a bunch of questions, I gave my thoughts, and then left it like, “I can’t wait to see this. Please make it.”
And then, I was actually just remembering this the other day, that when they actually asked me to come on, they invited me to a Korean spa with them in Korea Town. We had just dipped, and we were all sitting next to the tub just cooling off and they were like, “so do you want to make this movie with us? Do you want to help us make this movie?” And I was like, “of course.” And then we all went upstairs and our partners were up there and we were all in those little funny outfits and we ate Korean food and it was just like a really great day and a great way to be brought into the fold of the project. But at the time when they pitched it, they were just calling it “Bubbles” or “Space Bubbles,” which I guess is from that quote where Waymond says, “we’re all just bubbles floating in the cosmic palm of existence.” Additionally, when they pitched it to me, it was Jackie Chan [in the lead]. And it wasn’t until they got a little further along that they swapped it out. And then it became Michelle Yeoh, which I was equally, if not more, excited by.
ZRB: Did you have any initial worries with the pitch of the script at first, with how audacious the film is and all of the different styles it tries to tackle?
PR: I was intimidated. I mean, I wasn’t worried, because I trust them and I also trust the editing process. I think that I know that we can figure it out eventually, but I knew that they could figure it out eventually. The worry came from whether I would be a useful and helpful part of that or whether I would be dragging the process down. So I had to just kind of ignore that and push forward. I mean, I do think that a lot of my career is this delicate balance of insecurity and overconfidence and disregard for what other people think and constant need for approval. That was all in this weird balance. And so I definitely felt all that stuff on this project and I just had to trust that, put my blinders on a little bit, and just dive in and take it.
One thing that helped was I asked Matt Hannam – who cut Swiss Army Man with them – if he could grab a drink with me. And we went to a place called Lowboy in Echo Park right before shutdown/the first lockdown. And he gave me some great advice, which was, “don’t get overwhelmed in the beginning, don’t think about the big picture, just take it one scene and one moment at a time, and once you get through everything on your first pass, then you can take a step back and start thinking ‘big picture’ – but if you start thinking big picture at the beginning, you’re just going to get overwhelmed and you’re going to drown.” So that was really helpful. And a big part of the stress relief came with starting to assemble the team. So once we brought Zekun on, I felt confident that there was someone who knew what they were doing, because I didn’t really know how to make a movie quite like this yet, and Zekun seemed very confident and she said, “I got it, we’ll do this.” So that helped.
ZRB: Speaking of your team, when did you two come on board the project?
Zekun Mao: I came on board in early February . I think I missed the first two weeks, but I jumped on pretty much from the beginning of the production. And I think Aashish jumped on in April. So we were in lockdown already at the time, too.
PR: We started the day after the holidays or something. And I think you [Zekun] were off visiting family or something.
ZM: Yeah, Aashish and I were traveling back to my hometown in Beijing, and then we left early, came back here, and I think our shoot started on January 20, and I came on right at the beginning of February.
Aashish D’Mello: Yeah, I was still on another project before that, but then they needed someone to do some assistant editing and coordinate with VFX, so that’s why I came on a little later.
ZM: Yeah, I started first.
ZRB: And what made you all passionate about working on this project? Was it the genre? The themes? The story?
ZM: To be honest with you, it was actually our first big feature and first big job.
AD: Union job.
ZM: Yeah, and I was the first one who interviewed for the assistant editor position, I believe. And I first met Kwan and Scheinert that day. I was very excited to work on an Asian American story for sure, and Kwan was really passionate telling me everything about the story. I think the biggest concern at that moment was working with Adobe Premiere. And I remember Paul told me, “we’re going to test this new feature and hopefully it’s going to be smooth because Premiere is a new function” and stuff like that. So, yeah, I was very excited to work on it, not only because of the story, but also I do think it was a challenge. And I kind of like that.
PR: Well and also, there was Mandarin and Cantonese and English in it, and we would’ve totally been lost without Zekun. There were even times when she’d be like, “this performance is not great, they stumbled on their words” and it was super critical.
ZM: Yeah, there was some sort of improvisation on set. I think Kwan and Scheinert wrote the script in English, but the translation was done on set. So they sometimes say the same line over and over again, and I would help Paul to filter through that a little bit. Like, “this is a great performance, but the line is probably not going to work, so we can either we do ADR or we’re just not going to use this take.”
ZRB: I think what made me such a fan of the editing in this film is how it balances all these different universes and timelines so well and also the very loud, action-centric beats with these more quiet, emotional, and intimate moments. I was wondering what the hardest part about that balance was and the major difficulties you encountered with editing this project in general.
