An Interview with Walter Murch
Walter Murch is a film editor, sound designer, director, and amateur astronomer. His pioneering sound and picture work includes the films THX 1138, The Godfather, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The English Patient, the restored Touch of Evil, and Cold Mountain, among many others. He has been nominated nine times for an Academy Award and has won three Oscars. He is the author of In the Blink of an Eye, a book about the craft of film editing, and is the subject of two books: The Conversations by Michael Ondaatje and Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman. He most recently directed an episode of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars for Lucasfilm, and is currently editing the film Hemingway & Gellhorn, directed by Philip Kaufman.
David Thomson attended the London School of Film Technique. He has served on the selection committee for the New York Film Festival, and he is on the advisory board of the Telluride Film Festival. He has contributed regularly over the years to the Independent and the London Guardian, and to Film Comment and the New Republic. He 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 (now in its fifth edition); as well as Suspects, Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes: A Life and a Story, and Nicole Kidman, all of which are so hard to classify that they need to be read. Most recently, he wrote and delivered the BBC radio series Life at 24 Frames a Second.
This conversation took place one evening in December 2010 at David Thomson’s home in San Francisco.
DAVID THOMSON: You said a little while ago that you were unhappy about the world as it is at the moment, and god knows there is reason for that. Do you feel that American art culture, what have you, media, is organized in a way that can express that pain and that problem? Or do you feel increasingly that one of the most grievous problems is that we no longer have the forum and the voice where this distress can be expressed?
WALTER MURCH: Well, it certainly is expressed, covertly, anyway, in films like Roland Emmerich’s disaster operas: Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012. They are in a sense the descendants of the nuclear-scare films of the 1950s, which showed aliens invading from other planets, or possession films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers—stories which can be read as parables of the Red Menace or nuclear armageddon. The question is: how do you translate our problems, whatever they may be, into human—which is to say marketable—terms? At some level there is a truth to Godard’s quip “All you need for a film is a girl and a gun.” As big as our problems are—maybe because they are so big—at some level they have to be reduced to a girl and a gun to allow them to function within the marketplace.
DT: Do you really believe that?
WM: The girl and the gun?
DT: Yeah, or has the marketplace not broken down? I mean, Winter’s Bone has just a girl, and does pretty well, and has made money, relatively, speaking to its cost. Godard said a lot of striking things, like “Cinema is truth twenty-four times a second,” which actually are nonsense and anyone in the business or the art knows it.
WM: Maybe on a certain level they’re nonsense, but on another level they’re also true.
DT: Well, they’re commercial dictates—but do we have to accept it? Hasn’t the commercial system nearly broken down?
WM: I’m drawing with a very thick crayon to make my point. By the way, I saw Winter’s Bone the other day and I liked it very much. I’m glad it got made and distributed. It’s like a certain kind of exotic regional dish which I don’t think you’re going to find nationwide at Denny’s.
DT: Can you think of any film in recent memory, from mainstream America, that you would rate at that level? When you go back to The Godfather, say—one of the most marvelous things about that film is not that it was as good as it was, as interesting, not that it won the awards that it did, but that it was, for a moment, I think, the box-office champion. It was surpassed quite quickly, but it was an enormously successful mainstream film, which, whatever differences we might have about the quality of it, is dealing with very big, ambitious ideas. I don’t think Hollywood, as such, knows how to do that anymore, do you? Or hasn’t got the confidence to do it. Whereas I think American television does.
WM: But The Godfather worked as an indictment of big business and organized crime because there was a recognizable human story at the heart of it: kingly succession: “Once upon a time there was a king who had four sons….” And it had girls and guns—just not in the same frame.
DT: If you want to look to where the spirit of The Godfather goes, The Sopranos is the obvious case. I’m not sure that I believe The Sopranos qualifies as a great novel, but it was a pretty amazing sustained television show. And I wonder if, if you’re dealing with those big ideas and the big circuits, you don’t really have to go to television now.
