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Oscar-Winning Editor Walter Murch: The Man, the Myth, the Legend

Oscar-Winning Editor Walter Murch: The Man, the Myth, the Legend

Walter Murch is synonymous with sound design. Before he came along, the audience, and much of the industry, took sound for granted; so long as a movie cohered into a polished whole, nobody thought much about the soundscape. Then, in 1979, “Apocalypse Now” hit theaters. Not only did it shatter our perceptions of the Vietnam War, but it also shattered our eardrums. From the whir of a ceiling fan to the sound of helicopters slicing through the sky, Murch showed the world the possibilities of cinematic sound. In fact, Murch was the first official sound designer ever credited: Floored by Murch’s work on “Apocalypse Now,” Francis Ford Coppola invented the term to bestow upon his friend.

In the years since, 72-year-old Murch has continued to revolutionize the fields of sound design and editing, winning several Academy Awards along the way. His theory, most eloquently imparted in his 1995 book “In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing,” urges the editor to prioritize emotion. Rather than obsess over technical prowess, Murch would have the editor think about story as it relates to pathos: How will this cut affect the audience emotionally? Through his work and his philosophy, Murch has revealed the sovereignty of the editor.

Indiewire sat down with Murch as the editor prepared to advise his first college class, a sound design masterclass bearing his name at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, taught by Brane Zivkovic. Murch spoke about his process, the challenges inherent in the life of an editor, working with Coppola, George Lucas and Kathryn Bigelow, and his troubled directorial debut, “Return to Oz.” 

READ MORE: Oscar-Winning Editor and Sound Designer Walter Murch on the Shift from Film to Digital

What is a truly cinematic experience?

If somebody could identify the accurate answer to your question, then they could make a film studio that would always make money because everybody would want to see their movies. So it’s notoriously difficult to know what to do. What complicates it even more is the lead time, which is that you have to say, “we’re going to make this film now, but it won’t be in theaters for a year and a half or two years. How is the world going to change in the interim?” You have to weigh that in the process.  

Our medium is called motion pictures, but it could also be called emotion pictures. That seems to be the main driving force behind it. When I made a list of six criteria for determining what kind of things you weigh when you choose to cut from one shot to another, emotion is at the top. But it’s notoriously difficult to wrangle with or even to identify. When editing is being taught, it is being taught from the bottom up, which is, you begin with spatial geometry. That has a virtue to it, but what happens is that as you learn more and more, you have to flip more and more. And, in fact, at a certain point, spatial geometry is the last thing you want to really obsess over. You need to achieve emotional and intellectual — which is to say story — coherence. And you need to have rhythmic values, or visual music.

Identification with characters is the main thing that will create emotion. You feel as if you are with these people, whoever they are onscreen, and you want them to succeed against all odds. And you are rooting for them and you’re agonizing with them when they fail and you’re feeling great when they succeed. There are several ways to mine the vein of emotion, but that’s the main one. 

What are you looking for, emotionally, in any given scene?

When you first put a scene together, it’s the cinematic equivalent of somebody being fitted for a dress or suit. There’s always more fabric than there will be in the end. The suit or the dress is kind of floppy. We do exactly what the tailor does. We look and we say, “We have to nip it in here,” or, “I’m going to take this out here or make it snug here and let it balloon out here, and here we want some motion and hemline, so I’m going to let that be loose.”

When you’ve assembled the scene for the first time, you sit back and look at it. The peculiarity of the way I work is that I turn the sound off. So I’m, in a sense, making it work as a pantomime. I’m emphasizing the body language of the characters, looking at who’s looking at whom. Can the story tell itself, at a certain level, without dialogue? Do I get some truth out of the scene without words? And then I will look at it and make a list of notes as I go. And then I will recut it: “Let’s make this shorter.” You’re trying to make it as short as possible, but no shorter, and as emotional as possible, and as clear as possible. Then, I turn the sound on and listen to it with dialogue. It’s immediately clear what’s wrong when you do that. But by the same token, you will see things that happened accidentally that you never would have done on purpose with the sound on; you wouldn’t have been listening for them. 

What’s an example of a happy accident?

