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The Conversations

October 9, 2010

Because I’m a huge fan of Michael Ondaatje, I ordered a book I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed I’d be interested in–The Conversation Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, which is a series of conversations between Ondaatje and Murch, who edited the film version of The English Patient. The book illuminates the process of revising, or editing in the case of film, in a way that I’ve never read before. What’s most fascinating to me about the book is that Murch speaks at great length, in a number of different ways, about how structuring a film can make an enormous difference to its artistic success. Ondaatje concurs, giving examples from writing.

Murch establishes the fact right away that to put together a two-hour movie, about two hundred hours of film are shot. This means there are numerous takes for each scene, but also many more scenes than will end up in the final version. He also points out that movies are filmed out of sequence. In order to save money and be more efficient, a scene from the beginning of the film and the end of the film could be shot on the same day. These are important pieces of information because they seem to set film editing up as a very different enterprise from revising novels.

At least that is how it appears. I have found little written about the nitty-gritty act of revising novels so I tend to fill this absence with fantastical thinking: novels are written sequentially, scene by scene, in an inspired rush, in much the same order, with much the same content, that one reads in their final, published versions. Revisions are more along the lines of tweaks, a little bit of pruning, but nothing to get too worked up about. But I don’t write this way, and so I grab onto any source that tells me that isn’t how it happens, that’s it’s a messy, painstaking, analytical, recursive process. Being in a writing group with other novel writers helps because I get to see how others revise, from rewriting characters until they are new people, to moving sentences, scenes and whole chapters to different places in the book. Finding bits of information on the internet helps, especially interviews with authors whose books I’ve read. I’ve seen the pristine, finished form, so hearing about the creation is particularly illuminating. And The Conversations–really a book-length parallel to a process of radical revising–helped.

Murch describes the process, from beginning to end, of getting a film made. Though his work begins with reading the book (if there is one) and the script, he puts in most of his hours in the editing room, when he is handed the footage. He views it and takes what he calls “emotional notes” (45) where he responds emotionally to what he sees, explaining that this emotional viewing can only happen once. Next he orders the scenes, cutting hundreds of  minutes of footage to three or four minutes, layering on sound. As he explains, “The editor works at both the macroscopic and the microscopic level: ranging from deciding how long precisely each shot is held, to restructuring and repositioning scenes, and sometimes to eliminating entire subplots” (32).

Now to the parallel in writing, Ondaatje’s process.  At the beginning, he is uncertain, looking into all possibilities, influenced by what’s happening around him,”writing everything for a number of months or years” (xviii). He does this until he has a finished first draft. Then he acts as editor, “shaping the content into a new form, till it is almost a newly discovered story. I move things around till they become sharp and clear, till they are in the right location. And it is at this stage that I discover the work’s true voice and structure” (xviii). “At this stage, three scenes can become one” (38). Finally, he gets feedback.

Later in the book, Ondaatje gives the example of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art” to show how radically a piece can change from first draft to final. The first draft, pictured in the book, is a messy, meandering piece of writing, with clumsy turns of phrases and an unclear focus. The final version is a nineteen-line villanelle. According to Ondaatje, “It becomes clear that all the subtleties of nuance and precision of form were achieved during the editing. So much so that it’s almost difficult to recognize the link between the original lines and the final poem” (136).

Though the people involved are different, as is the product, the arc of the process is very similar, for poetry, for prose, and for film-making.

Murch goes on to describe in great detail how to choose scenes, and why he positions them where he does, and why he cuts. One of his concerns is pacing, in terms of both speed and emotion.”Let’s say the dramatic slope seems to be going up too fast. Your tendency will be to do things editorially to compensate. Then when you think it’s going too slow, you will shorten things or boost the intensity” (36). For emotion, he describes having to cut an amazing shot from the film version of The English Patient of Hana walking back to the villa after saying goodbye to Kip. “Her grief there, over Kip’s leaving, was too close to the grief of the Patient’s last scene. You couldn’t leave it in, because you had to pace the film. You needed, I suppose, to save the grief for the next scene. You had to remove what was a remarkable shot for the value of the film as a whole” (134)

Ondaatje gives a similar example from his novel Anil’s Ghost. He wrote a chapter in which the doctor, Gamini, goes to the north of Sri Lanka for some rest.  As he was writing the scene, he was thinking that it wouldn’t end up in the final version of the book. However, when he was editing, he “came back to the section much later, [and] it had just the right energy and change of pace for that moment in the book” (37).

My advisor, in his last response to my work, gave me very similar feedback–two scenes next to each other ended up diminishing the emotional effect because they were too much in the same key. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to do what Ondaatje did, save the scene and it will fit wonderfully somewhere else.

Another of Murch’s concern as he edits is interpretation. As Murch was having these conversations with Ondaatje, he was re-editing Apocalypse Now. In this process, he moved certain well-known scenes to different locations in the plot. He gives the example of the waters-skiing scene. “In its original placement [very early in the movie], the scene said, in effect, ‘This boat, this crew is, already and always, kind of wild and crazy.’… In the new version [set much later in the movie] you see the progression of the crew from order to chaos…. By moving it later, there’s now an earned delirium and joy, so it’s more powerful” (74)

Both the editor and writer agree that it is difficult to get a sense of how a piece is working, as whole, without stepping away from it and seeing, or reading, the whole. Murch says, “I have a sense of it and it’s actually been going quite well, but until we finally step back and look at the work as a whole, we won’t be able to say whether this will be artistically successful…” (5).

I’ve only been able to convey a small part of the detail and depth of Murch and Ondaatje’s conversations. When I shared my enthusiasm about the book with a friend who works in film, she told me that Murch is the only editor she knows of who articulates the editing process as fully. So it isn’t that all film editors talk this way, and it took a writer to bring it to the attention of writers. It’s rare and special in both fields. I highly recommend the book to anyone who’s interested.

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