Denis Villeneuve’s images are evocative of both beauty and suffering. Beyond having the rare skill of what James Cameron refers to to as “the vocabulary of epic filmmaking,” there’s a singular psychological interiority to his vistas and sci-fi worlds. Editor Joe Walker recalled first encountering this when he saw the director’s 2010 film “Incendies,” blown away by the “strong faces against landscapes populated by trauma.”
In the decade-plus that has followed that film — focused on twins uncovering dark secrets from their mother’s past — the scope of the world building and the scale of the stories Villeneuve tackles have grown exponentially, as has the cinematic sandbox with which he and Walker access the complex mindscape of his characters.
In “Sicario” (2015), the viewer experiences the innocence drain from an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) and Mexican cop (Benicio del Toro) as they’re thrust into the violent danger of a drug war; in “Arrival” (2016), we are brought literally inside the mind of a linguist (Amy Adams) learning to communicate with aliens through her grief; and in “Blade Runner 2049″ (2017), the director finds a way give the viewer access to replicant K’s (Ryan Gosling) humanity through his hypnotic search across a post-apocalyptic landscape. The culmination of this came in 2021 with “Dune,” their adaption of Frank Herbert’s — supposedly unadaptable — allegorical mix of politics and religion through the Chosen One (Timothée Chalamet) and his mystical visions of leading the nomadic Fremen in a holy war on the desert planet Arrakis.
Villeneuve has pushed himself to grow as a filmmaker with these challenging canvases, but just as important was his acknowledgment of his own limitations. “For a long time, I was looking for someone that will put as much attention into sound as image,” said Villeneuve about his collaboration with Walker, which began on “Sicario” and has continued through “Dune” and into its recently announced sequel. “Joe, having studied and worked as a composer and as a sound editor for years at the BBC, definitely paid a lot of attention to the sound design.” It was with “Sicario” that Villeneuve’s films became, as the director himself described it, “a dance between sound and image.”
Walker’s contribution to Villeneuve’s films, however, goes far beyond the creation of a more sophisticated and expressive relationship between the aural and visual — it is the rhythms and connections he finds within the director’s images themselves. “The joy of working on Denis’ films is that you’re [collaborating with] a very cinematic filmmaker and somebody who thinks in terms of the sensory nature of things,” said Walker. How to lean into and etch those sensory layers has become an endlessly rewarding journey in the Oscar-nominated editor’s already storied career.
A perfect example of Walker’s ability to tap into and unleash the sensory elements of Villeneuve’s images came in the tunnel raid sequence in “Sicario,” which was shot by acclaimed cinematographer Deakins with thermal cameras and night vision. That sense of charging into danger through darkness is beautifully executed in Deakins’ evocative images, but that darkness also gave Walker license to experiment with how to fill it with a soundscape (in collaboration with supervising sound editor Alan Murray) that creates a sense of plunging into another dimension. The result is a headspace that is psychologically unsettling and goes beyond the physical danger. As the imagery alternates between the green of night vision, complete darkness, and light around the corner, a rhythm develops in the edit — one that Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score leans into — of characters on a journey after which they may not be the same.
To see Villeneuve and Walker break down the border crossing scene, watch the video below:
“The sound is a direct DNA of the way he cuts a movie,” said Villeneuve, who points to another scene from “Sicario,” where tensions rise for FBI agents as they cross the border (You can watch this in the video above). It’s a tension that comes from Walker’s sense of story and rhythm. “Nothing [mostly] happens, everything is very far away from the characters, it’s about sound design and progression of tension that rise, rise, rise through the edit and the choice of the rhythm of the moment.”
Villeneuve’s transition to sci-fi was, in many ways, a natural fit for his sensory approach to imagery. That ability to weave the metaphysical with narrative placed him squarely at the unusual intersection of Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lean. Starting with 2016’s “Arrival” and the way it plays with time and prophecy, Villeneuve’s approach to his sci-fi narratives would also create a much more complex editorial experience.
The two timelines of “Arrival” required Walker to juggle the present-day mission for Louise (Amy Adams) to decode the alien language so she can communicate with them, and the flash forwards with her daughter. In its narrative conception and the script itself, the connection between the two was clear, and only strengthened in the way the director and cinematographer Bradford Young shot the future visions with a hand-held, naturalistic splendor, juxtaposed to weighted compositions surrounding the arrival of a large black alien oval perched in the Montana landscape (played by the Saint-Fabien parish of Quebec).
“It felt like we were looking at a really interesting way to do a big science fiction [film],” said Walker. “The thing I remember just being struck by when the dailies came in the very first week was the [opening] material. And I have to say it was some of the most gorgeous material I’d ever received, and the colors were really vivid, and within seconds, Amy sort of seduces us as an actress.”
