“Fear is a big motivator!" Editor Joe Walker on Dune: Part Two

“Fear is a big motivator!” Editor Joe Walker on Dune: Part Two

We speak to Oscar-winning editor, Joe Walker, about Dune: Part Two and working with his long-time collaborator, Denis Villeneuve.

After the success of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune back in 2022 (winning an impressive six Oscars), we headed back to Arrakis this year for Dune: Part Two, which explored the mythic journey of Paul Atreides as he unites with Chani and the Fremen while on a warpath of revenge against the conspirators who destroyed his family.

Dune: Part Two is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K and to celebrate, we sat down with editor Joe Walker, who won an Oscar for Dune: Part One, to discuss his working relationship with Denis Villeneuve (with who he also worked with on Sicario and Arrival), the pressure of a sequel and much more.

Congratulations on your Oscar for Dune: Part One! What was it like coming back for the sequel?

The thing is… it’s like you’re George Michael just trying to do the perfect three-minute song, it’s an endless quest to get it. Get this one right and do your level best. So it does remove any sense of complacency you might have. Fear is a big motivator. It’s baked into the script that you’re tackling.

When we were embarking on Part One, it was obviously tackling something that had been a thorny path for filmmakers.

It’s a hugely complicated political structure and if you’re doing a film set in Brooklyn 2024, you don’t have to explain how a car works. But in a sci-fi world, so much has to be built from scratch and made to feel real and natural. And some of that falls upon my shoulders a little bit to make sure that we’re not bogged down in exposition and that we keep some momentum going.

One of the films I’m proudest of is I worked with Steve McQueen on his first four features and Shame – it took five weeks for them to shoot it, five weeks for me to cut it and five weeks to dub it. We worked really hard, but it’s a simple story compared to Dune, it’s about one man and his sister really, and Dune, it’s like, where do you begin?! You’ve got to set up all these different factions and explain the way the universe works.

I think Part One was hard to get it right. Very hard to get it right and then in Part Two, with the benefit of both scripts being brilliantly plotted out, the edit is still a continuation of that process to refine and enhance and find a rhythm to the whole thing.

I always think being the editor is a bit like being the drummer at the back of the band, keeping things tight and finding the right tempo for things.

In Part Two we could lean into the actual adventure side and the story of Paul and Chani and the story of the Bene Gesserit but with the benefit of not having to start it from zero miles an hour. That was a blessing, a really big blessing!

Were you a fan of the books before you signed up for the movie? 

I was on a film where the director had read it as a child and had been thinking about it for 30-40 years. I couldn’t possibly compete with that! There’s a sofa in my cutting room where Denis normally sits and it’s very hard for a director to conceal what the next project might be – while we were working on Blade Runner he suggested I read Dune. Then I read the book – and this is long before I read the script – I thought ‘my God he’s bitten off more than he can chew!’

All those interior voices, which are great in the book, are absolutely the opposite of what you want in cinema.

For this story, it felt like trying to find a way of externalising Paul’s internal world. One of the key needs of the editing was to be free about what we’re seeing and how we play that interior world against the present day.

With the world of Dune established in Part One, Joe Walker and Denis Villeneuve could lean into the adventure in Part Two.

How does the relationship work with you and Denis when working on a movie together?

It’s like talking about marriage, it’s quite hard to explain. Ideas sort of happen and the truth is sometimes, I can’t really tell whether it’s my idea or his idea, it just happens in the space between us. And whatever the idea, wherever it is, he’s just a brilliant nurturer of creativity. When we get in the zone, it’s like you feel this force of support as you’re enacting an idea and we end up in a beautiful dance together.

So the truth of how an editor works is normally, they start shooting, and straight away I’m editing. Because of the VFX component in a film like this, they have to have me nearby, so I’d be in Budapest, in the studios there. And Denis will come over, sometimes to look at tests on a screen downstairs and sometimes to have a look at cuts.

I’m there all along but I very rarely go on set. I’m a little superstitious about it. I like to have objectivity. Then at the end of the shoot, I’ve got an assembly of the film which I then show Denis.

Then we just get straight into it. We’ll have a stiff coffee, and then work our way through, scene by scene, reel by reel.

He’s an ideal director for an editor to work with. First of all, he could make a brilliant editor himself. It’s that thing of being able to care for the detail, the tiny detail of a story, especially something where the intimate has to be so correct and the epic has to be a player. It’s all about the landscape and Arrakis is a major player, even in moments of intimacy like Paul and Chani getting together when they’re sitting on the edge of a dude.

So you’re trying to find a rhythm for that, but also he’s very aware of the need for the momentum of a story and we have some power in the cutting room to affect that. It might be shuffling the order of scenes, or paring a scene down so that only the key line is given the maximum prominence.

We spent 10 weeks like that, and we screened the film routinely. Wherever it’s at we’ll have a look at it on a bigger screen. It’s good to be aware of the cinematic experience, which was always the goal.

Joe Walker and Denis Villeneuve worked to show the intimacy of the story, even set against its epic landscape.

How do you go about cutting a complex movie like Dune? Were there any scenes you regret cutting? 

It’s always traumatic and you don’t really want to set about doing it. Especially Denis, who’s so keenly nurturing every element of it, every performance. So it’s really difficult when you have to shape something at the expense of a performance or even just a shot that took a heck of a lot of time to do.

But there’s the evidence of what you see in front of you and you have to obey the film gods at those times and do the right thing. It’s not an easy decision but getting results by repeatedly screening something and then there’s a cut that will click.

It’s a long process but a rather enjoyable one, I’ve got to say. I really loved it. And Part Two was really exceptional.

Part One was cut during the pandemic, so a lot of the time we were connected by Zoom. Denis was great at managing that transition, but we hankered after being in each other’s company and that kind of free flow.

Denis is a hard worker and we really try to stick to it and push all the time. In Part Two, we were here together all the time and got a lot done.

Do you have a favourite scene in Dune: Part Two?

It’s not always the most epic. It’d be easy to point at some of the moments in the action sequences and that’s a blast of course but I particularly loved cutting Stilgar and Paul’s scenes. Timothee just does some brilliant reactions that make the humour of that moment. Everything is just pitch perfect. That was always a joy. I also loved cutting Chani and Paul together; I thought they had an amazing dynamism and to be able to sculpt that a little bit from this amazing material they gave me.

I’m also particularly fond of anything with Lady Jessica. Just holding on a shot where you creep into her very slowly when she’s talking to her unborn baby is quite an intense moment that always gives you a frisson of danger to it. There are so many. I’m gonna list the whole film before you tell me to stop!

But sometimes it’s the small things that I really love, especially in an epic-spanning story. I really celebrate those kinds of moments. They’re not particularly verbal things, they’re often just a striking visual that carries you along. I could talk forever about how much I love it!

Us too! Dune: Part Two is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K. Order your copy here.