Joe Walker is receiving his honorary degree at the University of York. Referred to as the invisible performer in the editing room by none other than Lupita Nyong’o, Joe Walker has edited from dystopian major cult hit, Bladerunner 2049 to hard-hitting realism in 12 Years a Slave. Having gone from the BBC Cutting Rooms to winning awards and nominated twice for Academy Awards, Joe Walker was brought up with a Super 8 in one hand whilst playing music on the other. Performing in bands and being interested in film, Joe went on to study at the University of York, and once graduated he pursued two careers, music and editing. He is now known as the Charlie Watts of the ensemble.
Q: How does it feel to be back to York after all these years?
A: You know, I picked up my honorary Doctorate and I’m now Dr Walker which feels great, it’s got a nice ring to it: “the Doctor will see you now.” I’m not sure, I’ll probably use it for making reservations or something. Look, the more substantial thing was to come back and actually thank the university for the start that I got. I did a music degree here and I came in the early 80’s and I have to say it was very avant-garde and it blew my little suburban mind up. It was going from a school with a not-so-great music department, you know with a tambourine in a dusty cupboard, to coming and seeing KarlHeinz Stockhausen and really ‘ballsy’, ‘gutsy’ avant-garde music in a piece called 'Trans'. My take away from that has always been to respect the unpromising artistic choices and I’ve been very lucky to work with a couple of filmmakers in the last 10 years that are really gutsy and uncompromising.
Q: You had a unique way into film studying music at York, creating two career paths and you’ve said that editing that goes into music is not so different from editing that goes into film. How instrumental was learning two different traits and helping you get to where you are today?
A: It’s very hard to decide between the two career paths and for a long time I kept both of them going. I was editing by day and I was writing music for documentaries and drama by night. It was very intense hours, which led to me thinking that I can’t do both forever. I just determined myself to be the most musical editor I could be. And it’s so different, you know.
Q: You talk about collaborating with many different filmmakers. How different is it working with Steve McQueen as opposed to Denis Villeneuve who came from a film background? Is there a distinction in their creative process?
A: The conversations are remarkably similar and in fact there’s more in common between them that you’d imagine. At their core, they’re both interested in performance and storytelling, and editing is a key player in that. You can change the temperature of a scene by choosing a different performance or you can edit things out that didn’t work or are unnecessary, you can strip things bare. There is really no difference between somebody from a fine art background or somebody that comes from Denis’s background; I think they’re both storytellers and filmmakers. I think Steve McQueen has always been a filmmaker.
Q: Do you miss working with film?
A: I really miss working with projected film because when we were in cutting rooms in the 80s and early 90s, you’re working on a Steenbeck and projecting film all the time. You’d it through a machine where light is magnified and you’re looking at a projected image. And I miss that. It’s a much more pleasing thing to the eye than looking at a computer screen all day.
I don’t miss anything else about film because every time you made a change to the film, you ended up having a little trim a bit of Sellotape and things were missing all the time, something you would accidentally step on the film and crunch it or somebody would drop some ash on it, and there were scratches. After a while, as an assistant film editor you would end up only looking at the scratches, you wouldn’t even look at the film anymore. It was just a bit of a white-knuckle ride hoping it would make it through a projector. It was very cumbersome in terms of making any changes. But now, with computer editing you can save and keep multiple versions of things. Because of that, I can experiment; do two completely different cuts of a scene, put one on the shelf, show the director Plan A, and I know that I have Plan B waiting in the wings.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers and editors who are trying to make it into an industry that is so notoriously tough?
A: Um, I don’t know. I guess you have to find out what you want to do almost stupidly early these days. It wasn’t simple to do it back then. I mean, my only connection with editing was that I had a family friend that did it, and I had done a little bit of work with an 8mm camera and projectors and I was really into animation at the time, so I had a kind of theoretical understanding about editing.
But to get into the industry is hard. I was working as a temp in an office and I knew somebody who worked with a lady in a photocopying department whose daughter was an assistant editor. I mean, it was a complicated route to try and find somebody in the industry and make your way to them and say: “Hey, could you help me out? I’d like to spend some time with you and see what you do. Could you maybe teach me a little bit about what you’re doing?” It wasn’t particularly easy, and I don’t think it has ever been particularly easy. My advice for filmmakers is first of all, do it as often you can. Try not to be daunted by the task, you have to start somewhere, and then you just carry on. The composer Harrison Birtwistle was asked why so many of his pieces begin on the note E and he said: “well, it just felt like a good place as any”, or something like that. You have to start somewhere and build up contacts.
I also advise people to look at many films as they can. I mean, I got into a routine where I would watch films good and bad. And I kept thinking if you were the editor of that film, what would I do to improve it? Forget about if I could rewrite it or re cast it. What would I do if that was the actual film in front of you, what’s wrong with it? What are the problems? I think you learn as much from dissecting a film that way in your head as a mental exercise as you do by watching a good film and enjoying it. Hopefully, you strive towards something, which is great. But I think it’s also important to look at all films and just be a little analytical about them.
The full interview will shortly be published on URY Podcasts.