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Why I always time the screenplays


Double-entry bookkeeping and its dangers
Walter Murch Film-maker
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[Q] So Hitchcock, for example, his first assembly, it would probably be pretty close to the final screening length, would it?

Yes. Many directors, and I've worked with a few of them. Jerry Zucker was this way, and Fred Zinnemann was this way. They shot not a lot of film, and the first assembly of the film was very close to its final release length. So it's not that it's inevitable that you have big, sprawling things, it just requires a different approach of the material. And the reality of the timing process is that the timing is done by the script supervisor. And the dirty secret of this is that there is frequently double-entry bookkeeping going on, which is: the studio does need to see a timing by the script supervisor, but the script supervisor will shave things so that it comes out at a slow... at a small length. So that the studio doesn't shut down the film too early. 'What, three and a half hours long? You've got to cut something.' So you try to dance under the limbo bar, even though there's a little winking going on, which is, these timings aren't real timings. But the danger of that is that, as it is with any double-entry bookkeeping, you know that these aren't real, and then you have nothing to guide you because those weren't real. 'So what is the time?' 'Well, I don't know. Well, just shoot and see what happens.' And as a result, that's one of the contributing elements to making these films get super long.

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: timing, script supervisor, double-entry, bookkeeping, screenplay

Duration: 2 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017