An Interview with Walter Murch

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A picture of Walter Murch and David Thomson is displayed, showing the two conversing. This is an illustration of the interview they had with one another.

Walter Murch is a renowned figure in the world of film, having edited, designed sound, and directed for projects such as THX 1138, The Godfather, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now,

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The English Patient, the restored Touch of Evil, and Cold Mountain. His talent has been recognized with nine Academy Award nominations and three Oscars.

He has written a book on the craft of editing, titled In the Blink of an Eye, and is the focus of two biographies, The Conversations by Michael Ondaatje and Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman.

Recently, Murch directed an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and is now editing the film Hemingway & Gellhorn, headed by Philip Kaufman.

David Thomson, who studied at the London School of Film Technique, has served on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival, and is on the advisory board of the Telluride Film Festival.

He has been a regular contributor to the Independent and the London Guardian, as well as Film Comment and the New Republic.

Thomson is the author of many books, including Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (currently in its fifth edition).

He has also written Suspects, Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes: A Life and a Story, as well as Nicole Kidman, which are all so hard to classify that they must be read. He recently produced the BBC radio series Life at 24 Frames a Second.

On a December evening in 2010, David Thomson welcomed guests to his residence in San Francisco to partake in a conversation.

David Thomson questioned whether the American art culture and media is arranged in a way to articulate the current distress and the pain in the world. He further asked if there are still forums and voices available for it to be expressed.

In films such as Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, there are covertly expressed warnings of potential disaster.

These stories can be interpreted as reflections of the Red Menace or nuclear armageddon, as seen in 1950s nuclear-scare films and possession films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The task is to create a way to represent our major issues in a way that is marketable. Godard’s phrase “All you need for a film is a girl and a gun” is a testament to this, as in order for the big problems to fit the market, they must be reduced to a girl and a gun.

Do you have faith in that being true?

ANSWER: The young woman and her firearm?

QUESTION:commented that there is a good success rate in terms of money for films with just one main character, such as Winter’s Bone. He then mentioned the famous quote of Godard about cinema being “truth twenty-four times a second,” remarking that it is actually nonsense and not a reality in the film industry.

ANSWER: It’s possible that they don’t make sense at first glance, but when you look deeper, they might actually be true.

QUESTION:queried whether they had to accept the commercial dictates, as the commercial system had almost collapsed.

ANSWER: To emphasize my point, I’m using a large crayon. Speaking of films, I recently watched Winter’s Bone and was impressed. It’s great that it was produced and shown in cinemas. It’s like a specific regional cuisine that you wouldn’t find at a chain restaurant like Denny’s.

When we consider The Godfather, it was not only a great movie that was acclaimed and honored, but it was also an extraordinarily successful blockbuster. It was a motion picture that dared to address significant, expansive ideas.

Do you believe that Hollywood is no longer bold enough to make such daring films, or is the industry lacking the assurance to do so? On the other hand, American television appears to be unafraid to tackle huge themes.

WM mentioned that The Godfather was an effective criticism of corporate and criminal activities due to the fact that it was based on a classic narrative – a king with four sons. Furthermore, the movie had both female characters and firearms, but never at the same time.

QUESTION: suggested that if one was to seek out the influence of The Godfather, The Sopranos would be the ideal case. Although they weren’t positive that it could be considered a great novel, they did acknowledge it as an impressive television series.

They then pondered whether, when focusing on substantial concepts and expansive story arcs, one actually had to resort to television anymore.

ANSWER: The next project I’m working on is for HBO, a script Phil Kaufman is directing about Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway. It’s true that films like this are now mostly made for television.

I believe we are currently in an era where the theatrical film industry is ruled by big-budget tent-pole films. This is making it difficult for smaller productions such as Hemingway & Gellhorn to be successful.

For the last decade, the majority of these big budget movies have been sequels to popular franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars.

QUESTION: It’s unclear where life is leading us – we are both rather old. Externally, you’re a great success. You’ve accomplished a lot in your profession, even pushing it forward, and you’ve earned the awards that come with it all. Do you feel, inside, that you have achieved success?

