May 9, 2000 | A good editor is a Jack of all disciplines: part musician, part magician, part physician, part mathematician, this man or woman must also have a sheer love of the craft, for his or her contribution to a film is destined to be only subliminally appreciated by the masses. How do all of these admirable and diverse traits combine to produce a cohesive motion picture?
So many abstract psychological concepts fuel the basic act of splicing shots together that talking about cutting is like dancing about architecture, to purloin a Frank Zappa catchphrase (and recently-discarded movie title). Walter Murch, who has edited films by Coppola and Zinnemann, among other giants, tackled the impossible question "Why do cuts work?" in his essential 1995 resource In the Blink of an Eye. Few outside of Sergei Eisenstein have answered it in so concrete and engrossing a manner as Murch. This legendary filmmaker has never been one to shy away from a challenge, as his cinematic attempt at "another Oz story," or his accepting the job of constructing the aggressively non-linear The English Patient, also demonstrate.
'95 was a good year for Murch; the release of Anthony Minghella's The English Patient set him on course to make history by receiving Oscars for both picture and sound editing. Since then, he has, to great acclaim, retooled Orson Welles's comic noir Touch of Evil according to the forty-year-old notes of its deceased director, edited Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, and supervised the digital remastering of his Academy Award-winning, six-track soundmix for Apocalypse Now. (If I don't mention it here, I never will: Murch coined the term "sound designer" while working on that masterpiece.)
As a film-school graduate and aspiring director whose favourite part of the production process is post, I was grateful for the opportunity to inundate Mr. Murch--an inspiration of mine from an early age (his Return to Oz deeply affected me as a child)--with questions about everything under the Hollywood sun. Of the special opportunities FILM FREAK CENTRAL has presented me over the years, this is my most cherished.
Our conversation was conducted via telephone on February 29, 2000.-Bill Chambers
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: How come you didn't direct again after Return to Oz?
WALTER MURCH: It was a combination of things: The film was ambitious and expensive, and then turned out to be neither a critical nor a commercial success, which is a heavy hit for someone's first directing job. There were a few reviewers who liked it--Mike Clark from USA TODAY--but most compared it unfavourably to The Wizard of Oz. The climate of the times just wasn't receptive to anything other than the MGM Land of Oz. Or at least not this other view, which was closer to the original books. Then, for a few years afterwards, I tried to get a number of projects off the ground, but didn't have any luck. So I went back to editing and sound mixing, which I love. I had a family to support and kids in college, and directing just didn't seem to be a way I could make a living.
Do you think you ever will [direct again]?
I don't know. I'm proud of Return to Oz and happy that I got a chance to make it, but unless you're extremely lucky in the projects you choose or how things fall into place, you really need a burning desire to direct for the sake of directing, and I don't have that. I was passionate about this particular story, for a variety of reasons, but not about the process of directing per se. And there were a lot of tough things about making Return to Oz, just given the nature of the film--full of creatures and special effects and animals. There was also a reluctance on the studio's part to support it fully--we were put into turnaround six weeks before shooting, and then there were two changes of regime at the studio while we were making the film. The people who started the project left and another group of people came in while we were in production. Then they left and the current regime took over.
I love the film, as you know.
Well, thank you.
I argue with people who are inclined to compare it to The Wizard of Oz.
Yes, but that's probably inevitable. We knew going in that it was going to be risky, but it had been 45 years since the original film came out, and I thought enough time had passed for a different sensibility to have a chance--to present a somewhat more realistic view about Dorothy and her life on the farm, and have the film not be a musical. Plus there were now whole new ways of doing special effects and creatures that I thought could be used to make something that looked and felt more like the books themselves, rather than the stagy, vaudevillian approach that had been taken in 1939. I definitely felt that if we had tried to really do a sequel, which is to say, do something in the style of an MGM musical, we would have been in even greater trouble, because there's just no way you can reinvent that particular combination of people, technology, and attitude, which really reached a peak in the late 1930s and never recovered after the war.
In 1985, Back to the Future was the kind of movie that people wanted to see.
Yes, as it turned out. You never know, though. We started down our particular road with Return to Oz in 1981.
