Tension and Timelines: How Editor Joe Walker Escalated the Suspense on 'Sicario'

Sicario has a definite rhythm designed to build suspense. There are scenes that are slow but tense and others that are action-packed.
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Sicario is an emotional and suspenseful look into the dark side of the war on drugs as told by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners, Incendies). After uncovering evidence related to a Mexican drug cartel, by-the-book FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited to join a covert black-ops mission headed by an enigmatic Columbian operative known only as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) along with CIA special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). As the operation proceeds with increasingly extra-legal means, we learn of Alejandro’s conflicted personality that’s part former crusading prosecutor and part hit man. The clashes at the heart of the story force Kate (and the audience) to question whether the ends justify the means on the boundary between the United States and Mexico.

From Wagner to Hollywood

The key to driving such a tense thriller is often the editor, who in this case was Joe Walker, ACE (12 Years a Slave). I had a chance to discuss Sicario with Walker as he took a break from cutting the next Villeneuve film, Story of Your Life. Walker’s road to Hollywood is different than that of many other top-level feature film editors. While editors often play musical instruments as a hobby, Walker actually studied to be a classical composer in his native England.

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Josh Brolin as Matt Graver. Photo by Richard Foreman Jr. SMPSP.

Walker explains, “It’s always been a hard choice between films and writing music. I remember when I was 10 years old, I’d run 8mm films of the Keystone Cops at slow speed with Richard Wagner playing against it and kind of get depressed! So these were twin interests of mine. I studied classical composing and balanced two careers of editing and composing up until the mid-2000s. I used my music degree to get a job with the BBC, where I moved into assistant editor roles. The BBC is very cautious—it took 11 years before I was finally allowed to cut drama as an editor. This was all on 16mm film. Then I moved into digital editing, first with Lightworks and later Avid. I always wanted to work on bigger films, but I felt there was a glass ceiling in England. Big studio films that came in would always bring their own editors. The big break for me was 12 Years a Slave, which provided the opportunity to move to Los Angeles.”

Controlling the Story, Characters and Rhythm

Sicario has a definite rhythm designed to build suspense. There are scenes that are slow but tense and others that are action-packed. Walker explains his philosophy on setting the pace: “Since working with Steve McQueen [director of 12 Years a Slave], I’ve been known for holding shots a long time to build tension. This is contrary to the usual approach, which says you build tension with an increasingly faster cutting pace. Sometimes if you hold a shot, there’s even more tension if the story supports it. I’ll even use the trick of invisible split-screens to hold a take longer than the way it was originally shot. For example, the left side of one take might hold long enough, but something breaks on the right. I’ll pull the right side from a different take in order to extend the end of the complete shot.”

Another interesting aspect to Sicario is the sparseness of the musical score, in favor of sound design. Walker comments, “Music is in an abusive relationship with film. Putting on my composer hat, I don’t want to tell the audience what to think only by the music. It’s part of the composite. I try to cut without a temp score, because you have to know when it’s only the music that’s driving the emotion. I’ll even turn the sound down and cut it as if it was a silent movie so I can feel the rhythm visually. Then sound effects add another layer, and finally music. In Sicario, I used a lot of walkie-talkie dialogue to fill in spaces—using it almost like a sound effect. Jóhann Jóhannsson (composer of Prisoners, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher) was thrilled to get a clean output without someone else’s preconceived temp score because it allowed him to start with a clean palette.”

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Kate (Emily Blunt), Matt (Josh Brolin, left center) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, right). Photo by Richard Foreman Jr. SMPSP.

Editing shapes the characters. Walker says, “Taylor Sheridan’s script was fantastic, so I don’t want to do a disservice to him, but there was a continual process of paring down the dialogue and simplifying the story, which continued long into the edit. Benicio Del Toro’s character says very little and that helps keep him mysterious. One of the biggest cuts we made in the edit was to eliminate the original opening scene, shot on the coast at Veracruz. In it, Alejandro [Del Toro] is interrogating a cop by holding his head underwater. He goes too far and kills him, so he drags the lifeless body to the shore—only to resuscitate him and begin the interrogation again. It is a strong and brutal scene, but one that told too much about Alejandro at the outset rather than letting us—and Kate (Emily Blunt)—figure him out piece by piece. We needed to tell the story through Kate’s eyes. The film now starts with the hostage rescue raid, which better anchors the film on Kate. And that scene is not short of its own brutality. At the end, we smash cut from a mutilated hand on the ground to Kate washing the blood out of her hair in the shower. This very violent beginning lets the audience know that anything could happen in this film.”

