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,
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.
Edgy and enigmatic, the film follows the tale of Tom Ripley, a working-class
New Yorker, circa 1958, who loses himself in a crowd of moneyed
American expatriates in Europe, with devastating results. The film
lays claim to sumptuous Italian locations and a blue-chip cast led
by Matt Damon as Ripley, Jude Law as the wealthy Dickie Greenleaf
and Gwyneth Paltrow as Dickie's fiancée, Marge Sherwood.
Despite such dream elements, "Ripley" was fraught with challenges,
not the least of which was the fact that it is told exclusively
from the point of view of the title character -- a complex creature
who walks a fine line between the audience's sympathy and scorn
by doing some not-so-nice things.
"I'm drawn toward complex material that, on the face of it,
almost doesn't work," Murch said. "Risky scripts, like ‘Ripley,'
challenge me and the whole filmmaking process." A native New Yorker,
Murch's working career began after graduating from the University
of Southern California film school, where he met an aspiring auteur
named George Lucas. The two collaborated
on the screenplay for "THX 1138," which became Lucas' full-length
directorial debut, with Murch providing the sound.
It was during that period that Murch began his fruitful creative
collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola, beginning with 1969's "The
Rain People," and going on to include "The Conversation," for which
he received his first Academy Award nomination for best sound. He
won the Oscar for best sound for 1979's "Apocalypse Now," and worked
with Coppola on "The Godfather Part II," for which he did sound,
and "The Godfather Part III," which earned him a picture editing
Murch also received Academy Award nominations for his picture
editing work on Fred Zinnemann's "Julia" and Jerry Zucker's "Ghost,"
and his additional credits range from mainstream studio efforts
like the Julia Roberts vehicle "I Love Trouble" and the Arthurian
tale, "First Knight," to eclectic choices like the documentary "Crumb"
(for which he mixed sound) and the cult crime drama "Romeo Is Bleeding."
With a tireless appetite for all things film, Murch directed the
1985 fantasy "Return to Oz," and in 1998 collaborated with Rick
Schmidlin on the "director's cut" of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil"
for theatrical rerelease. When he's not making movies, Murch manages
to find time to write about them, notably in a book that is well-regarded
in the field: "In
The Blink of An Eye: A Perspective On Film Editing." Here, Murch
shares his thoughts on editing "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and how
technology has impacted both picture and sound editing.
authored a New York Times
editorial called "A Digital Cinema of the Mind," in
which you state that our digital future is assured, though you stop
short of saying whether this is a good thing. Is it? And how does
it impact editing?
I think it is a good thing, though as with most emerging technologies,
there are certain potential drawbacks masquerading as advantages.
For example, the border between special effects and picture editing
will progressively erode so that editors will be routinely editing,
a la Photoshop, within the frame as well as in sequences of frames.
And more and more we will see directors editing their own films,
and mixing and "special effecting" their own films. Whether this
concentration of power/vision is a good thing, we will only see
with time. Film's greatest strength has been that it is a collaborative
medium, and digital's ultimate ability to concentrate power in a
single person is a potential challenge to that.
Your opinions on the digital non-linear editing, a la the Avid, vs. more traditional techniques
are somewhat iconoclastic. In your book, you go so far as to call
the Moviola a random-access,
non-linear system: "You ask (your assistant) for what you want and
it is delivered as quickly as possible." You go on to state that
on the Avid, "your choices can only be as good as your requests,"
and expound poetically on the advantages of the KEM: "I don't always
have to be speaking to it. There are times when it speaks to me."
I used the spooling feature on the KEM to continually review material
and not overlook anything. But when you scroll quickly through material
on an Avid you're only seeing one frame out of every 10, whereas
on a KEM you're seeing all 10 frames -- it's just that you're seeing
each frame for a tenth of the time, which is a significant difference.
On a KEM, everything is there, you're still seeing minute blinks
of eyes, emotional gestures, a character's blush, which on an Avid
are invisible because they are literally not there; you're skipping
over the material rather than through it. This is a deep technical
limitation of any electronic system that has a fixed scan rate,
like the Avid, and I don't see any way around it at the moment.
You edited "Mr. Ripley" on an Avid. How did you compensate for
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 alcov…ðTá”Ôater 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.
