Behind the Scenes Superstar

Pacific Sun | November 12, 2004
I first heard Walter Murch’s name 30 years ago, when I was about to enter film school with dreams of making my first feature, and a mutual friend urged me to enlist him to edit both sound and picture for me. That sounded like a bit of a stretch—in fact, I’d never heard of anyone doing both, except on movies budgeted at $12—but months later, with the release of Francis Coppola’s The Conversation, Murch was credited for sound (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and picture (with Richard Chew); and it was obvious he would become something unique to the film industry.

Books don’t usually get published by or about editors, even if they are at the top of their game. But Murch is different. He is what most in the movie business are not—articulate, insightful, cool-headed and accessible. His deep baritone voice, expounding freely on personal rules and theories, his gray hair and beard, the tall, slender figure, carve out an image of a university professor delivering a compelling lecture. While managing somehow to transcend the usual anonymity of anyone on a movie crew who isn’t the director, he encourages the exchange of philosophy and perceptions—about virtually anything. A couple of years ago, English Patient author Michael Ondaatje was so fascinated by the man he wrote The Conversations: Walter Murch on the Art of Editing Film. Last month, Charles Koppelman’s book Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema hit the stands. Murch himself wrote In the Blink of an Eye, in which he offers a perspective on film editing including a chapter on "Why Do Cuts Work?" On the cover is a quote from Coppola that reveals much about Murch: "Nothing is as fascinating as spending hours listening to Walter’s theories of life and cinema and his countless tidbits of wisdom, which he leaves behind him like Hansel and Gretel’s trail of bread: guidance and nourishment."

Murch, a Cancer, and his wife Aggie, an Aries, will celebrate their 40th anniversary next year, a remarkable achievement given an astrological pairing that should be about as fluid as cement. They grow organic fruits and vegetables on their farm in Bolinas, where they have lived for 31 years.

In 1996, the multitalented editor [who helped write the screenplays for THX-1138 and The Black Stallion] won Academy Awards for both sound mixing and film editing on the same motion picture (The English Patient)—a first for the Academy Awards. Seventeen years earlier, he received Oscar nominations in both categories for Apocalypse Now and won for sound. Murch reworked Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1998 according to a long-lost 50-page memo from Welles, and has lent his dual artistry to Apocalypse Now Redux, Cold Mountain (editing nomination), K-19: The Widowmaker, The Godfather: Part III (editing nomination), The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ghost (editing nomination) and The English Patient. He also cut The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Julia (editing nomination) and The Godfather Trilogy, among others, while his sound credits include American Graffiti, Crumb and The Godfather: Part II—all in all, a total of nine Academy Award nominations, three for his sound design work and six for film editing.

The reputation extends well beyond the movie industry, evidenced by one of my relatives--a housewife on Long Island--who recited his credits to me in a recent phone conversation, and by two sold-out "Evenings With—" at the 440-seat Cowell Theater in San Francisco and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Such is the notoriety of the famed Mr. Murch, the first editor in the history of film who can rightfully be called a superstar.

o o o o

When you were growing up, did you find yourself seduced by film?

No. I spent my early teenage years fascinated by sound and sound recording, but then reached that confused period in your mid-teens where you think you have to get serious. I thought I might be an oceanographer, thought about being an architect, thought vaguely about being an engineer, although I didn’t know what that meant. This was right around the time of Sputnik, so the idea was America needs engineers. So I thought I might be one.

You studied engineering?

Well no. Johns Hopkins had an oceanography department and I guess it was the chemistry between myself and the subject matter at that moment in history and the particular teacher who was teaching it and I just felt this is not for me. I thought, "Well, I’ll try architecture, maybe that’s something!" And a friend who was in architecture school at University of Pennsylvania took me gently aside in my sophomore year and said, "I don’t think architecture is for you because I know the kind of person you are and you imagine that all architects operate at a very high level. In fact, there are probably only four architects at any one time operating at that level and you’ll probably wind up designing bathrooms for somebody." That I took his words to heart meant that I didn’t really want to be an architect. So I went into the very secure field of cinema—where the chances are even less.

What lured you into that trap? How did the interest spring up so seemingly suddenly?

