1985’s Return to Oz was many things – one of the weirdest films released under the Disney label, it traumatised more children than the death of Bambi’s mother (remember the Wheelers?) and marked Walter Murch’s first outing as a director. What it wasn’t, however, was a hit. The visionary editor and sound designer never directed again and, as Fats Domino once put it, ain’t that a shame. These dumb executives must have really disliked chickens.
“I discovered editing in 1953, believe it or not, when I was 10” – admits Walter Murch during a meeting after the screening of The Talented Mr. Ripley. “My friend’s father had a tape recorder. I would go to that kid’s apartment, his name was Alex, and say: Alex, let’s play with the tape recorder! He was really not that interested, but he humoured me and I discovered how to record. You could take the tape and turn it upside down; you could chop it up with scissors and place it together with tape. It was intoxicating. Then I discovered that the process of editing a picture was exactly the same. Later on I found ways to choreograph picture editing with the sound editing and make those 2 universes come together in a very good way.” Alex, wherever you are – we thank you.
It’s hard to think of Walter Murch without thinking about Francis Ford Coppola and it’s hard to think about cinema without mentioning THAT scene. The helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now to the tune of Wagner’s Ride of Valkyrie’s. Parodied in everything from The Simpsons to Jackass 3D (C’mon, like you haven’t seen that one too), it was pure cinema – powerful, iconic and so groundbreaking it basically created a new job. Impressed with Murch’s work on that scene, Coppola gave him the first official credit as a sound designer. Few months later, he won his first Oscar. Ironically, Murch always begins the editing process with the sound turned off. “It’s like when a patient comes to the doctor’s office. The first thing you say is: Take off your clothes. You want to look at it, to expose all the rashes, broken bones and other problems this patient might have. If you immediately cover it all up with perfume and make-up, you are also covering the areas with real problems.”
Murch is no stranger to making history; in 1995, he received Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Sound for The English Patient – the only person ever to be given such an honour. “That was the first big film that Anthony [Minghella] had directed” – says Murch, who went on to work with the British director on two other movies: the aforementioned The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain. “When we first met, he said: If I find a shirt that I like, I buy 50 copies of that shirt so I never have to buy another shirt again. The implication, as I later came to understand, was that if we hit it off, he would want to work just with me. I really thought that I would pass the rest of my career working on films with him. But unfortunately he died tragically in his mid-50s.”
For all his prestigious awards, including this year’s Camerimage Special Award to Editor with Unique Visual Sensitivity, Murch’s philosophy remains very simple: “When I look back at some of the things I did I don’t think: Oh, I would have done that differently now. I don’t know what it says about me, or the films I have worked on, but that has remained constant. The editor is supposed to be a representative of the audience. If you can isolate yourself from the conditions of shooting, you have a chance at a fairly objective approach. It’s like building a boat; the construction is done at a dry dock, but it is intended to sail. Its essential beauty can be seen only when it hits the water and survives the storms. Which is what all the films presented to the public have to endure – only the best ones survive without being swamped by tsunamis.”
Given that he re-edited Touch of Evil, worked on such classics as The Godfather: Part II, THX 1138 or The Conversation and even wrote a book on the subject, In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, Murch clearly knows what he is talking about. “In Roman languages montage means to build, to put something together. And that’s mainly what we do! The same applies to putting together a soundtrack.” It’s not always easy, though. “To be a good editor, you have to be able to stay in a small room, usually without a window, for 16 hours a day. Which is a form of torture in a sense – you are all by yourself, under a great deal of pressure with the same things repeated over and over and over again. You also need a sense of rhythm, because editing is a kind of dance. You are choreographing the flow of images. There is this wonderful motto by Robert Bresson: The script is in your head and you kill it on paper. It’s in the actors and you kill it with a camera. And then it comes back to life in the editing room like paper flowers in water.” Now that’s a pretty picture. Slightly too girly for our taste, but hey, we are watching Jackass – our opinions should not be taken into account.
It’s funny how just when you think things couldn’t get any better, they do. And let me tell you – we are not that easily surprised. “We were mixing American Graffiti and George [Lucas] was writing Star Wars at the time” – says Murch when we chat earlier this week. “One night we were making some changes and I was communicating with the machine room. And then I said: R-2, D-2! In our way of speaking it meant: Reel 2, Dialogue 2. George, who had been asleep, suddenly woke up and asked: What did you say? What a great name! I didn’t know it, but at the time he was trying to figure out how to call these robots.” Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Walter Murch – a man who revolutionised editing and sound design and named R2-D2. The force is strong with this one.