This is a deep-dive of “Art of the Cut” editing wisdom from Joe Walker. I first spoke to Joe when he was nominated for an Academy Award for “12 Years a Slave.” Now, he has a tense action thriller, “Sicario,” in theaters. His conversation is a master class in editing.
Joe Walker started out cutting film as an apprentice at the BBC and has edited documentaries and, obviously, TV. But he’s proved himself a formidable film editing talent with a trilogy of films for director Steve McQueen, including “12 Years a Slave,” for which he was nominated for an OSCAR in 2014. And his work on the recently released “Sicario,” from director Denis Villeneuve, has OSCAR potential for 2016.
Joe and I originally spoke shortly after his nomination in 2014 when I was inspired to contact him after “12 Years” actress Lupita Nyong’o called him out in her acceptance speech at the Oscars, thanking “Joe Walker, the invisible performer in the editing room.” I knew that for an editor to make that kind of impression on a leading lady, there must be something special about his stewardship of the performances of the actors and of the story.
Villaneuve in the Montreal editing suite of “Sicario.”
We spent the first bit of our latest conversation joking about receiving screener DVDs for Oscar consideration and his friendly competition with his director, Denis Villeneuve, about which one of them received more screeners. Walker is currently in Montreal editing “Story of Your Life” with Villaneuve. This was an outrageously fun interview of nearly two hours, which we did on Skype and laughed through most of it.
HULLFISH: I went to see “Sicario” this afternoon, just before our interview, so it’s fresh in my mind. I felt like I recognized some of the editing style from “12 Years a Slave” The uncomfortably long held shot on an amazing performance.
WALKER: Well, I’ve only got a few tricks. A very limited palette of tricks.
HULLFISH: Hardly limited and definitely effective, so that’s what counts.
WALKER: The classic held shot in this film is the one of soldiers moving down the hill.
HULLFISH: I remember that. It’s sunset and you just see profiles of the team as they walk… you can’t even tell they’re going down a hill actually. But it seems as though they’re almost absorbed into the earth as the sunset gets darker and darker and they all disappear into the blackness at the bottom of the screen.
WALKER: The reason I think those shots are tense are because you’ve already established early on in the film that surprises can happen, jolts are possible. So for example (central character) Kate (played by Emily Blunt, pictured right) walks out of the tract house and BANG, big explosion, you’re not expecting that. She steps out of the house in a daze and witnesses a badly injured victim crawling towards her and then BANG, big jolt to Kate in the shower with an extremely loud, hard cut, high frequencies. So we establish sharp punches, there’s violence around the corner. I think that’s how the editing in Steve McQueen’s films works. Having established that the film can deliver shocks and surprises, holding on to a shot for a long time can be super uncomfortable.
HULLFISH: And the score was very disconcerting and amped up the violence tremendously. Johann Johannsson did the score for “The Theory of Everything” and it was a very sweet, pastoral, melodic score. And then the “Prisoners” score that he did was slightly more like the score for “Sicario.” What did you use for temp music? And was it anything at all like what he gave back? I can’t think of a score that sounds like this.
WALKER: I’d had a lot of thoughts about working with temp music and coincidentally Denis (director, Denis Villeneuve) had been feeling the same way. When we met for the first time about me doing this job, we sort of pledged to cut without temp tracks. On a film like this which has a fair amount of action, an editor would very typically have a clutch of tracks up their sleeve – the drumming from John Williams’ “Munich,” a Hans Zimmer piece. You know what I mean? I can just imagine the kind of tracks and it would be almost impossible not to use loads of them editing it. I said to Denis, “Can we hold off as long as possible without any music at all?” And in fact on this one I went even further. A lot of this movie was initially cut mute, which I’ve never done before. In the past I’ve almost spent more time cutting – well, actually definitely more time – on the sound than the picture cut, smoothing everything out, experimenting with sound effects. For example, the ride to Juarez (a tense action scene with the heroine and her team driving through hostile territory) was initially cut completely as a silent movie. In large parts of the edit, Denis and I worked together with the speakers off. Even dialog scenes. Saying: “If this works as a silent film, then our storytelling must be getting there.” And music will be another layer that we bring in later. The first piece of composed music we received was the result of giving Johann Johannsson a completely virgin edit, there was no music in it at all. We gave him a clean slate, a tabula rasa, a film with no musical preconception of our own and his response was fantastic straight away. The first thing he sent was the helicopter sequence where we go from the neat little suburban tract homes of El Paso into the desert and then follow the wall and soar over it to see the oppressive chaos of Juarez. All I’d done in the cutting copy sound was lay the slowest ever helicopter pass, and Johann came back with three or four demos with this incredible lurching bassline.
