It’s possible that nothing can prepare you for being on a Star Wars film, but Bob Ducsay had to have come close. The longtime editor had not only been cutting films for almost 30 years—as well as producing quite a few himself—but almost all have been big budget and effects laden. The majority have come out of Ducsay’s career-long collaboration and friendship with director Stephen Sommers. Ducsay edited Sommers’ debut, a small high school film called Catch Me If You Can in 1989, and the two rose together as Sommers directed a series of major moneymakers for Universal, including The Mummy and its sequel and 2004’s Van Helsing, on which Ducsay was a co-producer. Since then, he has pretty much stuck with large movies, including the tentpoles Godzilla and San Andreas. And now he has completed work on the biggest film of them all: Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Like most of the creative team, Ducsay came aboard the project when Rian Johnson was announced as writer-director (Ducsay had edited Johnson’s last film, 2012’s Looper), just as J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was hitting production so they had a lot of time to prep. First, Ducsay read Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan’s script for the seventh Star Wars film, then he immediately submerged himself in the world of George Lucas’ original trilogy. “I was quite familiar with everything because I’m a huge fan, but I wanted to watch each of those films a few times,” he says. “I immersed myself in those four films, and that was probably the biggest piece of prep I did outside of specific things for The Last Jedi. That was my research.” The goal was to achieve the right mindset to craft a new Star Wars film. “I wanted to remember everything and every detail about the characters and the story of those films. Some of it is the techniques they used and finding out what they were up to when they made those films. Of course, that’s helpful only to a degree. Then you go and make your own movie, and that specific movie and story must be served. They’re all a little bit different. In the end, your own movie is what drives everything.”
Common sense dictates that editors would be among the last people to start work on a movie, as they assemble the finished footage after the majority of filming has ended. But on large films such as The Last Jedi, Ducsay is not only involved long before production starts, he is physically on location for the entire shoot. “On films of this sort, it’s very rare that you don’t go on location anymore,” he says. “I’m not saying it never happens, but it’s rare. It’s such an important thing. You have to be there with the director. You can walk right over to set and say, ‘This is what I’m thinking.’ The interaction and the immediacy of being there is essential because even with a long schedule like this movie had, things are moving quickly.” Before production started on Last Jedi, Ducsay’s first task was to become heavily involved in the previsualization process, where Johnson and his team planned out the major action and effects-heavy scenes for the film with rough animated sequences. That allows the filmmakers to see how a scene will work before it’s even shot and, most crucially, map out specific shots and moments that have to be choreographed, as they’re so intricate the details need to be worked out well in advance. Ducsay was late to the previs process on this film because he was tied up on another film, but once he arrived at Pinewood Studios outside London, where the film was shooting, he began reviewing work already under way. “A lot of it was quite accomplished, but I got into all that and started pitching changes to Rian. The previs is a good starting guide for everyone.”
Ducsay cites one specific sequence that had to be planned out to the exact beat before any footage was shot. In the middle of the film, Resistance heroes Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) go on a mission to the casino city of Canto Bight. It’s Star Wars so things go wrong and as they’re trying to escape, they hop aboard these horselike animals called fathiers and race to freedom. Because the fathiers are, apart from a few close-ups, entirely digital creations, previs had to lay out the entire sequence to the nth degree. Ducsay reviews both the storyboards and the previs with his unique editor eye and suggest changes as to shots the effects team will have to devise in order to tell the story clearly. “It’s something I’m quite interactive with,” he says. “If I need a shot, I’ll get the previs department to make a shot or two and add those things in there to see how it plays. You help figure out some of these things before photography has started or even while photography is already going.” Ducsay points out that because a shoot of this magnitude is so lengthy, filmmakers have the time to pick up certain shots if they see something is missing in the edit.
It’s not just the effects shots Ducsay impacts, though. If he sees a key character moment missing during a scene, he’ll bring that up to the director. For the fathier sequence, in between the previs for the effects-heavy shots, he inserted a card that read something along the lines of, “Rose close-up,” as a way to indicate that Johnson should get a close-up of Rose for this particular moment. “The reason you’re there while they’re shooting the movie is to help,” Ducsay says. “In an ideal world, that means you get out of principal photography with everything you need, so you try and head off things that are either missing or aren’t working or can be improved. I’ll suggest things to Rian, and sometimes he’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea,’ or sometimes he’ll say, ‘You’re out of your mind, we don’t need that.’”
