Weekend Reading: How Walter Murch Made the Editor the Author

The following article was included in this week's edition of The Screening Rooman e-newsletter I send out, featuring interesting mass media content I come across throughout the week. This article, from The Dissolve, and written by Charles Bramesco, talks about legendary editor Walter Murch and his approach to the work he did on Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation.

In his 1995 book In the Blink Of An Eye, film editor Walter Murch recalls a conversation with a friend of his wife. He asks what Murch does for a living, and when Murch tells him that he edits movies, the friend replies, “Oh, editing. That’s where you cut out the bad bits.” That’s a succinct summation of the general public’s understanding of the subtle and oft-misunderstood art of editing and mixing. To an extent, the widespread misconceptions are understandable; by its very nature, the best editing masks its own presence, instantaneously ferrying viewers through space and time and from shot to shot with minimal cognitive disruption. Little wonder that the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences has all but rebranded its award from Best Editing to Most Editing, annually bestowing the honor on the showiest display of technical proficiency. (This year, Whiplash’s Tom Cross won for the rare example of flair within a situationally appropriate context.)

In actuality, the editor wields a tremendous amount of authorial power over the finished product. In In The Blink Of An Eye, Murch describes the million-and-a-quarter feet of footage (shaking out to a whopping 230 hours) that Francis Ford Coppola dumped on him that would be sculpted into Apocalypse Now after a year’s worth of efforts. With a KEM Universal editing machine as his machete, Murch hacked a path through the dense, sprawling thicket and emerged on the other side with an emotionally coherent picture. Put simply, editors knit chaos into order. An editor with Murch’s artistry and expertise exerts as much creative authority over a film as any director or writer. In fact The Conversation is Murch’s film as much as it is leading man Gene Hackman’s, or even Coppola’s. In 1974, Coppola was plenty busy overseeing the sequel to some gangster picture he had shot two years before, and gave Murch all but free rein to cook up his own cut of the picture that’d become The Conversation. And while the cat was away, the mouse did play. With his hand planted firmly on the steering wheel, Murch drove The Conversation toward a covert statement about the power and responsibility of the editor during a film’s production process.

Head over to The Dissolve to read the rest of the article.