PR: I mean, what you just described was the hardest part – finding that balance – and I’m sure Zekun can attest to this, but in the first cut, it was too loud and too bombastic and too long. And we threw in every joke that we found funny in the improv and just pushed it over its limit, which I think was the right thing to do to see how far we could push it. But we didn’t have the balance of the emotional story of the family. The heart of the movie wasn’t as strong as the aesthetic of the film. And so making sure that we were always keyed in to Michelle and Stephanie’s story as a family was really important.
The constant battle that we were fighting was trying to rein ourselves in aesthetically and visually and editorially to make sure that the family story was coming out. So, the parking lot scene at the end is what I felt like I worked on the most, as well as the first 15 minutes, and making sure that we actually liked all these characters. Because what we found was that there were certain ways that we cut the first 15 minutes where the last 15 minutes didn’t work, because nobody really cared what happened to these characters because they didn’t like them in the beginning or they just didn’t have enough there to hold onto. And then all of the visual flourishes and stuff were like “fun vacations” from the harder stuff.
ZRB: Were there any scenes or beats that you had to cut that you missed or that you wish were in the final cut? Or are you pretty happy with how everything came together?
PR: I’m curious what you guys think.
ZM: You know, Aashish and I have talked about it before, and we actually really like the “Spaghetti Baby Noodle Universe.”
PR: Yeah, I do too! Everybody does!
AD: There’s a small trace of it still in the cut. Like one shot of the “throwing.”
ZM: Yeah, that was part of that. We really wish that could have worked. But it was just hard to make it “right.”
PR: If you don’t know what they’re talking about, “Spaghetti Baby Noodle Boy” was on the Blu-Ray. It was a whole universe where Michelle is a spaghetti in a pot of spaghetti. She’s a noodle of spaghetti, and she has a son named Spaghetti Baby Noodle Boy, who’s a macaroni with a hole. And it’s voiced by Jenny Slate. It was one of my favorite parts of the script. And basically, this little baby is like, “how come I’m different than everybody, I have a hole, no one else has a hole.” And there’s this thing called “Throwing Day” coming, where you get pulled out of the pot and thrown, and if you stick to the wall, you become a man. But if you don’t, then you’re not a man. And so, he was afraid he wasn’t going to stick because he was small with a hole. Now that I’m actually saying it out loud, I’m like, of course it’s not going to work [laughs].
ZM: I think it would’ve echoed how Jobu Tupaki was feeling that “difference,” which is why I wish we could’ve made it work. But I do have to say, I do think the rock universe [used in its place] was very strong. It worked so well. I remember the first cut, and everybody was so quiet at the beginning when we saw the rock universe, and no one was talking, and it was just the ambient sound. People didn’t know how to feel about it. But when they finished the whole scene, it was actually really emotional. And it made the spaghetti universe feel sort of drawn out, so we had to take it out.
PR: Yeah, I showed my partner Luke and my company Parallax a cut, and he was passionate about keeping the noodle universe because his reasoning was that it’s the natural progression of this kind of exploration of the multiverse. It has to get to this kind of “peak” ridiculousness in order to deliver on what Dan and Daniel always called “the promise of the premise.” And what we found was that the rocks kind of did that same thing as inanimate objects and such. It wasn’t exactly a double beat, but the more and more that the rock universe worked, the less we felt like we needed spaghetti baby noodle boy. And we were just way over time. We were 2 hours and 45 minutes. And it got to a point where it just became exhausting to watch this film. And even if you really cared and all the emotional beats were working, you were just exhausted by the end of it.
ZRB: Yeah, I think the rock universe is one of the best examples in my mind of the smaller, more emotional beats that catch you off guard at first and really sneak up on you.
PR: And we don’t give you a lot of those breaks. That’s what makes it work so well, I think, is because we withhold. But it’s funny, because usually movies – especially action movies and sci-fi movies – are withholding on the big action setpieces with the big explosions or the big energy. And here, it was the opposite. From the first minute, we were just “go go go go go,” fights, explosions, energy, energy, energy. And we were withholding the inverse, which is the moment of space, the moment to relax and to take a breath. And that was a fun kind of way to invert the expectations of a genre movie like this.
ZRB: I’m curious what your guys’ stylistic inspirations were for the overall editing style of the film. I know I noticed a lot of Matrix, and I’m sure that’s been mentioned before since it’s a sci-fi staple, but I’m curious what everyone’s favorite genre films were/are that influenced how they approached this project.
PR: What are y’all’s favorite genre films? I’m curious. Sci-fi, action, kung fu – are you all into those?
AD: I like action, if I had to pick a genre.
ZM: I still like dramas. I think I’m still more into dramas. So the emotional scenes in our film worked really well with me.
AD: Yeah, I love the fight scenes, and how kinetic everything felt.
