Bright Lights Film Journal

Interview: Editor Joe Walker on 12 Years a Slave, Hunger, Shame, and More

Joe Walker (right) and Steve McQueen on the set of 12 Years a Slave

Joe Walker gives us the skivvy on working with the acclaimed director of 12 Years a Slave, editing for TV versus films, music and editing, and much more.

In November of 2012, I was fortunate enough to attend the expertly curated and constructed solo exhibition of Steve McQueen’s video works at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was there that I first met one of McQueen’s key collaborators: Joe Walker, the editor of Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and 12 Years a Slave (2013). Among the various events that accompanied the show at Chicago was a Q&A session with McQueen himself. When I asked him a question about editing, he referred me to Mr. Walker, who happened to be in the audience. While the conversations we went on to have centered largely around the three features, they nevertheless proved to be highly illuminating not only with respect to McQueen’s video art, but to the art of editing generally.

Joe Walker

Joe Walker was born in West London. His father was a History master and his mother one of the three principal short-hand typists serving under Winston Churchill during the war. McQueen and Walker had somewhat overlapping trajectories in their younger years: both were brought up in Catholic families in the same borough, Ealing, and both were, according to Walker, “frequent visitors to Mattock Lane Public Library, going to the same cinemas, and both working at Marks and Spencer on a Saturday, wearing horrid polyester trousers with the pockets sewn up so we couldn’t steal anything.” After studying music at York University, Walker joined the BBC, where he encountered a host of “flamboyant” but nurturing individuals, under whom he apprenticed for several years first as an assistant editor, then as a sound editor, until ultimately bearing the title of film editor. After fifteen years cutting various TV shows and documentaries, whilst keeping up a career in composing for television, Walker made the break and left to cut feature films. His work in this arena has been varied and impressive. In addition to his collaborations with McQueen, he edited features such as Tabloid (2004), The Escapist (2008), Harry Brown (2009), and Brighton Rock (2010). Walker edited the fascinating and highly ambitious project Life in a Day (2011), and is currently cutting the latest thriller from Michael Mann, Cyber, which will be released in 2015. He was nominated for a BAFTA, an EDDIE, and an OSCAR for his work on 12 Years a Slave.

What do you think about the idea of an editing “style”?

I’m not sure I have one particular style, but I do think I have a certain attitude and it’s unlikely I could completely bury that. It would affect the choice of performances in my first cut, for example, a lot of which can filter through to the fine cut. I do have a few dogmas, actually not that rigid. I prefer to avoid continuous music, an addiction in drama. I like to cut economically and find the perfect instance for each new angle in a sequence. I like to avoid over-cutting. It’s better to let the actors do their stuff without interfering in such an intrusive way – it leaves the cuts to be stronger when they do happen, more angular and thoughtful. This isn’t a dereliction of duty because I would rather spend ages cheating the left hand side of one take with the right hand side of another and cheat dialogue from yet another, all that to avoid longueurs or minor flaws and having to cut away too soon and lose the intensity and tension of an otherwise good performance. I find a lot of TV drama hard to watch – I feel the editor’s hand holding mine. It’s like being told what to think all the time, which prevents being able to really peer into the characters’ souls and form one’s own thoughts. These kinds of things preoccupy me.

When I can, I try to trim the dialogue down as much as possible. I was intrigued by a story I heard about Dustin Hoffmann. It may not be true. It is said he likes to ask – once he’s perfected a take – to perform it again without dialogue. It hands the cutting room an ability to convey a thought with a look rather than a line. I suppose this yearning for less dialogue is about preferring to be European rather than English in many ways, and a lot of this is down to the films I grew up watching, which were more often atmospheric than verbal. Perhaps British films can be more related to our theatrical heritage than others, and I’m nervous of that. (One of the reasons why I think the long conversation with Sands and the priest works in Hunger is that we’ve been relatively starved of dialogue in the first third of the movie. By the time you get there, violence has escalated to a disturbing degree, and it’s time to investigate the reasons for what comes next in a different way.)

Hunger (2008). Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) duke it out with words.

The other style an editor might struggle to conceal is in their choice of scripts to work on, or the kinds of script that come their way because of their CVs. I’ve fought hard to get onto the projects I love. I leapt at the chance to cut projects like Eroica and Life in a Day – groundbreaking pieces which called for unusual approaches from the cutting room.

