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.


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.


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

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 3

Sound design and the film mixing process

Walter Murch is not only known for his work and awards in the realm of picture editing, but he’s also made significant contributions to the art of film sound. That’s where we pick up in Part 3.


Walter, let’s switch gears and talk about sound and your work as a sound designer and re-recording mixer. There’s an origin story about the term ‘sound designer’ credited to union issues. That might be a good place to start.

Frances [Ford Coppola] tells the story, but he gets it wrong. [laugh] There were union problems, because I was in the San Francisco union. Many of the films were financially based in LA, so what am I doing working on that? On The Rain People, for instance, my credit is sound montage. I wasn’t called sound mixer, re-recording mixer, or sound editor. We were just trying to avoid blatantly stepping on toes. I had the same sound montage credit on The Conversation. Then on Apocalypse Now I was credited with sound re-recording, because it was an independent film. Francis basically was the financier of it. So, it was an independent film, partially supported by United Artists.

The sound design idea came up because of this new format, which we now call 5.1. Apocalypse Now was the first time I had ever worked in that format. It was the first big film that really used it in a creative way. The Superman film in 1978 had it technically, but I don’t think they used it much in a creative fashion.

As I recall, at that time there was the four channel surround format that was left, center, right, and a mono rear channel.

Star Wars, which came out in 1977, had that format with the ‘baby boom’ thing. 70mm prior to that would have five speakers behind the screen – left, left-center, center, right-center, and right. What they decided to do on Star Wars was to not have the left-center/right-center speakers. Those were only used for super low frequency enhancement. Then the surround was many speakers, but all of them wired to only one channel of information.

Walter Murch mixing Apocalypse Now

We didn’t use those intermediate speakers at all and brought in Meyer ‘super boom’ speakers. These went down to 20Hz, much lower than the Altec speakers in those days, which I think bottomed out at around 50Hz. And then we split the mono surround speakers into two channels – left and right. Basically what we call 5.1 today. We didn’t call it 5.1, we just called it six-track or a split-surround format.

This was a new format, but how do you use it creatively? I couldn’t copy other films that had done it, because there weren’t any. So I designed an entire workflow system for the whole film. Where would we really use 5.1 and where would we not? That was a key thing – not to fall into the trap that usually happens with new technology, which is to overuse it. Where do we really want to have 5.1? In between that, let’s just use stereo and even some long sections where it’s just mono – when Willard is looking at the Kurtz dossier, for instance.

Willard’s narration section, if he’s in the focsle of the boat at night reading the memo, it’s just mono – it’s just his voice and that’s it. As things open up, approaching Hau Phat (the Playboy Bunny concert) it becomes stereo, and then as it really opens up, with the show beginning, it becomes full six-track, 5.1. Then it collapses back down to mono again the next morning. That’s the design element. So I thought, that’s the unique job that I did on the film – sound design – designing where we would fully use this new format and how we would use it.

Mark Berger, Francis Ford Coppola, and Walter Murch mixing The Godfather Part II

In addition, of course, I’d cut some of the sound effects, but not anywhere near most of them, because we had a small army of sound effects editors working under Sound Effects Supervisor Richard Cirincione. However, I was the main person responsible. Francis at one point had a meeting and he said, “Any questions about sound? Walter’s the guy. Don’t ask me, ask Walter.” So I effectively became the director of sound. And then, of course, I was the lead re-recording mixer on the film.

Some readers might not be familiar with how film mixing works and why there are teams. Please go into that more.

Previously, in Hollywood, there would usually be three people – DME sitting at the board. That is how The Godfather was mixed. If you are facing the screen behind the console, then D [dialogue mixer] on the left, M [music mixer] in the middle and E [sound effects mixer] on the right. On the other hand, in San Francisco I had been the solo re-recording mixer on Rain People, THX-1138, and The Conversation. 

Walter Murch handling the music mix, Particle Fever

As soon as you have automation you don’t need as many people, because the automation provides extra fingers. We had very basic automation on Apocalypse Now. Only the faders were automated, but none of the equalization, sends, echo, reverb, or anything else. So we had to keep lots of notes about settings. The automation did at least control the levels of each of the faders.

Of course, these days a single person can mix large projects completely ‘in the box’ using mainly a DAW. I would imagine mixing for music and mixing for film and television is going to use many of the same tools.

The big difference is that in the old days – and I’m thinking of The Godfather – we had very limited ability with the edited soundtracks to hear them together before we got to the mix. You had no way to set their levels relative to each other until you got to the mix. So the mix was really the creation of this from the ground up.

Supervising the mix, Coup 53

Thinking of the way I work now or the way Skip Lievsay works with the Coen brothers, he will create the sound for a section in Pro Tools and build it up. Then he’ll send the brothers a five-track or a three-track and they just bring it into the audio tracks of the Premiere timeline. So they’re editing the film with his full soundtrack. There are no surprises in the final mix. You don’t have to create anything. The final mix is when you hear it all together and put ‘holy water’ on it and say, that’s it – or not. Now that you’ve slept on it overnight, let’s reduce the the bells of the cows by 3dB. You make little changes, but it’s not this full-on assault of everything. As I said earlier, bareback – where it’s just taking the raw elements and putting them together for the first time in the mix. The final mix now is largely a certification of things that you have already been very familiar with for some time.


