Apocalypse Now begins with sound. The whirring chop-chop-chop of helicopter rotor-blades fades into the music of The Doors’ “The End”, then rises again as the blades dissolve into the ceiling fan, under which Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard lies grappling with inner demons. It is one of cinema’s most powerful openings, but, in a supposedly visual medium, its power arises from sound.
Walter Murch won an Oscar as ‘sound designer’ of Apocalypse Now (and was nominated for a second statuette as co-film editor). When director Francis Ford Coppola wanted quadraphonic sound, it was Murch who came up with the now-standard 5.1 format, using five speakers, with an additional one for sub-sonic noises. “We needed explosions to hit you in the gut as well as the ears,” he says. So when Coppola decided after two decades that the movie now seemed ‘tame’ and wanted to return to his vision and the original screenplay, he turned again to Murch. The result was Apocalypse Now Redux, and at its London Film Festival premiere the man who redid the Redux explained that revisiting the two million feet of negative film, stored in limestone caves for 20 years, was daunting.
“I came on to the original film after they’d finished shooting, and they’d shot roughly a 100:1 ratio between film exposed to film used. Even though I avoided the disasters of the shoot, which are well-known, the edit carried its own chaos.”
The second time around, working from the original lined script, the result is a much different film, less episodic and more flowing. The restored scenes offer both gains and losses. For example, in the new version, just after Robert Duvall’s famous paean to napalm‘s odor, Willard and his boat crew steal Colonel Kilgore’s surfboard. Willard becomes more human, but Kilgore (Duvall) becomes a less daunting psychopath, more of a buffoon. “Kilgore tipped the balance of the film toward him, away from Kurtz,” says Murch. “The new scenes balance things in a structural sense.” The balance is achieved by the new scenes of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz, in daylight, breaking Willard down and re-educating him. These pull the final, mythic section of the film back unequivocally to Vietnam.
Also new is Willard’s encounter with a French colonial rubber plantation, whose inhabitants project a ruined colonial grandeur in the face of chaos. A dinner-table debate provides an Oliver Stone-like historical sub-text, newly relevant in light of the Afghan war. “The film’s US run ended before the added burden of present history,” Murch says, “but there is a certain parallel between the Taliban and the Viet Minh, both being the results of America’s misguided efforts.” The scene ends with a beautiful dissolve from a woman behind mosquito netting to fog on the river which suggests it’s all a dream. “That was part of the intention. It becomes like Bunuel, a literally endless dinner conversation. You come out of the dream and arrive at Kurtz’s nightmare.”
The multi-tasking which marks Murch’s career arose from the relative freedom of Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, away from Hollywood’s restrictions. You can understand Coppola’s trust, because Murch projects a calm, the confidence of the master craftsman. But his book about film editing, In The Blink Of An Eye, reveals a fiercely intellectual approach, and his work reveals the sensitivity of an improvising artist. Author Michael Ondaatje watched Murch work on the film of his novel The English Patient, and concluded editing was “the stage of film closest to the art of writing”. Not surprisingly in that context, Murch saw Ondaatje’s novel as first of all a technical challenge.
“It’s extremely complex, with more time transitions than any film made until then,” he explains. “Sound can make those transitions, like when the sound of a whistle Hanna (Juliette Binoche) is throwing while playing hopscotch blends into Arab music in Almasy’s (Ralph Fiennes’) head, and makes the jump in space and time. But the story also attracted me from the human point of view; how you take someone who is objectively evil, and allow the audience to sympathise with him.”
The English Patient won Murch an unprecedented double Oscar for editing and sound mixing. He’d completed the same double two decades earlier at the Baftas, on another Coppola picture The Conversation (1975). It’s a measure of the unique relationship between Coppola and Murch that the director left the footage, and the editing, of that film in Murch’s hands while he left to shoot Godfather II, which he’d agreed to direct in order to finance The Conversation.
“Except Francis still had two weeks of shooting to go when he stopped shooting,” Murch recalls. “They’d run out of time, money, and producers, so about 20 minutes of the script was literally missing, hadn‘t been filmed. I had to make it work, which we did needing only one extra shot, a hand pulling a tape off a reel.”
The Conversation appealed to Murch because it concerns a detective whose specialty is bugging people; he‘s basically a sound engineer. “I came to film from sound,” Murch says. “I developed a fascination with tape recorders in my youth, in the 50s, which was why I was also drawn to the restoration of Touch Of Evil, because the life of Orson Welles’ character dissolves, literally, because of a tape recorder. He’s being taped by Charlton Heston, and the echoes of the speaker give Heston away, then Welles’ reaction leads to his death.”
Universal Studios had re-edited and reshot the film after Welles turned in his first cut. Working from a 58 page memo Welles had sent the studio executives to express his dissatisfaction with their cut, and with what extra footage remained, Murch was able to reconstruct a version far closer to Welles’ intentions for the picture.
“The memo was astute on both the creative and political levels,” Murch recalls. “Welles was under no illusions as to who owned the film, but his approach was ‘I can help you make it better’. It’s interesting, because on-screen Welles always played moguls, yet he spent his career battling them.”
Touch Of Evil brought Murch full circle, because in that film, Welles, who came out of radio, had used the naturally-occurring source music of the Mexican border town to provide atmosphere. Murch and George Lucas borrowed the idea to score American Graffiti. The result was the birth of the soundtrack hits album. “It was innovative artistically, and commercially,” Murch recalls. “Naturally the studio, Universal again, was completely resistant to the idea.”
Murch also co-wrote THX 1138 with Lucas, and has written two other films, one of which, Return To Oz, he directed. Does he want to direct more? “No, I’m happy doing what I do.” he says. Given all he does, and how well he does it, you believe him.