WM: Well, actually, the next project I’m working on is for HBO, a script Phil Kaufman is directing about Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway. And you’re right—this kind of film is now mostly being made for television. I think we’re in a period, for the last decade at least, where the theatrical film marketplace is dominated by tent-pole films—tall trees that cast dark shadows on the ground underneath them. So it’s harder for little plants like Hemingway & Gellhorn to take root and grow: the big trees are sucking up the water and nu- trients. Incidentally, for the last decade, the majority of these tall trees have been second-growth: franchise films like Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and so on.
DT: Yes, who knows where it’s going? We are both of a certain age, older than we’d like to be, and you are, in every outward way, a success. You’ve done very well in your particular lines of work. Indeed, you’ve pioneered them in many ways. You’ve had the obvious rewards that your field can give you. Do you feel, inwardly, a success?
WM: Well, that question has several levels to it. The short answer: I’m happy. I’m busy thinking about lots of things; I’m warm, sleeping at home with my wife at night; and I’m doing interesting, unusual work. As a freelancer, though, I live with varying degrees of uncertainty about what will be next. It’s been like that for forty years at least. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. There’s a financial precariousness….
WM: The last two films that I’ve worked on, both by Francis Coppola, did not do very much business. Both of them were interesting films, however. So you know it’s that…
DT: But you would never dream of retiring?
WM: No, it’s hard to imagine retiring. I was talking about that today with one of the other directors at the animation studio where I’m working. He’s probably in his mid-thirties, and here I am not quite twice his age, and he wondered: don’t you think about stopping? I said no, and I think that made him happy, gave him a kind of hope. I recalled a similar discussion I had with Fred Zinnemann in 1976, when I was in my mid-thirties, and I asked him about how he got started. He really wanted to be a conductor. He loved music, and was born in Vienna in 1907, and you know all of this—
DT: That whole world.
WM:: —was quite possible. But he came to realize his limitations: “I loved music, but music didn’t love me back.” He felt he wasn’t good enough to be a conductor, at least at the level he aspired to. So he started thinking about his other passion, film—but his parents wanted him to be a lawyer. So he ran off to Berlin and worked as a camera assistant on People on Sunday, 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….
DT: The crash.
WM: He eventually made it to Los Angeles, worked as an extra in All Quiet on the Western Front, labored at MGM in the shorts division, and went on to become a well- respected, esteemed director: High Noon and From Here to Eternity. But I asked him: what’s the difference between what you’re doing now, directing, and what you wanted to do, conducting? “There is no difference,” he said, and I thought, Really? [Laughs] Because I saw a big difference. Just in terms of the practical realities: he turned seventy when he was making Julia, and here he was, get- ting up at four thirty in the morning and putting on waders, plunging into mountain streams, getting recalcitrant props in place, confronting the weather, convincing child actors to do what he wanted, dealing with big stars like Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, and coping with inexperienced editors like myself; all this while traveling around England, France, and Germany. By comparison, the conductor goes into a nice warm space and works with a hundred seasoned professionals who have played what he’s going to conduct many times.
DT: What’s your point?
WM: Well, I think it’s editing—rather than directing— that actually has similarities to conducting: We editors take something that is preestablished, the material that we’ve been given, and we orchestrate it into a shape that seems to bring out its best points and to diminish its weaker points. We find the right rhythm to tell it, and we’re in a warm environment, working for the most part with friendly people who have our best interests at heart.
DT: You see, I think that’s a false analogy, because the musician, a conductor, has the score: there is a given at the heart of the enterprise. I’m not saying that the score is always performed accurately, but essentially they attempt that. What I think is so amazing about editing is that, yes, you go into the editing room with the script that was more or less used in the shooting, but we all know that—
WM: It has sometimes to be reinvented.
DT: But even if the director believes that he shot the script accurately and favorably, you know that in the editing there are going to be things that worked on the page but don’t work on-screen, and the editor is discovering so much, and sometimes—you must have been through this on a few occasions—is producing something that was really not dreamed of in the scripting state.
WM: Another of my favorite Godardisms: “Editing is the transformation of chance into destiny.”
