Art of the Cut: Behind the Scenes of “Dune” with Editor Joe Walker, ACE

Art of the Cut: Behind the Scenes of “Dune” with Editor Joe Walker, ACE

Today, we’re talking to Joe Walker, ACE about the editing of the highly anticipated film Dune.

The 1965 Frank Herbert novel that’s the basis for this movie is considered seminal by some, described as epic by many, and has famously resisted adaptation in the past. So director Denis Villeneuve’s vision for the piece is under a lot of scrutiny. And, as you’ll hear from Joe, creating a compact, cohesive, and compelling cinematic experience wasn’t easy.

Joe’s a long-time member of Villenueve’s crew, having worked with him on Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049 (picking up an ACE Eddie win for Arrival and nominations for the others). But you’ll also know his work on Steve McQueen’s Widows, and the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave—for which he not only received another ACE Eddie nomination, but also a callout in Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar acceptance speech.

Joe’s work on Dune holds a lot of secrets for those wanting to become better editors and storytellers. 

Denis Villeneuve and Joe Walker on the set of Dune
Dune director Denis Villeneuve consults with editor Joe Walker on set. Image © Chiabella James

Click here to listen to the audio-only version of this interview, and subscribe to stay up to date on all the Art of the Cut episodes. 

HULLFISH: Joe, you were one of my very first Art of The Cut interviews, and it’s cool now that you’re going to be the very first video interview. It’s been more than seven years! The first time I talked to you was for 12 Years a Slave. 

WALKER: Yeah. After the Oscars, right? So you saw Lupita’s speech and you contacted me.

HULLFISH: Right.

Steve Hullfish (left) with Joe Walker, film editor of Dune, in the first-ever Art of the Cut video interview.
Steve Hullfish (left) with Joe Walker, film editor of Dune, in the first-ever Art of the Cut video interview.

WALKER: It’s funny because I’ve done four films with Steve [McQueen] but that was the third. Then I’ve done four films with Denis [Villeneuve]. I hadn’t started with him then. 

HULLFISH: So this is the sixth time we’ve talked to each other. Both of us know that film is not a medium that one person does. It is the director’s film, but it’s not solely their work. It’s not solely your work. It’s a team and it’s collaborative. Tell me a little bit about the people that you worked with on this.

 
Fine cut timeline for Dune 2021
Joe’s 25th fine cut for Dune. Click here to view it in its full-resolution glory.

WALKER: Working on Dune is really like working with a well-oiled team. It’s a well-rehearsed band. I think of the days of Frank Zappa and the Frank Zappa touring band because, over the years, we’ve picked up our favorite people and we like working together.

Denis Villeneuve with cinematographer Greig Fraser on the set for Dune. Image © Warner Bros.
Denis Villeneuve with cinematographer Greig Fraser on the set for Dune. Image © Warner Bros.

I first started collaborating with Hans Zimmer in 1988 before he left for Hollywood on his last picture in the UK, so we go back a long time. The great thing is if you try and analyze whose idea something was, I think I always defer to the fact that it was Denis’ because he created the group and identified the question that we all found the answer to. The ideas just flow between us.

“In any other situation, I think people would say, ‘He’s the composer. What the hell?’”

At one point, I remember Hans saying, “Is the scene as good as it could be between Leto’s demise and the discovery of the ring?” In any other situation, I think people would say, “He’s the composer. What the hell?” But we’re all collaborative like that. Who knows where the idea comes from; and he was right. There was a better way of doing it and we found a way of intercutting it. We went away and just took it seriously. One never knows.

Oscar Isaacs as Paul Atreides’ father, Duke Leto in Dune. Image © Warner Bros.
Oscar Isaac as Paul Atreides’ father, Duke Leto in Dune. Image © Warner Bros.

I’ve got a sound team where I can just get on the intercom and say, “Can you pop in please?” Or, “Can we talk?” During the pandemic, we were texting all the time and you could just say, “Hey, I need the sound of a Sardaukar guard.” Then, people would also record their own things sometimes, and I would record my own things too.

There’s a human spider in the film, and at one point I thought, “Actually, the detail that makes that thing really creepy is the way it’s pushing a bowl around on the floor.” So, I went and spent half an hour recording myself pushing a bowl around. 

HULLFISH: Did you do it with your nose? 

WALKER: I had to do it with my nose! [laughs] I had to act as a human spider. There are so many ideas where I’m not sure where the thing comes from. We got the Sardaukar voice at the beginning of the film from Hans. Everybody’s collaborating.

We get musical sounds from the sound design team. By the way, Theo Green does an amazing impersonation of Charlotte Rampling, which we recorded just to propel the cut because we needed to try out this line of dialogue rather than that. I’m a firm believer in constantly building the thing up detail by detail. Then, eventually, you’ll spend the time with Charlotte Rampling and get a proper reading, but you might as well make sure it works several times before you go there.

HULLFISH: You mentioned that Marianne Faithfull is also a voice in the film. 

