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'A bomb is a bomb': Reductions can improve the structure of a film


The English Patient: Side effects of removing vital scenes
Walter Murch Film-maker
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Anyway, the difference is that by surgery, you've got two kidneys. A kidney weighs a pound and a half. If you want to lose that pound and a half, I suggest cutting out the kidney. And there's systems of cutting out people's fat, and stapling stomachs. There are cinematic equivalents of this, where you go at the internal organs of the film, and take them out. The difference, and it's a healthy difference, is that inevitably, if you do that to a human being that human being is not as healthy. With only one kidney, you are not as healthy as you are with two. Whereas, a film can actually get more healthy by the reduction of something that ostensibly looked very healthy. And the scene that I'm talking about, on paper, looked healthy. It was shot, it was well acted. But a problem was revealed with it when we saw the whole film, which is that we are now being asked late in the process of the film, very late in the film, to suddenly care about the people killed in Hiroshima. And of course, on a human level, we have to care. But on the cinematic terms, in terms of the internal dynamics of the film, we've already made up our minds what we should care about.

And to make a major plot device, this was the end of the Kip/Hana relationship. And really, the unwinding of the film happened partly as a result of this, where Kip went crazy because, 'You white people just killed 140,000 coloured people. And you wouldn't have done that to other white people. And I'm mad.' And it was important in the writing of the book for Michael that that be touched upon. And the book was constructed in a way that that was good within the book. But it didn't work within the film when we saw the whole film. So okay, we have to lose some time anyway. Let's see what happens if we take this whole thing out. The problem was that suddenly Kip becomes a different person. He's a Sikh, he has a turban. Suddenly the turban is gone. His hair is down. He's incommunicative. He won't talk to Hana. What happened? Well, the bomb happened. He's acting that way because of Hiroshima. But now we've taken that out. What do we do?

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: reduction, length, plot, kidney, surgery, Hiroshima

Duration: 2 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017