By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
|Photo by Peter Paterson|
MICHAEL ONDAATJE IS THE AUTHOR OF EIGHT BOOKS, INCLUDING the novels In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patientand Anil's Ghost. During the filming of The English Patient, he came to know the film's editor, Walter Murch, and soon thereafter they began a mutual exploration of editing -- a series of conversations leading to The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, a book to be published by Knopf next month, and from which this article is freely adapted.
"We met whenever and wherever we could," writes Ondaatje. "Walter always surprised me with his ideas . . . There are very few in Hollywood who could speak of Beethoven and bees and Rupert Sheldrake and astronomy and Guido d'Arezzo with such knowledge. He is a man whose brain is always peering over the wall into the worlds of scientific knowledge and metaphysical speculation . . . He is a true oddity in the world of film -- a genuine Renaissance man . . ."
A musician and son of an artist, Murch grew up in New York with the nickname Walter McBoing-Boing, after the cartoon character, Gerald McBoing-Boing, who spoke in sound effects. At a young age, Walter became obsessed with the new tape recorders and what could be done with them -- not just recording but editing. And when, after studying art history and Romance languages in Italy and Paris in the early '60s, at the height of the French New Wave, he received a scholarship to the graduate film program at USC, he became a sound editor (and met George Lucas and UCLA's Francis Coppola). It was in that position that he worked on several films -- Lucas' THX 1138(which he co-wrote) and American Graffiti, Coppola's The Conversation, The Godfather(I, IIand III) and Apocalypse Now.
This scene from Apocalypse
Now, shot with two cameras
at right angles, was actually
a rehearsal, but wound
up in the film. (Courtesy
During the making of the latter, he made the transition to editing film, and would go on to cut The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ghostand The Talented Mr. Ripley, among others. Working with producer Rick Schmidlin, he re-cut Touch of Evil, following Orson Welles' ignored 58-page memo to Universal. Murch also supervised the re-editing (sound and image) and introduction of new material for last year's Apocalypse Now Redux. He most recently edited Kathryn Bigelow's Cold War thriller K-19: The Widowmaker.
Ondaatje: "As a writer I have found that the last two years of any book I work on are given over to its editing. I may have spent four or five years writing in the dark, but now I have to discover the shape of the object I have been struggling to make, its true organic shape, that figure in the carpet. I have made two documentary films, and my fictional works tend to follow this structural process: shooting or writing everything for a number of months or years, then shaping the content into a new form, till it is almost a newly discovered story. I move things around till they become sharp and clear, till they are in the right location. And it is at this stage that I discover the work's true voice and structure. When I edited my first film documentary I knew that this was where the art came in. When I watched Walter Murch at work during my peripheral involvement with the film of The English Patient, I knew that this was the stage of filmmaking that was closest to the art of writing."
THE FIRST CONVERSATION
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: What's the distinction of roles between editor and director -- in the way a scene is finally cut or the way a plot is possibly altered from a script? We know the editor has a very intimate relationship to the material. Does this give him or her a finer sense than the director of subliminal details and hidden structures in the film?
Section from a photo board
for The English Patient
For instance, for me, in Coppola'sThe Conversation there are some wonderful framings of scenes, or a peculiar emphasis on, say, an abstract shot of the back of Gene Hackman's head, or of the gray-green wall, or the scenery behind him -- and I wonder if these were "recognized" by you, plucked out of a secondary shot and perhaps made more significant than Coppola originally conceived them . . .
WALTER MURCH: I don't think an editor -- except in certain kinds of documentaries -- can impose on a film a vision that wasn't there to begin with. All the things you talk about were in Francis' head, in some form. I may have found things that worked along with his vision in a unique way, orchestrated it more fully in certain areas perhaps, but I doubt whether that would have happened had Francis not already written the melody, so to speak.
I become tuned to see things in a certain way when I'm working on a film. One of your obligations as an editor is to drench yourself in the sensibility of the film, to the point where you're alive to the smallest details and also the most important themes. This also applies to the head of every department. It's very similar, I'm sure, to how a conductor relates to the performers in an orchestra.