Readers who follow Art of the Cut will be familiar with Joe Walker, ACE. I originally talked to Walker after his nomination for the Best Editing Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. Then again for a film many Art of the Cut interviewees have called out for its exceptional editorial artistry, Sicario (nominated for an Eddie for dramatic film). Now, Walker teams with Denis Villeneuve again for Arrival. Before these three films, Walker’s filmography included, Blackhat, Shame, Life in a Day, and Hunger, among others.
HULLFISH: I saw Arrival yesterday and I have to say that the storytelling was so rich that I really want to see it again.
WALKER: The producers will be delighted to hear that. It’s an intriguing film to watch again. I always found the plumbing of this story interesting: the way it’s structured. How’s your film going, Steve? Are you in the thick of it?
HULLFISH: Yeah I’m in the thick of it. I was just talking to Hughes Winborne (Crash) who cut Fences because an actor that’s in Fences is also in the film that I’m cutting now. I also just interviewed William Goldenberg (Argo), and he’s worked with this same actor: Mykelti Williamson. So my six degrees of separation with famous editors narrows.
WALKER: I’ve got to say I’ve been super lucky in these last three films of Denis’s. With Amy’s performance, what I find remarkable is that not one take has any trace of fake. There’s magic every time the camera turns over. She’s not like the character in real life as far as I can tell. In every shot she’s always present and invested and it always feels fresh and spontaneous. Technically very precise too.
HULLFISH: Could you describe that technical precision you’re talking about? Is it that they do the same actions over and over again in the same way or that they have a very specific character that they’re always in. What do you mean by technical precision?
WALKER: Well, she makes continuity look very easy, but I mean her control over the character through expression and voice, there’s a finely tuned character GPS at every point in the story, particularly in this film where the timeline is so kaleidoscopic. For example: when she’s talking to her mother on the phone and she gives the impression that she’s fine, you know she’s not. We all think that’s related to the opening scenes we have seen but it also has to work in retrospect after more is known about the situation.
She controls all this across a shoot lasting many months. She’s in exactly the right place, at the right temperature all the time. To have these scenes cut together that were shot 10 weeks apart – it’s just remarkable. Denis has a great body of work featuring strong female leads so Amy was in the hands of a highly intelligent director with few obstacles in the way of what I’m sure she really loves doing. Jeremy’s part was comparatively spare compared to hers, but he was solidly there to support her, fully committed and bringing his own great flavour. A lot of actors might not be so ready to do such a support role. Actually, we amplified his role in post, we wrote him a sequence about heptapod science and in ADR, we gave him our one swear word in the film, he deserved that honour.
HULLFISH:. I’ve talked to a couple of editors about people who are really good at bracketing their performances but that’s kind of the opposite of what you’re talking about, right? She brackets herself. She knows the temperature that’s needed at any given time, so she doesn’t give you a half dozen different choices. She gives you one choice. Or is that not it?
WALKER: Denis doesn’t shoot that many takes, five or six at the most. One of the moments on Sicario where I really saw his caliber was on a relatively minor thing – they were recording a wildtrack for Manuel Diaz, saying “this motherfucker,” I could hear Denis’ voice in between three deliveries of the line just prompting the actor with such smart suggestions, like “Through clenched teeth!” Simple, practical and to the point. You could hear each take just getting more character. I’ve heard Amy speak warmly of Denis in interviews.
HELLISH: And did hearing his direction also help you choose a performance because you could hear what he’s wanted and what he didn’t like?
WALKER: Well watching dailies is always in large dose a case of mind-reading, trying to figure out why they went again. It’s hard to say this without sounding incredibly egotistical but Denis always tells me that when we investigate alternate takes to the ones I’ve used, he always finds that I’ve picked the one he would. I think that all of us in filmmaking are much more alike than we are dissimilar. People often ask me to compare Steve (McQueen) with Denis (Villeneuve) and they really have so many similarities, especially in the editing room. They both talk to me in the way that they talk to an actor. They won’t tell somebody how to say a line but they might have a provocation or thought bomb that they drop into the conversation and you are allowed to kind of keep ownership of what you do by finding your own path to addressing that note.
