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Joe Walker: Sicario

Gordon sits down with Joe Walker (12 Years a Slave, Sicario) to discuss the editing process of Sicario. If you haven't seen the film yet, go see it and then listen to this episode. We discuss many topics that lead to many potential spoilers. This episode was made possible with the support of Divergent Media. Get your 14 day trial of EditReady at divergentmedia.com/aotg


The Cutting Room: Can you tell me first how you got involved with Sicario?

Joe Walker: I've been following Denis Villeneuve's work for a while from the first film I saw that I really loved of his was "Incendies," and anybody who hasn't seen that, it's a real treat. I mean incredibly epic, moving drama with lots of surprises and a very emotional film. And I saw that in London, and then just in the run-up to the Oscars, I saw "Prisoners," and I was kind of gripped by that, and I had a conversation with my agent on the night of the Oscars, actually. In fact, he was saying, "Who do you want to meet?", "Who do you want to talk to?" And I said, "Can you get me in the room on Denis' next film?"

And I knew that he'd been working with an editor, who did a great job for him. So, I wasn't that hopeful, but we met and liked each other; and I loved the script of "Sicario," and, you know, we had a really good first conversation. And he's a big admirer of Steve McQueen's films, so it just seemed like a good fit. And he offered me the job and I grabbed it.

The Cutting Room: In all the research that I've done before this interview, everyone always talks about how meticulous a planner Denis is, and I'm wondering how this affected you in the post process.

Joe Walker: You know I mean it presents the luxury of something that's going to work and it enables me to kind of concentrate on perfecting the kind of rhythm of it. But in a funny way - because I'm insanely competitive - they would have these fantastic plans and I would try to subvert them by saying, "There is another way of doing this." So I'm afraid I'm sort of shamefully self-promoting here, but I think that they had to prepare. He is a fantastic, meticulous planner, but he and Roger Deakins, the DP, together, they storyboarded very, very carefully and I think they knew that - because it was, I think a 50-day shoot, which isn't a huge amount for a film with a lot of action and location changes. The budget's high by some standards, but really for this film, it was not enough so they had to be meticulous, they had to kind of only shoot what they needed and there was no spare. So I would find that planning pays off in the editing, obviously, you know, you end up cutting something that already has a plan and, you know, very deliberate - each shot has got a place. I could read Roger's dailies very, very clearly, there was never any ambiguity about where a shot was intended.

On the other hand, there's always things that come up. No film goes straight from the camera to the screen, there's always a lot to do to kind of tweak. I suppose it gave us the advantage of some weeks that might [have been] spent trying to kind of totally retool things, but actually in this case it was just finessing. So, a good example of that is the main story is Kate's - Emmy Blunt's character - and, as planned and as shot - as scripted and shot - there was originally a scene of Benicio's right at the beginning of the film, a little bit like classic Bond pre-title sequence that wasn't related to the story of Sicario. But basically you sort of encounter Alejandro who's standing waist-deep in the ocean. And this is - I've got to tell you - shot really beautifully in Vera Cruz, it's a really hard scene to have dropped. But he's standing waist-deep and then you slowly reveal that he's holding somebody's head underwater. And then he pulls the head out of the water and he carries on interrogating this guy and the guy doesn't answer so he thrusts his head back down again and drowns him - by mistake, he drowns him. So he drags this lifeless body out, pulls it up to the shore and then gives him CPR and the "kiss of life" and brings him around and then starts interrogating him again. It's a really extreme kind of entry into Alejandro's character but, you know, it's things like that of saying - When we saw it for a long time trying to make it work in different places in the film and eventually we had to jettison it. It just damaged the equilibrium, and the equilibrium, as I saw it, was very firmly we had to anchor it as Kate's story, seen through her eyes right up until the end. And the only, kind of, counterpoint to that is the Silvio, the Mexican cop, and as soon as we had three threads at the beginning, it damaged our equilibrium. It also meant that we knew something that Kate didn't know, and it felt much better for Kate to always be catching up, trying to catch up and investigate these people. So when she meets Alejandro on the plane and he barely speaks to her, she's forming an opinion of him bit by bit and we don't give all the information away at the beginning. So even with the most meticulous planning, there was still - thank God - something for me to do.

