Alchemy in the editing room
Splicing footage of real events into the imagined world of a film is part of film editor Walter Murch’s signature wizardry. It’s an approach that resonates with his protégée Sara Fgaier, who has spent her mentoring year being exposed to an astounding array of cinematic tactics and the broad intellect of one of Hollywood’s most respected craftsmen.
By Michael Sragow
"Sara started on her first film as an archivist; her mind works that way. And yet she obviously has an artistic sensibility at work there, too, and that led her into editing. Whatever chrysalis that film was, she came in as a caterpillar and emerged as a butterfly – as an editor. When I was working I had two pairs of headsets. And she put one pair on and watched what I was doing and took notes. Sort of like a sponge, I guess. Editors never see each other work. Even on multiple-editor films, we hide in our separate rooms. In one year, Sara has probably now seen more of another editor working than I have in 40 years. When you’re collaborating with someone, things you’re not consciously aware of, or things you just accept as routine, can really “land” five years later. It was true of my relationship with Fred Zinnemann. And now I’m as old as Fred Zinnemann was then!"
Walter Murch’s workspace looks like a cubicle at NASA. For eight months he has been editing the film Particle Fever, about the epic pursuit of the Higgs boson – or the God particle, as it is known – at CERN near Geneva. One of Murch’s monitors carries two streams of images side by side, while another amasses codes and data. The screens loom over a drawing board piled with computer lists, handwritten notes and a keyboard. On the right, colour-coded cards fill a poster-board.
But Murch, standing tall – the way Ernest Hemingway and Philip Roth wrote books – can turn this clinical space into a magician’s cupboard. In similar set-ups he’s edited films like Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), becoming the most celebrated cutter and sound wizard of his time. He has won unprecedented double Oscars for editing and sound mixing in America for Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996) and double BAFTAs in Britain for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), in the same categories.
When cutting feature films, Murch creates a different coloured card for each scene and every character in the script so he can track the nuances of the story. He didn’t do that at first with Particle Fever, his first documentary, because the challenge this film posed was actually finding the story. Instead, it took months to organize the coloured cards into what he calls his “structure board”, and this time, the board appeared only at the suggestion of an editor visiting from Italy: Sara Fgaier, Murch’s protégée in the Rolex Arts Initiative. She volunteered to get it started. “It was fun,” Fgaier says. “I felt I was doing something useful. Working on paper is very important, especially on documentaries, where often there is no script.”
Fgaier has already been acclaimed on the film-festival circuit. She boasts a half-dozen non-fiction credits, including Pietro Marcello’s The Mouth of the Wolf (2009), a documentary about tough times in modern Genoa and the enduring romance of an ex-con and a transsexual he’d met in prison. The movie won awards in Berlin and Turin, Italy; reviewers singled out Fgaier’s sensitivity as well as her inventive use of archival materials to flesh out the story. When Rolex called her in La Spezia, Italy, in December 2011, telling her she’d been nominated for the programme, she thought it was “incredible”. She spent five weeks in England to improve her English.
Baptism of fire
Part of what thrilled her was the prospect of becoming Murch’s protégée. Her attachment to his work goes beyond professional admiration. She’s been a lifelong fan of Murch’s Return to Oz (1985), his one film as a director. Years ago, a friend gave her a copy of Murch’s book In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing. It helped get her through The Mouth of the Wolf, which she calls her “baptism of fire”. Murch and Fgaier share an appetite for mixing factual and fictional material and a distaste for formula or cliché. But when he chose her from a group of gifted finalists nominated for the programme, it was, he says, because “I Ioved them but I couldn’t quite figure out her films. They were like some kind of delicious, exotic cooking. I wanted to know more about them – and her.” Fgaier didn’t set out to become a film editor. She thought she might become a director, screenwriter or even a critic. Her passion for movies grew in high school, and when she attended the University of Bologna, she “thought it was better to study cinema rather than just learn the techniques”. Afterwards, she enrolled in a one-year director’s course with the great film-maker Marco Bellocchio, whose Fists in the Pocket and China is Near are ’60s classics. But she yearned to master one craft. “It was important to be able to say ‘I could do this thing’,” she says.
