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The costs of film editing then and now


'It took too long to get here on the bus': The coded feedback
Walter Murch Film-maker
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I was at a concert and a question-and-answer with Maurice Sendak, the children's author, in London many years ago, and he had produced an opera with a composer [Olivier Knussen] about Where the Wild Things Are. And with difficult music, kind of 12-tone music, and not the kind of music that you think kids who really want to go to a pantomime kind of a thing with people in costumes and... 'What's this weird music?' And afterwards, Maurice was, in his own lovely kind of curmudgeonly way, complaining about kids who didn't understand, who didn't like his play. And he said: I'll tell you how stupid kids can be. One little girl said, 'Mr. Sendak, I didn't like your opera.' And I said, 'Why not, little girl?' And she said, 'Because it took too long to get here on the bus.' And everyone laughed. And Maurice Sendak kind of said, 'Oh, silly kid.' But think of the dynamics of what's going on. It's a young girl being brave enough to say to a grownup, and a famous grownup, 'I didn't like your opera.' And what do you say? How can a child of that age say, 'Because you used 12-tone music, you know, it doesn't...' But what she was saying underneath what she was saying is, 'I didn't like your opera because as I was watching it, all I could think of was: it took a long time to get here on the bus. Your opera didn't make me forget the trouble that I had had getting here.' And frequently, with reviewers and frequently even with studio executives, and even sometimes with your friends, when you show a work, you have to listen very carefully to what they say, because many times, they are saying, 'It took too long to get here on the bus.' Some version of that. And there's a feeling that either they're afraid to articulate to you, because you're their friend, or that they haven't really figured out themselves. And so it gets expressed in code, in a way.

And you have to be alert to these things when you're trying to evaluate these very tricky moments when you've shown something that is still in the process of evolving, sometimes finished work as well, and trying to get feedback from an audience. And how frank can they be, and how frank is it possible for them to be? And you have to have not only two antennae, but kind of like, eight antennae to look at their body language, and what they say, and particularly what they don't say. And what they praise, and what they implicitly don't praise. And even how long they stay in the room. If an audience really doesn't like a film, they will get out of that projection room as fast as possible. They don't even want to be there anymore, even though they may say, 'Fantastic, great work', the fact that they leave the room is significant, and you should note that. And by the same token, people who really like a film want to stay in that room. The ushers have to come in and say, 'We have to clear this room because...' That's a very good sign. Even though the people may be saying, 'Now, the problem with your film is this...' But it means they're already fundamentally engaged with it on a deep level. And they don't want to leave the place where they just really had a very good time in that room. It's a little bit like reading tea leaves, it can be misinterpreted. But the fact is that there is some message in those tea leaves that you need to pay a lot of attention to if you are trying to, especially when you're still working on the film and trying to make it better.

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: Where the Wild Things Are

Duration: 4 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017