DT: Now, I’m not saying that the editor alone does that, because an editor will frequently work with a director or a producer or, you know, other people, and also the editor works with a set of machines that I think very interestingly have quite a lot to do with what happens in the rhythm in themselves, don’t you? Or is that an exaggeration?
WM: Yeah, I just—one last thing about the director/conductor comparison: Conductors notably live long creative lives, which is not so true of film directors. Mostly, conductors do not retire, and, in fact, they seem to get better and better, and then in the beginning of the second movement, on a downbeat, they drop dead. That’s the sort of life, or end, rather, that I’m looking forward to.
DT: You plan to drop dead at the end of the seventh reel?
WM: Well, let’s make it the ninth. But the other significant thing about conducting versus directing, especially as you get older, is that music encourages you to go deep. It’s an organism that has no skin—its internal organs are exposed to the air, so to speak. As we get older we become more and more impatient with superficial things, and we want to go deeper quicker. Music welcomes that. Instead, film definitely has a surface, a skin, a literal “film.” And you have to get the surface right before you can go deep. The color has to be just so, the light has to be at the correct angle, the actor has to have his glasses perfectly positioned, the brim of the hat has to be up, or is it down? Small things, but significant: If they’re wrong, they can derail the film. The surface has to be very carefully constructed, and then you can go deep. I think one of the things that sometimes characterizes film directors as they get older is an impatience with surface. And that frequently hurts their work because films have this inevitable specificity to them. It is this actor looking in this direction saying the lines this way, and all of those things have to be right in order to be able to get into the deep things. And one other thing: the audience for films are generally in their teens, twenties, maybe thirties—a time of life when we are hungry for surface. They want to know: How do I talk to that girl? How long should the points of my collar be? Clark Gable in It Happened One Night took off his shirt, and the audience was thunderstruck: he had no undershirt! It killed the undershirt business overnight. And so to a certain extent young people go to films for the surface, and they get the depth as a side dish. They are really there for the surface, and that’s the one thing, as you get older, that you become more and more impatient with.
DT: You touched on a lot of things there that I find very interesting. I think this is a version of what you were saying: I find increasingly as a watcher of films that the attempt to achieve rightness, correctness, to get it right, assuming that there was something that had to be done, I find that increasingly deadly and deadening, and I think the openness of the camera and the whole enterprise, to what I would broadly call accident or hesitation or uncertainty, I find that increasingly interesting.
WM: Me, too.
DT: And exciting.
WM: And I always have. I mean, that’s—
DT: And yet, I think more and more, our films are sharpening in a lot of things—
WM:: That’s one of the dilemmas of the digital age. It has forced out into the open a conflict which has always been present in filmmaking: the tension between spontaneity and control. Absolute control is something that Mephistopheles will soon offer up to the filmmakers of tomorrow: a black box which he will trade them in exchange for their immortal souls. What this box will do is allow you to somehow think the film into it without any intervening struggle with reality. When you’re done, you turn a switch, and it will play it back into your brain. Turn the switch the other way and you can make changes to your heart’s content. There are many filmmakers who would whip their soul out of their back pockets and grab that box and never look back. Let’s call them result-oriented. We can just glimpse that future—it’s just over the horizon. I don’t know how we’re going to get to it or re- ally how far away it is. But Pixar is already kind of a black box: it has complete control—there is no pixel in a Pixar film that somebody hasn’t deliberately put there. On the other hand, spontaneity: Digital technology has made it possible to make a short film in a day. You don’t have to deal with labs anymore. You don’t have to take the film to a mixing studio. You can just shoot it, download it, edit it, and mix on the laptop. Burn a Blu-ray and there it is: a cinematic snowflake whose molecules spontaneously take shape faster than crystallization can control. There are filmmakers who love this. Let’s call them process-oriented.
DT: Of course, a lot of kids use what I regard as nearly invisible screens and devices.
WM: Invisible because they’re so small?
DT: Well, they’re so small, and they use them really just to survey their world. They’re not interested in shaping it. They just like to be with the image, the screen.