That said, I think editing style is mostly dictated by the dailies. If it’s been shot a particular way, it inevitably calls for a particular way to cut it. I’d just say that I’m in my comfort zone on films like Steve’s because they enable me to really use sounds and cuts in a telling way – these become very precise and percussive decisions which, by the economic nature of Steve’s shooting style, are more impactful than usual. A fundamental irony about the praise I received for Hunger is the fact that one of the most well-known scenes from it features an uninterrupted 17-minute take. I’m happy to absorb that Zen lesson in life.

Are there any editors whose work you particularly admire?

As an assistant, one of the people I learnt most from was Ardan Fisher, editor of the superlative BBC series Edge of Darkness. He took a certain perverted pleasure from NOT cutting on people wiping past frame; he showed me that cutting for its own sake was pointless (if a wide shot is great, why use the close-ups?), and he could always be counted on to create a mind-watering collision of shots. Two examples of this.: in one drama, a dissolve between a stream running past culled sheep on a hillside to a glass of water being poured, which hinted sarcastically at possible contamination. The other: a mischievous cut in the two-part Arena documentary The Orson Welles Story – former editor Robert Wise talks chirpily about being content with the studio’s happy ending he tacked onto the bastardised The Magnificent Ambersons. He cuts sharp to a shell-shocked Welles, saying: “Gone!”

I worked briefly as a sound editor for Tariq Anwar, editor of American Beauty and The King’s Speech, and I adored the way he would often lead the sound. You’d hear something intriguing long before you saw it, the cut coming at the perfect point of fruition.

I look at everything Thelma Schoonmaker cuts, twice. The first time I am dazzled, the second time I check out the plumbing. I am always staggered at how bold her cuts can be. She takes no continuity prisoners, cutting in forceful swathes and trusting to the rough energy it creates.

They are not editors alone, but I have always been in awe of the way the Brothers Quay cut their films. They make a wonderful use of fades up and down across the moment of a turn or impulse. The cutting seems an essential part of a balletic sensibility, and they always provide a brilliant choice of music and sound effects. I find their films hugely transportative.

In a similar vein, I love Svankmajer’s use of cutting and music. An early short like Dimensions of Dialogue is worth a look. There’s a tiny sequence in Shame where Brandon throws out all his porn mags and we riffle through dozens of frames of body parts which reminds me of Svankmajer. I’m a fan of ’60s Czech movies where they created stark sound worlds and visionary images, such as Holubice (“White Dove”), Marketa Lazarova, or Spalovac Mrtvol (The Cremator). These films are best appreciated with a bit of crackle audible on the optical track.

You come from a background in experimental music. How does this bear upon your work as a film editor?

My teenage ambitions alternated between being a composer or animator. I studied music at York University during the early ’80s, when naked underwater cello music was all the rage. The first piece of music that totally blew my mind was Stockhausen’s Trans – a monster piece with the orchestra hidden behind a pink gauze. The music is deeply grungy and violent with a vast sound projection of a loom crashing from side to side of the stage. After my rather suburban musical education, it was an epiphany. I got hooked on composers like Andriessen, Berio, Glass, Janacek, Ligeti, Penderecki, Stravinsky – all the noisy ones.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the fiddle in 12 Years a Slave

I think there are two things in Steve’s films that my musical background helps me with – the violent aggression is one. Steve’s confrontational aesthetic is at one with my avant-garde musical heroes. Softening the impact of this aesthetic would damage the intention of these films, which I believe is to shake the world up and maybe even change it a little. The other advantage is having access to a library of guide tracks which stray from the usual editor’s clutch. For example, the cello piece which is used in Hunger – an amazing, searing piece called “Industry” by Michael Gordon. It puts the cello through distortion pedals and is fiendishly difficult to play. It has this kind of obsessive rotational feel, working its way through the permutations of only three or four notes, but with a life-or-death weight to it. It just felt right as a “prison piece” and particularly to mark our return to the bruised knuckles we met at the beginning of the film.