When I was 15, I wound up going alone to see The Seventh Seal by [Ingmar] Bergman and came out sort of shell-shocked because that film made me realize the obvious, which is that people make movies. Somebody made this film. And on a visceral and even an intellectual level that had never occurred to me before. I think for most kids films are like...landscapes glimpsed from a train. Or the weather. How did you like that film is like how do you like these clouds? Back then a lot of films were Hollywood products—they didn’t have that stamp of an individual personality.

But you went for oceanography anyway.

As I say, the penny didn’t drop all the way at that point, but the equation of "Somebody made that film, I am somebody, therefore I could make a film"--that began to work its way into my consciousness...I defected from oceanography to romance languages, because that’s where the good teachers were and I ended up studying in Paris in ’63, which was right at the height of the New Wave. It was hard to be a young person in Paris in the early ’60s and not get bitten by the film bug. So when I came back I discovered—slightly to my amazement—there were such things as film schools. I got accepted at USC with a scholarship for grad work—and I thought, "Well, this is great—if they’re going to pay me to do this, I’m all for it."

This friend who took you aside, do you think we’re getting messages—from whatever sources—that we’re supposed to be getting?

Yeah. I think so. In fact the first day of film school the teacher just stared at us for what seemed like about 10 minutes, with this sort of smiling incredulity, and eventually opened his mouth and said, "Get out now! I don’t know why you’re all here, the size of this class has doubled since last year and there weren’t enough jobs even for them. You can still get your money back, if you bail out of this department and do something sensible." In fact some people did. His message to them was as loud as John’s message to me about architecture.

Why didn’t his warning resonate with you in the same way?

What had happened already by that time is that I’d begun to smell a connection between cinema and what I had done as an 11-year-old, which was to hang a microphone out the window and record the sounds of New York City on the Upper West Side. And then take that tape and cut it up into little pieces and turn it upside down and play it backwards—and this was my life, really, for four or five years—that was the life that I had put aside to say, "Well, now I have to do something serious." But I suddenly realized, "Hmm, maybe what I was doing back then is a kind of cinema, except it’s a cinema of sound. And maybe I can fuse that very deep interest to cinema."

So how did you make the leap from film school graduate to a working sound recordist?

The idea that we could make a living at this seemed kind of absurd, even to us. But we were pushed [into USC] by something—a Zeitgeist of some kind. If 40 people graduate, the chances of some of them getting something are pretty good and then, if they move on to something else, they can recommend you to replace them. So you sort of percolate into the system that way.

Your first project was Francis Coppola’s The Rain People?

First feature, yes. I’d done some commercials and educational films before that, both as an editor and sound.

How did Rain People come about?

I had met George [Lucas] and Francis [Coppola] in film school. Francis had shot his film as a cross-country road movie and George had gone along to make a documentary about the making of the film. They ended up shooting the last four weeks in Ogallala, a little town in Nebraska. It was sort of a revelation to them—"Hey, we can make a movie in Ogallala, why do we have to be in Hollywood?" Hollywood was also at a particular downturn in its fortunes right then, in the late ’60s. Sam Goldwyn was still at his desk, Adolph Zukor was still reporting to Paramount every day—he was 90-something. But it was clear that paradigm was on its last legs and really had begun to be clear from the early ’50s. But nobody knew what was next. There were many people who thought that was it, that Hollywood will be remembered in the future the way vaudeville is remembered now. On the way back [from Nebraska], Francis and George drove through San Francisco and met John Korty, who was then working out of Stinson Beach. He was making independent features and they thought, "This is nice. If John can do it, and we can do it, then let’s do it together." So John Korty became part of Zoetrope. I was editing commercials and George called and said, "Francis is finished editing Rain People and needs someone to do the sound. Want to come up to San Francisco? We’re starting this new company." So the three of us got together and drove up. [My wife] Aggie drove the U-Haul truck with all of the equipment and we took it up to Folsom Street.

Which is where you did the sound on the movie?

I mixed the sound up here although it was recorded and cut in Los Angeles. I was nonunion and terrified someone would find out what I was doing. That’s why my credit on the film is for "sound montage." It was vague enough so people wouldn’t wonder who edited sound, who mixed the sound?

Wasn’t this uprooting kind of a scary thing to you and your wife? I mean you guys were a family.

