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“He’d Kill You If He Got the Chance…”: Editor Walter Murch on Coppola’s The Conversation, the Nodal Concept of Montage and Our Modern Surveillance State

Illustration for an interview with editor Walter Murch about "The Conversation"The Conversation

If I really thought of the consequences all the time, 

I certainly wouldnt have been in the business…” 

— Frank Terpil, Confessions of a Dangerous Man

Everybody has a public life, a private life, and a secret life.”

— Pete Hamill

There’s perhaps no greater contribution to the latter-day postmodern suspense genre than Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. An exhaustive study of a lone artisan drawn into a web of deceit and treachery, it has long been held as both a prescient cinematic landmark and a seminal Ur-text. And yet fifty years after its premiere, the film is still an uncannily accurate depiction of where the so-called slippery moral slope of intelligence work leads for all those involved in its propagation. 

A man with a mercenary ethic, who comes to regret taking the money; a curious assignment that mounts to a crisis of conscience; a vocation so dispassionately routine that its lack of any central compass can only be shaken by unwitting complicity in a murder plot — to speak of The Conversation and its conflicted protagonist Harry Caul is to refer to the very bedrock of what has become over the last half century, a typical direction for a great cross-section of genre cinema. At the time of its release, Caul as played by Gene Hackman was an outlier lead in the New Hollywood canon. But while the film’s elements — a complicated antihero, a combining of character study and thriller, and a road-to-ruin ending — have long become foregone and oft-tried avenues for suspense pictures, The Conversation’s dismissal by the 1972 viewing public following its Palme D’Or-winning bow at Cannes speaks only to how unprecedented at the time this combination was. Caul is surly, unpleasant to work with, remote, suspicious and untrusting, and perhaps more callously dishonest to himself than any other character to whom he spins his self-obscuring lies — of whom we can count nearly any and everyone within his orbit. In a story where it never rains, but when it does it pours, Caul is a man who wears a plastic macintosh, a transparent cloak, at all times, just in case. He is a tech’s tech, a man in a room at work with the temporal and non-linear record of the human voice,and its background environs. Make no mistake: Caul is an editor. 

Walter Murch may be no stranger to students of 20th century cinema writ large, having long served not only as in house post maestro for Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, but also working as picture and sound editor, as well as post supervisor on dozens of films including The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Coppola’s ongoing personal restorations of his own projects. But it is as a tireless preceptor of the art of montage that his own work truly comes into focus. His 1995 book In the Blink of an Eye is perhaps the singular recorded testament of editing theory. And his own official credits — to this day, many of his contributions have gone uncredited — are dwarfed in number by his appearances in countless documentaries devoted to the work of his collaborators,and to that sacred art of the cut itself. At 78, he is irrascible, more than eager to let his cup overflow. Whatever there could possibly be left to say about these films, particularly The Conversation, it may very well be as inexhaustible as Murch himself. Filmmaker spoke to him on the occasion of Rialto’s rerelease at the Film Forum of The Conversation in a new 35mm print overseen by Coppola. 

Filmmaker: This picture was on Coppola’s slate before even the first Godfather. From being in that creative circle, were you privy to the early drafts?

Murch: Well, let’s see. I have it here… [holds up a bound, if dog-eared and slightly yellowed screenplay] This is my earliest draft, the first draft, and it’s dated 1970. Francis had been working on it but hadn’t been ready to print a first draft since about 1968. This script was a part of the package that was delivered to Warner Bros in, I believe, the spring of 1970, to say, “Here are the films that American Zoetrope wants to make. “Conversation was one of them, Apocalypse was another, The Black Stallion was another. There were three or four other projects as well that were never made. That was the first time I read it. There was roughly two years between this first draft and production. Those years were taken up mostly with production on The Godfather. 

Filmmaker: Conversation wasn’t set to be made after Godfather. What happened after Warners reviewed the Zoetrope development slate?

Murch:  They turned all of those scripts down. They didn’t want to do any of them, and they sued Francis for all the money that had been spent while developing them. That suit was one of the reasons that Francis accepted the idea of doing The Godfather. It was simply to make some money, and in effect, to get himself out of a terrible hole.

Filmmaker: There’s been a lot of grist made over this binary of either passion project or job-for-hire when it comes to Coppola’s work, and perhaps more than any other director, his willingness to go personally into the hole and to put himself on the line has brought a heightened level of public scrutiny onto him. If history’s to be taken at face value, is it true that The Godfather’s success opened the door to The Conversation being greenlit? 