ANSWER: In response to the query, I’m quite content. I’m occupied with a variety of thoughts; I’m comfortable, sleeping with my spouse in the evening; and I’m doing an exciting, uncommon job.

Being a freelancer, however, brings a certain degree of unpredictability regarding what lies ahead. I’ve been living like this for four decades or more. It doesn’t suit everyone. There’s a certain financial instability….

QUESTION: confirmed affirmatively.

I had the opportunity to work on the last two films from Francis Coppola, but neither of them were commercially successful. Despite that, I found them to be interesting projects. So, it’s like that…

Would you ever think of retiring?

I was discussing retirement with a director at the animation studio I’m working at today, who is a young man in his mid-thirties. He was surprised when I said I hadn’t given it much thought, which seemed to give him a sense of hope.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with Fred Zinnemann back in 1976, when I was around the same age. I asked him about how he got his start, as he had wanted to be a conductor and was born in Vienna in 1907 – which you probably already know.

The entire universe.

ANSWER: was a possibility. However, he came to recognize his own boundaries: “Music was a beloved thing to me, but the feeling wasn’t mutual.” He assumed he wasn’t adequate enough to be a conductor, reaching the level he desired.

Thus, he began to contemplate his other enthusiasm, film–but his parents wanted him to be a lawyer. So he made a break for Berlin and found a job as a camera assistant on People on Sunday, a piece written by Billy Wilder and directed by Robert Siodmak.

One thing led to another, and Fred jumped on a boat and arrived in New York on Black Friday, 1929….

The accident.

WM eventually made it to LA, worked as an extra in All Quiet on the Western Front, and then went on to become a successful director known for High Noon and From Here to Eternity.

I asked him about the difference between directing and conducting and he said “there is no difference” – a statement that I found interesting.

When making Julia, he had to get up early in the morning and wade into mountain streams, handle props, deal with the weather, get child actors to do what he wanted, work with stars like Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, and manage inexperienced editors while travelling around England, France, and Germany.

Whereas a conductor normally works with a hundred experienced professionals in a warm location.

QUESTION: What are you trying to say?

ANSWER: In my opinion, editing has a lot in common with conducting – we take the footage that has already been recorded and arrange it in a way that highlights the strong points and tones down the weak ones.

We find a pace that works to tell the story, and we collaborate in a pleasant environment with people who want us to succeed.

QUESTION: commented that a false analogy exists between a musician and a conductor, as the latter has a score which is the foundation of their work. Though the score is often not performed accurately, the goal is to follow it.

In editing, one may enter the room with the script used while shooting, but it can be drastically changed, which is what makes it so amazing.

ANSWER: It occasionally needs to be rethought.

QUESTION: Even though the director might think they shot the script properly, the editor can still find things that don’t work as well on-screen as they did on the page, and they come up with new ideas that weren’t even thought of in the scripting process, which you must have experienced many times.

ANSWER: I have another favorite saying from Godard that is worth noting: “Editing is precisely when serendipity is turned into fate.”

I would not go so far as to declare that the editor is solely responsible for the rhythm of a film, as they typically collaborate with directors, producers, and other team members. Additionally, the tools used by the editor can also play a role in creating the rhythm. Is that an exaggeration or is there truth to it?

ANSWER: Yes, I was just about to mention that in comparison to film directors, conductors tend to have more lengthy creative careers. Unlike directors, they rarely retire and often appear to be improving as they get older.

Then, right when they reach the peak of their artistry, they die suddenly at the start of the second movement. That’s the kind of life and death I’m hoping for.

QUESTION: Is it your intention to expire during the last seven minutes of the movie?

ANSWER: noted that as he got older, he was drawn to music because it allowed him to delve deeper into the material quickly. Film, however, has a skin, a literal film, and the surface must be constructed carefully in order to reach the depths.

He also remarked that older filmmakers can become impatient with the surface elements, yet it is the surface that attracts the younger audience.

