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The Talented Mr. Murch

By Paula Parisi

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.

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 fiance, 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 Oscar nomination.

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.

You recently 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 that?
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 alcovTater 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 only?
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 evdrx֤hƳ 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 editor?
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 Tom.

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.

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 complex.

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 on "Ripley"?
"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 footage.

If you could share one piece of advice, what would it be?
I'd want to emphasize two things: Use photoboards and edit standing up.

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

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