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Joe Walker on Editing Arrival

Joe Walker joins Gordon to discuss the editing of Denis Villeneuve's film Arrival. They focus on Time and manipulating time in the editing room among many other topics. (Photograph by Michael Legato)

Go to aotg.com/cuttingroom for more interviews including another interview with Joe Walker discussing tone.


The Cutting Room: To start off, what did you learn from working with Villeneuve on Sicario that you've brought to this project and were able to use in your editing process?

Joe Walker: Well I mean it's an advantage working with somebody - I've been very lucky, you know working with somebody a second or a third time. We're now on our third film and of course I've had that with Steve McQueen. You know, we did three films together, and it means you are very much emboldened and trusted and the formula works and Denis is just magnificent.

Both directors are just fantastic people to learn from and experiment with and both are actually more similar than dissimilar in many ways. You know there's a certain alchemy that happens in their cutting rooms, and the thing I particularly love with them is that they talk to me the way they would probably talk to an actor. So they'll identify a problem or they'll give me a thought on a scene but they don't dictate exactly how to get there. They would leave it to me to find a solution within the material, so you manage to still own the process in some way even though you're working in collaboration and, you know, for a great director. It just brings all your passion to the project and, you know, we worked very hard together on Arrival, but it was in the company of somebody who I have a lot of respect for, so, it's really the best kind of process.

With Sicario, specifically to your question, I mean while we were working on Sicario I kept overhearing these fun conversations that Denis was having in the corridor outside [the cutting room], I'd often overhear a conversation that went a bit like this: I'd hear his voice saying, "Perhaps we should think about having no mouth at all." (Joe and Gordon laugh) or, "Maybe we should contemplate no eyes," and I kept thinking, "What is this project?" and then I got to read it and I was really fascinated and very very glad I got the gig, especially because, you know, the subject matter is very much in the heart of editing, to do with time, nonlinear time, and I always think time is the editor's superpower, particularly with a project like this one, where you have a lot of free material that's very poetic and lyrical and could really be in any order. In fact, after the first assembly when we looked at it together in Montreal, Denis said to me, "You know, this could be a documentary. From all this material we need to find our film." (Both laugh).

So, the approach was very free and it felt I had a lot to do with rendering the story, in the right order. Let's put it that way.

The Cutting Room: There are so many things that you've mentioned here that I have questions about now, but I'm going to dive into the idea of time and editing, and I guess starting with the pacing, because the film is so, like you said, it's very poetic, in how it rolls out or reveals the story. So I'm wondering how did you work with Villeneuve to get the structure and the pacing to work for this film so that the audience is constantly moving forward but you can still be slow and methodical at certain moments.

Joe Walker: I remember key moments where we wanted the pace to remain quite stately because we felt there was a lot of suspense and tension to be brought up, so we really took our time in the scenes where Louise and Ian first go into the shell, and it felt like we had a powerful tension there that we didn't want to race. And then the larger concerns were about delivering a twist, so for us to land the real truth about what's happening to this woman at the end of the film, we had to be generous as storytellers, and it's one of those very difficult things to gauge because you have to test against an audience, and when we were viewing the film in the early stages there were some things that people didn't get.

A very very clever friend of ours came to see the film and had an explanation for what had happened that was completely, well, wrong isn't the right word but, you know, it was far from what we intended, so it was a question of trying to make sure that that person would have a much clearer idea of what was going on but not to be ahead and not to be too far behind her, so it's one of those measurements against an audience and I think the screening process is probably the best way to discover what problems are there.

The other aspect of it is trying to kind of move the film through these flashes to this child by a lake and lakeside house, and really, we were free to put the sequences in any order at all, and in editing terms it was a question of juxtaposing those images in the right place and at the right time and I had a lot of material that was shot at the lakeside house. I also had a lot of shots of Amy being troubled by a thought or an idea or a memory, so it was just making sure that even though those fragments don't necessarily have huge clues, or are directly pertinent sometimes, that they were in the right place and for the right length of time.

