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The English Patient: 'Can we go digital?'


The English Patient: Close to miscasting
Walter Murch Film-maker
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When I was in London, working on First Knight, which was 1994, I met Anthony Minghella, who phoned me up. And he was in negotiations with Saul Zaentz, who had produced Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I had edited back in the mid-'80s. And Anthony and Saul were planning to make a film of The English Patient, the Michael Ondaatje novel. And I immediately warmed to Anthony as a human being. And I loved the subject matter. I had already read the book, not knowing that Saul was thinking of making a film of it. And we bonded pretty quickly just as friends. And one thing led to another. And I found myself in Rome in 1995, editing English Patient.

There had been some last minute shuffles with the studio, who did not agree about the casting. They didn't think the casting was strong enough. From their point of view, they didn't like Kristin Scott Thomas. Not they didn't like her, they didn't think she was a star. And Ralph Fiennes, they didn't know really. They thought... Anyway, the suggestion that the studio had, instead of Kristin, they wanted Demi Moore to play Katharine. And there's a kind of symmetry here because Demi Moore had been in Ghost. And she occupied a certain blue collar, American wavelength. And the idea of her playing the part of cut glass English nobility, aristocracy just... There was a meeting where this was discussed, apparently. And Anthony and Saul said, 'Are you serious?' And the studio said, 'Well, yes, we know she probably wouldn't be good for the film. But she would be good for us', meaning, we would like to cast her in the film, which might make it difficult for you. But having her in a 20th Century Fox film might allow us to make a deal with Bruce Willis, who was married to her at the time. So it was part of this, you know, real politic negotiation that goes on a lot, and is responsible for some of the miscasting of films that we were talking about earlier. It has nothing to do with what people thought would be right. They even knew it was slightly wrong. But they wanted to have that because that would give them some advantage in the chess game, further on down the road.

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 English Patient, 20th Century Fox, Anthony Minghella, Michael Ondaatje, Demi Moore, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bruce Willis, Saul Zaentz

Duration: 3 minutes, 31 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017