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What is stardom?


How bad casting can sink a film
Walter Murch Film-maker
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Most films, there is a slight problem with the casting. It's not quite right, but we so want to believe that we will go along with it. And there's a value to be gotten out of that tension. It frequently reminds me of... imagine a string quartet going to perform. And they're invited on stage. And they come up on stage. And as they come up on stage, the sheet music falls. And they quickly pick up the sheet music and sit down. And now they realise, 'Uh oh, I'm the cello, but I picked up the violin's part.' And the violin picked up the viola's part. And the viola picked up the second... Everyone is mixed up. But we have to go, you know? It's a thought experiment. And now, you can do it. If you're a talented string player, if you're playing the cello, you can transpose the violin into your range. But if the piece of music was written well, the composer took the strengths of the cello, and made the cello take advantage of those strengths.

And the same thing applies to the other instruments. Now the cello is interpreting the violin's part, as if it's the cello. And so there's a tension there that can fail completely. You can listen to that music and say, 'This is terrible. Why does it sound...?' Well, let me tell you, they dropped the music. So that's like bad casting. On the other hand, if the casting is not completely bad, and it's a certain kind of film that tension actually can produce interesting things... I didn't think it would work as well as it did.

But it really... There's something magical that happens because the cello's playing the violin's part. And the violin is playing the viola's part. And the viola's playing the cello's part. But you know, the composer would be horrified. As writers of films frequently are horrified when they watch films made of their work. But for an innocent, it's like, 'Oh, it's kind of interesting, you know?'

And that's one of the things that you have to accustom yourself to in films is taking advantage of the imperfections that happen because very rarely is everything perfect. You're always struggling with slight, 'I didn't think the weather would be cloudy this day.' 'Well, it's cloudy, so we're going to do it anyway. And maybe we can take advantage of that somehow. We'll find out.' So you're taking these leaps of faith. And casting is one of them. It's the most like nitro-glycerine, bad casting can sink a film. There's no question that if it's wrong, the film will not work, no matter how well everything else is done.

But that also, in the making of a film, can affect the process of the film because everyone is aware subconsciously or not that, you know, this isn't really working. And so their effort becomes compromised. 'Should I really take the extra 15 minutes to light this scene this way?' I'm exaggerating here. But improper casting can compound the problems in the making of the film, let alone the reception of the film when it's shown.

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: casting, string quartet, music, music sheets, viola, cello, film, tension, imperfections

Duration: 3 minutes, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017