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‘Arrival’ Editor Joe Walker’s “Super Power” To Manipulate Time

Deadline logo Deadline 1/5/2017 Matt Grobar
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This time last year, while on the press circuit for Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, Oscar-nominated editor Joe Walker had one project to remain tight-lipped about, with the director’s follow-up feature, the unusual and elegant sci-fi pic Arrival; and now, with the conclusion of production on Blade Runner 2049 in Budapest, he has another.

Coming from a background in sound, Walker not only cut picture, crafting the tension and reworking the film’s structure throughout, but also brought sound designer Dave Whitehead on board, after being impressed with his designs for an alien language in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. Speaking with Deadline, Walker describes his first inklings of the project, and the film editor’s knack for the manipulation of time.

As a frequent collaborator of Denis Villeneuve, how did you first hear about Arrival?

The funny thing is I could hear these mysterious conversations going on in the back of my cutting room while I was cutting Sicario, and I had no idea what the project was. They were still developing creature designs and working on the script and waiting for dates, and so it was all quite tight-lipped.

I would just hear Denis say in the background, “Maybe we should think about it having no eyes.” [Laughs] It’s just such a great way into the project, through imagination. I built up a picture of what it was going to be like from just basically snooping on Denis’ calls.

When you entered the fold on the film, what were the first things Villeneuve conveyed about his vision?

We didn’t really talk about it in detail. It’s funny—by that stage, I would just follow him in any direction. If he chose to do a black-and-white film out of focus, I would go and do it. It just felt like we’d built up a great trust, and I really enjoyed my time on Sicario and felt we’d made a really fine film.

When I read the script I could totally see the appeal. Denis, from a child, he’s always been fascinated by sci-fi, and it feels like a very natural direction for him. I think the things I loved about the script are things I love about the film: its strong female lead, which seems in the week of an election, a very timely statement.

It was educated and it was grown-up, and I was fascinated by the application of my craft to it, in so far as it’s right in the middle of what I think is our super power as editors, which is the manipulation of time.

I’d imagine the story must resonate on multiple levels, in its play with time, but also in its protagonist, who is, by trade, a communicator.

We set about telling the story in the most powerful way we could and what was at our disposal was quite a considerable amount of freedom. There’s the freedom of the aliens, for example. All I had to work with from set was a blank screen. Sometimes there would be a guy in a green latex suit holding a pole with a ball on it—never a good look—and it was of no help to me in terms of timing.

Although the creatures had been long developed, and there were storyboard indications of their positions, we had to build the whole language, and we had to build the whole interaction between Louise and the aliens, and also gestural indications of their character and their philosophy.

One of Denis’ big intentions was to build up this world of paranoia going on outside this army base. We’re really in three zones; we’re in the lakeside, with its very intense and very beautiful material shot by Bradford Young. Then there’s the world of the army barracks, which is all monitors, and screens, and low lighting, and kind of harsh lighting, in a way. That’s something that Denis was keen to develop in post, so that we have a sense of the deterioration and paranoia building outside.

We had the freedom between all those three worlds—we had to construct all those screens and television news reports, and write news articles and pick archive, and just feather that story in.

Many things were just grabbed moments that were sort of very emotive and beautiful, a hand touching a baby’s hand in a cart, or an out-of-focus shot of a horse in a stable. They could have gone anywhere. Trying to build that into the narrative and marble this narrative through with these little glimpses of a memory, if you like.

The chronology of the film is tricky, and in a sense, you’re reworking conventional cinema language to create a unique effect. What was the thought process when it came to communicating through the cut?

One of the things that we faced as a challenge was, if you start a film with the death of a child, and then you follow the story of the mother seemingly in grief, then there’s 120 years of cinema history that tells you the one thing happened before the other, and that you’re following a thread of time. To subvert that later in the film was very carefully calibrated.

The only way to really work out the plausibility of that, or the effectiveness of that change of perception, is to see it with an audience and to ask questions, and to also realize sometimes that people won’t admit that they don’t get it. A very great friend of ours, a great editor in Montreal, came and saw the film at an early stage, and she really enjoyed the film, but she had a completely different explanation of what had happened to that which we’d intended. It didn’t make the enjoyment of the film suffer that much, but we wanted people to get to the end of the film and totally understand the choice, and to understand the philosophy, the Heptapods’ gift.

