Director Denis Villeneuve is an artist who takes risks, and editor Joe Walker has been right next to him for many of them. When we say right next to him, we mean that literally— for Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049 (shot back to back to back) there was barely a moment that Villeneuve wasn't three feet away from Walker.
In a new video interview with Collider, Walker opens up about the various ventures that he has undergone with Villeneuve, and where the two of them might venture in the future (i.e. Dune). There may not be another artist who knows Villeneuve better — the turnaround was so fierce between Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 that Walker recalls, “I was putting in a shot of Amy Adams' hair in zero gravity on a Friday, and I was in Budapest on a Monday. So it was a straight run where Denis is effectively three feet away from me for two years." He follows that up by saying, "It’s really weird not having him three feet away from me.”
Walker loved the 2049 experience, noting that it was a different way of editing for him. He was often waiting for the (extremely gorgeous) VFX shots to keep coming through, but sure enough they eventually ended up with what is now an infamous 4-hour cut of the film. According to Walker, that first cut was never meant to be final — as he says, "a first assembly is often a lot longer, especially when there are experimental things."
One of the things they were experimenting with was the baseline test for the main character, K (Ryan Gosling). "There was a baseline test in that film, if you remember, he’s reciting ‘pale fire,’ and in my first assembly, I had a lot of that in, because it was really really good," says Walker. "But we all knew that we’d only pepper it with a tiny little faction of it.”
Walker was very much taken with the cinematography of Roger Deakins (he's not alone), saying that it made the job of cutting things together more difficult. He describes how he'd usually trim a brief scene connecting two other scenes down to three seconds or so — with this film, he describes one of these linking moments specifically: "I’ve got a world-class shot of this amazing caustic light effect following Sylvia Hoeks, who’s amazing to look at, climbing up the steps,” he said. “The first person you see in the office is a man in the shadows, a blind man, with artificial sunlight crawling into a huge water set. So, I mean, to make that three to five seconds long is killing a major, world-class shot.”
He admits that it is "very hard to throw away stuff like that.” For Walker, the cinematic experience is best when you really get to “peer inside the soul of somebody and really track what’s going on in their mind." He adds that the "stoic" nature of K made him especially interesting, saying, "I found it fascinating to look into his eyes, and I don’t want to get in the way of that as an editor.” Walker wants, above all, to give space to “enjoy that moment.” As for any particular scene cut from the final film that he was especially sad to lose, Walker says, “It’s been too long. I’ve got no memory for pain."
He goes on to talk about his previous collaboration with Villeneuve, the sci-fi masterpiece Arrival. Cutting that film together sounds like a completely different experience, but at the heart of it all was what Walker calls “this stunning Amy Adams performance.” He praised the original script but adds that in a script "you can point out what's going on in a verbal way that sometimes doesn’t translate to screen." As a result, they had to reposition the major shoe-drop moment in the film, because if they didn't, "people are left to still be puzzling it out at the end of the film, we didn’t want that, we wanted people to really know what the choice was at the end, which I think is very emotional."
These films very much have a "go ahead and try it" mentality in terms of their creation, which is just the way that Villeneuve works. When someone has a crazy idea, “you just go with it. There’s no talking somebody out of trying something. It’s much better to have a go and do it." He cites a moment in the middle of Arrival as an example — a scene featuring Adams and Jeremy Renner was originally intended to be a regular moment, but it became a dream sequence in the edit. This is because of a last-minute jump cut involving Renner, and it signifies “that there was something wrong.”
As Walker says, they would never have found that moment if they didn't try it. It was almost a last-minute accident, but sometimes those turn out to be the best moments of all. The scene also gave "forward traction" to the rest of the film.
Will Walker be three feet away from Villeneuve once again when the formidable director begins his two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune? Walker cannot yet say whether or not he's involved, but he does say that he has kept away from the Dune discussions, just in case. “I want to be fresh, it’s good for me to come from outside a little bit, and read the script when they’re ready with it, if it’s coming my way, and that’s not a certainty."
Walker doesn't want to cloud his mind with any previous iteration of Dune, or even the book itself. He's there to see what Villeneuve's take is, and hopefully be three feet away from him. "I want to see what his vision is."