‘The Last Jedi’ Editor Bob Ducsay on the Film’s Evolution, the Ending, and More
A lot of filmmakers like to say you write a film three times: Once in the script phase, once in the production phase, and once in the post-production phase. The latter is where everything comes together, and it’s also where major structural changes to the film can take place. While this is fascinating on any film of note, it’s particularly interesting when it comes to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the longest Star Wars film in history and yet on in which every scene is important to the plot, character development, or theme.
I recently got the chance to speak with The Last Jedi editor Bob Ducsay during a press day for the film, and he offered terrific insight into how a film like this can shift and evolve in the editing process. Ducsay talked about the film’s lack of test screenings, juggling three major narratives and shifting them around, what deleted scenes came out of the movie, and the importance of the ending. We also went deep on that major sequence involving Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo and how that sequence was edited together.
If you’re at all interested in the editing process, especially on a film as big as The Last Jedi, you’ll no doubt find what Ducsay has to say insightful. Check out the full interview below.
I have to say congratulations. I saw the movie last night in a packed theater. I absolutely loved it. Everyone went crazy.
BOB DUCSAY: Thank you so much. I have to say I’m extremely proud of the movie. It was a pleasure to work on from tops to tails. It was truly the adventure of a lifetime, and I honestly can’t believe I got the opportunity to do it. I mean, I personally just love the movie, and I’m glad that the audiences seem to like it too, which is great.
It’s fantastic. I was curious. I know the testing process on a Star Wars movie is probably very different, and confidential, but what did you guys kind of learn from the early test screenings, or friends and family screenings that impacted the shaping of the film?
DUCSAY: Here’s the thing that’s insane. The first time that we saw it with an actual audience was at the premiere last week. So, it’s a very, very, powerful tool that you don’t have when you do a Star Wars movie now. People did see the movie, but we had this theater in our cutting room. It’s a small theater, and it seated 14 or 16 so the biggest number of the largest audience we ever had was 14 or 16. They’re really good people, like people from Disney and from Lucasfilm, and we had filmmakers that we know come in to see the movie, but because of the security on the movie—security meaning we didn’t want any of the great stuff in the film to get out—we never screened the movie for a real audience, and it has been very gratifying. I saw it myself last night for the second time with an audience, and it was great to see it work yet again, and that we mainly guessed right. We got a lot of stuff right, which is nice because you normally have the audience to help you.
There are three very distinct storylines happening at the same time, and I was curious. Did you guys toy around with rearranging the order in which things played out, or was it kind of cut together pretty much as scripted?
DUCSAY: Well, we started with a really great script, and a lot of the problems of the movie— when I say problems, I mean the complications of the movie, and having a lot of balls in the air, and a lot of characters, but the screenplay solved a lot of those things. So we started pretty well, but there definitely are things that you have to deal with when you put the movie together. You go, ‘This sequence is too long. I need to get to this other story.’ And also, frankly sometimes the script was telling the audience something they needed to know in the wrong spot. So, this is a very common editorial thing to do. One of the assistants made cards that had a key photograph from every scene in the movie, and there was a hundred something scenes in the movie. It’s a tremendous number of scenes. And we would put this up on one of my walls in the cutting room, and Rian and I would stand in front of it an untold number of hours over the course of the post-production of the movie, and we would move cards around to figure out how we would make things work better in the film.
This is not something that’s specific to The Last Jedi, this is a common practice, but it was something that was employed a great deal on this film. And also, frankly as you might guess, the other movie that Rian and I did together, Looper, we stood in front of that board a lot too because his movies tend to be, in a good way, complex.
Rian has said there are about 30 minutes or so of really great deleted scenes. Is there one particular sequence that had to be trimmed down the most?
DUCSAY: A lot of what was taken out were actual scenes. They’re just not in the movie anymore. But like every film, there’s lots—here’s what happens a lot when you put a movie together. You watch the movie and you realize, this scene doesn’t need to start here. It can start later. Or, this scene doesn’t end here, it should end earlier. So, there’s a lot of that stuff that goes on, and that leads to a lot of pace improvements when you do those things because often there’s tags or preambles on scenes that you don’t really ultimately need. You might think in the script process that you do, but then once it’s actually a movie you discover that you don’t. So a lot of stuff that was cut out was like that, but there’s a good amount, I mean a big chunk of stuff that’s just scenes that aren’t in the movie anymore.