The Cutting Room: Well I was going to ask - and I don't know how to - because, again, when we were talking a bit earlier I was saying that I saw the film, and usually I write my questions right away, but this time I was like "I need time." And one of my questions - and I don't know if this will come out right, so I apologize if it's a bit confusing - but the editing almost felt, I want to say, minimalist or very straight forward. Like there wasn't anything flashy about it.

What I'm wondering is, we're approaching a dialogue scene and we have a back and forth over the shoulders with the characters, I'm wondering, there were so many scenes that were very subtle, but the tension and the tone in those scenes were extremely intense. So how did you - even though the footage came across as if it just came together really easily, how did you work with these shots to build such tense moments.

Joe Walker: That's a great question and quite a flattering one, thank you. There is one "flashy" cut, if you'd like, there'ss a bit halfway through the film where I've got John Bernthal is dancing with Emmy Blunt's character and he lifts her up and then carried on lifting her in a different location. It's kind of quite a bit of a show-off cut. But, no, I take your point. Really, I mean, I try to cut a sequence with as few shots as possible. And it's not about being slow, actually, it's about maintaining tension over time. It's about handling the tension, and sometimes it's a delicate balance.

There's a very good scene of Emily and Benicio where she's, sort of, they've had a briefing in the briefing room and she's saying, "Where are you from?" and he's very evasive. You know, there are some things I can play on her and you really see the intensity of her inquiry. By hearing his lines off you know that he's kind of giving her the cold shoulder in a way, and you feel her reaction to that. And then there's other times where we hold on too long, and we sort of investigate his face as he doesn't give much away of how he shields himself. And when he does turn toward her, all the management of that tension and the moment when their eyes actually touch it's kind of - it's a luxury to have such great performances and Benicio, particularly, can hypnotize you like a cobra. So it leaves you paralyzed and unable move.

It's those sort of things and delicately balancing those things where you hear a performance rather than see it and vice versa, in which choosing your moment very carefully when you switch from one to the other and - It's just been a bit of discovery over the years, and I suppose I'm quite well-known for this because of Steve McQueen's style, which is sort of often holding shots for a long time and keeping up an almost unbearable amount of tension. You know, I had a real discovery some years ago when I took a class in university up in York in the north of England and there was a bunch students and I thought rather than sort of standing and delivering a lecture I'll take up some dailies and I asked Steve McQueen if I could take up his dailies from a sequence in "Shame". Basically it's a shot of Carey Mulligan singing "New York, New York" in a club on the top of the Standard Hotel in Manhattan, and her brother listening to it, and the brother was played by Michael Fassbender. And basically, they gave me only two shots. And it's kind of criminal because Steven and Sean Bobbitt, the cameramen, don't really do coverage. They just do what they think is right for a scene, and they capture it in as few shots as they can. But in this case it was kind of dangerous, because you're halfway through a film and you stop to listen to a song. But, you know, there was a way of cutting it to kind of maintain that tension, and in my cut I just did one cut to Michael and it was just to the point where she seemed to be intently looking at him and saying "It's up to you New York, New York." And the underlying emotions [presented] was "I've sort of messed up in all these towns and cities these relationships that have gone wrong and I need to rely on you." And then his reaction is a kind of very sort of surprising one. He drops a tear and he looks very stirred. There's a lot of backstory that's never stated in that film and it's all done by those kind of deft touches, you know? And then I came back to her for the rest of the song. So that was my cut, and some of the students did such great work.

