Walter Murch, ACE, "Suddenly Something Clicked"

This wide-ranging interview with ACE Eddie Lifetime Achievement winner, Walter Murch, ACE, covers topics from his upcoming book on editing and sound, called “Suddenly Something Clicked.” Discover Murch’s methodologies for finding the perfect edit point, the use of reverb in sound, and his love for the Moviola.

Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with multi-Oscar winner, Walter Murch, ACE. I interviewed Walter in person just before his appearance at the 2024 ACE Eddie Awards to receive his Career Achievement Award - an award which was presented by his long-time friend and collaborator, George Lucas.

Murch’s career is filled with cinematic cultural touchstones.

He was nominated for an Oscar for sound and won BAFTAS for both sound and editing on The Conversation. He was nominated for a BAFTA and an Oscar for editing Julia. For Apocalypse Now, he was nominated for an Oscar for Editing, BAFTAs for editing AND sound, an ACE Eddie … and won the Oscar for sound.

In 1991, he was nominated for Oscars for both The Godfather Part III and Ghost, and was nominated for an ACE Eddie for Ghost. For The English Patient he was nominated for a BAFTA for sound, and won a BAFTA for editing, not to mention winning an ACE Eddie and TWO Oscars for sound AND editing.

He was nominated for an ACE Eddie for The Talented Mr. Ripley. He was nominated for two BAFTAs - for sound and editing - and for an ACE Eddie and an Oscar for Cold Mountain. He was nominated for an Emmy for Hemingway and Gelhorn, for which he ALSO won an ACE Eddie. 

On top of all of this, he has been writing a book on filmmaking - actually two volumes! - with the first volume releasing later this year, focusing on editing and sound, and the second volume coming next year.

Most of the following interview focuses on the thoughts and concepts outlined in that book, which is called “Suddenly Something Clicked.”

It’s so nice to be talking with you again. You are about to publish a book. Do you know the publication date? 

It’s titled Suddenly Something Clicked, and should be out later this year. We’re in copy edit mode, and that will take another six weeks or so. Then there are galleys and there are a lot of pictures, so they all have to be cleared. So I hope by the end of the year.

I should say, it’ll be in two volumes. Volume one will come out this year, then another one will come out the following year. 

From what I’ve read of the first one, I can’t wait for both of them. I loved many things that you said in the book, and I wanted to get some clarification or to hear your story a little bit more fully on some of these. 

I loved the idea that in English, German, and Scandinavian the word for editing highlights kind of cutting down and reorganizing. But you preferred the word “montage.” Can you explain why?

It’s montage in all of the Southern European languages - the languages influenced by Latin. Montage simply means “to build.” If you ask a plumber to come and put in some pipes, he will “montage” the pipes together, and that’s what we have to do before we can do any cutting down.

We have to build it up from all of the mosaic images that we’ve been getting while they’re shooting. Of course, it’s both. It is both the building up and then the condensation.

But, temperamentally, I prefer the word montage, because “editing” implies that the film already exists and we are just cutting it down reorganising it, cutting out the bad bits.

Walter Murch, ACE and Steve Hullfish, ACE at a screening of Coup 53, a documentary which Walter edited.

One of the other great parts about the book - for those many people, I’m sure who will go out and buy it - is you’ve got little quotes along the bottom of the pages and one of them that I love is: “Inspiration will come, but it has to find you working.” - How can an editor could put this into practice?

That’s from Pablo. Picasso. It’s generally applicable to all of the creative arts, whether you’re a musician or a painter or a filmmaker. You sit in a room waiting for some asteroid of an idea to hit your brain, but if you just sit there, they tend not to until you actually take the first step - until you do something.

So you will have inspiration angels who come to help you, but only once you start on the voyage. As with everything, the first step is always the hardest to take. 

Sometimes, when I see a scene, I’m not inspired to edit, but you just need to try to get something accomplished, even if it’s just organizing the shots, or watching the dailies, or even just working on another scene, right?

Yeah. Exactly.

A frame from the documentary Her Name Was Moviola, featuring Murch. Photo credit: "The Curators! Ltd."

This is another quote from the book or - or paraphrase, possibly - “Films should be coherent, but not too coherent. Leaving strategic openings for the audience to project their own feelings.” I definitely think that’s true. What role does the editor play in making them “not coherent?”

This idea is also applicable to all of the arts, particularly to film. I think because film seems to be so complete: it’s multisensory, it’s image and sound and the closeness to the person’s face, or the widest possible landscape shot.

We have a great range of different approaches that we can use, so the tendency is to sometimes bludgeon the audience into accepting what we have to say. And that’s effective, as far as it goes, but I don’t think you’re getting under the skin of the audience when you do that.

I like to say that “film is an art of mass-intimacy,” because we want to appeal to as many people as possible - hopefully in a theater where there are lots of people watching the film at the same time - but we also want each person to feel:  “this film is talking to me because it’s showing things only I know.”