HULLFISH: It sounded like a cello being run through a massive guitar distortion pedal. (Check out the track “The Beast” in iTunes on the soundtrack by Johann Johannsson for “Sicario” – guaranteed to give you the shivers.)
WALKER: … and then the drum that rises up from underneath it, just hideously distorted. And to us it was just instant love, “He’s got it. Completely got it.” It’s an imperial march. I always thought of the story like that, it’s in some ways a brutal and sarcastic look at imperialism.
HULLFISH: I had the same conversation with Eddie Hamilton and Pietro Scalia about editing without music. Not completely without sound, but at least an initial pass without music. I’m cutting another movie right now and it’s a discussion that I’ve had with the director, because oftentimes the temp score will make your edits seem like they work, but if you pull the music out or change the music, then they might not. Trying to cut without music is a challenge for a director to watch, but if we can make the scene play without the musical cues and without leading the audience’s emotions with the music, then it will just be more powerful when we add the music later.
WALKER: You have to know what’s propelling your story, if it’s the narrative itself or if it’s the battery of tools that you’re leaning on. I’ve just been in a situation before where it’s the music that’s providing 90% of the propulsion. And if you want original music, don’t make the poor composer imitate someone else’s work. When the real music DOES come, you have to provide accommodation for it. I start heavily re-cutting the film because the music enables you to change your attitude towards time. Without music, you can end up a slave to continuity. As soon as the music arrives you can take vast chunks of time out of a sequence and create a more expressionist representation of events.
HULLFISH: Without the music you’re relying on your imagination to say “Well if there’s a big sound effect here or a percussive element, then this cut will play OK.”
WALKER: In terms of sound design, I think a really good sequence to talk about is the night vision sequence. It almost sounds like it has a musical soundtrack, but actually it doesn’t, not until the last possible moment. There’s music in the lead up to the scene where all the forces are amassing together for the finale. They’re all on the hillside and they put on their visors, the music stops and they walk down the hill into darkness. It’s all very carefully choreographed. We spent hours in the edit recording my assistant in the next room on a walkie-talkie, using a ZOOM recorder, just coming up with improvised dialogue. The idea was to use dialogue almost as a sound effect. We always had a sense of this external operation, which can be very chilling when you’ve got a shot of Benicio (Del Toro, playing Alejandro) disappearing into the house and the drone pilot is saying “We’re going blind.” It’s got this sinister connotation that “as much as we can’t see what you’re about to do, we don’t want to see what you’re about to do.”
To help with the sound design, buried in the seventh channel on one piece of sync I found this incredible whistling noise where the signal from the wireless lav mic wasn’t being received properly. We called it the guitar solo because it was this high, whining atonal melody as they’re walking down the hill, which emphasized the imperfection of their communication in the dark. Alan Murray’s team really brought some wonderful extra colors into that, so it just kept building and building and you sort of don’t even realize that there’s no music in that sequence. It’s very tense and it’s all to do with hard, sudden cuts that they think they see somebody in the background and a gun is lifted very quickly. It’s got interestingly uneven pacing… at least I think so.
And with the walkie talkie, you get great distortion which adds a level of panic. I have a memory of the original “Alien” movie that one of the really tense things when they explore the planet and discover these egg shapes, one of the things that really induces fear is that you can’t hear or see well. You can barely hear the crackly voices over the headsets and the video feed of what they’re seeing is indistinct. It adds a horrible vulnerability that they’re out there and hard to reach, without clear lines of communication.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about perspective. Films are told through someone’s eyes. In the case of this movie, it’s told from Kate’s perspective. How do you service the story by maintaining or diverging from that perspective?
WALKER: Half of cutting Sicario was anchoring the film very much on her viewpoint. Until quite late in the story most of the events are seen through her eyes. One of the things we did to help establish that was to ditch the original opening scene. It was a brilliant scene with Benicio Del Toro’s character, Alejandro, shot with great panache in Veracruz, but it had to go. The scene showed Alejandro looking out to sea, standing waist deep in water, then you slowly realize he’s holding someone’s head under the water. He yanks the guy’s head out of the water, shouts questions at him and because the guy doesn’t answer adequately Alejandro shoves his head underwater again. Unfortunately, he overdoes it and drowns him. He drags the dead body back to shore, gives him CPR. The guy coughs and sputters and comes back to life, only for Alejandro to resume the interrogation. It was such a great scene and a brilliant opening, but, in the grand scheme of things, it took away from Kate’s point of view. It was too dangerous to include it because there was another more important story tangent that we had to keep in equilibrium alongside Kate’s story, and that’s the story of the Mexican cop – because when we cut to the cop, you don’t know who he is or how he relates to the story (although I think most audience members know that it’s not going to end well for him). That was one of the things that changed quite a bit – the position of those scenes. Sometimes that was an issue of pacing as well because they were were slower and more subtle and weren’t so driven by dialogue. It was just dropping hints, step by step… “OK, this guy’s an alcoholic. OK, he’s a cop.” You’re carefully pacing the reveal of a character. Anyway, we couldn’t have another tangent with Alejandro at the beginning, we had to start with a strong Kate scene in the SWAT assault tank. You’re following her story. Everything is seen from her vantage point and the Mexican cop story was in counterpoint to that.