But rifling through performances was the much smaller task on Arrival, we had more fundamental work to do to make the plot tick and make sure the audience got things and that moments landed. We changed a lot. Editing is the culmination of everyone’s hard work: camera work, performance, the music, script. But my allegiance is to the film, not to any single shot or line of dialogue.
We had all that material by the lakeside of the child’s life that could really go into the film in pretty much any order. It was beautiful stuff, Bradford Young’s colour and focus and the intimacy of the shots are amazing. There were a few set pieces that were intended for certain places like the discussion of ‘non-zero sum game’. That was as scripted. But a shot of a horse out of focus with the child looking on, an encounter very similar to standing in front of a heptapod for the first time, or like the shot of the twig that looks like a heptapod’s leg scraping the surface of the water – they didn’t really have much in the way of narrative drive by themselves, so they could go anywhere.Another freedom was that every single TV or computer screen – and there are thousands of them – was shot as a green screen, so we had to construct news reports and archive to convey this idea that the world is descending into some sort of paranoia and instability. All of that was very free, but it took time – picking archive, writing news reports, filming presenters, creating graphics.
And of course we had empty space where the aliens were going to be – two of the main characters were completely missing from the dailies. On set they had someone holding a tennis ball to show where the eyeline should be – puppeteers, dressed in green latex (never a good look). So there was just enormous scope to change things and tweak the story as we went along.
HULLFISH: People say that when you have limitations it makes art easier in a way. People think it’s harder, but to have that kind of freedom is actually very difficult.
WALKER: Well we benefitted from the dollars available to be able to say very late in the process “we never see them arrive, let’s see the spaceships disappear at the end of the film.” It was reassuring to have our VFX supervisor Louis Morin telling us “Anything is possible.” But yes, limitations are stimulating also, without them no ‘A bout de souffle,’ no jump cuts.
HULLFISH: You’re going to have to explain that reference to me.
WALKER: Sorry, yes, just a bit of film school nerdism. I’m thinking of Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle which effectively put the jump cut on the editing map. I’m taken with the fact that, depending on which story you choose to believe, he used jump cuts either because he had to cut the film down drastically after the print had been struck, or that he didn’t have the money to film reverses on set.
HULLFISH: How did you even organize all of the Flashback/flashforward material? I mean for my movie, it’s very easy for me in a way because everything in scene 15 is in the scene 15 bin. You open it up and you’ve got eight shots and you know, “OK this is this is my sandbox.” But for you, scene 15 might have pulled from all this other information from Louise’s life with her child. So how did you organize that?
WALKER: There was a folder for that material, broken down into bins based mostly on location or activity. I had a good memory of the material. I’d watched everything several times over and played around with it in different combinations and shapes and there were always clear hero shots right from the outset. There was just tremendous potential to create something poetic and lyrical out of this material and it’s just following your gut for what shot should be next, which shots should contrast with each other – sometimes using music or alternatively sometimes turning all the sound off and just letting things work as a silent movie. We spent a long time editing Arrival. It was nearly a year to get through VFX and sound.
HULLFISH: What was that schedule like?
WALKER: It was tough for the task – you’re inevitably turning over vfx shots from a cut that isn’t yet robust. The shoot was for 12 weeks from June 2015 and I dropped in the final VFX shot 53 weeks later in June 2016.
HULLFISH: How much was Louise’s life compressed in editing compared to the script at the top of the movie. What were the challenges with getting that to the point you got it to. The beginning of the movie starts with what you’re thinking of as flashback and obviously you’re trying to get through an entire life almost in a few minutes. How closely did that play to the script?
WALKER: The opening was always meant to be brief and to the point, there’s a lot to get on with.