A friend of mine, Matthew Herbert, says that music is in an abusive relationship with film. I think that’s true.While music can provide something dialogue and sound fx struggle to do, sound can be just as evocative as music. By avoiding music as much as possible, you give all the sounds in a film a chance to make an impact.

Do you see film editing as being inherently musical?

Being able to click your fingers at precisely the same point as your director to denote when a shot should end is, I suppose, a musical gift. Syncing your body with what the actors do is like playing in a band. Certainly, after cutting a fight scene, my arms ache.

Sound, rather than music, is probably the truly distended focus of mine. I spend ten times longer working on sound transitions than I do on the picture cut. A good sound join can sell an unavoidably bad cut. Sometimes I envy editors that aren’t so hampered by sound OCD like me. They bash things around quicker, there’s a suppleness to their work. I have to click my mouse on 20 audio tracks every time I want to alter one picture cut, which is a handicap. But aside from its creative possibilities, I see value in the time I invest in sound because if there are holes in the sound it can frighten the producers and erode confidence in the quality of the dailies. It elevates the viewing process. On 12 Years A Slave, I ended up with only three days to put together a DCP to present to four test audiences, not enough time for the sound team to come on board in any significant way, so at least I didn’t have to worry sound was going to be threadbare. I suppose the more we can do because of the advance of technology, the more we do do. It was hell cutting on film; the most you could run on a Steenbeck was two mono tracks. So when there was sync sound, music and voice-over together you’d have to ditch one of them, normally the sync. All three of those help tell the story, so it was a vile choice.

I am really struck by the “physicality” of the cuts in a film like Hunger. To what extent do you view sound as adding to this physical quality of cutting?

Steve is drawn to rituals, and here is one in Hunger: the prisoners recite a pre-set speech, and the guards fill out a printed register. There’s an incredible tension in that scene where a young man, new to prison, gingerly undresses himself before the menacing guards, rendering himself enormously vulnerable. I think I just capitalized on this tension to deliver a shock cut at the end of it where we reward the audience’s intelligence to fill in the beating that this kid clearly receives on his way to the cell. We see the truncheon behind the guard’s back, we know what’s coming to the lad, we use the sound of the gate crashing behind him to provide a violent impact, we suggest but do not see the moment of his assault.

Hunger. PIRA prisoner Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) receives a beating.

I really love these truncations, or missing-piece cuts. There’s another one in Shame, not quite so dependent on sound: Brandon has taken his boss to hear Sissy sing, his married boss flirts heavily with her, they order champagne, and we cut sharply to Brandon awkwardly sitting in the back of a cab with his sister and boss engaged in tongue gymnastics behind him. We know which way the evening’s going, we don’t need to see all the steps, there’s comedy to the foreshortening. Steve had filmed a marvelous intervening scene, all Jules et Jim with the trio drunkenly rolling out of the bar and hailing a cab, passing an ice-skating rink. He happily jettisoned that to make a stronger cut.

Was there a big difference between the script and the final cut of Hunger? How much of the structure of the final film was worked out in the cutting room?

One change was the position of the “sweeping piss” shot. When I first saw the dailies of this in Steve’s Belfast flat, it looked like the perfect installation piece. It was about seven minutes long. There were only two shots for the sequence. One was a fixed wide shot of the corridor where the piss flows into the middle of the corridor and a man comes along and spreads disinfectant. Then there was a dolly shot traveling over the patterns left on the floor. In the script order, this was intended to be straight after the two lads in the cell made their walls of mashed potato to keep the urine flowing back into their cell. Trouble was we hadn’t even met Bobby Sands yet, so by the time we’d have finished watching this long shot, we risked people forgetting the story they’d come to see. In the original position, it interrupted the constant escalation of tension of the first half of the film culminating in the gunman shooting the prison guard in his mother’s old people’s home. However, it seemed perfectly placed after the long conversation between Sands and the priest. There, one needed time out, with plenty to think about, before rejoining Sands in a decimated state.

Hunger. A prison guard sweeps piss dispersed by the H-block prisoners.

Many things evolved from the original intentions. For example, the scene of the two lads being forcibly “mirror” searched. In one take there was a mis-time on Liam McMahon being thrown out of his cell, and the actor ended up being bashed into unconsciousness against the wall. The violence of that was too good to miss as an opening, although I’m not sure Sean Bobbitt has yet forgiven us for ruining a meticulously planned all-in-one shot. You can see Liam is out for the count if you look carefully, poor man.