I mean, we all sat and watched these twenty versions and some people just edited the hell out of it and put five or six reaction shots and tried to match his looks to various phrases in the song and, you know, they were a pool of sweat at the end of the day trying to kind of go backwards and forward. And by everybody's admission, those were the most boring to watch, the ones with the least tension. It felt like you were pointlessly varying the visuals just pointlessly unattached to the content. Actually, somebody did a really cool edit where they did a version with no cut to Michael so it's just one shot of Carey and, actually, that was really fascinating, I wish I'd thought of that. So, I don't know, it was a bit of a discovery - If you don't cut then there's almost an illusion that it's real life and there's nobody's hand coming to hold yours. And I find that some television editing - and there's some very good television editing as we all know - but sometimes it's just too much for me, I find it really uncomfortable being led through the story so heavily, you know, dragged along through a story by the editor. And I'd rather sort of sit back and sort of hold things and let people get stuck in.

The Cutting Room: I wonder if for television it's because they have to fit into that time slot and fit their commercial breaks and what have you. If that's why they have to almost force you through it.

Joe Walker: Steve comes from a different background. In his case he came from 8mm art films and he didn't have that much money and "waste not, want not" he'd say to me. And Denis also has the same - he sometimes has exactly the same sensibility. There's a couple of times in Sicario that I can think of where we hold shots for quite a long time, and the great advantage is that the film starts with such a lot of shocks - there's a huge explosion of a shed, you know, somebody comes out the door and the shed explodes and people's body parts go everywhere. It's a big shock and then there's a kind of shock cut to Kate in the shower, you know, high frequency sounds kind of kicking in. We know that the film delivers shocks and surprises, so when we hold a long shot, for example the one where all the soldiers going down the hill into the dark, we subconsciously know that something could come at you any time in this film and it really makes that desperately tense. And there's no music, so the music is coming to an end there so it's sort of - managing that tension sometimes those longer shots really do it.

The Cutting Room: There was another cut that I really liked and I don't think many people would have thought of it. And that is - and I don't know if this is because you had a similar situation where you didn't have much footage or if it was more of a choice from you and Denis in the post process - but that's they go through Mexico for the first time and then they come back and Emily has an argument with Josh, and it just sits in the wide for the whole argument. And then we go inside. And I'm not sure if there was lots of footage and coverage and you guys chose that or…

Joe Walker: In that case, I'd love to take credit for it but that's all they shot. The only thing I can say is that I think if they had shot closer stuff I think I would have said "Can we do it without cutting to the closer shot" though I'm still trying to claim it was mine. I'm insanely competitive, as I said. No, the truth is that Denis shot that and as soon as he saw the wide shot I think he felt he'd got it, and he had. I mean, holding things for a longer period of time, like that shot where you see the whole argument in wide shot and it's Josh Brolin and Emily Blunt are sort of - they had just come through hell and Josh Brolin's group had nearly caused a war on the border between Mexico and America and, you know, it's been a very tense scene with a brutal shootout and then they sort of race back and then - I mean I did my due diligence, which is to kind of compress time before you get there so things are happening too fast, and then you leave Juarez and afterwards the pace is tighter. So you kind of telescope time and give yourself the luxury of being able to sit back and just observe and also it gives you the wonderful irony of the American flag floating above the dust of the desert and a bit of the landscape. So there were kind of many good reasons to stay with it and, more so, the body language between Josh and Emily was - it seemed to kind of play very well in the wide. She really loses it in that moment because she's not a soldier, she's a cop, so it just felt the right thing to do. But they didn't shoot closer coverage and they had time to, so it was kind of a quite bold decision on set, that one. But yes, I'm going to say that Denis was very much influenced by the fact that he hired me as his editor. [both laugh] No, I'd love to take credit for that but they did it on set.

The Cutting Room: Now, you've also got a background in music and composing, so I was wondering with all that knowledge and experience, how did that affect your cutting process for the film and did you get to use it at all in this film?

Joe Walker: I mean, I'm basically a composer that kind of went into the wrong door one day. I still feel what I do is sort of this kind of musical thing and, you know, lots of it is to do with finding the kind of rhythm and building the layers of rhythm much in the same way as you would build a track. In this one, there was a real bold difference from the way things are normally done in that I cut a lot of it mute so the whole raid on Juarez I think I cut as a silent film. I just didn't want to be distracted by the sound effects, and then I brought them in later on once I was satisfied with the visual cut. So I literally turned the speakers off for a couple of days cutting that sequence. And Denis really loves it when I just turn the mixer down and try and cut things without sound. And sometimes even dialogue scenes. The big advantage on this film is that people are fairly quiet, I mean, Benicio barely says anything so it's kind of easy to cut his dialogue scenes without - Just looking at it and saying, "Does this film work without sound?" If it works without sound then it's in a very strong place.

