'Widows' Editor Joe Walker On Constructing The Year's Tightest Thriller [Interview]

During the Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with two-time Oscar-nominated film editor Joe Walker. Walker was attending the festival for the world premiere of Steve McQueen's new film, Widows. Our conversation in Toronto, which took place prior to the world premiere, where the film was met with glowing reviews.

Widows opens in theaters tomorrow, November 16, 2018.You've had a significant history working with both Steve McQueen and Denis Villeneuve. What is it about their style that keeps drawing you back for more?

Wow. Probably the fact that they'll have me. (Laughs) I don't know.  I'd done three films with Steve before I worked with Denis so it's been a kind of a growth together really. I'd done many years of editing on television and I've done a few films in Britain and I was aiming for something with more opportunity to deliver some personality through editing, I suppose. And we really hit the mark together on that. So it's a different experience. It was like growing up with a brother.  Denis and Steve both are very different directors. Their method is very different but they like elegance in editing and it's very hard sometimes to use words to describe editing and particularly hard to talk of yourself as if you're recognizing somebody else's kind of key things but I do notice in both their films that there's an opportunity to kind of linger sometimes on things other people would scuff past.

You've been nominated for two Academy Awards for your work on both Arrival and 12 Years A Slave. How does it feel to be honored by your peers for your work on a film?

The great thing about no matter how sort of heady all that stuff becomes, I have three daughters and one of them in particular is always great at bringing me back down to earth. We had a rather fantastic argument once about something.  I wouldn't pay for a cab fare or something. At that point, she said very sarcastically, "It's alright for you, Oscar-nominated Joe Walker!" I remember being grateful for that—being brought down to earth. The Academy—I don't know what direction it's going in now in terms of cutting the show down and trying to kind of tailor the show. It looks like craft might be sidelined as it already is elsewhere – BAFTA often edits craft from the broadcast and that's a shame because I always looked at those shows as a way of encouraging people into filmmaking and to a degree—with no disservice to the directors who obviously keep up the industry—it balances the kind of auteur notion that there's one person who's controlling all the dials.

There are some directors like that but the best ones I've worked with are great collaborators and they have artistic relationships with directors of photography, designers, editors, and composers. I think it helps recognize the team that builds the film and all the different skills involved in making a film that aren't necessarily the first idea one might have of the director with a monocle and a loudhailer.

As an editor, is there any difference between working from that very heavy with CGI as opposed to one that's super light on CGI?

The thing is that VFX are kind of becoming a common tool now so even editing challenges – where you might have said, well, we can't cut that because he's in the wrong position or it's a different day or he's got completely different costume – are questions that you could actually relatively cheaply fix with VFX.  Particularly because I've got this fantastic VFX editor that I've worked with since 12 Years A Slave on every film, Javier Marcheselli, who's a whiz on Nuke and can show you very quickly a temp that will kind of say if it'll work if, say, I want to use the left hand side of this shot and the right hand side of that shot. Then in a day or two, you're looking at what it might look like and it gives you pathways to cut the material differently. So that's not a direct answer to your question but what I'm saying is that whereas on 12 Years A Slave, I think there was like 30 or 40 big VFX shots and about 70 fixes little fixes—removing somebody from a shot or covering something up – there's now hundreds so there's been a steady progression of the number of shots that are involved in an edit anyway. Obviously, Blade Runner 2049—I think it was 1,100 VFX shots which is a sizable number of shots in the film that are either enhanced or completely CGI and the effect of that on the editing process is one—you have a bigger team to deal with. It's less intimate. 12 Years was just me and Steve in one room and Javier in another room. Whereas Blade Runner 2049, there was the whole building. That has a drag factor because it can sometimes take a long time for you to see even the first pass on a VFX shot and it makes a schedule different. It's going to be sometimes six months before you see something close to what the director imagined. But I don't know. We like doing down and dirty temps. That means that you can evolve the edit very quickly. On Arrival, I really learned that.  Denis would give me a little sketch. I'd grab that, take it to Javier and say, can you take this little bit of a shot, that little bit of a shot, and knock something up—I want to see what it looks like now. And then you can go, Okay, that's going to work, and you can develop a sequence and it makes it very much easier to brief everybody in the VFX teams as to what you want. Holograms in Blade Runner, for example, we will temp them up and make them sit in the right place and do the right thing at the right time and then you can present that to a VFX company and say okay, do your worst. I don't think there's a simple edit any more. In fact, Widows—the big appeal for me to work with Steve again was to think actually, you know after Blade Runner—because I literally finished Blade Runner on a Friday and I started Widows on a Monday – the big appeal rather taking a break – I couldn't say no to Steve, of course – was cutting something that was a bit more gritty and a little bit more down and dirty. I felt like it would be a different experience but actually you bring along all these kind of ideas from the previous film anyway and you bring along new techniques that you're kind of dying to try on another film.

