By Michael Guillén
Francis Ford Coppola and Walter Murch have worked together off and on for over 30 years. Several of Murch's Academy Award nominations and three Oscar wins are from Coppola-directed films (The Godfather, as well as Parts II & III; Apocalypse Now). And there might have been more had Murch's not career taken off, making him unavailable at certain times. Though their most recent collaboration - Youth Without Youth - has been polarizing critics, Murch's particular and brilliant touch on the film is unmistakeable. I'm in the camp of those who very much enjoyed Youth Without Youth and so I welcomed the opportunity to speak with Murch about his participation.
It's a great honor, Walter, to speak with you for a few minutes this morning on your most recent collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola, Youth Without Youth. With regard to this specific project, can you distinguish the temper of your collaboration? When were you brought into the process? And what unique challenges did you face helping Francis realize his personal vision with this film?
When Francis was shooting Youth Without Youth, I was still editing Sam Mendes's Jarhead. So I didn't actually join the film until all the shooting had been completed. We did have one meeting around Christmas where Francis had taken a break from shooting and was back in the United States. We discussed the script and I looked at some of the footage and - as usual - Francis, who is very collaborative, said, "Well, is there anything that you can think of that we should shoot? I have a month left of shooting. I can add anything at this point. What do you suggest?"
I suggested in one of the final scenes that there be an argument with the Double, that that relationship come to a head, and Dominic [Tim Roth] gets mad enough that he smashes the mirror in which the Double has been living. As a result, he - in a sense - kills the Double, which ultimately leads to his own unraveling a few scenes later. So it was a kind of a Dorian Gray resolution of the story.
That was not in Mircea Eliade's original novella?
No. Nor in the screenplay.
You stated in David and Edie Ichioka's documentary [Murch], which screened at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival, that an editor is like a painter who says it's okay to see a brushstroke. Clearly, the profundity of the ideas within Eliade's novel and Coppola's adaptation must have required a certain editorial pacing on your part. If cinema is a "theater of thought," as you likewise stated in the Ichioka documentary, what meta-strategy did you employ to convey these ideas and what, would you say, is your rhythmic signature to this piece? Your brushstroke, if you will, to this painting?
It's true that every film has a rhythmic signature, a kind of language with which it tells itself, and everyone - including the editor - everyone in every department is on their own terms trying to learn exactly what that is. In my case, it was trying to determine the way to balance the different - you might call them - genres in which the film operates. There are times when it's a reincarnation movie, a sort of a Mummy film, if you will. There are other times when it's like Frankenstein. There are other times when it's sort of a split personality movie like The Portrait of Dorian Gray. There are times when it's a Nazi movie and people are running through alleyways like in The Third Man.
All of these come in some form from the original novella, but once they're visualized, they have a weight and an impact that is different than the printed word. [The challenge was] in finding ways to integrate and balance these, while still being respectful of the original novella and Francis's adaptation of it. The first assembly was probably three hours and a half, maybe, and, ultimately, the film is just over two hours, so it also involved finding ways to cut out more than an hour of material out of the film.
So Francis made you earn your money, eh?
That's pretty much par for the course with all editing. There are very few directors today - probably Guillermo del Toro and maybe the Coen Brothers and a few others - who have such a distinct vision and everything is so carefully storyboarded that, when they shoot the movie, it simply comes out the way they pre-imagined it. It's a question of the director's interest. If you crudely divided directors into two types, you could say there are result-oriented directors like the Coen Brothers or Guillermo and that there are process-oriented directors like Francis Coppola or Anthony Minghella who delight in making discoveries along the way; that, during shooting, opportunities will present themselves and they will seize those opportunities. The result of that is there is correspondingly more footage and you have to then find the right way to balance material that was not in the original screenplay, which is now in the film, and have everything hang together.
The film is quite dense - almost turgid - with ideas. In the spirit of collaboration, and in your role as editor, how did you work with the special effects team, and Osvaldo Golijov's compositions to create your edit? I'm intrigued by the necessary collaborations to achieve your edit. In this film, there are so many layers - the special effects, the atmospheric music - how do you as an editor work with all those creative agents?
I'm right at the heart of all of that. The editing of the film is the creating of the finished product. I'm also involved in the final mix of the film. I'm one of the re-recording mixers. Specifically with Osvaldo - to take that as an example - he came on the project very early. In fact, he saw material from the film before I ever saw it. As I said, I was working on another film at the time; but fairly early, Osvaldo wrote a couple of themes that were inspired by his looking at the material, his reading of the screenplay, and they weren't necessarily tied to any specific scene. It was just a kind of a musical fingerprint that he felt might be suitable for the film. This is a crucial litmus test for how the music is going to go. Francis and I would take the music and try it in different places and we found a couple of places where it really felt very much at home.
When you do this, the wonderful thing that happens is that you have time for there to be an interaction between the development of the music and the continuing development of the motion picture. The music can influence how you cut the movie and also the movie itself can influence how you rearrange the music to fit what you've got. We would then show our tests back to Osvaldo and this would give him further ideas. We continued down that path until, finally, [we] reach[ed] a point, which I think in our case was sometime in October of last year. We had a final what's called "spotting" session. We go through the film moment by moment talking about whether there should be music here or not and, if there is music, what kind of music it would be. I drew up a master list of each of those cues and a brief sentence about what we were trying to achieve musically. [We] gave that to Osvaldo and that - and the film, of course - was his guide in terms of writing the final music for the motion picture.
The music was recorded. Even after it's recorded, we place it and then we make some final adjustments. There are some places where music was written and there is no music now; but, there are also some places where we decided to put music where it wasn't. So it's a very fluid but evolving process in that the word "process" is very important when you're dealing with a Francis Coppola movie. That pretty much applies to the visual effects that are in the film. They evolved out of both the story and the necessity to have a certain kind of effect. We would work with the people who were doing the special effects in a similar evolutionary way.
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