Did you initiate the project?
I did. I had been approached by Disney in 1980--they had pulled my name from a shortlist of people who were doing interesting things in film and might someday direct. I went down to LA for an interview with Tom Wilhite--it was just a fishing expedition on both of our parts. But one of the questions he asked was, "What are you interested in that you think we might also be interested in?", and I said, "Another Oz story." I had grown up with the specific books on which Return is based, The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz--in fact they were the first 'real' books I ever read on my own. And Tom sort of straightened up in his chair, because it turned out, unbeknownst to me, that Disney owned the rights to all of the Oz stories. And they were particularly interested in doing something with them because the copyright was going to run out in the next five years. So, we went through the usual developmental phases: I wrote a treatment with Gill Dennis, they liked it, I wrote a script with Gill and they liked that, and eventually, much to my amazement, I was in England on a soundstage saying "Action!" with all of these Oz creatures around me.
Was it a difficult shoot?
Certainly for a first film, it was. There were 114 days of shooting, which is a lot, and the character of Dorothy, played by Fairuza Balk, is in almost every shot. She was absolutely great, a fantastic ally in the making of the film, but there are laws in England and the United States that limit the amount of time you can shoot with a child actor, so it put great strains on how much we could do each day. Add on top of that all of the creatures she was with--puppets and claymation and animals. That old adage about never making a film with a child or an animal: We had not only a child and animals, talking chickens and dogs and all of that, but also puppets, each operated by three or four people, radio-controlled devices, front projection, and claymation [for the nomes] that wasn't there at the time of shooting. All of the claymation was done in post-production, so when Fairuza had to act with the nomes, she was just looking at a piece of tape on a wall, having to imagine it as something else: the Nome King--we had done some drawings but, exactly how it was going to turn out, we weren't absolutely certain at the time.
Anyway, on top of all that, the studio was so unhappy with the material that they were seeing, and the fact that we were falling behind schedule, that after five weeks they fired me off the film.
That I didn't know.
Yes. I only got back on board because George Lucas, who's a friend, heard about what happened and flew to England from Japan, where he was at the time. He met with me and looked at what I had shot, then met with the Disney executives and said, "No, this is going to be great, you guys just have to be more patient with this process, let's see what can be done to facilitate it." And he guaranteed the rest of the production--he said that if something else happened, he would step in and take control. That was enough to make the executives at Disney feel more confident about what was going on, and I was back directing again after a few days. It was a fantastic act of generosity and commitment on his part.
Did you get final cut?
In a weird way, I did. I didn't have final cut, but the studio executives changed again--this film lived through two changes of management, as I said, so that by the time I was in post-production, there was a whole new management at Disney. And they were not really interested in Return, probably because it was so dark, and not a musical, and particularly because it had been started by an executive two generations earlier, and so they mostly ignored it after it did not do so well in previews, which was both good and bad. The good part was that I was able to complete the film I wanted to make, the bad part was that they didn't really get behind its release. Having said that, it was a difficult film to distribute, as we found out, given the zeitgeist of the mid-'80s. Maybe any zeitgeist.
Were you approached to contribute supplemental material to the DVD release?
Yes. I was in Italy working on The Talented Mr. Ripley when I got a call from somebody at Anchor Bay asking if I had any supplemental material, which I did. Also, there was a 30-minute "making-of" film. But in the end, I guess they decided not to include any of it.
That's a shame, because I thought it was ripe for a Special Edition.
Yes, obviously DVDs are ideal for this kind of packaging.
And the movie does have a cult following, so a Special Edition probably would have sold well. Are you happy with the DVD?
It's got more scratches and dirt on it in the beginning than I would like to see. It's very easy to clean that stuff up when you're making a video master, and I'm sorry they didn't do that. Otherwise, I'm generally happy.
And it contains the original soundmix?
Yes, they used what is now called the 5.1 mix. Return to Oz had a 70mm six-track mix which is what we call 5.1 today.
Was Return to Oz shot in 70mm?
No, it was shot in 35 and we did a blow-up. Which is the same as Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Indiana Jones... Back then, a 70mm print was the only way to get six-track sound on your film. Optically, you don't gain anything unless your original negative is 70mm.
