The sound film man
by his soundtrack for The Conversation, Walter Murch has a rare
understanding of the elements of cinema. Kevin Hilton listens carefully
LOOK THROUGH any film encyclopedia and you will find numerous actors,
editors, directors and cinematographers. Less numerous are sound
designers. Fewer still are sound designers who have also excelled
in picture editing, directed their own movie and even done stints
as camera operator and actor. In a field that, even today, gets
overlooked in favour of special visual effects and other technical
disciplines, Walter Murch is something of a hero, a fact underlined
by the number of people queuing up to talk to him or at least shake
his hand when he gave a lecture at the 'School of Sound' seminar
held in London during April.
These sessions were accompanied by aseason of movies with sophisticated
or notable soundtracks at the National Film Theatre. Among the titles
were four of Murch's best: American Graffiti (1973); The Conversation
(1974), which he introduced at the NFT, and for which he received
his first Oscar nomination; Apocalypse Now (1979), his first Oscar
winner; and The English Patient (1996), for which he picked up two
statuettes, one for the sound, one for picture editing.
Born in New York, Murch was part of the first generation of movie
lovers who went to film school. It was at the Cinema School of the
University of Southern California that he met the writer-director-producer
George Lucas, who would go on to become one of the most successful
commercial movie makers of all time. Murch's early career is entwined
with that of Lucas and both became involved with another huge figure
(in both senses) when Lucas won a scholarship to observe Francis
Ford Coppola making the out-of-character Finian's Rainbow for Warner
Bros in 1968.
On Coppola's next movie, 1969's The Rain People, Lucas took the
role of production associate, while Murch got his first sound credit.
In his work, Murch has always acknowledged the correlation between
what is seen and what is heard, something that was not necessarily
the product of film school lectures. 'I think that, to a degree,
it was already obvious to me,' he says. 'As I progressed in my career,
the depth of the relationship between the two elements became more
and more obvious. There is an opportunity to take advantage of this
complex relationship but you are not free to do that completely
because you are always an observer of the film as well as someone
working on it.'
MURCH IS NOT an admirer of the soundtrack for its own sake style
of working, preferring to recognise that it has to work with everything
else in the production. 'Sound has a great power but it is a conditional
power,' he observes. 'It places the image in a physical and emotional
context, helping us to decide how to take the image and how it integrates
itself into everything else. This goes back to the silent movies,
which were never completely silent because there was music and even
sound effects. The only thing that was missing was the spoken word.
Silence can be a useful tool; although it isn't used that often.
One memorable scene that I used it on was the end of Godfather II
, where Michael Corleone [Al Pacino] is sitting by the lake.
I dropped the soundtrack down to the atmos and then shut it down
completely, which transmitted the interior emotions being felt by
After The Rain People, Murch and Lucas were among the army of camera
operators employed for Gimme Shelter (1970), the concert film of
the Rolling Stones' now notorious Altamont gig. 'Everybody automatically
assumes that I must have done the sound on that film,' he says,
'but I was just a cameraman. The makers came to Zoetrope Studios
to hire cameras, including a 1000mm lens, which I operated. The
final shot of the movie--a man taking a piss, silhouetted against
the sunrise, which I shot from a great distance so he had no idea--was
Next came THX 1132, a dystopian fantasy developed from a prize-winning
short Lucas made at university. As well as designing the sound,
Murch received a co-writing credit, cementing his creative partnership
with the director. The two went on to make the nostalgic American
Graffiti but the sound designer was not involved in Lucas' next
project, the movie that made his name and established Dolby Stereo
as a cinematic tool--Star Wars (1977). Part of this is due to being
involved in the sprawl that was the production of Apocalypse Now
(1979) and also two other movies, The Black Stallion (eventually
released in 1980) and Julia.
After American Graffiti, Murch worked more with his mentor than
his peer, becoming involved in The Conversation (1974), which is
regarded by many as much as the sound designer's film as Coppola's.
The plot revolves around a surveillance expert (Gene Hackman) who,
using sophisticated microphones, may or may not have recorded two
people discussing a murder plot. Nominated for the Academy Award
for Best Sound, Murch has distinct memories of this movie: 'For
me it had all the uncertainty of a first film because it was the
first one where I both edited and designed the sound. Perhaps because
of this there is an emotional edge to it that I can recall to this
day. A difficulty was that it is both a character study and a murder
mystery and it required a knife edge balance between the two, which
are almost contradictory. If you have a murder mystery, the characters
subservient to the plot, something that Hitchcock was a master of.
Ultimately The Conversation had to be both and there was struggle
in the sound and the editing to find the edge and perch on it.'
MURCH'S NEXT MOVIE for Coppola was the near-hallucinatory Apocalypse
Now, for which he was Oscar nominated for film editing and won the
Award for Best Sound. Many stories are told about this production,
some of which are documented in both Eleanor Coppola's diary and
the making-of film Hearts of Darkness (1991). 'I remember it in
terms of being a first,' Murch recalls. 'It was the first multitrack
film I had worked on and it was new territory because it was a multichannel
soundtrack with low frequency enhancement. At the time I looked
at the way the film was shot and thought to myself, 'Does he [Coppola]
really need to do this?' because there was so much else going on.
But when I looked at it later, with the big Panavision visuals,
I realised that the sound-track we did was the thing to do.'