The ingredients were there, but the way to sprinkle the memories back and forth like the unfolding of a puzzle was not initially clear to Villeneuve. “I remember watching our first cut one night and looking at each other and going outside on the balcony and Joe smoking a cigarette,” Villeneuve said. “After 20 minutes of silence, Joe said, ‘Don’t worry. The last time I’d been in that situation, it was ’12 Years a Slave’ and the outcome was good.’ The story didn’t change…what changed was the center of the movie, which on paper felt dynamic but on film felt repetitive.”
Walker helped the director find a new rhythm and reconceive the juxtapositions in a way that could propel the film. “We tried to find ways to increase the momentum and the broad ideas,” said Villeneuve. “My relationship with Joe is so close that very often I don’t recall who got the idea…and, frankly, I don’t care.”
One of Walker’s ideas actually rescued a scene that wasn’t working, which involved the notion of the alien heptapods infiltrating Louise’s mind. This was the result of another happy accident, with the arrival of a VFX test of the heptapod crawling like an elephant in the mist. Walker combined two different scenes, primarily of Louise and physicist and future husband Ian (Jeremy Renner) discussing the mind control concept, and inserted the test footage (with the sound of heavy reverb) as a vision to illustrate the breakthrough.
“That was a miracle to me,” Walker added. “It was like one of those things where I had so little faith that it was going to work and then it’s in the film and it serves a great benefit. I kind of felt I washed away 15 years of BBC training in that moment.”
According to Walker, “Arrival” was in many ways a tuneup for “Dune,” a film adaptation that featured a new set of demands and challenges that would propel the collaboration to a new level of editorial exploration and problem solving.
Namely, there is a narrative drive in the mythic hero’s journey of Paul (Chalamet) as it bumps up against the unshakable force of nature. The difficulty was paring down the opening exposition about the various political machinations and the cultural significance of Arrakis. It was much more important to establish the adventure of the Atreides family, honing in on would-be messiah Paul trying to understand and cope with his special powers, which are both a blessing and a curse.
The director credits his editor in helping to navigate this challenge. “We will feel that nature is not just in the background but also one of the main characters,” Villeneuve said. “But we needed to create enough momentum, and have it breathe, and Joe found that equilibrium…more lyrical and more abstract…and more profound.”
The way in which Walker and Villeneuve worked to visually and aurally unlock Louise’s future visions in “Arrival” served as a jumping off point for the even more mysterious inwardness of Paul’s prophecies. “We always knew that Paul’s inner visions had to be substantial, but they were quite free, and we negotiated them narratively,” Walker said. “We developed in the edit as we went along.”
Both the best example of this, and the film’s biggest editing breakthrough, was in the deadly Gom Jabbar challenge scene, during which Paul’s special mental abilities and impulse control are put to the test when he places his hand in a painful box controlled by the Bene Gesserit Mother Superior (Charlotte Rampling). “That’s the most complex scene, cutting wise, that Joe had to do,” added Villeneuve. “And I think I tortured him with it. It was his Gom Jabbar. I really wanted a very special progression that will bring that energy…the pressure of the pain on him [while his mother endures her own agony outside the room].”
To see how Walker cracked the Gom Jabbar challenge, watch the video essay below:
In many ways, Gom Jabbar was the pinnacle of what Walker has brought to Villeneuve’s films. All the ideas and emotions etched into the imagery came pouring out once Walker had the breakthrough of inserting Paul’s vision of burning palm trees, foretelling doom for the Atreides family. It was a narrative solve that organically merged the introduction of the mysterious back story while propelling the story forward.
Yet it’s the rhythms of the mounting pain of Paul and the anguish of his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) that blow that door open. It’s a breakthrough that, as you will see in the video above, came through sound, and the editor’s close collaboration (dating back to the ’80s) with composer Hans Zimmer, to whom Walker first introduced Villeneuve for their “Blade Runner” sequel.
Walker was inspired to use a medieval chant by singer Loire Cotler, which was central to Zimmer’s “Dune” score. This served as an ancient voice within Paul that summons the strength for him to pass the Gom Jabbar. “I think Hans works in that way of generating some small, organic substance that is able to proliferate across a long span of a film,” Walker said. “Until that point, we never could quite nail it editorially.”
Back in 2014, Villeneuve knew he needed a partner who could help him figure out how sound and rhythm could unlock the emotion, story, and sensory power of his distinctive visual approach. What he likely didn’t realize was that such a partnership would help him solve the seemingly impossible riddle, and his lifelong dream, of adapting Herbert’s book.
In October, Warner Bros. green lit Villeneuve’s adaptation of the book’s second half. Production will begin this year, and Walker is already onboard to edit. “I’m so glad I got this message one morning from Denis saying, ‘Will you join me in the deep desert again? ‘And I wrote back and said,’ Yep, I’ve already packed my parasol.'” –Bill Desowitz