Photo by Peter Paterson

MICHAEL ONDAATJE IS THE AUTHOR OF EIGHT BOOKS, INCLUDING the novels In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient and 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, II and III) and Apocalypse Now.

This scene from Apocalypse
, shot with two cameras
at right angles, was actually
a rehearsal, but wound
up in the film.
American Zoetrope/Paramount)

During the making of the latter, he made the transition to editing film, and would go on to cut The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ghost and 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.”


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's The 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.

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. . .


Actually, when you stop to think about it, it is amazing that film editing works at all. One moment we're at the top of Mauna Kea and — cut! — the next we're at the bottom of the Marianas trench. The instantaneous transition of the cut is nothing like what we experience as normal life, which seems to be one continuous shot from the moment we wake until we close our eyes at night. It wouldn't have been surprising if film editing had been tried and then abandoned when it was found to induce a kind of seasickness. But it doesn't: We happily endure, in fact even enjoy, these sudden transitions for which nothing in our evolutionary history seems to have prepared us.

What do you think is going on?

Well, many things — not least of which are the visual dislocations that happen all the time when we dream. I believe that one of the secret engines that allows cinema to work, and have the marvelous power over us that it does, is the fact that for thousands of years we have spent eight hours every night in a “cinematic” dream state, and so are familiar with this version of reality . . .

. . . I think cinema is perhaps now where music was before musical notation — writing music as a sequence of marks on paper — was invented. Music had been a crucial part of human culture for thousands of years, but there had been no way to write it down. Its perpetuation depended on an oral culture, the way literature's did in Homeric days. But when modern musical notation was invented, in the 11th century, it opened up the underlying mathematics of music, and made that mathematics emotionally accessible. You could easily manipulate the musical structure on parchment, and it would produce startlingly sophisticated emotional effects when it was played. And this in turn opened up the concept of polyphony — multiple musical lines playing at the same time. Then, with the general acceptance of the mathematically determined even-tempered scale in the mid-18th century, music really took off. Complex and emotional changes of key became possible across the tonal spectrum. And that unleashed all the music of the late-18th and the 19th centuries: Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Brahms, Mahler!

I like to think cinema is stumbling around in the “pre-notation” phase of its history. We're still doing it all by the seat of our pants. Not that we haven't made wonderful things. But if you compare music in the 12th century with music in the 18th century, you can clearly sense a difference of several orders of magnitude in technical and emotional development, and this was all made possible by the ability to write music on paper. Whether we will ever be able to write anything like cinematic notation, I don't know. But it's interesting to think about.

One of those great ear-opening experiences happened to me when I was 19 and working at a radio station, cataloging its classical-record collection. I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to teach myself music history, so I started with the oldest music first, listening to what I was cataloging as I went. It was a summerlong project, and after three weeks I'd only reached the 15th century. I should mention that this was a lonely, one-person occupation — I didn't have much contact with anyone else at the station. But one day I had to go upstairs to the control booth for some reason, and the moment I opened the door, my ears were assaulted with a cacophony of rhythmic and dissonant weirdness. This was a staid classical station, and I thought: We don't play this kind of music! What is this?

Holding my ears, I asked the engineer, and he picked up the record jacket and showed me: J. S. Bach's Saint Matthew Passion. Suddenly this “chaotic” music began to transform itself, and in only a few seconds, my ears navigated the 300-year distance between the 15th century, where I had been, and the 18th century, where I was now. I learned, viscerally, that what we think of as normal is largely a question of what we are most often exposed to . . .

Ingmar Bergman talks somewhere about how making a film, with a large group of people, is akin to a medieval community building a cathedral.

We were talking earlier about having multiple editors on a film like Apocalypse Now. But it seems to happen throughout the filmmaking process. How do you get 150 temperamental artistic types to work together on the same project, and make something that not only comes in on schedule, on budget, but that has an artistic coherence? It's simply beyond the ability of a single person, a director or a producer, to cause that to happen by any series of direct commands. It's so complicated that it just can't be done. The question is: How does it happen?


