Editor Joe Walker DIscusses His Eddie Nominated Work On “Sicario”

Developing a rhythm between characters’ reaction shots helped editor Joe Walker define tension in “Sicario.” Photo credit: Lionsgate

By: Marjorie Galas

“Sicario” opens with a scene that grabs your attention and holds you captive until the credits role.  And that’s just the way editor Joe Walker likes it.  With films including “Harry Brown”, “Shame” and the Oscar winning “12 Years a Slave” attached to his name, intense story-telling has served the editor well.  He received his first American Cinema Editor Award – or Eddy – nomination in 2014 for “12 Years a Slave” (a film that also resulted in his first Oscar nomination for Best Editing).  He’ll be returning to the Eddies this year for his work in “Sicario.”

“It’s strange isn’t it?  My background is in more gritty, R-rated material,” said Walker.  “I would love to work on a musical.  It would be great fun!”

Until the stars align for Walker to cut song and dance numbers, he’s continuing to gravitate towards dramatic fare. Prior to reading the “Sicario” script, Walker was already a fan of director Denis Villeneuve through his earlier work such as the 2010 Oscar-nominated foreign language feature “Incendies,” and the “heart-pounding” experience of watching “Prisoners.”  Once he committed to “Sicario”, he joined meetings between Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins where concepts within the script were discussed and further refined.  Alejandro, a mysterious figure of few words in the script, was further paired down and given minimal dialogue.  As portrayed by actor Benicio Del Toro, the character is able to speak volumes through small gestures, such as the way he folds a jacket, or gives a sideways glance, without uttering a single word.

From the earliest discussions, Villeneuve agreed with Walker that he should experiment with a different editing style he felt would enhance the story’s rhythm.  Walker cut the film without a temp music track, at times cutting without dialogue playing at all.  Noting the value of the masterful footage received from Deakins, he didn’t want to interfere with or compress the shot.

“Roger has such a rhythm with his camera; he’s a master of sequence building,” said Walker.  “I could cut with the speakers off.  It benefit the whole structure and created a tightness. It was not fast or brief but accurate with the rhythm.”

Throughout the course of the film, Walker paid particular attention to the interactions between characters.  He enhanced the tension through the timing in holds and cuts to reaction shots, both in scenes with dialogue and the many silent exchanges that occur.  In a scene where Alejandro foils a shoot-out between Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and a potential paramour, Walker entrusted his instincts and carefully held the looks between Blunt and Del Toro.

“The scene is about withholding and probing, and these two are both Olympic champions of eyeballing,” said Walker.  “I didn’t want to overcut, instead I wanted to play more with their reactions.”

One of Walker’s favorite scenes involving Blunt’s reactions came not from her interaction with another person, but her awareness of the drug trade’s violence as she’s performing online research.  Instead of cutting from her face to a POV of the screen, Walker chose a close up of the cursor hitting the “next” button.  To illustrate her determination, the next cut indicates Blunt’s peripheral vision of the screen as she encounters the endless horror that’s constantly present.

Throughout the editing process, Villeneuve would visit the suite to observe Walker’s work.  He enjoyed the collaborative process he shared with Villeneuve as they discussed shots, equating the director’s approach to changes felt like he was “directing me the way he would direct an actor.”  As stems of the story were completed, Walker sent them to composer Johann Johannsson.  Recognizing the power music has to drive a scene, the lack of a temp track allowed Johannsson to create a score in a clear space – without a scene influenced by a particular musical sequence or beat.  As Johannsson wrote the most original score possible, he would send the sequences back to Walker.  The two men continued to “checkerboard” their process, providing ample time for adjustments and finessing.

Throughout the film, Walker also used a great deal of the location footage Deakins had provided.  Vistas of cityscapes, naturally forming cloud formations and other wonders the DP captured became another devise that heightened tensions in the scene.  After the shed explodes at the beginning of the film, Walker included a number of short shots of the mountainside leading to a long shot of the city; a sequence that added to the sense of dread and unrest.   Prior to the night vision sequence that purposely changes viewpoint to emphasize the affect the drug war has on everyday citizens, Walker utilized a silhouette shot of the military men against a vibrant, smoldering sunset: a perfect sequence that ushered the final action sequence of the film.

“Roger Deakins gives you a masterclass in silhouettes, he pushes all the way into blackness” said Watkins.  “I have insane appreciation of everyone I got to work with on this film.”