WALKER: Yes. Both in the book and in the film there was this concept of “the Voice,” which is a hypnotic command, and that took a little while to get right. I think the ingredients and the ideas for that came out of lots of discussions and trying things out. Very early, the first idea was a bass thump that went with the Voice and, again, I can’t say whose idea it was, but we came up with the idea that the Bene Gesserit voices should be summoned and you should be able to hear the ancestry.

In the book, Paul’s skill is that he’s the first male Bene Gesserit in a way. He’s able to reach into the past, and you could do that in sound terms by recording the words that he uses to command somebody with layers and layers of different witches’ voices.

For that, we recorded two or three people with Jean Gilpin, who’s amazing and just did endless sessions for us. At one point we had Marianne Faithfull, who wasn’t well at the time, but she recorded some stuff for us. You can just hear her actually in the wake of Charlotte Rampling’s voice, which gives me great pleasure because I think they were old drinking buddies in the sixties back on King’s Road.

Charlotte Rampling as Dune’s Reverend Mother Mohaim, leader of the powerful Bene Gesserit. Image © Warner Bros.
Charlotte Rampling as Dune’s Reverend Mother Mohaim, leader of the powerful Bene Gesserit. Image © Warner Bros.

HULLFISH: We were talking about your relationship with Denis and how you edited this during COVID. There’s a very interesting interview that I found on the web where he says he can’t edit without you being in the same room, and that you need to be like a band. Can you talk to me about that relationship you have with him and why he can’t just be on a Zoom call or some other remote solution?

WALKER: We started off in Budapest together and I was there on set, and then afterward we moved back to LA and worked in the office, and then the pandemic hit. We had to close down and everybody ended up working in garden sheds, spare bedrooms, and mother-in-law flats across town. Denis was in Montreal and we worked remotely. I had to get used to seeing the front of his face, which isn’t something I was very used to. I’ve sat to the left of him for so long that the right-hand side of his face is like the dark side of the moon, but anyway I got used to that.

Dual monitor view of the timeline for Dune 2021
Dual-monitor layout for Joe’s edit of Dune’s Gom Jabbar scene. Click here to view the full-resolution version (2MB file).

In fact, it was interesting to me that I had the opportunity to actually read a scene on his face while he’s watching it. I could look at him reacting to it, which is a very quick and honest way of seeing if it worked. I can almost tell what he’s going to say.

I think it’s very kind of Denis to say that in the video, and I feel like there’s a truth in it to actually being in the room. The edit of this film somehow happens in the air between us, and it’s partly the periods of time spent identifying what a problem might be and then finding the solution, which often takes a shorter amount of time than finding what the problem is by really discovering why something isn’t ticking as it should be.

“The edit of this film somehow happens in the air between us.”

On a film like this, I have to say the pandemic was very kind to give us some time to really think without the great heat of schedule upon us for a few months. We were able to just dream a little bit and follow our instincts to develop things, which we did a great deal.

Tracking shot of the Fremen and Lady Jessica following Liet Kynes across the sand. Image © Warner Bros.
Tracking shot of the Fremen and Lady Jessica following Liet Kynes across the sand. Image © Warner Bros.

HULLFISH: Did you read the book before you started editing?

WALKER: It’s so funny because I’ve met so many people on this project who said, “Oh my God, I read Dune when I was 12 or 13 and it’s a really seminal book.” For me, I didn’t actually pick it up until Denis started talking about it. We were in the middle of Blade Runner 2049 and he mentioned it by saying, “You should read the book and tell me what you think.” So, I read it and I was very engaged. I’m a late adopter.

I read the book before I read his script and I did think he’d bitten off a lot. We were in the middle of Blade Runner where we were already walking on sacred ground cinematically trying not to mess them up. Then, you go from that to Dune where the fans are going to come with baseball bats if they’re unhappy—that is what Denis said to me.

I think it’s a magical book and I think it’s very timely for a book written in the late sixties. I could totally see why it captivated Denis. It has so many themes that he’s interested in. Environment and the relationship between women and power is a big ingredient.

He discovered the book when he was 13 or 14, and there’s a strong element of that response to the book in the film. A very small example of that is that in the interior dream vision sequences, we use a connecting device which was a camera flare. I got hours of material from the VFX team where Denis had seen the camera chip respond to the strong sunlight in a certain way. It was unique to that chip and he just asked them to film into the sunlight and slowly move the camera.

So, they gave me hours and hours of beautiful material, which is in the film a lot. The idea was it feels a little bit like when you’re a 14-year-old kid dreaming in the summer and your eyes are shut. It’s a sense of almost seeing your eyelashes at one point with these beautiful striations of light.

The camera flare used in Dune
“Beautiful striations of light.” The original camera flare that forms part of Dune’s visual signature. Image © Warner Bros.

So, I feel like the film is very much in touch with that 13, 14-year-old perspective on the book. Of course, the central hero is a 15-year-old guy. So, I see a lot of why Denis responded to it. 

HULLFISH: And what about the Lynch film?

WALKER: I saw it a long time ago. I deliberately avoided watching it again. I hadn’t seen it since I saw it in the cinema when it was released. Let me just say this, David Lynch changed my mind when I was 18 to such a large degree when I saw Eraserhead. 

