Joe Walker is a two-time Oscar-nominated film editor who is responsible for cutting some of the best action and sci-fi films of this decade.
Before that, Walker cut his teeth on some of Britain’s most prestigious television films and series’, honing his craft while also dabbling in his original passion, music.
His work with Denis Villeneuve is legendary: from Sicario to his Oscar-nominated work in Arrival to last year’s epic Blade Runner 2049, Walker is one of Hollywood most sought after editors.
He’s edited all of Steve McQueen’s films including the Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. When it came time to put together the team for Widows, a major style departure for McQueen, Walker was the only choice. Not only because the two had collaborated on every project together but Walker was already fit and suited for an action-packed suspense thriller like Widows.
Widows is the story of four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities. Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, tensions build when Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) take their fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.
I sat down with Walker at the Toronto International Film Festival in September as Widows made its world premiere and asked him about his early inspirations, working on strong, female-led films and the sequences that will have everyone talking.
AW: I’m curious where you started, not in your career, but the inspiration for you to be like, ‘I need to be making movies.’
JW: I credit a lot of this to the fact that my mum and dad were given an 8mm standard box Brownie for a wedding present in the fifties. So when we grew up we’d put a projector on the top of the television and pointed at the wall and we’d show these little three-minute movies, and silent. I was the youngest and that sort of really was interested me. Then I bought my own camera with money through a paper route. I bought a Russian 8mm mechanical clockwork camera. It was brilliant. And I took it to a Wimbledon. I was really into tennis at that time and they used to let kids go in pretty much for free and I set a brand new camera on a tripod because I wanted to get Roscoe Tanner’s serve. Roscoe Tanner at the time was this American guy who had the fastest serve in the world.
He was always beaten by the Bjorn Borgs of this world because, you know, if you could return that serve I don’t think there was a great game after that. So I set the thing up, this is probably too much detail for you, but I’ll tell you anyway, I set the tripod up and I had bought this camera because it had a 64 frames a second setting which means four times slower and I thought I’ll get a slow motion shot of Roscoe Tanner. What I hadn’t done, because it was a brand new camera, was tested this out and when I poised, he was about to serve and I pressed the button and it basically sounded like a road drill and it interrupted his serve. I was think I was only 12 and I’d set up next to the sports photographers and one guy said to me, you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. I went bright red and Roscoe Tanner turned around to me and said ‘Thanks.’ And the judge said ‘Silence on court!’ I was really embarrassed but when I got the film back there was this fantastic shot of him turning to camera and then it sort of fogs out.
But then I had a choice. I was really into music and writing music and I was in bands and then I went and studied composition, classical music, and classical kind of contemporary music. I was writing orchestral music when I was 20 and I had two careers going at the same time. I was at an editor on television drama and comedy and arts documentaries and but at the same time, at night and at weekends and whenever I could, I was writing music for documentaries and dramas and children’s programs and all this kind of stuff.
What tipped the scale?
I think the big advantage of writing music for me or the big draw of it was that it’s your blank page and as an editor you’re working with existing material and ultimately you’re a collaborator. A composition is your solution to a blank page; I don’t have to deal with a blank page at all as an editor, there’s material to push around. You can make a huge impact on that material, of course, but you didn’t generate it. It’s like; you’d never had sit there scratching your head for days trying to work out how to start the scene. So I felt relieved sometimes of the pressure of that. Here I am repeatedly writing music for documentaries where you have to come up with an idea and that’s tough. It’s tough. I like collaborating with people. One of the big differences I found was that I like the kind of being in the center; really you’re kind of the still point of the turning world during a shoot. And you’re in contact with everybody, the composer, the sound editor, the cameraman and the actors, you know, you’re working with this performance all the time.
Whereas as a composer, it’s a lonely world. You’re out in orbit and you have to kind of crash your plane down at the perfect kind of angle. It’s a fucking miracle, to be honest, that ever works. I also figured I could be an old composer and not necessarily an old editor. I’d love to write music again full time at some point, but I think I’m on a good run with film so I’ll stick with that.
I think so; you’re doing pretty well there.
You’ve worked multiple times with Denis Villeneuve and have cut all of Steve McQueen films. What were the biggest differences and challenges with Widows compared to his other films, which are pretty different than this?
Each of Steve’s films takes on new territory. I wonder whether people are ready for Widows. I don’t know if they know what they’ve let themselves in for. It’s completely a different genre for him but of course, there’s many signature moves that identify as Steve’s vision. I mean, not least of which is the fact that it’s a tale about four women. There was a big round of applause last night [at the Widows premiere at TIFF] at a certain moment and somebody said to me, ‘Well, you know, girls aren’t always used to seeing them get the money.’