WM: Reality-TV shows feed into that.
DT: Well, they do feed into it, but it’s just that kids like to see passing time, I think, and, there again, that’s a very basic thing in film which I’ve always found intensely beautiful. I love films where, ostensibly, apparently nothing is happening. Because it seems to me that it actually refers you back to the way in which the simple recording of time passing is a huge thing and a fascinating thing.
WM:: But the spontaneous “snowflake” film is where you have to abdicate control. If you’re shooting a film in a day, you can’t control the weather, the cars that pass by, the casting of extras, every detail of the costumes, and so on. It is what it is, but in exchange you get a fantastic degree of spontaneity—risky but spontaneous. The interesting distinction between the black box and the snow- flake approaches is the degree to which collaboration happens. And collaboration is the key to the filmmaking process—it’s what allows the film to be smarter than the people who made it.
WM: And taken to its extreme, the danger of the Mephistophelian black box is that there is no collaboration, that… it’s all coming out of one head. As Hitchcock said: “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.” Whether that’s absolutely true or not, I don’t know. But taking him at face value…
DT: Well, I think he believed that. I don’t think there’s any doubt.
WM: The problem with that approach is that you then have to decide, how much compromise will you accept? If you have the perfect film in your head, are you going to accept 10 percent less than perfect? Or 15? Where are you going to stop? But, by definition, you can never get the needle going in the other direction, on the other side of perfection, where something miraculous happens that was not planned. And that’s the great thing about spontaneity: the needle can travel both ways, and so to compensate for the “less than” you get something “better than”—more than you ever thought you could get. You don’t have to accept only a diminution. Which is probably why Hitchcock felt that shooting was so boring.
DT: But I feel in the culture now there is a tremendous appetite for something I would call coverage. Just constant, ongoing coverage which is not subject to the question of whether it is right or wrong or good or bad. And you know, for anyone who’s lived the history of cinema, there was a period when the public and the world took it for granted that movies were made by studios, by stars, by the system. It did not really understand direction. We then entered a period where the director changed his name to auteur. He became immensely powerful, sometimes inflated, and we’ve lived through that age. I think we’re certainly, and have been for a while now, into an age where the public is not really very concerned about who directed a film. I think that has passed, don’t you?
WM: Yeah, I think so. There are some exceptions.
DT: There are some names still which we know, but I don’t know that the public knows them.
WM:: The curious thing about the auteur theory is that almost instantly after it was laid out, it flipped to mean the opposite of what was intended. Originally, it went: within the American industrial filmmaking culture, there were occasionally directors who were able to achieve, despite the system, a recognizable continuity to their work. They were authors not because of their control, but in spite of their lack of control. With Ford and Hawks, for instance, you could tell that it was a John Ford film, you could tell that it was a Howard Hawks film. Whereas less-forceful directors were ground down by the system into anonymity.
DT: That’s right.
WM: Somehow, a 1950s observation about authorial signature “in spite of” flipped in the 1960s to the idea that the director must be the author, must have sole and absolute control.
DT: Absolutely, I totally agree.
WM: A curious thing. But it was the age of the singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and so on.
DT: Let me change the topic a bit. Again, a matter of our age. You have been fascinated by the workings of the brain, the workings of the eye, the workings of the ear, and you’re, I would say, unrivaled in your knowledge of those fields from a kind of scientific, nearly medical, as- pect. How are your sight and hearing and memory go- ing, and how do those affect your work?
WM: Well, I had a scare this summer where I got shingles of the trigeminal nerve.
DT: What’s that?
WM: Shingles, but along your jaw. Michael Foot had it.
DT: The politician?
WM: And as a result he went blind in one eye. Shingles of the trigeminal can cause you to go blind, and deaf as well, on that side of your face.
WM: And so it really got my attention. [Laughs] You know: what’s going to happen? Luckily, with the right medication, it subsided and didn’t affect my sight or my hearing. But it was a little brush with mortality.
