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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

When I read a book about filmmaking craft, I'm happy if I can get one or two nuggets of actual craft information out of them. Most are filled with anecdotes.

I'm really happy about The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. Michael Ondaatje interviews Top Editor Walter Murch, editor of the movie adaptation of Ondaatje's book The English Patient at length about his craft.

Even the anecdotes are instructive -- you can draw the moral yourself. For example, he talks about the scene where the Nazi interrogator cuts off Caravaggio's thumbs. In the script, Caravaggio says "don't cut me," but the Nazi does. Murch decided that it was precisely Caravaggio's fear that led the Nazi (who despises weakness) to do it. So he chooses a take where the Nazi hasn't yet made up his mind to actually cut off Caravaggio's thumbs -- he's just thinking about it. Then Caravaggio says "don't cut me." The Nazi ponders this. Then Murch picks another take of Caravaggio saying "don't cut me," this time more plaintively. Which leads the Nazi to decide to do it.

The doubling up of the dialog, the choice of the takes, creates a dramatic decision that wasn't necessarily there in the script. In the script. the Nazi could well have come into the room planning to take Caravaggio's thumbs. The editing makes more of a meal of it.

(Of course the screenwriter could have come up with this -- if he had looked at the scene not only from Caravaggio's point of view, but taken a moment and considered what the Nazi's personal trajectory is in it. Always look at your secondary characters and see how much you can make of their story.) And
In the original filmed version [of The Conversation], when Harry decodes the tape he's made of Ann and the young man, Mark, he immediately uncovers the line, "He'd kill us if he got the chance," then goes to return the tape ot the Director. As an experiment, we divided the scene in two. In the first part we had Harry working on the tape in a routine way, without uncovering the key line. The next day he goes to deliver the tape to the Director. But the fact that the Director's assistant - a very young Harrison Ford -- seems a little too anxious to get his hands on the tape gives Harry -- and us -- pause. Harry takes it back to his studio to listen to it more closely. Now we have the second half of the scene where he uncovers the fateful line -- which now has greater meaning in this new context.
That's the sort of editing that makes the screenwriter look brilliant, and feel awfully stupid for not having thought of it himself.

Murch talks at length about framing, and where the eye is. He says he needs to know where 99% of the audience will be looking when he cuts. If he wants a smooth cut, he makes sure there's something to look at post-cut in the same spot the audience was looking -- say the top-right corner of the frame. If he's editing a fight, or wants a jarring cut for another reason, he makes sure the eye is jerked post-cut to another part of the frame.

He talks about how, when there's source sound -- a loudspeaker playing music, say -- he likes to record the source in the location, and then double it up with a clean track of the same music, so he can mix it up or down depending on how much he wants the effect of the music and how much he wants the effect of the music being played in the location. And
The general tendency in The Godfather is to play big scenes in silence and then to bring in the music afterwards. For instance, the kiling of Carlo, Michael's brother-in-law, at the end of the film has no accompanying music. In a so-called normal film you would have dramatic murder music, but we had only that sound of Carlo's feet squeaking on the windshield as he's being choked to death. Then his foot smashes the glass and you're left with the image of his foot sticking through the windshield and the sound of the gravel crunching as Michael walks back to the house. Then the music comes in.
He also talks about how the audience accepts sourced music more easily than soundtrack. They don't feel as manipulated by that opera aria playing over the scene if they can see that the character is listening to the aria on a radio.

Murch talks about how sometimes you can replace a great deal of sound with one particular noise that brings in associations. For example, if you have a woman calling from a phone booth near a gas station at the side of a highway, he found, too much traffic noise just makes it hard to hear her dialog. But the sound of a wrench dropped on concrete 50 feet away makes you feel the location, and add the traffic sounds in your head. A mass of people walking doesn't sound loud, even when it is loud; but add a far-off voice shouting, even faintly, and you suddenly feel the crush. A desert sounds like nothing, but add a few insectlike clicks, and now you have the desert's silence, which is not the same as nothing.

Murch likes to cut down a film way past the point where it might later end up -- cut a two and a half hour film down to 90 minutes -- just to see what that will open up. You can then add the things you truly miss back in. But you've discovered that there are shots and even scenes you don't really need. This happened to us on Sorry: we had a good 6 minute cut, but our editor's girlfriend thought it was boring, so he cut it down to 3:30. That did damage to the story. But it gave us the impetus to play the sound of one shot over the image of another in a bunch of places, which took the picture down to 5:30. We might not have discovered those without the 3:30 cut.

Murch talks about various darlings he has had to kill -- for example, a scene that resolved a secondary character's story too well, giving the film a kind of faux resolution that took the steam out of the eventual main character's resolution. He likes to leave a scene before the audience can absorb all the ramifications, so keep the audience involved in the story. He talks about cutting on fricatives -- s, f, th -- because the mind seems to pause on them, allowing an easy cut. He talks about editing dialog scenes with the sound turned off.

And (talking about recutting Touch of Evil according to Orson Welle's original notes), Murch explains that if you remove the soundtrack music, the timer bomb we see is scarier. We know that the bomb won't go off while the opening credits music is playing. Take away the opening credits and their music, and we don't know when the bomb is going to go off.

There's a lot in this book that isn't craft. He covers a lot of esthetic distance -- what was Beethoven's great breaththrough, for example, and why people are posed that way in Egyptian paintings. There are anecdotes about this project or that, and a huge side dish of Michael Ondaatje talking about his own novel-writing craft. It's a fun read. But the book is definitely worth it for the nuggets alone.

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I bought this in hardback, right after I came out, and it's the kind of thing I like to go back and reread every year or so. In fact, I'm overdue now. So full of smart storytelling advice!

By Blogger shana, at 11:07 AM  

I've read your book. Didn't know you had a blog until I found you on MySpace News, of all places (! Thanks for all your advice.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:06 PM  

I've always believed editors are the guys who get to do the final pass on the script. They have the benefit of both what was intended and what was realized. Playing with the two is a wonderful way of seeing how much more you can squeeze from the material.

Thanks for this Alex. hadn't been aware of the book, but I'm heading out to find it.

By Blogger jimhenshaw, at 4:40 PM  

excellent book. susan shipton, atom egoyan's editor, recommended it to my class back in 2001. i still think of it every time i hear bad audio on television.

By Blogger duncanralston, at 4:39 AM  

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