Walter Murch on sound and silence

For Class #8

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
 Office: 310-821-2792 Phone: 323-472-1164

 E-Mail: nhollyn [at] cinema.usc.edu

E-Mail: elizabethmoody [at] gmail.com



THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996)

directed by Anthony Minghella

edited by Walter Murch

Interview with Walter Murch by Michael Ondaatje (author of original book).

March 24, 1997.

Michael Ondaatje: Walter, I wanted to ask you about a reference you once made to silence in film and how it wasn’t until sound had been invented that there was silence in movies.

Walter Murch: We think of ‘silent’ film, but films are much more silent now than they ever were. In the old days before optical soundtracks — so, we’re talking about the period before 1926-27 — when a film was shown there was a soundtrack; but it was being generated live in the theatre along with the film. The soundtrack just never stopped it was either someone banging away on a piano, or a full orchestra. Anyone who has been to re-created screenings of Abel Gance’s Napoleon knows that there is music there all the time. So the idea of silence is something that emerged with the possibility of having an optical soundtrack running along with the film. That’s another of Bresson’s statements: ‘The soundtrack invented silence,’ and as such a very powerful tool; knowing how and when to use silence in the putting together of a scene. Whenever I look at the soundtrack of a film, I’m always curious about the two or three places in the film where I can reduce the soundtrack to nothing.

When I was editing The English Patient, one of the scenes where that seemed to be possible was the scene of Carvaggio being tortured. I remembered reading Curzio Malaparte’s account of his experiences during the war, and he said that the one thing that drove the Germans crazy was weakness. If you ever asked for mercy or showed weakness, they were so appalled they would try to force that weakness out of you by exerting even more cruelty.

There’s a moment in the scene where Carvaggio responds to the German’s threat to mutilate him and Carvaggio asks "Don’t cut me." I’d thought that, at that point, that Nazi major never really intended to cut Carvaggio, he was just threatening to cut him to get his secrets. The crucial moment was Carvaggio’s reaction to the threat. He asks again, "Don’t cut me" and the way Willem Dafoe performs that moment had more quaver in the voice. It was more abject than the first time and I thought that it might be at that moment that the major would have decided, ‘I’m really going to cut this person.’ Up until that point it had only been a game, but at the moment that Carvaggio exhibited this extra degree of weakness, the major suddenly got deadly serious. To mark that moment, I plunged the soundtrack into silence. What you had been hearing up until that point is a sonic environment which we had created to suggest the world above the basement room in which the scene takes place. So you hear shots being exchanged, people marching, airplanes flying, an ambulance going past and the basement room itself is full of flies. So there’s actually quite an active soundtrack, even though nothing you’re looking at suggest such a degree of activity. But at the moment that Carvaggio says, ‘Don’t cut me’ for the second time, all of this suddenly stops. In editing the scene I cut in silent reactions at that point because the two German soldiers know that Carvaggio has crossed the line. In fact, in the original performance, Willem Dafoe said, ‘Don’t cut me,’ and then immediately, ‘Don’t cut me, come on.’ He said the two things together. I split the two phrases so that when he says the first, ‘Don’t cut me,’ it sort of puts the bullet in the gun; it shows that he is weak. But the major keeps on talking and describing the torture, and then we deliver the second phrase which Carvaggio says with an even weaker tone. The phrases were split apart to intensify the effect of silence when it did happen.


Reprinted from Projections 8, edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohue, Faber & Faber, 1998. © 1998 by John Boorman and Walter Donohue.




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