Click here for the conclusion of this conversation in Part 4.

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 1

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 2

©2023 Oliver Peters

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 2

Her Name was Moviola, continued

In Part 1 of my recent discussion with Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch, he explained about a documentary film with which he’s currently involved. In that film he takes a look at some of the processes traditional film editors went through. We continue that conversation here in Part 2.


What was the experience like to go back in time, so to speak – working with a Moviola again?

I hadn’t cut any dailies on a Moviola since 1977, 45 years ago. Dan had not done anything on a Moviola since 1994. But it all came back instantly. There was not the slightest hesitation about what any of this stuff was or how we made it work. Interestingly, that’s very different from my experience with digital platforms.

In what way?

Let’s say I’m cutting a film using Avid and finish the work. Then three months later I get another job using the same Avid. In those three months the muscle memory of my fingers has somewhat evaporated. I have to ask my assistant questions similar to, “How do I tie my shoelaces?” [laugh] Of course, it comes back – it takes about three or four days to get rid of the rust. Then in about a week I’m fully back.

Murch editing Coup 53 with Premiere Pro

So that’s an interesting neurological question. Why does editing on the Moviola not have the slightest evaporation in 45 years, whereas editing on a digital platform that you are very familiar with start to evaporate if you are away from it for a few months? I think it’s because every skill in Moviola editing is a completely different set of physical muscular moves: splicing is different from rewinding is different from braking is different from threading up the Moviola, etc. etc. And each of them makes a different sound. Whereas the difference between ‘splicing’ and ‘rewinding’ in digital editing is simply a different keystroke. 

In our emails we had talked a little bit about the differences between an upright Moviola and flatbeds like KEM and Steenbeck. Would you expand upon that a bit?

Ironically, the outliers in this are the flatbeds. In a sense, both the Moviola and nonlinear digital are random access machines. With the Moviola, everything is broken down into individual shots, which are rolled up and put into boxes. There might be two or three or sometimes six or seven shots in a box. When you want to see a shot, you ask your assistant, “Can you give me 357, take two?” That’s kind of what happens digitally, too, except you are making the selection by typing or mouse-clicking. Digital is much more random access: you can select internally within the shot.

A KEM or a Steenbeck on the other hand is linear. Everything is kept in the dailies rolls as they came from the lab. If you want to see a particular shot, you have to find it in its ten minute dailies roll. What I would do is thread it through the sprocketed prism, without going through the drive sprockets. Then I’d just spool down at very high speed with my hands on both the take up and the feed and watch for 30 seconds or so while it was winding until I got to the shot.

Next, I would put it on the screening side screen and lock it into the sprocketed motor drives, to figure out a place to edit it into the cut. On the KEM the picture module would be on my left and the sound for that on my right. The center would be what’s coming into the film. That’s my way of working, but everyone has a different way of working.

Murch and Taghi Amirani, director, Coup 53

When George [Lucas] cut on the Steenbeck, he was using a one-screen Steenbeck, so that option of having two screens was not available to him. And so he would make select rolls. He would go through the dailies roll, cut out the good bits and then either hang them on hooks or build them into a separate selects roll. For philosophical reasons, I don’t like working that way, but it’s certainly a valid way of working.

I liked the ‘dailies roll’ method, because as I would be hi-speed scrolling for the shot I wanted, I often would find what I needed instead. As I would be spooling, I would glimpse alternate takes, things that I had initially rejected, which proved to be valuable, because as the film evolves, maybe they would now be helpful. Even when editing digitally, I still also construct what I call ‘KEM rolls’ of everything shot for a scene strung together.

We humans have this fascination with vintage analog gear, whether it’s film or audio. Is it just that touch of nostalgia or something different?

The basic idea behind the Moviola film is that if we don’t do it now it will disappear from history. It was difficult enough now in 2022, which coincidentally is the 100th birthday of the Moviola. The first one was built in 1922. If we don’t do it now, it will become exponentially more difficult.

Not the machine itself. I think they’ll always hang around, because they’re iconic, like ancient sculptures. But ancillary equipment like mag film was really hard to get. Also hard was the pressure-sensitive thermal tape for the Acmade printer. We eventually found it from Pixar in California. But if we hadn’t found those tapes, we couldn’t have made the film. It was as simple as that. Without that specific tape, all of this inverted pyramid would have just collapsed. 

