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The creative spiral between film, editing and music


'Walter tricked me': The sound may make you see a film in a different way
Walter Murch Film-maker
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I remember in 1973, late in 1973, for contractual reasons, I took the film, the cut of the film to Los Angeles and showed the film to Haskell, meaning... The idea was: 'Do you want your name on the film?' And he didn't. He thought that his contribution was not big enough and he still didn't like the film. His word for it was, 'That character', meaning Harry Caul, 'has to shit or get off the pot.' It's just... He was impatient with Harry Caul as a character. The flipside of that is that we finished the film and that involved the final mix and the music and everything else.

And then I met Haskell about a year later and he came up to me in mock anger, but it was kind of hard to tell and he said, 'You tricked me.' I said, 'What do you mean, Haskell?' I mean, we'd known each other for almost ten years at this point. He said, 'You tricked me.' He said, 'The version you showed me was not like the version that is in the theatres.' I said, 'It's the same as it was.' 'No, it wasn't; it was different.' I said, 'Well, yes, you're right, different – we had not yet finished the mix on the film. I was showing you the film and the guide track but not the finished mix.'

And he thought for a minute, 'Yes, yes, yes, I guess you're right.' So, it again... It's a hidden factor maybe in the fact that the film was very well received. It was nominated for Best Picture that year and it got very good reviews. And I think that kind of gnawed at Haskell, that he had turned down putting his name on a film that actually got very good reviews. And I'm sure he didn't expect it to get good reviews because he didn't have a good opinion about it. Well, once he saw that other people liked it, it was like: 'Hmm, Walter tricked me.'

And it's also a good example of the power of sound; that sound will make you see a film in a different way. And you will not think, 'Oh, it's sound that's making me do that.' Like the elevated train in [The] Godfather; we hear the sound with part of our brain, but the emotion that comes up we ascribe to what we're looking at, rather than the sound. And so Haskell's reaction to seeing the finished film of The Conversation with its finished soundtrack, which makes you see the film differently. He ascribed that to the fact that I had showed him a visually completely different film but I hadn't. The only thing that was different was the fact that we had finished the soundtrack.

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: 3 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017