HULLFISH: So many cinema students of our age felt that way when they saw that. 

WALKER: There’s no going back after that. You spend such a profound amount of time rethinking everything you knew about the moving image. So, I have the utmost respect for him. I don’t think he was happy with Dune [1984], but honestly, the main source for us was the book and only the book.

HULLFISH: I think most people know that you guys are not trying to cover the full scope of the book in this film. Did you feel like that was the right choice because you didn’t want to try to cover too much?

WALKER: I think it was Eric Roth and Denis who picked the lock, if you like, of the book and worked out a way to divide it. I think it’s incredibly wise. The thing about the film is there’s so much depth and detail. There’s a difference between a book and a film, as everybody knows. 

“I think a very typical cinematic thing is simplicity and economy. We were looking for that in the cut, but also paying our dues to the book.”

A good example of this is that Paul Atreides is known by five or six names in the book. He’s Paul Atreides, Muad’Dib, Mahdi, The One, Lisan al Gaib, and more. It’s like how the Bible has many words for God. I think it’s a deliberate, almost fractal approach to storytelling from Frank Herbert. That’s how it works in the book. There’s a density of detail, which is not necessarily a cinematic thing.

Building menace with color and light. Baron Harkonnen (rises in Dune. Image © Warner Bros.
Building menace with color and light. Baron Harkonnen rises in Dune. Image © Warner Bros.

I think a very typical cinematic thing is simplicity and economy. We were looking for that in the cut, but also paying our dues to the book and also to the depth of that imagination that Frank Herbert originally had. It felt important to always pay attention to the detail and never let it pass by.

As an editor, you could easily find low-hanging fruit to cut if you wanted to shorten the film, but you would have lost a lot. There’s a little scene that I love which is where Paul Atreides meets a gardener on Arrakis, he sees the palm trees, and the gardener explains the sacrifice that’s made to keep these palm trees alive and to keep an old dream of the planet alive to once again have water. It felt like a really great way to encounter the Fremen concepts and Arrakis itself. Paul’s inquisitiveness actually saves him in the film. It’s adapt or die in the desert.

HULLFISH: There are lovely moments between scenes that could be cut if the sole goal was to shorten the film as much as possible.

WALKER: You could cut that out, but you’d lose the depth, the storytelling, and the world-building. I don’t think I’ve seen any other film that has got this level of world-building. As an editor, it would just be foolish to disregard that.

Dual monitor video of Avid edit timeline for Dune's ornithopter scene
Dual-monitor view of Joe’s edit of the ornithopter flight to and from the spice harvest. Click here to view the full-resolution version (2mb file).

And they’re always narratively driven, to be fair. I don’t think there’s ever just a beauty shot. A good example is a shot in an engineering yard, which is when you know that we’re about to go out into the desert, and it occurred to us relatively late that we should show how a Carryall works: the idea of moving a spice harvest out to the desert. There’s a shot that shows you the things successfully picking up a spice harvester.

Concept art for Dune’s massive cargo ships…
Concept art for Dune’s massive cargo ships…
...and their final appearance in the movie. Images © Warner Bros.
…and their final appearance in the movie. Images © Warner Bros.

The very first concept of that was actually somewhere on my iPhone. I’ve got a picture of Denis’ hand picking up a box of matches and just showing how long it should take for me to get some idea of how long a shot should be. I got him to act it out. 

HULLFISH: Did you actually cut the shot of his hand picking up the matchbox into the timeline?

WALKER: I did. I put such nonsense into this cut. 

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about the Hunter-seeker. There is a scene where Paul’s reading a book, looking at a hologram. 

WALKER: It’s a nasty little bug that’s been released through a hole in the headboard of his bed. I love the design of that headboard with the fish which is a reminder of water on a desert planet. It pops out, tracks him, and it creeps around the room and it makes a rather nasty little silvery noise, one component of which was my assistant Mary’s voice pretending to be a fly.

Paul looks for danger in his room in Dune. Image © Warner Bros
Paul looks for the hunter-seeker in his room in Dune. Image © Warner Bros

For the longest time, I’ve just got empty plates of the empty room, maybe with a camera pan or tilt-up. I’m aware of the storyboard and the previz and the action finds rhythm and time in my hands. So, you’re trying to find a way to determine how long to hold for this thing, especially because it’s really creepy when it’s slow. We wanted something very sinister and to take our time to show Paul seeing it and sweating. 

I ended up using some texts with the title tool, and I had the word “hunter-seeker” moving, and if I may say [laughs] I outdid myself by using perspective, which I’d never done with the title tool before. Anyway, every shot had the word “hunter-seeker” going past very slowly in the foreground.

“This is film number four with Denis, so I didn’t get fired.”

HULLFISH: How do you take a scene seriously with that? 

WALKER: I’m very lucky that this is film number four with Denis, so I didn’t get fired. I think anybody else looking at it would laugh. But the visual reference of the word “hunter-seeker” was helpful for the VFX team. There was an amazing guy, Patrick [Heinen], and my VFX editor, Javier [Marcheselli] who worked together in the background to then take those and turn it into the first pass of this little bug moving through. They replaced my words with the bug, thank god. 

