Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Part 1

A few weeks ago, the Academy Awards were wracked with controversy. I speak, of course, of the decision not to air several important categories during the broadcast, among them Best Film Editing and Best Sound. Nothing else of note occurred during the ceremony. Anyway, by pure coincidence, I happened to be reading a book about just how important Film Editing can be.

During the making of The English Patient, the author who wrote the book the movie was based on, Michael Ondaatje, was able to observe the whole process. He met the editor of the film, Walter Murch, and the two became friends. Ondaatje became fascinated with film editing, sound, and sound editing, and decided to write a book about those subjects with Murch. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film basically consists of several in-depth interviews with Ondaatje and Murch. For the uninitiated, Murch is something of a legend in the Editing community. He doesn’t have the cache that the directors he worked with have, but you’ve almost certainly seen (or heard) his work. Between editing and sound, he’s worked on all three Godfather movies, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti, The English Patient, and the famous re-edit of Touch of Evil, amongst others.

It’s a fascinating book and recommended for those who want to understand the lesser discussed aspects of filmmaking. I took note of interesting passages and discussions throughout the book, which we’ll cover now. The first concerns the interrogation (and torture) scene from The English Patient. It was apparently a particularly grueling shoot for the actors, so there was a lot of footage to work with.

And what did Walter Murch do with this scene?

Well, he had been reading the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte on the “Nazi character,” and he plucked from his reading the fact that the Nazis hated any demonstration of weakness. This idea was certainly not in my original paragraph, not in Minghella’s script, nor in any of the hundred minutes of footage that had been shot and that somehow had to be cut down to a nerve-racking three or four minutes. Every scene, every film, for Murch, needs to have a larger science of patterns at work within it, and this would be the idea or concept that governed how he cut the scene.

At one point Caravaggio/Dafoe says, before he even sees the razor, “Don’t cut me.” He says it once. Walter has the interrogator pause in his questioning when he hears this, extending the time of his response. He has threatened the spy with the idea of cutting off his thumbs, but only in a casual, not serious, way. When Caravaggio says, “Don’t cut me,” the German pauses for a second, a flicker of disgust on his face. The interrogation continues. Walter found another take of Dafoe’s line, this one with more quaver in the voice, and decided to put it in again, a few seconds later. So Dafoe repeats his fear. And now time stops.

We see the look on the German. And now we know he has to do what he was previously just thinking about. To emphasize this, Murch, at that very moment, pulls all the sound out of the scene, so there is complete silence. And we, even if we don’t realize it as we sit in the theatre, are shocked and the reason is that quietness. Something terrible has been revealed by the spy, about his own nature, and now something terrible is going to happen.

Page xx

But sure, editing isn’t important enough to reward on the broadcast. Apparently Murch liked to quote French filmmaker Robert Bresson to the effect that a film is born three times – in the writing of the script, in the shooting, and in the editing. In the case of The English Patient, there was also a fourth, which was Ondaatje’s original novel. The above anecdote, about Murch injecting a repeated line that wasn’t in the script and wasn’t shot, is a good example of Bresson’s notion.

Willem Dafoe in The English Patient

In discussing a re-edit he did for Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, Murch makes a fascinating observation about the perceived length of a film:

M: … Linearity does sometimes present its own problems, however, particularly regarding a film’s perceived length. That was true with The Coversation, and The Talented Mr. Ripley as well. Those three films are told from the point of view of the central character: the Apostle, Harry Caul, Tom Ripley. FIlms with a single point of view are on borrowed time if they are more than two hours long. Since there’s only one point of view, there’s no relief if the audience is not one hundred percent with the film, and it can subsequently seem too long even if it isn’t objectively so.

O: When you say point of view, in terms of film, you’re talking about focusing on just one character –

M: In The Talented Mr. Ripley, everything the audience sees is either Tom Ripley or something Tom Ripley sees. There are no scenes where we go off with other characters – as is always happening in The English Patient, for instance, where you have a complex dance, different people with different attitudes to the same events. But Ripley is about Tom Ripley. Likewise The Apostle – there’s only the Apostle’s story.

O: And that’s deadly, you think?