Are you a fan of the DVD format?
I'm in favour of anything that improves the quality of the image and sound, and which allows you to get an entire movie on one disc.
Are there films you saw when you were young that really made you want to get into the industry?
They were mostly from the French New Wave, circa 1960: Breathless, 400 Blows, Jules and Jim. And international cinema in general: Bergman's The Seventh Seal, Kurosawa's Yojimbo, the films of Fellini, David Lean. Kubrick--I liked Kubrick a lot--2001 was made while I was in film school. I saw his earlier Dr. Strangelove in 1964 when I was in Paris, studying art history. I think almost all of us at film school in the mid-sixties were pulled there by what we had seen going on in foreign films. Hollywood was in kind of a down period. There were some good American films produced in that period--The Hustler, I liked, with Paul Newman, and Sam Peckinpah's films--but in general, Hollywood didn't feel at the cutting edge in those days. 1965 was right at the end of the old studio management. Some of the people who had started the studios were still running them: the Warner brothers, Sam Goldwyn. And the impact of television was still hurting, theatres were closing, multiplexes hadn't been invented. The first thing our teachers told us at film school was: get out now, while you can--which was a little dismaying. Hollywood didn't really begin to pick up until the early and mid-seventies, with The Godfather and Jaws, and then Star Wars, which were all made by film students.
People you went to school with?
Yes. I was at USC. George Lucas was there too, and he and I got together with Francis Coppola, who was a couple of years older than us, at UCLA, our rival school across town. Spielberg went to Long Beach State, Marty Scorsese was at NYU. Francis and George and I left Hollywood and moved up to San Francisco to start American Zoetrope in '69, because it just didn't seem like Hollywood was the place, at that time, for young people to be making films. At least not the more personal, European kind of films we wanted to make.
And now, of course, it's more than ever a place for young people to be making films.
Yes. Although there are very creative younger filmmakers who work outside the LA-NY axis. Linklater in Texas. Shyamalan in Philadelphia.
What do you think of what's being made today?
In general, I'm optimistic. I forget who--I think it was Tallulah Bankhead--but someone once said: "At any time, 95% of what's being made is junk." I think she was talking about film, but it applies as well to novels in the nineteenth century, or music in the eighteenth century--or anything else, for that matter. We forget, because the novels that we read are 'the classics,' you know, the great novels, but there was a huge amount of junk written in the nineteenth century. All of that has disappeared now, just melted away, so we focus on the good stuff that is left, and think that's all there ever was. With film today, on the other hand, we are aware of everything that's happening right now, all the mediocre and unimaginative and repetitive stuff, as well as the good. In thirty years, we'll look back and maybe be surprised by what has survived from today.
I remember in the early seventies--which is now looked on as a kind of classic, innovative period in filmmaking--our attitude was: "Well, this is nothing like the old days, we are not living in classic times, Hollywood is falling apart, but here's this opportunity--let's do as good as job as we can." Our general mandate to ourselves was to try and bring a more personal, European sensibility to the films we made. And, luckily, there had been changes in the executive management at the studios, they were looking for new directions and talent, and it happened that the lucky roulette ball landed on some of us.
Once The Godfather came out, and set a new box-office record, and then Jaws, which topped Godfather, and then Star Wars, which topped Jaws, those executives felt, "Oh, okay, so this is how we can do it. This is the new paradigm." And in typical management style, they attempted to codify the forms that experiment had produced, but discouraged the experimentation that had produced them.
Do you think now, with movies like The Blair Witch Project or even Being John Malkovich, that a more liberated [for lack of a better word] style of filmmaking is coming back into vogue?
Well, yes. I particularly liked Being John Malkovich. You know, though, in any year, there's always something interesting coming up. Whether it adds up to a new wave or not, I don't think we can tell just yet. Certainly what's going to happen is that Internet distribution and promotion of films, which has already had an effect with films like Blair Witch, is going to have an even larger impact in the years to come. In the next ten years it will probably revolutionize the marketplace. If we can get the transmission rate high enough to download DVDs off the Internet, that will certainly take over from video rentals and sales. How that will affect the kinds of films which get made and distributed is a very interesting question. You can see partial answers right now with Internet companies such as Atom.com distributing short personal films.