Yeah. And we had a son by that time, but I was 25 or 26. I don’t think you’re scared at 25. I remember George saying, "Who knows what’s going to happen, we may all be back in Hollywood a year later, but at least we’ll have had an adventure." And that’s kind of the feeling—let’s have an adventure. You have to put yourself in the mind of someone in their early 20s, where the world is sort of opening up in very vague and mysterious ways.

Did you move to Bolinas then?

We lived on a houseboat in Sausalito the first four years and moved here in ’73. Our daughter Beatrice had just been born. You can kind of manage on a houseboat with just one kid—you hold onto the groceries with one arm and pull the kid out of the water with the other. But two kids going in two different directions seemed too much.

That must have been shortly after The Godfather—you’re credited as post-production consultant.

THX didn’t do well. And that precipitated a crisis at Zoetrope when Warner Bros. canceled the development deal, throwing us all into a kind of a limbo. And the safety net that caught us was The Godfather. Francis got offered The Godfather after a number of other directors—[Elia] Kazan and [Fred] Zinnemann and more, I think—turned it down. The book was very popular but it was perceived certainly by Francis at the time as typical Hollywood product. I remember him saying I wanna make my own films, I don’t wanna make this. But unless he did it, Zoetrope had no future. Nobody ever expected it to be the hit it turned out to be.

I understand the part you played in creating the dynamic tension in the scene in which Michael Corleone guns down Sollozzo and the crooked police captain in the restaurant was something of a creative milestone for you.

Francis made a risky decision and didn’t want to dilute the scene with music. So we were faced with what else could we do. I remember those particular sounds that permeate certain parts of the Bronx, those elevated trains, especially the sound they make when they go around a corner, they make a screech. I thought well, we don’t see an elevated train, but let’s say that trains are around somewhere, that’s part of the sonic atmosphere of this part of the world. We can make this sound come and go throughout, kind of like waves of nausea, and it gets incorporated into the emotional landscape in a way that music doesn’t. It had the effect that you were looking at some other level of reality—that’s what gives the electric feel to it. That moment was a key moment for me, where I understood another thing about how sound can be used. Because it’s completely unrealistic what’s happening to the sound there—the sound would never be that loud, it’s as if the train is coming right at the camera. And yet many people when they look at the film don’t realize there’s a train sound there at all. And it has an emotional effect on them. It’s as if that sound is the sound of Michael’s neurons as he’s about to do this thing, which is not only to kill somebody but to kill his dream and his innocence.

As far as I can tell, the ’70s were kind of a golden era for you—your first sound-and-picture edit, the first picture edit outside your inner circle, first Oscar nomination for sound, first Oscar nomination for editing, first dual nomination for sound and editing, and your first Oscar. What were you experiencing, in terms of your personal power, your outlook on the world, your optimism for the future, when all this was happening in rather rapid succession?

Again, for someone who is 26 or 30, it doesn’t quite seem that way. There were moments when I was aware that, OK, here we go, where the roller coaster is going to take another arc, particularly working outside [my zone] on Julia for Fred [Zinnemann]. He had seen The Conversation and liked the way it was edited. Before that we were all film students. Even though The Godfather was a big film, it was Zoetrope and it was Francis and it was just us. Nobody knew what was next. And what was next might be oblivion. And many people thought it actually would be oblivion. The end of cinema. TV would take over. So everybody was kind of willing to give the unknown a shot. Let’s try this, let’s try that, let’s give the kid a chance.

The nature of editing has changed quite a bit since then. I know there were some bumps along the way going digital, but what’s your assessment of it now?

When I started out the Moviola [editing machine] was 40 years old. And now it’s 40 years later, so I kind of started at the midpoint of the history of film editing and all of the changes. Technically, it’s in a highly fluid state right now because of digitization, which is a great emulsifier of everything. Once you can digitize something, it becomes unbelievably fluid and portable, which is certainly not the case with celluloid images on film. But the principles behind the editing are all the same,

Are we in the last stages of film as celluloid?

We will look back on it in a number of years as we look back on parchment today. With everything that implies-—parchment is a wonderful thing, there are some wonderful things about celluloid, but we don’t write things on parchment anymore except as a special effect.

You’ve made the transition to digital? Totally?


