Catching up with EVERYTHING EVERWHERE ALL AT ONCE's Zoe Mao and Aashish D'Mello
Assistant Editors Zoe Mao and Aashish D’Mello (both AFI Class of 2017) landed their dream jobs working on EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, the sleeper hit that has gone on to garner 11 Academy Award® nominations and gross over $100 million worldwide. The much-celebrated film has been hailed as a major technical achievement in editing that pushes the boundaries of visual and kinetic storytelling.
We spoke with Zoe and Aashish about what they learned collaborating on the ambitious film, how Assistant Editing is an essential part of the process and how their time at the AFI Conservatory helped them evolve as editors.
AFI: What led you to first connect with editor Paul Rogers and the team behind EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE?
Zoe: I worked with another AFI Alum, Cyndi Trissel, on MARVELOUS AND THE BLACK HOLE and, because of that film, I was able to get into the union. Literally the day after I was accepted into the union, I got an email from Tony Tong from the Sony Digital Arts Center at AFI saying there’s a feature, which turned out to be EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, looking for Chinese-speaking Assistant Editors who are in the union.
Aashish: Zoe joined the project first and then she reached out to me after a couple of months when the production was in the early stages of planning their visual effects and needed another Assistant Editor to help with some of the regular tasks and predominantly to wrangle VFX. We had duties ranging from simple fixes like taking out a boom mic or stitching two shots together, to the bagel in the movie that they had to dress up in VFX with all the crazy elements. A lot of my job was essentially keeping track of the edit and how the visual effects evolved and then coordinating with the VFX team.
AFI: What were some of the challenges you two faced while working together with Paul on the film?
Zoe: When I first read the script, it was hard to imagine what the film was going to look like, but I did have a feeling that there was going to be a lot of footage. The first challenge was helping Paul with the dailies and familiarizing myself with all the footage as quickly as possible. Communication with him was really important because we were on a tight timeline. Paul would go to set to talk to the Daniels, and I would listen to him and what scenes he wanted me to prioritize, so that I could prep them and make sure that he had the material he needed. I created multiple sequences arranged by universe and by each character, and I would also highlight the takes that the Daniels liked best on set.
Aashish: The most challenging sequence for me to work on was just before the rock universe when we see Evelyn flash through all those universes. I think it’s like a minute-long crazy montage where Evelyn is basically everywhere and in every universe. From a VFX standpoint and from a purely editorial standpoint as well, it was very challenging because we had roughly 100 backgrounds that we had to composite Evelyn’s face onto. That list of different backgrounds was constantly changing, so updating that background list and getting those changes incorporated in editorial and VFX and keeping everyone in sync, that was one of the most challenging parts of the job.
AFI: How did you help Paul make sure that the comedy was balanced with the more dramatic scenes between Evelyn and Joy/Jobu throughout the film?
Zoe: I remember the first preview was a very interesting experience. Based on people’s expressions, we could see what scenes were working and what scenes weren’t working. Overall, the humor was there from the very beginning, but to balance the emotions, what we realized is that the character of Joy/Jobu wasn’t really cared about by audiences at the very beginning because we didn’t do enough digging into her in the first act. We had connections with Evelyn, but we actually didn’t have that much of a connection with Joy/Jobu, so the opening changed a lot. We switched takes, switched performances, to strengthen that bond.
Aashish: In terms of balancing the comedy and drama, I think a lot of it was mapped out in the script, which was surprisingly detailed. It was a pretty solid blueprint for everything. Sometimes Paul would say, “Daniel Scheinert is going to take this sequence and do something crazy with it, and then we’ll either incorporate it in the cut or make adjustments.” I think the combination of Paul, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who all brought different things to the table, was a big part of how we were able to achieve the right balance.
AFI: As Assistant Editors, what did you take away, either technically or creatively, from working on the production?
Zoe: I think doing assistant editing work is really important for anybody who wants to become an editor. A lot of people think it’s tedious because we’re dealing with a lot of prepping footage and doing exports, but if you think about it, it also helps you to know the software – to get really good at using Avid and Premiere, which will benefit you in the long-term when you start editing. The other important aspect is that you have the opportunity to observe how editors do the job. Being a good editor comes in two parts – one is your own talent and the other is experience. The more you cut, the better you’ll be. I learned a lot from Paul and other editors by simply watching their process. Sometimes they would give me scenes to cut, and I’d compare my own work to what they did. This whole process is another way for you to become a better editor.
Aashish: Technically speaking, there was a lot of things that I discovered on this project. We had to find a lot of workarounds and were doing tons of speed changes throughout the film, a lot of zooming in and out. Some of these shots were in camera, but a lot of them were in the edit, so we would have a crazy amount of key frames in Premiere Pro that we would have to handle along with a lot of speed changes. Sometimes we would have glitches with the software because we were pushing it so hard. I don’t think it was designed to do that, but Zoe and I were both able to find quick solutions.
AFI: After the incredible journey you went through, how does it feel for the film to receive such acclaim and accolades, including 11 Oscar® nominations and one for Best Editing?
Zoe: It’s so surprising and so incredible all at the same time. I don’t think I expected this much success while we were working on it because it was so just hectic. I was really focused on making sure the film could be finished. But now seeing the film play on the big screen and people love it so much, it’s so incredible. I really appreciate how much love everyone has given us, and I really hope this film healed a lot of people and also inspired a lot of filmmakers.
Aashish: I don’t think most of us expected it to blow up so much. We all knew that it was good, but we were wondering after a certain point, is it just us? Is it too weird or too crazy for a general audience? Last year when it came out, the reception was huge. But when the whole awards buzz started, that was another thing altogether. It was cool to see something that we’d worked on for so long come out. By that point, we had taken a step back from it, and then we got to experience it as an audience member, which was really nice.
AFI: How did your experience working on films at AFI influence you as editors and have you received any advice that has stayed with you as you’ve progressed in your careers?
Zoe: In terms of training, I am really grateful for AFI and the education I received, from learning the technical aspects of editing to the actual narrative storytelling perspective. AFI made me very confident and know that I have the tools to work on other projects. The best advice I received that really helped me was to be patient. We all want to achieve success quickly. But things take time. I would tell anyone who is just starting out to be patient. Focus on what you’re doing right now, and everything will work out. No need to think too far ahead. Don’t try to force things to happen. Just be patient, follow the flow and it will happen.
Aashish: One of the most important things I learned at AFI was how to work with a variety of genres and different kinds of footage. Since AFI, I’ve edited and assisted on multiple films. I’ve worked on features, shorts and TV series, so the training at AFI definitely gave me the versatility to edit different projects. Working on AFI films, there’s a really good mix of technical and creative skills you’re learning. Using Avid on our cycle and thesis films, and on everything after that, it’s taught us to solve a lot of problems as an Assistant Editor, as well as an editor. My advice is just to be open to fixing problems. As an editor, our job is to always serve the greater vision, so no matter how crazy things get, we have to keep our eye on the end goal, which is just to do the best job we can to make the best film that we can make.