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'Tell me the timing': Why films tend to become too long


The Talented Mr. Ripley: Anthony Minghella did not like Procrustes
Walter Murch Film-maker
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[The Talented Mr.] Ripley also was a long film. I think the first assembly of English Patient was four hours and ten minutes, Ripley was four hours and a half. Cold Mountain, the next Anthony Minghella, was five hours and ten minutes. So it was kind of what came along with working with Anthony on those three films, were first assemblies that were very long. So we had to confront the same issues of, how do we cut out two hours out of this film? And you do it by various techniques. Mentally, how I approach this is... My shorthand for these are the 'spaghetti sauce' method, and the 'Procrustean method'.

The spaghetti sauce method is a little bit like I was mentioning earlier, 'diet and exercise'. You simply run the film and you question everything. Does he really need to enter this scene, or can't we begin the scene with him already there? Do we really need him to leave the scene, or can we just leave it when he smashes his fist on the table, or whatever it is? Do we really need this scene? In fact, this scene in which he professes his ignorance of the crime, in fact, we already know this because of something that happened earlier. So if that scene hadn't been so effective, we would need the scene, but because that is effective, we don't need the scene, so take it out. Redundancy, you're trying to remove redundancies. Again, diet and exercise, but there's a limit to that.

And then you frequently have to recourse to this other method, which I call the Procrustean method, which is named after a character in Greek mythology. He lived, apparently, Procrustes, lived on the road from Athens to Sparta, and he had an inn, Procrustes' Inn. And anyone who travelled from Athens to Sparta had to stay at the inn. And he welcomed you into his inn, you went to sleep on an iron bed, and while you were asleep, he crept in. And if you were shorter than the bed, he stretched you to make sure you were as long as the bed. If you were longer than the bed, he would chop off the offending parts of it so you were shorter than the bed. In other words, everyone who came to the inn left the same size. And it was a myth that tried to explain, in mythological terms, why is everyone more or less the same height? Because maybe beforehand, there were people this tall, and people ten feet tall. How did we all get to be the same height? Well, because we all stayed at Procrustes' Inn. And so what you do in a Procrustean thing is say, film is now three hours long, I want it to be two and a half hours long. I am just going to go through and put it on the iron bedstead, and cut, cut, do brutal things to it. Rather than the spaghetti sauce method, which is you just put the film over a low heat and stir it with a wooden spoon, and allow things to gently evaporate out of it. So that's a gradual process. And you taste the film, so to speak, time to time. Okay, it's almost there, it's still a little... The sauce gets better as more water evaporates, whereas Procrustes is chop. And then you look at the film at this new length, knowing that you're going to look at a brutally compromised creature. And then you say, well, that was a good experience in the sense that we sat down and, two hours later, we got up. Now, that feels like a good length. What do we have to do to fix this so that it works, so that you chop and then repair, rather than slowly compress the length?

There are some directors who love the spaghetti sauce method and don't like Procrustes, and the opposite. In my experience, Anthony loved the spaghetti sauce method, he didn't like Procrustes. And we rarely went there, and so it took a longer time to get Anthony's film down to length. Occasionally, we would make the chop, but he was not drawn to that first. Whereas George Lucas has a Procrustean kind of sensibility, you know? Let's just whack it, and fix it. Whack, and fix. And inevitably, I'm painting this more extreme than it really it. It's a spectrum that, you know, falls... We use both techniques, depending on the situation. It's just that some directors like one method more than the other. Anyway, we were able to get the film down to its final release length, which I think is somewhere around two hours and 25 minutes, something like that.

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 Talented Mr. Ripley, Anthony Minghella

Duration: 5 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017