Calibrating Tension, Surprise and Long-Held Shots in Sequences Expertly Built on Set

Director Denis Villeneuve is known for tightly wound thrillers (Incendies, Prisoners) that move in startling directions. His latest, Sicario, stars Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin and features the stunning photography of Roger Deakins. It follows the descent of a rookie FBI agent (Blunt) into a series of drug cartel-related covert ops across — and under — the Texas-Mexico border. It also marks Villeneuve’s first collaboration with Joe Walker, ACE, the Oscar-nominated 12 Years a Slave editor who has cut both features (Hunger, Shame) and art films (Ashes) for director Steve McQueen. (That’s Walker on the left, with Villeneuve, in the image at the top of the page.)

“My reputation from Steve McQueen’s films is that I’m not scared of holding on a shot,” says Walker. “And I certainly believe that when something is over-cut it can be intrusive. I think you have to sometimes allow the performances to sing to you while maintaining the tension. I’ll use every trick in the book to keep that tension if it wasn’t entirely achieved on set — like mixing and matching the left-hand side of one shot and the right-hand side of another, or replacing audio. But it’s a full-time job to try and not cut and I’m a big fan of not cutting.

“I learned that really early on at the BBC when the fabulous editor Arden Fisher (Edge of Darkness) told me, ‘Just because they shot it, you don’t have to put it in, you know.’ I thought that was very radical at the time, but it was a good thing to learn early on. I’ve tried to apply that when I edit.”

Getting It Right

Sicario‘s $31 million budget was relatively small, given its significant location changes and taut string of high-level action sequences. That meant careful planning in pre-production and efficient execution on set, something Villeneuve and Deakins had already mastered on Prisoners. “Denis and Roger planned so much with the production designer ahead of time,” says Walker. “They didn’t shoot with masses of different units. It was just Roger on a single camera, by and large, and it was very carefully controlled” from one scene to the next. 

“The thing with Roger’s photography is he and Denis together are simply fantastic sequence builders,” he adds. “Each shot is deliberated and discussed at great length long before they arrive on set. They’ve already figured out that we need this shot for this beat of the story. It’s meticulous. It makes my job an unbelievable delight because I can concentrate on getting everything frame-accurate in terms of rhythm and general pacing. That’s where I can show my strength. Although I admit I can be competitive at times and ended up subverting some of their plans, rather than just submitting to them.”

Walker says he and Villeneuve reluctantly let go of one scene during the final cut. It was meant to set up the entire film, and its absence shifted the film’s perspective and accelerated its rhythm and surprise. “On the cutting room floor is a brilliant opening scene with Benicio Del Toro’s character, Alejandro, staring out to sea,” he says. “You slowly realize he’s waist-deep in water and he’s holding someone’s head under the water and torturing him. He goes too far and drowns him, so he stops, brings him back to shore, gives him CPR, and resuscitates him. Then he carries on with torturing him. It’s based on a real story, actually.”


A trace element of the scene remains in the film’s opening caption, which is based on dialogue from the excised sequence. “The problem with that scene staying in was that the film wasn’t anchored as Kate’s (Emily Blunt) story,” Walker says. “By starting with her in the back of a tank and bashing through the house wall, and then having her meet Alejandro, a mysterious figure that bit by bit, we gain access to what’s going on his his mind, felt like a much better approach.”

Speech As Sound Effect

After those explosive opening moments, Sicario‘s adrenaline and subtle shifts in POV only continue to build in scenes that reflect one of Walker’s other core strengths, his early training as a composer and sound editor. “I certainly tried to use dialog as a sound effect whenever possible,” he says. “I’m referring to the sounds of helicopter pilots or drone navigators — all the kind of sparkling walkie-talkie dialog.”

Walker and his assistant, Javier Marcheselli, sat with walkie-talkies in two adjoining rooms in the edit suite and began firing improvised dialog back and forth. ‘We just started trying to stuff it into the cut. It’s not an original idea by any means but one of the things that impressed me about Ridley Scott’s Alien was I loved the fact that when those guys land on another planet, walk out of the Nostromo and see those exploding eggs, the audio and picture is compromised. There was a real tension from the fact that communication was imperfect. You had to have your wits about you to listen to commands, because someone might be yelling at you to leave right now and if you don’t, you’re dead. That sense really kept the audience’s nerves on edge.

And Denis is a master of keeping people’s nerves on edge,” perhaps another reason he will be directing the upcoming Ridley Scott-produced Blade Runner sequel. “He gave me that fantastic shot of the dog barking in the middle of the bridge scene,” Walker says, referring to when the covert ops team, stuck in traffic after pulling a drug operative from a Mexican jail, suddenly becomes aware of the armed adversaries in the vehicles nearby. “Just at the point where everything is in place and there are two possible sources of a gunfight, you cut to the back of a car and there’s a dog barking. It’s just perfect, and it adds another layer of animal tension to it all.”

The film’s most gruesome images, however, document the human toll in the escalating drug war. In one sequence, Kate scrolls through a series of shocking stills of the accumulated carnage on her laptop. “The lovely thing about that shot was that we changed it slightly so the center of the shot is the computer’s forward button instead of the images themselves, which expresses her determination to keep her eyes open and continue watching,” says Walker. “I thought that was a really clever thing for Denis to do because as you get closer to the forward button those images become almost normal and peripheral.”