Obviously, you allow time for sound effects and music and then I start working a lot on the sound. But just initially trying to make it very visually rhythmic. The other big difference was that I didn't put any temp tracks in. There was - you know, with action scenes people maybe always cut to some kind of beat and they'll have a clutch of sort of familiar temp tracks and I'm really tired of that, I think it's really abusive in a way. A friend of mine said that music is in an abusive relationship with film, and they keep going back for more because the money's good, you know, the fur coats are nice and this other stuff but basically it's black eyes all around. And the reason why is because we put in temp tracks and it forces composers to kind of obey the patterns that we find and then that sometimes, well, that doesn't always make original scores. Also I think it's bad insofar as there are some scenes that are working more because of the propulsion of the music than of the propulsion of the story and if you can make it work without music even though that's tough to do - it's really tough to say there's no atmosphere but there's going to be, you have to trust our soundtrack coming later to fill out those spaces - it's tough to do but I think it's really rewarding. It means Sicario is on the treadmills of the cutting rooms very hard, had full liposuction, there was no spare frame; everything was to a purpose and everything found its own internal rhythm and we worked really hard on the material in the film. You know, there was a lot of good stuff in Juarez, for example, we didn't keep repeating shots we just tried to kind of make it rhythmically and visually exciting.

The Cutting Room: Did you have temp tracks for those sort of droning bass beats?

Joe Walker: The great thing is after about five weeks of I think the director's cut, we had no music on it and we were just saying, "Okay, it's ready now to send it to Jóhann" and Jóhann [Jóhannsson] is the composer - Denis had worked with him before on Prisoners and I have a very good relationship and Jóhann, we sent him the cut with nothing on it, with no music on it and said, "Fill your boots, do what you like." And we got these four demos back - I think it was four - and they were all awesome but there was one particular one that was that heavy, distorted drum thing with the kind of lurching bass line and I think we danced around in the room when we heard that one because it just sort of sounded like the identity of the film. It was kind of the harsh, imperial march and it was just the right tempo, and he wrote that against the shots of the helicopters kind of float through El Paso over the barriers, over the wall, and then over to Juarez. There's a sequence that he wrote - the piece, that was the first piece of music that we had - and it was just very exciting coming from nowhere. We had sent him no preconceptions, we hadn't sent him some track by Hans Zimmer and said, "Please ape this," it was just something straight from Jóhann's heart.

The Cutting Room: It's always nerve-wracking when you get those sounds back for the first time.

Joe Walker: You know, you have to find the sound of the film and I think that was just the thing of hearing it in a track where you go "That is the sound of the film." It just has some swagger and sarcasm and it's dark and it kind of hits you in the stomach that piece and to me it just felt absolutely right. It's really weird, I've heard that through the doors of lots of screening rooms and it always makes my stomach churn a little bit.

The Cutting Room: Now, one of the things that I noticed in this film is that it seems like it's always about what's just below the surface or what's not available to us upon first sight. So, for example, when we get into the house in the very beginning, there's stuff behind the wall or we don't see Josh Brolin's sandals at first and then it pans down to them. But what I'm wondering about, in the editing process for something like this is, it's sort of a balance of information because you want to give - in particular, things like the bodies in the walls - you want to allude to it but you don't want to give away that sort of reveal. And I'm wondering how much work went into sort of choosing where to reveal things such as the bodies in the editing room.