And that comes when the film allows openings - little ambiguities in the way the actors perform, or ambiguities in the way the script is written or ambiguities in the way the film is put together. Initially, the audience maybe subconsciously says, “That doesn’t quite make sense.”

As soon as you hear that internal idea, subconsciously the mind says, “Oh, I know! I can complete it.” But you’re completing it out of your own experience. And the weird alchemy of this is that you then project the results of that onto the screen, and you actually kind of see what it is that you have done with your head.

And so you’re looking at the film thinking: “how does that film know what’s in my secret heart?” So that’s an ideal, and there are many places where films can do that at every craft.

Production design can do it, sound can do it, music can certainly do it, but it also has to come from the original conception of the work: at the script level, at the story level.

A frame from the documentary Her Name Was Moviola, featuring Murch. Photo credit: "The Curators! Ltd." 

One of the big things that you and I have talked about that you mentioned in this book and that you’ve kind of adopted as a way of discussing editing is “nodality.” Could you explain a little bit about what that means to you?

An analogy is the knot in a tree. You cut a piece of wood out of a tree and you can see the knot. And the knot is the remnants of where a branch sprouted from the main trunk, or a twig sprouted from the branch. And I think what we all try to do as editors when we’re looking at a shot, is just like a carpenter: identify where the grain of the wood is smooth, and then where there is a possibility of a vector going off in another direction.

That’s “nodality” in a nutshell. I would counterpoint it with the way editing is taught at an elementary level, which is to use match action. In Editing 101, an exercise is to have an actor stand up from a chair, let the actor get up, and then, when cutting to the wider shot, find that same point where the actor is halfway up and cut. That’s match action cutting. That was used particularly in the early days of continuity editing. People still use it. It’s almost a reflex fallback position.

I tend not to use it because for me - and this is all personal - as soon as an action is initiated, the mind of the person watching thinks, “Oh! Something’s happening.” Then, maybe three or four or five frames later, there’s a cut, and now the person thinks, “Oh! Now something else is happening.” And you have to look at the new image and figure out where that continuity expresses itself, and then the action is completed. So there’s a kind of stuttering to it.

A frame from the documentary Her Name Was Moviola, featuring Murch. Photo credit: "The Curators! Ltd."

Which is the paradox of the match cut.

Yeah. It’s supposed to hide this moment of the cut. I do match cuts when it is appropriate, but I prefer to hold a shot until action is inevitable then I cut to the other angle and initiate the action and let it complete itself without the stutter. 

You once told me you thought that match cutting was like blowing smoke across the edit.

Yeah. Motion pictures - for the first 12 years of their lives - were usually just single shots, like cat videos on YouTube.

The train coming at you down the tracks.

That’s it. But then - we’re talking 120 years ago - when the idea began to occur that you could cut from one shot to another - the filmmakers were nervous: will people really accept this? So they either did very short dissolves - like four frame dissolves from one shot to another - or they used this idea of match action cutting.

In the early days, editing wasn’t valued for what it could contribute as ideas - the juxtaposition of ideas - it was just something that you had to do. It was like a prosthetic, like false teeth or a false leg.

“Well, we have to do this because we have one shot and we have to find a way to get to the other shot because we can’t do it all in one shot.” In the book, I make an analogy with what happens in poetry: where you decide to end the line on a significant word, not just an arbitrary moment, but a secretly significant moment.

The last word of that line of poetry has a kind of glow about it because it’s exposed to the whiteness of the page. With that ‘glowing word’ in mind, your eyes then go to the first word of the next line, and those two words get married to each other in a way that’s very different than they are if you just are writing prose, where that all the words are buried in a big sandwich of text.

A frame from the documentary Her Name Was Moviola, featuring Murch. Photo credit: "The Curators! Ltd."

The idea of that last word in a line of poetry is similar to something we’ve talked about before, which is the importance of that last frame before a cut.

Yes. Very, very similar. At the end of a shot where the editor has decided, “Okay, I’m going to cut there.” It’s great if that last image is revealing of something about the character or about the story, and then you cut… The cut itself is such a brutal thing, really.

In an instant, you’re taking something away from the audience and giving them something else, and I believe the subconscious mind of the audience says “something just happened and I have to remember that.”

If you choose not only where the right moment is rhythmically within the shot, but also choose an image that has a kind of iconographic importance to it will allow the audience to have a deeper understanding of what the film is about.

We’ve talked about the fact that you used to make marks with a pen on the film to tell your assistant, “I want to print this picture out for a storyboard.” And a lot of those marks ended up as the final frames in the shots that you chose. 

Yes. In the old pre-digital days, when the dailies or the rushes came in, one of the first things I did was select a frame from each setup representative of why I thought they shot that shot. What is the key moment of this shot, physically and emotionally.

I would scan through the film very quickly on the KEM and choose, “That’s a good one.” And I would take a Sharpie and just draw a black line on the other side of the sprockets of that frame. Then I’d give it to my assistant who would take a picture of that.