You're obviously more involved with sound than most picture editors,
though it seems virtually all picture editors are getting increasingly
involved in the audio mix. How much of your sound work makes it
into the mixing phase of a film on which you're cutting picture
The dailies sound work that Dana Mulligan, my first assistant, transferred
into the Avid was later cloned into sound supervisor Pat Jackson's
Pro Tools system, and then she was able to take my Avid edit-decision
list and through OMF -- open media framework -- translate those
into Pro Tools
decisions. So instantly, when the sound editors opened up a reel,
they had all my edit decisions and my fades and levels -- everything
I had done to the production tracks was already there. So as dialogue
editors, all they have to do is further improve and refine them,
they don't have to spend any time reconstructing them from scratch.
And that's happening pretty widely now in the industry. The general
trend is to do things once. You don't have to reinvent the wheel
evdrxÖ¤hÆ³ü as you had in the past, when 75% of what dialogue editors
did was laboriously reproduce what the editor had already done.
How did you deal with your sound at dailies?
We had what we called magless dailies. Director of photography John
Seale wanted to see dailies projected on film rather than look at
video transfers, so the problem then becomes, "How do you create
sound that's going to go along with the dailies?" The traditional
way is to transfer all the sound to 35mm mag, sync it up and project
double system. The problem when you're dealing with a film that's
going to be edited on the Avid and Pro Tools is all that mag is
useless immediately after dailies, so you face the specter of transferring
and syncing 360,000 feet of mag and then tossing it away, which
is tens of thousands of dollars wasted. So we bypassed 35mm mag
entirely and synced up the sound on the Avid, then took the sound
for each daily roll that was generated on the Avid. We put that
onto a Jaz disk and open
that Jaz disk up in a Pro Tools system, then sent that Jaz disk
along with the rolls of dailies and a portable Pro Tools system
to wherever we were showing them, on location or at the Cinecitta studio. So we saw
35mm picture, but the sound was coming from a disk. This is being
done more and more, but we were one of the first. The other advantage
is the sound was initially cloned digitally into the Avid from the
original digital production recording, and that is the first and
last time. The sound is never retransferred. Everything after that,
right through the final mix, was a digital clone of the original.
How does your involvement with sound inform your role as picture
It's an advantage, because when I edit the film I tend to leave
more room for something to happen in the sound than other editors.
Because they might not be as interested in the sound, or out of
insecurity, because they frequently don't know who is going to be
mixing the film. If that's the case, there is a tendency to try
to make everything happen in the editing, whereas I know I'm going
to be mixing it, so I feel confident in leaving space for the sound
to "do its thing" -- kind of like what happens in a jazz ensemble.
I can imagine how the saxophone is going to sound, metaphorically
speaking. So it's like OK, let's leave some space for a saxophone
solo, except in this case it's a car or a seagull or something.
In your book you comment on the fact that you base your editing
largely on the rhythmic sense of the character or the central character
in a scene. In "The Talented Mr. Ripley" you had the lead character,
Damon, in every scene. How did that impact your work as an editor?
In the sense that the film is owned by the title character,
it made it easier, particularly since Matt Damon did such a great
job. Films that are told from a single point of view have their
own color. They also have things that come along with them that
are, well, problematic. Namely, that it's impossible to step sideways
and get a different point of view about anything. Once the film
has committed -- and that happens in the first 25-30 minutes --
when you realize the film is going to be about this character, you're
welded to him. The first film I did, "The Conversation," is also
constructed that way. It's told through the perspective of Harry
Caul, played by Gene Hackman. In that film, the difficulty we had
was that if everything the audience experiences is what the main
character experiences, and he's confused, how do you keep the audience
from getting confused, particularly at the end when you have to
wrap up? So we found some devices at the end to allow him to realize
what had really happened, even though he was always at the fringe
of the main action. Similarly with Mr. Ripley. This is not a whodunit,
because you know very well whodunit. It's a Dostoyevskian "whydunit."
And will he get away with it? And what are the consequences with
having done it? He's a peculiar character and the audience inevitably
takes his point of view because there is no alternative. There is
no scene with the other characters discussing Tom Ripley. That never
happens. As soon as he starts doing unsavory things, which happens
about midway through the film, the audience, in a weird way, wants
him to get away with it. As long as he is successful this is fine.
It's like a crowd forming around somebody winning at craps. The
problem came at the end, when things started to go bad for him.
Then people naturally want to drift away. We had to find a way to
have those events happen, yet maintain the audience's sympathy for
It's a very suspenseful film. How does your editing help create
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.
The ending imagery is conjured so effectively, simply with the
use of voice-over. Was that in the script or something decided on
in the editing room?
