Vancity Theatre: Walter Murch on editing now and Apocalypse then

Walter Murch. Photograph by Beatrice Murch, own work, CC BY 3.0.

On April 16th, VIFF and Vancity Theatre hosted a sold-out evening with renowned film editor Walter Murch, who’s known for major motion pictures like Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, and Jarhead. Murch is also no stranger to Vancouver—in 2014, he worked on Disney’s locally-filmed movie Tomorrowland. And judging by the excited buzz that accompanied the event, Vancouver is no stranger to Murch, either.

Shortly before Murch took the stage, Vancity held a sneak screening of his newest project, a documentary film titled Coup 53 which explores the CIA staged coup in 1953 Iran. The project is a typically involved one for Murch, who also appears in the film and shares a writing credit with director Taghi Amirani. At the screening, Amirani enthusiastically pronounced, “No Murch, no film!” Taghi continually showed his appreciation for Murch as a master storyteller, and the screening of Coup 53 helped make his point. Coup shows firsthand how Murch’s vast experience led to new discoveries and approaches.

Murch on stage.

Murch began his talk by noting that 2019 “marks my fiftieth year working in film.” That’s a long career in a fast-changing industry. But the youthful and diverse audience at Vancity suggests that Murch, who authored the seminal editing text “In the Blink of an Eye” in 1995, has stayed highly relevant to this generation of creatives. Pens, paper, and laptops accompanied many attendees as they leaned forward to catch every word. And many audience members had that “eager young film student” look that Vancouverites might know.

The talk was both engaging and unpredictable. Early on, Murch did a deep dive on seemingly minute details about the way he constructs his physical working environment. He stands upright at the desk while editing. He attaches tiny cardboard cutouts of people to the sides of his computer monitor to simulate looking at a theatre screen. These are the details that even experts often leave out—seemingly trivial habits that may nonetheless make an editor who they are. Murch’s attention to even the most peculiar details is important. The most important part of an editor’s job, he says, is “to tell the story that you want to tell in the clearest way possible, in the shortest amount of time”.

Murch shows off his desk, with a ‘Learner’s Permit’ for his first time using Adobe Premiere.

The bulk of the talk was focused on Murch’s recent work in documentary filmmaking, which he said was full of “beautiful accidents”. The editor had over 532 hours of footage to sift through and a final film runtime of roughly 2.5 hours. In other words, out of every 212 minutes of footage, only one minute made the cut. Choosing those minutes is up to Murch—no small task.

Of course, Murch is one of the editors of Apocalypse Now, which shot a then record-breaking 1.5 million feet of film. Describing changes in film since then, Murch described how the advent of digital cameras and editing have made it possible to process footage in a way that would have been impossible earlier in his career. But some challenges remain constant. “The balance between spontaneity and control is something that’s always been part of any creative art,” Murch said. He described how different directors approach that balance by recalling a few other giants from the Brat Pack era. A Francis Ford Coppola film (Apocalypse Now, The Conversation), for instance, is very different from a George Lucas one (THX 1138, American Graffiti) on this question. “Francis enjoys the process of chance and randomness,” Murch explained. A more control-oriented director like Lucas might say that he wants editing to deliver “what it is that I wanted to begin with.”

The Vancity audience.

During the Q&A, many in the crowd were eager to hear more about Murch’s post-production techniques. He elaborated on his earlier comments by describing even more unusual habits in the editing room. These habits, Murch explained, are part of “designing the workflow in the editing room to favor chance.” For instance, he would print still images from the film’s footage and mix them together on a wall to open his mind up to “possible juxtapositions that were not intended.” Murch also explained how he often does the first assemblies of scenes: “I turn off the sound and edit by lip reading and body language”.

Before the event, I asked Murch what was next for him. He revealed that he was working on a new book, a follow up to In the Blink of an Eye. He kept the details to himself, but said that “parts of it will get more specific about certain techniques.” The book, he says, will be “applicable to editing fifty years ago or fifty years from now.” A lofty goal—but in the last fifty years, Walter Murch has delivered on more than a few of those.

Murch’s latest film Coup 53 is aiming for a theatrical release later this year.


Andrew Gust

Andrew Gust

Andrew is a TV & Film Editor working in Vancouver & LA.