Murch:  That’s correct. 

Filmmaker: There’s been a real drive by Coppola to revisit and re-examine his own work, creating alternate edits and re-scored versions of his films, as recently as this past year with The Cotton Club and The Outsiders. With this passion for continuing to work on something long after it’s been released, it’s notable that there are no picture or score edits to The Conversation. It’s basically sacrosanct.

Murch:  Well, he’s said on many occasions that it’s his favorite of all his films. There’s no impulse to screw around with it. 

Filmmaker: This was your first film as picture editor. Was the nodal concept of editing that you developed and coined in response to the classical Hollywood linear continuity and then the Soviet-era dialectic form of montage even a seed at this point in time? A lot of the cuts and sequences seem precogniscent of this formal concept you’ve gone to great lengths to elaborate on in your writing. Certainly there were kinetic innovations being made prior to this; Anne Coates and Hal Ashby are just two examples of working editors who were pushing the envelope. But The Conversation’s edit seems like a watershed moment in a number of ways. It’s audacious just as it seems austere in comparison to other American pictures of this era, which began to deploy a sometimes frenetic pacing. I’m thinking about the films of Richard Lester and Dennis Hopper, particularly. 

Murch:  I certainly didn’t have the language for it, but the metaphor of the branching tree, the knots in the wood being a place where a decision is made and the direction of the tree changes, that was in its beginnings. 

Filmmaker: There’s a theory that tree growth, its branching, can be seen as an expression of that organism’s natural intelligence. The nodal theory of montage seems to posit that the grain of a narrative, from shot to shot, can follow this same organic derivation. Perfect symmetry might not always occur, but there will be revelatory moments that come to light in cutting this way. 

Murch:  I was certainly aware that just as every material in carpentry determines the structure for the furniture you are about to make, the very wood I was working with, the wood of The Conversation, didn’t like cutting on matching action. Thematically what it seemed to like were these more kind of hard-edged cuts, where motion is about to happen but it hasn’t happened yet, and then you cut and the next shot brings that motion into play. At the time, it just felt like the way the style of the film was announcing itself, and I thought every film was different. Later on I found it related more to my specific style. It was emerging slowly because my relationship to editing was still early.

Filmmaker: There was a lot of character material in the original script, material that was shot, that was removed in your edit. 

Murch: Most of what was dropped from the film were scenes that had to do with backstory, Harry’s other life. In the screenplay he quite secretly owns the building he lives in, and while his tenants are all complaining about the building’s maintenance, there is a massive redevelopment plan coming to that area of San Francisco, and Harry doesn’t want to put any money into the building because he knows it’s going to be torn down. 

Filmmaker: So there’s a parallel version, an alternate history where Harry’s this landowner, this landlord, and complicit in the gangster capitalism at the core of the film’s critique.

Murch:  Yes, but that’s completely gone now. There’s only a ghost of a whisp of a hint of that now. 

Filmmaker: The film itself is pared down to a razor-thin margin.

Murch:  Well there was approximately a fifth of the screenplay that was not shot. There were two big scenes in fact, that had to do with the resolution to the story, that never were. So when I was working, I was putting together a picture from only 80% of what was written. 

The Conversation

Filmmaker: So to a great extent, even a picture as venerated as The Conversation is crafted in the edit as answer to the dearth of options that the filming left its makers with. 

Murch: Definitely. One of the scenes we never got was a crucial ending scene. So in the film, where there are precognitive visions of Harry’s, and things Harry hears in the tape that were not there before — these are editorial responses to this material being missing. 

Filmmaker: In the book you collaborated on with Michael Ondaatje [The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, 2002], you said, “There were many times while making the film that I had a sense of doubling. I’d be working on the film late at night, looking at an image of Harry Caul working on his tape, and there would be four hands, his and mine. Several times I was so tired and disoriented that Harry Caul would press the button to stop the tape, and I would be amazed that the film didn’t also stop.” 

Murch: Well, there is some disorientation that comes with being up at 3am after working 18 hours straight. 

Filmmaker: Right, but it seems like this experience, aside from being a part of the lonesome craft of editing a film, becoming intimate with its events and characters, tends to mirror the audience’s as the film plays. The viewing body is thrust into a symbiosis with Caul as they are with any closely hewn protagonist, but in the case of The Conversation, we are also brought into a synchonicity with the events themselves.