Every film in Hollywood from about 1925 until 1968, let’s say, was cut on a Moviola. Before 1925 cutting was done without any machine. The editors were just cutting by hand, assembling shots together and then screening the assembly. So the screening room was in essence their Moviola. They would take notes during the screening and then go back to the bench and trimmed and transposed shots or whatever. Ultimately all of the classic films from Hollywood after about 1925 were forged on the Moviola. That was my experience standing all day for 12 hours a day at the Moviola, with all this [winding noise] stuff.

It felt like blacksmithing in comparison to what we do digitally. And obviously you are physically cutting the film. I used the Inviso film splicer on this, which was invented in the mid-1970s. So it’s a little bit of a cheat to say in 1972, because I invented the Inviso in 1976. We also used my other invention, which was to make the hooks on the trim bin out of 1.75mm crochet hooks. These have a barb at the end of them, so that prevented several pieces of film from falling off when you hung them on a hook.

I mean, this is inside baseball, but one of the fascinating things about analog editing is that it is open to physical tinkering. For instance: the Acmade numbers were not printing boldly enough for some reason. What to do? Howard’s solution was to wrap a piece of adhesive tape around the sprocket wheel, forcing the film closer to the print head. You could fix something, just like working on a car from 1956. If you had a problem with the carburetor, take a screwdriver and bang away at it. Right? Today with digital fuel injection or now with electric motors, it’s hopeless for an ordinary person to have any access to the engine. To a certain extent there’s a similarity with digital film editing. Of course, if you know how to code and you know what a database does, you can do very sophisticated things in the digital realm, but that’s the requirement.

When Dan was syncing the film up, there was a sound recordist on the shoot, who was a young film student – maybe 24 years old. At the end of one session, he asked Dan confidentially, “Did you do this on every film?” [laugh] It was just incomprehensible to him that we had to do all this very physical work.

John Gregory Dunne wrote an article around 2004 about film craft. He said, a director friend of his called the old way, which is what we were doing in Moviola, “surgery without anesthetic.” That’s interesting, because how did you do it? Well, first of all, we had to do it. There was no other way. How did Michelangelo carve David? Did he sharpen his chisels after every ten bangs? How many assistants did he have? Just those really ephemeral things that were necessary to do well, which I don’t think we have any record of. So that was another reason to do the film. It was just to say, this is what you had to do.

I read Michael Rubin’s book Droidmaker about the start of Lucasfilm. You are heavily featured in it. He referred to a picnic event you hosted called the Droid Olympics, which was directly related to the film editing techniques we’ve been talking about. Please tell me a bit about that.

Droid Olympics, 1978 – Worst Hand Anyway

The first event was held in the summer of 1978. I was working on Apocalypse Now and had been for a year. I was editing on a KEM. Richie Marks and Jerry Greenberg were working on Moviolas. There was an army of assistants re-constituting the dailies after we had cut a scene. I would cut stuff out and hang it on a bin. Then at the end of the day everything would have to be put back together again on the dailies rolls. This was re-constituting the dailies, which was very tedious work.

Marcia Lucas speed splicing. (L-R) Duwayne Dunham, Richard Hymns, and Dale Strumpell look on.

Steve, my assistant, and I were working in the same room. He had an action figure called Stretch [Armstrong]. It was a rubbery creature who could reach across the room with arms that would stretch. He’d taken Stretch and manacled him with wire to the rewinds and put Stretch’s body inside the sync machine. Stretch was being stretched on the rack of the sync machine. I said, “Steve what are doing?” And he said, “Stretch has to suffer!” [laugh] It was a way of blowing off steam from all of the semi-mindless, but crucially exacting work. And so I thought, they need a break.

My wife, Aggie, had put on a horse show earlier that summer for the local kids where they could do various horseback riding skills and get blue ribbons. So I thought, well, we’ll have one of those for a decathlon of skills in film. How fast can you splice? How quickly can you rewind a thousand feet? How accurately can you guess how many feet are in an arbitrary-sized reel of film? Those kind of things.

Murch winning rack stacking

All of the Apocalypse Now editors and Lucasfilm editors were invited. I think The Black Stallion was editing at the time, so they were invited. I think anyone in the Bay Area working in film was invited and it was just a wonderful afternoon. We staged it again two more times – 1983, I think, and then also in 1987. By the time we thought about doing it again, everything had become digital.

There’s probably a digital equivalent of that. But, I guess it wouldn’t be as much fun physically.

No, it wouldn’t be as much fun to look at. There were all kinds of ridiculous things that happened. Carroll Ballard was rewinding and it got out of control and the loops went way up, probably six feet on either side of the sync machine. He didn’t know what to do and panicked. And then, suddenly the loops collapsed and the sync machine flew up into the air and the film got torn to shreds.

Those are the things that you wanted to see! Much more exciting than watching the beach-ball spin around.


This conversation continues in Part 3.

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 1

©2023 Oliver Peters

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 1

Her Name was Moviola

Walter Murch is not one to sit around quietly in retirement. In recent years, he’s spent a lot of time living in London, working on a book and giving lectures, along with numerous film projects. I caught up with him via Zoom after his return from the 2022 Rome Film Festival last October. He was there for the screening of a multi-part series about the South African artist, William Kentridge. Murch is serving as the consulting editor for the South African production team with whom he is able to exchange Premiere Pro project files, complete with his markers, comments, and suggested edits.

