Hello Film Doctor friends.
Last year, we chatted with two-time Oscar-nominated editor Joe Walker about how he got started in the industry, post workflows and editing epic, sci-fi sensation Blade Runner 2049 with Denis Villeneuve.
This time Joe joins us for a Film Doctor In Conversation about his work on Steve McQueen’s thrilling, emotional and salient heist film Widows (for which actress Viola Davis has received a BAFTA nomination).
Joe, happy new year. Since we last talked, you’ve cut the wonderful Widows. Tell us about the process on that. How did the process on it compare with the other things you’ve worked on with Steve?
It’s a more complicated film because there are so many characters. There’s a simplicity to storytelling when it’s narrowed down to one person which was true of Hunger, Shame and 12 Years. But here I had 81 speaking parts. You don’t want to shortchange any of the characters and yet you’re trying to keep the pace and the flow of the story going.
Sometimes that’s a very joyful challenge, and I loved shaping things to click into place over time and reward the viewer’s attention. For example, there’s a tiny little seed that’s planted in an early scene with a child putting a toy in her mouth and saying a line of dialogue – that idea pays off three reels later. That’s the joy of it but it obviously takes a lot of engineering to make sure that you are providing strong forward momentum while also being able to deep dive into the characters at exactly the right time and explore the reasons how they’ve ended up where they are.
How do you approach that on an ensemble piece then? Is it something you do each pass or do you do separate little passes?
All of the above. The script was brilliant but, as ever, you’re dealing with something different once it’s filmed – it’s living and breathing and there’s blood running through the veins. You have to go with the material and see how it feels.
It’s classic editing things: you’re balancing how much people say and how much they do, trying things in a different order or even repurposing a scene to fit into a new scheme. One particular scene towards the end was shot as an intense discussion, but we stripped all the dialogue out to make it a scene of two women who have been through such a traumatic experience, they can’t talk about it.
You’re always looking to do the right thing in the edit to keep yanking on that chain to pull people along through the story in a good way. Sometimes you’re trying to be in sync with them, sometimes just ahead. A big part of the process with Steve is screenings. That started right on the first film, Hunger. It was a very low budget film and we couldn’t afford any theatre hire. But a friend of Steve’s was running a cinema and he let us use it on Friday mornings when the cleaners were still there.
Often useful directions come from discussing it afterwards with your guests but it’s also a question of being in the room and honestly surrendering to how it plays. As an editor, you’re always conscious of your own imaginary audience, guessing what they need to know and when. How long you can tease them before offering resolution. With screenings, you get to stress test your theories in the real world.
We had the luxury on Widows of being able to test our cut several times on audiences of three or four hundred people, and it had a big influence on the cut. For example, there was a joke about guns I always thought was funny but at the final test screening I think the only other person I heard laughing was Steve. Other than him, crickets. So we went back and tried to find a way of making it shorter and more percussive. Then we slammed a bit of music in straight after the joke that somehow says : “yes, that was a joke!” The first public screening I went to, in Toronto, it got a big laugh.
You’re constantly monitoring how it plays to an audience. Somebody once told me that you don’t just want bums on seats, you want eyes on stalks. That’s the aim.
How long was the post process on this one?
I joined late, unusually, because I was still cutting Blade Runner 2049 when they were shooting Widows. I finished Blade Runner on a Friday and then joined Steve in Amsterdam the following Monday. We worked for a few months either side of Christmas to get a director’s cut together. Ultimately we wrapped post in July 2018 so really it was a long period finessing every detail and a little bit of pick-up shooting, a lot of ADR work, VFX work and all those things. All in all, it was 10 or 11 months.
You’ve got a very musical background. How do you interact with Hans Zimmer and Steve on where to have music and where not to?
We’re really trying to make a film that doesn’t need music. That’s not to diminish the amazing power of Hans’s music, in fact it’s to really showcase it. In the editing we’re trying to make the film as musical as we can by being precise and interesting, but our instruments are shots and VFX and dialogue and sound effects, and sometimes silence.
There’s a fair amount of source music in the film, there’s always a track on in the background at the hairdressers, for example. Curating those took quite a long time. The idea, when we come to discuss the film with Hans, is to really look to the score to provide what enhances and draws out the emotions of the film – particularly with Veronica’s character.