HULLFISH: Structure is one of the things that fascinates me as an editor. One of my upcoming questions was “When you were putting the cop’s family in the movie, was it considered in other locations than where it ended up?”
WALKER: Those scenes moved around a lot. There’s also the Manuel Diaz character, who was originally mentioned straight after the opening bodies-in-the wall scene. We saved him up for much later in the film, until around the bank because we wanted to associate him with the money and have a clearer sense of who the target was at that point. We took a bit of a gamble, I think, with the way the drug cartel members are identified. We had an early scene where there’s a deluge of names and information, when you first meet Josh Brolin’s character and they’re grilling Kate: “What do you know about Manuel? Do you know his brother? What do you know about his cousin?” Kate’s ability to keep up seemed to be the first test of this roomful of dodgy people and we felt that the audience should be in the same position as her, struggling to keep up with a litany of names. We could have used shots of their criminal records on the table or something but instead we said if you just trust us and follow along, you’ll find out who everybody is in time.
HULLFISH: You definitely get that sense in the movie that Kate is being left out and doesn’t have enough information to make judgments. Nobody gives her any information.
WALKER: It’s almost perverse how little they tell her.
HULLFISH: Pietro Scalia and I had this same conversation about “The Martian.” At the beginning, there’s all this technical and scientific information that the audience has to understand to have a sense of the danger Matt Damon’s character, Watney, is in and how hard it’s going to be to survive and escape. You have to be very selective about how you parcel out information to the audience.
HULLFISH: Tell me about the opening text prologue that explains the name of the film: Sicario. Why do we need to explain the name of the movie to the audience? Why not just call it “The Drug Cartel Movie” and pass on all that text on screen? The text explains that the word Sicario was a Roman word for a zealot from Jerusalem and meant hitman.
WALKER: That’s something we added. We had the familiar discussion of where do we put the title? The current vogue is to put the title at the end but we had a particular reason for doing that because we had a fantastic shot of the kid on the soccer field, and we wanted to go “BANG” : SICARIO, title super, futura font, no drop shadow, nearly occupying the whole frame. The subtext being “here’s a future hitman.” So having decided that the title is going to go at the end… actually the lines of text at the beginning were something that Alejandro’s character said in that torture scene we dropped. I’d forgotten that. So that text is sort of a trace element of the scene that we removed. Ultimately, if we hadn’t defined what a Sicario was in the film somewhere, we could never have kept the title.
HULLFISH: I’m always on the look out – like a scriptwriter – for scenes that I can either get into later or get out of sooner. When do you start a scene? When do you end a scene? It’s a discussion scriptwriters often have and editors are kind of the post-scriptwriters.
WALKER: Yeah. I can’t think of a spot in “Sicario,” but I often find myself jumping into a scene where we’re at the point of crucial information gets revealed, rather than someone entering a door and then sitting down and saying it. Classic isn’t it? Maybe that’s a reaction to the theatrical nature of some scripts : enter, exit, “exeunt” – you can end up going, “Geez, there are a lot of doors in this movie.” (laughs)
HULLFISH: Sometimes it’s very hard on the director to have lines cut out. In the films I’ve cut, I would just decide myself “We don’t need the first six lines of this scene.” Or the last three, maybe. And I’d just leave them out and screen it for the director and of course I got what tends to be a negative reaction, because they know what’ssupposed to be there. And it takes – maybe it takes trust – but it takes some time to see that it really is possible to cut those lines. But for me, that’s always a struggle.
WALKER: Doesn’t it just make our lives and jobs so fascinating day in or day out? What can you do without? How spare can you make it? To boast of paring down the dialogue would be unfair to Taylor Sheridan, our writer, who’d already done a great job of making Alejandro mysterious, brooding , non-verbal. But yes, there were little bits – short lines that we cut. Years ago, I used to joke about an approach to cutting based on this long-running BBC radio show that’s been going for 73 seasons or something, called “Just a Minute.” It’s a panel show and the guests are given a subject to talk about without hesitation, repetition or deviation for 60 seconds. Put a timer on now and try it! Even 20 seconds without repeating a word, “um-ing” and “er-ring” or making grammatical mistakes is a real challenge. So I would joke with directors that we should try to apply the rules of “Just a Minute” to their film. It took time to realize what a kind of really joyless approach that really would be. Repetition helps mark development, for themes to surface – I think of the countless little repeating patterns you find in Steve’s films that are small signposts on the road. Deviation, well, some of my favourite moments in movies are some kind of departure from the norm (In “Synechdoche,” an estate agent showing a buyer around a house that’s on fire comes to mind). Most of all, hesitation is human, without it communication becomes monotonous,you need time to ruminate and cogitate and build anticipation.
