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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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And more of a confusion.

Yes. I keep thinking about it, and it's a wonderful dilemma: You have to acknowledge that there must be unsolved problems at each stage. As hard as you work, you must have this secret, unspoken hope that one very significant problem will remain unsolved. But you never know what that is until the film is done. You can almost define a film by the problem it poses, that it can't answer itself, that it then asks the audience to solve . . .

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Somewhere you draw a distinction between two kinds of filmmaking: the Hitchcock idea that a film is already complete in the creator's head -- "I invented it in my solitude, and I now just have to go out and make it" -- and the Coppola concept that thrives on process, where one choreographs and invents and gathers during the process of filmmaking. Do you see one kind of filmmaking taking over from the other as technologies improve? You've worked with both kinds of filmmakers . . . Someone like George Lucas, for instance, seems closer to the Hitchcock style.

Yes, the very first people I worked with professionally were the epitome of those two different approaches. Francis is a practitioner of and is fascinated by the human and technical process of making the film. George, in comparison, is somebody who has a complete vision of the film in his head. For him, the problem becomes how to get that vision, practically, onto the screen, in as unadulterated a form as possible.

Murch editing The Conversation
(Photo by Kim Aubry
Courtesy American Zoetrope)

Both approaches involve a process. But the most important distinction is whether you allow the process to become an active collaborator in the making of the film, or use it as a machine and try to restrict its contributions. The most extreme practitioner of the latter approach is Hitchcock. The equivalent in another discipline would be an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright who has all of the building on the drawing boards, down to the color of the bedspreads in the room, and his only concern is to make the contractors who'll do the work "get" what he already has. Any variation from it is seen as a defect. The perfection already exists.

The other approach -- Francis', for example -- is to harvest the random elements that the process throws up, things that were not in the filmmaker's mind when he began.

I'm overstating in order to clarify the distinction. In fact, nobody is completely hot or cold in this regard, and I don't believe everything that Hitchcock writes. I've seen the breakdown of the Psycho bathroom scene, which supposedly was storyboarded down to the nth degree, and followed exactly. Just from knowing what I know about filmmaking, I know that what is in the film was not storyboarded exactly like that . . .

It has to be said -- both systems have their risks. The risk of the Hitchcockian system is that you may stifle the creative force of the people who are collaborating with you. The film that results -- even if it's a perfect vision of what somebody had in his head -- can be lifeless: It seems to exist on its own, without the necessary collaboration either of the people who made the film or even, ultimately, the audience. It says: I am what I am whether you like it or not.

On the other hand, the risk with the process-driven film is that it can collapse into chaos. Somehow the central organizing vision can be so eaten away and compromised by all the various contributors that it collapses under its own weight.

It seems now that with the digital systems you have the ability to edit more personally. You can improvise privately and try a variety of possibilities -- the way you can with a manuscript -- tinker, move back and forth . . . Whereas you did not have the same freedom when you were actually cutting film -- which was a more arduous task.

That's true, to a degree. But I've always tried to listen closely to that little voice in my head which says: Why not go down this other path? It's just a question of the time you have to take those different paths. With digital, you can do more exploration in less time. But the real question is: Are you the kind of person who likes to explore? . . .

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