I’m also using the sound that Theo [Green] has made, in that case. I won’t use music too much in the early stages of a cut, but later I will. In this film, we had really great temp tracks put in by Clint Bennett and Peter Myles, who are two amazing music editors. I’ve got a great team of people who are chipping into the sequence to help me find the timing, and then at some point, it starts to form and gets close to where we want to be. That’s when the proper VFX team is briefed and given the more expensive task of doing the real thing.

BTS of Timothée Chalamet opposite Sharon Duncan-Brewster…
BTS of Timothée Chalamet opposite Sharon Duncan-Brewster…
...and the final graded scene. Image © Warner Bros.
…and the final graded scene. Image © Warner Bros.

If nothing else, Dune is one massive work of rhythm for me. I studied classical music at York University and it was nasty 20th Century—Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Berio, Lutosławski, Ligeti, and all those kinds of brutal styles. It’s not surprising that I get on with Denis and his tastes. 

When I was writing music, it’s not so dissimilar. I was pushing things around with a mouse originally on an Atari ST using midi files and things. Then, you start developing a sense of foreground and background. There are a lot of similarities, but the main thing is pace and rhythm.

Old-school. Joe Walker started out by composing music on an Atari ST. Image CC Marcin Wichary
Old-school. Joe Walker started out by composing music on an Atari ST. Image CC Marcin Wichary

I’d say editing was slightly more enjoyable to me, and I’ve also got the additional benefit of performance and working with this great cast. That rhythm could be the sound of a thumper, or it could be the raising of an eyebrow by Stephen McKinley Henderson, the rhythm of the cut itself, or the kind of global tectonic plates moving underneath the story. This film has an interesting rhythm because it starts quite gently actually and builds up your interest in the characters. Then, I think it’s accelerative and becomes very dynamic.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about those tectonic plates you were talking about. What was that structure and did the structure change throughout the film from the script?

WALKER: Absolutely. A lot changed. We’re striving for certain things. I feel that this as an edit is a bit of a partner piece to Arrival in many ways. Arrival, Blade Runner [2049], and Dune all use a simple trick, which is cutting from somebody looking very intently and cut to something else, then it looks like they’re thinking about it. So, with that simple trick, I’ve carved out a little niche in Hollywood. 

In the case of Dune, we wanted those innovations to be awoken really early in the film and then carry through right to the end so that they’re more than just cutting away to something but they’re evolving and they’re part of a narrative. They’re essential as an understanding of what he’s seeing and how he’s grasping events that will take place. So, feathering in the idea of a knife, feathering in the idea of the character of Jamis, and feathering in the visions of Zendaya’s character, Chani, were all important things that took shape in the edit.

Chani, played by Zendaya, appears in Paul’s dreams before they meet on the planet Arrakis. Image © Warner Bros.
Chani, played by Zendaya, appears in Paul’s dreams before they meet on the planet Arrakis. Image © Warner Bros.

I’m always going to say they were in Denis’s mind. We always knew that we were going to do them, but weren’t sure just how. To be honest, we kept doing that for the longest time. We worked on the little flashes that you see in the Gom Jabbar scene early on. Right at the end of the schedule when I think we were already a day or two away from the final mix. There’s a lot of those last days, when you’re told to put your pencils down, and actually there’s always about another day. 

HULLFISH: “When you’re told to put your pencils down.” I can relate [laughs].

WALKER: We went beyond that a few times. The schedule never suffered. You just risked irritating the sound team to change things, but it was essential at one point to say that those flashes that he sees right at the beginning needed to be paid off right at the end. So, in the middle of a fight at the end, that was one of the last things I did. I think it was literally a day or two before I had to give the drive back. 

HULLFISH: One of the beautifully edited scenes that I wanted to talk to you about was fairly early in the movie, which I’ll call the “give me the water” scene. You explore the room beyond the conversation, showing color and world-building, as you said. There’s a great moment as a wind-chime thing rustles. Can you talk about that sequence?

WALKER: There’s a little moment where his mum is badgering him to practice the Voice with her, to make him command her using the Voice. It’s a nice dynamic to set up his Bene Gesserit training. The other reason for cutting around the room was to create a sense of hypnosis of something happening in the room. How did I mark that scene out? Well, I had these shots where we didn’t know exactly where to put them.

Leto lingers over the grave of his father, who died on the horns of a bull from Salusa Secundus.
Leto lingers over the grave of his father, who died on the horns of a bull. Image © Warner Bros.

There was a shot of the grandfather, who died in a bull charge I think, and there’s a little sculpture of a bull which we see later and it sums up something about the Atreides, that they have a certain pluckiness. They like to stare disaster in the face which sets up their acceptance of fate when they take on the role of governing Arrakis, knowing that it could be the end of them. 