HULLFISH: I definitely think you were giving that time in the editing of “Sicario.” When I think of any of the incredibly tense, action-driven scenes, they were almost always followed soon after by a scene that allowed you to soak it in and catch your breath for a moment. After the gun battle on the bridge from Juarez, there’s a slower scene. That’s another question I had, because that’s a scene that most people would play on a series of very tight shots. It’s the first time that Kate has an emotional response. Up to that point she’s been reserved and internal and trying to figure it out. Then she explodes with the revelation of what’s going on and the entire scene is not only played out in a single, unedited take, but it’s an extreme wide shot!
WALKER: I’d love to credit myself for making that choice, but it was taken for me by Denis who shot the wide shot then decided not to get any further coverage. They had time to get closer shots but he felt he’d got the scene already and the wide shot was very special. It was poignant that we were under an American flag, that the dust is blowing and you’re surrounded by a big military base. I think holding these wide shots is part of what I think of as “landscaping” – you earn them by building up to them right, by compressing time before and sometimes afterwards.
HULLFISH: We talked about compressing time before expanding it when we discussed editing “12 Years a Slave.” OK, if you can’t take credit for that specific shot, there’s a scene that follows closely after all of this tension where Kate is led up onto the roof and you could have just cut to what she is meant to go see up there, but instead there’s a long walk across the rooftop.
WALKER: I recognized first of all that there were crazily good clouds in that sky and that they would be rewarding to look at in the theater and that we’d earned the right after that incredibly tense gun battle to sort of slow the pace a bit. The soldier says to her “Do you like fireworks?” You don’t know what he means, and as you walk along you’re anticipating it and in the sound design you hear the distant gunfire from Juarez. It was just an essential tracking shot. I could have cut it shorter, but you needed time to live with Kate soaking it all up. You’re in her head for a while there and, without it, things would have been rushed, and the scene would have been less substantial. You told me the last time we talked after “12 Years a Slave” that “If it’s too efficient, all you get is the information and it’s not entertainment anymore.” That was a very good way of putting it. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do in a movie, but not always. There’s a danger to slowing down too much at, say, the end of a film. I worked once with Emma Thompson who had a great phrase, in reference to needing to tighten up the final act of a film: “we need to get a wiggle on.” I often see final acts that aren’t as polished as first acts, you can kind of tell when the notes have all been focused on the beginning. Actually I have a method to counteract this which I started with Steve. When we are at the final stages of the director’s cut, where all the major issues have hopefully been sorted, I often want to go back to the dailies and refresh my memory of them, to see if there’s some ignored shot that could do a job better. I want every scene to have had the same thorough workout. So I’d put all the scene numbers on little scraps of paper and put them in a box. Steve would dig in and pull out a random scene number and we’d review just that scene, not the scene before or the scene after. We’d skip through the dailies and go back, briefly, into assembly mode. 9 times out of 10 things stay the way they are, but occasionally little breakthroughs happen. At least you feel you’ve turned every stone.
HULLFISH: Great, great advice. There’s an amazing scene where a caravan of US government SUVs heads across the border to Mexico and meets up with an armed Mexican convoy. Describe some of the things you did to ratchet up the tension in that scene. It’s very fast-paced and tense – almost a car chase – and then all of a sudden there are two big aerial landscapes that are cut in there.
Editor Joe Walker, DP Roger Deakins and Director Denis Villeneuve in Cannes for “Sicario.”
WALKER: I love those. It’s just the idea – those two helicopter shots of Juarez – that just felt like: you’re coming down a hill, you’ve heard gun shots, you think your convoy is going to be under attack and you pull out wide and see that there’s no place to hide and no place to run in this city. Each corner you turn could be the last corner you see.
HULLFISH: Even though you go out wide, you realize that you’re trapped in the center of a maze.
WALKER: That’s authentic Juarez. That scene’s interesting. There’s some CGI work as you probably realize. At times the convoy itself is CG. When they’re racing away from Juarez to the bridge, for example. Thanks to all the time and money advertisers have lavished on car commercials, it’s relatively easy to put a CG Tahoe into a shot.
HULLFISH: Do those effects shots require any imagination from the editor? Or are you getting comps pretty quickly – special effects temps?