We landed fairly early on with the idea of music as a plaintive breath. It’s really to do with the nature of grief. That lends itself to minor key tragic music but what I admire so much about what Hans did is that he managed to render that heartache in a major key – I absolutely love that! It creates a nostalgic longing for when things were OK.
Some of the action material takes care of itself with sound effects and hard cuts, but there were other scenes where we needed more. We discussed with Hans the idea of a misfit band playing together, cross-rhythms becoming united only their pulse. That seemed to match seeing the Widows learning to move together as a unit. The music he wrote for these sequences was made from hitting drum sticks on the body of a double bass, or hitting piano strings stuffed with all manner of garbage, so it’s nicely acoustic in origin. I was there when Hans was banging his knuckles on piano wire and he was black and blue at the end of it.
How much does a genre’s tropes influence you? Or do you forget that?
I think we’ve all seen dozens and know the form instinctively. A heist movie is typically something that starts slow and gets faster and faster. It builds to an event over a period of time and gets faster and faster until it’s at breakneck speed. Here, I think the imperative is slightly different.
One of the things that I really like about the movie is that it gives this rollercoaster ride of a great ripping yarn with that heist genre cool but it also deep dives into issues that are facing all of us at the moment – our frustrations over politics and the problems of rich and poor, gender and race. It’s all there. But it doesn’t do it as a lecture, it does it in a heist movie that everybody can enjoy.
To me, that strengthens the movie – it isn’t just playing to its own audience, it’s got greater reach. The world needs a bit more of that at the moment because everybody is just so polarised and dug into their own camps. We need to reach out to everybody.
How did the project being based on existing material (Widows the TV series) impact your approach?
Widows is based on a TV series by Lynda LaPlante. Steve first told me he wanted to make a version of it years ago, when we were in Amsterdam working on 12 Years a Slave. My first reaction was “what, Widows?” because all I remembered of it at the time was the big hair and shoulder pads. But in fairness, that series was really ground-breaking for its time. It was must-see television and was very impactful. There weren’t any stories like that where women were up front and centre. Women (particularly working class women) were pretty much always in supportive roles of one kind or another.
I really couldn’t imagine what he’d do with it. It felt very far away from what we were working on at the time. I went back and watched the original series just to remind myself of it. I think it’s a stroke of genius for Steve and Gillian Flynn to transform it to what it is now. To transplant that story to modern day Chicago is a masterstroke. The opportunity to talk about rich and poor, even in the space of one shot.
I’m referring to a point where Colin Farrell’s character gets in the back of the limo and is driven home from a rundown ward to a beautiful leafy street just a few blocks away. That’s very true of Chicago, that proximity. You never see inside the limo, you just hear Colin’s voice express his true feelings, his private persona. It wasn’t intended by Steve, but it puts me in mind of the Access Hollywood tape. You see the coach arrive and you hear Trump’s disembodied voice talking about “grabbing them by the pussy” before he comes out and the mask is back on.
Were there any other challenging sequences?
Part of Steve’s process is that we figure out a lot of things in the cutting room. One of the things that was really cool was experimenting with the flashback part of the structure where we’re dealing with Veronica’s relationship with her husband. What were the dynamics there? You get a hint of not everything being right between them. You go to a funeral first and slowly you unveil the whole story. The order of that was very free in the cutting room.
I remember we said to each other “that’s some real Nic Roeg sh**.” I love Roeg’s films and how they played with time. That’s something cinema and editing can do that you can’t do as well in other disciplines. It’s almost impossible to do in music, you can just about do it in a novel and it’s kind of hard to do it in a play. Film just seems to be the best place to do it without having to even explain yourself, it’s part of the grammar.
For Veronica that just really fit well – deep diving into her background. If I really analyse it, she’s actually having a memory of a memory which is interesting. That was one of the most enjoyable free pieces of editing in the film.
What are you up to now?
I’m doing some projects in LA and then I’m setting up for Dune. I’m setting up my team and really getting in to that mindset. I can’t wait to see the worlds Denis will create.
Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below! Have a great week!