Trevor Hogg profiles the career of three time Academy Award-winning sound designer and film editor Walter Murch in the first of a five part feature...
Enthralled with the world of sound, an eleven year old boy convinced his parents to buy a tape recorder. “I would hold the microphone out the window, recording sounds of New York,” reminisced renowned American film editor and sound designer Walter Murch. “I would construct little arrangements of metal, and tape the microphone to them, striking and rubbing the metal in different places. It was fascinating.” The audio experiments led the curious child to inadvertently uncover what would become his profession as an adult. “I discovered the concept of physically editing tape – that you could rearrange it by cutting out sections and putting those sections into a different order.”
Eventually, his creative impulses caused Walter Murch to journey beyond the realm of sound and into the visual arena of cinema. “When I was a student at John Hopkins, a group of us made some short silent films, and I discovered then that editing images had emotionally the same impact for me as editing sound. It was intoxicating.” Torn between two different mediums, Murch came to an understanding which would establish his career path. “When I got to the University of Southern California as a graduate student, both of those things – sound and picture – came together.” There were others attending film school at the same time who would go on to make names for themselves. “Francis [Ford Coppola] was across town at UCLA, but George [Lucas] was a fellow student at USC. UCLA and USC were naturally rivals, but we all knew each other. UCLA accused us of being soulless sellouts to technology, and we accused them of being drugged-crazed narcissists incapable of telling a story or wielding a camera.”
Graduating in 1967, Walter Murch found hardly any job opportunities in Hollywood; however, the future was not entirely bleak for him. “One of the advantages of going to film school, on a practical level, is that you form friendships with people of like minds and interests. And those friendships created an informal old-boys’ network. If you have fifteen people in a group, the chance that one of them will get a job is pretty high. That’s sometimes enough to lead to something else.” A colleague working at Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Films offered his unemployed classmate the position that he was leaving. Murch applied for the job and was accepted. “Three or four months later one of the filmmakers there was preparing a film on the function of the eye and asked me if I wanted to edit the film. I said, ‘Fantastic!’”
Moving onto freelance editing, Murch briefly worked for Dove Films, a commercial production company owned by cameramen Cal Bernstein and Haskell Wexler (Bound for Glory). “Then in December of 1968, about a year and a half after I’d left film school, I got a call from George Lucas [Star Wars]. He and Francis Coppola [The Godfather] had met. It turned out they had rented Carl Bernstein’s equipment to shoot a film, The Rain People . Francis needed somebody to do the final sound, and asked me if I wanted to move to San Francisco and do that. He was thinking of basing American Zoetrope [Coppola’s production company] up there.” Wexler decided to join in the risky venture. “I remember George saying, ‘Well we may all be back in a year with our tails between our legs, but at least it’ll be fun while we’re doing it. Who knows what will happen!’. Most people in Hollywood thought what we were doing was crazy. But it was the late sixties, it was San Francisco, it was all part of what we saw then as the beginnings of the technical democratization of the filmmaking process – with comparatively little money you could actually go on the road and shoot a feature film.”
As a member of the post-production team for The Rain People, a picture about a pregnant housewife (Shirley Knight) who embarks on her last road trip of freedom, the rookie recruit found himself encountering a new set of worries. “When I started work, the editor, Barry Malkin (The Cotton Club), was going back to New York. He said, ‘It’s done, I’m going home. Francis is in Europe, he’ll be back in a month or so.’ So there I was, in a cabin up Benedict Canyon, all alone with the film.” Concerned about being a nonunion ex-film student working on a studio picture, Walter Murch was reluctant to visit any of the film libraries to obtain the prerecorded sound required for him to complete his task. “I recorded all of the sound effects – all of the sound, except for the dialogue and music – and then organized it across a number of different tracks.”
After the sound for The Rain People had been mixed in San Francisco in May of 1969, Murch was given an assignment to adapt a short student film into a feature length version. “I worked with George on the screenplay of THX 1138 (1970). The basis of THX was a treatment that Matthew Robbins and I had written as students. George, who by his own definition was not a writer, needed a script for a class he was taking, and had asked us, ‘Aren’t you going to do that underground thing?’ When we said no, he took it, renamed it THX 1138, and made it much more wonderful than our two-page outline.”
With the script completed during the summer, George Lucas started the principal photography in September. “I began to record sound effects. George, after directing, also edited the film himself. We were working out of a little house in Mill Valley, where George and Marcia Lucas [Taxi Driver] lived. There were three of us doing post-production: George doing the editing, Marcia working as George’s assistant, and me doing the sound. I would arrive on motorcycle at nine o’clock, start working, and at the end of the day go back to the houseboat in Sausalito, where Aggie [Murch’s wife] and I and Walter [Murch’s son] were living.”
Major troubles ensued when the major studio hierarchy, responsible for funding the project, got to screen the movie. “When the executives at Warner Bros. saw the director’s cut of THX in June of 1970, they were so distraught they cancelled the development deal they had with Zoetrope. All of the projects that were slated – Apocalypse Now , American Graffiti , The Black Stallion , The Conversation  and others – were abandoned. Not only that, they demanded all the development money back. It was out of this crisis that Francis considered directing The Godfather , as a way of making ends meet.” Released at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1971, the science fiction tale THX 1138 stars a free-spirited Robert Duvall [Tender Mercies] fleeing from an emotionalist society; the picture won over the hearts of the film critics but not of the general public.