It was something that evolved in the editing. In the screenplay
you saw what transpired. But that was one of the things I was talking
about earlier. When this event that was on-screen audiences found
it difficult to take because of the single point of view from which
there is no escape. By playing with the flow of time -- cutting
elliptically forward yet allowing the sound to play out in linear
time -- the event happens after the fact. The audience realizes
only later, toward the end of that scene, that the event must have
happened. Yet because of the leap of time they are absolved of the
responsibility for having witnessed it and not done something, somehow,
to stop it. It's a simple idea, but elegant and emotionally very
The time-twist definitely added to the suspense there. Backing
into that momentous event, you don't really see it coming.
As it was scripted and shot, you did see it coming. It was obvious,
and that was the problem. Once the audience knew what was coming
they stopped paying attention to what Ripley was saying -- his key
speech about being in the basement. It all just became a stalling
maneuver. Removing the clues allowed the audience to focus on what
Ripley was saying. The clues are still there. They are just not
pointed up editorially. We "de-edited" the film.
How would you compare working on "The English Patient" to working
"The English Patient" is a classic example of a multiple-point-of-view
film that slides backward and forward in time and space, and has
every possible pairing of characters you could imagine. This presents
its own challenges, because it's easy for that kind of kaleidoscope
to fragment and not hold together. "Ripley" was the opposite. It
was so straightforward, so linear, so single point of view that
it gave us less maneuvering room, editorially.
On "Ripley," Minghella made some very interesting changes from
Patricia Highsmith's book, like making Greenleaf a jazz musician
instead of a painter ...
Anthony is marvelously alive to what a book is as opposed to what
a film is. His adaptations generate wonderful images and sounds
-- and wonderful combinations of the two -- can be generated. Both
"The English Patient" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" are wonderful
books with devoted followings, but they're not mainstream books,
and that perhaps gives Anthony more freedom than he'd have adapting
a best-seller that everyone's read. In that case, there's a force
compelling the director to put what's in the book on-screen.
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.
The script supervisor also times a version of the script. More
often than not, do your versions sync up?
Yes, but when they don't it's interesting, because it means somebody
is visualizing something in a different way, and those are flags
that say, "Let's talk to Anthony about this." As it turned out,
the first assembly of the film was quite long -- about four-and-a-half
hours. It had all the entrances, all the beats, emotionally and
dramatically. Film, by its nature as a collaborative medium, is
a redundant medium. There are moments that are going to be duplicated
by every department -- an actor is going to try to convey that emotion,
but so is camera, the art department, the editor, the music, the
sound effects. As a general rule, what you discover in the process
of putting the film together is where you can eliminate redundancies
and choose the most interesting path through the film that allows
each moment to be conveyed in the most emotional yet structurally
efficient way. So taking out the most obvious redundancies is a
fairly quick process. In the first month of recutting, we were able
to lose an hour. After that it becomes more complex. You have to
think about losing whole scenes and find ways to cut internally
within the scene -- eliminate dramatic loops in the scenes and yet
make everything still hold together and develop in ways that were
not envisioned by the script.
Does Minghella shoot a lot of film?
I'd say the moderate high side. There were 360,000 feet of dailies
on this. He shot with an A and a B camera quite frequently on this
film, compared to "English Patient." Forty percent of the shots
have B camera, at least. And he prints on average two-and-a-half
takes per shot, from each camera. Not a lot of footage compared
to something like "Apocalypse Now," which had 1.2 million feet of
If you could share one piece of advice, what would it be?
I'd want to emphasize two things: Use photoboards and edit standing
You edit standing up, even on the Avid?
Yes, it was actually easier to configure the Avid that way than
the KEM, which I had to put up on blocks – it must weigh 600 pounds.
The Avid is just a couple of monitors on a bookshelf with an architect's
table in front of it. It doesn't mean you can't sit. I use an architect's
chair. Editing is sort of a strange combination of being a brain
surgeon and a short-order cook. You'll never see those guys sitting
down on the job. The more you engage your entire body in the process
of editing, the better and more balletic the flow of images will
be. I might be sitting when I'm reviewing material, but when I'm
choosing the point to cut out of a shot, I will always jump out
of the chair. A gunfighter will always stand, because it's the fastest,
most accurate way to get to his gun. Imagine "High Noon" with Gary
Cooper sitting in a chair. I feel the fastest, most accurate way
to choose the critically important frame I will cut out of a shot
is to be standing. I have kind of a gunfighter's stance.
EditorsNet dec 1999