The Art of Film Editing: Notes on Walter Murch

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Awards: The Conversation, 1974 British Academy (BAFTA) Film Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Sound; Apocalypse Now, 1979 Academy Award for Best Sound; Lifetime Achievement Award, Cinema Audio Society, 1994; The English Patient, 1996 Academy Award for Best Film Editing and Best Sound, American Cinema Editors Eddie Award for Best Edited Feature Film, BAFTA Film Award for Best Editing; Maverick Tribute Award, Cinequest San Jose Film Festival, 1998; Selected Films as Supervising Sound Editor/Re-recording Engineer: The Godfather American Graffiti The Godfather, Part II Apocalypse Now (+ ed) The Godfather, Part III (+ ed) Selected Films as Editor: The Conversation The Unbearable Lightness of Being The English Patient The Talented Mr. Ripley Cold Mountain Murch expresses this traditional view when he says: "Out of the juxtaposition of what the sound is telling you and what the picture is telling you, you (the audience) come up with a third idea which is composed of both picture and sound and resolves their superficial differences." Murch's work on Coppola's The Conversation is both exemplary and instructive in this regard. The film concerns the morally dubious activities of a professional eavesdropper, a technician who is the film's self-reflexive image of its own preoccupations with the sound mix. Murch's effects are complicated here and take full advantage of the fact that sound, unlike image, can be "located" both within the story world and outside it, in the realm of narrative comment. The film's initial bravura sequence, justly celebrated, features a gradual zoom in to a crowded city park where the actions and conversation of a "target" couple are to be recorded. While the camera has no trouble providing a more or less unproblematic series of images, the sound track is filled with audio bleeps, distorting noises, gaps, and inadequate levels. The spectator is disoriented by the montage of clear image track and unclear sound, but this disorientation is soon revealed as "motivated," that is, we are seeing and hearing with the surveillers. Both image and sound are provided by diegetic narrators, and the limitations of both are reproduced by the film's narrator. The subsequent editing of the recorded conversation is depicted and eventually leads to the revelation that the eavesdropper has been used by his employers as part of a

murder scheme. The sound images of this conversation (and occasionally the visual ones as well) also figure subjectively in the film, as part of the main character's consciousness and memory. Though the film has nondiegetic music (mainly a simple piano melody which plays expressively, in the traditional way, over certain diegetic sound silent sequences), it has no music director. Murch is responsible, as sound designer, for the integration of music and sound. In fact, nondiegetic noise often performs the traditional function of musical phrases. As the eavesdropper examines the motel toilt which, he thinks, may reveal the traces of the murder for which he is partly responsible, we hear, louder than normal, the sound of the toilet valve on the sound track. Gradually, this diegetic sound is merged with audio bleeps reminding us of the recorded conversation, and this sound in turn is transformed into a very loud and grating nondiegetic synthesized noise (which resembles very squeaky train brakes). Though nondiegetic, this sound expresses the horror and becomes the narrational correlative of the eavesdropper's discovery: as he flushes the toilet, it spills over with blood and bandages, revealing his fears to be justified. Murch here appears to be developing further the use of "shrieking violins" in Psycho . He also anticipates much contemporary sound design where the distinction between music ("organized noise") and other expressive nondiegetic sounds has been problematized.

Apocalypse Now offered Murch a different kind of challenge: not creating an alternate reality, but forging a hyperreality, an intersection between a dense world of aural experience and the subjectivity of those trapped within it. The most notable and typical sound image in this film is thus the aural equivalent of a fade out/fade in. As he lies in a Saigon hotel room in a drunken, drugged stupor, the film's protagonist dreams of a nightmare jungle, engulfed by flames, traversed by ghostly helicopters, their rotors beating a surreal, otherworldly "whoosh." He wakes and the whoosh "bleeds" into the whirr of the overhead fan. This is indeed an effect aptly termed a montage, and it demonstrates the incredible talent of Murch and the importance of his contributions to the art cinema of the Hollywood Renaissance. The Godfather, Part III , with its epic sweep and several complex sequences, challenged his sound editing and rerecording skills, as did Ghost , with its need for

