Film Editing, Plumbing, and Revolution: 
An Interview with Walter Murch
by Declan McGrath

Cineaste: You started out in the feature film industry in 1969 at American Zoetrope along with other filmmakers like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. What were you all aiming to achieve with Zoetrope?

Walter Murch: When we left film school, our generation, the mid-Sixties film-school generation, found that Hollywood was in poor condition. We wanted to get out of there and to continue the experience that we all had as film students in the world of professional filmmaking. So we went to San Francisco, bankrolled by Francis Coppola, who as a screenwriter was the only successful one among us. He had a little cash and he was also able to convince Warner Bros. to advance Zoetrope a couple of hundred thousand dollars, which was a lot of money in those days. This money was to seed the studio, develop seven scripts, and build mixing rooms and everything else we wanted to do to re-create this film-school atmosphere away from Hollywood. For a while, it was paradise. Then we made THX 1138 and it was a commercial failure. Warner Bros. did not like it or the screenplays we submitted, including Black Stallion, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation. So they cancelled the money that they had committed and personally sued Francis for the money already spent. To get out of that debt, Francis took a job directing a potboiler story about the mafia for Paramount called The Godfather. He didn’t want to do it, but he had to. To his credit, once he committed to it, he threw himself into it body and soul. Its success helped bring Zoetrope back and the company still exists almost fifty years later.

Cineaste: Did you look at any other models?

Murch: The direct model was a Danish company called Laterna Films that Francis had visited when he was in Europe in 1966 on a kind of pilgrimage. It was almost exactly as I have described Zoetrope. Even the name Zoetrope was a reflection of Laterna, whose official name was Laterna Magika, which refers to the nineteenth-century way of showing photographic images. Since the zoetrope was the motion picture version of that, the name was another attempt to imitate Laterna Films.

Cineaste: Were you also inspired by aesthetic models from outside Hollywood?

Murch: Absolutely. The business model was Laterna Films, but the aesthetic model was all kinds of filmmaking except Hollywood films. Myself, George Lucas, Francis Coppola, Carroll Ballard, and everyone else had been inspired by the New Wave in France, Bergman in Sweden, Kurosawa in Japan, Ray in India, and Fellini in Italy. We were overtly trying to infuse our American filmmaking with the sensibility that we detected, rightly or wrongly, in the cinema of the rest of the world.

Cineaste: Did you see yourselves as revolutionaries, as being against the system?

Murch: I suppose so. There is a picture of all of us in Zoetrope standing in a line. We all look like banditos! I am wearing worker overalls and hat and holding a pitchfork, but instead of hay there is a tangle of 35mm film at my feet. It’s a general observation about revolutions, however, that they happen only when people run out of hope and they are forced to do something. This was, in a sense, a revolution of the hopeless. The industry was on a kind of nosedive at that time. The first words that I heard from professors in film school in 1965 were a heartfelt, “Get out now. There are no jobs and it’s only going to get worse.” In the end, it didn’t turn out that way but that was the general feeling in the 1960s.

Murch at work on Francis Ford Coppola's  Apocalypse Now  (1979)

Murch at work on Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979)

Cineaste: You went on to have an illustrious career not only as a sound and picture editor, but also as someone who writes about and analyzes postproduction. How would you now define the specific role of the editor?

Murch: Well, I wish we used the same word for editing that we use in Romance languages—French, Spanish, Italian—montage, which means to build, to put something together. When a plumber comes to your house to put the pipes together, he is “montaging” the pipes. In a real sense, those of us who put images together are doing a kind of metaphysical plumbing—making the ideas and the emotions flow as effectively and as quickly as possible, without any blockage or spillage. Cinema needs montage, although it was not invented with motion pictures. Cinema spent a blissful childhood, roughly fourteen years, without this concept.

Cineaste: You could say that the craft and art of montage began to develop hand in hand with the art of cinema.

Murch: Yes. In the beginning of the story of cinema, Auguste Lumière famously disabused somebody who wanted to invest in his business. He called cinema an invention without a future. At that time, cinema was a series of single-shot films like you see on YouTube now: Arrival of a Train at the Station or Workers Leaving the Factory. Lumière rightly thought that if cinema went on that way, people would tire of it. Working away in the background, however, was the idea that if we cut shots together correctly, cinema would seem like continuous reality, even though it isn’t. Victor Fleming, the director of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, said, “Editing makes a film look well directed. Great editing makes a film look like it wasn’t directed at all.” He meant that the film no longer seems like a construction, but rather like something happening inside the audience’s head. It is as if they are dreaming it. The audience, like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, has jumped through the screen and in some weird way is moving about with the characters in the story, feeling everything they are feeling.

Cineaste: You’ve made the point that, while it may be difficult to imagine it now, there was no guarantee that the concept of editing would ever be accepted in those early days of cinema.

Murch: Yes. When you think about it, people were watching something they’d never seen before in their lives. They’d see a moving image and then that reality was suddenly whipped away and another moving image was put in its place. It would be understandable if nobody had accepted it. But we did accept it and we love it. We are still learning this language one hundred years after it was invented. Think of the invention of painting, over thirty thousand years ago in places like the Chauvet Cave. They were learning how to paint then, and we are still learning how to paint. Editing is a relatively new phenomenon in human culture…

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Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 4