A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 4

Roads not travelled.

No matter how long the career or number of awards, any editor might consider those films that passed by and wonder what they might have done with the film. That’s where we conclude this discussion.

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Walter, in your career, are there any films that you didn’t edit, but wish you had?

I worked on K-19: The Widowmaker for Kathryn Bigelow. And in 2007 she sent me the script for The Hurt Locker, about the Iraq war. It made me realize that the last four films I had edited had been films about war, the latest one being Jarhead. I told her that I just wanted to take a break from editing war films. Of course, Hurt Locker went on to win six Oscars – Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Sound Effects, and Best Mixing.

What would have happened if I had said yes to that? But, you also get into practical things. At the time of making that decision, I’d been away from home for a year editing Jarhead in Los Angeles and New York. This would have meant going into the Middle East or at least going to Los Angeles. But, the main thing was just I’d been thinking about war since 2000: Apocalypse Redux, war – K-19, war – Cold Mountain, war – Jarhead, war. Even The English Patient is kind of a war film. So turning down The Hurt Locker is the big What If?  that comes to mind.

I know you are an Orson Welles buff, so I was actually thinking it might have been The Other Side of the Wind, which was finally completed in 2018.

I did the recut of Touch of Evil. At that time, 1998, I was taken to the vaults in Los Angeles, where the material for The Other Side of the Wind was in storage. Gary Graver showed me some of the rough assemblies that had been put together by Welles himself, but I just didn’t want to work on that one. This looked to me very self-indulgent. The situation with Touch of Evil was very, very different. 

The finished version of Wind seems like it’s an art film within the film and appears to be somewhat autobiographical. Although, I believe Welles denied that the director character (John Huston) was modeled after his own career.

Right. Touch of Evil was obviously a scripted film that was produced by Universal Studios in Hollywood – albeit, in a Wellesian manner – but it was very buttoned down, relatively speaking. And then Welles left us the 58 page memo, which made very specific suggestions for how the film should be recut. It was clear what he wanted done. I mean, he didn’t talk about frames – he would just say: this section needs to be shorter. Or: restore the script structure for the first four reels, cross-cutting between Janet Leigh’s story and Charlton Heston’s story. The studio put all the Heston story together and then all the Leigh story together. He wanted his original structure back. I don’t believe there was a guiding memo like that for The Other Side of the Wind.

Welles’ Touch of Evil memo is a wonderful document. It’s 58 pages by a genius filmmaker under duress, writing about his ideas and addressed to his enemies at the studio. It’s a masterclass in political diplomacy of trying to get his ideas across without accusation. It’s sad that he had to write it, but I’m happy we have it.

Thank you.

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Walter Murch has led and continues to lead an interesting and eclectic filmmaking career. If you’ve enjoyed this 4-part series, there’s plenty more to be found in the books written by and about him. There are also many of his interviews and presentations available on the web.

SIGHT & SOUND: The Cinema of Walter Murch is documentary created by Jon Lefkovitz. This video is assembled from various interviews and presentations by Murch discussing his take on filmmaking and editing. It’s illustrated with many film examples to highlight the concepts.

Web of Stories – Life Stories of Remarkable People includes an 18-hour series of interviews with Walter Murch recorded in London in 2016. These are broken down into 320 short clips for easier viewing.

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 1

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 2

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 3

©2023 Oliver Peters