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Vertical casting


The application of Negative Twenty Questions in film
Walter Murch Film-maker
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The makeup for Marlon Brando in The Godfather was of a nature... Brando was only 46 when this film was shot, but he appears to be 62 or something and then even much older than that later on just before he dies. And when Gordy Willis, the cinematographer, saw what the makeup was going to be, he thought, by his own retelling of it, 'This is a disaster. How am I going to photograph this to make the makeup look good?' And what he decided to do was to light the scene from above to have the light be abnormally high and come down which would cast deeper shadows in the eye sockets and everything. That's how the film was shot.

When Al Pacino came along and was looking how the film was being shot, he found that very curious. He hadn't been in a number of films at that point, but this was very different than what he expected, and he thought, 'This is different, this is unusual. And I'm going to use this to help me interpret the role of Michael.' And it gave him an idea which is that Michael is trying always to escape from this spotlight of destiny. That the light above him is searching him out to say, 'You are the member of a mafia family', and he's always moving away from it, and then the light finds him again.

So this is an interesting example of the kind of alchemy that happens between a decision to use a certain kind of makeup, which prompts a decision to use a kind of lighting, which prompts a decision by an actor to interpret the core approach that he's going to use to... in his performance in the film. And there's a wonderful side effect of this which we might talk about later that relates to a parlour game that you can play called Negative Twenty Questions. That has to do with this concatenation of decisions where one decision leads to another, leads to another and you wind up further down the road in a place that nobody ever planned. But it's the result of these decisions, each of which has to be incorporated fully into the body of the film as you go along in a kind of improvisatory 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: The Godfather, Marlon Brando, Gordon Willis

Duration: 2 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 01 March 2017