Throughout his career, editor Joe Walker has worked with some of the most critically lauded and commercially successful directors in the business—among them, Michael Mann and Steve McQueen. Walker was Oscar-nominated for his editing of 12 Years a Slave, and after developing a working relationship on three films with McQueen, has begun to work consistently with French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies). Following Sicario, Walker signed on to Villeneuve’s Story of Your Life, a very different tale involving Amy Adams and aliens. Here, Walker discusses his creative process, cutting without sound and what we can expect from Story of Your Life.
What attracted you to this project?
The first thing was Denis’ work from before. I was a big fan of a film of his called Incendies, which is a superb film if people haven’t seen that—a really epic tale. And then Prisoners I saw with my daughter; an Oscar screener came along and we just sat there thinking we were going to have a heart attack. (Laughs.) And when my agent asked me who I wanted to work with next, I said, “That guy.” But the project came up and I managed to get into a room with him. Sicario is a little bit like Prisoners in some way; I’m really attracted to that idea of, how far do you go to the dark side for good reasons? There’s an element of that, and it felt authentic. The more I read in the papers, the more I think that maybe the world really works like that. It’s covert ops that achieve things, not necessarily troop deployments or bombing raids. I think it’s probably somebody cutting the head off a chicken in Mexico that’s more likely to change an event, good or bad, but those are the agents of change, I think, these days.
How long was your editing process on the film?
They were shooting in New Mexico and we were cutting in Los Angeles. It was quite a short schedule. Denis was in touch pretty much every week. I would send him cuts, he’d look at them late at night, and then we had a few discussions about little changes. Then I joined him in Montreal—Denis is French-Canadian and lives in Québec. So we came up here at this time last year and had a normal 10-week edit and showed it to the producers. We had really successful preview screenings, and off it went. I think the great benefit in the editing room was that maybe for the type of movie it is, the budget was a little under, so they really didn’t shoot anything spare. They were very, very organized about sequence building and what shots they needed. I’d look at a bin that I’d been cutting from and at most there’d be one shot that I didn’t use, or one set-up that was spare, and even then they knew it was spare. But it was a luxury, really, because you could concentrate on getting the story absolutely right and really into the subtle nuances of what makes that story tick, and making the edit very rhythmic and muscular and precise.
You spoke to the limited budget of the film, which is unusual for its scope. But does that bare-bones style also speak to Denis’ style, compared to that of the other filmmakers you’ve worked with?
Yeah, I mean (cinematographer) Roger (Deakins) and Denis—I can see it in action now, because they’re preparing Blade Runner with a storyboard artist, and they really work on concepts and investigate that world and collaborate so beautifully, in terms of how things end up. Roger’s just incredibly precise as cameramen go. I’ve worked with Sean Bobbitt—he’s a master of handheld, and the magic happening within one shot and long extended takes, and it’s a sort of a different preoccupation. With Michael Mann, he will tend to have three or four cameras and different types of cameras doing different things. He’ll cover the thing; it’s quite a majestic dancing, how he covers these scenes, but it will mean a lot of options and sometimes you’re deciding between something that’s 0.001% better than the other.
I don’t want to make comparisons between the directors I’ve worked with because, thank God, they’re all very different and I’ve learned a lot from each of them. I love the eccentricities in their ways of doing things. With Sicario, it was much more about managing the tension of the story. I suppose because of my work with Steve McQueen, I’m sort of best known for holding shots longer—not being afraid to hold things longer and wringing some tension out of that. There’s a good example in Sicario where the troops go down the hill into the darkness, and I held that shot for ages. In the film, where things can come at you so quickly—like they did at the beginning of the film, and you have shot tactics sort of established early—it means those long shots can be very, very tense because you just don’t know what’s going to come at you.
How did you supplement that tension and find the rhythm of the film, which vacillates quickly between moments of extreme tension and moments of expectant silence, on a sonic and visual level?
