Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film
A book by Michael Ondaatje, new in paperback
532 pages, illustrated; Alfred A. Knopf, $19.95
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Thirty years ago, I first became aware of how sound could be tapped for (what was then) all of its potential. Francis Coppola’s The Conversation took many people by surprise because the director, still woozy over The Godfather, humbled himself for what appeared to be an unassuming thriller. That the film was dark, political and paranoid wasn’t unique — those were the days of Watergate, All the President’s Men and The Parallax View. But its main character, the guarded and taciturn surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman, brilliantly cast against type), floated as a vague participant in an American cinema groping with brooding antiheroes and nonconformists. The Conversation differed too in its handling of such issues as privacy and deteriorating social interaction, modesty and decency. Compare it to Tony Scott’s hyperactive and undernourished Enemy of the State — with Hackman as a traumatized Harry Caul figure running from pod people — and The Conversation appears ever more accomplished.
Walter Murch designed the sound montage and edited the picture, and was largely responsible for the electronic ‘character’ consuming Caul, those gurgling sounds and distorted voices played back and forth in the character’s audio lab. How often have I heard the variations on “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” drifting in and out of my head? Or Cindy Williams’s chilly rendition of “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along”? These snippets of idle banter evolve into an ominous presence and Caul’s obsession, as Murch discovered life, mystery, conscience and character in a prop reel of tape.
It’s discussed at length in The Conversations, a volume of interviews conducted by the novelist, Michael Ondaatje (Anil’s Ghost, The English Patient). Theirs is an intriguing combination, for the author’s admitted inexperience in filmmaking allows for an uncomplicated approach, and invites a number of accessible and entertaining anecdotes. It comes in handy when dealing with Murch’s shadowy technician’s figure, whose scientific and mathematical understandings of art and technique could otherwise be clinical or even intimidating.
Not that all of it is a buoyant café klatch — there’s the occasional drift into reserved deference. Directors Murch has worked for are held in equal regard, so the aesthetic differences separating reckless, passionate fireballs like Francis Coppola (Murch did the Godfather pictures and Apocalypse Now) and Orson Welles (Touch of Evil’s restoration), against the relative middlebrow sensibilities of George Lucas (THX 1138, American Graffiti), Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain) and Fred Zinnemann (Julia) are rarely scrutinized. Immersed so thoroughly in craft, Murch grasps those minute qualities and nuances that otherwise escape notice, a mind sharpened by years of examining film frame by frame.
The shortsighted notion of a director being wholly responsible for every aspect of a picture is unintentionally challenged throughout the book, especially when Murch details the (extensive) input he’s had on the Minghella and Coppola pictures. With the latter off filming The Godfather Part II, Murch was fine-tuning The Conversation and took it upon himself to alter Frederick Forrest’s reading of the picture’s closing line, shifting emphasis from ‘kill’ to ‘us’ in “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” That furnished Coppola with an ending where one hadn’t existed (the script was unfinished), replacing the director’s slated ambiguity with closure. And when discussing Zinnemann and their work together on Julia, Murch recalls the director’s fascistic attitude toward his underlings, a man quick to teach obedience through humiliation.
To these eyes, the spirit of Coppola dominates Murch’s oeuvre and reverberates throughout Ondaatje’s book. Consider that Coppola made the first two Godfather pictures, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now all in a space of less than ten years — that’s an astonishing achievement that Murch was part of from the beginning. We place the Coppola name above those titles, but Ondaatje’s Conversations inadvertently expands the definition of ‘Coppola’ to encapsulate a vast creative force, one where Walter Murch is a vital constituent and very much at home.
Murch mixing Apocalypse Now