Is there a downside to it that you can perceive?

One of the problems with digital systems is they reduce serendipity. They make things the way you want it. The problem is what you’re able to articulate may not be what you need. It’s just a function of the way the human brain works. Making a film requires you to speak a new language. And you’re not good at the beginning. That’s the terror an editor faces at the beginning of every film. What is this language? Can I speak it? The more unique a film is, the harder it is to find this language. Digital systems are very good at obeying your commands, but they’re not so good at volunteering things. Linear systems are cumbersome, but because you had to high-speed through long sections of junk, frequently you’d find something that was better than what you were going for. So a lot of my techniques—the scene cards, photo selection, turning the sound off—are ways to try to increase serendipity, to add that element of not being in control, to let chance happen and then seize it. Milan Kundera had a line—he said it’s the job of every novelist to write a novel more intelligent than he is. To let it happen.

Whenever I reach this point in this process I tell students to expect miracles. It’s your duty to expect miracles, particularly in the dance between music and film.

I know you began editing The English Patient in Europe with a linear system—

Right. We started it on a KEM.

—-and then you came back here and switched to digital. What happened?

My son developed a brain tumor. And I had to leave the film, leave Europe and come back here. I told [producer] Saul [Zaentz] and [director] Anthony [Minghella] you better get another editor because this is an unknown situation and you’re making a film. And they said, no, we really want you to continue, so think about what you can do. And we believe it’ll all turn out. And it did. But it was a leap of faith, certainly, on their parts and on the flight back to the Bay Area, I thought the only way I can see it happening is if we abandon the KEM, the mechanical system, and digitize the film, and that way I can work on it at home. In fact, I was not working on the film for eight weeks, so by the time I started editing in this room, I was eight weeks behind where I should have been. But I was able to catch up by the time they were finished shooting.

Were you amazed?

Um, well, yeah. Because I’d never edited on an Avid before—I’d done a couple of music videos for Linda Ronstadt and a short special effects scene in a film called I Love Trouble, but not a whole feature. And English Patient probably was and will forever remain the only film ever—while it was being shot—to change the nature of the editing system from analog to digital. It was amazing that we were able to pull that off and not fall all over ourselves doing it. And it became the first digitally edited film to win an Oscar.

You had difficulties on Cold Mountain...

Timing is what got us into trouble there. For whatever reason, Anthony [Minghella] finds it difficult to time his scripts. He writes them, he rewrites them when he shoots them as he gets a whole bunch of new ideas, and people contribute ideas, and there is this inflationary spiral that happens. And so a script that is 122 pages long should produce a film that is 122 minutes long, but instead produced one 306 minutes long. And that takes a lot of time to shoot and a lot of time to edit, and—of course—a lot of time to unshoot, to compress.

You can reduce what you have by 30 percent. That gets you down to bone and muscle. And very little fat. A five-hour cut reduced by 30 percent gets you down to three-and-a-half hours. To get under that, you have to cut out muscle, tissue and bone—and vital bodily organs. No, I think you need to be a couple pounds lighter—and a kidney weighs about two pounds. And you can survive with only one kidney. And it’s the filmic equivalent of that.

You chose to use Apple’s desktop editing software Final Cut Pro to edit Cold Mountain in Romania and I am sure you’ve heard, as I did, a number of people muttering that you were out of your mind.

There was resistance because some editors paid a lot of money for Avid [systems] and said to me, "What are you doing? You’re ruining my mortgage." When I signed on to do Cold Mountain, the last two films I’d done with Anthony were in Europe and I thought, well, here’s a film that we will definitely do in the U.S. For budgetary reasons, the decision was made to shoot most of the film in Romania in the Carpathian Mountains instead of the Appalachian Mountains. So now we’re doing it in Romania using the $999 Final Cut Pro on an $80 million film in a country that was under the Soviet thumb just 13 years earlier, in a place I’d never worked and nobody I knew had ever worked. And it was really like jumping at night off the end of a pier into a black ocean. And all this was happening at the same time we were hearing from Apple that they really didn’t want us to do this because if something went wrong, it would not look good. In some sort of paradoxical way, these two challenges made me want to do it even more. Digital Film Tree figured out a tech package to withstand voltage current shocks, with all kinds of power surge protectors and lots of redundancy, and we went with four fully loaded systems, which cost less than one Avid system. As soon as I started working with four systems I realized why stoves have four burners. If you’re cooking a big meal, you need ’em, because you’re cooking the spaghetti over here, browning the onions here, the sauce is here and the broccoli is coming and going on this other one.