But I don't think people will stop going to the theatres. There have been ups and downs over the years, but it seems to satisfy a collective, emotional experience that people need no matter what. Looking at a film in the home is nice and convenient but it's a very different experience than going out with friends or family to sit with like-minded strangers in the dark and experience a film together--there is some synergy that happens in theatres that is impossible to duplicate in the home, for obvious reasons: Where would you put 600 people? Technically, I have no doubt that at some point fairly soon there will be a standardization of quality so that what you see and hear on screen in the theatres will not be any different from what you see and hear at home. It's already happened with sound, and it is on its way to happening with the image. But the one thing you can never have at home is 600 people sitting with you. Even if it's not 600, just the fact that you have left your familiar surroundings, paid money and taken a risk--really when you think about it, it's kind of strange: You're paying money to go sit in the dark with strangers and watch something you've never seen before. To top it off, the nature of film projection is such that for the duration of every frame on screen there's an equal amount of time that's complete darkness. You're not aware of it, but if you sit in the theatre for two hours, half of that time is spent in darkness. So there you are sitting in the dark, literally, with people you don't know, and yet having this collective experience--you know when it works, it's something that benefits the individual and society as a whole. It is the way we transmit myths and common reference points.
Even though I'm a big fan of DVD, I would still prefer to see something the first time on a movie screen.
There are certain kinds of films that absolutely benefit from being seen in a theatre. But there are other kinds of films where perhaps it doesn't matter so much. Also, the projection and the quality of the print need to be optimal for the theatrical experience to really work, which as we know is not always the case.
Let's talk about editing. On that note of the Internet and computers 'taking over,' I'm eager to know what you think of non-linear video editing systems, having flourished in the era of Kems and Steenbecks.
I've been editing since the mid-'60s, so I actually started out working on the Moviola, which is the old, old way--before Kems and Steenbecks were introduced to the U.S.. When we started Zoetrope, in San Francisco in 1968, we wanted to be at the cutting edge technologically, so we imported these so-called "flatbed" editing machines--Kems and Steenbecks--from Germany instead of getting Moviolas from Hollywood. Kems and Steenbecks allowed you to look at your film on a pretty big screen, through a rotating prism, in ten-minute chunks. The prism made the machines relatively silent in operation, and also allowed them to go many times normal speed. Whereas the Moviola is a kind of sewing machine on legs. It is a "vertically" oriented machine, with an intermittent shutter mechanism that makes a lot of noise, the screen is about the size of an index card, you have to feed the film in by hand, and it can't go much more than double speed. It was really only efficient at looking at twenty or thirty seconds of film at a time--a couple of minutes at most. I shuttled back and forth from Kem to Moviola throughout the '70s and '80s, depending on the project and the country I was working in, and then I switched over to digital in 1995, on The English Patient. I feel comfortable with the Avid and wouldn't go back--the advantages of working digitally are so great that they overcome the few limitations.
What are the limitations?
Well, ironically it has to do with the efficiency of random access. On the Kem, I would be constantly browsing for material, back and forth through these ten-minute rolls: that's how the film is stored--hundreds of ten-minute rolls. So I would often bump into material serendipitously: I would be looking for one thing and I would instead find something else that was much better. With the Avid, you get immediately what you ask for, like Aladdin's lamp. But you get only what you ask for, like Aladdin's lamp. Often, though, what you say you want is not what it turns out you really need. There are many amusing fairytales that elaborate on this theme. So the great strength of the Avid is also its weakness, as is frequently the case with many things.
Now on the face of it, there is nothing to prevent using the Avid like a Kem, stringing clips together into ten, twenty or thirty-minute virtual "rolls." There is a subtle but profound difference, though, in the way each machine processes the image: the Kem has a rotating prism, which means that when you speed it up, you still see every frame of film--all you're doing is making this prism spin faster and faster. And it's amazing what you can still see at ten times normal speed: blinks, subtle shifts in emotion on character's faces, etc. Whereas on digital systems, the frame rate is permanently set by the computer so that the only way it can speed things up is by removing information. If you wanted to look at 10 minutes in a minute, what the Avid does is show you one frame out of every ten. So really, you're not seeing 90 percent of the material. As a result, browsing through material on the Avid just doesn't feel the same for me. I use it occasionally, but it is not as satisfying or productive as scanning in the mechanical systems.