If you've ever remodeled a house, you'll know how difficult it is even to get four or five carpenters to agree on anything: billions of people have been building houses, for thousands of years — “houseness” should almost be encoded in our DNA. And yet when you remodel, it's very common to go double over budget and schedule.

By comparison, we've only been making films for a hundred years, and a film crew is made up of sometimes hundreds of people, yet somehow, miraculously, at the end of “only” a year, there is, one hopes, a wonderful, mysterious, powerful, coherent, two-hour-long vision that has no precedent — and the more original the vision, the more the process is amazing. And yet studios are furious with us if we go 10 percent over budget and schedule!

We tend to accept this miracle because we're right in the middle of it — it seems somehow normal — but I think in the future, hundreds of years from now, people will look back on our period a bit the way we look back at Gothic cathedrals. How did they build those cathedrals, when they didn't have computers, when they didn't have the engineering knowledge and tools that we have? How did they know exactly how to build those gigantic creations, each more marvelous than the last? It would be a challenge for us today, despite all our power and knowledge, to duplicate Chartres cathedral. And yet it was done with human muscle and, literally, horsepower. How did they dare to dream and then accomplish such a thing? These fantastic buildings seemingly came out of nowhere. Suddenly Gothic architecture was happening all over Europe at the same time. It's phenomenal what went on, and it's mysterious to us today how it was actually accomplished. It's the same with the Egyptian pyramids. I think future generations with powers we can't even imagine will look back on filmmaking in the 20th century and say, How did they do all that, back then, with their ridiculously limited resources?


Did you have control during the [sound] mix of The Godfather?

To a certain extent, I did. Francis was directing Private Lives for American Conservatory Theater, up here in San Francisco, so I was his “man in Havana” — I was the person representing the intentions of the director, which, because Francis trusted me, were frequently my own intentions.

Were there any scenes that created problems for the studio?

There was an intense crisis with the music. When Bob Evans heard Nino Rota's music, he felt it would sink the film, that it was too lugubrious and didn't have enough energy. He wanted Henry Mancini to rescue the film and to make it more hard-boiled. He didn't like these rather soft-edged ideas that Francis and Nino had come up with — he wanted it to be more American and punchy. So there was a big struggle between Francis and Evans, during which Francis at one point said he would quit the film and take his name off it if that happened.

You mean the main theme music?

Yes . . . well, all the music.

My God, it's a trademark!

Well, nobody knew that at the time. Remember, someone at MGM wanted to cut “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. Frequently what happens in film is that people, especially distracted executives, will say, I hate — pick one — the music, camerawork, art direction, acting in your film. But if you actually get under the skin of that prejudice, you can discover the particular thing they really hate — the pea under the mattress. It often comes down to one or two small things that spoil everything else. When I talked to Bob Evans, it turned out he hated the music for the horse's-head scene, where Woltz pulls the sheet back and the severed head of his half-million-dollar horse is revealed in the bed. Maybe because Woltz is the head of a studio and Evans was the head of a studio and it's a particularly striking, grisly scene — the first violence in the film — he felt the music should be appropriate to that.

I tried to listen to what Nino had written with Bob Evans' ears, and I thought he had a point. The music, as it was originally written, was a waltz and it played against the horror of the event. It was sweet carousel music. You were seeing those horrible images, but the music was counterpointing the horror of the visuals. Perhaps it needed to be crazier a little earlier.


So I tried something I had done on THX 1138 — layering the music, playing records backwards, turning them upside down, slowing them down — a version of what I'd done when I was 11 years old.

Nino's music for the horse's-head scene had an A, B, A musical structure. That is to say, it had an opening statement, then a variation, and then a return to the opening statement. This structure allowed me to make a duplicate of the music, slip the sync of the second copy one whole musical statement, and then superimpose them together. The music started off A, as it was written, but then became A + B, simultaneously, and then B + A. You now heard, superimposed on each other, things that were supposed to be separate in time. So it starts off as the same piece of music, but then begins — just as Woltz realizes that something is wrong — to grate against itself. There is now a disorienting madness to the music that builds and builds to the moment when Woltz finally pulls the sheet back.