And what I found, when I was preparing the film for negative-cutting, was that black line Sharpie mark would either be right on the frame cut, or within a frame or two of it. Subconsciously something was going on in my mind that had identified that frame as having a kind of glow about it.

Kuleshov Effect

So the opposite of this concept of match-cutting is the Soviet style of editing.

Right. Right. They were after the collision of ideas. The classic example is the man’s face, and then a bowl of soup, and then the man’s face again.

The famous Kuleshov Effect.

The Kuleshov Effect had resonance with Hegelian dialectics where you provide thought A and thought B and the viewer thinks C, which is about the collision of these two ideas. Modern films are a fusion of these two different approaches: match-cutting and Soviet style.

In the book, the Soviets said “the more jolts the better.”

Yeah. They wanted to wake the audience up. What the Soviets would accuse us of doing was putting the audience to sleep, intellectually speaking.

Sergei Eisenstein

The more jolts the better. Makes me think of like Raging Bull. Where the edits are violent in themselves.

There’s a great line from Thelma where she was asked, “How can you work on Marty’s films when they’re so violent?” And she said, “Ah, but they aren’t violent until I cut them.”

In your discussion of the movie, The Conversation, you mentioned a specific cut where Harry Caul hears something critical in an audio recording and goes to push the stop button, but instead of matching action, it went from Harry’s look to the click of realization symbolized by the release of the mechanism. What does that edit have to teach editors? 

It’s a Kuleshovian moment. It’s him realizing something, then you cut to the tape recorder releasing the pinch wheel. And that actually goes along with the title of the book. “Suddenly Something Clicked.” Harry Caul just realized, “I missed something.

There was a hidden line of dialogue that maybe makes this tape dangerous.” Then we cut to Harry’s finger pressing the rewind button, but the significant thing is that moment of the realization, which is represented by the keeper wheel, suddenly springing back.

That was a not a cut that I made, actually. I had asked Pat Jackson, my assistant to do a paper cut of that scene. I was mixing American Graffiti at the time, and she made that cut. As soon as I saw it, I thought, “That’s the key to this film.”

So I salute Pat every time I see that cut. It was the inspiration for the editing style of the film. 

You mentioned that it was a paper cut, and I’ve talked to several editors who were cutting on film - where it took serious effort and time to make the choices you wanted to make. Many of them did paper cuts. Carol Littleton is one of them. I know you probably can’t remember exactly what your paper cut said to do, but what do you think you would have written? 

Just a list of the shots with whatever the slate was on that shot: “Start with this, then after he says this line, try cutting to this shot - the closeup of the hands on the keyboard.” It was just something to get her started. I still do “paper cuts” in a sense.

I don’t just start cutting. I will have looked at everything and taken notes and I’ve highlighted the good moments. Then I sort of go into a zone and I just think about, “How could this go together?”

You plan it out. But as Eisenhower said, “Planning is everything. Plans are nothing.” It’s important to go through the exercise of planning, but once you actually engage in battle - once you actually start cutting - then other things happen.

You can’t say, “No, no! I won’t do that because I planned it this way!” Always be open to stuff that happens in battle as you’re working. 

That Eisenhower quote is another one of the quotes that’s in the book, at the bottom of the page. 

Many editors say, “I just cut where it feels right.” Right? I’ve done many interviews where people say that, and I always push for a better understanding of WHY it feels right. To that point, in the book, you say that the moment of the cut is a prediction of the audience’s reaction, the key to which is that thinking and reacting take time.

Yeah, yeah. 

Here’s the example that I would love for you to talk about. You mentioned Harry Caul walking into his big empty warehouse from an elevator, right? How long do you hold that shot as he walks across the empty space to his caged workshop?

Right. You’re trying to figure out what the audience is thinking about. Francis shot The Conversation using multiple cameras at times, and he also shot huge amounts of footage.

So I could have continued that shot and let him go all the way into the caged area, and then match cut to him taking off his plastic raincoat. But at a certain point you just say, “Why am I still looking at this shot?”

One of the obligations of the editor is to be the ombudsman, so to speak, of the audience. You’re representing the interests of the audience. And to do that, you have to think what the audience is thinking as much as you can. And that shot is a dolly shot that takes Gene Hackman - Harry Caul - out of the elevator in profile, and then comes to a stop, then he walks away from the camera.

This is the first time we’ve seen where Harry works, and it’s an interesting space. It’s a warehouse that’s largely empty, and there’s something at the far end of it. The audience will think, “Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder what it is and what he does there” …and cut.

The difficulty is knowing where exactly is that point. One of the techniques that I talk about also in the book is using the time code, or - when we worked on the Moviola - using the footage counter.

So you run the shot with your hand on the brake, so to speak, or the space bar now, and you’re thinking the audience’s thoughts… thinking the audience’s thoughts… and then you: CUT! It’s a musical moment.

