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Eyes Half Closed 

Novelist Michael Ondaatje and film editor Walter Murch talk Coppola, Lucas and the problems that make the movies


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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.

The practical aspect of what you were talking about, though, is very potent. The editor is the only one who has time to deal with the whole jigsaw. The director simply doesn't. To actually look at all the film the director has shot, and review it and sort through it, to rebalance all of that and make very specific notes about tiny details that are sometimes extremely significant, this falls to the editor.

As it's happened, I've always done the initial assembly of the film myself. I sit with the director when we watch dailies. If he or she has something to say about a particular moment, I note it. But if I were to add up the director's- comments column on my database, I wouldn't find a tremendous amount of information there. What's there is significant, though, and leads to other decisions. The smallest suggestion can help guide my eye to see the film the way the director is seeing it.

In the end, the editor of a film must try to take advantage of all the material that is given to him, and reveal it in a way that feels like a natural but exciting unfolding of the ideas of the film. It's really a question of orchestration: organizing the images and sounds in a way that is interesting, and digestible by the audience. Mysterious when it needs to be mysterious, and understandable when it needs to be understandable . . .

What's your "state" when you first start to edit the material you've been given? How strict are you? How quick to decide?

There's an interesting phenomenon I ran into early on in editing The Conversation. As you're putting something together for the first time, you have your own ideas about how it is supposed to work. You see the material that is being shot, and you are simultaneously reacting to it and gently shaping it. Of course the film has dramatic ups and downs, peaks and valleys, but the script indicates an overall shape. When you detect what you think is a deviation from that shape, your first impulse is, Well, I'll get to work and fix that now.

Let's say the dramatic slope seems to be going up too fast. Your tendency will be to do things editorially to compensate. Then when you think it's going too slow, you will shorten things or boost the intensity.

If you let that impulse completely loose out of its cage, what you'll find is that you may have pushed down a bulge at point A, but unbeknownst to you, later, at point C, there's going to be a compensating lift that you don't know about yet -- no one may know about it since films are usually shot out of sequence. So by pushing down on A you will have an overreaction at C.

It's a stage in the process I call "editing with eyes half closed." You can't open your eyes completely, which is to say, you can't express your opinion unreservedly. You don't know enough yet. And you're only the editor. You have to give everything the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, you can't be completely without opinion, otherwise nothing would ever get done. Putting a film together is all about having opinions: this not that, now not later, in or out. But exactly what the balance should be between neutrality and opinion is a very tricky question. The point is, if you squash this down, then you push the whole curve of the film down, whereas it might have righted itself by its own mysterious means. If you try to correct the film while putting it together, you end up chasing your own tail. . .

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