'Sicario' Editor Joe Walker Outlines How He Cut the Cartel Thriller

'Sicario,' Denis Villeneuve

The latest from Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners), who has never screened a film in competition but has graced Cannes' sidebars, with Directors' Fortnight entry Cosmos in 1996, August 32nd on Earth in Un Certain Regard in 1998, and Polytechnique, a 2009 Directors’ Fortnight entry. Sicario is a Mexican cartel drama starring Emily Blunt alongside Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro and Jon Bernthal. (Sales: Lionsgate Intl.)

Sicario, the drug-cartel thriller starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, is director Denis Villeneuve's first collaboration with Joe Walker, the British editor who was Oscar-nominated for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. (Walker has cut all of McQueen’s movies to date, including Shame (2011) and 2008 Camera d'Or winner Hunger.)

“Joe is someone who can create tension out of immobility and silence — as I wanted to do in Sicario,” says Villeneuve. “He’ll take a risk to let a shot exist long enough to create the kind of discomfort that you experience when you have apprehension and fear from waiting for something to happen. He’s always precise with acting, too, and he also has great ideas about sound."

The director cites as an example in Sicario when the characters approach the tunnel at the border. "You know something will happen, and you feel the apprehension from Kate’s [a CIA agent played by Emily Blunt] point of view. It’s very tense," Villeneuve says, adding of the reaction shots: “The movie is from Kate’s point of view, and it was important to see that she will be shocked, confused and loose her strength. She's fantastic, but we also had to take care in editing because she was our main character and point of view. Joe did a fantastic job."

“I want to make all my movies with Joe Walker,” gushes Villeneuve. “I love him.”

Here’s what Walker had to say about working on Sicario:

On cutting without temp music:

"Very early on, Denis and I made a pact to cut without temp music for as long as we could bear it. I guess we’re all guilty of falling in love with temp tracks, which can stifle a composer’s originality and limit the chance for sound design or sometimes silence to make a contribution.

"So we worked without temp music. That way we could concentrate on being lean and mean and visually rhythmic whilst giving the story a proper workout without distraction. It’s a way to be clear-sighted about when the narrative drive is flowing or flagging. Eventually our composer, Johann Johannsen, started responding to the cut and sending us demos. My background is in composition and sound editing, so I put in a lot of effort into the sound, but on this film, unusually, we started out by cutting 'mute.' "

On holding onto a shot:

"I use every trick in the book not to have a cut. When I do cut, I try to make as sharp an incision as I can. It helps when you establish that violence is just around the corner and can come at you very suddenly. It makes the shot of the soldiers walking downhill into darkness incredibly tense and menacing. It’s not necessarily about being slow, because I make sure these longer moments earn their place by compressing time on either side.

"You get a different kind of experience by holding onto a shot; it’s more like being in an art gallery. You put borders around a moment in time and invite the audience to look deeper into the image. And I think it fools you that you are looking at something real."

On keeping Kate’s point of view:

"Both 12 Years and Sicario feature relatively passive central characters, and there’s a danger because that isn’t the normal commercial formula. So we were careful to fine tune the balance between Kate seeing things and reacting to them and things happening by themselves.

"For the most part we are with Kate’s point of view, playing catch up, unearthing the hidden agenda. This is counterbalanced by the sequences of Silvio, the Mexican cop. We don’t know where he’s going to fit into the story, but I guess we know it isn’t going to end well. Another viewpoint is the different types of surveillance shots.  Eventually, in the night-tunnel sequence, there’s a collision course of all the different viewpoints through thermal cameras, night-vision cameras and drone shots accompanied by a patchwork of sharply juxtaposed sounds. This heralds a major shift when we detach from Kate and follow Alejandro [del Toro] across the border and into a bloodbath. 

"We took a lot of measures to get the balance right, even jettisoning an amazing scene which used to open the film. We see Alejandro interrogating a cop by holding his head underwater. But he drowns him. Alejandro administers CPR, brings the cop back to life only to start the interrogation over. It was such a great scene it was tough to drop. But it felt important to anchor the story in Kate’s viewpoint right from the outset and to let Kate and the audience discover Alejandro at the same time."

On working with Denis and cinematographer Roger Deakins:

"One of the chief joys with Denis and Roger is that they shoot single-camera and move on once they’re content with a performance. I can see clear reasons why they’ve gone again and can form a sturdy memory of all the options. They provide enough choice to be able to mold the performances if we end up needing to alter the temperature of a scene, but not so much choice that we’re paralyzed by comparing one performance with another that’s only a tenth of a percent adrift. 

"The performances were fantastic, from all the cast in this film. I was always in awe of Daniel Kaluuya, who played Reggie. Thinking schematically, he’s just the guy the main character talks to, but in the flesh he managed to inject a lot of much-needed humor with all the improvised stuff.

"There’s such an unspoken weight to Alejandro and so much of it comes out in tiny details, inessential moments. Like the way he neatly folds his jacket before embarking on the raid of Juarez, or the way he wipes tears from Kate’s cheek whilst holding a gun to her neck. The film manages to balance a lot of telling detail with intense action. But Benicio is like a cobra, he kind of paralyzes you as an editor. You lose the ability to operate machinery, and it feels like you can’t cut to anyone else."

On editing the tunnel sequence:

"Denis and Roger are meticulous planners, so to keep myself in the game I was constantly trying to find ways of subverting their plan. Because I’m insanely competitive. One layer we added to the tunnel sequence was the drone shots, by adapting helicopter shots intended for another sequence. The film has a lot of that sense of ‘another level,' the huge military resources elsewhere and the constant surveillance. 

"Sound was a big part of the sequence; we wanted to hold off from unleashing music for a decent length of time. I remember the tension in Ridley Scott’s Alien when they investigate the planet and the characters can’t see or hear each other clearly. With my assistant I spent a lot of time recording extra lines of dialogue on cheap walkie-talkies from Walmart, making the most of all the quirky distortion, creating dialogue as a kind of sound effect. In one of the sync tracks I found a noise I used to call the ‘guitar solo’ — a high, whining melody caused by a microphone not quite connecting to the sound desk on location. It’s the kind of noise you’d hear as a child on longwave radio, eavesdropping on Radio Helsinki. [Supervising sound editor] Alan Murray’s team really added fantastic colors to this sequence, they were magnificent collaborators. And it helped that their previous job had been American Sniper — we had some truly superior gunshots in the final soundtrack."