Just to depart from the point briefly, I think Denis responds to that plucky British thing from the blitz, that they go charging into danger rather crazily. I would also say I think there’s something of the British in India in Arrakis. That’s my personal comment. I don’t know if he intended it, but when they arrive on Arrakis, you’ve spent so long establishing the world of water and the world of this beautiful lush green planet, Caladan. Then, you cut to a horrendous hostile oven and they look as white as the British arriving in India. Maybe he doesn’t intend that and I don’t want to claim that for him.

Back to the Voice, we’ve got the scene where he’s commanding his mother to hand him a glass of water and we cut around because we wanted to set up the bullfighting grandfather and the little sculpture of the bull. There was a beautiful chandelier or some tinkling glass, and I found a sound just out of a sound library that helped me create a certain dreaminess and a certain spaciness. Then, we spent a long time on his face, and this evolved over months, but we experimented and we found this bass thump sound. Originally, the plan was to have a bass thump at the same time he says, “Give me the water.”

BTS shot of Timothée Chalamet on the set of Dune
The crew monitors the scene as Timothée Chalamet and Charlotte Rampling go to work.

Actually, I discovered that we needed to tell a story longer-term, which is that he’s learning. So you hear the bass thump and then you hear witch voices saying, “Give me the water,” and it almost works but not quite. That contrasts with Charlotte Rampling, who has high-level Bene Gesserit skills. She has the thump and says, “Come here,” at the same time, and it’s really impressive and he’s swept across the room within a 24th of a second. Very much later I think it pays off in the tent where he tells his mom to get away from her and that’s done with the Voice. We discovered all of this stuff.

HULLFISH: You mentioned the gardener with the palm trees. Later on in the movie, you see those same palm trees, and the shot means something to you because you’ve had this earlier shot that’s happened.

WALKER: They are burning, so all of that hope and all of those dreams are kicked to the wayside. There’s a tragedy to that. 

Palm trees burn on Arrakis. Image © Warner Bros.
Palm trees burn on Arrakis. Image © Warner Bros.

HULLFISH: Like you said, you could have easily cut that scene out. It didn’t mean anything to the real story, but you would have lost some kind of emotional energy.

WALKER: I think with his films, it gives me a chance to play with something I would call “brainstem-y images.” It’s appealing to some part of the brain that’s old and not necessarily verbal or from the frontal lobe. I don’t know what the hell it is, but I can describe those images; I can give you a list of them in the film, and they’re all very sensory, incredibly sensory.

One of my favorite shots in the movie—and it’s weird that one’s favorite shots aren’t always the biggest shots—but one of my favorites is the shot of Lady Jessica waiting as the bull is being packed into a packing case, and she’s about to leave her home for all of her life and step onto a planet where death and disaster awaits. There’s a moment just focused on the back of her neck, and you feel her anxiety, and then Oscar Isaac’s hand comes in and reassures her. It’s the hand on the back of the neck, which we all know what that feels like, that sensation, but also what it says about the trust between those people. It’s so much bigger and more beyond the whole scene.

“It’s so much bigger and more beyond the whole scene.” Dune lingers on important details. Image © Warner Bros.
“It’s so much bigger and more beyond the whole scene.” Dune lingers on important details. Image © Warner Bros.

It’s just one shot. It’s finding a way in the edit to give those images the best pillow, the best placing, the best timing, and actually it’s rich, the film is rich in these sensory moments, whether it’s a foot on the sand for the first time, or whether it’s a hand in the water, there are lots of images that actually connect together in some way that I can’t even begin to fathom, but I just know they work.

HULLFISH: Some of those moments had beautiful sound design under them. Was there also a thought of giving the sound team a place to explore a little?

WALKER: Oh, totally. There’s a moment where they arrive in the desert, and they’re on their own, and Lady Jessica and Paul have got to traverse the desert, find the Fremen, and I needed in story terms a strong need to say that the next obstacle will be the worms. We are in the deep desert, and these things are the size of skyscrapers, and they follow rhythmic noise. I felt like it was important to make a big statement.

Denis had shot this extraordinary landscape looking out over expansive sand flats, and it’s 17 seconds long. Which it doesn’t sound like a lot, but actually, at that point in a film, you’re very conscious of the fact that your audience is waiting for you to get a wiggle on and resolve this story. They know it’s going to resolve; they just don’t know how and we’ve got this last big obstacle before there’s hopefully a resolution. So it’s a little bit daring to put in a shot for 17 seconds, especially when it’s in the initial stages, and it’s just a plate shot. I have to keep saying, “It’s going to be fantastic!” even though at that point it’s just the plate shot; it’s just some landscape of the desert.

I keep saying, “We need to feel the music come to an end. Then we need to feel like a roar underneath and then wait for it and then erupt and then collapse and then see the collapse and then cut.” It has to have four or five beats within the one shot, which in the initial stages, it’s just a beautiful plate of the desert. It doesn’t have that narrative element.  

So how do you build that up? At that stage, we are using temp tracks with the sound team. I’m saying, “Okay, this is what it’s going to be like.” and I am putting a little red dot and saying, “That’s when we first see the worm erupt; that’s where we’re going to see the sand collapsed behind.” You build it up with the use of the team.