The other element of pacing, I'd say, is how much we reveal about the aliens, and the heptapods, when you first see them just in the distance and through smoke, and then we were always trying to keep some elements of surprise so that as you get close to them, as she takes off her hazmat suit and she comes up close to the screen, you get a chance to really investigate the skin texture, for example, and I definitely held those shots long, which is always a hard thing to do when you're editing without CGI [images in place]. Two of the major characters were missing for a large part of post-production because all we had to go on was our instincts as to how long to hold things, and I always fancied it would be a good thing to allow the audience to invest and read and feel and respond, rather than the thing thrashing past in a dizzy.

The Cutting Room: I noticed that the first time we see the aliens. The whole scene, from getting into the spaceship and figuring out that you have to shift your gravity- Up to the actual reveal. What I found really interesting about that is how drawn out that moment is, or how the time sort of stretches out. I was sitting there and was like, "I really just want to see these aliens." It was very suspenseful, so how do you, when you're building something like that scene, how do you choose between withholding the reveal and building suspense and pushing the story forward?

Joe Walker: Well, I think it was just a delicate balance. Trying not to milk it but also trying to create an atmosphere, a mood. I think there is a really good word for this which is liminality, my ex-wife worked in museums and galleries and she always used to use this word and it's that kind of mood you get when you enter a space like a church or an art gallery, and it's a hard word to define, but there's something almost religious.

We could turn that walk [in the spaceship] into a procession, and in fact, the music, I think, Johann's music in some way reflects some sense of an arcane ritual or some kind of processional. There was plenty of ways to kind of keep the drama, but at a very slow tempo, and then, in fact, when we finally reveal the aliens it's quite a quick moment. It's over in just a few shots and you're left with somebody in a blind panic, not knowing what to do, which all of us can (laughs) empathize with in that situation.

So, I don't know, I mean, Denis is a master of suspense and tension, and we found that on Sicario, you know, that there's a huge buildup to the gun fight on the bridge. I think it's about 15 minutes of build to that moment and it's over in seconds. It's just this short burst of ultra violence and delivered at the end of a long stretched anticipation of it, and that just feels like... that's heaven for an editor to play with that material.

The Cutting Room: I was also thinking about when the soldiers put the bomb in the spaceship. The whole time all I could think about was, or not the whole time, afterwards, all I could think about was the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview where he talks about placing the bomb under the table and then setting the scene and then allowing the scene to play out and how suspenseful that was.

Joe Walker: Yes, I was going to read that interview again while we were cutting that scene because I remembered that reference. And, like so many things, I've talked to people and they said, "What other films were a reference to you?" And in fact, we've all seen tens of thousands of hours of drama and in a way it didn't feel right to go and see Contact or Close Encounters again because we've all seen them and they've influenced us and I'm trying to respond to the material I've got rather than other people's material. So I had the same feeling with the Hitchcock interview. I was very conscious of it but I didn't go and seek it out in case it went opposite to my instinct in some way. (laughs).

The Cutting Room: Or your memory, I always find that I remember films slightly different than what they are and then I re-watch them, it's like reading that book it might be completely different from how you remember it.

Joe Walker: Well it's nice to cite something as influence without actually having seen it. (laughs). But, the most interesting stuff for us was building - because the choice was made that we wouldn't feature as a parallel story, for example, in China or in the UK or in Africa. We had to build that outside world and everything they shot was green screen. We had to kind of start from scratch to build up the world falling apart, disintegrating into some terrible paranoia and mutual suspicion, and that zwas another story, but it's also pacing, trying to build that outside force through screens, and there's lots and lots of screens in the film.

One of the decisions that they made, was that the world she inhabits on the Army base is filled with laptops and Skype screens and computer monitors and a very big widescreen inside that shows where they witness the heptapods, but, contrary to that you had this completely beautiful counterpoint of the world of the mother and child by the lake where there's no screens, or very little. Nothing like it as far as I can remember, and this totally different color palette that Bradford Young so beautifully shot, so there was a lot of elements to control. It was really fun. There was a lot of rich material to get it to belong together.

The Cutting Room: Now, earlier in our talk you had mentioned that, because it was a story about time, you got to play with time a lot, could you elaborate on that?