You may have found a reaction shot from somewhere later in the scene, and you put it somewhere where it was not intended to be because it’s a good reaction. So, what were they saying at that point? What was on screen at that point? It may have nothing to do with the screenplay, and yet why not put it there? You may find it’s actually interesting that that’s said there. When you see those lucky chances happen, you preserve them. The rest is fixing things up cosmetically sometimes. Words are cut off in the middle awkwardly, so you extend those. And then you step back and look at the whole scene with dialogue this time, and then you make another pass. I’ll do this typically six times before I let the scene go. I should emphasize that I’m editing this scene now in isolation. I’m not seeing it within the larger context. Once I see it in the larger context, then I might make a whole series of other changes to it. So this is just the scene on its own terms. What do I want to do with it?

I stop working when I’ve gotten the scene refined enough that I can no longer imagine myself making the decisions [I made]. Each shot seems to create the momentum that provokes the next shot to happen. So it just seems to happen, rather than seeming to be something that was artificially constructed, which it was. I want to get beyond into that into something which, in aeronautic terms, takes off, something that is no longer in contact with the earth.

At the Sheffield DocFest, you said something to the effect of, ‘We’re at a crisis point in the state of cinema.’ Is that something you still stand by?
Well, it’s a crisis in a good sense. Every crisis is an opportunity. Things are changing very quickly both technically and in terms of what is a theatrical feature film. What do people want to leave their house to go and see? And the technical stuff, there’s lots to say about it, but it’s fairly self-explanatory in that digitization is making technical leaps that would have taken a generation to make in analog. Now it’s happening within three years. We’re jumping from high-def to 4K to 8K all in five years. Is 8K the ultimate? Well, maybe. You’re almost at the edge of what the eye can resolve at 8K, if not beyond it. But people like David Fincher and Brad Bird on “Tomorrowland,” that I worked on, shoot at that thing so they can go anywhere and recompose within the frame without the image degrading. So are we going to have 12K or 24K? These are huge challenges to workflow because every K that you add adds processing power and time and more storage difficulties. Eventually, we’ll come up with some balance point. But we’re not there. We’re right in the middle of this acceleration right now.

The challenges are not technical. It’s more artistic. Once you get used to any system, it becomes second nature. You know, Michelangelo wasn’t thinking about his chisel as he was carving David. That’s just the only way you could do it, so you just did it. Not that I’m comparing myself to Michelangelo. You adapt yourself to the technology at the time. And the expectation of digital technology is, “Aren’t you done yet?” With the old system, producers understood that it was hard because you had to physically wrangle all of this stuff, and they gave you more space. Now, you should have it done right away. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. The ease of certain things is compensated for how now you are expected to have 45 soundtracks running with your rough cut and temp music and do the opticals and do the visual effects. 

Do you think there’s a danger of becoming too bogged down by the technical aspects of production?

Yeah, but I think that’s always been the case. My reference point for that is when I went to university as a freshman, there was a kid in the dormitory who had a fantastic collection of colored pencils and markers to take notes with. But he spent all of his time sharpening his pencils and never got any work done. So when I get in that mode myself, I say, “Be careful, don’t keep sharpening your pencils.” You have to dive in and do the work. Of course you have to do preparation, but there’s a danger to being over-prepared, where you get sucked into the quicksand of this technical thing that lures you into the swamp.
It sounds like that metaphor can also be applied to overthinking narrative threads. If you ever find yourself in an overthinking conundrum, how do you save yourself?
One of the appealing things about film editing is that you can walk away from the machine and go and walk around the block and go home and think about it. That’s not so true when you’re a director. You have to stay because the crew is so expensive. You have to stay and fix that problem there. Under extraordinary circumstances, you can abandon something and shoot something else and come back. Editing is a little bit more forgiving. In that sense, it’s like writing. There’s also a technique that I nickname “Wisdom of the Hands”: If I sense if this scene is in a box that I would like to get it out of, I start editing without thinking about anything. It’s the equivalent of noodling on a piano.

Or free-associating.

Yeah, just, “I think I’ll cut there, I think I’ll move this.” I don’t really know what I’m doing. Subconsciously, I must know. And frequently, I will come out the other side of that with something that is a result that I don’t think that I could have arrived at deliberately. So it’s finding ways to tap pre-lingual consciousness, more like music than anything else. 

How have you evolved in terms of relating to directors over the years?

Every director is very different. They all have different modus operandi. One of the jobs of the film editor is to provoke things. “How about this? If you have a problem, could this work?” Or when something is ambiguous in the screenplay and even in the directing, you say, “It could be this.” You show it to the director, and the director may say, “That’s great,” or they may say, “That’s exactly what I don’t want.: But you’ve done your job, because the job is to get a reaction from the director. And hopefully out of that dialogue, something will come that is better than what either one of us could have come up with individually.