Murch describes another production that’s been taking up his time as “a love letter to the Moviola.” Called Her Name Was Moviola, the documentary is about the history of the machine that defined film editing technology for three-fourths of the last century. Invented in the early 1920s, the Moviola hits its centennial anniversary. That’s where we’ll start this four-part discussion.


Walter, please tell me about the Moviola project.

Moviola was an idea that I cooked up fifteen years ago, I think. I pitched it to Norm Hollyn, who was head of post-production at USC. He was very interested, but then he died suddenly while in Japan a few years ago. It never really had a home at USC, because it didn’t get beyond just talking about it. The simple idea is to recreate an editing room from half a century ago, 1972, with what you would have – a Moviola, a rewind bench, a synchronizer, trim bins, an Acmade coding machine and pressure sensitive tape. Plus, something to cut.

We did find a home for it at the University of Hertfordshire, which has a cinema program. Howard Berry, the head of post-production there, put together crowdfunding through IndieGoGo [the IndieGoGo funding round has been closed]. We raised £30,000 and then also some money was kicked in from people like Dolby. So I think the money for it is somewhere on the order of £50,000.

Cutting room at the BBC Studios

We were able to recreate a cutting room at the BBC studios in Elstree. We convinced Mike Leigh, the British director, to give us the digital files from one of his films, which turned out to be Mr. Turner (2014). We took those files and reverse engineered them to print up 35mm film in 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the sound onto magnetic stripe film. That was probably the hardest thing to get, because nobody deals with mag stripe anymore. I don’t know where Howard got it all, but he was checking with post-production people here in London and combing through the catalog on eBay and eventually put together everything we needed.

I worked with my long-time British assistant, Dan Farrell, who I met on Return to Oz back 40 years ago. We had about 70 minutes of dailies for two scenes from Mr. Turner and treated them just as you would have back then… The lab has delivered the dailies from yesterday. OK, start syncing them up. Dan and I were wired up with radio mics and it was being covered by two tripod cameras, plus an iPhone with Filmic Pro for extreme close-ups. Dan and I were giving what you might call ‘golf commentaries’ describing the process. And occasional reminiscences about disasters that had happened in the past.

Walter Murch and Dan Farrell

Next, these were synced up and screened. I took notes the way I used to on 3 x 5 cards. We printed Acmade numbers on the film and the sound to keep it in sync using the British system. That’s a little more work than the American system. The American system starts at the beginning of the roll and runs sequential numbers all the way through. Here in England, you stop at the end of every take and reset the footage number to zero, corresponding to the clapstick. For example, if you are 45 feet from the clapstick, then there is a number that tells you that you are 45 feet into this take. You also have at the head of it what set up it is and what take it is.

Dan did all of that and broke it down into little roll-ups, put tags on them, filled out the logbook, and then turned it over to me. Then I started cutting the two scenes. I didn’t have a script. I just cut it using my intuition.

Did you have any script supervisor notes?

No. I was riding bareback. [laugh] To tell the truth, that’s what I usually do. I only refer to the script supervisor’s notes on a film if there’s really some head scratcher. Like, what were they thinking here? Usually – and it was certainly the case here – it’s very obvious how it might go together. 

I had seen Mr. Turner five months earlier. So, just based on the coverage, how would you cut this together? That took about two days. And as I was cutting it together, I gave a running commentary about what I was doing technically and also creatively – why was I making the cuts where I did and why did I choose the takes that I did. It wound up being about 750 feet long, three quarters of a reel.

We wanted to screen it in a theater with double-system sound, but that was impossible. There is no place in London where people have maintained a mag dubber that can sync up with a projector.

I would imagine that sort of post-production gear – if it still exists – probably isn’t in working condition.

Right. You know, it was amazing enough that we found somewhere to transfer the sound from digital files to mag. Howard found a place owned by a guy who’s into this stuff, maintains it, but mostly specializes in projectors. He had a mag recorder, but didn’t really know how it worked, so the two of them worked it out together and managed to get the transfer done. He’s probably the only person in London who still has that working machinery.

Walter Murch, Mike Leigh, Howard Berry

Anyway, we needed to screen it, because we were going to show it to Mike Leigh. Howard works frequently with the Stanley Kubrick estate. So we drove out there and they kindly let us use Stanley’s Steenbeck, which he bought for The Shining. It still had the original cardboard-core power transformers in the feet, which were dangerous and tripping the fuse. So as part of the production we also repaired the Kubrick Steenbeck and it then worked perfectly!

Mike arrived and we screened the scenes for him. At the end his only comment was, “You used too much of the sailboat.” [laugh] In the dailies there was a shot of a sailboat anchored off the coast. They also had shots of William Turner – the actor Timothy Spall – looking out a window at the ocean. So I put those two things together. I asked, “Why did you shoot it then?” And he said, “The cameraman shot it just because it was there.” It was one of those shots.