HULLFISH: What were the challenges with the exposition that was at the beginning of the film? Trying to kind of explain what was happening around the world and getting on with the part of the story that we all want to see … but first you have to explain the world we’re in.
WALKER: There are two worlds, really. The choice was to take our time to show how at odds Louise would be with the military environment. For example, all the ‘flashback’ footage of Louise and her daughter at her lakeside home has no screens – whereas the military base is a dominated by them, even the observation room where we meet the heptapods is one giant cinema screen.
Denis’s choice was to withhold a lot of information in the opening reel, so you’ve done no more than glimpse the shells (shell is the description of the alien spacecraft) through news reports. We put them in peripheral vision: like the one in the lecture hall where for the most part you are only hearing and imagining what the shells look like because we play the scene on Louise’s face. Back home, Louise scrolls through news channels, yet we dwell more on the eeriness of the space outside her house, emphasizing her vulnerability. Then we only hear a fragment of the aliens’ voices in Weber’s recording, so by now we’re all gasping to actually see what they look like. On the recording we convey that there’s no “question and answer rhythm” with the first person to interview the aliens. It’s adrift and clear they don’t understand each other. So you lay out what Louise’s task is and how challenging that is, by use of editing rhythm. We felt we could tease all these moments out, and stimulate a lot of imagination. I really think the exposition in this opening reel is delivered in a grown-up way.
The film involves a change of perception towards its climax, so a lot of the process of shaping the exposition was adapting things so that the wall that you build was not too solid you couldn’t kick it down later. For example Louise used to walk into an empty spare bedroom, a rather beautifully bleak shot in context, but it felt like that was a little bit of a cheat, it’s just a spare room. We cut that.
HULLFISH: Talk about the sound design. It’s obviously critical in this movie. Let’s talk about the language of the aliens, but also the aural environment that assaults Louise as she enters this military environment.
WALKER: We started very early thinking about sound in the cutting room. I remembered how impressed I was by the alien noises in ‘District Nine,’ created by a couple in New Zealand, Dave Whitehead and Michele Child, they are the experts. Dave and Michele work everything out as a complete, coherent language made of many tiny complex recordings.
We hired them very early because we needed sound to help time the interactions. All I had was a blank screen to work with, but a lots of hunches, such as the first view of the alien’s hand on the glass should last this long. We were so delighted with the work they did that their sounds sailed through the process without change. We thinned some sections out in the later stages but hardly at all. It was so coherent that you could barely alter it. Like extracting syllables from a sentence, it doesn’t make sense anymore.
The other thing that we developed, me and Javier : on Sicario we were making dozens of temporary recordings onto a Zoom recorder to throw into the cut to help get a grip on timing. So we’d record lots of RT voices (radio transmission), or things like loudhailer voices. John Sylva our post co-ord must have read about a hundred versions of each news report at some stage. We had the same thing in Arrival that when Amy is stuck in this clumsy HASMAT suit, she’s listening to a whole world of military communications and that sort of adds to her claustrophobia. Sylvain Bellemare, the brilliant Montreal-based sound designer, had this idea that when they go into the shell something strange should happen to the radio transmission itself, something to do with time.
Everybody’s communicating to the unit base which is less than half a mile away but something warps audio as it passes into the shell. Many ingredients were already at play in my cut, but I have to say Sylvain and Bernard Strobl the mixer took them to a whole new level. They built a huge rig to re-record dialogue through practical real speakers such as headphones or dictaphones or car radios – this huge array of different sounds sources in a wonderful Heath Robinson setup in a booth in Montreal. With all the hundreds of lines recorded in ADR loop group, it was a monumental effort to process them this way but it gives you a really dense, rich, authentic audio landscape all the time. Sylvain also brought to the table fantastic foley recorded in Paris and those sounds, made from rock and ice, he used for the moving shell. Everything made from natural sounds, nothing synthesized, which fitted Denis’ concept brilliantly. I’m particularly fond of the wind fx he put in underneath the shell, it’s the most avant-garde wind I’ve heard, and again, totally natural.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about the transformation of Louise from when she first sees the alien ship to when she kind of starts to make a breakthrough with them. You needed to take her from one state to another.
