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Both editors and directors feel their ways in darkness


The relationship between a director and an editor
Walter Murch Film-maker
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I think you inevitably become proprietary about the work that you do, to a certain degree. Ultimately, the editor is there, I believe, at the service of the director. Certain dynamics would push you and the director towards the producer of the film, or the studio. But my personal feeling is that I'm there with the director, and I'm there, ultimately, to do what the director wants. On the other hand, I also believe that it's the job of the editor to provoke certain things when the situation is right. If you see the potential for a good idea, either dropping a whole scene, or having a different interpretation on a scene, or reducing the length of the film, or whatever it is, you can and, I think, should be proactive about that. In other words, I don't think you should, as an editor, say to the director, 'Okay, what do you want me to do? And I will do it.' In that case, you are... The director really should be editing, and in that case, you're simply a pair of hands that is doing what the director wants. And, you know, that's not the way acting works at its best, or any of the other departments.

A director will choose an actor based on what that actor can contribute, and the director will direct the actor, meaning: I want you to interpret it this way. This scene is about anger. You are angry with the situation. And, you know, how best to express that anger, at the micro level, I'm going to leave to you, the actor. I'm not going to say, 'Before you bring the glass down, could you look to the left, tilt your head 32 degrees and smile, before you suddenly turn it into a frown, and then smash the glass?' Well, that... Those are not instructions that actors like to hear. Sometimes, they do hear them in the process of making a film. But the actor is a self-motivated person who is in control of their instrument, which is, to say, themselves. Sometimes, not in a totally conscious way, but in an organic way. And that's what you hire when you hire an actor. And to a certain extent, and there are limits to that, obviously, but to a certain extent, that's what the relationship is with a cinematographer, or an editor, or others: do something, put the scene together, and then let's look at it, and let's... we'll take it from there.

So, almost always, the first assembly of the film, the... In my experience, has been done without the director ever being anywhere around. In fact, with Fred Zinnemann, he deliberately said, 'I don't want to know anything about what you're doing. Just tell me if there's something really wrong that needs to be reshot, but don't... I don't want to see what you're doing, and I don't want to know about anything until you've put it all together.' And so, in general, that's kind of the situation, with a number of exceptions, on a scene-by-scene basis. Sometimes, there's a problematical scene, and then the director will come in, and we'll look at that while the shooting is going on.

But in general, the editor, me in this case, is given a great deal of freedom for the first assembly. And then the director will either immediately come into the editing room, as it was with Kathryn Bigelow. Or as it was with Fred Zinnemann, he will come in progressively more and more, and in the last couple of weeks, he'll be... he will be in the editing room on a daily basis, but that progresses over a series of months, and with everything in between.

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: Fred Zinnemann, Kathryn Bigelow

Duration: 4 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017