Is there a program that you prefer?

I'm using Avid. I came up through film. I was on 16mm and 35mm film in my apprenticeship and then I learned Lightworks, which was really good editing program, which has been decline. And then Avid was everywhere and I thought I have to learn that. Avid is just very stable and reliable.

What's your process like in editing a film?

How do you mean–narrow that down for me a little bit.

widows clipHow much of it is working with the director and how much of it is by yourself or working with the team?

During shoot on a film, I'd be working very much on my own and sometimes—ideally—away from the location. I prefer not to be around the filming because I like to protect myself from the pain of the making (laughs). I had this experience many years ago when I went on set. It was a TV show that I was working on in Wales. I arrived on the location and there was this lady who'd been up on the roof of a cottage in the middle of a Welsh hillside. She was stapling plastic flowers to the side of a cottage, which was derelict but they were trying to make it look like a wedding set. They were making a huge shot with cranes with cars coming up the hillside, 150 guests, and everybody in wedding gear. She was miserable. She had spent the whole night up a ladder. She said the food was terrible and it was raining all night as she stapled flowers onto a brick wall. When it came to the edit—for the best impact on that scene we needed to come straight into the speech – that crane shot just had to go. Forget the slow establishing beautiful expensive shot. I was frightened to meet her in the green room after the first screening because of all of her work was for nothing. So I don't know. I'd just like to protect myself from knowing how elaborate it is to achieve a shot. It's all about the story for me and you have to have a heart of stone. But then once the shoot is over, I'm normally sitting next to the director every day for months. That's where you kind of get very used to having Steve just there and you're just passionately trying to work through the options and hone the cut over a period of time. I like that. I like having the pressure of somebody next to me.

While watching the final cut, has there ever been a time where you thought maybe you could have done something a bit differently?

I wouldn't change a thing in any of these films. I don't think there's anything that I would do. It's a very strange process. I haven't seen the last two films on the screen since we finished working on them. You need a period of time—a couple of years probably—to be able to watch the film without just being aware of all of the details that you've put into it. After a couple of years, you can check into a hotel and turn the television on and, Oh my goodness, they're showing 12 Years A Slave or Sicario or something like that and then you look at it like a member of the audience without really remembering what your choices were and what the next thing that's coming. There's great pleasure in hearing the same thing over and over and over like a popular song and there's a certain joy in seeing the pattern of it and then particularly taking it out and showing it to audiences and test audiences, I think, is a great part of the process where you test our different rhythms and pace and shape and order. It will take a couple of years before I'll be able to see Widows like a member of the audience does. But no, there's nothing really—there's nothing yet that I've ever thought we could do better. We've tried every possible nuance.

How has your editing process changed as technology came into the digital era?

Yeah. That just arrived at the same time as me kind of going up a step. So I have the background of working on film, which was very useful. The way that film editors of old would look at the dailies because they really have to think through a sequence before committing themselves to cut because cutting was messy. You had bits of scotch tape and glue and handling of the film could sometimes kind of add a little acid marks and scratches and things. You had to be very delicate with physical film. And it meant that film editors would often screen the dailies maybe once or twice and go backwards and forwards and really think about a cut before they committed to it. I did inherit that and I think that was a very useful skill of being able to kind of look at the dailies and get a picture of how you can structure a scene. That can mean you have a choice often of what shot size you're on. I could have a wide shot, a medium shot, a close up shot. When in this scene is it a critical time to be on your big close-up? Is it necessary to show where everybody is in the room in order to get an idea of the place? When can you give production design a bit of space to maybe emphasize somebody's loneliness or whatever it is? Those choices are things that you think of before you commit. I have that background but luckily the advantages of being able to do multiple versions and change things very quickly in Avid and sketch things and keep evolving a cut before I even show it to anybody. So I kind of have the best of both worlds so I'm happy with that.