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Interview: Walter Murch

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Interview: Walter Murch

From Editing Techniques with Final Cut Pro, by Michael Wohl

Walter Murch is one of the most admired and respected editors of our time. His inspiring book, In the Blink of an Eye, is a definitive theoretical text on editing. More than just a great film editor, he is also one of the most renowned sound mixers in the history of cinema. His editing credits include The Conversation, Julia, Apocalypse Now, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, American Graffiti, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The English Patient (for which he won an unprecedented double Oscar for sound and picture editing). His credits as a writer and director include the dark, moving (and woefully underrated) Return to Oz. He took time out from cutting Kathryn Bigelow's K-19: The Widowmaker for this interview.

Michael Wohl: What do you think makes the film medium unique?

Walter Murch: I think every age has a medium that talks to it more eloquently than the others. In the 19th century it was symphonic music and the novel. For various technical and artistic reasons, film became that eloquent medium for the 20th century. It's partly because cinema synthesizes all of the arts: it's photography, and in a certain sense painting, and it's theater, and it's architecture, music, and the novel--all rolled up into one. And then--at its best--it has become something else which synthesizes and transcends all of its parts.

How do you think the lower cost of technology is going to affect the industry?

People become excited about any new technology, particularly when the cost becomes significantly more affordable. A tool like Final Cut Pro, for instance, is at least an order of magnitude less expensive than the Avid. Ultimately, I'm not sure where it will go. Film editing is now something almost everyone can do at a simple level and enjoy it, but to take it to a higher level requires the same dedication and persistence that any art form does. The price of the ticket to get into the park is now much lower than it has been, but the cost of the ride is still ultimately very high in terms of time and dedication. I am excited that there is now the opportunity to give film students copies of uncut dailies from professional films, so that they can practice their craft on top-quality material and then compare their results with the finished film.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing independent filmmakers right now?

Finding innovative ways to take advantage of the new forms of distribution. By which I mean the Internet--both as a way to publicize the work and a means by which that work can be distributed. Distribution has been the bugaboo of independent films. You can always make a film somehow. You can beg, borrow, steal the equipment, use credit cards, use your friends' goodwill, wheedle your way into this or that situation. The real problem is, how do you get people to see it once it is made?

What do you like most about editing and sound design?

At a very early age I fell in love with the tape recorder. What I loved about it (and this is true about film editing now) is that you could instantly capture a fragment of reality, and then you could manipulate that fragment and juxtapose it with other fragments in unpredictable ways. That was intoxicating to me in the early 1950s, and it still is in the early 21st century. I also love the collaboration, working with other people, and I'm very interested in emerging technology, how it can be applied, and how parts of the old technology can be maintained and integrated into these new systems.

Can you think of specific examples of problems you face in the editing room?

Well, on a certain level there's always the basic question of "How do you put the shots together?" Like every editor, I have to find ways to choose the right material, and to cut to the right shot at the right time, and be on the right character at the right moment, and make action scenes dynamic and interesting, and come in on schedule, and all that kind of stuff. But those are not primary issues for me any more. I suppose it is a little like learning how to play a musical instrument: Once you get past the issues of fingering and learning how to read a score, you don't think about them so consciously.

The things that I do struggle with are the issues of structure, length, and what you might call redundancy. The moving image is inherently redundant: Twenty-four times a second it's the same image, but slightly different. That's a metaphor for the whole process, because the art director will read the script and interpret the characters and the situation with set construction. The cinematographer does the same thing with light. The camera operator does the same thing with framing and camera movement. Actors do the same thing with how they act, how they speak the lines. The costumer does the same thing with the costumes.

For instance: Because of something the art director did in scene 3, you may find that the audience already understands something about a certain character. "Oh, if he owns that kind of entertainment center, then I know exactly how much money he makes." So we don't need a later scene about how much money he makes. Nonetheless, that other scene might get shot, and it's only when you see the whole film put together that you realize the extent and nature of all of these kinds of redundancies. Then it becomes a question of what and where to eliminate, at ever more subtle levels.

When you're cutting an individual scene, does that same sort of mentality apply? Eliminating redundancies?

Exactly. It's kind of a fractal situation. How long do you hold this shot? Is that look redundant given the fact that the character gave a similar look just before? You don't see all these things immediately. They reveal themselves over time. Looking at a first assembly is kind of like looking at an overgrown garden. You can't just wade in with a weed whacker; you don't yet know where the stems of the flowers are. So you have to gently go through and discover, "OK, that's a weed, that's a weed, there's a flower." Then you start to see the outlines of the garden, and you discover that it might look better if these flowers were over on the left side where they'll get more sun. Then you start transposing, and things start to get interesting.

How do you go about cutting a long rough cut down to final size?

You need the time to find all of the redundancies. On The Conversation, which was the first film that I edited, our rough cut was four and half hours long. And a wonderful one hour, 52 minute film came out of it. But we spent a long time getting it down to that length, and had to jettison many things that seemed at the time to be important parts of the script. So it's not that it cannot be done, but it will take time, and you're putting the patient (the film) at risk. And you're naturally kind of depressed at all of the work that went into the things you are now taking out.

Any advice for young editors?

When you're starting out in your career, pay close attention to the material you decide to work on. You may not be able to be selective yet, but ultimately don't be afraid to turn things down. There's a common fear that if you turn a certain project down, you'll never work again. But I think what's more to the point is that if you take whatever comes your way without really looking at it, you're potentially chaining yourself to something that doesn't suit you. And therefore you won't be able to do your best work on it, and the result may damage your reputation.

You also have to realize that most of the time you're in the same room with somebody--the director--whose baby this really is. It's not your baby. Well, part of it is, and you have to take responsibility for that part, but there's a good deal of a certain kind of psychoanalysis that goes on in the editing room, in which you're finding ways to ask the director, "What were you trying to get at here?" And beyond that: "Why are you trying to get at this?" You have to develop a feeling for knowing how to ask those questions, because some directors will respond favorably and some might resent it. This applies to many film jobs, not just editing: Half the job is doing the job, and the other half is finding ways to get along with people and tuning yourself in to the delicacy of the situation.

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