PR: I can tell you two answers. One are the films that I know directly inspired this film and the ones that we watched, not to pick up editorial language or anything like that, but just to pick up an approach to filmmaking and kind of an attempt to see what it’s like when people free themselves from the rules of “cinema.” We watched Paprika, which was incredible. We watched Holy Motors, which is an insane film and one of my favorites, and just shows that you don’t have to play by any rules. And it’s a strange film because there kind of is no emotional center per se, but you end up kind of finding your own? I think every person’s is different in that one. And Kung Fu Hustle was another big one that we watched.
ZM: Kwan brought it up too.
PR: Yeah, I mean, it’s one of my favorite films. That and Shaolin Soccer, I love. And I would watch Kung Fu Hustle constantly while we were making the film. It’s just such a great balance of comedy and heart and such great action. I think the editor’s name was Angie Lam, and I tried to find her online because I found someone who had dinner with her and emailed that person and was like, “I just really want her thoughts on the film, and I’d fly her out,” and I just never heard back. But I always wish that I could have had her thoughts on this. And then I think, for me, I grew up loving Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx, which was the first big American movie that he did. And I remember watching that in the theater with my dad and being blown away and then just kind of diving into his filmography with stuff like Drunken Master Two. I loved Fist of Legend with Jet Li and watched that constantly growing up. And then I think it’s a lot of the same influences that Dan and Daniel have in general, which are Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, and then for me, Chris Cunningham and Terrence Malick. Strangely, another influence for me is – and I know this is a little paradoxical – but Hou Hsiao-hsien. He’s a Taiwanese director and one of my favorite filmmakers, and his films are the opposite of this film. They’re very quiet. But when I have the opportunities to try to channel that kind of language, I try to. There’s also a filmmaker I like named Arthur Jafa, who does really incredible art films. And the influences just keep going.
ZRB: And I think the fascinating thing is that you see all of that in the movie. You get to work with all those different styles.
PR: Totally. Yeah. For better and for worse, we took the gloves off and just did whatever we wanted and put it all in there.
ZRB: This film’s massive success has been a little bit of a surprise – when it comes to both the commercial and critical acclaim – and I was wondering, when you guys were making it, did any of you have any foresight into how big this would be or how much it would connect?
PR: Wow, that was such a fast answer.
ZM: Well, I can’t speak for Paul, but Aashish and we’re kind of “the ambulance.” We were trying to make sure there was nothing going wrong, technically. And because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to work with Paul in office. I feel like if we could have talked in person that would have been a source of emotional support for all of us, but we sort of got separated. And for us, it was new to work remote for the first time. Aashish was supporting all the VFX because we have a very small VFX team, and I was supporting Paul and the Daniels and whoever. And at one point, I was even joking with Aashish saying, “I don’t know how to finish this from a technical point of view.” So I feel like I don’t think we even had a time to think about what people would think.
AD: It was all overwhelming.
PR: We threw a lot at you. We were using software in ways that it wasn’t designed to be used in order to do crazy things, and Zekun just had to reverse engineer it. When we screened the first cut, which was over Zoom, I felt like it was really good, and I was like, “maybe it’s just because I’ve been sitting in my living room on headphones working on this thing, and this is the first time showing people and it’s just an emotional experience.” And then we got on another Zoom after the screening, and me and Dan and Daniel were like, “I thought that was working right? Are we crazy or is this movie going to work?” And it was not the experience that we expected, and it hasn’t been my experience for the most part when I watch the first cut of things that I work on. They’re usually bad, and that’s just part of the process. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most everything is bad when you first start working on it. But it just kept getting better and better, and I knew people would like it. I knew certain people would like it because I know that the type of work that the Daniels do finds a very passionate audience.
I didn’t think that this mainstream success would be as overwhelming as it is, but I kind of dreamed about it and then would just not talk about it. We would joke about this shot of a guy with his legs spread jumping onto a butt plug and be like, “this one’s for the Oscar voters.” But we could never have actually imagined the Oscar buzz and the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice and all this stuff that is just so insane and wonderful. Early on, when I was working in Highland Park – where Dan Kwan lives down the road, and Daniel Scheinert lives down the road, and it’s all walkable – Kwan texted me like, “oh, my God, I just heard someone at Kumquat (which is coffee shop that we like to go to) talking about our movie.” It was like that week it had come out, and we were just blown away that someone in a coffee shop had seen our movie and was excited about it enough to be talking to somebody else about it. We were like,”wow, that’s crazy.” And then within a couple of weeks, we were like, “oh, my God, everybody’s talking about it.” It was all over the place. So it’s been a nice “low expectations, high reward” with this incredible reception. It feels good.
AD: Yeah. I think for the two of us, a year and a half ago, we would have never guessed that it would be so big. It’s also surreal because neither of us had worked on something of this scale before. So seeing something that we had spent so long working on that suddenly become, like, huge… yeah, it was a very strange feeling.