That's really the only disadvantage I have discovered, and I have developed ways to compensate. As I said, there are huge gains to the speed with which you can retrieve specific material and manipulate images and complex sound--you can get something in less than a second, whereas with mechanical systems, someone has to go and get the material. And it may be in another room, in a box, and you have to take it out of its box, thread it through the sprockets of the editing machine, and then run down to where it is.
But even in that complex procedure, there is a hidden secret, which is that the inefficiencies of the system forced the editor to plan more in advance. And it's a good thing to have an idea of where you're going. Whenever you're putting a scene together, you're like an explorer moving through a landscape about which you have only a rough idea--where are the mountains, and the valleys? By contrast, digital systems seem to say: "I'm so fast and flexible, you don't need to pre-plan things." But films are so complicated anyway, you really do need to have some kind of plan, an approach to the specific material you've got, beyond what's in the script. Otherwise, you can easily get into the middle of a scene and find yourself in a dead-lock, and then most of the work getting there is wasted. If you have a map to begin with, you can foresee some of the problems and avoid them before they hit you. Plus, the security of having a plan, a map, gives you the freedom to get "lost" in the material--I mean "lost" in a creative sense. I like to wander off the trail, improvise, and do things on the spur of the moment, but I need to know where the trail is so that I can get back to it, if you understand what I'm talking about.
I believe I do.
Another big advantage of the Avid is its great ability to manipulate sound. At the present time, you can have eight soundtracks running simultaneously, and that was just impossible with mechanical systems. The most you could really handle was two, maybe sometimes three, but with difficulty.
Are you performing a rough soundmix as you're cutting?
Yes. And we can load this off onto a Jaz drive and take it to a theater and run it in synch with the film. And then all the decisions that you make can be copied over to the sound editors to refine later on for the final mix. I'm working on an Avid, and I will hand over those mix decisions to the sound editors who are working in ProTools, which is now a division of Avid, so there is a great compatibility between the two systems.
Because it's less physically laborious, do you find yourself experimenting more when cutting a film on a computer?
A little, yes. But experimentation is more an attitude of mind, an openness. It's paying attention to the little voice that says, "What if you try this?" I've learned it's better if you pay attention to that voice: it always led to something interesting, even though the outcome was uncertain and it meant more work. But there's no question that it's easier on a digital system, and very easy to save all those experiments. Like anything, though, if you carry things to an extreme, it becomes a problem. If you have ten different versions of a scene, and you save them all, and don't commit to one in particular, you start to compromise the artistic integrity of the film. So, the crucial point is always finding the line between openness and commitment. A kind of "open closedness," creatively speaking.
What is the nature of your director-editor collaborations?
Oh, it depends so much on the director and the material. Generally, I make the first assembly of the film on my own. That way, I may come up with an approach to the material that might never occur to the director. It's like line readings: Let the actor come up with his own interpretation, and then the director can correct them as necessary. But if you inhibit that first approach of your collaborators, the film begins to suffer. We look at the assembly together, and then it depends--some directors, like [Fred] Zinnemann, almost never come in to the cutting room. He preferred to see complete screenings of the film in the theatre, and then confer in his office. John Huston was like that, too.
So you would prefer not to have the director sitting there as you cut something?
If I'm working alone, I find that I'm much harder on myself than other people are. What I mean is that it's harder for me to satisfy myself. If we're working on something together, and a director says, "That's good," I'll think, "Oh, okay, I guess we should go on to something else." If he wasn't there, I might keep on pushing and discover something that is even better--around the next bend, so to speak.
What happened when the situation was reversed and you, an editor by trade, were directing Return to Oz? Did you find yourself taking your experiences as an editor into the direction of Return to Oz?