But this is what normally happens. The script was superb, but we were able to riff upon that strong foundation as we went along. I’m very attracted to the type of scheduling that I hear Woody Allen and Shane Meadows have developed – keeping a few days’ filming budget back to allow for new shots and reshoots. In Shame this was important. We had to go back to New York to shoot a hawk who was meant to eyeball Brandon from the balcony outside his hotel bedroom. That got dropped. The hawk didn’t budge. The original stage directions said something like: “Brandon watches as the animal swoops majestically down over the Hudson.” If the script had said “an unintimidating bird gingerly hops along the ledge to pick at a frozen mouse left there by his trainer,” we’d have caught that pretty accurately. So that weekend we shoe-horned in a scene of Brandon’s threesome, and also the live chat girl that Sissy sees on Brandon’s laptop, another scene that was discussed pretty thoroughly for about two months of fine cutting. It’s hard to remount filming days like these – actors change their hair colour and grow beards, and it’s a challenge to get the original crew together. But we’ve got quite smart about how to tweak the film in this way. Steve shoots economically and fast (he once told me this was because he’d been brought up to believe “waste not, want not” – his experiments on Super 8 also instilled a terrific discipline). It means there is a small sum of money left over for such things.

Can you talk a bit about the significance of actors’ bodies from your perspective as an editor?

Steve represents bodies in an interesting way, both men and women. It’s not a sexual viewpoint, it’s more painterly than that. There’s an angle of Bobby Sands waiting for his bed to be changed that stays in my mind as particularly impressive. So much of what happens in Hunger happens bodily, whether it’s a prison guard washing his knuckles or a prisoner removing a package from his backside. I enjoyed the way Michael rolled his cigarette, using pages from the bible and spittle. It’s very earthy and real. When you’ve got no clothes on, it’s bound to exaggerate the importance of the body, and Steve responded to that.

Hunger. The bruised hands of an H-block prison guard.

You remarked once on how the film editor’s role often tends to resemble that of a fixer, a problem solver. The charge of the film editor is in some ways to get a film to “make sense” both spatially and temporally. And this becomes especially important when you’re not given the best coverage, or when there are mismatches here and there. And yet it seems to me that based on your work with McQueen (and especially in Hunger), your role shifts quite a bit in this sense.

The best tool an editor has for solving problems is screenings during the fine cut. Steve likes this, and the only way we managed this on Hunger‘s budget was to blag some free time in a London cinema. We checked progress on a big screen every Friday morning, while the cleaners were still at work. There are many things you suspect don’t land in a cut, or might be over-indulged or repetitive, but you do your best to make it work, then keep your antennae out when you test it on newcomers. The feeling of watching the movie with an audience heightens your sense of what work needs to be done. It’s like Church in many ways – people arrive at the cinema with their souls fully available for two hours. The sense of letting them down is palpable if, for example, one has kept hold of too many things and dragged down the pace. Or plot points. We are often underestimating the intelligence of the audience, yes, but there are some times we simply don’t put the intention before them in a clear enough way, and we expect everyone to be paying attention as diligently as we do because we’ve been in the zone for many months. I’m not saying editors’ gloomy predictions are always right. I’ve seen, many times, people charmed by things I hadn’t expected. A line in a comedy gets a bigger laugh than anticipated and drowns out the following line because you haven’t left enough space. You are looking at a movie day in, day out, and you can only glimpse the picture as an audience does years after you’ve finished when you aren’t thinking of what comes next. So long as you take a balanced view and know your mind well enough not to be derailed by the often bruising crosstalk, I think it’s a brilliant aid. One of the beefs I have with television is that testing the edit out with trusted friends has been all but squeezed out of the schedules. Nobody gets to see the cut who hasn’t already been working on the show. They can spend a million pounds on an episode, but only allow a tiny fraction of that – £12,000 or £15,000 to fine cut it, I don’t mean to sound Luddite, but there’s that line about streetcars at the beginning of Magnificent Ambersons: “The faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare.”

