Walter Murch - Writer

Film Editor, Re-recording Engineer, Writer and Director. Nationality: American. Education: Attended Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; graduate work at University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Career: 1969—first collaboration with the director Francis Ford Coppola, The Rain People ; 1985—co-wrote and directed the film Return to Oz . Awards: British Academy (BAFTA) Film Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Sound Track, for The Conversation , 1974 (editing and sound); Academy Award for Best Sound, for Apocalypse Now , 1979; Lifetime Achievement Award, Cinema Audio Society, 1994; Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Sound, American Cinema Editors Eddie Award for Best Edited Feature Film, BAFTA Film Award for Best Editing, for The English

Walter Murch
Walter Murch
Patient , 1997; Maverick Tribute Award, Cinequest San Jose Film Festival, 1998.

Films as Supervising Sound Editor/Re-recording Engineer:


The Rain People (Coppola)


THX 1138 (Lucas) (+ co-wr)


The Godfather (Coppola)


American Graffiti (Lucas)


The Godfather, Part II (Coppola)


Apocalypse Now (Coppola) (+ ed)


Dragonslayer (M. Robbins)


Ghost (Zucker) (+ ed); The Godfather, Part III (Coppola) (+ ed)


House of Cards (Lessac) (+ ed)


Romeo Is Bleeding (Medak) (+ ed); Crumb (Zweigoff)


First Knight (Zucker) (+ ed)

Films as Editor:


The Conversation (Coppola)


Julia (Zinnemann)


Captain Eo (Coppola)


The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kaufman)


The English Patient (Minghella)


The Talented Mr. Ripley (Minghella); Dunbarton Bridge (Koppelman) (consulting editor)

Film as Director and Co-Writer:


THX 1138 (co-sc only)


Return to Oz


By MURCH: book—

In the Blink of an Eye , Sydney, 1992.

By MURCH: articles—

"Interview with Walter Murch, Sound Designer," in Positif (Paris), no. 335, January 1989.

Introduction to Audio-Vision , by Michel Chion, New York, 1994.

Chapter on Sound Design, in Projections 4 , London, 1995.

"From Here to Eternity," in DGA Magazine (Los Angeles), May-June 1997.

On MURCH: articles—

Filmmakers Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), December 1974.

Cinefax , December 1980.

Journal of the University Film and Video Association , Vol. 33, No. 4, Fall 1981.

"Sound Mixing and Apocalypse Now ," in Film Sound: Theory and Practice , edited by Elisabeth Weis and John Belton, New York, 1985.

Cinefax , June 1985.

Jones, Alan, on Return to Oz in Cinefantastique (New York), July 1985.

American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1989.

Weaver, J.M., "Auditieve auteurs," in Skrien (Amsterdam), February/March 1995.

* * *

Walter Murch calls himself a sound designer, disdaining the traditional title sound editor, and refers to his work as a sound montage, not a sound track. To some degree, these changes reflect the growing accommodation of moviemaking craft to the cultural area of art. Long associated with Francis Coppola and George Lucas, Murch is very much identified with the movement now termed retrospectively as the "Hollywood Renaissance," a period of American filmmaking that manifested, in part, a rejection of commercial approaches and a flourishing of European-derived ideas of cinema art. To term the sound track a montage, of course, is nothing new; film theorists from Eisenstein to the semioticians have recognized the complex ways in which sounds themselves may be layered and the resulting "mix" juxtaposed with the succession of images. Murch expresses this traditional view when he says: "Out of the juxtaposition of what the sound is telling you and what the picture is telling you, you (the audience) come up with a third idea which is composed of both picture and sound and resolves their superficial differences."

Yet Murch's description of his activity as sound designer does reflect a significant change within the industry, a change Murch himself has been somewhat responsible for. For even as various techniques have enabled a richer, more powerful, and layered sound track to be produced, so have films become more aural (if not less visible), with sound contributing much more than in the past to the total cinematic experience.