As an example, he pointed to Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, who shocked the audience by taking off his shirt with no undershirt – this single act destroyed the undershirt industry. Ultimately, it is the surface that entices the younger viewers, while the depth is a side dish.

QUESTION: There were a lot of engaging points brought up there. In my opinion, when watching films, the idea of having to get it right can be stifling and uninspiring. Instead, I find the openness of the camera and the overall process to what could be called accident, hesitation, or uncertainty more intriguing.

ANSWER: Same here.

QUESTION: The anticipation was palpable.

ANSWER: I have always had that attitude. That has been a constant in my life.

QUESTION: In my opinion, the quality of our movies is improving in many areas.

The digital age has laid bare the strife between spontaneity and control which has always been part of filmmaking. Mephistopheles will soon be offering a black box to filmmakers, one that can think the film into it without any intervention.

With this box, you can make changes to your heart’s content; some filmmakers would not hesitate to make the trade for their soul. We can see this future on the horizon, though we are uncertain as to how far away it is.

Pixar is already close to this, with its complete control over every pixel. On the other hand, digital technology allows for short films to be made in a day, with no need for labs, mixing studios, or any other middlemen. This is something process-oriented filmmakers love.

I believe that a vast number of children employ screens and gadgets which I perceive to almost not be visible.

ANSWER: Are they so tiny that they can’t be seen?

QUESTION: mentioned that the screens are rather small and are used almost exclusively to explore the surroundings. The individual does not attempt to manipulate the environment, but rather to simply remain in the presence of the image that is displayed on the screen.

ANSWER:Reality television programs contribute to the trend.

QUESTION: commented that kids are drawn to the passing of time in films, which he finds to be aesthetically pleasing. He is particularly interested in films in which it appears nothing is happening, as he believes this kind of slow recording of time is a huge and captivating concept.

ANSWER: With the “snowflake” film, you have to give up control of certain elements. When shooting a film in a single day, you cannot manage the weather, vehicles that pass by, the extras, and the wardrobe.

What you do get is a high level of spontaneity – though it is a risk. The difference between the black box and snowflake approaches is the extent of collaboration. It is this collaboration that makes the film greater than its makers.

Responding in the affirmative, DT affirmed.

WM suggested that the extreme danger of a Mephistophelian black box is that there is no collaboration, and quoted Hitchcock as saying, “I already have the perfect film in my head. I just have to go through the rather boring process of getting it onto the screen.”

While it is not certain if this is accurate or not, it was taken as truth.

QUESTION: declared that he felt certain that he must have held that belief. There was no doubt in his mind.

ANSWER: posed the query: How much of a compromise is one willing to accept? If a perfect film is envisioned, is there a level of acceptability that is below that? If so, how much? This can never lead to something better than perfect.

However, spontaneity provides a great opportunity for something more than expected; one doesn’t have to settle for less. This is most likely why Hitchcock found shooting so tedious.

QUESTION:: There appears to be a great desire for continuous coverage nowadays, regardless of its accuracy or validity. Years ago, folks assumed films were created by studios, stars, and the industry.

Then, directors began to be known as auteurs and they became hugely influential, and later, the public no longer cared about the filmmaker. Don’t you agree that that age has come and gone?

ANSWER: Yes, for the most part. Though, there are certain circumstances in which this does not apply.

QUESTION: Certain names are still familiar to us, yet I’m uncertain if the public is familiar with them.

The interesting thing about the auteur theory is that, shortly after its introduction, it was interpreted differently than its original intent.

At first, it was meant to recognize directors within the American industrial filmmaking culture who still managed to make their work recognizably consistent, even with the lack of control they had.

For example, a John Ford movie or a Howard Hawks film could be easily identified. On the other hand, the less influential directors would be lost in the system and their names would be forgotten.

Indeed, that is correct.

In the 1950s, the notion that an author’s signature should be present regardless of the circumstances became prominent. However, by the 1960s, the idea that the director should solely and totally control the work had become accepted instead.

I am in complete agreement with that statement.

The period was an interesting one, typified by artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and others who wrote and performed their own songs.

