Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


The art of ‘The Conversations’

Author Michael Ondaatje has penned such celebrated works of fiction as “Anil’s Ghost” and “The English Patient.” For his latest effort, he conducted a series of interviews with Academy Award-winner Walter Murch, a film editor and sound designer who has worked on some of the most important motion pictures of the past thirty years, including “The Conversation,” “The Godfather” trilogy, “Apocalypse Now,” and “The English Patient.”

Books comprised entirely of chats with obscure figures from the film world are hard to come by, so the very existence of “The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film” begs an explanation. However, throughout the course of the book, Ondaatje and Murch keep the tone so casual, yet interesting, that even the most uninitiated of readers will find it a joy to read.

Murch reveals insights to the way a film is assembled and backs his claims with concrete evidence and anecdotes, not abstract theories. Ondaatje extracts an extraordinary amount of information from Murch about some of the defining moments in contemporary cinema, the role he played in their creation and their present-day significance.


The Badger Herald talked with Mr. Ondaatje about what it was like to delve into the mind of a genius.

The Badger Herald: What drew you to such a relatively obscure figure from the film world like Walter Murch?

Michael Ondaatje: For that very reason: because he’s someone who seems to have been overlooked, and his craft has been overlooked. His role is invisible to the general public. The majority of people don’t really know what makes a good car chase.

BH: When you set out to do these interviews, did you have that as a goal in the back of your mind — to expose to people the role of the editor?

MO: I was more curious about him. He’s got such a wonderful, weird, arcane mind. It was really just trying to formalize conversations we’d had in the previous three or four years. The motive wasn’t didactic at all — more curiosity on my part.

BH: What made you want to do the book in conversation format as opposed to a biography?

MO: I think what’s most interesting about people is how they talk and how they express themselves, not just the content of what they’re saying. It’s like talking heads, in that you can see so much in the intricacies of a face. It interested me how Walter’s mind leaps from place to place, and to me that reveals much more than just summarizing it all in biography format.

BH: You discuss Walter’s eclectic interests often. Did you find it difficult to keep talking about one thing?

MO: I didn’t try to at all, I made no attempt to harness him into any sort of role. It was much more to see how his arguments went. In some ways they’re baseless, but at the same time they’re very logical and rational.

BH: Do you ever take a filmic approach in your writing?

MO: I do, but that doesn’t mean I automatically do everything filmically. I think we’re all children of television and film in our generation. So that’s one area of resource, in addition to painting, music, etc.

BH: What were Walter’s specific contributions to “The English Patient” [for which he won Oscars for Best Film Editing and Best Sound]?

MO: The piecing and rhythm of the film, the magical use of sound in the film — many of those things are revealed in technical detail in the book. It was a film that allowed him to strut his stuff. But at the same time, he managed to do so without drawing attention to himself, which is something he would never want to do.

BH: In a larger context, what do you see as the role of the film editor?

MO: [Francis Ford] Coppola says in the book that some editors are like tailors, and that some are like your peers. Walter certainly falls into the latter group. He’s a technician and tailor, but he’s also someone who participates in the vision of the film and helps the director get that vision across.

BH: My favorite line from the book is in its introduction: “Even Napoleon needed his marshals.” Do you picture directors as these generals ruling with an iron fist?

MO: I think so, and in many cases, you need to. In order to help persuade x thousand people working under you to march into Russia, you really have to have an obsessional belief in yourself. But I don’t think Walter’s character is like that — he’s an essential aide to the director though.

BH: After having talked with Walter, do you feel much of the credit directors receive is undeserved?

MO: Yes, but I don’t think he’d ever want to take anything away from the director. You just have to realize there are other people involved with the film. The editor is just as important as the screenwriter, and in some ways, the director.

Michael Ondaatje and UW film professor David Bordwell will discuss “The Conversations” today at 6 p.m. at Morgridge Auditorium in Grainger Hall.

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