WALKER: My secret weapon is my assistant, Javier Marcheselli (pictured, left with the “12 Years a Slave” Oscar). There’s a nice balance between us, he’s a whiz kid with VFX and I tend to handle the sound. For the kind of film “Sicario” was, it was a small crew. Teams of people joined us in the later stages for sound and VFX but when we were designing those ideas and new shots, it was just Javier and Denis and me. We would be gripped by an idea, I’d do a quick “garbage matte” as we call it, and then Javier’d take over and finesse it in After Effects or Nuke. For example, the drone shots in the final night vision scene, they were all generated in the cutting room. They weren’t planned. We took helicopter shots from another sequence and adapted them. And at one point, we wanted a satellite shot of Fausto’s house so Javier grabbed an image from Google Earth, floating over the location and animating little dots where Alejandro and his victims would be. We always wanted to have those drones following: that high vantage point. It helped with the geography of that night-vision sequence and added another layer to all the military hardware.
HULLFISH: You talked about the bank sequence. My recollection was that there was some surveillance footage that was black and white, but that the whole movie went black and white for a bit in there, even beyond the surveillance footage.
WALKER: They shot video footage inside the bank, but we knocked the color out of it. Then I made these continuous moves across the images, sometimes horizontally panning, or diagonally, they don’t stop and start you just cut between them mid-motion. You’re sort of surveying the surveillance footage. There’s a lovely optical illusion where you think you’re panning across the outside of the bank, but what you’re actually doing is panning across the monitor showing the exterior of the bank and then suddenly one of the borders moves across screen and you realize you’re looking at more than one view. What was great about that was that the bank was one of Denis and Roger’s (Roger Deakins, BSC, ASC – the D.P.) most difficult days. I think there was unfortunate light or it just didn’t pan out the way they hoped it would. It was always the background discussion in the cutting room: “Is there any way of telling the story without the bank sequence?” And then, once we cracked the surveillance footage, he ended up joking “It’s my favorite sequence!” Roger and Denis are a formidable team together. I mean they plan so carefully. Every shot has its place. Every shot is absolutely the right angle. It’s exactly the right lens size. It’s exactly the right lighting. There’s such a dynamism to Roger’s shots. The moves are fantastically well timed. Their storyboards are extensive. And on this film there was not an exhaustive budget. For the type of film it was and the number of locations, they had to be really controlled about what they shot. My job was really to subvert that plan. (laughs)
HULLFISH: Doesn’t that make it very hard on an editor that everything is planned meticulously? Your options get limited and your decisions are made for you by the design of the material you’re given?
WALKER: I turned a couple of scenes inside out. It was actually a matter of pride.
HULLFISH: What scenes?
WALKER: The football scene at the end. That completely changed. The scene with Kate moving through the tunnel is very different from the plan. I’m absurdly competitive.
HULLFISH: Editing as a competitive sport! I like it. So we have editor versus director then! But clearly, your relationship with him is excellent or you wouldn’t be sitting in the editor’s chair for his next feature, which is where you are right now. And he had another editor before you, yet you were able to land “Sicario.” How did that work?
WALKER: I knew “Incendies” (French for “destruction by fire”) which I really loved when it came out. I saw it in London and I was spellbound by it (It was a 2010 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film). That’s when I first clocked his name. He’d made many films before that, but I hadn’t seen them. Then before the Oscars in 2014, (the year Walker was nominated for Best Editing for “12 Years a Slave”) I was watching “Prisoners” with my daughter and our hearts were bursting out of our chests.
HULLFISH: I would not want to watch that particular movie with my daughter.
WALKER: I know. It’s a dark film. But I remember the conversation on the night of the Oscars with my agent Devin Mann. At that time, I was half-way through working on Michael Mann’s “Black Hat.” Devin asked me, “Who do you want to work with next?” And I said, “I’d love to get in a room with Denis Villeneuve, if you can manage that.” And he got the meeting. Denis has great respect for Steve McQueen’s films and has said many times how blown away he was by “12 Years a Slave.” The conversation we had was very much about a similarity between “Sicario” and “Prisoners.” How far would you go for the right reasons into the murkiest, darkest territory? “Sicario” seemed a slicker, sicker, more sarcastic version with Josh Brolin’s character, Matt, absolutely relishing the moral blur of it all.
I got the offer and I leapt at it. During the assembly I’d send him cuts from L.A. while he shot in New Mexico and he would send back great feedback, really lovely feedback. There were some times when he said he was dancing when he saw a cut. One of the key scenes (which I am keeping secret to keep from spoiling the plot), didn’t change at all from the original cut. There was no change at all. That’s the first assembly you’re looking at right there. When there was a different way he wanted to cut something he really had a great way of pointing me in the right direction. One of his really brilliant attributes is somehow leaving you thinking that you’re the one who had the idea.
HULLFISH: Social engineering is important in the edit room going both directions, right?
WALKER: Denis (pictured on location, right) will just drop a thought bomb into the conversation. He rarely dictates each step. One of the things we changed a lot in the film was how much does Kate see and how much happens by itself. That was quite a prolonged editing pass. There’s a real danger on a film when you have a passive central character – we had the same challenge editorially with “12 Years a Slave” – because Solomon, for the vast bulk of the film, is passive. We had to take measures to temper that because passivity is not classic cinema. Commercial cinema has the hero actively changing the world around them.
HULLFISH: So you’re up in Montreal editing Denis’ next movie. (“Story of Your Life”)
WALKER: Denis lives in Montreal with his family. It’s lovely to work here. We were here for “Sicario” in the same facility. Javier’s now become VFX editor. There’s a huge amount of VFX because, well, we have aliens. It’s a bigger enterprise this year.
HULLFISH: So you read the script before you went in to that initial meeting with Denis? Eddie Hamilton said that he tries to go in with very thorough notes on the script. Did you feel like that wasn’t necessary? Did you have story notes
WALKER: You have to walk a fine line. If you come on too heavy with the problems of the script you can turn the meeting into a negative spiral and you end up annoying the director or not sufficiently advertising your desire to work on the project. I remember having reservations about one particular scene in “Sicario,” but I didn’t dwell on it. I pointed out that it was not great for the main character and I left it at that. But I know Denis is a great filmmaker. I’ve seen his movies. He’s perfectly capable of making the most brilliant film without my help. (laughs). As it happens, when the shooting script finally arrived, it was completely transformed. In an interview for a gig it’s better to dwell on the things you feel passionate and positive about.
HULLFISH: True. So, you edited the director’s cut up in Montreal. Any advantages to being there instead of L.A.?
WALKER: If you’re in Los Angeles, you’ll have a screening and you’ll bump into friends and colleagues in the corridor outside and the next thing you know you’re contributing to the buzz, good or bad, about a film – you can’t escape the industry. Whereas in Montreal, you’re miles away from everybody and completely removed. I see a big part of my job is to provide a safe haven for the director to make some horrible mistakes. (laughs) And through those, to get to some great successes. To let that happen and to monitor it and to let the screening process help refine the cut. With Steve (McQueen) we got in to a pattern of screening a cut every Friday morning. It all started on “Hunger.” A friend of Steve’s gave us free access to a cinema. Sometimes we’d be watching his film and the cleaners would come through!
HULLFISH: When you watched the film on a big screen compared to on the Avid, did you find that you see your edits differently?
WALKER: Partly. But what really changes the way you look at your film is when people are invited to come and sit in and then it becomes a chemical thing. Some of the things you thought were working or that people would understand, don’t work. You can just feel it in the room. You know when the audience understands and you know when it “over-stands.” You’re hyper-alert to the reactions. Those screenings really help you to know things like being five minutes too long in the first act of the movie. We need to get to this or that point by the end of reel one and when we do, this whole film is going to feel better. These things you only really know in your bones when you’re sitting there in the dark with an audience, no matter how small. You can smell it. And finally you know when you’re nearing a finished cut when you’ve got the audience leaning forward, eyes on stalks.
HULLFISH: “Eyes on stalks.” I have to remember that one.
WALKER: It was a phrase I heard: “You don’t just want bums on seats, you want eyes on stalks.”
HULLFISH: I love it. From a technical and workflow perspective, what does your assistant do for you?
WALKER: I’ve got a pretty simple method. I like to view the bin in thumbnail view with each set-up placed in a row. (A set-up is a new camera position or lens choice, basically.) Each take of that set-up goes horizontally across the bin, the next set-up in a row below that and so on. And then if the scene has a lot of footage, for example: the office scene at the beginning of “Sicario,” where they ran a long scene over and over – for that, I’ll ask my assistant for a pre-edit. Some editors go crazy and do every line. (Making a string-out of every single take of every single line.) That’s too detailed for me. I’ll just go through the script and break the scene into 30 or 40 seconds chunks. My assistant then takes all the various setups for each chunk and edits them in a line. That way I can quickly review all of the options, it just helps for those very complicated high coverage scenes. Sometimes you’re fishing to see which shot size you want to be on at any particular moment. Once you start the edit your pre-edit becomes less and less important. The fact that you’ve gone in to the close up and you want to stay with the close up lessens your need to review all the medium shots. But for the most part I won’t use pre-edits. A very crucial thing for me is viewing the dailies and making mental notes on the things that I like and respond to. I try to preserve the concept that editors are meant to know every frame and where everything is. What I’m most interested in is performance. Seeing: “This one’s an angry, vitriolic take. This one’s an angry, sad take. This one’s sinister.” But I suppose on a movie like “Blackhat” with three hours of dailies per day it’s impossible to view everything and assemble it in a day, so that’s where you rely on different ways of chunking things down.
