domingo, 18 de outubro de 2009

for me

A good editor is a jack of all disciplines: part musician, part magician, part physician, part mathematician, this man or woman must also have a sheer love of the craft, for his or her contribution to a film will be only subliminally appreciated by the masses. How do all of these admirable and diverse traits combine to produce a cohesive motion picture?

So many abstract psychological concepts fuel the basic act of splicing shots together that talking about cutting is like dancing about architecture, to coin a famously discarded movie title. Walter Murch, who has edited films by Coppola and Zinnemann, among others, tackled the impossible question "Why do cuts work?" in his essential 1995 resource In the Blink of an Eye. Few outside of Sergei Eisenstein have answered it in such a concrete, engrossing manner as Murch. The legendary filmmaker has never been one to shy away from a challenge, as his cinematic attempt at "another Oz story" or his accepting the job of constructing the aggressively non-linear The English Patient also demonstrate.

'95 was a good year for Murch; the release of Anthony Minghella's The English Patient set him on course to make history by receiving Oscars for both picture and sound editing. Since then, he has, to great acclaim, retooled Orson Welles' comic noir Touch of Evil according to the forty year old notes of its deceased director, edited Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, and supervised the digital remaster of his Academy Award-winning, six-track soundmix for Apocalypse Now. (If I don't mention it here, I never will: Murch coined the term "sound designer" while working on that masterpiece.)

As a film school graduate and aspiring director whose favourite part of the production process is post, I was grateful for the opportunity to inundate Mr. Murch--an inspiration of mine from an early age (see my Return to Oz review)--with questions about everything under the Hollywood sun. Of the special opportunities Film Freak Central has presented me over the years, this is my most cherished.

Our conversation was conducted via telephone on February 29, 2000. -Bill Chambers

How come you didn't direct again after Return to Oz?
It was a combination of things: the film was ambitious and expensive, and then turned out to be neither a critical nor a commercial success, which is a heavy hit for someone's first directing job. There were a few reviewers who liked it--Mike Clark from USA Today--but most compared it unfavourably to The Wizard of Oz. The climate of the times just wasn't receptive to anything other than the MGM Land of Oz. Or at least not this other view, which was closer to the original books. Then, for a few years afterwards, I tried to get a number of projects off the ground, but didn't have any luck. So I went back to editing and sound mixing, which I love. I had a family to support and kids in college, and directing just didn't seem to be a way I could make a living.

Do you think you ever will [direct again]?
I don't know. I'm proud of Return to Oz and happy that I got a chance to make it, but unless you're extremely lucky in the projects you choose or how things fall into place, you really need a burning desire to direct for the sake of directing, and I don't have that. I was passionate about this particular story, for a variety of reasons, but not about the process of directing per se. And there were a lot of tough things about making Return to Oz, just given the nature of the film--full of creatures and special effects and animals. There was also a reluctance on the studio's part to support it fully--we were put into turnaround six weeks before shooting, and then there were two changes of regime at the studio while we were making the film. The people who started the project left and another group of people came in while we were in production; then they left and the current regime took over.

I love the film, as you know.
Well, thank you.

I argue with people who are inclined to compare it to The Wizard of Oz.
Yes, but that's probably inevitable. We knew going in that it was going to be risky, but it had been 45 years since the original film came out, and I thought enough time had passed for a different sensibility to have a chance--to present a somewhat more realistic view about Dorothy and her life on the farm, and have the film not be a musical. Plus there were now whole new ways of doing special effects and creatures that I thought could be used to make something that looked and felt more like the books themselves, rather than the stagy, vaudevillian approach that had been taken in 1939. I definitely felt that if we had tried to really do a sequel, which is to say, do something in the style of an MGM musical, we would have been in even greater trouble, because there's just no way you can reinvent that particular combination of people, technology, and attitude, which really reached a peak in the late 1930s and never recovered after the war.

In 1985, Back to the Future was the kind of movie that people wanted to see.
Yes, as it turned out. You never know, though. We started down our particular road with Return to Oz in 1981.

