Walter Murch Talks About Formulating Ideas

For Class #2

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
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Walter Murch : The Editor's Approach To Material

Interviewed by Paula Parisi for EditorsNet

Wednesday December 22, 1999, 12:10 AM PST

The best editing does not call attention to itself and neither does Walter Murch. Soft-spoken and deeply philosophical, the renowned sound and picture editor could shamelessly flout credits that include "American Graffiti" and "The Godfather," for which he edited sound, "Apocalypse Now" and "The Conversation," for which he edited both picture and sound, and "The English Patient," for which he earned Oscars for sound and picture work. Instead, Murch keeps a low profile, operating from the San Francisco Bay area, where he spent the past seven months cutting director Anthony Minghella's highly anticipated "English Patient" follow-up, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," working at the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley.

NOTE FROM NORMAN: This article talks a lot about how an editor thinks about a scene before editing it and gives a few tools to analyze and remember the analysis. Pay particular attention to the statements highlighted in yellow.

You edited "Mr. Ripley" on an Avid. How did you compensate for [not being able to scan every frame of material??

One trick I use is photo boards, which are like storyboards in reverse -- two or three representative frames from every setup mounted on large sheets of black foam core. I've used this technique on many films since the early '80s, but the difference on "Ripley" is that rather than printing ordinary photographic stills, I scanned the selected frames from the dailies into Photoshop and printed them out on a color printer. This allowed us to do everything quickly in-house. Ultimately we had a collection of more than 3,000 stills. Whenever I'm editing a sequence, I can pull out two or three boards, each of which contains about 40 photographs that represent every key moment in the scene. It's a fantastically powerful trigger to remind me of things I may have forgotten, and a huge help, particularly when you are recutting, searching for a close-up of a character, for instance, in a certain costume and looking in the right direction, to be used out of context in some other scene.

Another compensation is taking lots of notes at dailies. I sit there with a laptop with the screen turned off, and as each shot goes through, I type whatever random thoughts occur to me about the material. It allows me later on, sometimes months later, to get back to my original impression of any particular moment, because you only see something for the first time once, and your reaction is very important. All this is kept in a database, each moment automatically indexed by the code footage at which it occurred on film.

It's a very suspenseful film. How does your editing help create the tension?

There were some versions of the film that seemed to suffer from multiple endings. The film felt like it wound to a close a couple of times. The challenge there is to find a path through all that: to have the same things happen -- not really sacrifice anything, but not give the audience any more clues. Over the summer, there were versions we screened for an audience that felt that way, and we took some of those things out. Finding the right path into the ending is probably the main challenge of putting any film together -- at the script level, the production level and in the editing. Making something tense is, strangely, related to making something funny. Funny is also all about tension and finding the right moment to release that tension with a laugh. In a thriller you don't release the tension, you build on it.

You are obviously very well-read. What do you read for in a script?

Challenge. An editor is very much like an actor in a film. You are the actor's actor, in that your responsibility is to take the most interesting moments from all of the performances and find ways to make them hang together in a way that enhances and clarifies everything even further. Sometimes if you take what simply seems good and string it all together it cancels itself out. Good plus good can sometimes be bad. It's like a recipe. If you want to enhance the sweetness of something, you don't simply make it sweet, you have to add elements of bitterness to it in order to enhance the latent sweetness there. That's what keeps editing alive for me. So when I read a script, I look for that almost culinary complexity. Hmmm, a dish that combines raisins and goat cheese with sesame seeds and a little chocolate. Hmmm. That's going to be interesting. Whereas scripts that read like a Big Mac don't interest me.

Do you start cutting in your head when you read a script? Obviously the screenwriter has done a lot of that, and the director, some. But can an editor begin to conceptualize without any footage there?

Sure, one of the jobs I assign myself is to time the script. I sit with a stopwatch and visualize everything as much as I can. I don't know what locations the director has chosen, because in some cases he hasn't picked them yet. I don't know exactly what his instructions to the actors are, because in some cases the actors haven't been cast yet, and the director doesn't know. So I'm simply timing a version of the script, with the information I have at hand.

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