January 14, 2022

“HE’D KILL YOU IF HE GOT THE CHANCE…:” Editor Walter Murch on Coppola’s The Conversation, the Nodal Concept of Montage and Our Modern Surveillance State.

Filmmaker: In the book you collaborated on with Michael Ondaatje [The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, 2002], you said, “There were many times while making the film that I had a sense of doubling. I’d be working on the film late at night, looking at an image of Harry Caul working on his tape, and there would be four hands, his and mine. Several times I was so tired and disoriented that Harry Caul would press the button to stop the tape, and I would be amazed that the film didn’t also stop.”

Murch: Well, there is some disorientation that comes with being up at 3am after working 18 hours straight.

Filmmaker: Right, but it seems like this experience, aside from being a part of the lonesome craft of editing a film, becoming intimate with its events and characters, tends to mirror the audience’s as the film plays. The viewing body is thrust into a symbiosis with Caul as they are with any closely hewn protagonist, but in the case of The Conversation, we are also brought into a synchonicity with the events themselves.

Murch:  Well, to your point, Harry Caul is not a natural leading character for a feature film, and that was one of the things that Francis was interested in. Taking a character that at best, in another kind of movie, would have a two- or three-minute scene. The man who delivers the tape.

Filmmaker: We find ourselves drawn into a character’s fold by watching them work.

Murch: Right. When Francis hired me for the feature, he said “You’re a sound person, you’ll understand him.” But because he’s not a naturally engaging cinematic character by all conventional standards, one of the techniques we have to use, when presented with that kind of problem, is to not allow the audience any escape. It’s also true of Talented Mr. Ripley. This is not someone you want normally to be the lead.

Filmmaker: It’s less seldom the case in the 50 years since, but still holds largely true.

Murch: Right. So in these cases, the audience either willingly has to engage or become Stockholm Syndrome hostages to the film. There’s no wiggle room.

If you have any interest in great films from the 1970s, read the whole thing.

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