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Apocalypse Now: The biggest explosion ever staged for a film


Apocalypse Now: Joining the 'insane' editorial team
Walter Murch Film-maker
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My original brief on Apocalypse Now was that I was going to join a film deep in its completion process, and I was going to supervise the sound editing and do the mix on the film in this new format of 6-track, or what we call 5.1. And I finished Julia at the beginning of August in 1977, and two weeks later I was in San Francisco working on Apocalypse Now. It was immediately clear to me that the original plan was not going to happen; particularly because they thought that they could finish the film by December of that year which was the original schedule. Maybe we could be done by June, but I hadn't seen the film yet, and this was all speculative. The studio in which we were going to mix the film was being built, and I didn't know where that was in its engineering and finish trajectory. But it was clear that original plan was not going to happen.

Then I saw the film, and it was even clearer that editorially it was all over the place, and it was over six hours long if anyone had actually looked all the way through it. But the ending was particularly difficult and troublesome, so that was in a very unformed state at this point.

Consequently, Francis [Ford Coppola] decided that the best thing was for me to join the picture editorial team alongside Richie Marks and Gerry Greenberg, who were the two editors on the film at that point. We went out to lunch to discuss this along with Dennis Jakob, who was a friend of Francis's who had been, you might call it a metaphysical consultant during the Philippines to talk about the big themes of the film. At that lunch, Francis observed that it's a law that anyone who works on Apocalypse Now for any length of time becomes insane. Then pointing at himself he said, 'I'm the poster boy for the person who's the craziest sitting at this table because I've worked on the film the longest. The next person is Richie Marks because he's worked on it longer than Gerry. Then there's Gerry, and then there's you, Walter, and you're the sanest because you haven't even really started working on this film.' Then he turned to his friend Dennis and said, 'Of course Dennis is already completely crazy anyway.' And Dennis was responsible for trying to wrangle the ending into some kind of shape. 'I want the film to get... to start normal, get crazier, and more surreal the deeper you get into the film. So it's appropriate that Dennis is working on the very end of the film. It's appropriate that Richie is working on the lead up to the ending. It's appropriate that Gerry is working on the middle to the early part of the film. And I want you, Walter, to work on the beginning of the film because I want it to be normal.' So, we had our marching orders and we knew where we stood in the realm of who's craziest and who's not.

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: Apocalypse Now, Ritchie Marks, Gerry Greenberg, Dennis Jakob, Francis Ford Coppola

Duration: 3 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 01 March 2017