I come from a sound background—I was trained as a classical composer, so I’m very into that and I think, in a funny way, I’m a composer that just walked down the wrong corridor one day and ended up in the cutting room. (Laughs.) But I still deal with (sound elements). For example, in Sicario we went to huge lengths—we wrote and recorded thousands of walkie-talkie sounds with a lot of research—that went into making sure we used the right language and just constantly peppered the journey to Juarez and back. It’s using dialogue almost as a sound effect, and then there’s the rhythm of things like a dog barking. Roger gave me this fantastic shot during this tense standoff on the bridge, where you dolly across to a dog barking out the window of a car at just the right point in the sequence when everything’s in place and it’s just a moment of waiting for somebody to make the first move. So that’s a little bit of a Sergio Leone-kind of thing, but generally in the whole film, the sound was really important. One of the ways that it was achieved was actually by cutting a lot of the film silent—turning the speakers off and trying to get the visual rhythm absolutely right, like, ‘Can we tell the story like a silent movie?’ It helps that the dialogue was quite sparse.
I’d heard mixed things about this: You were given finished pieces by composer Johann Johannsson rather than using a temp score, but you cut the film without music. Is this true?
I’ve worked on films in the past that are similar in nature, with a mixture of drama and action, and sometimes I think a really bad way to go in those edits is to use loads of temp tracks, and then there’s some doubt sometimes whether it’s your film and the narrative that’s driving the pace of the film, or whether it’s John Williams on your temp track. (Laughs.) Music is a very helpful tool, of course, when you’re doing your temp cut, but on this one, I said to Denis really early on, ‘Let’s try to do this without music.’ It also was partly to give Johann a completely clean slate to work with.
For example, I’d cut a sequence of helicopter shots where you go from little neat suburban El Paso houses, all with little swimming pools, and then you cross into the desert and approach the border. You follow the wall and the fence, and then you come up over the fence and you rise up over the hill and see this sprawling ugly mass in the background of Juarez. All that I had on the original track was this long sound effect I’d gotten of a helicopter—it was the longest approach and pass you’d ever heard in a sound effect. (Laughs.) That was what (Johann) had on his soundtrack, and he sent back this phenomenal piece: a lurching, imperial march. It’s got this crashing, distorted drum track. So we ended up with something that we could loop and edit.
He very generously gave us separate layers so we could re-edit and re-compose. And it sort of became this thing where, he’d go five steps forward, and simultaneously we went five steps forward, and we had a checkerboard between the two of us and ended up developing the whole score hand in hand. But the fact that we gave him a completely blank slate, I think, is part of the reason why you have a really original soundtrack.
What was the toughest scene to edit?
Probably the night-vision sequence. They shot such amazing stuff, so I can’t take any glory away from the way that they planned that scene. But we added lots of layers to that, not just with sound, but with things like the drone shots, which are kind of manufactured in post. We took some existing helicopter footage and adapted it and sort of built our own, just to have a sense of modern warfare about it. I think that went with the general vibe—that scene is sort of like a first-person shooter game, sort of following behind somebody. To add drones felt like it added a modern component, and building the soundtrack and the rhythm of those things… Denis and Roger had an incredibly strong plan of how to shoot that scene, and I’ve got to tell you, I took great delight in subverting their plan with my plan. (Laughs.) It was almost like a matter of honor that I would find another way of doing it, because they’re presenting you with something so solid, and it was just a bit of a joy to say, “Well, I know that you planned it, but what about this?” It’s a little competitive with me, I’m afraid, but anyway, what the hell?
Are you interested in working on the Sicario sequel, or has it been discussed?
I’m rather thrilled that they’re making a Sicario sequel. We had a joke—Denis’ daughter is in the film, she plays a maid who’s in the house when the bad guy and his family get wiped out—and we have a bit of a joke that his daughter could come back and we could start Sicario 2 with the maid and we could call it The Revenge of Fausto’s Mind. (Laughs.) But I’d happily work on a second Sicario, of course, if they get my rate right. (Laughs.)
Before I started recording the conversation, you said something great, which was, “It’s not every day that you get to be inventing a new lifeform.” What can you tell us about Story of Your Life, Villeneuve’s next that you also are editing?
It’s a big departure from Sicario, and I suppose it’s in the trajectory moving forward—he’s doing a very, very big sci-fi film next, which is Blade Runner 2. So we’re in the middle, but this is an amazing piece. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to tell you, but it’s Amy Adams and aliens, and it’s not often you say those words together. It all seems to be very hushed up. It’s from a short story that is really great, and we’re about halfway through our final cut. We had a day yesterday, which was just superbly inspiring. Some VFX work came in, and we had a good look at the aliens and where they’re at in the development process at the moment, and we were just dancing around with excitement because it’s really going well. I think it’s going to be phenomenal.
To see a clip from the border crossing scene in Sicario, click play below: