Home General INTERVIEW: ACE Nominee Joe Walker on ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and Denis Villeneuve

INTERVIEW: ACE Nominee Joe Walker on ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and Denis Villeneuve

Editing science fiction is extremely difficult in the best of circumstances. It’s even more difficult if you’re following a classic film in the genre. This was the challenge for Joe Walker, the Oscar-nominated editor of such films as “Arrival” and “12 Years a Slave.” Walker has collaborated with some of the best directors today, including Steve McQueen and Denis Villeneuve. A few weeks ago (before this week’s run of nominations) we sat down to discuss his ACE nominated work “Blade Runner 2049,” and his collaborations with McQueen and Villeneuve.

AF: How did you get into film editing? You’ve had such an illustrious career, I’m always curious how editors end up in this field.

JW: I mean the very first experiments I had with film were when I was 8 or 9. My parents had been given an 8 MM projector for their wedding, and I sort of dismantled it and started making little films. You know, I’d do little experiments. There was an 8 MM print library that you could borrow short films from and I used to spend my pocket money on that. I remember playing a film called “Stepping on the Gas,” which was a black and white film, playing that really slow, and playing Wagner on a 78 very slow. I think was just experimenting with that stuff when I was a kid.

We had a family friend that was the only person I knew making any money off of film. His name was Bernie Gribble. He was a fantastic editor who ended up in the States and cut “Death Wish” among other stuff. He was one of the youngest editors of his generation and cut a film called “Man in the White Suit” and made some studio films. My mom had done him a favor and helped him get a visa because she had some foreign office contacts, and as a reward, he would invite us to Pinewood and get a look at some of the latest cuts of films. I remember as a kid going to see a film at the Pinewood Theater, I think it was called “The Odessa File,” and it was too violent for me. I was allowed to go up to the projection booth, and they let me muck around with 35 MM film roles in the back. It was just a few family connections and me following my own interest.

AF: Now over the last few years you’ve finally gotten some well deserved Oscar nominations.

JW: Thank you, that’s very kind.

AF: Well, they’re incredible movies. The first nomination for was “Twelve Years a Slave,” correct?

JW: Yes, first “Twelve Years a Slave” and then “Arrival.”

AF: Yes, Yes! Well before we talk about Denis [Villeneuve], wanted to talk about Steve McQueen. You’ve collaborated on a few films, how did that partnership start?

JW: Well I’m cutting his fourth feature film now, so I’ve cut all his feature films. We actually just finished the director’s cut in Amsterdam, so now we’re going on a little hiatus. It’s a film called “Widows,” which is set in Chicago and has Viola Davis, Robert Duvall, who’s amazing, and Colin Farrell. I met Steve through an interview, and it was for the film “Hunger.” I’ll be honest, it was a little daunting because even when it’s a lesser-known filmmaker, I like to get a hold of some of their earlier work. With Steve, all of his work were at art exhibits, which meant the only to see them was to visit whatever gallery was showing them. At the time in London, there was nothing I could see.

It was really hard to get a grip on what he was going to do with the script. I thought, well the script is great, so if he just shoots that, it will be amazing. When we met, we just got on really well in conversation. I was talking to him about my parent’s attitude toward the hunger strike, which was pure horror. They were Catholics, so they thought that they were committing suicide rather than freedom fighters, and that of course to a Catholic is abhorrent. I was kind of advertising that I was ready to represent the other side. My parents would represent the British, patriotic side, and of course, there was a different story 180 degrees around. That was a long conversation that’s led into something amazing. I mean those are three very different films, “Hunger,” “Shame,” and “Twelve Years,” that are not really what I would describe as “date movies” but we have a heck of a lot of fun on them. A lot of time it was us laughing and listening to Spotify, but working hard and intensely on the film as well. It’s become quite a friendship.

AF: You’ve also worked with Denis on a few films as well. Obviously, you just received an Oscar nomination for “Arrival” last year. How collaborative is Denis?

JW: Well it’s enormously collaborative. I just spent the last two and half years with Denis 3 feet to my right, so it’s a sort of very intense bond. Of course on the cutting room floor, you receive a whole manner of things, whether its music, or VFX, or sound effects, or perhaps most importantly, the performances and dailies. You know there’s not much that escapes me. You know on a film of that scale, it was necessary to kind of shut up until my opinion was requested. Sometimes you have to let him drive through a vast amount of shots. It was always a respectful position.

You know, I’m really glad we had the path that we did. “Sicario” was a fairly straightforward film. We had lots to do, but it was about finessing something that was already really well prepared, well shot, and extremely tight. You know he prepares with great storyboards, which he makes with Roger Deakins and Sam Hudecki, who is this incredible Toronto-based storyboard artist. Sometimes I would cut the scene based on what I liked before I would look at the storyboard. But on “Sicario” is was very straightforward. The director’s cut was very good and very close to what we ended up with.