PR: And what’s so great, too about Dan and Daniel – who, by the way, are like, incredible editors, and were editing all over this movie with me, and that was one of the challenges for Zekun, having three people working on the same thing and just throwing disorganized stuff at each other – is that they give people freedom and space to do the type of work they can be really proud of versus just paint by numbers/this is what the directors want. They’re very much like, “surprise me, show me something new, put your own voice into it.” And so I hope that you, Zekun and Aashish, also just feel really proud, because not only is it a good movie, but it was really hard. It was a difficult film, technically, to pull off. And you all pulled it off.
AD: Yeah, it’s very rewarding. It feels really satisfying to be totally finished, too.
ZM: We graduated from AFI, and they recently invented Kwan and Scheinert to speak at commencement.
AD: And someone from AFI emailed us being like, “hey, you want to crash their Q&A or something?”
ZM: And in the front row of this Q&A, there was one guy who had seen our film 32 times.
PR: He’s seen it more than I have, honestly. Even watching all the rough cuts.
ZM: I think for Aashish, the funniest thing is when people watch frame-by-frame.
PR: I know, and there’s a picture of Aashish in there. There’s a picture of him in the movie.
AD: Yeah, we were on a VFX call with the Daniels, and Dan Kwan was like, “oh, let me just take a screenshot of the zoom meeting right here.” And he was like, “let’s put it in the movie.” So that’s one frame. And people on Reddit caught onto it, like, pretty good. I was really surprised.
PR: And I even put my little baby’s voice in there when Evelyn’s brain is breaking. I have this recording of my kid screaming and crying, and it’s just a fun little thing that makes it feel like a family movie in that way.
ZM: And the kid who hits the piñata is our DP Larkin Seiple’s son. And that scene was shot in Larkin’s backyard.
ZRB: I think those are some my favorite moments – when Michelle Yeoh is cycling through all the universes really quickly and you see all these little snippets of so many different scenes, and it ultimately becomes something so surreal and beautiful. But making that look seamless is obviously a huge challenge.
PD: When I watched it when we were working on it, it was like the same ten universes, loop, loop, loop, loop, loop, and green screen. And so then by the time I saw it in full, they had done all of the effects work. It was the first time I’d seen it fully realized, and it was incredible.
ZRB: I mentioned The Matrix earlier, and I think the first thing I took away from this film was how many young film fans and aspiring filmmakers would watch this and this would be their foundational film for the rest of their career the way The Matrix was for so many of today’s auteurs.
PD: It’s so crazy. I hoped that people would watch this film and feel the way that I felt when I watched The Matrix. I watched The Matrix at a little movie theater in Plant City, Florida, and then immediately bought a ticket for the next showing the next day. It confused me and it scared me and it excited me. And as much as it’s a “pop blockbuster film,” it’s still so influential for me, almost more so on just the feeling that I got of watching that film – the feeling of being transported and in awe and having no idea what was going to happen next. That excitement is so cool, and it’s exciting to think that this could be that for some people.
ZM: I wish you were there at the AFI Q&A when Kwan and Scheinert went back. We were just standing in the wings, and we could feel how those young filmmakers really look up to them. And I remember Kwan and Scheinert were talking to them about how they should just do what they love and not change themselves. If you love this genre or you love making films like this, keep making films like this – don’t try to change your style for the success.
PR: I think there’s a certain gravity with really good and emotionally dense and intellectually dense work. But if you try to fit your work into something that you think is going to be popular, the density kind of falls away and the gravity diminishes. And I think that what they’ve done is, if all the stuff is happening over here that’s making all the money, they just kept building on their work until it’s reached this kind of richness, and then that gravity has just attracted the pop culture and the attention to it. And that is such a cool way to work. And it has definitely taken time and a lot of sacrifice on their part. But I’m so happy that that’s the way that they work.
ZM: I also think they changed the culture of our industry a little bit. First, because they’re a duo. I remember one of the young filmmakers was asking about that. And the other thing is that I think Hollywood has this sort of “asshole energy.”
AD: Like, to be great, you have to be an asshole. Directors, specifically.
ZM: Yeah. And I think with our film, behind the scenes, we know how well we get along. I don’t think at any moment Paul or the Daniels were ever assholes to any of us. And I think Kwan and Scheinert talked about how you don’t have to be like that to be successful and to be a good filmmaker. So our film is not just The Matrix. I do think they changed some of the culture also for young filmmakers.
AD: I think what kept us going, especially towards the end when things just got very crazy, was we were always made to feel that we were part of the team, that we were part of this. Even though we did it almost entirely remote. I think that really kept us motivated to do our best work for the movie.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.