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Apocalypse Now: The idea for a 'gutless', simple film


'The spaghetti sauce method' vs 'the Procrustes method'
Walter Murch Film-maker
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My approach in cutting down a film is kind of a two-pronged approach. And there's what I would call 'the spaghetti sauce method' which is a version of this 'diet and exercise' where you put the film over a source of heat so to speak, and just keep stirring it, and gradually the water content of the film will diminish. We don't really need this shot, and we don't need her to go downstairs and then come back, she can just stay in the room all this time and, and, and... So it's a gradual way of intensifying the dish by losing what is not essential – water, basically.

And then there is another method which I call 'the Procrustes method' which is based on a mythical character from ancient Greece. And the question in ancient Greece was, why is everyone more or less the same size. Why aren't people this big and 12 feet tall? And the idea was that we were once that different, but that there was a man somewhere on the road between Athens and Sparta and if you travelled between these two towns you had to stay at his inn. He would put you on a bed, and if you were too short he stretched you, and if you were too long, he would lop off the extra parts. And so everyone who left Procrustes's inn was the same size.

So, in this case, a film is too long, you attack it and just lop out things in an almost brutal way and get down to the length that you want, and then you look at it and say, 'Well, that doesn't work, but it almost works. And now we go in, and we fix these things.' So rather than slowly boiling it down and reducing its length, you go in and aggressively make it the right length and then fix what you need to fix.

In my experience George Lucas is a big proponent of 'the Procrustes method.' American Graffiti was originally three hours long, and it worked, it was very good, but it was not releasable at three hours, and there was no time to do 'the spaghetti sauce method.' So George just went in and hacked it down, and it was a mess, but he then went in and fixed... he and Marcia went in and fixed all of the things that didn't work, and it became the wonderful film that it is. So, both methods can work. It's down partly to how much time that you have and what is your temperament.

Anthony Minghella definitely used the spaghetti sauce method. It was very difficult for him to produce a version of the film that had a problem with it. He always wanted every version of the film on its own terms had to be viewable. So it was an incremental process, and that's what we did on English Patient, [Talented Mr.] Ripley and Cold Mountain. And you know I would occasionally suggest, 'Why don't we just take this scene out?' And it gave him the shivers to think about doing that. We would eventually arrive at that point, but he wanted to arrive there all in good time.

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: American Graffiti, English Patient, Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, George Lucas, Anthony Minghella

Duration: 3 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 01 March 2017