How do you generally resolve conflicts with directors? 

If you have an idea and the director says, “No, I don’t think that’s right,” it’s your job not to simply abandon that. If you really believe in an idea, you should fight for it. So, wait a bit, and then after a day, or a week, say, “You know that idea I was talking about? Now that we’ve done this, maybe….” If they say no, do it again three weeks later. And then they may at that point say, “Okay, let’s try it,” or they may say no again. If they say no for the third time, it’s kind of like three strikes and you’re out. At that point, I just abandon it. If they bring it back themselves, fine. But I’m not going to make a pest out of myself. Because the last thing you want in an editing room is the director to think, “I don’t want to go to work today because Walter’s going to tell me about that crazy idea he had.”
What are some darlings you’ve had to kill?

There was a scene in “The Conversation,” I remember, and it was an example of a group of scenes that I would call “elbow scenes”: Just like whenever you move your arm, that joint has to move. It’s like a pivot point. With this elbow scene in “The Conversation,” every scene in the film that had to change, that scene had to change. And this is in the days of physically splicing film. So it was getting more and more cut up. But it kept doing it. It kept valiantly going along with whatever is happening. The film reached a point somewhere in its evolution where I thought, you know, maybe we should just cut that scene out. And I did that at two o’clock in the morning one session. As I was undoing the splices, the scene spoke to me in an imaginary sense. And it said, kind of like the dialogue between God and Job in the Bible, “Why are you cutting me out? I’ve been such a good scene. I’ve done everything that you wanted. I rose to the occasion!” and I said, kind of like God, “I know, but for the good of the whole, I think I’m going to cut you out.” So I cut it out, and the water came over it and it was as if it had never been in the film, and it’s not in the film. 

There’s something I call “blue light phenomenon”: If you have a scene in a film which is broadcasting its intention vividly — let’s say your intentions are blue, metaphorically speaking — that scene will do it. If you want blue in the film, this scene will give it to you. And at a certain point in the evolution of the film, you, like I did, come to the realization, almost perversely of, “I have to cut it out.” And you think, at that point, “But then there would be no blue in the film anymore.” And the miracle is that when you cut those scenes out, you start to see blue everywhere. If you’re in a room, for example, and there’s a blue lamp hanging from the ceiling, everything’s blue. What you discover is if you take that light bulb out, suddenly you see there’s blue in the screen and there’s blue in that thing and there’s blue over there. Other things seem to be authentically blue. 

As a filmmaker, you have to watch out for over-intentionality. If you force them to feel something, the audience will go, “Okay, I know what you’re trying to do.” If you reach a point in the film’s construction where that can be removed, then the more authentic manifestations of what you’re after can reveal themselves. So the paradox is by cutting out a source of brilliance, the impression is more brilliance.

So you have to make room for subtlety to emerge.

Yes. There’s an equivalent in cinematography called “blinking the key.” If you are illuminating a scene and you have multiple sources of light, and there’s a key light, the main light, and then subsidiary lights, you (the cinematographer) can get into a place where it’s confusing. So you (the cinematographer) say, “Let’s blink the key,” which means let’s turn off the key light and see what’s left. And once that’s off, then usually it’s more, “Okay, I see, get rid of that light and get rid of that light, now turn the key back on.” Remove the very thing that seems to be essential and then look at what’s left.

Just as an exercise, frequently in editing a film you say, “Let’s just screen without this scene.” You know the scene is going to be in the movie, but you just take it out and see what’s there without it, and you learn something. And then frequently what happens is you put it back in a slightly different place, or put back a shorter version of it, or sometimes you don’t put it back at all.

Editing can be a very isolating profession. You’re alone in the room most of the time, yet you’re interfacing with and manipulating humanity on a daily basis. Do you ever feel that dissonance?

To be an editor, you have to be the kind of person who can be in a room for 16 hours at a time. You are working alone a lot of the time, but there are also times when you’re working with a director in the room. You have to be able to accommodate that. For feature-length pictures, it’s like running a marathon. You have to pace yourself over a year. When I’m considering a film, that’s in the back of my mind. You have to really like the project. Also, you are frequently away from home. You go where the director is. I was working in Argentina for a year, a number of years ago. Before that, I was in Romania, and before that I was in London, and then after that about 2 years ago I was in New York for a year. If you’re married, you have to find ways of coping with that and that’s a whole chapter unto itself.