Murch:  Well, to your point, Harry Caul is not a natural leading character for a feature film, and that was one of the things that Francis was interested in. Taking a character that at best, in another kind of movie, would have a two- or three-minute scene. The man who delivers the tape. 

Filmmaker: We find ourselves drawn into a character’s fold by watching them work.

Murch: Right. When Francis hired me for the feature, he said “You’re a sound person, you’ll understand him.” But because he’s not a naturally engaging cinematic character by all conventional standards, one of the techniques we have to use, when presented with that kind of problem, is to not allow the audience any escape. It’s also true of Talented Mr. Ripley. This is not someone you want normally to be the lead. 

Filmmaker: It’s less seldom the case in the 50 years since, but still holds largely true.

Murch: Right. So in these cases, the audience either willingly has to engage or become Stockholm Syndrome hostages to the film. There’s no wiggle room. 

Filmmaker: The audience has to give themselves over because there’s a heavy hand at play. An aggressive presence, as you’ve referred to some of the more obtrusive camera movements in the picture. 

Murch:  Yes, but it’s the singular point of view which creates that kind of suction. 

Filmmaker: You would be hardpressed to name an American film that predates The Conversation where the moviegoer is drawn into such a strange relationship with what is essentially, or becomes across the course of the narrative, a detective story.

Murch: Right, it’s unfolding in real time to a degree. There’s nothing the audience knows that Harry doesn’t know.

Filmmaker: But there are also things that Harry seems to know, that he cannot. He sees a murder before it happens. He sees himself at the crime scene before he has any reason to be there. He sees closeup angles in his memory of the targets for his surveillance team, which from his vantage, he could not possibly have seen. 

Murch: Right, it’s impossible. The rules change. One of the things Francis was interested in was the surveillance camera technology of that time, where it was attached to motion detection sensors. At times, Harry leaves frame and the camera does not track him, and then it follows him on some delay, panning robotically to include him in the frame. 

Filmmaker: But this aesthetic is not consistently deployed.

Murch:  The film itself does change, depending on the location. There are three distinct styles relating to the spaces we’re in: The documentary style of the Union Square scene, covered with four hidden camera units; the more conventionally designed style of these deep backgrounds, [like] the warehouse where Harry’s workshop is, the convention. And then a spaceless space, which is the work itself, the work done by Harry at his bench, where really it’s a montage of two-dimensional images. His face, the reel, the speaker, the recorders, his hands. These imaginary images come in as if from memory in this spaceless space. 

Filmmaker: Harry remembers images he has never seen.

Murch:  Yes, well, we’re in Harry’s head while he’s working. 

Filmmaker: It happens for the viewer as well. There’s dream logic at play in the piece, that becomes increasingly a part of the picture edit’s grammar. It creates a nested narrative, where you have transparencies that are then overlaid and slowly the full image is complemented and formed out of these layers.

Murch: And another example is the twist of the line reading where Harry suddenly hears what he’s recorded and the emphasis on one word is suddenly altered, where 98% of the times you hear it, it does not play that way. But the last reading changes the meaning. In that sense, because we’re locked in Harry’s head, we hear it the way he wants it to be. He wants his subjects to be the victims of this corporate monster, and then he realizes its perhaps the opposite. 

Filmmaker: There’s a fixation with anonymity over privacy, and with solitude in general. The picture seems to interrogate the question of whether you can be just a face in the crowd and concludes that no, you can’t. Just as two random people can be targeted and found out by someone nowhere near them, anyone can be gotten to. One character brags about bugging a presidential campaign and takes credit for that candidate losing. Was there a sense that the film was tapping into the climate of dread that seemed to pervade the Vietnam, post-JFK era? At this time, the Plumbers scandal was only just emerging. 

Murch: I mean, Francis started writing it in ’68 and I’m guessing he was referencing Nixon vs. Humphrey. At the time, I believe we were more concerned than anything that people might take the film as a kind of response to Watergate, which only happened while we were already in production. At that time, the public didn’t seem overly aware that films took years to make. We didn’t want the film to be taken that way. 

Filmmaker: There is also a vicarious relationship that emerges with the authors of the work. Caul serves as an avatar of a monomanically possessed craftsman, someone with a singular preoccupation. Beyond the web of intrigue itself, there is some unseen author to which the person in the theater finds themselves working alongside to fit the puzzle together. The ones turning the knobs, at the controls, as it were.

Murch:  Makes me think of that quote from John Huston.

Filmmaker: What’s that?

Murch:  That the real projectors are the eyes and ears of the audience.

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