otherworldly visual and sound images; the success of both films is to be credited in part to Murch's abilities. Even Murch's artistry could not save the dismal production of First Knight from failure; yet it is undeniable that his effects create the proper aural ambience for an Arthurian fantasy. The neo-noirness of Romeo Is Bleeding unfortunately did not offer Murch a chance to recreate his stunning effects from The Conversation ; even Murch's considerable skills as an editor were not up to the task of rescuing director Medak's confusingly told story from tedium and, frequently, inconsequence. Murch was more successful in editing The Unbearable Lightness of Being , based on the complex and often obscure Milan Kundera novel; here Murch is able to articulate the intimate connection between erotic and political events through judicious cutting, though he proved unable to reduce the film to a manageable commercial length (it runs almost three hours). Murch's most notable recent project, editing the film adaptation of surrealistic Michael Ondratjie novel The English Patient , offered Murch even better opportunities to create meaning through the editing process, a task whose joys and discontents are experienced by his closest fictional reflex, the harried private detective and sound engineer of The Conversation . The novel's confusingly implausible, even absurd plot was expertly trimmed by scenarist/director Anthony Minghella, yielding a still complex story of bizarrely intertwined fates; Murch's contribution was to make sure the plot's intricately connected segments of present action and flashback made sense and did not appear to be simply disconcerting fragments. Despite the considerable challenge, Murch was extremely successful, making the most of Mighella's fine direction of a talented cast and John Seale's lushly poetic cinematography.

The Conversaion Production notes (from Wikipedia) On the DVD commentary, Coppola says he was shocked to learn that the film utilized the very same surveillance and wire-tapping equipment that members of the Nixon Administration used to spy on political opponents prior to the Watergate scandal. Coppola has said this is the reason the film gained part of the recognition it has received, but that this is entirely coincidental. Not only was the script for The Conversation completed in the mid-1960s (before the Nixon Administration came to power) but that the spying equipment used in the film was discovered through research and the use of technical advisers and not, as many believed, by revelatory newspaper stories about the Watergate break-in. Coppola also noted that filming of The Conversation had been completed several months before the most revelatory Watergate stories broke in the press. Since the film wasn't released to theaters until several months after Richard Nixon had resigned, Coppola feels that audiences interpreted the film to be a reaction to both the Watergate scandal and its fall-out. The original cinematographer of The Conversation was Haskell Wexler. Severe creative and personal differences with Coppola led to Wexler's firing shortly after production began and Coppola replaced him with Bill Butler. Wexler's footage on The Conversation was completely reshot, except for the technically complex surveillance scene in Union Square.[4] This would be the first of two Oscar-nominated films where Wexler would be fired and replaced by Butler, the second being One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), where Wexler had similar problems with Milos Forman.

Walter Murch served as the supervising editor and sound designer. Murch had more or less a free hand during the editing process, since Coppola was already working on The Godfather Part II at the time.[5]. Coppola noted in the DVD commentary that Hackman had a very difficult time adapting to the Harry Caul character because it was so much unlike himself. Coppola says that Hackman was at the time an outgoing and approachable person who preferred casual clothes, whereas Caul was meant to be a socially awkward loner who wore a rain coat and out-of-style glasses. Coppola said that Hackman's efforts to tap into the character made the actor moody and irritable on-set but otherwise Coppola got along well with his leading man. Coppola also notes on the commentary that Hackman considers this one of his favorite performances. From The First Conversation by Michael Ondaatje: MICHAEL ONDAATJE: What's the distinction of roles between editor and director -- in the way a scene is finally cut or the way a plot is possibly altered from a script? We know the editor has a very intimate relationship to the material. Does this give him or her a finer sense than the director of subliminal details and hidden structures in the film? WALTER MURCH: I don't think an editor -- except in certain kinds of documentaries -can impose on a film a vision that wasn't there to begin with. All the things you talk about were in Francis' head, in some form. I may have found things that worked along with his vision in a unique way, orchestrated it more fully in certain areas