From the stories of Apocalypse Now and the evidence of Hearts of
Darkness, an image emerges of Coppola as a single-minded dictator.
Murch says this is not the case. 'Francis hires heads of departments
and collaborators and allows them to experiment. He always gives
us plenty of rope, sometimes enough to hang ourselves with. Hearts
of Darkness emphasised some aspects of his character and the way
he works but it was meant to be cinematic as well as just a record
of what happened during the making of Apocalypse Now.'
Another collaborative director Murch has worked with is Anthony
Mingella, whose The English Patient was the Titanic of the 1997
Oscars, winning Murch his second Best Sound Award and his first
Best Film Editing statuette. 'He's one of those very collaborative
directors,' he says of Mingella, 'evolving ideas with everyone and
not necessarily sticking with his own concepts. His goal seems to
be not to dictate but to harness the ideas and talent of others.
That's the role of a director, to see that all the different points
of view of the craft departments are pointing in the right direction.
He has to set in motion a very complex machine and create a unity.
The advantage of many points of view is that the work will be multifaceted,
rather than monophonic, which is the danger with more dictatorial
In Murch's most recent project, he indirectly worked with one of
the great mavericks of modern cinema, Orson Welles. In restoring
Touch of Evil (1958), one of the greatest film noir thrillers and
yet another Welles film that suffered from studio interference (to
the point where Welles was barred from the lot and the movie was
finished by another hand), Murch again combined sound and vision.
'I got a phone call out of the blue from the producer,' he recalls.
'They had found the memos Welles had written during production,
before he was fired from the movie. These notes are half about the
sound and what he wanted to do; the other half is about the pictures.
I suppose the restorers considered that they needed someone who
could both work on the sound and the pictures and that Walter Murch
was the man.'
WELLES IS RECOGNISED for his precision but even this reputation
did not prepare Murch for what his notes held. 'I was shocked by
the detail of the memos and Welles' articulation of what he wanted,'
he says. 'Every film should have a document like this as a kind
of touchstone but rarely does a director have the time, the ability
or the articulation to do it. Welles had all three. Because of this
we were loathe to stray from what he had said. If he had been there
we could have talked about it but unfortunately he's dead so we
held ourselves strictly to what was in the memos, which are not
only articulate but also specific. However, the memos did allow
a certain degree of interpretation so it was a bit like collaborating
with Welles on the work.'
Touch of Evil was loaded reel by reel into an Avid nonlinear editing
workstation, where Murch cleaned up the pictures and remixed the
audio as an 8-track digital soundtrack. It is generally held that
film making has moved away from the old mag recorder methods but
Murch says that it is still relatively new for him. 'Last year I
remastered the soundtracks of The Godfather trilogy using it and
I've made a few music videos that way but the first film Iworked
on using it from start to finish was The English Patient. Surprisingly
it is also the first film to have been edited electronically and
win an Oscar. I would have assumed that this barrier would have
been passed before that but it's not the case.'
In terms of the differences between the old and new technologies,
Murch says that the primary one is flexibility, with computers bringing
more functionality. 'For the sound on The English Patient we used
the Sonic Solutions system. They have in place something that other
manufacturers are only now addressing--a network function that enables
people working on the different elements (footsteps, atmos) to access
the edit decision list and see what is being done. In this way the
two can be played together to see how it will work, without interfering
with anyone else. It's very different to how it was before, when
you would have to stop people from working to try things out. You
also have the ability to have the computer on the stage itself and
fix anything that goes wrong there and then.'
Walter Murch's career in movies has been both diverse--in terms
of the people and material he has worked with and the different
roles he has taken--and highly successful, despite his one excursion
into directing, the overly bleak Wizard of Oz sequel Return to Oz,
being a commercial and critical failure. In his work he has shown
how audio can be used to enhance and drive along a film and that
technology is just a means towards creativity. The main surprise
in meeting him is discovering that a man so associated with The
Doors song 'The End' was not a fan of Jim Morrison and his chums.
Still, that's the movies--nothing is straightforward. Which is as
it should be.
Walter Murch filmography
Touch of Evil (1998, restoration sound and film editing)
Dumbarton Bridge (1998, consulting editor)
The English Patient (1996, sound, film editor)
First Knight (1995, rerecording mixer, film editor)
I Love Trouble (1994, film editor)
Crumb (1994, rerecording mixer)
House of Cards (1993, film editor)
Romeo is Bleeding (1993, sound rerecordist, filmeditor)
The Godfather: Part III (1990, film editor)
Ghost (1990, rerecording mixer, film editor)
The Film School Generation (1994, actor) (TV)
Call from Space (1989, film editor)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988, filmeditor)
Return to Oz (1985, director, cowriter)
Dragonslayer (1981, rerecording mixer)
Apocalypse Now (1979, sound montage, film editor)
Julia (1977, film editor)
The Conversation (1974, sound montage, sound rerecordist, co-film
The Godfather: Part II (1974, sound)
American Graffiti (1973, sound)
The Godfather (1972, production consultant)
THX 1138 (1970, sound montage, cowriter)
Gimme Shelter (1970, cameraman)
The Rain People (1969, sound)
Original URL http://www.studio-sound.com/archive/may98/i_waltermurch.html