Behind the Scenes with Film Editor Walter Murch To Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch, whose latest film is Jarhead, what you hear -- or don't hear -- is as important as what you see on the big screen.
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Behind the Scenes with Film Editor Walter Murch

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Behind the Scenes with Film Editor Walter Murch

Behind the Scenes with Film Editor Walter Murch

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In the world of filmmaking, actors and directors dominate the spotlight. The people who actually assemble the film, frame by frame and beat by beat, toil in relative obscurity. That is until each spring when a film editor bounds on stage to pick up an Academy Award.

(Soundbite of 1997 Academy Awards broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: And the Oscar goes to Walter Murch for "The English Patient."

(Soundbite of applause)

NORRIS: Walter Murch is one film editor whose profile is much higher than most, in part because he's made so many trips on stage to pick up that golden statue and because he's worked on so many legendary films. Murch has won three Oscars and he's been nominated for sound and/or editing eight times. His films include "Apocalypse Now," all three "Godfather" films, "The English Patient," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," "Ghost" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley." We caught up with Walter Murch in New York while he was finishing work on his latest film, "Jarhead." It's based on former Marine Anthony Swofford's best-selling book about the first Gulf War.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

NORRIS: "Jarhead" room N8.

Mr. WALTER MURCH (Film Editor): That's it, yep.

NORRIS: Murch has set up a work space at the Post factory in New York City. The room is cosy and rather dark. Murch hates the intrusion of sunlight. So instead of just pulling the shades, he had temporary walls installed over the windows. It helps replicate the sanctum of a movie theater. In the left corner, there's a 50-inch plasma TV and in the opposite corner, a waist-high drafting table. And while most film editors use digital equipment that's both costly and cumbersome, Murch is the first top-tier editor to cut multimillion-dollar films using $900 software, the kind anyone could buy and load into their laptop. The system is small, it's portable and yet it contains every second of footage shot for "Jarhead."

Mr. MURCH: There are 5,000 separate shots that were made for this film, and I have to be able to reach in electronically and grab any one of them.

NORRIS: Still photographs from the film "Jarhead" cover almost every inch of wall space. Murch says he can scan the room and find visual accidents that please the eye.

Mr. MURCH: It makes images collide with each other in very opportune ways.

NORRIS: Walter Murch is a man of many interests. He composes music, translates Italian poetry in his spare time, and if you spend enough time with him, you're likely to hear him quote French philosophers or string theorists. But his definition of what he does is simple.

Mr. MURCH: My job as an editor is to gently prod the attention of the audience to look at various parts of the frame. And that--I do that by manipulating how and where I cut and what succession of images I work with.

NORRIS: Images and sound?

Mr. MURCH: And sound, yeah. Sound is a huge influence on peoples' attention.

NORRIS: To demonstrate, Murch flips on his computer, clicks the mouse a few times and instantly pulls up a scene from "Jarhead."

Mr. MURCH: There's a section in this film where the Swofford character is in combat for the first time. There's an artillery barrage.

(Soundbite of "Jarhead"; explosions)

Mr. MURCH: Everyone else ducks for cover and he paradoxically stands up.

(Soundbite of "Jarhead"; explosions)

Mr. MURCH: And you're left simply with this big close-up of him.

NORRIS: Then in the distance, there's a muffled explosion...

(Soundbite of "Jarhead"; explosion)

NORRIS: ...followed by dead silence.

Now we should explain that this fleeting silence is a golden moment for an editor, a chance to put the audience right there on the battlefield. "Jarhead's" director, Sam Mendes, originally wanted the silence to stretch for several seconds, but Murch came up with a better idea.

Mr. MURCH: Then tiny little pieces of dust and fragments from the explosion hit his face in slow motion and they have this tiny little sound.

(Soundbite of "Jarhead"; explosion fragments falling)

NORRIS: The sand...

Mr. MURCH: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...and the little pellets almost sound so peaceful.

Mr. MURCH: One of the rules of the road is that if you want to create the sense of silence, it frequently has more pungency if you include the tiniest of sounds. By manipulating what you hear and how you hear it and what other things you don't hear, you can not only help tell the story, you can help the audience get into the mind of the character.

NORRIS: So given the importance of sound, we were surprised to learn that Murch begins the editing process with the sound turned off.

Mr. MURCH: If I had the sound up, that would be the sound and it would crowd out the possibility for other sounds. And then only after the scene has found its shape, then I turn the switch on and allow the sound to come in. And frequently, there will be two lines of dialogue that come together, I think, `Hey, that's great the way that happened by accident.'

NORRIS: The process of film editing is tedious work; viewing hours and hours of footage and then assembling a film half a second at a time.

Mr. MURCH: I like to think this is sort of a combination of being a short-order cook and a brain surgeon. And sometimes you're doing incredibly delicate things; other times you're doing the equivalent of flipping burgers. There are simply lots of things that have to get done, and you have to do them as quickly as possible and make sure that they're all cooked the right way. And both surgeons and cooks stand to do what they do.

NORRIS: So it's not just a matter of comfort, you stand because...

Mr. MURCH: Well, there's that...

NORRIS: ...this is an active--something active that you're doing.

Mr. MURCH: Yeah, there's that, too. It's also--if I was a music conductor, they stand to do what they do. There's no reason that they have to stand. They could sit in a chair and conduct. But somehow you're possessed by the rhythm of the music and you kind of have to get up and stand to do what you do. In that sense, I'm possessed by the rhythm of a film.

NORRIS: When Murch first started out cutting educational films for Encyclopaedia Britannica, he would sit at his editing machine and look for obvious visual moments, like when a door would close, to make a cut.

Mr. MURCH: But I learned quickly looking at that that, `OK, intellectually it's right, but it doesn't feel right.' And so then I started to develop this idea of cutting on the fly.

NORRIS: `Cutting on the fly' means that Murch lets the film play at 24 frames per second, and at the exact moment he feels the need to cut to the next shot he hits the space bar on his editing system's keyboard, leaving a digital mark. Murch says it's like a jazz drummer knowing just when to hit the snare. It's all about timing and feeling, what he calls, the music of the scene.

Mr. MURCH: And really, the judgment of how well a film is edited is very similar to how well a piece of music is performed. How sharp are the entrances? How tight is the group together? Where do the--do the new instruments, meaning the new shots, come in at just the right moment? And so there are film visual equivalents, story equivalents of all of these things.

NORRIS: Ultimately, Walter Murch sees himself as an ombudsman for the audience, the guy looking out for you with the truly objective eye. It's the reason Murch hates to go to the set.

Mr. MURCH: I push open the door to the soundstage, or wherever they're shooting, and I look at the floor and wander around until I found the shoes of the director and then I look up and talk to him and then go back.

NORRIS: Now right now you're doing it even now. You're shielding your eyes.

Mr. MURCH: Right, I'm shielding my eyes because I don't want to see the sets.

I don't want to know what this is because the audience doesn't know, and I want to protect my innocence so that I can transmit that to the audience unencumbered by my knowledge of how angry everyone was with each other that day. So by keeping five or six steps away from that process I think I'm working to the best of my abilities.

NORRIS: Film editor Walter Murch. His latest movie is "Jarhead." You can see scenes from "Jarhead" and other films that have received the Murch touch at our Web site,

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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