This month Alumni Voices talks to Joe Walker, a British film editor and composer who is best known for his work on Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Dune (2021). Most recently, Joe won an Oscar for his role as Film Editor on Dune (2021).*
Tell us about how your time at York impacted you.
In 1981 I stepped out, as a 17 year old, onto the wooden floor of the Lyons Concert Hall, where we were playing ‘Trans’ by Stockhausen – this hideously modern ugly, brilliant piece. My mind was absolutely blown, being so suddenly in a truly international and avant-garde environment.
The Music department was unlike other departments – we were playing, living and loving together. My mind was constantly being expanded and challenged by other people’s points of view – it was such a great environment for learning. Rather than being coached and pushed through things, we were getting there by collaborating. 25% was the course and 75% was the influence of colleagues who I’m still talking to 37 years later. I’m still in touch with other Music students – one is an electric composer in Austria, one writes comedies and musicals in London, another is Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Cork. During the pandemic we started zooming each other and would often talk about how unparalleled the York experience was.
I have lots of strong personal connections to York; my family were originally from the city; I was married for 25 years to Suzie who studied English at York; my eldest daughter also studied here. I love being back and still have many friends here.
I admire the way TFTI has forged a connection between the world of study and the wider industry. I’ve always been drawn to a structure of things being measurable commercially, I believe it helps creativity.
Which college were you in?
Langwith. I didn’t spend much time there as I met someone in a bar who had a spare room on the Bishopthorpe Road, so I moved out before the end of the first term.
After leaving University, what did the early stages of your career look like?
I twigged really quickly that I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a composer, so started doing temp work at the BBC. I landed a job in the gramophone library, gaining a hideous job title: ‘A to A to A-i-c’ – meaning ‘assistant to the assistant to the assistant in charge, External Programme Operators’. It was a trial year to get my foot in the door and I thought it would be easier to get wind of things I wanted to do, like film editing and sound editing. I did everything I could – I worked on the research team on a show with Margaret Thatcher, operating the phones – anything I could do to get into that world.
My break into the cutting rooms was when I made a friend, Linda, who worked as an assistant editor. I started helping out on a film about the writer, Italo Calvino. I was just in the background learning how to do the job. Suddenly, Calvino died and the cutting room had to turn the show around very quickly. I found the right place to be and somebody recognised that. At the end of it Linda said, ‘he’s a keeper’.
How did your music degree prepare you for your career in film editing? Do you still use the skills you learnt at University in your job?
If you’ve seen the films I’ve been working on, I hope you’d recognise a kind of musicality at play there. I think I’m hired by people like Denis Villeneuve and Steve McQueen who recognise musicality and rhythm in what I do; trying to make a beautiful marriage between performance, visuals, sound and music. The rhythm can be constructed out of anything: it can be the raising of an eyebrow, the sound of a thumper or Hans Zimmer and a giant orchestra of alpine horns. Whatever it is, I’m trying to unify it into a very musical experience so I feel like there’s an element of composing in what I do.
It’s a delicate balance to get that moment right, where things just click.
What do you enjoy most about your job and what do you find the hardest part?
I join production pretty much on day one, so I get to see the fruits of all this planning that’s been going on for 2-3 years, sometimes longer. I get to have a front row seat at this key moment – I really love that. I enjoy being surprised by the performance. I read a script and never quite know what they (the actors) are going to do with it. Working with Michael Fassbender, for example, I couldn’t begin to anticipate what he would do with a scene. Actors do something totally different from what you are expecting with so much personality, complexity and humanity.
The hardest part is the politics of the job – there’s a managerial role to it. I have to keep a family of people together, especially during the pandemic where some of us were working out of flats or garden sheds. It’s important to at least keep the feeling of a corridor where you can walk up and down, and see how people are doing.
Ending the edit is also really hard as there comes a point where if you keep going too long, you could ruin something. A lot of filmmakers don’t like test screenings but I really do because there is this undeniable moment when you’re watching with a group of people when a film works, you can just smell it – you can feel when it has everybody’s attention. Eyes on stalks as well as bums on seats. Those moments, if you’re working on a comedy, are very audible. If a joke doesn’t get a laugh in two screenings, you’re going to cut it and try something else. Comedy directors work really hard with editing to perfect every little laugh. Sometimes you don’t know how long somebody’s going to laugh for, a laugh happens but it runs into the next thing and people don’t hear the setup for the next gag so you have to give another 8 frames – a third of a second – just to allow that laughter a place. It’s a delicate balance to get that moment right, where things just click.