To really be moved by the ending, we felt we had to adjust that. We had to make sure that the wall that we built at the beginning wasn’t so solid that we couldn’t kick it down, but also we had to choose a real moment where people will definitely get it. That’s right at the heart of editing and narrative storytelling, working out when you’re just ahead of the audience, or in parallel with the audience, and never behind. We always wanted to compliment the audience’s intelligence so that they could figure it out themselves.

Did you find yourself reworking the film’s basic structure in the edit?

There was a lot of repurposing, is what I’d say. There was the standard trimming of things, but it’s very difficult to talk about this without sounding like I’m dissing the script, which was fantastic.

Like often happens, I feel I’ve grown as an editor. Editing is a culmination of everybody’s hard work, and my allegiance isn’t to one particular shot or one particular line of dialogue, it’s to the whole film.

That was my experience on 12 Years a Slave—it’s a brilliant script from a brilliant book, but there were problems that we responded to with editing choices, in terms of creating a flashback structure, which never existed, and it felt like a much more powerful way to tell the story, to immerse yourself in the slave experience and then to see lots of things in the rear-view mirror, if you like, rather than it being one thing after another. Sometimes, there can be a monotony to that. Similarly with Arrival, we had huge flexibility and there were some plot elements, like the bomb plot, that we developed a lot in post.

Here’s a good example: at the end of the film there used to be two scenes, one after the other. One was where Amy’s character Louise meets General Shang. In that scene, he tells her effectively what to do, and then the following scene, she ran into the army base to find a phone and then tries to make a call. We felt, quite later on, that in some way, the audience sort of knew what she was going to do, and then she did it. It would be more exciting and tense and suspenseful if we knew as little as she does what she’s going to do when she runs towards the army base.

We ended up intercutting that scene, which took quite an effort because it wasn’t really shot that way. We flipped between the two scenes; once it’s set in motion, we could then kind of pat our heads and rub our tummies, if you like, and have the two scenes so that there’s the tension of her actually not knowing what to say on the phone.

Then, having built that huge build in tension, with this driving music, we then felt there was another consequence, which is, we needed a stronger climax at the end of it.

What we wanted to do was to show the shells departing, which we never did in the original. Nothing was shot for that, so quite later on, we had that rather epic scene with the spaceships leaving, with their own kind of very weird way of evaporating. Framestore in Montreal did that work, and that was very late in the game. Then, a massive screen with thousands of TV reports, all these sort of things came to a head in post.

You come from a sound background and brought sound designer Dave Whitehead in on this film. How did you go about working together in designing the audible alien language?

During the shoot, I realized there were indications in the script, very light suggestions that they had made a sound that a human couldn’t emulate.

So it was kind of on the shopping list, and then I remembered how impressed I’d been by watching District 9—Dave Whitehead had made this phenomenal contribution to that film because when you listen to those aliens, it sounds like a coherent language. You may not understand it, but it’s got a pattern and a syntax and a rhythm.

Very early on, I appealed to Denis for us to hire Dave Whitehead and his partner, Michelle Child—they’re two great sound designers that work full-time on sound design for creatures, amongst other things. They came back very quickly with this really rock solid sound for them, which barely changed. There was some very sort of deep, deep resonant sounds that were almost on the verge of music that we always dug every time we heard it

That became a really good way to sort of bring those characters to life, even though at that stage, they were no more than bits of storyboard cut out and pasted into the background of a shot.

How did you go about managing tension and suspense throughout the film?

I think that’s very visible in the opening reels. Denis made a great choice, I think, to make this landing an ordinary time—like a Tuesday, 11’oclock, overcast skies. The impact is underplayed, and all the exposition is really peripheral. We show the first vision of the spaceship on Louise’s face, not on the screen. You’re just glimpsing things, and I think it creates a hunger to know more. We teased out those moments and withheld information, and by the time she enters the spaceship, we’re stretching time, I think. There’s no sky lift on Earth that goes that high. [Laughs]

Has the post process on Blade Runner 2049 already begun?

 Yeah, we came back from Hungary two weeks ago. We had a really amazing shoot, I have to say. Suffice it to say, it’s going to be staggeringly good, I think. We have a very tight schedule to get things done, but we’re sort of really at it already.

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