Your dad was a clarinetist and he’s holding the note, and when does the next note come in? Like that long clarinet note at the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue? How long really do you hold that until it shifts?

That’s what we’re doing. We’re holding that note and then shifting to something else. Another instrument comes in, which is Harry taking off his raincoat. So play it, hold that note in your mind and then hit the space bar - or the brake in the old days - and now look at the time code or look at the footage counter, and it’s just arbitrary.

It’s just wherever it happened to land - 35:10:01 or something. Then do it again. Run the shot and hit the brake and now look at the counter. Where are you? What does it say now? Is it on the money or is it a few frames later? Or a few frames earlier … or wildly different. So what you’re doing is you’re narrowing in on the decisive moment.

The end of the clarinet note, so to speak. It’s a good thing to practice, especially in the early days of working on a film, because you’re trying to pick up and internalize the rhythms of the film, both in terms of the acting, the camera work, the story beats.

Let’s say you do this experiment and the second time it was six frames later. You think, “Well, yeah. It did feel a little longer that time.” Well, what you’ve just done is quantified - for this film and for this shot in this film, what six frames feels like. 

Because six frames will feel different in a different shot.

Yes. Six frames will feel different in another film. Six frames will feel different in another place in this film. Every time we do that as editors, we are collecting information about the rhythmic signature of this film, which - using musical terms - is exactly what a conductor does when they’re figuring out how am I going to conduct this piece of music?

How fast am I going to go and where am I going to change the rhythm during the same movement again, this is exactly what we’re doing. So anyway, you zero in on it and eventually you will surprise yourself that you’ll land on the same frame.

You think, “Wait a minute. That shot is 12 seconds long. How can I land on the same frame?” You can only do it if you approach it musically: as a rhythmic thing. And the rhythm is frequently just the audience’s thoughts, because visually, nothing much is happening.

We’re looking at Harry’s Caul’s work space for the first time. An even more extreme example of that is in The Talented Mr. Ripley after Tom (Matt Damon) has killed Dickie (Jude Law) and sunk the rowboat. He’s up on shore and we’re on his back looking out to sea.

We know that the boat is down there somewhere. So we’re looking at the back of Matt Damon’s head, and he’s got a blanket or a towel around him. We can’t see his face, there’s no movement at all.

It’s basically a still frame, except for the waves. But what he’s thinking and what you want the audience to think is, “I just killed this guy and I loved him, and now what am I going to do?

Holy shit.” How many beats does that thought have? Just hold the shot, thinking those thoughts, then hit the space bar, look at the timecode. Do it a couple more times. You’ll narrow in on that frame.


It goes back to that idea that you mentioned of letting the audience have some space to wonder what he’s thinking.


Half the audience is gonna think something different than the other half

Yes. And that frame is a node. What you’re identifying is one of those branch points where the tree - so to speak - is getting ready to send off a branch in the other direction. 

Now, do you think that idea of trees and nodes is that a shot has more than one node where you can diverge from the shot?

Yeah, absolutely.

For example: I could get out of this shot at this early point, but if I’m gonna go out later, I have to wait another seven or eight seconds later, not two seconds.

You can cut 24 times a second, but only two of those frames might be nodes. Because if you pass the first node and you don’t cut, you have to allow the audience to think another thought, another beat.

And you don’t want to interrupt them while they’re thinking that new thought. You want to allow that thought - or the action - to reach a certain maturity, then you will arrive at another node.

Murch editing Apocalypse Now.

You also mentioned that translating language is similar to editing. I love that idea. 

I’m fortunate enough to have competence in French and Italian. After The English Patient was released, I gave an interview to a poetry magazine (Parnassus) who had decided to write about film as poetry.

In the middle of that interview - just like this one - I came to this idea that - in a sense - we filmmakers are translating from one language, which is the language of words on a page, into another language, which is images that move in time with sound.

Just like every picture is worth a thousand words, sometime every word is worth a thousand pictures. Each medium or language has very different efficiencies, and we are navigating those efficiencies when we make a film, just like a translator does.

In Polish, there is a word for “the day after tomorrow,” a single word. We don’t have that in English, we have to say “the day after tomorrow.” So we are impoverished in English there, but probably the opposite is true as well: words which are more efficient in English than Polish.

So - after that interview - I started translating some Italian prose, and for some peculiar reason, it flipped in my translation into blank verse poetry instead of a solid paragraph of text - which it was in the original Italian – and each line of poetry looked to me like a shot in a timeline.

Your mind when you’re translating is doing exactly what we do when we’re editing a film: “Well, I used that shot before, so I don’t need this shot anymore, but I could use that other shot to get the idea across.

But the emotion in the other shot, if I use that, then I have to get rid of this.” And so on. You’re kind of playing a game of Tetris: sliding things around until everything suddenly locks into place.

A frame from the documentary Her Name Was Moviola, featuring Murch. Photo credit: "The Curators! Ltd."