I guess he figured it would be useful B-roll.

Exactly. It’s a seagull type of shot. Use, if necessary. I had used it three times at transition points – seagull points. Interestingly, he said, “If you use something three times, it means it’s important,” which is true. It means that at some later point, somebody from this boat is going to come ashore and murder people or find treasure or whatever.

After that, I recut the scene and used only one shot of the sailboat. Then we pulled out a laptop and looked at Mr. Turner streaming and discovered how those scenes had actually been cut in the film. Essentially they were very similar. It’s that old question – give the dailies to two different editors, what do you get? In Mike’s version, the dialogue scene starts on the master and then goes into closeup. And once he was in closeups, he just stayed in closeups. I didn’t do that. In the middle of the scene the conversation changed completely and then got into more serious stuff in the second half. I used that as a carriage return, so to speak, to the change of topic. I cut back out to the master and then went in again. It’s a minor thing and that was essentially the difference there.

The full documentary is now being cut together by Howard, who was the director of it. Since that part was shot digitally, it’s also being cut digitally. At some point I’ll get a call from him to look at the first assembly. That’s where it is at the moment.


This conversation continues in Part 2.

An abridged version of this interview also appears at Pro Video Coalition.

©2023 Oliver Peters


The last century is littered with examples of European powers and the United States attempting to mold foreign governments in their own direction. In some cases, the view at the time may have seemed like these efforts would yield positive results. In others, self-interest or oil was the driving force. We have only to point to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 (think Lawrence of Arabia) to see the unintended consequences these policies have had in the middle east over the past 100+ years, including current politics.

In 1953, Britain’s spy agency MI6 and the United States’ CIA orchestrated a military coup in Iran that replaced the democratic prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, with the absolute monarchy headed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Although the CIA has acknowledged its involvement, MI6 never has. Filmmaker Taghi Amirani, an Iranian-British citizen, set out to tell the true story of the coup, known as Operation Ajax. Five years ago he elicited the help of noted film editor, Walter Murch. What was originally envisioned as a six month edit turned into a four yearlong odyssey of discovery and filmmaking that has become the feature documentary COUP 53.

COUP 53 was heavily researched by Amirani and leans on End of Empire, a documentary series produced by Britain’s Granada TV. That production started in 1983 and culminated in its UK broadcast in May of 1985. While this yielded plenty of interviews with first-hand accounts to pull from, one key omission was an interview with Norman Darbyshire, the MI6 Chief of Station for Iran. Darbyshire was the chief architect of the coup – the proverbial smoking gun. Yet he was inexplicably cut out of the final version of End of Empire, along with others’ references to him.

Amirani and Murch pulled back the filmmaking curtain as part of COUP 53. We discover along with Amirani the missing Darbyshire interview transcript, which adds an air of a whodunit to the film. Ultimately what sets COUP 53 apart was the good fortune to get Ralph Fiennes to portray Norman Darbyshire in that pivotal 1983 interview.

COUP 53 premiered last year at the Telluride Film Festival and then played other festivals until coronavirus closed such events down. In spite of rave reviews and packed screenings, the filmmakers thus far have failed to secure distribution. Most likely the usual distributors and streaming channels deem the subject matter to be politically toxic. Whatever the reason, the filmmakers opted to self-distribute, including a virtual cinema event with 100 cinemas on August 19th, the 67th anniversary of the coup.

Walter Murch is certainly no stranger to readers. Despite a long filmography, including working with documentary material, COUP 53 is only his second documentary feature film. (Particle Fever was the first.) This film posed another challenge for Murch, who is known for his willingness to try out different editing platforms. This was the first outing with Adobe Premiere Pro CC, his fifth major editing system. I had a chance to catch up with Walter Murch over the web from his home in London the day before the virtual cinema event. We discussed COUP 53, documentaries, and working with Premiere Pro.


[Oliver Peters] You and I have emailed back-and-forth on the progress of this film for the past few years. It’s great to see it done. How long have you been working on this film?

[Walter Murch] We had to stop a number of times, because we ran out of money. That’s absolutely typical for this type of privately-financed documentary without a script. If you push together all of the time that I was actually standing at the table editing, it’s probably two years and nine months. Particle Fever – the documentary about the Higgs Boson – took longer than that.

My first day on the job was in June of 2015 and here we are talking about it in August of 2020. In between, I was teaching at the National Film School and at the London Film School. My wife is English and we have this place in London, so I’ve been here the whole time. Plus I have a contract for another book, which is a follow-on to In the Blink of an Eye. So that’s what occupies me when my scissors are in hiding.

[OP] Let’s start with Norman Darbyshire, who is key to the storyline. That’s still a bit of an enigma. He’s no longer alive, so we can’t ask him now. Did he originally want to give the 1983 interview and MI6 came in and said ‘no’ – or did he just have second thoughts? Or was it always supposed to be an off the record interview?