WALKER: At the beginning she’s super vulnerable. We were always trying to push her point of view. She’s the person who’s going to take your hand through this journey and it’s really her story. It wasn’t a strict viewpoint. I mean it was more strict in Sicario where we were careful not to wander from Kate’s point of view until it fractures and flips kaleidoscopically into Alejandro’s point of view as he goes on a killing spree. In Arrival it’s less strict but we were still trying to create an attachment to her. That’s often done with sound – for example in the noisy helicopter she can’t hear Ian until she puts her headset on, and in much of the HASMAT suit sequence you hear only what she would hear.
The moment she takes her HASMAT suit off, it enables her to get closer to the heptapods and that’s when flashes of the child start to take purchase, we gradually increase them in frequency from that point. At first these flashes of Louise’s have little in the way of accompanying sound – like the lovely sequence of them when she’s in her office dividing a logogram up with a ruler. We only reveal sound on the last flash, a quick ripple of water as the child turns a stone over with her stick. The idea is hopefully bedded that Louise has undergone a change, maybe even been contaminated, opening up a fissure between her and the military who are cautious that she’s risking everyone’s lives – a caution building to fear and then into a bomb plot.
HULLFISH: Talk about building tension – there’s a critical phone call near the end of the movie. The tension of what’s going to happen is really palpable. Talk to me a little bit about how you built that tension and what you were doing during that phone call editorially.
WALKER: The phone call to the Chinese general and the sequence where she meets him at a party were never intended to be cut together. They were scripted as separate scenes. Louise is on an airfield and has a memory of meeting and talking with the General, then she runs off to find a satellite phone to make the call to get her message across to him before soldiers track her down. Our approach to that didn’t solidify until relatively late, a good few weeks after the first audience previews. We wanted to be as tense and uncertain about what she should do as she was, whilst adding in a race against time throughout with Louise being hunted by the soldiers. We were always trying to crack the juxtapostion because the two scenes weren’t really performed to intercut. It was something that just took a while to get right. Glad we did it though – without it, we just felt that the audience kind of knew what was going to happen and the story just played out if not lagged behind them for a while.
HULLFISH: I had no idea that that was not scripted as an intercut scene, it feels so right as an intercut scene.
WALKER: For many weeks, 25 or 26 weeks, they were separate. And to add an appropriate climax to all this tension we added in post the shells’ grand departure, and that huge wall of the TV news reports. None of that was intended.
I’ve progressed to feeling about editing that it’s all just paper you can cut up and move around, like a Victorian toy theatre. Anything to get the story heading to its magnetic north. For a while we were having problems in screenings because, though some of the audience didn’t want to admit it, they just didn’t understand what was going on and it meant they were left cold by the final scene. That’s the great thing about screenings is that you can sort of feel it chemically and it leads to some really decent changes. The intercutting at the end was a response to a sense we got at screenings – not articulated by anyone but ourselves – that we needed to be more fluid and ramp up the tension better at that point.
There’s a big montage in the middle of the film that was another moment of edit room craziness. We had a number of scenes in the shell that were all about scientific exploration, Ian conversing with the heptapods, trying to figure out their science. The idea was that they can’t understand simple concepts but complex ones, they can run with. We had a lot of great scenes that showed this but we needed to landscape it and just kind of keep the main shell scenes with both Ian and Louise special. Denis and I were also both continually re-reading the original short story the movie is based on and wanted to get back some elements of it into the mix. Writing voiceover for Ian we could deploy one of the least Hollywood words I could imagine: “non-semasiographic”. A scripted language that doesn’t represent sounds, it represents thoughts, ideas. Not to be too highbrow, we also wanted to crack a joke about Sheena Easton which I’m stupidly proud of. We probably broke convention a little by putting voiceover on it. But it was too good an opportunity not to spend time with Ian who was the lesser character in the script – we felt we needed to give him and science as much of a role as we could because we were all fascinated by it. I suppose the convention break is that it feels like a documentary.
HULLFISH: So that voice over was written in post?
WALKER: Yeah, I wrote it with Denis. We always knew that somewhere in the film we wanted to see landscapes from around the world, we had all these stunning aerials with nowhere to put them, so the montage was the perfect home. We were constantly trying to include a sense of the outside world and not just in a cheesy ‘spaceship over The Eiffel Tower’ way. That world perspective wasn’t really in the script – apart from meeting the Chinese general in America. There was no material from outside the US so we needed to develop this sense of what was going on round the world.
There’s a scene that I’d really like to talk about because I think it was my favourite moment in the cutting room. It’s the scene where Louise is visited by Ian who asks her if she’s dreaming in the alien language and she’s saying she’s fit for the mission. She looks off screen a lot, very worried, then we cut to a giant heptapod crouching at the foot of her bed and then Louise wakes up. But that was never written as a dream. The original had Weber (Forest Whittaker) at the foot of her bed and it was a whole scene which took us down what we felt was a blind alley. Originally, Weber’s worries about her state of mind forces him to bench her, then that took us through a series of scenes where Ian takes over the mission and fails to get anywhere, before she returns and cracks it. It was all great stuff, but it felt like a classic mid-story lull. It kicked along the story for a few scenes but didn’t have much nutritional value. The only problem with dropping it was that without it, nobody articulates an essential concept which is that exposure to a language can rewire your brain. In the linguistic world it’s called the Sapir Whorf theory, It’s a theory now largely dismissed, I believe – my sister is a linguist and pointed this out – although she accepts that as a bit of set dressing we shouldn’t mind it, since what’s going on in front of the set is as good as it is.
Anyway, without the scene we couldn’t figure another way to incorporate it. We scratched our heads about this for a while, then one day Denis said, let’s pick out the bits we want to keep from the scene, but without going as far as Weber benching Louise. We bashed three shots together, without the slightest care for smoothness – the first shot was the beginning of the conversation on Ian, a beautifully dingy shot, then there was a really ugly jump cut to a similar shot of Ian with his head in a completely different position. Boom. Then Louise’s close up, where she’s fielding Ian’s questions while displaying a lot of anxiety, Weber offscreen and looming above her, we hold it long enough to really start to wonder when we’re going to see which authority figure she’s talking to. The day we worked on this happened to be the same day we received our first animation walk test of a heptapod moving through mist. So Denis had the bright spark of not cutting to Weber at all, but incongruously to this fabulous creature hovering at the back of her bedroom, pushing against the venetian blinds.
We added some sound design, a threatening tone and the sound of the canary anxiously chirping and – boom – it’s a dream sequence. We managed to keep the vital ingredients without dragging the narrative down a rabbit hole and we got to inhabit Louise’s mind, always a good place to be with your central character. We also liked the fact that she was dreaming about Ian which helped in a little way platform the budding romance at the end of the film. So that’s a lot of alchemy and transformation and probably the most pleasing one because honestly, if I didn’t trust Denis that’s the kind of thing that an older software version of me would have said “No. How can we just put part of the scene in? It doesn’t lead anywhere. How do we just cut out halfway through the scene?”
HULLFISH: I’ve talked to a lot of editors about this idea of subverting ego as much as humanly possible because as much as your ego may want to say “This is not a solution,” just exploring these things – even if the director’s suggestion is not the actual solution – a bad suggestion can lead to a solution.
WALKER: That’s exactly right. I couldn’t believe that more profoundly or say it better. Often in the editing room when we were writing voiceover or a new line of dialogue we would preface it by saying, “Okay, here comes.. bad idea.. why doesn’t she say..?” Then maybe you would say a bad line, but, you know, something comes out of it, you get a clearer idea of where to go. You have to keep the clay moist and there’s no point in saying ‘this won’t work’. The point is we’re there to serve the story and find a way even if it means having no more than blind faith that some accident might get you there. The clever bit is knowing what the problem is in the first place.
HULLFISH: How are you organizing and laying out your bins.
WALKER: I really don’t have an unconventional bin structure. I mean I will just have slate 19 in a row. And then a row below,19A, and another row of 19B and so on, all with thumbnails planted on a representative frame. My assistant Mary creates a dailies roll from all of the takes with the boards cut off and a gap between setups. Sometimes, she’ll make pre-edits where, say, there’s an edit of all the shots for the first part of the scene in a row, followed by all the shots of the second part, etc. If there’re two cameras grouped together, I still tend to treat them as separate shots. So there will be a group in the bin of the multi-camera stuff but I honestly don’t use it that often. I’ll always leave a copy of the first cut in the bin, if I ever want to remind myself of first instincts. Then fairly soon I work this into an assembly – like with Blade Runner, we’ve already split into reels during the shoot. Twenty or twenty five minutes long. The reel lengths will all come down because you’re always a little over. Then I work through the fine cut reel by reel. Every time anyone makes a change we version up and write in the comments. Significant versions of a scene I’ll keep in an ‘old cuts’ bin, somewhere quick to find things without having to go through all versions of the assembly. Javier my VFX editor and his team access the assembly and put in all the new deliveries and vfx. The approach is: even if a VFX is faulty or not quite there yet, you put it in on the highest V layer so that we’re constantly reminding ourselves of where we’re at with the VFX when we run through the film, warts and all.
HULLFISH: So with watching dailies…
WALKER: On Blade Runner I’ve been enjoying the luxury of screening dailies with James Deakins every day, which has been amazing. James – despite her masculine name – is DP Roger Deakin’s wife AND the digital dailies workflow consultant. Especially when a scene is divided over several days so I don’t start panicking that something isn’t covered – James can just tell me it’s already planned for the next day. On every movie, I try and watch everything and I try and remember it all. On a film like Life in a Day that was a challenge because I watched 600 hours and it got to a point where I thought if I see any more material I’m going to have to try to forget something else like my middle name or my car registration plate, because there’s just no more space. It’s a lot more manageable if you have an hour and a half of dailies every day.
The truth is I’ll get to material by jumping out of the assembly with a matchframe and pop out to the original and then work my way round to neighboring takes. So where the takes are in the bin is perhaps not the most important thing for me. You know I think all of us have a little OCD in us and that seems to be an essential element in wanting to put all these tiny fragments together into some cohesive shape. We are effectively Lego addicts at some point.
HULLFISH: Absolutely! I used to do bins in text view. Then a while ago I switched to frame view and then I switched the way that I organized inside frame view and I really think it’s helped me wrap my head around this scene and feel like I have a solid place to start.
WALKER: I did a masterclass in Utrecht and one of the questions was: “Do you ever suffer editors block?” I do. I think everybody does. There’s something really daunting about a giant bin occupying your entire screen or maybe split across several large bins for one scene. Just knowing where to start bogs you down. In the last couple of years I’ve been trying some different strategies. If there’s a part of the scene that I’m uncertain about and a part of the scene that I’m certain about – for example the ending or the moment where somebody reveals they have a dagger in their hand – then I’ll start with that part of the scene and then go back and build up to that point. Knowing where you’re going to end up helps dictate a path towards it. I mean it’s non-linear editing! Before I would always start at the beginning and follow my nose, with a checklist in my mind of places where I want to use particular shots or sizes – I’m going to save this close-up for this line of dialogue, and so on – but actually you can do that backwards and it’s refreshing. I cut many scenes on Arrival backwards.