WM: There is also that curious age-related thing of visual mapping: I can be looking at the very thing that I’m searching for and not see it. Where are my sunglasses? Or where did I put the recorder? And…
DT: But in many ways, an editor is enormously memory bound. Because you have to—I mean, certainly in the old days when it was physical bits of film—even now, you’ve got to remember what’s been shot in detail. You’ve got to remember the differences, which sometimes will be marginal—
WM: Very subtle.
DT: In takes.
WM: The pre-digital systems were so cumbersome that we had to develop support systems—mental scaffolding—otherwise it was just too overwhelming. Very early on I was working out primitive systems of note-taking on index cards, and by the mid-1980s I was using computers and database software to capture and retain notes and significant images relating to these subtleties of performance. Francis Coppola’s most recent film, Tetro, shot nearly two hundred hours of digital material—just slightly less than Apocalypse Now. So even now I have to find ways to coordinate it all. But in the pre-digital days there was a physical component: a minute of 35 mm film and sound track weighed a pound. Apocalypse Now was 240 hours of material, which—
WM: —worked out to be something like seven tons of film, and there it was in your room and down the hallway: you had to find some way to reach within that seven-ton mass and extract just the right one-hundredth-of-an-ounce frame. Now information is weightless.
DT: But the test of memory is still the same. You’ve got to know where to go. You’ve got to know—
WM: Nowadays we are more pixie-like in our ability to dance through the material.
DT: Now when you finish a film, you’ve been through a process—maybe the editing lasted a year sometimes.
WM: On average it’s a year.
DT: So for a year you’ve had this tonnage, or the imagery and the sound, in your mind, as present as you can make it. Do you find that within a very short time of the end of that film, it’s gone, or can you remember the detail of past films still considerably well?
WM: The fine detail does evaporate pretty quickly. And as soon as you embark on another film, it’s almost all gone. The hard drives in your brain are erased, so to speak.
WM: They may still be up there somewhere, but I have no way to access them. Because the new information is insistent upon being remembered. It’s very jealous of any other information that might still be in there. The end of a film is a very awkward stage which I still struggle with. Now, after many years of doing it, I recognize the symptoms of what’s happening. It doesn’t make the unease any less painful, but I—
DT: So talk about that. I’ve seen it with people involved in a stage production—a tremendous feeling of loss and pain when it comes to an end. Is it like that for you?
WM: There’s a phenomenon in visual neurology called “the waterfall effect.” If you stare at a waterfall for a minute and then look quickly away at the palm of your hand, for instance, it will seem to be—
DT: Like a waterfall—
WM: Like a waterfall—but flowing in the opposite direction. It’s a compensatory movement which eventually fades, but it’s fascinating while it lasts. I first noticed it as a five-year-old watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. For an hour the parade would be going by left to right. And when it was over, I would look down at the asphalt and be delighted to see the asphalt oozing right to left, in the opposite direction. Anyway, when you’re working on a film, your daily experience is that things are coming in from various directions and finding their places within the evolving coherence of the film. So on a daily basis you have this experience of things accreting and finding a coherent home within the big, complex molecule that you are creating day after day. “Here comes the new scene. Sync it up. Look at it. Assemble it.” You know? “Here comes the music. Here comes the ADR. Here come the visual effects. Lets find a home for this new idea.” And so on. After a year of doing that, your mind is completely habituated to chaos becoming coherence. When it suddenly stops—and it is extremely sudden—a film is just [claps hands] over. One day you’re working like mad, and then the next day it’s over. But then what sets in is a version of the waterfall effect. You look at ordinary reality and things seem to be coming unglued. Not literally, but metaphorically: coherence turning into chaos.
WM: I’m exaggerating for the purposes of making my point, but there is a feeling that lasts four to six weeks of “everything’s falling apart”—simply the opposite of “everything’s nesting together.” So if you look at the political situation, if you look at the mess you made of your breakfast, it all seems to be chaotic, hopeless…. [Laughter]
DT: Now, does that… does that feeling—
WM: It’s profoundly disorienting.
DT: I can imagine.