[WM] We don’t know. He had been forced into early retirement by the Thatcher government in 1979, so I think there was a little chip on his shoulder regarding his treatment. The full 14-page transcript has just been released by the National Security Archives in Washington, DC, including the excised material that the producers of the film were thinking about putting into the film.

If they didn’t shoot the material, why did they cut up the transcript as if it were going to be a production script? There was other circumstantial evidence that we weren’t able to include in the film that was pretty indicative that yes, they did shoot film. Reading between the lines, I would say that there was a version of the film where Norman Darbyshire was in it – probably not named as such – because that’s a sensitive topic. Sometime between the summer of 1983 and 1985 he was removed and other people were filmed to fill in the gaps. We know that for a fact.

[OP] As COUP 53 shows, the original interview cameraman clearly thought it was a good interview, but the researcher acts like maybe someone got to management and told them they couldn’t include this.

[WM] That makes sense given what we know about how secret services work. What I still don’t understand is why then was the Darbyshire transcript leaked to The Observer newspaper in 1985. A huge article was published the day before the program went out with all of this detail about Norman Darbyshire – not his name, but his words. And Stephen Meade – his CIA counterpart – who is named. Then when the program ran, there was nothing of him in it. So there was a huge discontinuity between what was published on Sunday and what people saw on Monday. And yet, there was no follow-up. There was nothing in the paper the next week, saying we made a mistake or anything.

I think eventually we will find out. A lot of the people are still alive. Donald Trelford, the editor of The Observer, who is still alive, wrote something a week ago in a local paper about what he thought happened. Alison [Rooper] – the original research assistant – said in a letter to The Observer that these are Norman Darbyshire’s words, and “I did the interview with him and this transcript is that interview.”

[OP] Please tell me a bit about working with the discovered footage from End of Empire.

[WM] End of Empire was a huge, fourteen-episode project that was produced over a three or four year period. It’s dealing with the social identity of Britain as an empire and how it’s over. The producer, Brian Lapping, gave all of the outtakes to the British Film Institute. It was a breakthrough to discover that they have all of this stuff. We petitioned the Institute and sure enough they had it. We were rubbing our hands together thinking that maybe Darbyshire’s interview was in there. But, of all of the interviews, that’s the one that’s not there.

Part of our deal with the BFI was that we would digitize this 16mm material for them. They had reconstituted everything. If there was a section that was used in the film, they replaced it with a reprint from the original film, so that you had the ability to not see any blank spots. Although there was a quality shift when you are looking at something used in the film, because it’s generations away from the original 16mm reversal film.

For instance, Stephen Meade’s interview is not in the 1985 film. Once Darbyshire was taken out, Meade was also taken out. Because it’s 16mm we can still see the grease pencil marks and splices for the sections that they wanted to use. When Meade talks about Darbyshire, he calls him Norman and when Darbyshire talks about Meade he calls him Stephen. So they’re a kind of double act, which is how they are in our film. Except that Darbyshire is Ralph Fiennes and Stephen Meade – who has also passed on – appears through his actual 1983 interview.

[OP] Between the old and new material, there was a ton of footage. Please explain your workflow for shaping this into a story.

[WM] Taghi is an inveterate shooter of everything. He started filming in 2014 and had accumulated about 40 hours by the time I joined in the following year. All of the scenes where you see him cutting transcripts up and sliding them together – that’s all happening as he was doing it. It’s not recreated at all. The moment he discovered the Darbyshire transcript is the actual instance it happened. By the end, when we added it all up, it was 532 hours of material.

Forgetting all of the creative aspects, how do you keep track of 532 hours of stuff? It’s a challenge. I used my Filemaker Pro database that I’ve been using since the mid-1980s on The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Every film, I rewrite the software slightly to customize it for the film I’m on. I took frame-grabs of all the material so I had stacks and stacks of stills for every set-up.

By 2017 we’d assembled enough material to start on a structure. Using my cards, we spent about two weeks sitting and thinking ‘we could begin here and go there, and this is really good.’ Each time we’d do that, I’d write a little card. We had a stack of cards and started putting them up on the wall and moving them around. We finally had two blackboards of these colored cards with a start, middle, and end. Darbyshire wasn’t there yet. There was a big card with an X on it – the mysterious X. ‘We’re going to find something on this film that nobody has found before.’ That X was just there off to the side looking at us with an accusing glare. And sure enough that X became Norman Darbyshire.

At the end of 2017 I just buckled my seat belt and started assembling it all. I had a single timeline of all of the talking heads of our experts. It would swing from one person to another, which would set up a dialogue among themselves – each answering the other one’s question or commenting on a previous answer. Then a new question would be asked and we’d do the same thing. That was 4 1/2 hours long. Then I did all of the same thing for all of the archival material, arranging it chronologically. Where was the most interesting footage and the highest quality version of that? That was almost 4 hours long. Then I did the same thing with all of the Iranian interviews, and when I got it, all of the End of Empire material.