There are lots of creative strategies out there : Brian Eno made a series of playing cards called Oblique Strategies – someone gave me a set as a gift about 10 years ago. I love them. There are also websites that deliver the info from the cards.
HULLFISH: I just read one and it said, “Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them.”
WALKER: They remind me of when I was composing music – sometimes you would slave over the mixing desk, listening to the same eight bars going round and round, endlessly changing the compression of one sound or the reverb on another, finding their balance. It was only when you went out for a pee and came back down the corridor that you could hear what’s really wrong, from a different perspective outside. Some of these cards are very elusive but they always have resonance. One of them I like is: “Make your background your foreground.” Another :“Emphasize the differences.” These could apply to anything creative: to painting or to needlework or to editing. If you are unsure what to do, it’s good to try a left-field strategy. I kind of embrace that. Hopefully the times when I have no clue are very rare. (laughs) I’m a collaborator by nature and that’s the joy of what we do. I love having Denis next to me. We bounce ideas off each other and something good comes out of it. There are many glorious accidents over a long period of time.
HULLFISH: Did you have a mentor?
WALKER: I had this fantastic training at the BBC. I started with the glorious Orwellian job title “A to A to A-i-c, X P Ops” but I found my way into the cutting rooms on this BBC course and what that enabled you to do for the first year of your career was to spend time in all sorts of different cutting rooms and find out what you had an aptitude for. You’d spend six weeks in the music and arts cutting room, six weeks in a magazine programme cutting room and you weren’t actually expected to do anything except soak it all up and pick up tricks : how to sync 16mm rushes or how to lay sound effects. It was a huge, broad experience, from children’s programmes, to high end drama, to news items. There you’d get used to this totally different rhythm of a story that comes in at three o’clock that has to go out on air at 6 o’clock. So, I had that benefit and many mentors.
I settled into drama editing and there were two particular editors that meant a lot to me: one was Pam Bosworth who was a brilliant editor of both arts documentaries and drama. Her pedigree is such that she’d whistled on the soundtrack of Bridge Over the River Kwai! She was well known for her work with Jonathon Miller in the 60s and she cut a brilliant 35mm film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland with a whole host of amazing actors like Peter Sellers. It had a very odd stance : Ravi Shankar’s music on the sound track and all shot in B&W in an English country mansion with flowing curtains. So I wanted to work with Pam and I got a chance, assisting her on a drama and a doc about Hemingway.
Soon after, I assisted an editor called Ardan Fisher. He really let me in on the creative side of what we were doing and he would let me have a go at cutting a scene on a PicSync. He’d be working away with his, I’d be working away on mine with headphones on. He had a kind of perverse sensibility with editing, a kind of contrariness which I adored. They would shoot scenes in crowds with deliberately placed wipes of extras going past and he’d equally deliberately avoid cutting on the wipes. And he really knew how to hold on a shot – I really learned the skill of ‘not cutting’ from him.
An example I would give was a scene he gave me to cut which was three old guys sitting around a pub in Wales and it was a very funny scene where they’re taking the piss out of each other. The director shot it quite simply with a WS that showed all three of them, then three close ups and I think there was one extra cu for a moment where a different eyeline was needed. So I had a wide shot and four close ups and I went about doing the conventional thing. I started with the wide to establish the environment and then quickly jumped into close up and played the scene out on those. I worked my arse off trying to get every little nuance, every little reaction perfectly timed, I was a pool of sweat at the end of the day. Ardan took a look at it and said, “Hmm, that’s very good. It’s very good. But could you just put the wide shot up and let’s have a look at that for a moment?” We ran the whole scene on the wide and he said, “Well, it’s better.” I said, “But what about all the closeups?” And he said, “Just because they shot it, doesn’t mean you have to use it. They’re always there in the cans and we can go back to them. I prefer to stay on this wide shot. You’ve got three of the best actors in the country delivering some of the best dialogue ever written and the wide shows all their body language and you’re getting all the jokes and the timing you’ve been trying to manufacture with the closeups”. In fact my version was slightly holding the hand of the audience and forcing them to react in certain ways. Ardan’s was the more intelligent way of presenting the scene.
