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Interview : How Joe Walker Shaped And Edited The Sci-Fi Film Arrival

Joe Walker and I had our conversation on an early Los Angeles morning. 7am to be precise. He was calling from Budapest, where he’s back in the editing room working on Bladerunner 2049, the highly anticipated sequel to Bladerunner starring Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, and Jared Leto that reteams him with Denis Villeneuve for the third time.

Arrival has maintained a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with reviews from 49 critics. You can read Sasha’s review here. I love Arrival too, so it was delight to catch up with Walker to find out how editing a science fiction film differs from his previous projects.

AD: I saw Arrival last week, and thought wow, I need some time to process it.

Joe Walker: It’s funny how many people I’ve heard from who’ve said they’ve gone back. I bet the producers will be happy to hear that.

AD: The last time we met to talk about Sicario, you were already working on Arrival. With Sicario, you didn’t have a temp soundtrack, so how did this differ?

JW: We were trying to cut it mute for a long time. We had Johan [Jóhannsson] the same composer, and we tried to do the same thing, as best as possible — trying to cut it in the cold light of day so you’re not being propped up by John Williams.

Johann had sent a couple of tracks before we started filming. The first one that I heard where I said, Wow, was that scene when you’re in the helicopter, approaching the ship for the first time, and Amy’s character Louise is looking through the window. There’s this strange vocal thing, it’s kind of human, it’s kind of not.

Johan came and worked with us when we were in Montreal, we developed a few things together, and it was very much hand in hand. We managed to avoid filling it up with temp tracks. They’re very different films, and Denis is a sci-fi fan and has been since he was a kid, so he’s on a very happy run with Arrival and Bladerunner. And, it’s a very good omen for Bladerunner, that people are responding so well to Arrival.

AD: You’re almost like the dream team.

JW: [laughs] I’ve had two great collaborations in life, first with Steve [McQueen]. With Steve, it wasn’t a straight run, there was a gap. This is a straight run, say, “Hello Denis.” [laughs] and we continue from yesterday.

Directors are more alike than un-alike. Denis’ style and working with him is very similar to working with Steve, both are incredibly good. You say Dream Team, and those two are my favorite directors right there. They have that ability. With Denis, you look at a sequence and he’ll drop a thought bomb about how to approach the scene differently. He never tells you how to achieve that. I might discuss it with him, and that’s the real key to it. He trusts me enough to find my own way to find that note.

In much the same way that actors love to be given a note like that but not told how to deliver the line. I’m sure most people on a crew or cast like that same approach. He’ll drop a decent and interesting thought about a different approach about what’s missing or what’s lacking, or there’s too much and too little of, and then he leaves me to find a way to do it and keeps engaging with it that way. That’s the kind of relationship you dream of, and you spend 30 years trying to find those people and those kinds of films.

AD: Are there any scenes where you had to break down your usual approach of structuring a scene?

JW: Oh, lots. On Arrival, I have to preface this by saying it’s very difficult to talk about these scenes and not sound like you’re dissing a script.

The editing is a culmination of everyone’s hard work on the script, on camera, on sound, on performance. You can look at the first assembly and it feels wrong in some places, and it’s your job to mend it. After the first assembly screening of Arrival, Denis said, “We have to think of it like documentary footage, and somewhere in there is our movie.”

I could actually give you two examples. The first is there is a series of scenes with scientific exploration by Ian [Jeremy Renner]. We always wanted to keep his role as alive as it could be, as he’s a supporting role, and it is very much Amy’s film. We thought there was a whole lot of stuff that we could build and say, so we ended up building that montage that’s halfway through the film that gave him a voiceover. It felt like a chance to ask some good questions, show some really good shots, and also put a joke in about Sheena Easton which really appealed to me. [laughs].

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AD: That Sheena Easton moment made me laugh.

JW: [Laughs] I know, that was for you, Jazz. The other one is also my favorite scene in the movie. About halfway through, there’s a bit where Louise is in her bedroom, she’s looking very lost and is troubled by these awful, grief-stricken visions and Ian comes in with Weber, and says, “Are you dreaming in another language because I read an article about how exposure to a language changes the wiring of the brain?” She tells him it’s not bad enough for her to be unfit for the job, and you cut to this massive alien crouching to the corner of her bedroom.

The interesting thing about that is we had this whole piece of tubing in the story, and it took us off in a real red herring. There was a long plot where she got benched, Ian took over the mission to no avail, and she came back. Honestly, when we were trying to compress the story, we felt we had to get rid of all of that, and as soon as we cut to Weber, the story took off in that direction. So, we dispensed with this section where we had this detour. Once we got rid of it, we realized there was nowhere else in the film where anybody really articulates what’s going on in the film, which is how exposure to this language has rewired her brain, and that’s the only moment where it’s articulated. We tried other ways of incorporating that with ADR, but then Denis suggested we string together the bits we need.