Dune mixes practical and VFX to create amazing visuals. Image © Warner Bros.
Dune mixes practical and VFX to create amazing visuals. Image © Warner Bros.

Another good example of the team coming together to design things was in the scene with the Gom Jabbar, And mum’s outside knowing that he’s either going to walk out or not, and she fears he’s not ready. So you have that scene, but I remember cutting it, and we were developing this little inner vision; it’s what the elderly Reverend Mother is looking for; she’s looking for his ability. The idea is, there’s a lot of backstory, and we have to do right by the book. Lady Jessica wasn’t meant to have a son; she was meant to have a daughter, and the Bene Gesserit arrived on the planet to say, “If you’re not up to the task, then we’re going to kill you.”

The Reverend Mother Mohaim assesses Paul Atreides for the future he’s about to face.
The Reverend Mother Mohaim assesses Paul Atreides for the future he’s about to face. Image © Warner Bros.

So there’s a lot going on in the scene, and in the moment of duress, we flash inside, and something resilient, something really powerful, which is already inside, is revealed to us, the audience, and to the Reverend Mother. Building that scene, we had shots we wanted to use, including burning palm trees and some sense of the future, but also there was this tiny fragment of sound Hans gave us that had come in at a very early stage.

It wasn’t necessarily destined for any particular scene; we just had this fantastic music that could go here or there. At that stage, we had about five or six pieces of music, and in one of the tracks, there’s a singer called Loire Cotler who recorded this chant in a wardrobe in her apartment in New York, and we just tried to out. And suddenly everybody was whistling it. We played it back to Hans, and he was like, “Wow, that’s not shit.” We also developed the witchy voices, which helped bring this sense that there’s a presence around him.

It all came from the teams, sound, music, me, Denis, VFX, everybody. We were all working together to try and make these little focal points and develop them hand-in-hand. It wasn’t like we finished an idea and then handed it over; we did it all together all the time and kept finessing it until it was just right. It’s a path that can take a short time or a long time. Oddly enough, the scenes that we spent the longest time on were dialogue scenes, like the scene between Lady Jessica and Paul in the tent.

HULLFISH: Why was that? What was the thing that you were trying to achieve that wasn’t happening in the first cut?

The Lady Jessica, played by Rebecca Ferguson is torn between loyalty and love. Image © Warner Bros.
The Lady Jessica (played by Rebecca Ferguson) is torn between loyalty and love. Image © Warner Bros.

WALKER: That scene has a lot going on; it has flashbacks, flashforwards, and flashes of visions; it’s also the dynamic between when you’re on him and when you’re on her and getting to that point. There were so many story beats and we needed to tell them more  successfully, so we found that way. Some scenes didn’t change at all; there’s a knife fight in the film that is frame-accurate to the edit I did two days after they shot it.

Denis Villeneuve works with Timothée Chalamet on the finer points of Paul’s sparring scene in Dune. Image © Warner Bros.
Denis Villeneuve works with Timothée Chalamet on the finer points of Paul’s sparring scene in Dune. Image © Warner Bros.

It was a big shoot, and I have bins and bins of material, so I put it together, and it honestly never changed. Denis isn’t one to kill something and just change it for the sake of it. If it works exactly how he wanted it, then that’s it, and he put a lot of work into it to make sure it works before they even shoot it. He saves his energy for the scenes that need more work. It doesn’t matter how great the world-building is; if you don’t care for the central characters, then we might as well go home.

“It doesn’t matter how great the world-building is; if you don’t care for the central characters, then we might as well go home.”

HULLFISH: Was one of the structural changes that occurred in the film a feeling that you needed to set something up early so the audience would care later?

WALKER: Always. We would discuss how to start the film. It’s really a difficult thing. We make these decisions, and they seem like good ideas that you might’ve just come up with, but actually, they’re often in relationship to a task that you’ve discovered, like how we did with our opening voice with the Sardaukar.

Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) fights a wave of Sardaukar in Dune. Image © Warner Bros.
Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) fights a wave of Sardaukar in Dune. Image © Warner Bros.

There are so many factions in Dune you have to set up. There are the Harkonnen, the Mentats, the Atreides, the Sardaukar, the Emperor, three planets, and I don’t know how many characters. I think about some of the films that I’ve cut, where it’s basically just a few people. Shame is about a guy and his sister and a little bit about his boss, but the central film Shame is about two people.

Dune is much more of an epic, and the scale is like a proper novel. We felt at one point it would be a good way to start the film with some hostile, aggressive dialogue, but it’s actually a throat singer who Hans recorded and did all sorts of transformations to, and we loved it. There was at one stage, a longer version of that bloodthirsty poem at the beginning, we go into a dream vision of a battle between the Fremen and Harkonnen while we set up the idea of spice. I think in the end we got the optimum way of starting the film, but really there are so many ways of doing it, and we considered most of them.

“Dune is much more of an epic, and the scale is like a proper novel.” Image © Warner Bros.
Dune is much more of an epic, and the scale is like a proper novel.” Image © Warner Bros.

HULLFISH: How do you maintain objectivity?