Do you think that idea of editing being used as a translation is one of the reasons why so many great scripts don’t quite work the properly when they get into the cutting room? That translation is necessary for the audience.

Yes. Yes. There are so many variables. I make the point in the book that film is not really an art. It’s a “meta-art.” It’s an “art of arts.” There are so many things going on in a film depending on things like who you cast in a role.

Imagine The Godfather starring Robert Redford as Michael - which is what Paramount initially wanted. Here’s a guy who has a line of dialogue where he says, “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.”

But you look at Robert Redford and think, “Yes, you are not part of this family. You’re a cowboy with freckles and red-blond hair.” All the other people look like Italians. But when Al Pacino - who’s really Sicilian - says that line, you say, “Well, that’s interesting.

Why does somebody who looks like that say that line?” It just has to do with the creative tension that develops as a result of the dialogue and the casting. 

You mentioned that one of the examples of a nodal cut is the Lawrence of Arabia match cut to the desert. 

[MURCH]: It’s absolutely the opposite of a match cut.

And it was supposed to be a dissolve!

In the script, it’s a dissolve. Scriptwriter Robert Bolt wrote:

LAWRENCE: he smiles and raises the flame to his lips. He blows it out in the usual manner. DISSOLVE TO: Sunrise in the desert.

And editor Anne V. Coates obeyed the script! As we did back in those days, she drew probably a six foot grease pencil mark diagonally across the film. And the cut happened right in the middle of that.

So she was showing director David Lean the assembly of that scene, and they looked at it and both of them - at the moment of the cut - jumped out of their chair and said, “Get rid of those grease pencil marks! That’s a great cut.”

Arguably - if they had been editing digitally - they wouldn’t have seen that cut, because Anne would’ve made a dissolve and they’d have watched it with a dissolve in place and not realized what a great cut it would have been.

Everyone who saw Lawrence remembered that cut, and it was one of the reasons Anne won the editing Oscar for the film.

A frame from the documentary Her Name Was Moviola, featuring Murch. Photo credit: "The Curators! Ltd."

But back, then, because of the technology, they would have had to wait for an optical to come back - for the dissolve to have been optically printed and returned from the lab.

Yeah, in the work print, you just see these terrible looking grease pencil lines and you know - intellectually - that it’s going to be a dissolve. Filmmakers had to imagine it as best as you could.

But then you have to identify the shots, send the negatives out to make interpositives, use the interpositives to make the dissolve onto a new internegative, all of that kind of stuff.

It takes days before you see the result. So that famous cut is just one of those fortuitous things that arose out of the primitiveness of the technology itself 

One of your other opinions from the book - and from our previous discussions - is that you shouldn’t scrub to find an edit point.

That’s one of my rules. A simple example: somebody walks away from the camera, opens the door, and closes the door behind them. Where do you cut? One way to do it is what we call scrubbing: which is just scanning the film back and forth slowly over the playhead to identify the moment where the door is closed.

But that frame doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the inherent rhythm of the shot itself. You’ve just analyzed intellectually, “the door is now closed”… CUT.

I never do that and I would urge people not to do it, but everyone to their own decisions. In the example of walking through the door, the moment of the cut is probably: the moment is it inevitable that the door will close, but it hasn’t yet closed.

In musical terms: you’re cutting on a rising potential. The next shot receives that potential and does something with it. If you want to make a definite storypoint about the door closing, like: “I’ll never see you again!”

Well, then you DO allow the door to close, and then you probably hold on the closed door for a number of frames, letting the audience think about the finality of the situation.

It’s like the moment that a plane takes off: it’s going down the runway, and at a certain point it is inevitable that it will either take off or it’ll crash. And that moment of inevitability is the moment of the cut.

When somebody exits frame left - similar to the door close - it could be that before they reach this point, just like Colombo, he turns and says, “but one more thing.” And we know, “Okay, this is the key that’s going to unravel the whole mystery.”

But once you’re past that moment, you can’t come back. So that’s a cut point. Unless you want to say - again like the door - “he’s gone and he will never come back.” So let him go. Hold on the empty frame.

As a counter-example, Francis [Ford Coppola] used the empty frame creatively in The Conversation. This was the early days of video surveillance, so he wanted [DP] Bill Butler to allow Harry Caul to exit and hold on the empty frame as if the camera was a surveillance camera that has been programmed to respond to movement within the frame.

So now somebody’s left frame and the little computer is thinking, “I will hold for two seconds and then I will search for the person.” So this technique makes the camera purposely stupid: “I’m not going to pan with him. I’m not going to cut as soon as he leaves frame, I’m just going to hold on the empty frame.”

And that creates an anxiety in the audience, which is what we wanted: “Why are we not looking at anything?” Then finally the camera pans robotically to the left and we find Harry sitting on the sofa taking off his trousers, which is another question for the audience: “Now what’s going to happen?”