With the benefit of hindsight, are there decisions you’ve made that you regret on Cold Mountain or any other film? Or do you just move on to the next and don’t look back?

Cold Mountain is probably too short. Some people look at it and say it’s too long. Well, why is that? It’s because it’s not its right length. From an insider’s point of view, I think we skimmed too much. And I think that’s also true of Talented Mr. Ripley. It is not true of English Patient, which is the longest of those three films.

I understand you have some unique ways of working. Do you actually edit standing up?

I absolutely do and, particularly at the moment of making the cut, you couldn’t force me to sit. Standing puts me into an editing frame of mind. It makes me impatient with the material. And it’s just better for your health. I also edit with the sound turned off. The scene is telling itself with its own body language. [Eventually] I turn the sound back on and, of course, there are some unfortunate surprises, but there are also some things that never would have happened if I’d been listening—magic juxtapositions that just happened to be that way. And so I keep all of those and I fix what’s wrong.

How much of editing would you say is instinctual?

Fifty percent. It’s a version of that—luck happens to the well-prepared, remember that? You prepare your own luck. If I understand the territory very well and have done a lot of analysis of the material—screening, looking, taking notes, capturing frames, letting it sink deeply in—then when I’m actually doing the work it feels more improvisational. I feel I know the material so well and I have such good maps of the territory that I’m not in danger of getting lost, so I can wander off the track and let instinct take over. And if I do get lost, I know exactly how to get back to the trail. But I also have a better sense of where the cliff is and where the jungle is and where the swamp is.

Can a good editor mask a subpar performance by an actor?

[long pause] No. Fundamentally, no.

So do you know then, when you are working on a film, if it will be an artistic success, or whether it faces an uphill climb?

It rarely gets thought about in that way. I guess the closest it would come is, "Does this ring emotionally true, this moment, and how many of those moments can you string together?" And do they all work together in an interesting way. But it’s a peculiar thing that we don’t think about it that way. It’s more like a kind of cabinet work or something, to use an analogy. Are you being true to the grain of the wood? Does this reveal the structure of the piece in a good way? But we don’t think, "Is this art?" It’s just trying to make it be what it wants to be in the best way possible.

Do you consider yourself a sound designer first and then a film editor, or vice versa, or do you find that, for you, they are inseparable?

I would say I’m a film editor first and then sound...what I physically do is I edit the film, and then I am one of the team that does the re-recording, the mixing. If schedules were more flexible, I could also take on the sound editing, which is what I did on The Conversation. Generally, though, schedules don’t permit that—an editor’s task is just about over when the final mix starts so, at that point, I’m able to switch from one to the other. But the last film that I had an active full participation in the sound was Apocalypse 25 years ago.

If you had the power to edit and shape the movie industry today, what would you do?

Two things. I would change the way music is done, generally, which is that it comes in late in the process and is sort of spray-gunned onto the film. As a result, the two things don’t have a chance to interpenetrate each other and influence how each of them is. A composer should be on the film even during the shooting, watching how things are being done, just coming up with musical themes that could be played to the actors. This is, in fact, how The Conversation was done. And the other thing would be, no studio could green light a film until the person responsible for green lighting typed the script themselves.

You laugh, but they would learn so much by letting the words come through them physically and go onto the page. Frequently, a studio will read a script and green light it and then the film will come in and they’ll say, "Why does it look like that?" Well, because that’s what’s in the screenplay. But if they typed it, they would understand that and either they wouldn’t green light it or they would have some subcutaneous insight into the process. If you’re thinking of green lighting this, take a couple of days and re-type it yourself. There’s a wisdom in the hands. I certainly find that in editing. Sometimes I have no idea what to do and so I just start doing things and all of a sudden, like a sort of musical improvisation, my hands start doing things that seem not part of my conscious control. There’s something that comes from that kind of engagement with the process that is inaccessible to the intellect. Or to the merely perceiving mind.


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