I know the moment you mean, it was quite a robust audience. They were waiting for those moments and they got it.
They got it. I mean, that took a lot of engineering. We screened the film a few times and were always trying to kind of build the pace; the typical pace of a heist movie is gradually accelerating towards a dynamic conclusion.
So you always have that kind of feel in a heist movie. But here, dealing with many characters, I think the great joy of this one is seeing how they kind of connect together and sometimes really enjoying the moments where as an audience member is where a finely tuned thing in the editing is to say, ‘Okay, let’s introduce somebody and give them no top context, and nobody knows where this is going.’ There’s the preacher, for example. I love that the Reverend Wheeler has this amazing speech, but you’ve never met him before; you don’t know who he is. In the way that we built the sequence you’re starting on a single of somebody. You have no idea who he’s talking to you and you have no idea how it’s going to connect to the story. But that’s kind of thrill of this thing is that you could kind of go against the flow sometimes and take your time. Steve [McQueen] and [Director of Photography] Sean [Bobbit] to these amazing oners.
There’s the one in the car, for example, which is a really outstanding one. And there’s a couple of really amazing held shots and it’s just trying to kind of incorporate all of those, that kind of artistic sensibility, with a successful storytelling, to be honest.
I hope when people see the film they understand that scene in the car and why it was shot the way that because it’s really crucial.
My take on it, and I can’t say that this is what Steve intended at all, I don’t think it is in fact, but my take on it is it reminds me of the shot of the coach arriving where you hear Donald Trump’s voice saying ‘Grab ‘em by the pussy.’ It’s that kind of rub your tummy, pat your head feeling where the sound and the image of going in different directions.
I mean, filmmaking has gone through all sorts of iterations in the last few decades. I think me and Steve come from a particular time where there was some really experimental stuff we both loved. I’m in love, love, love with Nick Roeg’s films. We always, me and Steve have this joke where we say, ‘Yeah, we’re doing some real Nick Roeg shit. It’s like, for example, the way that the memories are incorporated into the film, that’s where you go to that in the story is kind of, it’s a movable feast and trying to kind of work out when is the moment when we want to plunge into the deep end her character and really understand what kind of has constructed this person. That took some delicacy in decision but also how you do it.
I think my career has really been made on a very simple editing fact, which is if you have a shot of somebody looking thoughtful and then you cut to anything, then it looks like they’re thinking of that thing.
I really want to talk about the opening sequence because it’s so outstanding.
It really sets everybody up for not knowing what they’re going to see and how they’re going to see it and how the timelines are going to work. I really would love to know how, how that came about from script to the edit.
It was intended that way, pretty much. We shuffled the order and we changed the timing. I mean, it’s a confrontational opening, should we put that way. I always thought that the thing I wanted to kind of draw out were the little violences within those relationships, it draws attention. For example, I think the second cut of a film is on a moment from Liam Neeson where he’s kind of playing a bit of sexual play, a bit of play in bed, it’s an aggressive, it’s an aggression. I just felt like there’s a theme there that’s in the kind of margins of those cuts. There’s an amazing shot from the back of a van where you see all sorts of stuff going on.
That’s another sequence I think people are just going to get blown away by.
Yeah. But I mean, those draw attention to it, it is very efficient, it’s really quick, but you kind of want to lay out the stall. This film, in editing terms, is like the Chinese play trick. You’ve got 18 characters or something and you know, Viola holds it all together, even the fucking dog.
Olivia is a star.
Oh, I worked really hard on that dog. Yeah, the new Augie.
I think everybody will really, really love her.
They were a dynamic duo. Viola and Olivia is kind of gorgeous.
It’s a really great editing job that I’ve got and I love working with both those directors. I’m really blessed and they shoot such great stuff, but they’ve got a voice and have great strength as artists and I don’t know, that’s the best place to be. I’m glad in a way that I’m not writing on my own little bits of music.
Do you find your style is any different when you have a female-led film like Arrival or Sicario and now Widows?
I’m surrounded by women in my own life. I’ve got three daughters and I want to do them proud in the work that I do. I mean, I’m very conscious, I’m very glad I have a female first assistant, Mary, and she’s really important to me in the process of working. Every time I cut anything Mary’s in and I want to engage with her and see how it lands. I mean this is part of the politics of our time, the stuff that we have to look at.
I’m excited for people to see that Widows is more than just a heist film.
Yeah, it is. It’s very multilayered. There’s a plus, plus.
Widows is set for nationwide release from 20th Century Fox on November 16th.