QUESTION: Let’s go in a different direction here. Taking into account our current times. You have exhibited a great interest in comprehending how the brain, the eye, and the ear work. Your expertise in these areas is unparalleled.

How is your vision, hearing, and memory doing and how has it impacted your work?

This summer was a scary time for me as I contracted shingles of the trigeminal nerve.

QUESTION: Could you tell me what that is?

ANSWER: mentioned that Michael Foot had contracted shingles, but in his case, it was along his jaw.

QUESTION: Who is the politician?

ANSWER: He was left with impaired vision in one eye as a result of the shingles of the trigeminal. In some cases, it can even cause deafness and blindness on the same side of the face.

A sound of whistling filled the air.

ANSWER: It certainly caught my attention. [Laughs] I mean, what could possibly happen? Thankfully, with the right medication, it was diminished and didn’t cause any damage to my vision or hearing. But it was a reminder of my mortality.

Without a doubt, that is true.

ANSWER: It’s a very peculiar occurrence when one is of a certain age that they can be in the exact spot where they left something and not be able to find it. For example, I can’t seem to locate my sunglasses or my recorder – where did I put them?

QUESTION: However, an editor must be able to recall a great deal of information. In the past, when film was used, it was necessary to remember every shot in detail; even today, when digital media is used, the nuances between shots still have to be clearly remembered.

ANSWER: Incredibly delicate.

It requires some time.

In the days prior to digital technology, the amount of data to be managed was so great that it necessitated the implementation of support systems to help organize it all.

I myself developed a system of note-taking on index cards in the early 1980s and then eventually moved to using computers and databases to store information.

Francis Coppola’s most recently released movie, Tetro, was shot using nearly two hundred hours of digital footage, a shorter amount than what was used in Apocalypse Now, but I still have to find ways of managing it.

Before digital technology, the physical requirements of film and audio were much greater: a single minute of 35mm film and sound track weighed a pound and Apocalypse Now had 240 hours of material.

QUESTION: A chuckle escaped from DT.

ANSWER: –calculated to be around seven tons worth of film, and it was situated in your room and down the hallway: you were forced to figure out a way to delve into the seven-ton bulk and isolate the particular one-hundredth-of-an-ounce frame. Now, however, information is weightless.

QUESTION: Nevertheless, the examination of recollection remains the same. You must be aware of the right place to go. It is essential to comprehend–

ANSWER: In our modern world, we have become more adept at gliding through the material with ease.

Once a film is complete, it is the result of a drawn-out process – the editing may take up to a year in some cases.

ANSWER: Generally speaking, it takes about twelve months.

QUESTION: After a year of having the imagery and sound of the film in your head as vividly as possible, do you find that the detail quickly fades away or can you still recall it with considerable accuracy?

ANSWER: The intricate specifics dissipate fast. And right after you begin a new movie, they practically all fade away. You could say your mind’s hard drives are wiped clean.

QUESTION: Indeed.

ANSWER: There’s a chance they might still exist, but I can’t get to them. What’s new is commanding to be remembered and it’s very touchy about any other data that may be stored. I’m still having difficulty dealing with the final moments of a movie.

After much experience, I am now familiar with the associated signs. This doesn’t make the discomfort any more bearable.

QUESTION: What can you tell me about that? I have noticed that people who work in plays can feel really upset and hurt when the show finishes. Do you experience similar emotions?

ANSWER: Visual neurology has a concept known as the “waterfall effect.” If you observe a waterfall for a brief moment and then immediately switch your gaze to, say, the palm of your hand, it will appear to be…

QUESTION: Flowing like a cascading waterfall–

ANSWER: As a child, I noticed a peculiar phenomenon during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. The parade was marching left to right, but after it was over, the asphalt below seemed to flow in the opposite direction – right to left. This inspired WM to observe that when working on a film, components come in from a variety of places and assemble themselves into a coherent whole. But when the project is finished, it’s as if things aren’t coming together anymore – as if the coherence is turning into chaos. This sensation is similar to the waterfall effect, but in reverse.

QUESTION: Affirmative.