HULLFISH: This is one of the reasons that I originally contacted you about “12 Years a Slave.” No offense to the talents of the performers in the scenes or to the director, but I am fascinated by the amount of the performance that is constructed by the editor. You’re talking about looking for takes – each slightly different. You are manipulating much more than I think many people realize – the performance of the actor. Protecting them from weaker performances, guiding the pacing and delivery of their lines and reactions to their fellow performers. Having the timing off by even a few frames creates a performance that doesn’t ring true. You are a steward of the performance for the actor.
WALKER: I love the fact that we’re in the middle of all of these things. We’re in the middle of photographic choices, music and audio choices, story choices and performance… I love spending my life dancing with the actors. Your reputation isn’t just generated by the dazzling jump cuts you do or the astonishing rather vulgar “Hi from the editor” at one point in “Sicario” where I went from John Bernthal lifting Emily Blunt into the air in the bar, to him finishing the move back at her flat. That was a bit of a show-off edit there, but your reputation is not built on that, but hopefully it’s built on your choices. What temperature of performance you want. Just today we were picking apart a sequence where during the first assembly it felt right for me to have this awestruck, breathy performance of a series of lines, but then today we were looking at it and we figured we were completely over-doing it. It should be drier. We need to dry this performance out and we went through the options and there were some earlier takes that were a much more dehydrated, scientific reading. It’s great when you’re working on a single camera shoot because you’ve got the range of available options in your memory. You might not know the exact timecode, but you do know that you’ve got a different performance to dig in to later if that feels like the right thing. Editing is not so much a vertical operation for me, about making a single edit, or scene, it’s about crafting all these things into a longer horizontal line to convey atmosphere and tension and help shape a fantastically moving performance against time. That’s a constantly evolving pursuit.
HULLFISH: That’s my favorite part of the job. I love performance more than I should.
WALKER: I’ve got to see “War Room.” I really have to. I saw the trailer. It did amazingly well at the box office. I saw something that your director said that he wanted to make movies instead of be a preacher because “cinema is more influential than the church.”
HULLFISH: He was influenced by a study that showed that. Alex (Kendrick, pictured right) has really become a very good director, especially since most of the people he’s directing are not professional actors – some are – but he’s able to draw out performances from non-professionals that are very moving.
WALKER: One of my big heroes when I was growing up was Ken Loach because a film that made a big mark on me was “Kes.” It’s a fantastic film that many people don’t know. It’s based on a book (1968’s “Kestrel for a Knave”) about a boy in a poor, working class area and his escape from everything is this kestrel (sparrow hawk) that he nurtures. And at some terrible point in the film, there’s this heartbreaking scene where his brother kills the bird. Pretty much all of the actors are non-professional. This was made in the early 70s and I was profoundly affected by it. It’s got that authenticity of natural performance. And if you’re interested in that, there’s a film this year called “Goodnight Mommy” which is a great horror film about these young twins. The editor on that (Michael Palm) has done a fantastic job trusting that we’re going to be fascinated by their body language. They have their own way of talking to each other and their own way of complementing each other’s posture– they stand and shift and move together and it’s fascinating and completely natural. They’ve done such an amazing job of working with those kids. I highly recommend that film.
HULLFISH: You’re on Avid I’m assuming?
WALKER: (pictured left with Villeneuve and Deakins in Canne) My route was film first. 16mm. 35mm. And then I learned three-machine Beta SP editing. I did a long apprenticeship at the BBC, it felt like forever and I just got fed up because I thought nobody’s going to let me touch their drama. So I went into arts documentary to get experience and was an early adopter of non-linear: initially Lightworks. That put me ahead of the curve a little bit and helped me get my first drama work on a cop show, then a comedy, then I left and went freelance. I flipped over to Avid quite soon after that. I’d cut a feature film on Heavyworks and it was a nightmare. At the time everything felt very primitive compared to Avid. I still have a number of things on my Avid keyboard settings which are sort of adapted Lightworks. Skipping to the next cut I use my forward and backwards arrow keys. I tab through the cut.
HULLFISH: That’s exactly my method. Though I use the tab and shift-tab buttons to jump between cuts.
Walker’s Avid keyboard settings are above – non-shifted at the top and shifted at the bottom.
Note the top keyboard has the FFD and REW keys on the left and right arrow keys. These are the keys Walker describes from Lightworks.
WALKER: That’s a Lightworks remnant. The other thing I do is control – using audio keyframes – all of the ins and outs on every single piece of sound – faded in, faded out and checkerboarded.
HULLFISH: That’s how we did “War Room.” Alex Kendrick, the director and co-editor, is a meticulous editor and this is the way he prefers to do it. Audio edits had to be invisible.