Hunger takes place in a real-world location: the infamous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. Though the film was not shot in the Maze, I’m aware that there were no breakaway walls on the set. This lends a kind of “concreteness” to the cinematic space. For the actors and even the audience, the prison somehow feels more there because of this fact about the set. Did you find that this fact had much of an impact on your own job? I ask because I could imagine this posing a lot of issues when it comes to coverage, but would also require you to get pretty creative!

The most practical issue for me was to convince everyone we were in the sound world of the Maze. Although the re-creation of the prison wing was astonishingly good visually, the place didn’t sound right. The gates weren’t harsh enough, and the huge boomy reverb of the studio containing the set had to be attenuated. I spent a lot of time researching the sounds prisoners would hear from their cells. The landscape of course has changed, and traffic rumble is now dominant, but I did read accounts of verbal taunting between prisoners and guards which became very threatening and intrusive, as well as night-time conversations across the corridors where the older inmates would teach Gaelic to the newcomers. We tried to get some of this stuff into the loop group sessions, but I’m not sure how much is really audible in the final mix. We tried to get the correct sounds of birdsong in the background, figuring the freedom represented by a bird or fly would be particularly poignant to these inmates.

The two young prisoners in the beginning of the film responded to the set very positively, and before filming they even spent a night alone in the cell together, getting into character.

You happened to edit two prison films back-to-back: The Escapist, followed directly by Hunger. Did the fact that both took place in a prison somehow pose similar problems on the level of cutting?

The movies you work on have an effect on your life, but I suppose one also chooses them for psychological reasons of one’s own. I worked on two prison movies just prior to divorce, followed by Life in a Day – a celebration of life in all human guises around the world on a single day (maybe that’s why it features so many gender battles and men being ridiculous). Only to plunge back into another kind of containment with 12 Years A Slave. That tells you all you need to know about a mid-life crisis, ha-ha.

In terms of the craft aspect, working on The Escapist definitely enlarged my sound-effect collection of prison noises. But more importantly, the experience emboldened my approach, in the sense that we used the cutting room as a final draft of the script, and really made deep changes to the flow and structure of the film. The Escapist has a really intriguing narrative, well worth a look to those that haven’t yet discovered it. I think I brought a lot of that with me to Hunger. It was also a warm-up in the sense of working with first-time feature directors – although it goes without saying that Steve and Rupert (Wyatt) had already demonstrated ridiculous levels of talent in shorter-format films.

If there’s some common ground between The Escapist and Hunger, there’s a lot more between Hunger and Shame. Both have very rapidly cut sequences at a certain point in the structure – in Hunger it’s the prison riot, in Shame it’s the moment Brandon throws all the porn out of his apartment where I took to animating, frame by frame, images from magazines – this is the sequence that reminds me of Svankmajer. (BTW, some poor lady in production had to identify which porn stars’ anuses we included.) Hunger has the discussion between Sands and the priest, Shame has the dinner scene, both long uninterrupted takes. Both Shame and Hunger make use of an uncertain timeline, a sense of time looping, in their opening statements. Ritual and repetition are key ingredients of both films, down to tiny details like the way Brandon shakes his sachets of sugar. Brandon is as much a prisoner as Sands. There are many parallels.

12 Years a Slave both shares and departs from what we’ve done. Specific things that are common to all: the experiments with time loops I mentioned before, that gets applied to the whole structure of the film – we start at the middle of the story and then catch up. I think Solomon breaking his violin is a little like the mini-riot in the Maze, or Brandon throwing out his porn stash – fast-cut moments of violent catharsis amongst the sustained shots leading up to them. There’s the same poetic quality, but those amazingly authentic speech patterns are front and centre.

Michael Fassbender in Shame

One lovely thing is the continuity across the three films of Steve’s partnership with Michael. We left him as Bobby Sands in Hunger lying dead on a gurney, but the first shot of the dailies on Shame was Michael as Brandon lying on his blue sheets, listening to the sounds of the apartment upstairs. We leave Shame with Brandon internally debating whether to pursue a girl in the metro, but the first shot of the dailies on 12 Years a Slave, he is Epps reading the Bible, and mauling it, to his slaves. It’s like seeing Michael reincarnate across three films. I can’t wait to see his next rebirth.