WM: Because you take it for reality. Now I know when to expect it, but I still feel it, like being seasick.
DT: You see, as far as I’m concerned, there’s a similar thing, in that I hate a writing project to come to an end, and, actually, I try to plan my life so that there is always something to take up. The thing that I am no good at at all is resting in between projects. I don’t know how you rest. Do you have that?
WM: A number of years ago I discovered this alternate strategy, which was to translate something. Because, luckily, I know Italian and French, and I have a passion for some of the writers in those languages. So at the end of a film I set myself the task of translating something into English. The first time I did this I thought, Wow. Why does this feel so familiar? And I realized that the internal chatter in my head was identical to the chatter when I’m working on a film. In a very real sense, they’re both translational tasks.
WM: Italian is efficient at certain expressions and inefficient at others. Do I recognize and respect that inefficiency and try to duplicate it in English, or do I find a more efficient English? But if I do that, then subsequent phrases are unbalanced, so I have to compensate. Should I use the literal meaning of that word, or should I use a more metaphorical one? And making a film is similarly translating from the language of text—the script—to the language of time and motion. We are translating from an art form—the screenplay, which is not temporal—to an art form that [claps a rhythm] has, like music, a time signature. And that’s a very different kind of animal. Should I use this shot, which is what the script calls for, or should I delay the moment, which would be better, given the performance of the actor? And so doing translation is, for me, a way to have a softer landing.
DT: Over the gap.
WM: At least it allows me to keep the machine going for a while and calm down in a more organized way, rather than simply cold-turkey shutting it off.
DT: Now, something occurs to me. You try to make order out of pieces of film, using the language of editing, but still it’s the same kind of process. I try to make order out of words. I would say, as some other people in my life have said, that I’m terrible at making order out of life. Are you an orderly person in life? Are you good if people come to you with problems? Their lives are untidy. I don’t know, your children maybe, or friends. Are you good at advising how to make an orderly process?
WM: No, I don’t think I’m particularly talented in that way. I mean, somebody else would have to express an opinion about that. But my own feeling about my abilities in this area is that I’m not really organized. On the other hand, my dad was a painter, and it was always a miracle to me to go into his studio and see this monumental mess. And yet he produced these completely…
DT: Very meticulous things.
WM: Meticulous representations of magical, still-life reality. What came out of the studio was highly organized. But the studio itself…
DT: Was chaos.
WM: Even to a member of the family it was chaotic. So, you know, I’ve compensated. I like my working environment to be very organized.
DT: I’ve seen you editing a little bit, and it seemed to me that you had very good control over your materials and resources. But now, I think I remember you saying, or I may have read it somewhere else when you said it, that you really are not very keen on watching a film being shot.
WM: That’s true.
DT: That you would much rather just deal with the film material. Why is that? What is awkward for you about seeing it shot, or is it—awkward might not be the word. How would you describe it?
WM: Well, it’s that the editor is one of the very few people working on a film who can be willfully ignorant of how it was actually made. The birth process is known to the director, the actors, the cameraman, the producer, the production designer, the costume designer, and everyone intimately involved with the sometimes-bloody—literally and metaphorically—birth of this material. We don’t call it “shooting” for nothing. But the audience doesn’t—shouldn’t—know any of this stuff. Parenthetically, that’s a whole other discussion: the emergence of the “making-of” films.
WM:: But setting that aside, when you’re watching a film, somebody has to deal with the film in complete ignorance of how it actually got made, because that is the way it is going to be seen. I try to keep myself as re- moved as possible, because I’m the ombudsman of the audience, looking out for their best interests. If you are the director and it took you an incredible amount of time and anguish to get a particular shot, you might invest that shot with more importance than it really has. It has to carry the burden of the effort that it took to get it. On the other hand, if I as the editor am not aware of that burden, I might look at the shot and think there’s nothing special about it. And occasionally I might be right. On the other hand, a shot that was grabbed just before lunch when everyone was having an argument: the director might dismiss it. Whereas I would say, “Ooh, in the right context, this shot could be magical.”