The Way Forward: Walter Murch on His New Documentary Coup 53, Finally Writing His Next Book, and the Future of Movie Theaters

The legendary editor, whose latest film in now out, on how he’s been spending the pandemic and his faith in the power of cinematic storytelling.

At the moment, I’m writing a book that I signed a contract with Faber & Faber to do a couple of years ago, but until the lockdown I had so many other things to do that I kept putting it off. The coronavirus forced me to just sit down and write. The new book is an update to my previous book, In the Blink of an Eye; I wrote that almost 30 years ago, and 30 years is roughly a quarter of the entire history of motion pictures, so a lot has happened in that time. In this new book, I write about the effect of digitization, both from a technical but also creative point of view. I’m also writing about the relationship between the audience and the film, there are some essay chapters on film sound, and I touch on the directing and writing of Return to Oz. Basically, it’s a mixture of my peculiar film theories, some practical tips, and some war stories, like what happens when the studio doesn’t like the music on your film.

Luckily, my wife and I are healthy and we live next to a park in London, so we’re able to go out jogging in the park and get fresh air. I don’t watch a lot of movies or television, although at the moment I’m watching the news, because of how things are moving politically and medically in the world. As I’m writing, I offset that by reading mostly science popular science books on physics and biology, which I’m just fascinated by. Nick Lane, a biologist at University College London, has written an excellent series of four books on biochemistry, and is working on a fifth book now. He writes about life, death and sex, and a lot of the other things in our daily life, all of which have microbiological origins.

A still from Coup 53, co-written and edited by Walter Murch.

The documentary Coup 53, which I edited and co-wrote, is out now in virtual cinemas, and it continues to breach obstacles put in its way. Nobody wanted to finance the film. There was a Hollywood studio involved for a couple of months, but then they got cold feet and dropped out, so the director, Taghi Amirani, had to go around shaking the can in Silicon Valley to raise the money. Once we’d finished, we had a very hard time getting into festivals, which kept turning us down. Eventually the film premiered in Telluride, which opened other gates for us, but despite fantastic reviews and every screening being packed, no distributor would pick it up. They would be interested, but then, for mysterious reasons, suddenly wouldn’t return our calls. When COVID-19 happened, we concocted a plan to release the film through a “virtual cinema.” There’s no distribution middle-person involved, and this approach is emerging as a method that can at least get the filmmaking community through the next six months. At that point, we’ll see where the virus is and whether any of the major theater chains have gone bankrupt.

Even before the pandemic, all the major companies were shifting their focus toward streaming. There were already challenges for theatrical distribution, but then the pandemic moved us forward five years in five months. Still, I don’t believe movie theaters will die out. Telling stories in the dark is part of the human condition and has been ever since the invention of language. At night, what would you do 40,000 years ago? You have language, you have fire, so you build a fire, you assemble around the fire and you tell stories – and that’s what a theater is. The difference is that the flames are the film, and we’re watching the dance of images on the wall the way we would stare into the flames while somebody told us a story. That’s so fundamental that I don’t think it’s going to go away, although it’s clearly under great stress at the moment. There is a human of fundamental human need to assemble in the dark with like-minded strangers to hear a story. If the story is good and told well, the people who hear that and have herded communally emerge from that experience bonded together in a way that they were not before.

Walter Murch is a legendary sound editor, editor, writer and director. His 50-year career in cinema stretches back to 1969 (Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People) and includes work on THX-1138, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Godfather Part III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, and many other films with directors such as George Lucas, Fred Zinnemann, Philip Kaufman, Anthony Minghella, Kathryn Bigelow, Sam Mendes and Brad Bird. Murch’s pioneering achievements in sound were acknowledged by Coppola in his 1979 Palme d’Or winner Apocalypse Now, for which Murch was granted, in a film-history first, the screen credit of “sound designer.” Murch has been nominated for nine Academy Awards (six for editing and three for sound) and has won three, for best sound on Apocalypse Now (for which he and his collaborators devised the now-standard 5.1 sound format), and for Best Film Editing and Best Sound for his work on The English Patient. (Murch had previously won a double BAFTA for best sound and best picture editing for The Conversation in 1974.) His most recent work is the documentary Coup 53 (2019), about Western interference in the politics of Iran, which had its world premiere at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival and is now available through a virtual cinema release.