Joe Walker: It's my big obsession in life. I mean, I think time is our superpower as editors, and you only have to look at Shakespeare. I think there's nothing approaching a proper flashback. I mean, Shakespeare couldn't use flashbacks. We've got that tool in our box and in pacing terms we can expand a moment and look. Like a car crash, you know that moment when you're driving and somebody peels out in front of you without indicating. Those little moments where your sense of time warps, and I'm fascinated by that, and of course we can jump in time and I think there's nothing more satisfying for an audience when they know where something's going on, to then jump to it, missing out all the steps in between, it's super satisfying, to have that little jump in time.

There was a really good one in Shame that I was very happy with where Brandon's boss is flirting with Brandon's sister and we end the scene with the two of them flirting and ordering champagne and then we cut straight to the back of the cab and Michael Fassbender's looking out of the window in one direction and his boss and his sister are snogging in the back of the car. You go from intention to result in 1/24th of a second, and there was a lot of intervening material where they hailed a cab and were drunk, and this beautiful Jules et Jim like scene that Steve shot, but I cut it out one time and looked at it and showed it to Steve and we never put it back in because it was such a kind of beautiful jump.

So, in a wider sense I'm kind of fascinated as well by the neuroscience of it and there's a lot of people studying the way the brain edits, and there's some very, I mean I don't know if you want me to go into too much detail on this, but, for example-

The Cutting Room: Are you talking about... because I've been reading that stuff too, so there's like the stuff out of California and then there's the stuff out of the UK that I've seen. So, one's eye tracing and the other's sort of the brainwaves when the audience sees the cuts...

Joe Walker: That's right. The one that fascinated me was, you know how often neuroscience studies things through anomalies. They also look at people with brain damage to see what's different, and one of the anomalies that I really love that they studied, I can't tell you where I saw it, I could try and find out, was the clock anomaly, where the situation is this: you are maybe coming out into a large public space and your eye scans for a clock to confirm the time. Maybe you're catching a train or plane and if the clock has a seconds hand there is sometimes an anomaly where you find the clock and you look at it for a moment and think that it's stuck or stops and then the second hand moves and then it seems to work at a more regular pace, and there's this odd moment where you think, "How come my eye stopped on the clock at exactly the same time as it froze?"

And what that suggests is that the brain has cut a lot of material out of you searching, your eye scanning, and it fills in the gap with the first new thing that your eye arrives at, so it actually fills in the gap of time. It's only a tiny microsecond, but it means that for that first second it feels longer because your brain has made it longer. It cuts all the stuff out in the middle and I'm rather fascinated by the, the sense that nobody lives in the moment as the hippies used to say in the 60's. There's a lot of super-processing going on and time is a super flexible element. I mean, the fact that nobody really even knows if it exists chemically, or is identified with any particular synaptic movement, suggests it's a very mysterious thing, indeed.

Trying to bring that to film making is a little difficult. It's an esoteric conversation. But, I kind of always think that that's the joy in life, is I can play with the pacing of things and sometimes, especially when you cut a scene and it's bound by continuity and, you know, in your first cuts you'll often pay your respects to the continuity of a scene and smooth things out, and I'm always hiding myself and trying to kind of make my cuts kind of, blend into the scene, but then occasionally, disturbing that gives you a great result. There's a very good example in, in Arrival, I think, which is, there's a nightmare scene, and I don't know if you remember but halfway through the film-

The Cutting Room: The alien appears right next to her?

Joe Walker: Yes. Yeah. In her Army quarters. How that came about was a real joy because the scene was a normal scene. Originally the scene went in a different direction, and basically there was this large piece of tubing in the film that we wanted to get rid of, and originally, her deteriorating state of mind caused alarm and Colonel Weber, who was standing above her, at her bed, ends the scene by saying, "Til we know what's wrong with you we're going to bench you," and the mission gets taken over by Donnelly and then several scenes later it returns back into her control.

But, it was, for us, in story terms, an unnecessary red herring, and, it was all great stuff but we had to make some economy, so we cut the whole scene out. I mean it was just a normal scene where Ian comes round, sits next to her and says, "You know, I've read about this theory and the idea that immersing yourself in another language rewires the brain," and she says, "Yes, but, you know, I'm fit enough for this mission."