ANSWER: In order to emphasize my point, I am exaggerating a little, but there is a time period of four to six weeks where it seems like “things are falling apart” instead of “coming together”.

So no matter if you’re looking at the political landscape or the mess you made at breakfast, it can appear chaotic and without hope. [Laughter]

QUESTION: So, does that emotion–

ANSWER: It’s extremely upsetting.

I can envision it.

ANSWER: It’s like I can anticipate it, yet it’s still unnerving, almost like motion sickness.

QUESTION: To me, it’s like I can’t stand the thought of wrapping up a writing job, and so I try to always have something to move on to. What I’m terrible at, though, is taking a break between projects. How do you manage that? Do you have a way?

ANSWER: A few years back, I came across a novel strategy: translation. I’m fortunate to be fluent in Italian and French, as well as having an enthusiasm for some of the authors from those languages.

As a result, after watching a movie, I set myself the task of translating it into English. On my first attempt, I noticed something strange – the internal dialogue in my head was the same as when I’m working on a film. It was as if they were both translations.

QUESTION: affirmed affirmatively.

ANSWER: contends that Italian is proficient in some phrases and not as proficient in others, which leads to the question: should one opt for literal translations or a more metaphorical approach when translating to English?

The same concept applies to filmmaking; the script must be translated to the language of time and motion, similar to how music has a time signature. WM then asks whether the shot should be done according to what the script calls for or be delayed, given the performance of the actor.

All of this is why translation is, in WM’s view, a way to make the transition more easy.

QUESTION: Jumping across the space.

ANSWER: With this approach, I am able to maintain the functioning of the machine for a bit longer instead of abruptly ceasing it. Additionally, I can become more tranquil in a structured way.

QUESTION: It strikes me that you attempt to construct a coherent narrative out of film clips by utilizing the language of editing. This is akin to my own attempts to make sense of words. As some people in my life have pointed out, I’m not very good at organizing my life.

Are you an organized individual? Are you able to help others who come to you with their chaotic lives? For instance, your kids or close friends. Do you have any advice for forming an orderly process?

ANSWER: According to my own opinion, I don’t think I’m especially gifted in this department. Others may disagree, but I don’t think I’m particularly organized. However, my dad was a painter, and it was extraordinary to me to go into his studio and see the immense disarray.

Yet he was able to create these remarkable…

Exacting matters are DT’s specialty.

WM’s works were characterized by their meticulously detailed, realistic depictions of magical still-life scenes. The final product was always highly organized, yet the studio environment itself was something else entirely.

It was utter pandemonium.

ANSWER: Even within my own family, it was disorganized. To make up for it, I strive to keep my workspace neat and tidy.

QUESTION: From what I’ve observed, you have a great handle on your materials and resources. I either heard you say or read somewhere that you don’t enjoy watching a movie while it’s being made.

ANSWER: acknowledged that it was accurate.

QUESTION: Is it more comfortable for you to just work with film footage? What is it that makes you feel uneasy about watching it being filmed? How would you explain your feelings?

ANSWER: stated that the editor is in a unique position in that they are one of the few people who can remain oblivious to the process of creating a movie.

Understandably, the director, cast and crew, producer, production designer, costume designer, and all of the individuals who are part of the film’s production are aware of the hardships that come along with it.

The audience, however, should not be aware of the process. There is a whole other conversation to be had regarding the production process, with the emergence of “making-of” films.

QUESTION: That is correct.

When I watch a movie, I strive to remain as impartial as possible, since I’m the audience’s advocate. As the director, if a particular shot took a long time and a lot of effort to obtain, it can be easy to overvalue it due to the investment made.

Conversely, I may not be aware of the burden and not recognize the true worth of the shot. Conversely, a shot that was quickly taken during a heated argument may be downplayed by the director, whereas I recognize its potential in the right context.

Could Be of Interest

It is possible to avoid plagiarism by restructuring text without changing the underlying meaning. This can be achieved by altering the syntax, grammar, and structure of the original content, while still keeping the same context and semantic sense.

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