Then he gets up and leaves that frame and we hold on the empty sofa. But he quickly comes back. So we’re playing a cat-and-mouse game, but it’s part of the stylistic approach of the film.


In the book you mention: “In film, you have to cut to another shot that continues the story more effectively” than the shot you’re already on. I love that idea. For example, as Harry Caul walks away from the elevator, what’s the next best shot that continues the story?

Right. Technically, it’s what I call a skip cut. It’s not a jump cut. My definition of a jump cut is a cut - INTERNAL to a shot - that jumps the shot forward in time. The classic example is from Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard, riding in the car: cut cut cut.

In The Conversation, in the wide shot of the warehouse, Harry hasn’t yet gotten to the caged work area, and we cut, but now he’s already in the caged area taking off his raincoat. It’s the gesture of his removal of the raincoat that kind of wipes you into that shot. 

For those that are so driven by match cutting - like me, earlier in my career - the argument against match-cutting is that it will make the scene boring and have a bad rhythm because you would have to wait those extra five seconds of nothingness before the removal of Caul’s raincoat to be able to get it to match.

Yes. That was my approach to the editing of The Conversation: compelled by the fact that Francis shot so much footage. That meant if we used nothing but match cuts, the film would be four and a half hours long. So how are we going to accelerate it?

A counter-example of that was from my experience working with [director] Fred Zinnemann on Julia (1977). Jane Fonda or Vanessa Redgrave would walk away from camera, but as soon as they would cross a threshold - a doorway or something - Fred would yell, “CUT!”

They had been told that means: stop instantly. It was as if they were yanked back by an invisible bungee cord. I thought, “Well, that’s weird: Francis would have allowed them to go over the threshold and the close the door behind them just in case we could use it later. But Fred would not let them complete the action.

Finally - after a week or so of watching this in dailies - I knocked on his door and said, “I can’t help but wonder what is happening here. Why do you not let them go through?” It was as if I had uncovered a slightly painful memory of his, and he said, “Because then SHE could recut my film.”

And I said, “Who is she?” And his eyes narrowed even further: “Margaret Booth.” All of the young filmmakers at MGM were desperately afraid of Margaret Booth, who was the editor of all editors at MGM.

She was L.B. Mayer’s enforcer. If there was a serious problem with your film, you would arrive one morning and your name would be off the door and she would be inside recutting your movie.

So Fred and many other of his generation shot their films in a style, called “cutting in the camera” to prevent studio interference, or at least make it more difficult.

Fred explained: “If I let the actors go behind a closed door, I could attend the premier of my film and find that MGM had shot a whole new scene on the other side of that closed door.” So he never gave them the closed door. 

I heard something similar back when the studio started saying directors had to shoot coverage. And John Ford used to put his hand in front of the camera because then they couldn’t use the part that he didn’t want to let them use.

Tell me a little bit about your love affair with the Moviola. 

Just a week ago we did the final color timing on an hour-long documentary, “Her Name was Moviola.”


I began editing on the Moviola – the classic Hollywood editing machine – in 1965 and used it on and off for the next twenty years, alternating with Steenbecks and KEMs. But I realized about 15 years ago that there is no complete film document of what it actually took to edit a scene on the Moviola.

So I wrote a proposal for a short film showing all this, and pitched it to Howard Berry, head of post-production at the University of Hertfordshire School of Creative Arts, just north of London, up near where Kubrick’s MGM studio was and the Elstree Studio where George shot Star Wars, where we shot Julia, and where I shot Return to Oz. Howard thought this was a great idea, and we crowdfunded the budget for this film, called Her Name Was Moviola.

A frame from the documentary Her Name Was Moviola, featuring Murch. Photo credit: "The Curators! Ltd."

I chipped in.

Excellent !!

It took more than a year to painstakingly assemble all of the antique equipment, but we managed to re-create a film editing room exactly the way it would have been half a century ago, in 1972.

We shot for 10 days at BBC Elstree using three cameras, two of them student-operated and the third one a Filmic-Pro iPhone operated by Taghi Amirani

As for the content, I convinced director Mike Leigh to loan us the digital files from his film Mr. Turner (2014) and we reverse-engineered 80 minutes of rushes from two scenes, printing them in 35 mm picture and sound, just as they would have come from the laboratory a half-century ago.

And then my longtime assistant, Dan Farrell, and I, wired up with lavalier microphones, go through all the stages of preparation (synching, coding, logging,, etc.) culminating in the editing of two scenes from Mr. Turner.

As we briefly show each stage and what is involved, Dan and I provide a running commentary about what we are doing and why.

The camera and sound crew for Moviola were largely drawn from the student body at the University, and they had never seen anything like this. At one point, the sound recordist, born around the year 2000, asked Dan: “Did you do this on every film?”