Though reluctant to direct The Godfather, the Italian gangster saga won the Academy Award for Best Picture and proved to be Francis Ford Coppola’s financial salvation. “The movie really set Zoetrope up as a professionally recognized production company,” stated Murch who worked on the sound for the film. “Initially it was exactly the kind of big Hollywood film he [Coppola] wanted to get away from. But as he worked on it, he saw that he could infiltrate it, make it resonate with his interests, include personal details about Italian-American life, and draw on his own style of filmmaking to turn it into a more European kind of American film.”
Based on the novel by Mario Puzo, the movie revolves around Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) who reluctantly takes over his father’s organized crime empire. Acknowledging that a number of the major scenes, such as the killing of Michael’s brother-in-law Carlo, are played without music, Walter Murch remarked, “When music makes an entrance in a film there’s the emotional equivalent of a cutaway. Music functions as an emulsifier that allows you to dissolve a certain emotion and take it in a certain direction. When there’s no music, the filmmakers are standing back saying simply, ‘Look at this.’ without appearing to comment.”
When defining the role of the man behind the camera, Walter Murch said, “A talented director lays out opportunities that can be seized by other people [and] protects that communal vision by accepting or rejecting certain contributions.” As for his responsibility, Murch replied, “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.”
Riding on the commercial success of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola revived his pet project about a hired spy (Gene Hackman) who becomes entangled in a fatal conspiracy. “Francis was reading the novel Steppenwolf at the time he was writing The Conversation , and he transformed Steppenwolf’s hero Harry Haller to Harry Caller,” recalled Murch who worked as a sound and supervising editor on the film. “Then he thought, ‘No, that’s too much, too literal’ – since Harry was a professional eavesdropper, bugging telephones, et cetera – and he shortened it to Harry Call. Then his secretary accidentally typed Caul. And – it was exactly as it happened with Auden – he thought, ‘This misprint is much better.’ Caul sounds like Call, but it gave Francis a visual metaphor for the film of a man who always wears a semi-translucent raincoat, which is a caul-like membrane; whenever he’s threatened or something bad is going to happen, he retreats behind pieces of plastic or rippled glass.”
Editing the picture was awkward as the story lacked a conventional plot. “The film was a delicate balance between a character study of this rather colourless man, Hermann Hesse’s Harry Haller, and a dramatic mystery of corporate takeover and murder – an [Alfred] Hitchcock kind of idea,” said Walter Murch who loved the concept of the tale which harkens back to Rear Window  and Vertigo  where the obsessions of the central figure are as important as the unfolding criminal investigation. To help fill in the narrative gaps, personal experience served as a critical tool for Coppola. “You can see that the dramatic dilemmas of The Godfather films, or even The Conversation, were close enough to his own life and family and work that whenever he got into a quandary about what to do next he could simply reach into his own experience.”
While he was working on The Conversation, Walter Murch was sound mixing another resurrected Zoetrope project. American Graffiti (1973) is a coming-of-age tale about a group of 1950s high school students on the eve of their graduation. The film served as an extension of the sound experimentations that George Lucas and Walter Murch had started with THX 1138. “We took all of the music and made it so it would bounce around the environment…as a sound effect,” explained Lucas of the picture which established his reputation in Hollywood. “Then we took sound effects and used them in the places where we really needed tension and drama.” Despite the major box office appeal of the picture, the director was unable to produce a movie dealing with the Vietnam War. “After the success of American Graffiti in 1973,” recalled Murch, “George wanted to revive it, but it was still too hot a topic, the war was still going on, and nobody wanted to finance something like that. So George considered his options: What did he really want to say with Apocalypse Now? The message boiled down to the ability of a small group of people to defeat a gigantic power simply by the force of their convictions. And he decided, ‘All right if it’s politically too hot as a contemporary subject, I’ll put the essence of the story in outer space and make it happen in a galaxy long ago and far away.’ The rebel group were the North Vietnamese, and the Empire was the United States. And if you have the force, no matter how small you are, you can defeat an overwhelming big power. Star Wars  is George’s transubstantiated version of Apocalypse Now.”
Returning to the world of the Italian mafia, Walter Murch mixed the re-recorded sound for The Godfather: Part II (1974). “At the beginning you’re following the story of how the young Vito Corleone came to America at the turn of the century. And then you cut to his son Michael at the height of his powers in 1958,” stated Murch of the movie which, like its predecessor, won the Oscar for Best Picture. “The film alternates between the two stories seven times during its course. You enjoy thematic parallels between the lives of Vito and Michael, but they’re completely different time frames. The only time their two stories come together is Christmas 1941. And the character who unites them – Don Vito – arrives at the house, but you never see him.” The dramatic effect was used out of necessity. “Francis had wanted [Marlon] Brando – as Don Vito – in that scene but Brando wouldn’t do it, for whatever reason. Because Francis’ plan was to unite the two Godfather films, he had wanted the point of juncture within the film itself…So what Francis did – which was brilliant – was to focus on Michael, and leave Michael sitting alone at the table, thinking about his destiny.”
Armed with the BAFTA Award for Best Editing which he shared with Richard Chew (Star Wars), Walter Murch moved beyond Zoetrope and Francis Ford Coppola to work on a picture helmed by another Oscar-winning filmmaker, Fred Zinnemann (A Man for All Seasons).
Continue to part two.
For more on Walter Murch, be sure to visit FilmSound.org and NPR, while Michael Ondaatje's The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film provides a comprehensive analysis of Murch's career.
You can also show your appreciation and discuss his body of work on the Walter Murch Facebook page.
Walter Murch lecture - part one and part two.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.