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Single vs. multiple point of view


Cold Mountain: The problem with new characters after the midpoint
Walter Murch Film-maker
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The creative problems of Cold Mountain were similar, to a certain extent, in [The] English Patient. The first assembly was very long, longer even than English Patient, it was five hours and ten minutes. And it was intercutting two different points of view. There was a point of view of Ada, played by Nicole Kidman, who is stuck because her father is now dead on the family farm back in the hills of Carolina. And Inman, played by Jude Law, who has abandoned the Army, the Confederate Army for which he was a soldier, and is now trekking across the war-ravaged landscape of the American Civil War. It's a geographic shifted point of view, that we're going from the mountains farm with Ada, to the landscape of the war with Inman, and then back to Ada. Unlike The English Patient, where we're intercutting both geographically and temporally, we're going from the present, which is the monastery in Italy, to the past, which is North Africa ten years or so, five years, earlier. And they're both tricky, Cold Mountain probably a little less tricky than English Patient, because there is a sort of unity of time, but not of geography.

Anyway, we solved that, I think, to the best of our abilities. You never really know, did we get it really right? I think we did. But a problem that we don't... I don't think we ever really solved, and it was inherent in the story and I only really became aware of this as a problem from working on Cold Mountain, which is the riskiness of the Odyssean journey story. In the sense that you... In that kind of story, you have to keep meeting new people, new monsters to conquer, new people to interact with. And Cold Mountain, in the sense that it's following Inman on his trek, he keeps meeting new situations. Here's the woman in the caravan, who has goats. And here's the widow, whose husband has died and her baby is sick, and she's trying to slaughter the pig. And the difficulty is meeting those characters past the halfway point in the film. If you just think of it in very simple terms as a landscape of: we start the film here, we climb the mountain. At the midpoint, the landscape starts to... The watershed goes toward the ending, from the Atlantic, to the Pacific, to the Rockies. And rivers, on the downside of the mountain, are flowing to the sea of the ending of the film. And you kind of feel that. If you meet new people on the downside of the mountain, you – the audience – think, 'Well, maybe I haven't even gotten to the middle yet. When is this film... is this film going to end?' Because each time you meet a new person, you have to do a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, reprogramming of: who is this person, and how significant is this person going to be, and should I care about this person or is this person going to be an enemy, or what?

So you have to do work, every time there's a new character, you – the audience – even if it's pleasurable, there's a certain amount of work involved. And the third time that happens, it's fine, but the fifth and sixth and seventh time that happens, it's... You kind of get a little breathless on the climb. And it becomes hard to predict, when is this film going to be over? And because it's a long film, it was well over two hours in the end... I like to say we cut English Patient over Cold Mountain, we cut two hours and 40 minutes out of the first assembly of Cold Mountain to make Cold Mountain. But that was so... I don't know that there is a solution to it. Say, if this is the film we're going to make, and it's based on this novel, and this novel has these people in it, and those are the expectations, and you want to do interpretative justice to the novel, basically that's it. This is the climb we're on, and if the audience has a difficult time, you try to make it as less difficult as possible. But it's a landscape that you have to navigate in a slightly different way than a normal, whatever that is, a normal film. Where on the other side of the midpoint, we're taking characters that are well-established and we're now knitting them together into something that will have a satisfactory ending.

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: Cold Mountain, Civil War, The English Patient, Confederate Army, Inman, Odyssey

Duration: 5 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017