There were good and bad things about having that editing experience. The good part was that I completely understood screen direction and what makes a more effective cut, and how to create interesting transitions between scenes, and things like that. Also what you might call visual economy--what you can get away with.
The bad part was that my editing experience led me to underestimate the importance of master shots, not so much how they work in the final film, but how they function during the production phase. It's an interesting point, so let me explain in a little more detail.
A master shot is usually the widest coverage of an entire scene--it can be extremely simple: just a static wide shot, like the stage of a theatre, in which the characters move about and speak their lines. It can also be very complex, with a moving camera and interesting staging--a classic example of this would be the six-minute Sanchez interrogation scene in Touch of Evil. If a director has shot something as brilliant as that, there is no editing to speak of: You just choose the best take and leave it alone. With ordinary master shots, however, the editor usually just uses them at the beginning and maybe at the end of the scene, if at all, to give the audience a sense of the scene's physical geography. So as editors, we don't have a lot of interest in that simple kind of master shot.
Now, the other thing to take into consideration is that in a film like Return to Oz, there was always something to hide, because so many of the characters were large puppets, or animals. So master shots terrified me because there's fewer places to hide things: if I simply did a wide shot of the scene, I would also reveal all of the puppeteers, the cabling, the animal trainers, etc. etc. So I started out shooting the action in bits and pieces, knowing how it would all cut together. Fair enough. But what I found was that by not doing master shots I deprived the production team--the actors, the camera operator, the art director, the costumer, etc.--of a sense of where they stood, and what was required of them beyond what I could explain. So a master shot has two functions: to orient the audience, but also to orient the production team, which is just as important if not more so. Shooting in bits and pieces, as it turned out, was one of the things slowing us down and resulted indirectly in my being fired. When I was back directing again, I started doing master shots even though they might be filled with imperfections--this was at George's suggestion, and it turned out great. Some parts of the master shots might turn out to be useful after all, but just the act of shooting them made everyone breathe easier. Now, when I went in for closer coverage of the individual actors and characters, each person developed their own sense of how it was all supposed to fit together--they didn't depend on me telling them--and the work pace increased significantly.
While I was shooting, the film was being assembled by two picture editors--Les Hodgson whom I first met on Julia in 1976, and who was one of the sound effects editors on Apocalypse Now. And Peter Boita, whom I did not know beforehand. Peter helped us get a first assembly, and then had to leave because of a prior commitment, so I set up a cutting room and started doing some work myself, mainly on the sections involving the Nome King, who was in large part an animated figure, done in Claymation. But I was nervous about having the necessary objectivity to be an effective editor.
Since I was obviously present during shooting, I knew not only what was shot but also everything "around" what was shot. As a director, you know what was to the left of the frame that you can't see when you just look at the film. You know what the mood was when such-and-such a scene was shot. The editor, on the other hand, doesn't know any of this, and that's good, because then he can make decisions based only on what is actually on screen, which is all the audience will ever see. Frequently a director will think, "Oh, we worked so hard to get this shot, it's got to be in the film." Maybe it's a beautiful shot, but not right for the film. Or vice versa: sometimes shots are done in a hurry and everyone's in kind of a bad mood. And so later on you don't think very highly of them. But an editor doesn't know any of that, and has the necessary conceptual freedom to take material and put it in a place where it can really shine.
So, I was nervous about doing any supplementary editing on Return to Oz, but I found that when I actually sat down, my editor's hat fit, so to speak. I was able to look at the material in an abstract way, as if I had not been involved, which greatly surprised me. I remember one scene in particular: Dorothy running around in the hall of mirrors. She was trying to escape from the headless Mombi, and she gets into a corner and can't remember where the door is, and we needed to shorten it. Since I shot it all, I knew geographically where the camera had been, but I discovered that I was able to take some shots that were geographically "wrong"--because of the mirror, the screen direction was flipped so the camera was in the opposite place to where it seemed to be--but out of context they were exactly what I needed in order to shorten the scene. Once I found I was able to do that, I thought, Okay, I am free to just look at the image--I'm not imprisoned by my memory of how it was shot. That was liberating.
