Nothing Ever Changes, or Does It?

Man, doesn’t the home page look awesome now? It’s taken a while but we can finally say that the site is 100% done (for now)! Many thanks to our buddy, uber-talented Halifax artist Alexandria Neonakis.

So, I’m planning on writing a big post on edtior/sound mixer Walter Murch, as I did a 30 minute presentation on him a couple of weeks ago and a lot of his techniques are insanely useful. It’ll be up in the next couple of days, but as a precursor to that I have a story to tell from his time mixing Cold Mountain. This is taken from the excellent book, Behind the Seen.

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In early September Murch came to a dialogue premixing station at De lane Lea with a copy of Growing Up in Hollywood (1976), an autobiography by director, film editor, and child actor Robert Parrish. After the lunch break Walter stood on the little mezzanine behind the mix board and addressed the sound crew:  “In 1948 Columbia Studio chief Harry Cohn let director Robert Rossen hire Robert Parrish to re-edit his film, All the King’s Men, starring Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, loosely based on Louisiana Governor Huey Long. The film was in trouble.”

Murch read from the the book:

“The preview last night was a disaster,” Cohn said. “The fuckin’ picture is almost three hours long and it still doesn’t make any sense.” He turned to Rossen and pointed at me. “What makes you think this schmuck can salvage it when the best cutter in the studio has been working on it for five months?”

I told Rossen I thought I saw a way to re-cut the picture. “OK, go ahead. I’m too close to it. I’ve been working on it for over a year. I’m taking a holiday. I’ll be back in a month and we’ll preview your cut in Huntington Park, a tough factory town. They’ll understand it.”

And that’s what we did. I re-cut the entire picture, re-dubbed it using music from the film library and we previewed it in Huntington Park.

The fat cats from Santa Barbara [where the earlier preview was held] must have been in touch with the working stiffs in Huntington Park, because the reception wasn’t any better. In fact, it was worse… Rossen alone still believed in it, and he somehow convinced Cohn to let us carry on.

We worked on the picture for six months after the Huntington Park fiasco. We had seven more disastrous previews with all kinds of audiences.

Director Rossen had a last-ditch idea for editor Parrish, Murch says, continuing from the book: “I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the sync machine and wind down a hundred feet (one minute) before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.”

I went straight back to the cutting room, followed Rossen’s instructions to the letter… when I measured it at 5:00 am we had a ninety-minute picture… his brainstorm had worked. It all made sense in an exciting, slightly confusing, montagey sort of way… We took it to our final preview in Pasadena and were relieved at the audience’s enthusiastic reaction… the Pasadena fat cats stood up and applauded. After the Pasadena preview we cut the negative with all the imperfections, the mismatched cuts, and the jumps in the soundtrack.

All the King’s Men won the Academy Award for best picture of the year.

“So you see,” Murch said, as he closed the book, “nothing ever changes.” Then he walked to the mixing board and sat down to continue the premix.

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