I think Rian said that there was maybe an entire sequence with Rose? Is that one of the things that came out?
DUCSAY: Well, yeah. I mean, there’s some stuff with Rose, but I would guess the thing that Rian was mentioning is there’s an extended sequence with Rey and the caretakers, which are the Nun-like fish creatures. That’s actually one of the biggest things that was taken out of the movie. I know what he’s talking about. The incursion onto Snoke’s ship has—I mean there’s a lot of stuff that was cut out of that, and Rose and DJ and Finn, and some of it is particularly fun. There’s some really nice stuff in there, but we actually cut that stuff pretty early because it was very clear that that section of the movie was completely lopsided in favor of those three, and it just didn’t support it. But it’s good stuff. It’s really good stuff. I assume when you’ll see it, you’ll enjoy it because I mean, we all did.
It was cut early, and how you always know is like my staff, there’s a decent number of assistants and collaborators that work in the cutting room, and they were all complaining when we cut the sequence. And that’s how you know that it was something that people like. But the thing is, and I assume Rian said this to you because he and I are of the completely same mind, there’s nothing that’s been cut out of the movie that I’ve put back in the movie.
For sure, yeah. I think he reiterated that as well, and I totally understand.
DUCSAY: Yeah. I mean, it’s just part of the discipline of doing the job, you know?
Well, one particularly stunning sequence is when Holdo jumps the ship into the other ship, and it’s just a really memorable sequence from an audience standpoint. There’s just silence, and you hear gasps. What was the editing of that sequence like? How did that kind of come about?
DUCSAY: It’s really incredible, right? Because I mean again, I’ve only seen the movie twice with an audience, and I mean, we thought it was going to be big, but you could just feel the crowd. It’s amazing. It’s absolutely amazing, and it’s funny about that sequence because it’s sort of complicated editorially, because you’re cutting between Kylo and Rey, and Finn and Rose, and Holdo, and Hux. So it’s a lot of balls in the air, and things got moved around a lot in there to make it accelerate the way that it does. It used to be a little bit longer, which it didn’t really support, but it was complicated. And it was fun to get there.
The thing to me that’s the most interesting is that the way that the actual impact works. It was storyboarded, and when you watched it with storyboards, it was very, very, hard to understand. And we got the first iterations of the digital effects back from ILM, and it really didn’t work. And we sort of revamped how it was going to work, and when that happened, it suddenly went from, ‘I’m not sure how this is going to work,’ to ‘This is obviously fantastic.’ Then the whole rest of the way, bringing it into finished digital effects was very quick. I mean, I’d say it’s easy for us. We’re not the ones executing the visual effects, but the design of the scene, we basically had a breakthrough at one point in post-production. This was not something that was all figured out in production or prep, and it just came together. And also the other thing too, the way the sound works there is just fantastic.
DUCSAY: Because it’s building. The John Williams score and the sound effects, they’re building to this full-throated crescendo, and then everything goes away, and it’s just the tiniest atmosphere. Sort of a low-end space sound, and you can just feel the audience because of that incredibly significant contrast in both sound and imagery. I mean it’s amazing. And by the way, it’s all Rian. He had that in his head, how that thing was going to work, and even though we made tweaks on it, this was always where he was headed. So, I’m glad you love that because I sure do too. It’s really something.
I also wanted to ask about the ending of the movie. I think it’s really bold to end on a character that we don’t really know, but it thematically reinforces the idea that the spark has been lit, and a hero can come from anywhere. It’s not a sacred bloodline. It’s not who your parents are. It can come from anyone of any means. Was the idea always to end the movie on the shot of that young boy looking up to the stars? Or did that kind of evolve?
DUCSAY: Well, I mean, that’s what was written. That’s how the movie is structured, yeah. I mean I think the point that you’re getting to is really good because why that scene is important is that it’s thematically organic, and coherent. Because on some level, it’s actually what the movie is about.
DUCSAY: Right? And I think that that’s why that scene is actually really important. And again another scene that gets a really great reaction from the audience because it’s something new.
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