Editing of the actual footage takes place throughout the shoot, and Ducsay estimates that by the end of production, Johnson has seen about 80 percent of the film put together. Though he is a veteran of this type of filmmaking, Ducsay admits it’s uniquely challenging to edit together a film where a lot of the images simply aren’t there. “It can be tough,” he says. “Sometimes a lot of what you need in a scene isn’t there, especially with things like creatures or digital characters. What happens is it becomes this interactive process with the visual-effects guys, where you turn it over without the creature in there and then they give you something rough. Then you revise the cut and send it back to them. It just gets refined over time. It’s a lot more difficult than if you just shoot a dramatic scene, as when you watch it that’s how it is. But on these kind of films, there’s almost nothing like that. There’s always greenscreens or things that need to be added. It’s a complication, but you get used to it.” The Last Jedi was actually easier than a lot of his previous films because of the amount of practical sets and effects Johnson and producer Ram Bergman made for the film. Where there would usually be acres and acres of greenscreen (like on Lucas’ prequel trilogy), here there were at least real backgrounds. “There were a surprising number of things that were already in the picture when it was being photographed. That made it better than many films I’ve done.”
One of the many hallmarks of a Star Wars film always happens near the climactic moment, when there is never just one final major action sequence but usually two or often three different ones happening at the same time and being interwoven. Ducsay enjoys cutting those together the most and says each storyline is done first individually before then being synched up with the others. “The reason for that really is a practical one,” he says. “They’re not usually shot in sequence. If you have three stories—A, B and C—you might get B photographed first, so I’ll start putting that together. Then things change as the other sequences start coming in. You’ll plug things in and go, Oh, this transition I thought was going to work doesn’t work because this was photographed differently. Then you have to change it. It’s a constant reworking as film keeps rolling in, but it all works out in the end.”
Ducsay’s best work in the film comes near its conclusion, when he cuts back and forth between—don’t worry, no spoilers here for those who haven’t seen the film—Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) as he gives a speech about her powers. If you’ve seen the film, you know the moment. It’s a match cut that goes from a close-up of Luke, the hero of the franchise for the past 40 years, to a close-up of Rey, the hopeful hero for the next generation of films. And the moment was planned long before cameras even rolled. “It was storyboarded to look that way,” Ducsay says. “We cut together storyboards and put sound effects and music underneath it to try and make some guess as to how a moment like this might go together. Sometimes when you design a sequence like that, not everything goes together exactly like you thought and ends up being radically different than what was originally intended. But that one came out exactly how we wanted it to look.”
He points out a surprising scene in one of the toughest sequences to craft. There’s a moment Rey has on Ahch-To—the planet on which she finds Luke hiding—where she descends into a cave to face the dark side of the Force. There she comes to a mirror-maze type sequence that lets her view hundreds, if not thousands, of reflections of herself. It’s not a scene one would expect an editor to see as being particularly troublesome, but the nature of the scene and how it came together brought some unique trials. “There were a number of things that weren’t quite worked out during the filming of that sequence,” he says. “I know it doesn’t necessarily look like it would be a complicated thing, but because the visual effects have such a big impact on how it ended up looking, that was something we were developing well into postproduction.” The scene is a good example of how many departments Ducsay is involved with on his way to a film’s final cut. “Everything sort of ends up going through my hands on postproduction. There were issues with the visual effects, and it took a long time to develop. Because of that, it impacted how the scene cut together. There are a couple shots we even added in post.” He calls attention to the audio in that scene—no music, just spare, echoing effects from sound designer Ren Klyce. “Sound is very interactive with my job and something I put a lot of time into. Ren started off with what we had, and then his sound took everything in a whole new direction. So we went back and forth a lot on how that scene would work.”
Much is being made of The Last Jedi’s running time. At 2 hours and 34 minutes, it’s the longest of the nine films in the Star Wars canon. Yet Ducsay’s first cut was even longer than that, at over three hours. Chopping that much out of a film inevitably leads to scenes being lost, to any filmmaker’s dismay. He points to one in particular that had to be excised that had to do with an unpleasant encounter Rey has with the caretakers of Ahch-To. “It’s quite an elaborate scene and really wonderful, and it’s sad it’s not in the movie,” Ducsay says. “It wasn’t really a time issue since the scene was only two and a half minutes or something like that, and it’s very, very good. Ultimately, we thought we were onscreen with the Luke and Rey story too long and needed to get back to the other storylines.” The good news for Last Jedi completists: He has been assured it will be on the Blu-ray release of the film in 2018. “When you see it, you can check my work and see if I was telling the truth.”