WALKER: The best thing is weekends. Our industry is in need of that for numerous reasons, but the reason I most need it is to get away. Alcohol is definitely beneficial as well. [laughing] I was cutting at home, and I’m not going to say—hand on heart—that I didn’t occasionally have a whisky late at night while cutting Dune [laughing] but for me, working at home was fantastic.

Dune crew assemble on set for the Gom Jabbar scene.
The Dune crew preps the set for the Gom Jabbar scene. Image © Warner Bros.

Sometimes there are things that are worrying me, something I haven’t fixed yet and I’ve got a deadline and rather than worry about it and stay awake at two in the morning, I’d go downstairs and go and cut something for half an hour, solve the problem, go back to bed and sleep like a baby.

Bin of fine cut for Dune
A typical fine cut bin for Dune. Note the detail of the comments, which were updated every time the cut was changed.

One of the tricks I’ve been using is to flop the image. This is just myself because other people find it very distracting, but at one point, I black and white and flop the image. This is late-stage though. If you do this too early, you blow it. But basically, by flopping the image and making it black and white, your brain takes it a different way, and it feels like a fresh viewing.

It’s a cheat. There’s an element that you’re fighting against, which the brain is giving you endorphin rushes when you see things that you like and recognize over and over again. Working on a film will have those moments that you become very attached to because they’re very pleasurable. Your anticipation of them is pleasurable, and it’s a bit like a sense of knowing how a song goes after you’ve listened to it ten times.

The water of Caladan is as hard to hold onto...
The water of Caladan is as hard to hold onto…
...as the sand (and spice) of Arrakis. Images © Warner Bros.
…as the sand (and spice) of Arrakis. Images © Warner Bros.

I think sometimes you have to remove that to get a sense of what the audience will see. I think the most important thing an editor does is, have an imaginary audience over his or her back driving their decision. What are they asking now? Have we successfully answered that question? Have we successfully posed the question? All of those things are the most important things an editor can do, and I feel we are in a very privileged position being one of the first members of the audience of the dailies. So I try to cut a scene with all that in mind.

Behind the scenes of one of the awe-inspiring sets of Dune…
Behind the scenes of one of the awe-inspiring sets of Dune
And the final scene in the movie. Image © Warner Bros.
…and the final scene in the movie. Image © Warner Bros.

HULLFISH: Can you speak to the rhythm of the editing in terms of the dialogue?

WALKER: The easiest cut to make in dialogue terms is, “Why did the chicken cross the road? [Snaps] To get to the other side. [Snaps] You know that there’s a rhythm that’s built into the rhythm of those words that’s driving the cut point. If you are aware of that simple trait, then you’ve just disassembled all of my dialogue editing. [Laughs] With Denis, a lot of the time, we will review a scene without any audio at all; we’re trying to make it work like a silent movie. When you turn the sound off, you become hyper-aware of people’s eyes, and I feel like a serious part of what we do is driving the cut by the expression in the eyes.

“Driving the cut by the expression in the eyes.” Gurney Halleck watches over Duke Leto. Image © Warner Bros.

I’m going to depart from this point for just a moment to say that one of my favorite moments on cutting Dune was working with Hans (Zimmer). I have collaborated with him so many times, and at one point, he was noodling around on the keyboard, and he was trying to find something, and I just said, “Hans, what are you actually looking for?” And he said, “I’m looking for a tune with the efficiency of the word ‘fuck’.” [Laughs] It’s a very efficient word; it’s international.

There’s some crazy report somewhere that I read that all nuns who have strokes say fuck. It’s universal. It’s super-efficient but also malleable. If you’re a composer and you’re writing a little fragment that can become a love theme, a chase theme, a worm theme, whatever it is, it’s universal. It’s something you can say, “I fucking love you.” Or you could say, “I fucking hate you.” and it’s just as punchy and efficient. Comedians know that it’s the golden ingredient that they have to be sparing with because, to other comedians, they don’t look clever if they overly rely on it. So you have to be as elaborate as you can. I, too, am looking for efficiency but with emotional expression.

I am trying to get out of the way a little bit when I edit; a good example I give in Dune is when the Fremen leader Stilgar—played by Javier Bardem—enters the throne room to meet with Duke Leto, played by Oscar Isaac, the leader of the Atreides. It is a fairly tense moment, and when Javier Bardem walks in, he ignores all the guards and walks directly to Oscar Isaac despite people shouting at him to stop.

The enigmatic Stilgar, leader of the desert-dwelling Fremen, played by Javier Bardem. Image © Warner Bros.
The enigmatic Stilgar, leader of the desert-dwelling Fremen, played by Javier Bardem. Image © Warner Bros.

He wades through the people and then comes up to the desk, and I’ve got this medium to medium-wide shot of him just taking everybody in and breathing and looking at everybody with mild disdain, and then there’s a long pause where you don’t know which way he’s going to go. He clears his throat and spits on the table, and then the knives are out, and everybody feels like there is this great offense.

“I’ve got Oscar Isaac, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Timothée Chalamet, and Jason Momoa, everybody’s acting their hearts out, and there are moments I could have used from anybody.”

