Walter Murch and the Art of the Edit

The editor of "Apocalypse Now," "The Conversation," and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" has a lot to teach those of us who edit words and writers.

Walter Murch and the Art of the Edit
Walter Murch working on Tetro in Buenos Aires (Beatrice Murch via Wikipedia)

Walk into a bookstore and you’ll likely stumble on shelves of writing guides. Most are aimed at aspiring novelists and screenwriters, some at journalists, and the rest are woo-woo self-help promising to help you find your inner whoever by burning sage and incanting The Great Gatsby or Mrs. Dalloway. What you won’t find, normally, are books about editing. (There are some that claim to help writers think and revise like book editors; there are others that are more or less out of print, like The Elements of Editing.) Even rarer are titles by editors that bring you into their world: How did they get into this work? What's their philosophy? How do they work with writers?

I discovered this a few years ago when trying to find some professional guidance and inspiration. There wasn’t an editor in my day-to-day work life I could learn from, so I thought I’d dive into the literature of editing. Which, it turned out, doesn’t really exist. What to do?

Around this time, I picked up First Cut: Conversations with Film Editors, mostly to skim its interviews with Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia, What About Bob?), Paul Hirsch (The Empire Strikes Back, Blow Out), and a few of the other cutters featured. Then it occurred to me that maybe these cinematic craftspeople have some wisdom for people like me. Yes, film and journalism are different media, but so what? We’re performing the same function, in the end: making things look good, helping them flow, creating worthwhile experiences. Plus, this was an ideal solution for me, a cinephile before everything else.

When I turned my attention to film editors, I actually didn’t begin with anyone in First Cut. Instead I turned to one of the all-time great cinematic innovators, Walter Murch. Unsurprisingly, the man who cut Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, and The Talented Mr. Ripley; who recut to Orson Welles’ specifications (and resurrected) Touch of Evil; who created the soundscapes of THX-1138, American Graffiti, and The Godfather Part II had a lot of knowledge to impart.

The cut at 1:21 — good lord. Murch not winning the Oscar for editing is one of the Academy Awards' many travesties. (He did win for Best Sound, though. Deserved it, too.)

I started with The Conversations, novelist Michael Ondaatje's book-length interview with Murch, before switching over to In the Blink of An Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing. (The Conversations is excellent; Ondaatje's interview style is a different story. It takes some time. But both books will absolutely make you a better filmgoer.) Typically, trying to read a technical guide for a profession not your own is a slog. Even if you like a subject — say, cinematography — and you want to learn more about it, the author of whatever text you choose will eventually bury you in so many specifications, numbers, and trade practices that your eyes roll out of your head.

In the Blink of an Eye is the rare exception. Yes, Murch goes into detail about this and that edit machine. But the real action is his scientific and philosophical approaches to editing and the questions underpinning them. (The second edition of the book, which is what’s widely available, was published in 1995 and added an additional section on digital cinema, updated in 2001. It's a fascinating read.)

Early on, Murch recalls an interaction he had years earlier with a friend of his wife’s, who asked what Murch does. At the time, he was studying film editing, which the friend described as cutting out the “bad bits.” “Of course, I became (politely) incensed,” Murch writes. “‘It is much more than that. Editing is structure, color, dynamics, manipulation of time, all of these other things, etc., etc.’”

That’s certainly what editing is, but until reading that passage I had never heard anyone frame it that way. And it was confirmation of what I suspected (hoped?): that editing isn't a series of silos — text editors and film editors and audio editors — but a kind of continuum of experience. Structure, color — these are terms we use in the newsroom. Dynamics might as well be flow. Manipulation of time? That got me, and has kept me, thinking. (I recently described writing to a group of second graders as a kind of time travel, and I'm pretty sure Murch seeded this idea.)

“In a certain sense,” Murch continues, “editing is cutting out the bad bit, the tough question is, What makes a bad bit?” That got me thinking some more. Editors believe we can spot the problem areas easily and accurately. But what’s the basis for the judgment? When is a “bad bit” an intentional stylistic choice, or a gold coin along the path rewarding a reader? What gets lost if a piece is scrubbed to a supermarket-linoleum shine? Certainly more than just a writer's voice.

In recounting that simple encounter, Murch challenges us to think differently. He opens a pathway, which itself branches into others, forcing us — or maybe just me — to reconsider how we approach an edit. And he does this constantly, encouraging readers to see beyond the technical, to embrace the metaphysical.

Walter Murch's sound editing and design in THX-1138 something else.

Something else that sticks with me is Murch’s “Rule of Six,” which describes “an ideal cut” as

the one that satisfies all the following six criteria at once: 1) it is true to the emotion of the moment; 2) it advances the story; 3) it occurs at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and “right”; 4) it acknowledges what you might call “eye-trace” — the concern with the location and movement in the audience’s focus of interest within the frame; 5) it respects “planarity” — the grammar of three dimensions transposed by photography to two (the questions of stage-line, etc.); 6) and it respects the three-dimensional continuity of the actual space (where people are in the room and in relation to one another).

This clearly doesn’t map perfectly to journalism. But it feels to me like a reasonable alternative editors code of conduct that can exist alongside principles like "editors are a bridge between the writer and the reader," or "an edit makes things better — a change just changes things." A text edit is true to the emotion of the piece? Makes sense. It advances the story? Naturally. It privileges rhythm and pacing? Check. Acknowledging “eye-trace” might as well be “keeping the reader engaged and not clicking another tab.” Respecting the dynamics of two-dimensional and three-dimensional space? Of course — a story has to fit its layout and coherently reflect physical reality.

Like so much in his book, I’ve been gnawing on Murch's framework since encountering it. Not only has it complicated, in the best way, how I approach my work and how I think about journalism broadly. Everyone wants to believe they’re a storyteller, but then they treat their output as merely content. How do you, as an editor, encourage an embrace of the former and obliterate the mindset of the latter? How do you make space for authentic emotion in a fetishistically "objective" media? How do you balance what a story can be and what it must be — for the reader, for the writer, for the publication, for the business?

Viewing editing through the lens of cinema is novel — and surprisingly appropriate, as Murch proves in In the Blink of an Eye. The questions and opportunities he raises are many and, in their way, profound. And he'll never know this, but that wisdom has made Murch a kind of long-distance mentor for me as an editor. It's exactly what I hoped for when I picked up his book.