When people have seen a cut a thousand times you also have to fight off a lot of impatient hacking and slashing at things. You’re going, ‘No, no, no! You need that moment at the beginning of the shot, before the hand comes in. Yeah, I can tighten the shot, I can make it shorter, but you’re not going to feel it any more.’ It’s having to sustain some of your first instincts throughout a year-long process – that’s tough.
What are the most important elements you have in mind when you are cutting a scene?
Identify the most important thing an audience needs to take away from this scene and find the most effective way to sell it. You have to make sure there’s a certain ‘stickiness’ to the idea.
That’s often to do with shedding things, to help shape a scene. Often, you’re trying to do too many things. If I throw ten balls at you, there’s a chance you’re not going to catch any of them. If I throw only one ball, with purpose and having clearly indicated that I’m going to throw it, you’re engaged and you will catch it.
Please could you talk us through the editing process. Is it a collaborative effort with the Director?
Ultimately, it’s the director’s film. I’m a team player and here to really nail down what the director’s intentions are, to satisfy his or her creative vision for a film. Especially on a film like Dune, which is something that Denis (Villeneuve) has been imagining for such a long time. He read the book at a very pivotal moment when he was 14 and fell in love with it. He started sketching images even back then. So this is his movie. I’m there with my colleagues in production design, camera, sound department and so on – we’re all working to realise that vision. Denis does create a great atmosphere of ‘best idea wins’ – he’s open to things being different from how he planned them.
Out of all the directors I’ve worked with, Denis probably understands editing the most instinctively. Denis’s beginnings are really interesting. He won a prize when he was a young man which gave him a chance to travel the world making documentary films. He had to make a story every week, doing everything himself (shooting it, editing it, narrating it, you name it). He told me that the first couple of films were brilliant fun but after about three weeks you’d start to run out of ideas. He really learnt to make something out of nothing; it was his great grounding. I think he’s got a really good understanding of what I need to build a sequence. We both enjoy very similar things, such as the striptease that these films can be, for example the Heptapods in Arrival – the choice of how much you show, which really gives you suspense and tension.
How was the experience of editing Dune during the Covid pandemic?
There were pros and cons. The boundaries between home and work became really blurred. In my Oscars acceptance speech, I said something along the lines of this, that I had a ball getting there but my kids didn’t have a choice. They had to come along for the ride, like it or not. My middle daughter had to listen to a worm surface over and over while she was trying to do her coursework. It may be a surprise for people to know that the words, ‘Oscar nominated’ can be used, in the hands of a skilled seventeen-year-old, as an insult!
On the plus side, the flexibility of homeworking really suited me – I’m not a fan of that moment in a studio environment when you’re the last person on site and there’s nowhere to eat. It’s not the right headspace to be in when you’re trying to be creative so that was a bonus. Rather than spending hours awake at night worrying about how to change something, I could just go downstairs and fix it.
What is your favourite shot from all the films you have edited?
There’s one shot in Dune: it’s not the sexiest shot but it’s a shot that I just love. It’s of Oscar Isaac’s hand touching Rebecca Ferguson’s neck, reassuring her. It was part of a more fully scripted scene where they say goodbye to the servants but we ended up just using a tiny fraction of it where you see this family about to leave their home planet. It said more than you could in a thousand pages of dialogue. It showed the trust between these two people; her anxiety, his reassurance – and it’s just a very sensory thing. We all know what it’s like to get a little neck rub. It’s a beautiful, touching, elliptical shot that tells you everything you need to know about those two characters; unlike the standard Bene Gesserit arrangement, Lady Jessica is no concubine or bodyguard – they love each other. It was the timing of it and the context of it – to me it’s just pure cinema.
What’s next for you?
I can’t wait to get back working with the Dune team. If there’s one thing I could try and transmit today it’s my passion for what we are able to do in cinema; it’s sustainable, brilliant, profitable and spiritually enlightening. Dune touches on lots of contemporary issues: the relationship between women and power, ecology, climate change. They’re on a desert planet and if they don’t adapt they’ll die. It’s more than just an entertaining piece of fiction. I can’t wait to get back into Dune 2 and be with my Dune family, making another wonderful exotic adventure in the desert. It’s really exciting to be part of.
*Walker has been twice nominated for an Academy Award Film Award for his work on 12 Years a Slave (2013), Arrival (2013) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). He has been nominated for the Evening Standard Theatre Award in 2009, British Independent Film Award in 2010, Satellite Award in 2011, 2013, and 2015. He has received a string of four nominations over five years for the American Cinema Editors Award for Best Edited Feature Film – Dramatic and in 2016 he won, for Arrival. He won the European Film Award for Best Editor for Shame in 2012 and Satellite Award for Best Editing for Sicario in 2016.
Feature Image of Joe at the Oscars by Allen Schaben