In the olden days, I used to be resistant to something that clearly isn’t going to work because how are we going to do half a scene? Anyway, we did it. We put two pieces of Ian together, and there was this hideous cut between them which I dug. It was almost like a beautiful trump card because it tells you there’s something not quite right about this scene because everything else in the cutting is smooth.

We had this shot of her, where she keeps looking off-screen to where Weber was, but she’s looking nervously off-screen. That day we had the first test shot of the alien, and Denis said, “Put the alien there.” So, we made it a dream sequence, and there are many transformations like that in the cutting process. The whole film was almost a year of work.

We also had those monitors, and you know they shoot them with nothing on them? So, we had to fill them with content where we’re trying to hone the idea of the world going mad outside and dissolving into violence and madness. It was all done in post-production . We changed masses of things. Masses.

AD:  How do you accomplish the look and feel of the film as well as the pace? 

JW: In the old days, we took clapperboards off and people lived on the floors. The other day I talked to a group of editors at a masterclass, and we had some “shop talk” where I said, “How many people do this?” and “How many people do that?” As digital effects are that much easier to contemplate, people cheat more and more and more. I try to be respectful to the cameraman and the performance, but my allegiance is to the whole story, so if there’s some way of telling it by cheating, I will.

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AD: How much footage did you have and how did you cut it down?

JW: One great thing about Denis’ shooting style is that he tends to shoot single camera so that makes my life a heck of a lot easier. I get an hour and a half of dallies every day, and that’s something you can cope with. When you get into multiple camera shoots, you can have six hours of material to view it’s impossible to watch all the takes, and I like to watch everything.

He makes it easier with an hour and half of dailies, I can watch everything, and I can mind-read a bit better about what’s going on on set, and what changes they’re making with performances. I might know I’ve got an angry version of a line on take 3, and I have a placid version on take 5. I have a mental map of trying to see everything. It wasn’t a monumental amount of dailies.

Denis is a great planner who storyboards extensively and it’s more than just storyboards, they are part of a conceptual visual development that sort out a lot of logical problems. It’s almost a rewrite in the storyboard stage.

There’s not a lot of wasted angles, I might get a shot or two that I don’t need in a sequence, but no more than that.

AD: What I loved about the film is that we’re not spoon fed the information. We’re kept engaged throughout the whole film, and all of a sudden everything is revealed. How do you achieve something like that?

JW: I would like to give testament to the aliens as we’re going along. A film like that is much  likelier in a continuous shoot, and not shooting everything, cutting it, and you’re finished. We were evolving the level of mist, the speed of an arm, how much reflection there is on the skin, right up until the last day of delivery, we dropped in the last shot of Amy’s hair flowing on the day before we locked the film.

All this means is we chose that you wouldn’t see everything. That’s built into the story, the storyboards, the direction, and we continue that idea in post, ideas that you drip feed. At the beginning, you step into a chamber and you barely see anything, maybe a bit of mist in the background, there’s always something imaginative about that.

Ridley Scott came over to visit us here. He spent time in the cutting room. He said that when he was shooting Alien, he had a man in a rubber costume, and that forced him to not show it, and it engages the imagination more, much in the same way Jaws took that same approach. If you had seen that silly shark, you would have lost all engagement.

It was trying to keep something back all the time. We start with them — the aliens — being barely visible, then she comes forward, takes her suit off, engages with them. She starts to discern the differences in the character and you end up looking at the skin texture, and you end up holding the shot a nice decent length of time to be able to really read it, and to feel it.

At the end of that scene, one of them floats off, and that’s something you’ve never seen before, the way they jet off into the distance.

As the story goes along, we’re trying to make a lot of effort in the effects to give each of those two characters some differences, not just physical ones. Maybe there’s an age difference between them. One is more reserved, and one is more forward, and it was about trying to get those nuances bang on.

AD: What was the biggest challenge for you working in sci-fi?

JW: The biggest challenge is generally sci-fi. I’m not a die-hard science fiction fan that goes to events or dresses up with sabers. I’ve always been a fan of intelligent sci-fi from the ’70s films I watched, as a kid who was less engaged by explosion sequences. I’m describing this as an art film smuggled in Hollywood tins. There’s an element that people I know hunger for, and that’s thought-provoking sci-fi.  The challenge is in the genre itself.

AD: I think, that’s what I needed. I didn’t need to see the world being blown up again, I needed something to make me think.

JW: There’s enough cool stuff in the film to keep eyes on stalks so to speak. We were cutting in Montreal, and there’s this place, the Phi Centre, and they have this cool virtual reality garden. I’d never seen a VR headset. Towards the end of Arrival, I went along, and saw this 360-degree shot of a Masai tribe, and there’s this tribe woman who walks from very far away who walks up very close. It felt like she was standing right there, she has this neutral expression and you find yourself completely captivated. It’s such a far away culture and far away look, and the costume and expressions are so far away from my own. I found that little element in Arrival to be so thrilling.

It’s an encounter movie.

Arrival lands on November 11