M: No, no, it’s not deadly, it’s just that the clock runs faster with that kind of film, and unless there’s something wildly unusual or different about it, it’s better not to have those films be more than two hours long. The Conversation is only one hour, fifty-two minutes. Even then, some people think it’s too long. With more points of view, you can sustain that juggling act for longer, just because it’s richer and more complex. A symphony can be longer than a sonata.

Pages 33-34

Not so much editing, but more on framing:

I’ve never thought about it quite like that, but as I get older, I do seem to keep thinking that a given movie (or book) is too long. This sort of perception could certainly play a role, and I’ll have to keep it in mind.

It’s a rule, of course, that normally you never allow anyone to look into the camera unless you want to “break the frame” and have the characters directly address the audience, usually for laughs.

Yet in Apocalypse Now, you’re right, actors look into the camera quite often and it seems to integrate effortlessly into the flow of the film. … In that briefing scene where Willard gets his mission, the characters are looking straight at the camera when they talk to Willard. If they are doing that, the mathematically correct thing would be to have Willard looking at the camera too. Instead he’s looking to the left side of the lens, which is correct according to conventional film grammar. Yet you never feel the general is looking at the audience: you believe he’s looking at Willard. But when Willard finally does look at the camera, at the end of the scene, you feel he’s looking at us – at the audience – and thinking: Can you believe this?

Pages 70-71

Again, there’s not editing here because Coppola apparently never shot the scene in a conventional way, but it’s interesting nonetheless. It speaks to the collaborative nature of filmmaking though, and Murch has some interesting thoughts there too:

M: … How do you get 150 temperamental artistic types to work together on the same project, and make something that not only comes in on schedule, on budget, but that has an artistic coherence. It’s simply beyond the ability of a single person, a director or a producer, to cause that to happen by any series of direct commands. It’s so complicated that it just can’t be done. The question is: How does it happen?

If you’ve ever remodelled a house, you’ll know how difficult it is even to get four or five carpenters to agree on anything: billions of people have been building houses, for thousands of years – “houseness” should almost be encoded in our DNA. And yet when you remodel, it’s very common to go double over budget and schedule. By comparison, we’ve only been making films for a hundred years, and a film crew is made up of sometimes hundreds of people, yet somehow, miraculously, at the end of “only” a year, there is, one hopes, a wonderful, mysterious, powerful, coherent, two-hour-long vision that has no precedent – and the more original the vision, the more the process is amazing. And yet studios are furious with us if we go ten percent over budget and schedule!

Pages 84-85

As someone who is currently working on some large scale software development efforts, I can say there’s something similarly complicated going on there. It turns out that predicting effort, predicting the future, is kinda difficult, especially as a project grows in size and scope.

Murch also does a lot of sound editing, and there are similar dynamics at work:

M: … Not having music also gives the emotional effect of not cutting away.

When music makes an entrance in a film there’s the emotional equivalent of a cutaway. Music functions as an emulsifier that allows you to dissolve a certain emotion and take it in a certain direction. When there’s no music, the filmmakers are standing back saying, simply, Look at this. Without appearing to comment.

Page 103

One of the observations Murch and Ondaatje make about The Godfather is that the music almost always punctuates at the end of the scene.

The Godfather

For instance, the scene at the restaurant is mostly played quietly, without music, until the deed is done and Michael is walking away.

M: And also all this is predicated on Francis’s decision to not have music during the scene. In the hands of another filmmaker, there would be tension music percolating under the surface. But Francis wanted to save everything for those big chords after Michel’s dropped the gun. Even after he shoots, there’s silence, and in your mind you hear Clemenza saying, “Remember, drop the gun. Everyone will be looking at the gun, so they won’t look at your face.” So Michael shoots them and then there’s this moment of silence and then he drops the gun.

O: He doesn’t even drop it, he tosses it! It’s a much more extraordinary gesture than a subtle drop.

M: Yeah, as if to say: Look at this gun! The gun hits the ground, and then the music finally comes in. It’s a classic example of the correct use of music, which is a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than a device that creates the emotion. …

Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids. There’s no question that you can induce a certain emotion with music – just like steroids build up muscle. It gives you an edge, it gives you a speed, but it’s unhealthy for the organism in the long run.