Joe Walker: That's a good question. You know, certainly in the case of the bodies it was making sure that each of the steps was clear but still exciting and that was a delicate balance. It really came down to the number of frames you hold onto something. So, for example, when she comes through the door, the guy shoots at her and we have to kind of you know get the timing of boom bang on the walls so that you've got long enough to know that he's just blown a six inch dent in the wall, which we're going to come back to later. And just sort of slowly staggering it and the characters see something before we do and - I don't know, it was really frame accurate delicate negotiation, that one. One of the things in the whole film that is a sort of editing exercise in a way is how much does Emily see and how much do we see her see, and how much do things happen just by themselves, and that's kind of really a delicate balance because if everything she sees, you know, is a three - a shot of her looking, then a shot of what she sees, then a shot of her reacting to it - then if you're not careful it can turn into Queen Mother driving through Juarez, the pace would be too slow and she'd look like such a passenger. And so it was kind of a very delicate balance, that, you know, the film is really strongly from her point of view until a certain point and passive characters, things happening to her, that isn't necessarily the most cinematically successful. You know commercial cinema is kind of more hero and heroes change the world and change things you know, but we don't sit and watch them, necessarily. And that was, funny enough, a similar sort of problem, if you like, to 12 Years a Slave where Solomon, a lot of things happened to him and he was unable to respond to them. You know, he does, but you have to very carefully manage that so that you don't lose your patience with the central character and you just feel how things are for them without it being - without you feeling that they should get up and shoot people. So, I don't know, those things are really delicate balances that you have a little while to kind of work out. It's a kind of fun little game, really.

The Cutting Room: You had mentioned earlier that Benicio del Toro has very few lines of dialogue and in my research I found that originally in the script there were more lines of dialogue where he describes what he does and that doesn't appear in the film. Was that removed in the editing process? And how did that decision come about?

Joe Walker: I mean, it's always a difficult thing to talk about because it does a great disservice to Taylor Sheridan who did a great job of making this character mysterious. But, yes, it's fair to say that it kind of carried on during the shoot and I think that Benicio and Denis talked a lot and they pared down the script. I know that there was a speech in Juarez in the car where he pretty much explains his character and Benicio said his character was opening up to somebody that he'd met twelve hours earlier just didn't feel right so he ended up sort of transported those lines to somebody else and Josh used those lines later in the film and it made a lot more sense for him to say them. So, yes, we did cut a few things out.

The Cutting Room: Did you purposefully differentiate the editing between Mexico and the US or was that just due to the fact that... I felt that Mexico was more tighter in terms of close ups and the US was a little wider.

Joe Walker: That might be true, actually. Yeah, we did - It was to do with the character and discovering that character Sylvio and then we had that really beautiful shot that was sort of behind him as he sits up on bed and looks out the window. There's some great tension when you're looking at the backs of heads and that's a shot that Denis uses a lot. It partly works with an aesthetic that's almost like a first-person shooter aesthetic in the night vision sequence or something.

But it also, I think, sometimes - Like there's a moment where Reggie, the character Reggie, goes out of the house with the bodies in the wall and he goes out and he's just taking a breath and he feels sick from the smell of the bodies and he comes out and we just hover on the nape of his neck and his neck is in focus and everything else is out of focus and you just sort of feel it's a very vulnerable place on the body, isn't it? And you dwell on that sort of slightly perverse thing of being on the back of somebody's head. I don't know where I'm going with this. I think sort of Mexico was closer because we felt the strength of those shots. We did have wider material, it was a fantastic sequence where he sort of comes down the hill with his boy on the way to the football pitch and a bus collects them or drives past and, you know, they climbed up a hill and the motorbike goes past a bit too close. There's really a lot of stuff that we chopped and we just sort of kept it intimate and like a little portrait of a family.

The Cutting Room: Now, you're currently working with Denis again. Now that you've started this new project, how would you say your experience on Sicario has helped your relationship evolve or become stronger for this next film?

Joe Walker: Well I mean it's very relaxed in terms of the two of us together. We trust each other very much and there's no - It's a formula that's worked together very much and I enjoy his company enormously so, yeah. Steve McQueen and I did second and third films as well, there's a kind of shorthand you end up having and, I don't know, it's always lovely to work with someone a second time. Sicario worked out beautifully but, you know, the second time around there's no - I don't know - there's no fear. I feel I'm in a secure position and that just sort of brings the best out of everybody when they feel like that.

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