With “Arrival” we went up from a few effects shots to seven hundred. I found very quickly that the way in which we cut together was really strong. see myself as the rhythm section of the band, and I’ve got to find a rhythm for everything, whether that’s a sound effect or a hologram in the corner of the screen. We investigated a way of layering these rhythms and finding an internal pace for the film. I just think that our rhythms match in the way we do that.

He’s not somebody who hovers around and says 2 frames here, 2 frames there. That’s not his style at all. It’s willing and open for me to make my own intuitive choice on that. But what he does do, and with considerable expertise, is kind of give me a note on the scene. It’s often an emotional thing, like this is too cold, or we need to find the quiet way around this scene, or this line is too unbelievable. On “Blade Runner 2049” we needed to weed down the script and let the subtext flow. So these three films go in a straight line, even from a VFX point of view, where it goes from a couple hundred, to 700, to 1100. So we sized up the team to handle the temp shots, or Post-VIS.

AF: How do you use Post-VIS shots?

JW: Well look at “Blade Runner 2049” when the two ladies merge, Mariette and Joi. So they would shoot it old school. They did it with the actors in place, inset, with no green screen. It wasn’t motion controlled, it was purely rehearsing and breaking down the movements with a stopwatch. It would be “step, 2, 3, 4, and forward, 2, 3, 4,” you know, that kind of thing. So they would do it with one actor, and they would base the next actor to step into the place. When I do my first cut together, I’m focused on the emotion, and capturing the best moments from each to make sure the scene has the largest impact. But then we have to merge the two.

The best I could do was to merge them, in a 50-50 merge. To get a better use of timing, I would speed some movements up, or slow others down so that they were in swing with each other. But then I would give them to the temp team after Denis had his first look. Well, then the VFX people can go into much more detail, and roto around an image. They can have something ready so we can use it for a test screening or a producer’s screening. This can work as a template for the VFX team to come in and door a lot more. There’s a kind of shell effect for the next team.

AF:  How about the fact you use longer takes? Did you know you would do that in advance? There are some scenes where it feels as if you left the camera on for a couple extra seconds before we move on to the next scene.

JW: So that was something that came out of the dailies. I was watching Roger’s dailies in Budapest every day, and they had this dreamlike quality about them. It really grips you with this cut, and that’s intentional. Think of it like a tightrope walk. If you cut the line quick, there’s no tension at all. Then the movie would just be locational and logistical, and not emotional, make you nervous, or worried.

This was more about taking time and giving space for Roger’s amazing lighting to be a large role. For example, there’s a shot with Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), where she’s walking up some steps so we can meet Wallace for the first time. She’s stepping into this huge sort of area where he’s sitting quietly in this area. The thing is, for a normal shot of a corridor, where something comes through a door, a normal drama would maybe give it 3 or 4 seconds and that would be it. But the shot that I have is this world-class shot that Denis and Roger had about a

blind man, who has no eyesight, would have artificial sunlight in a world without a sun. You have this sort of strafing, caustic effect, that follows Luv as she comes up the steps. If you cut that, then you lose something, and it would be a huge disappointment.

When Denis and Roger were on set, they chose a very deliberate pace for things. The walk through the desert is a great example. We had faster takes, I had all kinds of takes I could pick from. But the ones that were faster didn’t have that mood. As I see it, it’s almost like a dream or nightmare where you’re moving inexplicably towards danger.

We wanted to maintain that dreamlike quality but also intersperse it with sudden brutality. A good example of that is when Luv shows up at the police station. She goes to stab Lt. Joshi, Robin Wright’s character. We know that’s why she’s there. When it happens, it’s very quick. You don’t see any blood, although you feel like you do. It’s just a couple quick motions, and then we go outside from the exterior and see Joshi falls. You see the blade fall. But despite all this, all you’re hearing is snow falling. The sound is very dynamic, from the sound of a knife to silence. It’s about finding these moments and juxtapositions that editors just love.

AF: If you were to single out one thing about this movie, what would that be?

JW: For me, the takeaway of the film, despite how technically challenging and complex it might have been to make, ultimately the film feels very brain-stemy. I know what that’s like because my dreams and nightmares in parts of my life have been filled with these characters. They’ve taken on a resonance that’s deeper than the average drama to me. I think of Freysha (Haim Abbass), the woman who arrives in black with the eye patch at the end of the film. It’s almost like she’s a tarot figure or something. It’s stuff like those details that Denis just seems to get. The emotion, the resonance, the feel. He has a complete mastery of film, and I can think of no director better suited to take on “Blade Runner.

What do you think? How do you feel “Blade Runner 2049” will fare in the final push? Let us hear in the comments below! 

“Blade Runner 2049” will release on Blu-Ray and DVD on Jan. 16th, 2018.