At the end of the film, it can be very disorienting when the work is suddenly finished. This is not exclusive to film editing; I’m sure it’s true of many other areas of human activity. Soldiers have this problem, actors who are acting in a play when the play is suddenly over, it’s like you’ve been cut loose: “Now what?!” This was never explained to me at film school. So when it first happened, I felt something was wrong with me. It’s the equivalent of a kind of seasickness; if you’ve never been on a ship before and somebody warns you about it, it’s okay. You’ll still feel just as sick, but you won’t feel like killing yourself. This is not that intense, but it is that kind of disorientation. And it passes, but it takes anywhere from two to six weeks to go away. During that time I would be very reluctant to try to decide what to do next. It’s like a love affair where you don’t want to bounce from one relationship to another; that’s dangerous. So, you should just let that project fade away and get back to normal, and then you can decide what to do next. We frequently don’t have the luxury of that, but that’s a goal.

Do you prefer to work closely with directors or to be given relative carte blanche?

I prefer more autonomy. I was working with Kathryn Bigelow on a film, “K-19,” and she was the first director I’ve worked with who came into the room, plopped down on the sofa, and that was it. On the other hand, she left at 6 o’clock. And we would be working, going back and forth, I was editing on the Avid, and I set her up with her own monitor so that she didn’t have to be right there [laughs]. She could look at what I was doing and she could say “Oh, good!” and I would say, “I’m not ready yet, I’m still working” [laughs]. When she went home I would stay for another three hours and do my own stuff to the film. And then in the morning, my joke was “Kathryn, look what the mice did overnight!”

How does the experience of editing documentary compare to that of narrative? 

I love editing documentaries. I began editing documentaries and some short films before I ever got into features. Part of Francis [Ford Coppola]’s style of directing is to shoot things like a documentary. The wedding scene in “The Godfather” was simply a wedding that he staged. Everyone knew what they were supposed to do, and they knew their characters. He had cameras photographing it. And then he’d say, “let’s do it again,” and he’d move the cameras. After three or four days of doing that, he’d look at the dailies, think about what he was missing, and deliberately shoot a couple of things to cement things together. He used the same technique on “The Conversation.” The cameras were hidden; the actors didn’t know where they were. The people in the background didn’t know they were being filmed, so it was all documentary-style. The attack on the beach in “Apocalypse Now” was the same deal.

Once you get a documentary assembled — so it has more or less a beginning, middle and end — the differences between that and a feature narrative are trivial. It’s just screening it, showing it to other people, listening to them, making changes, putting it in that pressure cooker where it does get shorter, clearer, and hopefully more emotional. The process by which you get to that point, though, is very different, because in a doc, things only happen once. Somebody says something, and it’s the only time they ever say that. You have to navigate your way around that singularity. You have the opposite problem, in a sense, in a theatrical film; every line of dialogue is said 50 times. 

Did you ever want to direct another film after “Return to Oz”?

I did, and I tried to get a number of films off the ground after “Return to Oz,” but it was not a commercial success and it was not a critical success. It was hard, with that film, to get people to listen to my ideas. And my ideas were… I wanted to make a film about Nikola Tesla. Eventually, you run out of time, energy and money pursuing that. I had four kids. I couldn’t speculate with my future indefinitely along those lines. 

What was your vision for founding Zoetrope in 1969 with Coppola and Lucas in San Francisco?

The main thing was we wanted to get out of LA. None of us were from there and we didn’t like it. And at that time in the late ’60s it was sort of a depressing time in Los Angeles because the old paradigm was still lingering. Things were still very restrictive in terms of unions. If you were a sound editor you couldn’t mix, and if you were a mixer you couldn’t edit. We hadn’t experienced any of that at film school. We wanted to make our own films, or films that spoke to us. All of us had gotten into film highly influenced by world cinema at that time and not necessarily by American cinema, so the influence of the Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa was very strong and we wanted to take that aesthetic.

We made a couple of films that didn’t do very well. We got into financial trouble, and to get out of that trouble, Francis took a job for pay, directing this gangster movie called “The Godfather.” To his credit, he did Europeanize that film. I remember a dialogue between myself and George and Francis in the hallway. Paramount was wanting this and wanting that. They didn’t want Al Pacino, they wanted Laurence Olivier to be the Godfather, all this struggle. And George said, “Francis, just keel over and do whatever they want, get the money and then we’ll take it and make the films we want.” Francis didn’t do that. He continued to fight and he got Al Pacino and he got Nino Rota and he got Marlon Brando. Ultimately, it paid off.  

READ MORE: Sundance: Insight into the Art of Film Editing

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