By Mel Lambert
For seasoned picture editor Joe Walker, ACE, his work with directors Denis Villeneuve and Steve McQueen might best be described as “three times a charm.” His trio of successes with Villeneuve include the drug enforcement drama Sicario, the alien visitor film Arrival and the much-anticipated, upcoming sci-fi drama Blade Runner 2049, which is currently in post. His three films with McQueen include Hunger, Shame and the 2014 Oscar-winner for Best Picture 12 Years a Slave, which earned Walker a nomination for his editing work.
In addition, he has worked on a broad array of films, ranging from director Michael Mann’s cyber thriller Blackhat to writer/director Rupert Wyatt’s The Escapist to director Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown to writer/director Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock, which is a reworking of the Graham Greene classic.
We are currently in midst of awards season, and recently Paramount’s Arrival received eight Oscar noms, including Best Director and a Best Editing nod for Walker. The film was also nominated for nine BAFTA Award nominations, including Best Picture Editing, Best Director and Best Film. It has also been nominated for an American Cinema Editors Eddie in the Best Edited Feature Film — Dramatic category. (Read our interview with director Denis Villeneuve here.)
“My approach to all the films I have edited is to find the basic ‘rhythm’ of a scene,” Walker concedes. His background as a sound designer and composer enhance those sensibilities, in terms of internal pacing, beat and dramatic pulse.
The editor’s path toward Villeneuve began at a 2010 screening of Incendies in his native London. ”I was blown away and set my heart on working with this director. That same heart was beating out of my chest a few years later watching 2014’s Prisoners. While finishing Michael Mann’s Blackhat in 2015, my agent got me into the room with Denis for Sicario, which had a very solid script. That evolution felt like it was going in the right direction for me. Cinematographer Roger Deakins produced stunning work — he’s also cinematographer on Blade Runner 2049.” (Deakins was nominated for both Oscar and BAFTA Awards for Sicario.)
For Arrival, Walker’s biggest challenge was reconciling the two parallel worlds that existed within the evolving dramatic arcs. While several alien spacecraft land around the world, a linguistics expert (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to determine whether they come in peace. “On the one hand we have the natural setting of the mother/daughter relationship, with beautiful, intimate material shot by a lakeside near Montreal, and the narrative content on a far lower gas,” explains Walker. “That’s pitted against the high-tech world of space ships as we learn more about the alien visitors and the psychological task faced as the lead character tries to decode their complex written language. Without CGI visuals of the Heptapods — the multi-limb visitors — I had to make early decisions about what space to leave in a scene for their eventual movements. From what was shot on set, all we had were puppeteers holding tennis balls on a stick.”
Walker saw every Arrival daily and started his cut early. “We had to turn over the Heptapod sequences to Montreal VFX house Hybride almost as soon as the director’s cut began,” he says. “And because, for me, sound always drives a lot of what I do, I brought on creature sound designer Dave Whitehead ahead of the game. I’d been impressed by Dave’s work on [Neill Blomkamp’s] District 9. I needed to know what type of sounds would be used for the aliens, and cut accordingly. He developed a coherent language with an inbuilt syntax and really nailed the ‘character’ of the Heptapods. I laid up his sounds onto tracks in my Avid Media Composer and they stayed pretty much unchanged all the way through post.”
In terms of pace and narrative arcs, Walker states that director Villeneuve “chose to starve the audience of information and just offer intriguing nuggets, teasing out the suspense and keeping them waiting for the pay off. For example, on one scene we hold on Amy Adams’ face watching the breaking news on the TV rather than the TV show itself,” which was reporting the mysterious spacecraft touching down in 12 cities. “Forest Whitaker [US Army Colonel Weber] plays our first audio of the Heptapods on a Dictaphone and it stimulates such curiosity about how they may look or behave. We avoided any pressure of cutting for the sake of cutting. Instead, we stayed on a shot, let it play and did not do all the thinking for the audience. While editing 12 Years a Slave, we stay on the hanging scene and don’t cut away. There’s no relief, it allows the audience to be truly troubled by the horrible inertia of the scene.”