This happened in the shot where we're coming into the bedroom at night, or first thing at dawn?

Early morning. All is normal until he starts to stir and realizes that something is in bed with him — that's when this madness, this second element, comes in. Really a replay of the opening statement but harmonically interweaving with the second . . . You know the way you feel when you're woken by something, and something is wrong, and you wonder, Is something wrong? What is wrong? Oh my God! No, it can't be! It's even worse than I thought! Aaarghhh!

We played this version for Evans, and he thought it was fantastic. He asked us to rewind it as he phoned up Charlie Bluhdorn, who was head of Gulf + Western, in New York. He took the telephone all the way up to the screen and said, “Listen to this, Charlie! Roll it!” holding the phone up to the screen as the music played. I can't imagine what it must have sounded like at the other end of the line, or what Bluhdorn thought, but Evans was very happy: He felt some corner had been turned.

(Photo by Richard Blanschar)

I was sitting at the mixing desk, with Dick Portman, who was the lead mixer, and the whole thing had made Dick very nervous. To do something like this with the music was . . . well, people didn't do this. It was certainly very risky if it hadn't worked out. So we were both sitting there, looking at this wonderful scene — a big projection in black-and-white of the head of this fictional studio boss discovering a horse's head in his bed as the real head of Paramount stood holding the telephone receiver up against the screen, his shadow cast across it as the scene unwinds. It was one of those iconic moments that you can't believe as it's happening . . .


I've heard you talk before about the importance of ambiguity in film, and the need to save that ambiguous quality which exists in a book or painting, and which you think a film does not often have. And at the same time in a mix you are trying to “perfect” that ambiguity.

I know. It's a paradox. And one of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there's another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or the actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix — even though it had been ambiguous up to that point — I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it's desperately important to solve it. You can't say, I don't want to solve this because it's got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there's a sort of hemorrhaging of the organism.



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 . . .


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? . . .



The talent to edit and the talent to conceive or write a film, how distinct are they?

Pretty distinct. Everyone creative has elements of both. The editorial part of me is fairly muscular, but the other part — the generative part — is weaker, more undernourished. Or becomes frightened of the muscularity of the editorial part.

So when I'm writing I have to find a way to let these two parts work safely with each other. Born writers — well, they're people who, by some fluke, have those two aspects of their mind in perfect harmony. Without even being conscious of it, they are generating and editing at the same time, in perfect modulation. It's like those double-barreled tubes of epoxy glue, which dole out the resin and the hardener in equal amounts.

In my case, I realized the danger was that I would come up with an idea and then, immediately, the editorial part of me would begin to attack it. And you never get anywhere that way. On the other hand, if the generative part of you is very strong and the editorial part weak, you wind up with lots of words but a lack of structure and precision to the ideas.

When I write a script, I lie down — because that's the opposite of standing up. I stand up to edit, so I lie down to write. I take a little tape recorder and, without being aware of it, go into a light hypnotic trance. I pretend the film is finished and I'm simply describing what was happening. I start out chronologically but then skip around. Anything that occurs to me, I say into the recorder. Because I'm lying down, because my eyes are closed, because I'm not looking at anything, and the ideas are being captured only by this silent scribe — the tape recorder — there's nothing for me to criticize. It's just coming out.

That is my way of disarming the editorial side. Putting myself in a situation that is as opposite as possible to how I edit, both physically and mentally. To encourage those ideas to come out of the woods like little animals and drink at the pool safely, without feeling that the falcon is going to come down and tear them apart.

It's a bloodthirsty profession!

Michael Ondaatje appears in conversation with critics David Thomson and Elvis Mitchell on Friday, October 4, at 7:30 p.m., at the Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. For reservations, call Writer's Bloc at (310) 335-0917. Ondaatje also appears at Barnes & Noble on the Third Street Promenade, 1201 Third Street, Santa Monica, on Saturday, October 5, at 7:30 p.m. For info, call (310) 260-9110.

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