This scene is loaded because I’ve got Oscar Isaac, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Timothée Chalamet, and Jason Momoa, everybody’s acting their hearts out, and there are moments I could have used from anybody, and they would have been good story points to make. I could have had a shot of Paul recognizing Stilgar; there’s a destiny in there. There are so many reasons to interrupt that cut, but I’m glad that we ended up just holding it because of the massive tension.

You don’t know what he’s going to do, he seems to hate them all, and then he spits, and it’s a surprise. It’s just an instance of me getting out of the way of what we shot. It’s less efficient if I’m busy with everybody’s reactions as tempting as they are. I could have cut to anyone, and it would have been great.

I’ve been in the cutting room since 1985, and thankfully things get better and better, and you end up being given this table full of riches. The wisdom is in knowing when to avoid that and to let a moment play. If you’re way too busy driving the cuts, it can be exhausting. If you are at the front of an IMAX screen, looking at something that’s moving around too fast. I’ve been there, and it’s nauseating. This is a film where you have dramatic, violent scenes, and they are fast and exciting, but you also want to look into the characters and feel something.

HULLFISH: Do you feel like when you’re watching a scene that you’re choosing a certain shot size over another look, what are the purposes?

WALKER: A key way to figure out the structure of a scene is to look at all the material and then realize that it’s nearly always the case that the main source is in the close-up. If the scene has one that’s something where you are trying to figure out how to get there, and at what point do we get there? Because it’s got an intensity that all the other shots don’t have, all the other ones are giving you atmosphere and content and performance and everything, all the nice things, but it’s the close-up where you really go “Bang!” that’s the point.

When I see the dailies, I can often see that moment clearly, and I’ll jump forward to that moment in the scene and put the shots on either side that I need, and then I can figure out how to get to that moment from there. I sort of cut backward sometimes.

One of the ARRI ALEX LF cameras used on location in Jordan. Image © Warner Bros.
One of the ARRI ALEX LF cameras used to film Dune on location in Jordan . Image © Warner Bros.

HULLFISH: I got a chance to look at your home editing situation and was surprised to see you were not using 5.1 surround sound and only had a small 24 or 32-inch monitor.

WALKER: My monitor is small, but it helps that I’m very close to it [laughs], but we check on big screens, so we always know how it’s going to look. In fact, we started editing for 1:43 because a large component of it is shot for IMAX; the whole of reel eight is actually from beginning to end IMAX-originated material. I was very concerned about those moments of transition between two aspect sizes and whether it was noticeable or damaging, but I was amazed with IMAX and how free it is.

Joe Walker with his home-based edit workstation. 
“My monitor is small, but it helps that I’m very close to it.” Joe Walker editing Dune on home-based workstation.

Denis had already reassured me— I think he’d spoken to Chris Nolan—that you’re quite free to go between 2:39 and 1:43 on the IMAX screen. It’s so massive that you don’t necessarily see it or feel it that much. We started cutting at 1:43, and once we’d felt that we were confident, we flipped over to cutting at 2:39.

It’s very important to look at that stuff and to see for VFX that it is considerably more plate for them to have to figure out, if there’s a bit of vegetation on the floor that can’t be there on Arrakis, then that might be on the foot, and you don’t see it if you’re cropping. I think it was advisable to them to look at the full aspect ratio as we did our first cuts, but after a while, we zoned in on the 2:39, and it felt like a more comfortable, less distracting viewing experience for most people when we’re getting, about to show to the producers and things like that, we flipped over to the 2:39.

As for audio monitoring, in the past, I have done left/center/right, and at one point, I did left/center/right and subs; the problem with the subs was that it really pissed off the neighbors, so I abandoned that [laughs] but nowadays I actually cut with left and right only. The reason for that is I just don’t have any throw; if I was in a deeper room, I could cut with more channels, but the problem I have is I’ve got the kind of space where it all melts together.

“The problem with the subs was that it really pissed off the neighbors.”

It’s very distracting to me if the dialogue is coming out of the center and a gunshot is coming out of the right. It feels like a mismatch to me, and it’s really the limitations of the size of my room. When we review sound effects, we’re reviewing in a 7.1 environment, and there are all these other spaces that you go and test, but at heart, I want to go down to the more minimal intimate feeling in my cutting room.

HULLFISH: Joe, I am so excited that we got a chance to do this interview. Dune is a fantastic movie. Congratulations.

WALKER: Thank you very much.


Please note that the written version of this article is condensed from the full-length video and doesn’t contain elements like Joe’s scene commentary.

Thank you to Steve Hullfish for contributing this article.

Stephen Hullfish is an internationally respected producer and editor, and has written six books about the professional scene in Hollywood. He has edited seven feature films, including "Courageous" and "War Room", as well as "The Oprah Winfrey Show". Steve has also worked with industry leaders like Avid, Adobe, Blackmagic, Fujifilm, and Tektronix on technical and creative projects, and produces bespoke training for companies like the NHL, MLS, NBCSports, and Turner Networks.

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