Again, the word “rhythm” figures prominently within Walker’s creative vocabulary. “I always try to find the rhythm of a scene — one that works with the sounds and music elements. For Sicario, I developed peaks and troughs in the dramatic flow that supported different points of view” as the audience slowly begins to understand the complexity of the drug enforcement campaign. “Bad sound disturbs me, including distorted or widely variable dialogue levels. I always work hard to get the best out of the production tracks, perhaps more than I really have time for.
“With both Steve McQueen and Denis Villeneuve, I’ve always tried to avoid using music temp tracks, so that we do not become too influenced during the editing process,” he continues. “By holding off until we’re late into a final cut, we can stay critical in our judgments about the story and characters. When brought in later, music becomes a huge bonus since you’ve already been ruthless with the story. You use music only where it’s absolutely necessary, allowing silence or sound effects to have their day. I think composers want the freedom of a blank canvas. Otherwise, as the English composer Matthew Herbert once said, ‘Music is in an abusive relationship with film.’”
Changing Direction During Edit
While cutting Arrival, Walker recalls that one key scene took a dramatic left turn. “As scripted and shot,” he explains, “the nightmare sequence started out as a normal scene in which Amy Adams’ character, Louise, is visited in her quarters by colleague Ian [Jeremy Renner] and her boss, Colonel Webber, who decides to bench her. This was the beginning of a long piece of story tubing, which felt redundant. We’d tried to discard it, but the scene had an essential piece of information that we couldn’t live without: the notion that exposure to a language can rewire your mind.
“We thought about conveying that information elsewhere as voiceover or ADR, but instead, as an experiment, we strung together very crudely only the pieces we needed, thereby creating at one point a jarring join between one line of Ian’s dialogue and another. I always try to be ballsy with material, to stay on it with confidence or maul it, to tell the story a better way.”
In that pivotal scene in Arrival, during a close-up, Adams’ character is looking off-camera toward Whitaker. “But we never cut to him because it would take us down the path we wanted to avoid,” explains Walker. “As it happened, that same day in the cutting room, we saw the first test shots from Hybride’s VFX team of an alien crawling forward, looking like an elephant shrouded in mist. That first look inspired our decision to hold onto Adams’ off-camera look for as long as we could, and then — instead of going to a matching reverse revealing Forest Whitaker — we cut to this huge alien crouching in the corner of her bedroom.
“The scene was rounded off by a shot of Amy’s character waking up and looking utterly thrown. We kept the jarring cut [from Ian and then back to him], and added the incongruous sound of a canary, since it signaled early on that all is not as it seems. A nightmare was a great way to get inside Louise’s head. Ian’s presence in her dream also platforms their romance, which enters so late in the story. Normally, returning material to a cut can feel like putting wet swimming trunks back on, but here it set our minds alight.”
Adams’ performance throughout Arrival was thrilling to cut, says Walker. “She is very real in every take and always true to character, keeping her performance at just the right temperature for each scene. Every nuance counts, particularly in a film that has to hold up to scrutiny on a second or third viewing when more is understood about the true nature of things. To hold the audience’s attention in a scene, an editor’s craft involves a balance between time and tension.”
Walker says, “Time is our superpower since we can slow a moment down, speed it up or jump from one shard of a timeline to another. In Arrival we had two parallel worlds: the real-life world of the army camp with all the news on TVs and heavy technology. In opposition is the child’s world of caterpillars and nature. I could cut those together at will and flip quickly from one to the other.”
Walker says that after the 10-week shoot for Arrival, he spent a week finalizing his editor’s cut and then 10 to 14 weeks on the director’s cut with basic CGI. “We then went through test screenings as the final photorealistic CGI elements slowly took shape,” he recalls. “We refined the film’s overall pace and rhythm and made sure that each tiny fragment of this fantastic puzzle was told as well as we could. I consider the result to be really one of the most successful edits I have been involved with.”
Main Image: Joe Walker and Denis Villeneuve. Photo Credit Javier Marcheselli.