At school, I'd done picture editing, sound editing, and sound mixing. When we started Zoetrope, I did the post-production sound for Francis's The Rain People, which was my first experience with a feature film. Kind of a one-man-band: just me all by myself, without any assistants. And then I did the sound on THX-1138, George Lucas's first film. Also solo. And then I did the sound on The Godfather, which was Francis's next film, but a big studio operation down in Hollywood, so I was no longer working alone: I was what is today called a sound effects supervisor, overseeing a team of editors and the final mix. Then American Graffiti, Lucas's next film, which we did back up in San Francisco.
When I was working with Dick Portman on Godfather, I had picked up his habit of voice-slating each reel: "Reel Four, Dialogue One," for instance, would mean "Dialogue premix one for reel four," and so on. Except he abbreviated it to "R-4, D-1," something he had picked up from his father, Clem, who had been the mixer on King Kong and Citizen Kane. You can see where this is going. One day I was mixing the second dialogue premix for reel two of American Graffiti and voice-slated it "R-2, D-2," and George, who's sitting in front working on the script of Star Wars, suddenly stood up: "What did you say?" "Ummm, I don't know.. R-2, D-2--is that what you mean?" "R2D2!!....What a great name!" he shouted, and went back to writing his script. The rest is history.
Before going on to make The Godfather Part II, Francis wanted to do The Conversation, which was a film he had written about a wire-tapper, and he asked me to be the film editor as well as the sound designer. I'd never cut a feature before, but I had edited documentaries and commercials, and he thought that it would be a good idea to have somebody putting the film together who knew what sound was all about, since that was the topic of the film. Since then, I've continued to do both picture editing and sound mixing for all the films I work on.
I love The Conversation.
It's a good one. We're just about to do the DVD. It won't be out until the end of the year, but we're remastering the picture and sound.
It will be technically 5.1, but we're not going to use the 5.1 environment aggressively, because that wasn't the way we made the film. The Conversation was done in 1974, in mono--pre-Dolby--and so we're going to respect that aesthetic. The DVD will use multi-channel sound, but not so that you would be really aware of it.
Were you involved with the Apocalypse Now DVD at all?
I had made a digital transfer of the 70mm mix in December of 1997, and that was the track that was used for the DVD.
Now that we're talking about Francis Ford Coppola, I'd like to clear up an urban legend: Is there really a nine-hour version of Apocalypse Now?
No. There's a five-hour version, but there never was a nine-hour version.
Especially now with the Internet, that rumour lives on. Is that five-hour version in a finished state?
It's the first assembly, with a few missing scenes.
Apocalypse Now was a tough post-production, right?
Well, it was long. It was the longest post-production of anything I've ever worked on. I was on it for two years--a year editing picture and then another year doing the sound--which is double the usual length of time. Richie Marks was on for almost three years. It had to find its way, that film--how to tell itself. It was particularly difficult because there was a lot of footage: one-and-a-quarter million feet of film, which is four or five times the normal amount. This was more than twenty years ago, before non-linear electronic editing, so just physically going through that material and making sure that you had the best stuff took a lot of time. I was one of a team of four editors.
I've heard The Conversation presented enormous editing challenges.
The first assembly was over four hours, so it was a challenge cutting it down to under two. Also, the production stopped shooting with two weeks' worth of material still left to do--they just ran out of money and time: Francis had to start preproduction on Godfather II. So he said, "Well, Walter, I don't know... Take the material that we've got, put it together the best way you can, and if we need to shoot anything more we'll shoot it once we can see the film together." As it turned out, we had to do just one extra shot, to link a couple of scenes.
The other challenge was to find a way to balance the character-study part of the film and the mystery part. Those are things that are not usually combined, and it was part of the whole aesthetic of the film to try to combine them: Hermann Hesse meets Hitchcock. It took a while to find the right balance. What we discovered was that when the film emphasized the mystery part, people were impatient with the character-study part. On the other hand, when we emphasized the character-study part, the mystery part felt superfluous. We had to find the right proportion of each, where the atmosphere was interesting and there was just enough story to allow you to follow what was going on. Another challenge was that the whole film is told from Harry Caul's point-of-view, and he's confused a lot of the time, so we had to make the film interesting and understandable, even though the main character is confused about what is going on until the very end. Then when he knows, it drives him nuts. You have to be able to appreciate that, enjoy that, without going nuts yourself!