Murch's work on Coppola's The Conversation is both exemplary and instructive in this regard. The film concerns the morally dubious activities of a professional eavesdropper, a technician who is the film's self-reflexive image of its own preoccupations with the sound mix. Murch's effects are complicated here and take full advantage of the fact that sound, unlike image, can be "located" both within the story world and outside it, in the realm of narrative comment. The film's initial bravura sequence, justly celebrated, features a gradual zoom in to a crowded city park where the actions and conversation of a "target" couple are to be recorded. While the camera has no trouble providing a more or less unproblematic series of images, the sound track is filled with audio bleeps, distorting noises, gaps, and inadequate levels. The spectator is disoriented by the montage of clear image track and unclear sound, but this disorientation is soon revealed as "motivated," that is, we are seeing and hearing with the surveillers. Both image and sound are provided by diegetic narrators, and the limitations of both are reproduced by the film's narrator. The subsequent editing of the recorded conversation is depicted and eventually leads to the revelation that the eavesdropper has been used by his employers as part of a murder scheme. The sound images of this conversation (and occasionally the visual ones as well) also figure subjectively in the film, as part of the main character's consciousness and memory. Though the film has nondiegetic music (mainly a simple piano melody which plays expressively, in the traditional way, over certain diegetic sound silent sequences), it has no music director. Murch is responsible, as sound designer, for the integration of music and sound. In fact, nondiegetic noise often performs the traditional function of musical phrases. As the eavesdropper examines the motel toilt which, he thinks, may reveal the traces of the murder for which he is partly responsible, we hear, louder than normal, the sound of the toilet valve on the sound track. Gradually, this diegetic sound is merged with audio bleeps reminding us of the recorded conversation, and this sound in turn is transformed into a very loud and grating nondiegetic synthesized noise (which resembles very squeaky train brakes). Though nondiegetic, this sound expresses the horror and becomes the narrational correlative of the eavesdropper's discovery: as he flushes the toilet, it spills over with blood and bandages, revealing his fears to be justified. Murch here appears to be developing further the use of "shrieking violins" in Psycho . He also anticipates much contemporary sound design where the distinction between music ("organized noise") and other expressive nondiegetic sounds has been problematized.

Murch's other work is similarly interesting, if less foregrounded by the dramatic elements of the films in question. In THX 1138 , a modernist science-fiction film scripted by George Lucas and Murch (with Coppola as executive producer), Murch demonstrates how much our sense of reality depends on the myriad of sounds we constantly hear. The horrifying vision of a future world inhabited by exploited workers forced by the government to take mind-altering drugs is completed by an alternate reality of unpleasant, disorienting sounds which are constantly difficult to "read." THX 1138 is a rare, perhaps unique production in which the sound designer is also responsible in part for the script (an interesting reversal of the more ordinary case in which the director, whose province is largely the image, is also the film's writer). Not a commercial success, the film is nonetheless a minor masterpiece of the genre because it demonstrates the centrality of sound and hearing in our relationship to the real.

Apocalypse Now offered Murch a different kind of challenge: not creating an alternate reality, but forging a hyperreality, an intersection between a dense world of aural experience and the subjectivity of those trapped within it. The most notable and typical sound image in this film is thus the aural equivalent of a fade out/fade in. As he lies in a Saigon hotel room in a drunken, drugged stupor, the film's protagonist dreams of a nightmare jungle, engulfed by flames, traversed by ghostly helicopters, their rotors beating a surreal, otherworldly "whoosh." He wakes and the whoosh "bleeds" into the whirr of the overhead fan. This is indeed an effect aptly termed a montage, and it demonstrates the incredible talent of Murch and the importance of his contributions to the art cinema of the Hollywood Renaissance.

During the last decade and a half, Murch has continued to find steady employment in a very different kind of Hollywood, one unfortunately devoted to the kinds of special effects—those that produce violent spectacle and visual fantasy—in which he has less interest. Nevertheless he has been able to work on projects outside the mainstream action film. Return to Oz allowed Murch to revisit a favored childhood story; the result is a rather ordinary, if quite competent, film substantially aided by his direction and screenwriting contributions. The Godfather, Part III , with its epic sweep and several complex sequences, challenged his sound editing and rerecording skills, as did Ghost , with its need for otherworldly visual and sound images; the success of both films is to be credited in part to Murch's abilities. Even Murch's artistry could not save the dismal production of First Knight from failure; yet it is undeniable that his effects create the proper aural ambience for an Arthurian fantasy. The neo-noirness of Romeo Is Bleeding unfortunately did not offer Murch a chance to recreate his stunning effects from The Conversation ; even Murch's considerable skills as an editor were not up to the task of rescuing director Medak's confusingly told story from tedium and, frequently, inconsequence. Murch was more successful in editing The Unbearable Lightness of Being , based on the complex and often obscure Milan Kundera novel; here Murch is able to articulate the intimate connection between erotic and political events through judicious cutting, though he proved unable to reduce the film to a manageable commercial length (it runs almost three hours).

Murch's most notable recent project, editing the film adaptation of surrealistic Michael Ondratjie novel The English Patient , offered Murch even better opportunities to create meaning through the editing process, a task whose joys and discontents are experienced by his closest fictional reflex, the harried private detective and sound engineer of The Conversation . The novel's confusingly implausible, even absurd plot was expertly trimmed by scenarist/director Anthony Minghella, yielding a still complex story of bizarrely intertwined fates; Murch's contribution was to make sure the plot's intricately connected segments of present action and flashback made sense and did not appear to be simply disconcerting fragments. Despite the considerable challenge, Murch was extremely successful, making the most of Mighella's fine direction of a talented cast and John Seale's lushly poetic cinematography.

—R. Barton Palmer

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