We had four, 4-hour timelines, each of them self-consistent. Putting on my Persian hat, I thought, ‘I’m weaving a rug!’ It was like weaving threads. I’d follow the talking heads for a while and then dive into some archive. From that into an Iranian interview and then some End of Empire material. Then back into some talking heads and a bit of Taghi doing some research. It took me about five months to do that work and it produced an 8 1/2 hour timeline.

We looked at that in June of 2018. What were we going to do with that? Is it a multi-part series? It could be, but Netflix didn’t show any interest. We were operating on a shoe string, which meant that the time was running out and we wanted to get it out there. So we decided to go for a feature-length film. It was right about that time that Ralph Fiennes agreed to be in the film. Once he agreed, that acted like a condenser. If you have Ralph Fiennes, things tend to gravitate around that performance. We filmed his scenes in October of 2018. I had roughed it out using the words of another actor who came in and read for us, along with stills of Ralph Fiennes as M. What an irony! Here’s a guy playing a real MI6 agent who overthrew a whole country, who plays M, the head of MI6, who dispatches James Bond to kill malefactors!

Ralph was recorded in an hour and a half in four takes at the Savoy Hotel – the location of the original 1983 interviews. At the time, he was acting in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra every evening. So he came in the late morning and had breakfast. By 1:30-ish we were set-up. We prayed for the right weather outside – not too sunny and not rainy. It was perfect. He came and had a little dialogue with the original cameraman about what Darbyshire was like. Then he sat down and entered the zone – a fascinating thing to see. There was a little grooming touch-up to knock off the shine and off we went.

Once we shot Ralph, we were a couple of months away from recording the music and then final color timing and the mix. We were done with a finished, showable version in March of 2019. It was shown to investors in San Francisco and at the TED conference in Vancouver. We got the usual kind of preview feedback and dove back in and squeezed another 20 minutes or so out of the film, which got it to its present length of just under two hours.

[OP] You have a lot of actual stills and some footage from 1953, but as with most historical documentaries, you also have re-enactments. Another unique touch was the paint effect used to treat these re-enactments to differentiate them stylistically from the interviews and archival footage.

[WM] As you know, 1953 is 50+ years before the invention of the smart phone. When coups like this happen today you get thousands of points-of-view. Everyone is photographing everything. That wasn’t the case in 1953. On the final day of the coup, there’s no cinematic material – only some stills. But we have the testimony of Mossadegh’s bodyguard on one side and the son of the general who replaced Mossadegh on the other, plus other people as well. That’s interesting up to a point, but it’s in a foreign language with subtitles, so we decided to go the animation path.

This particular technique was something Taghi’s brother suggested and we thought it was a great idea. It gets us out of the uncanny valley, in the sense that you know you’re not looking at reality and yet it’s visceral. The idea is that we are looking at what is going on in the head of the person telling us these stories. So it’s intentionally impressionistic. We were lucky to find Martyn Pick, the animator who does this kind of stuff. He’s Mr. Oil Paint Animation in London. He storyboarded it with us and did a couple of days of filming with soldiers doing the fight. Then he used that as the base for his rotoscoping.

[OP] Quite a few of the first-hand Iranian interviews are in Persian with subtitles. How did you tackle those?

[WM] I speak French and Italian, but not Persian. I knew I could do it, but it was a question of the time frame. So our workflow was that Taghi and I would screen the Iranian language dailies. He would point out the important points and I would take notes. Then Taghi would do a first pass on his workstation to get rid of the chaff. That’s what he would give to the translators. We would hire graduate students. Fateme Ahmadi, one of the associate producers on the film, is Iranian and she would also do translation. Anyone that was available would work on the additional workstation and add subtitling. That would then come to me and I would use that as raw material.

To cut my teeth on this, I tried using the interview with Hamid Admadi, the Iranian historical expert that was recorded in Berlin. Without translating it, I tried to cut it solely on body language and tonality. I just dove in and imagined, if he is saying ‘that’ then I’m thinking ‘this.’ I was kind of like the way they say people with aphasia are. They don’t understand the words, but they understand the mood. To amuse myself, I put subtitles on it, pretending that I knew what he was saying. I showed it to Taghi and he laughed, but said that in terms of the continuity of the Persian, it made perfect sense. The continuity of the dialogue and moods didn’t have any jumps for a Persian speaker. That was a way to tune myself into the rhythms of the Persian language. That’s almost half of what editing is – picking up the rhythm of how people say things – which is almost as important or even sometimes more important than the words they are using.

[OP] I noticed in the credits that you had three associate editors on the project.  Please tell me a bit about their involvement.

[WM] Dan [Farrell] worked on the film through the first three months and then a bit on the second section. He got a job offer to edit a whole film himself, which he absolutely should do. Zoe [Davis] came in to fill in for him and then after a while also had to leave. Evie [Evelyn Franks] came along and she was with us for the rest of the time. They all did a fantastic job, but Evie was on it the longest and was involved in all of the finishing of the film. She’s is still involved, handling all of the media material that we are sending out.