Into Darkness

Sicario is not without its savage beauty, from Deakins’s breathtaking aerial footage to long shots that capture sweeping, distilled moments like the pivotal scene when the covert ops and hired Delta forces descend into a hidden border tunnel against a desert sunset. “I built up to that with quite a lot of compression of time, so it’s really a landscaping mission,” says Walker. “Things aren’t slow before or after, and there’s an irregular pace as you go from one viewpoint to another. The film starts with several intense shocks and surprises, so in those longer-held shots, there’s a sense that at any moment anything could jump out at you from the darkness.” 

The montage inside the tunnel that follows was filmed with real thermal and night-vision cameras. “They’d shot this phenomenal footage,” he says. “They had to get the temperature right to film with the thermal camera in the set, because if it’s too hot, everything’s just glowing. We also added another unplanned element. I felt the general maneuver was unclear in the tunnel when the two teams split in different directions. You don’t really know where they are relative to each other for a while. We had some helicopter shots of the abandoned car up above, so we took that and turned it into drone-vision footage.” Assistant editor Marcheselli adapted original helicopter shots using The Foundry’s Nuke and After Effects. 

“The other thing about that sequence in the tunnel is everybody thinks it’s got score but it hasn’t,” Walker adds. “It’s just big blocks of sound bashing against each other. As they were going down the hill I found this wonderful whistling distortion that resulted from one of the lav mics that didn’t connect wirelessly. We referred to it as the ‘guitar solo.’ It’s so atonal and strange that I wanted to use it there. We whacked up the volume on it, and (supervising sound editor) Alan Murray and his team came in and added all these different, really interesting sound shapes. Then there’s the constant dialog that’s going on between the team and the drone pilots. It’s just a properly designed sound montage. We hold off using the music until the last moment, which only comes in when the guy knifes somebody in the tunnel.”


Cutting Over Silence

Despite the liberal use of sound effects, Sicario was actually cut without any temp tracks, something Villeneuve and Walker agreed on from the start. “That’s one reason why I love working with Denis so much,” says Walker. “It takes a lot of courage to cut without temp tracks. Of course things with a certain amount of action you would have a clutch of familiar tracks, like the drumming you hear in Munich, something reasonably neutral that gives you pace and helps elevate the mood and sell your cut to the director and producer. In this case, one of the first conversations we had was us saying we’d really love to cut this without any music and cut it like a silent film. It certainly helps me find the visual rhythm, and one of the most important things for me on this film was getting a very muscular rhythm in the piece through a combination of sound and picture, and then music.”

His composer training also kept him from shoving the soundtrack into a corner, something editors sometimes do inadvertantly, when temping in a famous track the director and producers fall in love with but can’t ultimately use. “I felt that we should give the composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, who Denis has worked with before, a completely clean slate. I had some ideas about what would work in my own mind but I just thought it was important to give him an unprejudiced view and not force him down a particular route. It was a way of ensuring a more original soundtrack and I think we’ve got that.”

Getting Temp Effects in the Avid

Walker has cut on most NLEs but works primarily in Avid. “It is so rock solid in terms of sharing,” he says. He’s been working with his assistant Javier Marcheselli for the past three years and credits Marcheselli’s evolving craft as a VFX editor for the team’s successful workflow. “I do things very crudely and I use basic things in the Avid like picture-in-picture, FluidMotion and Animatte, as well as a bit of color-correction,” Walker says. “But I’ll get the timing right and select which bits of the shots, then Javier goes off and finesses things. It was just me in one room with Denis and Javier in the room next door in Montreal,” where they are currently working on Villeneuve’s next film, The Story of Your Life.

“On Sicario, we’d shoot ideas back and forth and we thought it would be very good to have a drone shot of Fausto’s house (the top Mexican el jefe). In the script, Alejandro is in contact with some overseeing power that knows what’s ahead of him, so we thought, there must be drone or satellite imagery that’s being scanned. Denis and I decided we can make that visual, so we’d say, ‘I need a shot of Fausto’s house from above with Alejandro disappearing indoors and two people dead in the driveway; can you do that?’ Javier went on Google Maps and found where the house really was and did an inverted version of that as a sketch, a kind of temp VFX image that helped us finish the cut. The VFX houses realized it in full detail later, of course. But he’s so fast and he’s has gotten wonderfully good at creating these temp effects. It’s become such a successful way to work for me. There are lots of things like that in Sicario. They’re subtle but effective.”

One example is black-and-white footage seen on tiled security monitors inside a bank. “We scanned the footage in a special way so that you end up looking at something moving diagonally,” says Walker. “I had this idea that we should be surveying the surveillance footage. It also has a wonderful optical illusion, which is you think you’re scanning the exterior of a bank because you’re panning but then this column comes into view you realize you’re actually going from one monitor to another and are in fact panning across monitors. It was one of the day shoots Denis was least happy with. They had the wrong weather and had to tear up the schedule at one point. At the beginning of the director’s cut, Denis was even saying it was the worst one. But by the end of it, he said it was one of his favorite scenes, mostly because we cracked a really interesting way of getting into the scene.”