We took it out and then we realized nobody in the film articulates that thought, and it's a very useful clue as to what's going on, and, without it, the film suffered a little bit, so me and Denis were in the cutting room one day in Montreal and, and he said, "Well, why don't we just put together the bits of the scene that don't take us down that rabbit hole, and let's see if there's any way we can construct a scene without it."

And it felt like a tall order, because I knew, once you cut to Weber, then the scene goes into that direction and it's very hard to kind of cut out of it, but we ended up joining three or four pieces of footage together and the first thing that was great was you went from a shot of Ian to another shot of Ian. Very similar shot, and his head's down, now it's up, and her head is pointing left when it was right.

And, you know, It's a really jarring jump cut, and then the next thing we had was Amy, a close up, and she's constantly looking off-screen, originally to Weber, but we never cut to Weber, and that was the day that we saw the first animation test of this, heptapod moving through mist and it was a walk test, an animation walk test, and Denis just said, "Well, let's put the alien at the bottom of her bed."

And that jump cut was just so effective at saying there's something wrong, and then on the soundtrack we added the sound of the canaries so again there's another thing that's wrong, and then there's a sort of doomy tone, so, third clue that not all is as it seems, and then a cut to a heptapod and then Louise waking up, and we had a really excellent way of going into her head and it told us about her state of mind and it gave us a theory as to what was going on in her mind, and it also meant that she was dreaming about Ian which was psychologically good, you know, to give a sense of attachment to him for later in the film.

So, I don't know if that was a little bit of alchemy in the cutting room where, time, and the fact that you have a sort of garish, jump cut in the middle of it which is so different from the rest of the film which is very metrical and rhythmic and, and relatively smooth, I would say. I hope. (laughs). To have something kind of quite garish was - we never changed it. I mean, that was just exactly how it landed on our timeline, and with a bit of work on the sound we had a new sequence, so, yeah. Time is, is our superpower.

The Cutting Room: I think we'll have to make a t-shirt that says that. (laughs).

Joe Walker: Yeah. (laughs). Well nobody else gets to play with it. I once had a review of something I worked on and I was really infuriated that they, the reviewer, said the camera man really knows how long to hold a shot. (laughs). I was like, "Hey, mister."

The Cutting Room: Now, I'm wondering if you could tell me about working with Johann again with this music. It has some similarities to Sicario and I'm wondering if you relied on the original Sicario music just to get you through until he created it, or if you worked with him during the cutting process.

Joe Walker: Well we did, I mean on Sicario and on Arrival we tried to avoid music for as long as possible in the editing. During the shoot, I think, Denis handed me a track that Johann had sent. He sent two or three tracks and one of them was the very weird vocal sound, with the kind of strange piano loop, it's like a really bizarre-

The Cutting Room: That sounded almost like whales making noise?

Joe Walker: Yeah. You hear it when they fly to the spaceship for the very first time, and it's got this kind of circular pattern which is really beautiful and the sound underneath it is a drone that's made of piano notes overlaid on each other, but without hearing the attack of the note. It's just more the vibration of the instrument. So that was just written not to picture or anything, it was just a track that was sent and it was just so blindingly good, like Sicario, we had a moment where we leapt around the cutting room, very excited. But, really, apart from that piece or maybe one other, there was nothing in the first assembly, and the reason behind that is just a choice.

I come from a music background, I was a composer and I'm very nervous about over-reliance on temp tracks. I think they are unfair to composers because they tie their hands behind their backs before they've had a chance to respond to a tabula rasa, and also it means in sound terms, it prohibits the investigation of silence and the investigation of sound effects, so I like, if possible, to do things with an atmosphere or a mood, or in Twelve Years a Slave, cicadas, for example.

In Sicario there were long periods where we didn't need music, and it was just good to get the cut in such a good place, and also, with temp, you end up with a John Williams track dictating the pace of your movie rather than the story and the performance, so the same happened on Arrival.