WALKER: One of the great advantages was that on “Sicario,” the first test screenings went pretty much straight from the Avid to the dubbing theater where we only had to spend a day or two to tweak the EQ, add reverbs and weave in some preliminary sound effects premixes from Alan Murray. Other editors have to stop for five days while they do a mix from scratch.
HULLFISH: Yup, “War Room” we did screenings that were essentially straight off the Avid export.
WALKER: It’s cumbersome in the schedule to stop and fix the sound. And my ear is quite sharp and I find things bumping in and out kind of too distracting and I can’t stand it. So I spend a lot of time patiently chamfering the sound in and out and getting the levels all comparatively working. All that effort pays off three months later when you’re able to mix it in a weekend. Not the final mix, but previews for 500 people in New Jersey. That gives you days back into your schedule just when you need it. Just when you’re getting a lot of ideas from producer screenings and challenges to your scheme you really want to be editing, you don’t want to be sitting in a dubbing theater.
Sound-wise, “Sicario” was really a successful combination of ideas that were set in motion in the cutting room, but brought to fruition by Alan Murray and his team. That’s the kind of happy place for me where you present the sound team with something that’s kind of working and they can enhance it and challenge it with new ideas and better ideas. Alan Murray and his team are heroes of sound. His gunshots and his grimy car sounds, like when they’re driving through Juarez – you mentioned those bumps, the sound that he recorded for those was absolutely superb. It was a really great collaboration. It starts by thinking of sound when you’re cutting and it’s a funny process on “Sicario” of trying not to think of sound and gradually bringing up the layers.
HULLFISH: Thank you so much for your time. You’ve been incredibly generous.
WALKER: There’s nothing I’d rather do. And my compliments to you on “War Room.” I’m really looking forward to seeing it.
HULLFISH: Well that was a collaborative edit. I worked side by side with the director and he’s a very good editor in his own right. He cut his first two films completely by himself. I’ve co-edited the last two. (me, pictured on the set of “War Room,” left) He did all of them on Final Cut before this one, which I convinced him to move to Avid. The movie I’m cutting now is in Premiere.
WALKER: Oh, we’ll have to talk about that. I’m very curious about Premiere. Do you think it’s worth me having a look at it?
HULLFISH: Certainly worth having a look at. I’m having a bit of a slog with it. But Adobe has improved it immensely in just the last year or two. Some of the problems I have with Premiere are simply a matter of being a relative newbie. But some of it isn’t. I think they’ll get it fixed, but for now I prefer Avid. I’ve been on Avid since 1992.
WALKER: God, that’s a long time.
HULLFISH: I know. Thanks for making me feel old… Trimming, I think is better on Avid, but I think something you’d like on Premiere is that you can slide the audio up and down in realtime while a track is playing right in the timeline. That’s beautiful. Avid really needs to work on their audio. That they own ProTools and have such limited audio in Media Composer is kind of criminal. But for many movies, Avid is the only thing that can pull them off, mostly because of the collaboration that a major Hollywood feature requires.
WALKER: On “Blackhat” we had something like 16 editors working on ISIS and Avid’s strength is being completely rock solid with that kind of multiple access. We had corridors full of editors and assistants tapping in to the same reels.
HULLFISH: In my interviews on “The Martian,” Scalia and Potter said that the ISIS and the collaborative workflows that are possible because of it were the only way that that film could have been made on the deadline they were working on.
Some colleagues and I were discussing Murch and his refusal to edit on Avid (a thread on the Avid-L2). And one of the reasons he states – among others – is that Avid only has 24 audio tracks. And some people said, “Well, it’s crazy to need more than 24 tracks of audio.” But if you’ve ever cut a film and had your own production and sound and music tracks, and then needed to incorporate the return tracks that the sound department gives back with dialogue edits and sound effects and atmospheres and music stems, then you understand how incredibly limiting 24 tracks is to a feature film production.
WALKER: You need a crazy amount of tracks nowadays. I find that I’m getting frustrated with the sound tools in Avid. The effects sliders, sometimes, the difference between 10% wet and 11% wet is too tiny to change. And the three little sliders at the bottom of color correction… I just end up entering random numbers in there and pressing return.
HULLFISH: Well, if we ever meet, I’ll show you how to do color correction in the Avid. As antique as it is now, it still works.
WALKER: Well, I’d love that. We all need retraining from time to time. It’s like a kitchen that you come to know very well. But there’s whole drawers full of stuff that you haven’t opened. I have no idea where the cheese-grater is! But my philosophy is that if it’s a great story, even if it was shot on wet string, that’s how I’d cut it.
HULLFISH: Amen. Well, Joe, this has been such a great discussion. I’ve taken up too much of your time.
WALKER: A real delight to talk to you.
For more fascinating interviews with the best editors in the business, check out Art of the Cut and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish
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