I’m just very lucky that now we had time and I could soak it up, because nowadays I think it’s very hard to let people in on the creative aspect of what we do. Cutting a scene together and facing all those demons on your own in a dark room feels like it’s my responsibility, when there is so much to do everywhere in the team. And there often isn’t time to go through the dailies with your assistant and isolate the moments you’ve clocked. But occasionally it happens. Javier has moved up to VFX editing full time so Mary is now my 1st assistant and she was the one who made the first cut of the General Shang phone call that we talked about earlier – she did a great job. I needed to get it closer to my vision of it, because I’m going to be kicking it around for the next 10 months and need to kind of feel I’ve squeezed the best out of it that I can at that point, so I kind of adopted the director role and pushed her to make two or three increasingly good cuts of that scene and – had we not intercut it with another scene later in the process – it would be exactly the way she assembled it a day or two after it was shot.
HULLFISH: You’ve worked with some great directors can you think of a specific thing you’ve learned about editing from any of them?
WALKER: I’ve learned from every one of them. I mean I can’t think of a director I haven’t. There’s a British director who I learned a shedload from: Bill Anderson, I cut a number of TV dramas with him, like Sword of Honour with Daniel Craig in the lead role. He just has a really great skill with similes and metaphors. I still use some of his phrases. For example, if you’ve removed a scene from the assembly and you’re happy because the story now motors along beautifully without it, then late in the day somebody comes in and forces you to put it back in. Bill calls that “putting on wet swimming trunks.”
HULLFISH: That’s great. I love it.
WALKER: Those trunks are always a good couple of degrees cooler than your skin temperature, they’re crusted in sand. Another director, Keith Washington, used the phrase, “You’ve got to sell some to buy others.” And really that’s in my head all the time when I think about the tendency to indulge every actorly pause in your assembly, but then in the final cut you have to pick which of these moments is the really important one, less the whole thing become ponderous and evenly paced. Some I’ll lose and others I’ll play out. In terms of compressing and expanding time it’s a common analogy, but it has meant a lot to me: “You’ve got to sell some to buy others.” To shape a scene and help landscape the film a little bit.
HULLFISH: Absolutely. Arrival is very much about time. Can you talk a little bit about the complexities or the difficulties of working with a movie that plays with time so much or how you were able to play with time yourself as an editor
WALKER: You sort of have to build up a trusting relationship with the audience. You need to make these jumps in space and time — for example in Arrival with the flashes — they need to be poetic but not self-indulgent. There’s a tread of time in every film. We all feel it. If a film takes place over three days, you subliminally know what those three days feel like. But sometimes the tread of time gets too regular or samey, so you have something like the montage in the middle of Arrival which is a way of saying, “Let’s shake it up and race through time for a bit.” The montage was a good place to delve into the mysteries of these alien spacecraft and where they are placed in the world, and also to show in the background there’s this huge team building software so that they can decipher the language. It’s all kind of a “get out of jail card”- montage, isn’t it? it just feels right to sometimes shake up the pace of the film and compress time.
Sometimes we slow time down – on the approach to the shell – those first moments in the shell are played almost real time if not longer than real time. I mean I don’t think any skylift can go up that far! It’s a special movie skylift. But there’s such a sense of dread and tension, nobody’s thinking about that, it felt good to dwell on the journey without overcooking it. Time is our superpower.
HULLFISH: “Time is our superpower.” I might have to get t-shirts made with that on it. I really appreciate once again you sharing your wisdom and knowledge and it’s always great talking to you, Joe.
WALKER: It’s a great pleasure, and thank you for what you do. I love how well organized and insightful you are. Hopefully someday we’ll be in the same city and enjoy a bottle together.
HULLFISH: That’d be great.
This interview was transcribed using speedscriber.com.
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