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The English Patient: Side effects of removing vital scenes


The 'diet and exercise' reduction of the film length
Walter Murch Film-maker
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It [The English Patient] was a very long film. The released version of the film is two hours and 38 minutes, or something like that, which is long. The first assembly was four hours and 10 minutes, which means you have to cut out an hour and a half, which is the length of a feature film sometimes, 90 minutes out of the film. And it was another example of a general principle that I have, which is that when you look at the assembly of your film, and subtract 30% from that, you will get a length, just doing the math. That length will be the length of the film where all of the essential scenes are in, and all of the characters, essential characters, are in. You haven't cut out any essential internal organs of the film, so to speak. So how long is that?

And so I'm doing the math live now, as we speak. Four hours, let's say, is 240 minutes. 30% of that is 75, 72 minutes. So we had to cut out more than 72 minutes. We had to cut out 90 minutes. In the end we did cut out more than 72. So we had to go beyond that threshold. And as a result, some scenes that were deemed essential in the film were gone. And some characters were gone, or virtually gone, from the film. Minor characters, well, intermediate characters are barely visible in the film.

A good example of one of the scenes that got cut out is a confrontation with Kip, after the announcement that the atomic bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima. This is in the book, and it was in the screenplay. It was shot. It's not in the film. There's no mention of Hiroshima. There's no aspect of that left in the film at all. And that's one of the ways that we were able to get below this theoretical threshold. I compared the cutting of those scenes to internal organs. And a little bit facetiously, but I call the 30% reduction 'diet and exercise'. Here's the first assembly. You come into the doctor's office, and you're overweight. I want you to lose 30% of your body weight. You can do that with diet and exercise. And it's actually pretty accurate. A strong regimen of diet and exercise can reduce your weight by 30%. It's not healthy to go below that. You know, if you're 200 pounds, well, let's say, if you're 300 pounds, will you ever get to be 150 pounds? That's tricky, but maybe you can get to 200 pounds.

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

Duration: 3 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017