Did you initiate the project?
I did. I had been approached by Disney in 1980--they had pulled my name from a short list of people who were doing interesting things in film and might someday direct. I went down to LA for an interview with Tom Wilhite--it was just a fishing expedition on both of our parts. But one of the questions he asked was, "What are you interested in that you think we might also be interested in?", and I said, "Another Oz story." I had grown up with the specific books on which Return is based, The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz--in fact they were the first 'real' books I ever read on my own. And Tom sort of straightened up in his chair because it turned out, unbeknownst to me, that Disney owned the rights to all of the Oz stories. And they were particularly interested in doing something with them because the copyright was going to run out in the next five years. So, we went through the usual developmental phases: I wrote a treatment with Gill Dennis, they liked it, I wrote a script with Gill and they liked that, and eventually, much to my amazement, I was in England on a soundstage saying "Action!" with all of these Oz creatures around me.

"[Return to Oz] was a difficult film to distribute, as we found out, given the zeitgeist of the mid-'80's. Maybe any zeitgeist."

Was it a difficult shoot?
Certainly for a first film, it was. There were a hundred and fourteen days of shooting, which is a lot, and the character of Dorothy, played by Fairuza Balk, is in almost every shot. She was absolutely great, a fantastic ally in the making of the film, but there are laws in England and the United States that limit the amount of time you can shoot with a child actor, so it put great strains on how much we could do each day. Add on top of that all of the creatures she was with--puppets and claymation and animals. That old adage about never making a film with a child or an animal: we had not only a child and animals, talking chickens and dogs and all of that, but also puppets, each operated by three or four people, radio controlled devices, front projection, and claymation (for the nomes) that wasn't there at the time of shooting. All of the claymation was done in post-production, so when Fairuza had to act with the nomes, she was just looking at a piece of tape on a wall, having to imagine it as something else: the Nome King--we had done some drawings but, exactly how it was going to turn out, we weren't absolutely certain at the time.

Anyway, on top of all that, the studio was so unhappy with the material that they were seeing, and the fact that we were falling behind schedule, that after five weeks they fired me off the film.

That I didn't know.
Yes. I only got back on board because George Lucas, who's a friend, heard about what happened and flew to England from Japan, where he was at the time. He met with me and looked at what I had shot, then met with the Disney executives and said "No, this is going to be great, you guys just have to be more patient with this process, let's see what can be done to facilitate it." And he guaranteed the rest of the production--he said that if something else happened, he would step in and take control. That was enough to make the executives at Disney feel more confident about what was going on, and I was back directing again after a few days. It was a fantastic act of generosity and commitment on his part.

Did you get final cut?
In a weird way, I did. I didn't have final cut, but the studio executives changed again--this film lived through two changes of management, as I said, so that by the time I was in post-production, there was a whole new management at Disney. And they were not really interested in Return, probably because it was so dark, and not a musical, and particularly because it had been started by an executive two generations earlier, and so they mostly ignored it after it did not do so well in previews, which was both good and bad. The good part was that I was able to complete the film I wanted to make, the bad part was that they didn't really get behind its release. Having said that, it was a difficult film to distribute, as we found out, given the zeitgeist of the mid-'80's. Maybe any zeitgeist.

Were you approached to contribute supplemental material to the DVD release?
Yes. I was in Italy working on The Talented Mr. Ripley when I got a call from somebody at Anchor Bay asking if I had any supplemental material, which I did. Also, there was a 30-minute "making-of" film. But in the end, I guess they decided not to include any of it.

That's a shame, because I thought it would make for a wonderful Special Edition.
Yes, obviously DVDs are ideal for this kind of packaging.

And the movie does have a cult following, so a Special Edition probably would have sold well; are you happy with the DVD?
It's got more scratches and dirt on it in the beginning than I would like to see. It's very easy to clean that stuff up when you're making a video master, and I'm sorry they didn't do that. Otherwise, I'm generally happy.

And it contains the original sound mix?
Yes, they used what is now called the 5.1 mix. Return to Oz had a 70mm six-track mix which is what we call 5.1 today.

Was Return to Oz shot in 70mm?
No, it was shot in 35 and we did a blow-up. Which is the same as Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Indiana Jones. Back then, a 70mm print was the only way to get six-track sound on your film. Optically, you don't gain anything unless your original negative is 70mm.

Are you a fan of DVD?
I'm in favor of anything that improves the quality of the image and sound, and which allows you to get an entire movie on one disc. CONTINUED...


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