[OP] You are also known for your work as a sound designer and re-recording mixer, but I noticed someone else handled that for this film. What was you sound role on COUP 53?

[WM] I was busy in the cutting room, so I didn’t handle the final mix. But I was the music editor for the film, as well as the picture editor. Composer Robert Miller recorded the music in New York and sent a rough mixdown of his tracks. I would lay that onto my Premiere Pro sequence, rubber-banding the levels to the dialogue.

When he finally sent over the instrument stems – about 22 of them – I copied and pasted the levels from the mixdown onto each of those stems and then tweaked the individual levels to get the best out of every instrument. I made certain decisions about whether or not to use an instrument in the mix. So in a sense, I did mix the music on the film, because when it was delivered to Boom Post in London, where we completed the mix, all of the shaping that a music mixer does was already taken care of. It was a one-person mix and so Martin [Jensen] at Boom only had to get a good level for the music against the dialogue, place it in a 5.1 environment with the right equalization, and shape that up and down slightly. But he didn’t have to get into any of the stems.

[OP] I’d love to hear your thoughts on working with Premiere Pro over these several years. You’ve mentioned a number of workstations and additional personnel, so I would assume you had devised some type of a collaborative workflow. That is something that’s been an evolution for Adobe over this same time frame.

[WM] We had about 60TB of shared storage. Taghi, Evie Franks, and I each had workstations. Plus there was fourth station for people doing translations. The collaborative workflow was clunky at the beginning. The idea of shared spaces was not what it is now and not what I was used to from Avid, but I was willing to go with it.

Adobe introduced the basics of a more fluid shared workspace in early 2018 I think, and that began a six months’ rough ride, because there were a lot of bugs that came along  with that deep software shift. One of them was what I came to call ‘shrapnel.’ When I imported a cut from another workstation into my workstation, the software wouldn’t recognize all the related media clips, which were already there. So these duplicate files would be imported again, which I nicknamed ‘shrapnel.’ I created a bin just to stuff these clips in, because you couldn’t delete them without causing other problems.

Those bugs went away in the late summer of 2018. The ‘shrapnel’ disappeared along with other miscellaneous problems – and the back-and-forth between systems became very transparent. Things can always be improved, but from a hands-on point-of-view, I was very happy with how everything worked from August or September of 2018 through to the completion of the film.

We thought we might stay with Premiere Pro for the color timing, which is very good. But DaVinci Resolve was the system for the colorist that we wanted to get. We had to make some adjustments to go to Resolve and back to Premiere Pro. There were a couple of extra hurdles, but it all worked and there were no kludges. Same for the sound. The export for Pro Tools was very transparent.

[OP] A lot of what you’ve written and lectured about is the rhythm of editing – particularly dramatic films. How does that equate to a documentary?

[WM] Once you have the initial assembly – ours was 8 hours, Apocalypse Now was 6 hours, Cold Mountain was 5 1/2 hours – the jobs are not that different. You see that it’s too long by a lot. What can we get rid of? How can we condense it to make it more understandable, more emotional, clarify it, and get a rhythmic pulse to the whole film?

My approach is not to make a distinction at that point. You are dealing with facts and have to pay attention to the journalistic integrity of the film. On a fiction film you have to pay attention to the integrity of the story, so it’s similar. Getting to that point, however, is highly different, because the editor of an unscripted documentary is writing the story. You are an author of the film. What an author does is stare at a blank piece of paper and say, ‘what am I going to begin with?’ That is part of the process. I’m not writing words, necessarily, but I am writing. The adjectives and nouns and verbs that I use are the shots and sounds available to me.

I would occasionally compare the process for cutting an individual scene to churning butter. You take a bunch of milk – the dailies – and you put them into a churn – Premiere Pro – and you start agitating it. Could this go with that? No. Could this go with that? Maybe. Could this go? Yes! You start globbing things together and out of that butter churning process you’ve eventually got a big ball of butter in the churn and a lot of whey – buttermilk. In other words, the outtakes.

That’s essentially how I work. This is potentially a scene. Let me see what kind of scene it will turn into. You get a scene and then another and another. That’s when I go to the card system to see what order I can put these scenes in. That’s like writing a script. You’re not writing symbols on paper, you are taking real images and sound and grappling with them as if they are words themselves.


Whether you are a student of history, filmmaking, or just love documentaries, COUP 53 is definitely worth the watch. It’s a study in how real secret services work. Along the way, the viewer is also exposed to the filmmaking process of discovery that goes into every well-crafted documentary.

Images from COUP 53 courtesy of Amirani Media and Adobe.

(Click on any image for an enlarged view.)

You can learn more about the film at COUP53.com.

For more, check out these interviews at Art of the Cut, CineMontage, and Forbes.

©2020 Oliver Peters