How do you choose your projects? These days I assume you have, as they say, the pick of the litter.
The three factors for me are: the script, the people involved, and the schedule. An editor will wind up spending a year working on a project, so you'd better be interested in the subject matter, because if you're not, it'll be a long year. The second factor is the people--the director, mainly. If I've already worked with him before, there's no problem. If I haven't, then I need to find some way to get a feeling for our compatibility, so I spend as much time as I can with them, going over the script, and maybe talk to other people they've worked with. And then the third factor is to have enough time in the post-production schedule to do a really good job. That's not always the case: some films have tremendously tight post-production schedules. You have to be very careful when it's that tight, because it doesn't allow the film to find its own voice.
What length of time do you generally need to complete a project?
It depends on how many editors there are, but generally at least five or six months from the end of shooting until the film is in the theatres, including all the sound mixing. You can do the work in less time, just like you can cook things quickly, but the result tends to be like fast food--full of empty calories.
How did you become involved in the reconstruction of Touch of Evil?
It was a call out of the blue. I had given a lecture on The Conversation, at the Los Angeles County Museum, in the summer of '97. And Rick Schmidlin, the producer of the reconstruction, was in the audience. He just called me up a couple of months later and asked if I was interested in working on this project--and I was--and our schedules worked out. Rick is an independent producer, a Welles enthusiast, and a bit of a detective. He got wind of this fabled 58-page memo that Welles had written after he had been fired off of Touch of Evil. All traces of this memo except for a few pages had been lost, but Rick somehow found a copy of it.
So I wanted to see it--show me the memo! The other things that were crucial were the condition of the negative and the soundtrack. It turned out the original negative was in very good shape--that's not always the case, particularly for a film that's 40 years old. And Universal still had the 35mm magnetic master, with separated dialogue, music, and sound effects. That was essential in giving us the flexibility to accommodate Welles's notes.
Did you piece it together on film or video?
It was edited on an Avid. There was also digital optical reconstruction of some shots that had been damaged. The negative was in good but not perfect shape, so Bob O'Neil at Universal redid those sections using Photoshop-type techniques, getting rid of scratches and tears, old changeover marks, etc. Plus the challenge of removing the titles from the opening shot!
Again, was it a lengthy process?
The picture editing part of it took about a month.
Yes. Welles' notes were very good, clear and inspiring, and I was able to do the work at home, which was nice. I set up an Avid in the barn next to my house, where I had also done The English Patient. The sound editing, the cleaning up of the soundtracks, was done at Universal Studios, and then the final mix of the master track, this new master track, took about five days, also at Universal. All in all, I was involved with the film for about eight weeks, but three of those weeks I wasn't working. The digital repairs on the image took longer--probably about seven months, but it was done on a piecemeal basis because they couldn't afford to monopolize an optical house. It was just done as and when they could afford it.
Is it coming out on DVD at any point?
I've been anxious to own that disc.
Will you be involved in that in any capacity?
I hope they will show me a version of it before the final mastering.
What kind of home theatre set-up have you got?
Nothing much. Oddly, I don't have cable or even an antenna. I have a monitor, a VCR and a DVD player... But my sound system is just a Sony, a mid-level consumer item. I spend so much of my life at the professional high-end of things that I almost ignore it when I come home. The shoemaker's children go without shoes.
Do you know what your next project is going to be?
I don't, other than this remastering of The Conversation, which is not an involved process--it'll maybe take two or three weeks. I'm reading scripts at this point, but I don't know what's next.
Thanks so much for your time!
Post-script: A few months after our interview, Mr. Murch advised me of his latest project, an expanded version of Apocalypse Now. "We have gone in to the 2,000,000 feet of negative stored in limestone vaults back east," Murch says. "We're reconstructing from scratch some of the scenes that were cut from the film back in 1978, and hope to include them in a new version to be completed later this year." The film's devotees have long awaited an extended edition, and I, for one, am thrilled.