With those two scenes finally cut together, we drove out to the Stanley Kubrick estate (Howard is a consultant to the Kubrick archive, which allowed us this unique access) and screened the material for Mike Leigh. Mike and I sit at Kubrick’s Steenbeck and I show him the two scenes.

They are similar but different to how they were edited in Mr. Turner, and Mike and I discuss the differences. It’s a great example of that old question: give the same material to two different editors and what would the result be?

We just submitted it to the Cannes Film Festival, and we hope we get in.

A frame from the documentary Her Name Was Moviola, featuring Murch’s “assistant editor,” Dan Farrell. Photo credit: "The Curators! Ltd."

I hope so too. I was shocked to read in the book that you almost couldn’t make that documentary anymore because of the materials that you needed to print the Edgecode and all that kinda stuff. 

The easiest thing to get was the Moviola because they’re iconic. What was not easy was mag stripe, which is 35mm film that has a stripe of iron oxide on it for the sound. Nobody has used any of it for the last 20 years.

We eventually found some here in Los Angeles actually, but it was their last 10 rolls that somehow had been forgotten. The other thing that was difficult was the pressure sensitive, heat sensitive tape for edge coding and ironically, the place that did have some of it was Pixar.

Why they had that, I don’t know. But if we hadn’t been able to get either of those two things — mag stripe 35mm film and edge coding tape — we couldn’t have made the film. It’s like: “For want of a nail, the shoe is lost. For want of a shoe, the horse is lost. For want of a horse, the kingdom is lost…”

A frame from the documentary Her Name Was Moviola, featuring Murch with director Mike Leigh, at Stanley Kubrick’s Steenbeck.  Photo credit: "The Curators! Ltd."

You mentioned shooting ratios. And it’s one of the things that you also mentioned in the book. During the Golden Age of film, they had ratios of 10:1 of what had been shot to what ended up on screen. On Julia, you said it was 34:1. Apocalypse Now was 95:1.  Mad Max: Fury Road was 240:1. What does that do to the art of editing? 

It complicates it !! But it can complicate it in a good way. I mean, my documentary, Coup 53 was…

The book says 266:1.

Coup 53 director Taghi Amarani with Murch

Yeah, up there with Mad Max! We were swamped enough with Apocalypse Now, but there were two, three, sometimes four editors on Apocalypse Now at 95:1. And it took us two years! But with Mad Max or Coup 53, there’s no way you could do that unless you were editing digitally.

One of the big differences between editing an unscripted documentary and a scripted fiction film is that in a documentary, you have an abundance of events, but a paucity of coverage.

And with a fiction film, it’s exactly the opposite. You have an abundance of interpretation of coverage. Maybe you have four setups for a scene and you shoot seven takes for each setup.

That’s already 28 different line readings - slightly different line readings, different lenses, different camera positions. So the editor has to navigate through that abundance to find just the right line reading with the right lens at the right moment. But you only have the events that are in the screenplay.

Whereas in a documentary - especially an unscripted one - you have a huge number of potential scenes and you have to editorially figure out what the best scenes are and in what order.

The world we live in at the moment is that the cost of the media is negligible. I mean, it always was in terms of how much each day cost. The cost of film was not the main consideration. But it was still expensive.

A frame from the documentary Her Name Was Moviola, featuring “assistant editor Dan Farrell. Photo credit: "The Curators! Ltd."

Not compared to hundred people getting paid on a film set

Right. So a hundred people outweigh a hundred feet of 35mm film going through the camera. Back in 1967, ten minutes of 35mm workprint cost $100. In today’s money, that would be $940.

Also what we have now is the proliferation of what we call resets. So, “Okay, here we go. Take two!” And you start through it and 10 seconds in, the director says, “Just go back a little bit and repeat that line a little louder. And the actor has to do that.

And then they go for another 20 seconds when the director says, “Take a little more pause before you say that one.” And it’s all in one take. On Tomorrowland, the record was 35 resets within the same shot, which creates a whole dilemma of how you keep track of all that.

Your background is just as famous in sound as it is in editing. In the book you mention that - as shown in the example of the movie, Barton Fink - there is power in leaving room in the script - and in the film - for sound to tell the story. I love that. Can you talk a little bit about the value of that and how editors can use sound to help tell the story? 

This is the big secret of cinematic sound: it’s much less expensive than image and it sneaks into the audience’s mind sideways. For some poetic reason, our ears are on the side of our head and our eyes face forward. We hear in 360 degrees but we can’t see what’s behind us.

I didn’t work on Barton Fink. That chapter is a hymn of praise to Supervising Sound Editor, Skip Lievsay, but also to the Coen Brothers.

When you read the script, many, many things are keyed to what’s being heard by the audience. It’s one of the most “audio-philic” screenplays I’ve ever read. They just did a wonderful job.

The advantage of sound is that it can get into the imagined head of the person that you’re looking at, even though on a certain level, you know that sound is not in the person’s head, but because you’re looking at the person and hearing this sound, if the sound is a good well chosen, we merge those two things.

