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The application of Negative Twenty Questions in film


Wordless take six
Walter Murch Film-maker
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One of Francis [Ford Coppola]'s techniques that he uses often is to ask the actors in a scene, say between two people, to do the scene, and then he makes directorial observations, everything's the way it usually is. And then somewhere around take five or six he will ask them, 'Now play this scene, but without any dialogue. Go through all of the motions that we've established where you drink a cup of tea, then you put it down, then you get up, go to the kitchen, pour yourself another cup, then come back and turn, you know.' So the actors are moving physically around, and they... they have expressions on their faces, obviously, but they're not saying anything. So they have to learn how to convey that emotion, whatever it might be, without using dialogue. And we are shooting and recording it at the same time.

The technical advantage of this from an editorial point of view is that we get a complete recording of the scene without any dialogue so that all of the sound effects of putting glasses down and walking – we have a clean track of this where we don't have to snip out the dialogue. And from a picture point of view, we have angles on the actors for reaction shots that we might need if we wanted to change the dynamics of a scene. We can use this shot to prolong a pause because the actor isn't saying anything at that moment.

For the actors it's a wonderful thing, I think, because the whole premise of the scene is shifted. And then, of course, there is a take seven, and now they do it again, and take seven is usually very different and deeper than the last dialogue scene which was take five. So it... it's a very simple thing that integrates itself into the process of shooting the film, and it produces a lot of good things that are relevant to how we build the film up later. But also for the actors, while they're actually shooting the scene, it makes them approach the material in a different way.

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: Francis Ford Coppola

Duration: 2 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 01 March 2017