We tried as much to avoid any temp tracks and also just tried to only use Johann's music and then the next big piece I think he turned in was this incredible music for a montage that we created in the middle of the film, which there's a section where we go into voice over, and it was originally five or six scenes in the shell, and we just felt we wanted to condense them and deliver the information in a different way than other-using sequences inside the shell, and it was also a chance to kind of spend a bit of time with Ian's character and also crack a joke about Sheena Easton, so we had (laughs) lots of reasons to do this montage, and I sent a kind of cut to Johann quite early and he sent back this extraordinary piece with this kind of chirping vocal sound. I mean, most of the track, most of the soundtrack is vocal in origins which felt very right for the subject about language and humanity.

The Cutting Room: Now, I have to ask this question and it's a really, I guess, a pompous question,(laughs) but, Villeneuve is... all his films raise these philosophical questions and pose them to the audience, like, "What would you do?" And so I'm wondering, what are your discussions like in the cutting room? Are they very philosophical or is it more work-based?

Joe Walker: No, we crack jokes and make each other laugh all the time. (laughs) We really do. Yeah I mean he's an incredibly funny man to be with, and it's not quite as serious as perhaps... I mean the same with Steve, very often we'd be listening to things on iTunes together and joking about life in Ealing [UK], you spend a lot of time with directors and he's to my right and there every day, and we work very hard, and, I mean, I do love the fact that he's a family man, so weekends he tries to avoid working us all into the ground and we just work very hard and you try not to... We don't sit around and talk about girlfriends, or not too much detail on that. Just there's a professional distance, but I'm very very fond of him as a human being and the conversation is very wide ranging.

On both Sicario and Arrival I was not on set. I was far away, I cut remotely in LA while they were working either in New Mexico or while they were in Albuquerque, for Sicario and they were in Montreal for Arrival, and there was no need for me to come out there and he's very well-prepared and planned, and these days I can send a cut and he can watch it that night and I can phone him and we can exchange views on material as he goes along, so, in some way I quite like that remove, but then when we join together in post-production, and you're spending weeks and weeks and weeks together, and you really get to find out what the intentions were and try, in some way, sometimes, to return the film to the original intention.

And Denis always had a lot of respect for the short story and it's very difficult to say this without sounding like I'm dissing the screenplay, which I think is brilliant, but you know editing is the culmination of all the crafts. It's the end of all the camera work and the performance and the directing and the art department and the music and you're you're taking it to its final shape, so that work continues and it's a sort of position of responsibility, but a key ingredient in that is really getting to know what your director set out to find, and in some ways, trying to keep the clay wet and try to render the perfect shape.

The Cutting Room: Now, I have one last question and last time I asked you about your favourite guilty pleasure film, but you mentioned that you and Denis, would listen to iTunes or podcasts, so what are some of the things you listen to in your cutting room that people might not know about?

Joe Walker: (laughs) Uhh, well, I mean, that was actually Steve McQueen I meant.

The Cutting Room: Sorry.

Joe Walker: Yeah, no, I mean he's, I mean like, uhh, what would I listen to with Denis? You know, we would show each other things on Facebook, like everybody else you know. I mean, the one big thing that was going on during Arrival was the rise of Donald Trump. And there was a lot of, discussion of that. (laughs) Umm, I'm trying to think about music. It's funny that, you know, Denis will sometimes play me something. There was something he played me quite recently and it just took my breath away because it's something I've loved for years, and, you know I think we're two peas in the same pod. We're both very sad about Leonard Cohen last week, I mean, you know, I-

The Cutting Room: Yeah, that was terrible.

Joe Walker: Really terrible and just terrible timing, you know (laughs). And I've been listening to the album, you know Make it Darker. I've been listening to it over and over. It's been on-

The Cutting Room: It's so good!

Joe Walker: Yeah. Such a great album, such poignant lyrics and he's always been my go to guy when you're feeling a little blue, you know. He just seems to kind of express things so perfectly. Yeah. I think Denis actually even credited Leonard Cohen at the end. He sent a message to Leonard Cohen at the end of one of his films. I can't remember which one, I think it's at the end of Enemy or Incendies or something, there's a little message for Leonard Cohen.

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