A Carefully Considered Production

Sicario was produced for an estimated $31 million. While not exactly low budget, that amount is certainly modest for a film of this ambition. The majority of the film was shot in New Mexico over a 49-day period starting in July of 2014. Final post was completed in March 2015. Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC (Unbroken, Prisoners, Skyfall), the film’s director of photography, relied on his digital camera of choice these days, the ARRI Alexa XT recording to ARRIRAW. The editorial team cut with transcoded Avid DNxHD media using two Avid Media Composer systems.

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Editor Joe Walker’s screen wall for Blackhat

Joe Walker continues, “This was a very carefully considered shoot. They spent a lot of effort working out shots to avoid overshooting. Most of the setups are in the final cut. They were also lucky with the weather. I cut the initial assembly in L.A. while they were shooting in New Mexico. The fine cut was done in Montreal with Denis for ten weeks and then back to L.A. for the final post. The edit really came together easily because of all the prep. Roger has to be one of our generation’s greatest cinematographers. Not only are his shots fantastic, but he has a mastery of sequence building, which is matched by Denis.”

“Ninety percent of the time the editorial team consisted of just my long-time first assistant Javier [Marcheselli] and me. The main focus of the edit was to streamline the storytelling and to be as muscular and rhythmic with the cutting as possible. We spent a lot of time focused on the delicate balance between how much we see the story through our central character’s eyes and how much we should let the story progress by itself. One of the constructs that came out of the edit was to beef up the idea of surveillance by taking helicopter aerials of the desert and creating drone footage from it. Javier is great with temp visual effects and I’m good with sound, so we’d split up duties that way.”

“I’m happy that this was largely a single-camera production. Only a few shots were two-camera shots. Single-camera has the advantage that the editor can better review the footage. With multicam you might get four hours of dailies, which takes about seven hours to review. When are you left with time to cut? This makes it hard to build a relationship with the dailies. With a single-camera film, you have more time to really investigate the coverage. I like to mind-read what the direction was by charting the different nuances between takes.”

It Shouldn’t Matter What the Knives Are

Walker is a long-time Media Composer user. We wrapped up with a discussion about the tools of the trade. Walker says, “This was a small film compared to some, so we used two Avid workstations connected to Avid’s ISIS shared storage while in L.A. It’s rock solid. In Montreal, there was a different brand of shared storage, which wasn’t nearly as solid as ISIS. On Michael Mann’s Blackhat, we sometimes had 16 Avids connected to ISIS, so that’s pretty hard to beat. I really haven’t used other NLEs, like [Apple] Final Cut, but [Adobe] Premiere is tempting. If anything, going back to Lightworks is even more intriguing to me. I really loved how intuitive the ‘paddles’ [the Lightworks flatbed-style controller] were. But edit systems are like knives. You shouldn’t care what knives the chef used if the meal tastes good. Given the right story, I’d be happy to cut it on wet string.”

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Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, left), Matt (Josh Brolin, center) and Kate (Emily Blunt, right). Photo by Richard Foreman Jr. SMPSP.

The editing application isn’t Walker’s only go-to tool. He continues, “I wish Avid would include more improvements on the audio side of Media Composer. I often go to outside applications. One of my favorites is [U&I Software’s] MetaSynth, which lets me extend music. For instance, if a chord is held for one second, I can use MetaSynth to extend that hold for as much as 10, 20 seconds. This makes it easy to tailor music under a scene and it sounds completely natural. I also used it on Sicario to elongate some great screaming sounds in the scene where Alejandro is having a nightmare on the plane—they are nicely embedded into the sounds of the jet engines. We wanted the message to be subliminal.”

Joe Walker is a fan of visual organization. He explains, “When I’m working with dailies, I usually don’t pre-edit select sequences for a scene unless it’s a humongous amount of coverage. Instead, I prefer to visually arrange the tiles [thumbnail frames in the bin] in a way that makes it easier to tuck in. But I am a big fan of the scene wall. I write out 3x5 notecards for each scene with a short description of the essence of that scene on it. This is a great way to quickly see what that scene is all about and remind you of a character’s journey up to that point. When it comes time to reorder scenes, it’s often better to do that by shifting the cards on the wall first. If you try to do it in the software, you get bogged down in the logistics of making those edit changes. I’ll put the cards for deleted scenes off to the side, so a quick glance reminds me of what we’ve removed. It’s just something that works for me. Denis has spent the best part of a year turning words into pictures, so he laughs at my wall and my reliance on it!”