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Walter Murch – The Wizard of Sounds and Visions

Walter Murch, Vision Award Nescens 2015

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© Alessio Pizzicannella

Mr Murch, you are considered the father of the discipline of “sound design”.  How did it happen?

I think it was a natural evolution. The significant modification that we did in the late 60s with the Zoetrope Studio (founded by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas) was to allow the sound editor to also be the mixer of sound. Until Apocalypse Now, for example, I worked in monophonic sound and, suddenly, not only there was the stereo sound but a completely new format on six tracks. My challenge was to design the sound in this new space.

In 1980 you won the Academy Award for Sound on Apocalypse Now. What was it like working with Coppola?  And since we showed American Graffiti in Locarno in 1973, what was it like working with Lucas?

I have loved working with both of them, they’re very different. Francis is a great delegator of responsability, he does not get involved all the way through in specific definitions even if he sees what you are doing. George, more specifically, wants to be involved at every step of the evolution of the sound. In American Graffiti we were always together, sometimes staying up until three o’ clock.

If we think about a movie, our thoughts instinctively dwell one of its distinctive scenes. Which scene lives most vibrantly as you look back on your career?

It is always a hard question, because my perspective is not always the perspective of the audience, but the Valkyries attack section in Apocalypse Now was a huge amount of work – both picture and sound editing. I think the moment the music is playing very strongly and then suddenly it cuts to the Vietnamese school, and it is quiet and you’re just hearing the singing of the Vietnamese children, and you’re  starting to hear from the back the Valkyries theme... It was not in the script, it was created in the editing of the sound. I am very happy when that moment happens, because I remember the struggle to get there.

Working with pictures and sounds, you have a clear vision of how sound is related to the plot and the general atmosphere of a movie. Could you cite an example of how you have maximized the relationship in your work?

Well, certainly the sudden cut to silence in Apocalypse Now we just talked about. Francis’ original intention was to break the Valkyries’ theme tape, he wanted to stop the sound of music. I knew what he wanted, but I knew there was another way to get that idea. I felt that the emotion of the film at that point with the music was so big that going into a breaking moment could be counterproductive. Then I tried to pitch this to Francis to explain it to him, and he liked it.

We know that today you are very much involved in teaching, but who were the teachers that most impacted your life? What is the main teaching you’ve ever received?

The filmmakers that inspired me to go into film were my big teachers: Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Godard, Truffaut... I was also inspired in sound with the school of musique concrète in Paris: Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. I heard their work when I was very young, I was 12 years old. At that age I dedicated myself to try to do the same thing they did, looking at the world of cinema. About the teaching there is a motto from the I Ching, a Chinese divination book. It says, in English: "Perseverance Furthers", that means: keep going, don’t stop. And that has been a big lesson for me at many, many times in my life.

Mattia Bertoldi
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