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‘The Conversation’: Walter Murch Invented a Paranoid Soundscape for Coppola’s Masterpiece

“The Godfather” of modern sound design Walter Murch looks back at the first film he edited for Coppola and his groundbreaking sound work.

"The Conversation"

“The Conversation”

Rialto Pictures

Shot in the midst of an astonishing burst of creativity, “The Conversation” was written, produced, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1974, in between making “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II.” The story of a surveillance expert haunted by a case that slips out of his control, the movie ranks among the director’s best work.

Now audiences will have the chance to rediscover the film, when NYC”s Film Forum begins a repertory run of a newly struck print ‚supervised by Coppola himself— January 14. That gave IndieWire the opportunity to speak via Zoom with the film’s supervising editor and sound mixer, Walter Murch.

Murch worked on some of the most significant films of the 1970s, including “American Graffiti,” “The Godfather,” and “Apocalypse Now,” for which he coined the job title “sound designer.” Murch’s approach to sound transformed the industry, expanding the concept of spatial environments while embracing experimental equipment like synthesizers, and, in so doing, elevating what had been seen as a purely technical craft into a creative one.

Wiretapping was still legal when “The Conversation” was filmed, but most viewers had no idea how far it could be manipulated (In that sense, Coppola’s script — about surveillance expert Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman) — is startlingly prescient about today’s misinformation and fake news). What Murch did was flesh out that world, show the nuts and bolts behind mics, taps, and bugs. He gave moviegoers a new way to think about sound before that technology even existed.

"The Conversation"

“The Conversation”

Rialto Pictures

“It was an open canvas for me in terms of moment-to-moment decisions about how to approach the sound,” Murch said. “There were no specific instructions about what to do other than what was indicated in his screenplay.”

According to Murch, Coppola was intensely interested in sound technology. The biggest investment he made at his American Zoetrope studio was mixing equipment he purchased in Germany. And there’s no doubt in the editor’s mind that Coppola identified with Harry Caul.

“All the stories of Harry’s past are actually stories from Francis’ life,” Murch said. “The story about almost drowning in the bathtub when he had polio, the story about bugging the apartment house — that’s Francis. He is definitely a Harry Caul–type character in a certain part of his brain.”

But Coppola also saw that, as a fellow “sound man,” Murch understood Harry Caul himself, leading to Much taking on more duties for the first time. Having worked with Murch since his 1969 feature “The Rain People,” Coppola was confident enough in his sound man’s abilities to task him with also editing the film. “The Conversation “was Murch’s first feature as an editor — though hr was credited in the film’s credits as “supervising editor” — but he also mixed the sound, receiving an Academy Award nomination along with sound engineer Art Rochester.

Unusually for its time, “The Conversation” unfolds in carefully constructed sound environments that change dramatically as the story shifts among its San Francisco locations.

“The opening in Union Square is very much a documentary scene,” he said. “It was shot with hidden cameras, and apart from the leads and a couple of plants, 90 percent of the people you see were captured in the moment. That gives a documentary-style quality to the sound.”

It’s also where Murch introduced the concept of digital distortion, years before digital sound was actually developed. He used it in the Union Square scene as two characters stroll through the crowd.

Walter Murch

Walter Murch

“When Cindy Williams and Fred Forrest were off axis, their voices distort digitally,” Murch explained. “Almost the first sound you hear in the film is that awkward kind of glitch.”

To achieve that glitch, Murch fed the actors’ dialogue into an analog ARP synthesizer, using a square wave to cut the voices into what he called “little sugar cubes of sound” that he could then manipulate in terms of speed and depth.

Murch presents Harry’s workbench in a largely deserted warehouse as a flat, two-dimensional space. “All you see is Harry’s face, the reels of tape, photographs, and his kind of memory of the conversation — which in itself is absurd because he never saw any part of it, he only heard it.”

A party in the lab with rival surveillance experts like Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield) and Harry’s former worker Stan (John Cazale) is treated as a more traditional, three-dimensional space. It’s a brilliantly written and directed scene in which Coppola weaves in and out of four distinct story lines. “Think of what Francis did with wedding scene in ‘The Godfather,’ tying together all these narratives,” Murch said. “He’s a genius screenwriter.”

Murch’s own editing decisions, about when to cut to a character or how to mesh shots as the camera moves, are crucial to the scene’s impact. But he downplayed his contributions.

“I would call it pianistic editing in the sense that, for that scene specifically, the visual score was all laid out by Francis in the screenplay and the actors and the cameraman,” he said. “My decisions as an editor and sound designer come down to whether to use the pedal on this shot, how fast to make this arpeggio — those kind of things. But, basically, 90 percent of the work was already done.”

Walter Murch

Walter Murch

Given advances in digital technology, it’s difficult to remember the limitations under which Murch was working. He had a maximum of six tracks available at a time for mixing, although he could augment those by pre-mixing materials. Microwave transmissions interfered so much with the radio mics they used at the time that he had to re-record the Union Square dialogue between Williams and Forrest at an adjacent park.

Luckily, Forrest’s new line readings let Murch edit the scene in a way that changed how viewers saw the characters. The editor also finessed the fact that Coppola ran out of time before he could shoot some 15 pages of the script.

“Francis said to me, ‘Well, Walter, put the film together the best way you can, and we’ll see if we need to reshoot,'” Murch recalled. “In the end all we needed was one extra shot to tie things together.”

Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” will play at Film Forum Jan 14-27, after which the new 35mm print will have limited runs in additional cities.

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