Page 122

Music is often overused or used as a crutch for removing ambiguity from a scene and heightening the emotion, but ambiguity can be a good thing…

O: It’s an odd thing: I’ve heard you talk before about the importance of ambiguity in film, and the need to save that ambiguous quality which exists in a book or painting, and which you think a film does not often have. And at the same time in a mix you are trying to “perfect” that ambiguity.

M: I know. It’s a paradox. And one of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or the actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix – even though it had been ambiguous up to that point – I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of haemorrhaging of the organism.

Page 105

In case you can’t tell, Murch is something of a renaissance man, and that comes out in these conversations, like this one about seiche tones:

M: I did think of an experiment which would be fascinating to do. To record the bell tone – the carillon, in fact – of San Francisco Bay. Every body of water – it doesn’t matter whether it’s a puddle or Lake Superior – has what they call a seiche tone. Even if you can’t see it, the water is vibrating, undulating at a resonant frequency that is keyed to the size of the body of water. San Francisco Bay I think has a seiche tone of one hour and forty three minutes. A wave will cross the bay and then come back in that time period. These are very large waves, undetectable by our normal senses.

On top of that are the waves – the chop – that we can see, and then little micro-waves that are just part of the texture of the water. If you set up a pole at some point in the bay, and has a laser beam that reflected off the surface of the water and continuously measured the distance between the tip of the beam and the surface of the water, you would be plotting a series of curves. You could print that out as a series of wave forms, like the record of an earthquake seismograph. One of the wave forms would be this big seiche tone, which would vary over a long period of time, hours. Others would be quicker and more obvious.

Now you can take that wave form and speed it up and render it audible as a series of tones. I don’t know what it would sound like, but the bay would have a (hums) tone. Then superimposed on that would be all these other tones of the smaller and smaller waves. It would be some kind of music.

Page 110

Jeeze, why didn’t I think of that?

M: … Renoir in particular was extremely interested in realistic sound. He went so far in one direction that he almost came around the other side. There’s a wonderful quote by him where he says that dubbing – replacing the original sound with something else – is an invention of the devil and that if such a thing had been possible in the thirteenth century, the practitioners would have been burned at the stake for preaching the duality of the soul!

Renoir felt that a person’s voice was an expression of that person’s soul, and that to fool around with it in any way was to do the devil’s work. The devil is frequently represented as having a voice at odds with what you see. In The Exorcist, the voice that the girl speaks with is not her own voice. This idea of devilry and duality and dubbing, there’s something to be explored there.

Page 113

I don’t think Renoir would have liked the Italian filmmaking of the 70s.

M: … At a certain point during the editing of The Godfather, Francis cut it down to two hours and twenty minutes. But it was clear it didn’t work at that length. Then, when we restored the length, somehow, having gone down so deep, it didn’t come back exactly to where it was before – we had learned things by going that far.

Page 130

Interesting how taking things to extremes can recontextualize the whole process and result in something better.

O: You developed a wonderful theory about editing a few years ago, in your book In the Blink of an Eye: that often the best place to cut from one shot to another coincides with the actor’s blinking, especially if the actor is good – since a blink naturally signals a closure to a thought.

M: From my early editing experiences I became convinced that there was a connection between the patterns of a person’s eye blinks and the patters of their thoughts. That blinks are the equivalent of mental punctuation marks – commas, periods, semicolons, et cetera – separating and thus providing greater articulation to our thoughts. I owe the equation Cut = Blink to the director John Huston – he put forth the idea in an interview with Louise Sweeney in the early 1970s.

The upshot of all this is that I believe the pattern of cuts in a film, to be at its best, needs to reflect or acknowledge the pattern of thoughts of the characters in the film – which ultimately means the thought patterns of the audience. In arranging the sequence of shots, the editor is in effect “blinking” for the audience, and the resulting cuts will seem most natural and graceful when they fall where the blink would fall in an exchange between two people in conversation.

Pages 141-142

This seems like the sort of thing most of us would notice subconsciously, but because an editor has such a difficult job, it has to be more conscious.

I’ll end this post here for now, but there’s plenty left in the book to cover, which I’ll save for next week….

1 thought on “Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Part 1”

  1. Pingback: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Part 2 - Kaedrin Weblog

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