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'Walter tricked me': The sound may make you see a film in a different way


'Li' – unintentional things of magical quality
Walter Murch Film-maker
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In the first month of shooting on [The] Conversation, much of that footage, much of that shooting concerned the conversation itself, which is a seemingly innocuous conversation between two young people walking around Union Square in the centre of San Francisco. And this was photographed again using Francis's documentary-style approach that he had using in the wedding of [The] Godfather and would use again in Apocalypse Now.

The two young people, Cindy Williams and Fred Forrest, were fitted with radio mikes and just told to walk around the square with everyone who was really there. There were no or very, very few extras or actors in this scene. It's just people who happened to be there at lunchtime. And walk around, say your lines as if you're really saying them and if you were really who you were as characters. And we will hide cameras here and there in Union Square and no one will know that we're making a film. And this is something that Francis worked out with Haskell and Haskell is very good at this because he started out in documentaries and he's made many documentaries. And so the premise is... The way The Conversation itself was filmed is very similar to the premise of the conversation in the film, which is: secret cameras, secret recordings, nobody else knows they're there picking up this recording. And the result of that was a huge amount of footage because it was photographed with, I think, four or five cameras simultaneously and done repeatedly over and over again with the cameras in slightly different positions each time. And the cameras were just getting what they could get, the way you do when you make a documentary.

The plus side of that, of course, as it is with the wedding in Godfather or with the battle, Valkyries battle in Apocalypse Now, is that you get things that would be very unlikely to get if you had set them up intentionally. Accidental things that just have a magical quality to them that are clearly recognized for being good but not intentional. The Chinese actually have a word for this, called 'li', 'L I', said with the right Chinese accent. And I use this in my note-taking, when I'm looking at material in a film and when something particularly nicely-composed and sort of magical in its arrangement happens, I say, 'very good li at the moment.' And this is a term of approval in China for a particularly fortuitous arrangement of markings in jade. Jade has this... Good jade has this wonderful kind of cloud-like texture to it, where the light markings work against the darker markings. And what is prized especially in China, as I understand it, is not chaotic markings, nor markings that are too symmetrical but markings that have this serendipitous, stochastic quality where there is a pattern but it's not too rigid, nor too chaotic.

And that's a value that I note and prize especially when I look at dailies and something happens in the cinematography that has this quality. My code word for it is 'li'. And your chances of getting 'li', if you shoot in a documentary style and if you have good camera people and the idea is good, your chances are quite high that you will get 'li'. You can't predict when it's going to happen and you can only recognize it when it does happen. The price you pay for it is a lot of material because this will emerge only by chance so... I forget exactly how much material we had on The Conversation, in the conversation itself, but certainly a 100,000 35mm feet, which is many hours of material.

Born in 1943 in New York City, Murch graduated from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. His career stretches back to 1969 and includes work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient. He has been referred to as 'the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema.' In a career that spans over 40 years, Murch is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, beginning in 1969 with The Rain People. After working with George Lucas on THX 1138 (1971), which he co-wrote, and American Graffiti (1973), Murch returned to Coppola in 1974 for The Conversation, resulting in his first Academy Award nomination. Murch's pioneering achievements were acknowledged by Coppola in his follow-up film, the 1979 Palme d'Or winner Apocalypse Now, for which Murch was granted, in what is seen as a film-history first, the screen credit 'Sound Designer.' Murch has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and has won three, for best sound on Apocalypse Now (for which he and his collaborators devised the now-standard 5.1 sound format), and achieving an unprecedented double when he won both Best Film Editing and Best Sound for his work on The English Patient. Murch’s contributions to film reconstruction include 2001's Apocalypse Now: Redux and the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He is also the director and co-writer of Return to Oz (1985). In 1995, Murch published a book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, in which he urges editors to prioritise emotion.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: The Conversation

Duration: 5 minutes, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017