You mentioned that reverb in audio is analogous to depth of field in visuals. Can you talk about that and do you actually do that in your picture cuts, or is that strictly when you’re in a mixing stage? 

I think about it during the editing because I know that I’m going to be at the mix or mixing the film. It’s one of those translational things where I’m thinking, “I can’t solve this problem visually, but maybe I can solve it with sound.

But you don’t bother doing it in the picture cut? You just know you have the ability someplace else?

Exactly. So the nature of reverb is that when I’m speaking, my voice is hitting the wall of this room and it’s bouncing off with a slight delay. It’s minimal in this case. If we were in a tiled room, the bounce would be more pronounced because the tile doesn’t absorb as much of the sound, it just kicks it back.

When you start working in sound you sensitize yourself to reverb because it’s a great tool. Reverb smooths the edges of things. In a room that has no reverb, as soon as the voice or whatever it is stops, that is the end.

But with reverb, there’s a little tail. It’s like an echo, but the difference between reverb and echo is that echo is a definite slap, whereas reverb is a whole series of very quick echoes that all merge into one, with a sonic color to them.

That’s how you tell this sound is in the bathroom or in a living room or a cathedral. They all have different reverbs. So it helps to increase the feeling of where you are.

Creatively you can play with that and disorient an audience by showing them in a space that should have reverb and take it all away. Why? To create an interior space, and de-emphasize physically where they are, or the opposite.

You gave the example of American Graffiti: the music in the background had reverb to kind of mushed it out so that the dialogue would pop over it

Right. It’s mushy. There are no hard edges to it. The more reverb you add, the, the more everything blends in with everything else. Graffiti has an almost constant soundtrack of 42 songs.

There are two scenes that don’t have music, but everywhere else music is always playing because it’s all coming from Wolfman Jack’s radio show and everyone in town, all the teenagers, are turned to his show.

That’s the concept. When you have dialogue scenes, you want to hear the dialogue clearly. But if you have music playing at the same time, that can interfere with the ability to hear the dialogue. So what do you do? Well, you could lower the music.

But by adding realistic reverb - and we went to great pains to make the quality of the reverb match what we were looking at - if you’re in a car or out on the street, or at Mel’s Drive-in - they all have different reverbs. What this allows you to do is to have the voices in the foreground, so to speak, without any reverb.

And the music is actually playing fairly loudly, but because there are no sharp edges to it, there’s nothing for the ear to grab onto, so the brain hears the music, but can also focus on the dialogue.

We were at the point of the first assembly and Verna Fields - she edited Jaws for Spielberg, and was also a teacher of ours at USC - she came up to help George and Marcia get the first assembly together.

When she left, she took me aside and said, “Walter, please tell George to drop this idea of all of these songs. Have a few of them, but not all! The audience is gonna be driven crazy. It’s a wonderful story, great characters, but you’re ruining it with all this music.” I said, “Well, I know what you mean, Verna, but we have a plan.”

I’d experimented with this technique on THX-1138 (1971) actually, and on some student films as well. The Godfather also has it in the wedding scene. It allows you to have your cake and eat it too, in the sense that you don’t have to play the music too low because you’re softening the edges of the music while the dialogue is happening.

It’s the equivalent of depth of field in photography, where you’re shooting a closeup of somebody, and you want their face to be in focus but behind them is a rose garden.

You don’t want those roses to be in focus, so you choose a long lens, with a narrow the depth of field so that the face is in focus, and the roses are just kind of colorful, mushy shapes.

So we did the same thing with the music. Then at the end of the scene we would dial back the reverb and bring the music up full. If we kept that same amount of reverb when the music was in the foreground, it would get chaotic, so it allowed us to navigate those changes from in focus and out of focus.

A frame from the documentary Her Name Was Moviola, featuring Murch. Photo credit: "The Curators! Ltd."

Walter, thank you so much for your time today. It was fascinating to hear about, and I hope that everybody has a chance to pick up your book: “Suddenly Something Clicked.” 

“Suddenly Something Clicked” was a phrase Maxim Gorky came up with when he was watching his first movie in 1896. The Lumière brothers had come to his hometown and he was sitting in the audience - in a brothel interestingly, which is the only place that would allow this to happen — and preparing to write about the experience for the local newspaper.

They hung up a bedsheet for a screen at one end of the central salon and put the projector at the other. The first shot was a street scene in Lyon - just pedestrians and carriages and bicycles. He was not impressed because he missed the color and sounds of life.

Then he heard a click, and in a instant the street scene in Lyon disappeared, replaced by a train arriving at a station in the south of France. “Suddenly something clicked” he wrote. What he had heard was the splice going through the projector as one shot cut to another.

It’s the first time anyone ever wrote about the moment of a cut from one shot to another in a motion picture. This barely-remarked moment was the seed that would grow into editing, the only truly unique art form of cinema.

I love it. Thank you so much for your time.

My pleasure.