Wherever film buffs gather, they swap stories about Walter Murch. The three-time Oscar-winning switch-hitter's mighty feats of film editing and sound mixing are the stuff of Hollywood lore. There is the hallucinatory flashback in Apocalypse Now, where he merged the whirring of a ceiling fan into the ominous whoop-whoop-whoop of helicopter rotors. Then there was his jujitsu on Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, using sound from a flubbed take to turn the line "He'd kill us if he had the chance" into "He'd kill us if he had the chance." It was a trivial change -- a minor difference in emphasis -- but it transformed the scene.
Despite Murch's reputation, few appreciate the extent of his talent, says Charles Koppelman, whose book Behind the Seen chronicles Murch's editing of the 2003 Civil War epic Cold Mountain. "The editing process is part performance, part logistics, and part structure and analysis," he says. "Some editors are better at one or two of those things, perhaps, than others. Other editors might be really excellent at another couple of those things. But Walter really fires on all three all the time."
At a stage in his career when many editors would stick with the tried-and-true, Murch is still pushing the limits of technology. In preparation for Cold Mountain, he investigated editing the film on Apple's $995 "prosumer" Final Cut Pro software. By conventional standards, the idea was insane. Sure, it would save money and give the team extra workstations. But everyone knew Final Cut wasn't up to the rigors of an $80 million studio picture. It would be like trying to carve Rodin's Thinker with a penknife and a teaspoon. Even Apple balked. Murch's response, after careful consideration: Let's do it.
"Some people find a system and never want to change," Murch says. "I'm not that kind of person. I like to explore many ways of doing things. It jangles the neurons a bit and makes you reexamine the whole process." Besides, he'd seen worse. "When we did Apocalypse Now, we were inventing the whole 5.1 [surround sound] format for that film. We were mixing film in a format that had never been done before and hoping we were going to be able to get this into theaters and have it reproduce correctly."
Author Koppelman hosts a talk with Murch this Friday, October 29, at UC Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive (8 p.m., BAMPFA.berkeley.edu). The topic will be filmmaking from the editor's point of view, illustrated with clips from Cold Mountain. But with Murch, Koppelman says, you never know where the discussion will lead. He recalls a conversation in London: "Walking to the sound mix one day through Regents Park, Walter asked rhetorically, "I wonder what became of slavery after the fall of Rome.' That then led to a factoid about the safety pin going all the way back to Roman times as a method for keeping togas fastened. That was just as much a topic of conversation for that morning as, "I remember when Francis and I looked at the very first attempt at computer-based film editing, the CMX system.' That would be a typical morning conversation: from Rome, to togas, to CMX, to computers, to film editing, to who knows what would come up next."
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