Fgaier found her calling as the first assistant director and assistant editor on Marcello’s Crossing the Line (2007), a documentary love letter to Italy’s ageing trains. What fed her appetite for discovery and sense of form was compiling shots of trains from over a dozen different railroad lines, then putting them together with views of changing cityscapes and landscapes as seen from the perspective of the travellers and engineers. She moved on to The Mouth of the Wolf as a fully fledged editor.
Murch often works in San Francisco with his neighbours Kaufman and Coppola, but he edited Particle Fever at Gigantic Studios in Manhattan. Last summer, when he invited Fgaier to sit in on the editing, Murch handed her a set of headphones and asked her to stand next to him. They cut quite a tandem: the towering grey sage and the intense young woman talking in Italian with brunette hair tumbling to her shoulders. They looked as if they were telepathically linked, but what delighted her was seeing him do the “totally unexpected”.
Murch stays open to potential bonds among previously unassociated images, artworks, ideas, people and events. He developed his unique style by building on his curiosity about all kinds of creativity. (He recently wrote a playful essay linking astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe to Frederik Rosenkrantz, a minor historical figure whose name became immortalized in Hamlet.) “His ways of doing things are deeply fascinating, functional and stimulating – they make you see the film from different viewpoints,” says Fgaier.
She hunkered down on a small couch in the editing room and tried to absorb everything. “I was all ears, all eyes, exercise book in hand. I jotted down all the impressions that came into my head… he’s so methodical, and, I would say, scientific,” Fgaier says.
She spoke as a contributor and sounding board while Murch and director Mark Levinson solidified their storylines. By the time she returned to New York in the autumn, she realized that the experience was making her more confident. When she returned to Italy, Murch says, “Sara would email me in Italian, and I would answer in a mixture of Italian and English… I can understand written and spoken Italian, but speaking it myself... well, charitably, I am out of practice.”
Murch may call Fgaier’s work “exotic”, but in many ways it resembles his own. He has pioneered melding diverse varieties of found images – ranging from newsreels, TV news and magazine photos to amateur films – with invented, often fact-based scenes. He won renown for editing the Soviet invasion sequence in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. To depict Russian tanks rumbling into Prague, he combined footage smuggled out of the country by Czech cineastes with fictional scenes of actors Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis joining mass protests.
Fgaier, similarly, uses all sorts of non-fiction films (and some fictional sources) to construct documentaries that sometimes become lyrical essays. To her, “archival extracts” are building blocks that can widen the perspective of a story. In The Mouth of the Wolf, a shoot-out between the anti-hero and police at a Genoa nightclub called Zanzibar goes by in a vivid, suggestive streak of action. Fgaier created it by cutting together three-to-30-second sections from a dozen mostly amateur films. By the end of the movie, we view the real-life protagonists, Enzo Motta and his life partner, Mary Monaco, as scrappy, romantic survivors. We understand his anarchic view of the law. We sympathize with all Genoese, especially the disenfranchised, as citizens of a once-grand city that lost its place in the 20th century.
It was especially apt that Fgaier joined Murch at Cannes in May 2012 for the premiere of his latest collaboration with Kaufman, Hemingway & Gellhorn. Using digital technology, Murch and Kaufman had “nested” Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn and Clive Owen as Ernest Hemingway directly into the photographic record of the Spanish Civil War and Japan’s invasion of China. Fgaier says, “It was incredible. Editing and mixing together the different materials and putting the actors inside... it was a magic thing for me.”
Murch was intrigued that Fgaier, unlike himself, had never gone to film school to learn how to edit film. “I was curious about that,” he says. He made sure that, in the course of the year, she enjoyed the equivalent of postgraduate studies. At Cannes, she attended a master class on directing held by Kaufman. Six months later, she was in Copenhagen for a master class on editing by Murch.
Just being around Murch was a study in the art of creative opportunity. Last summer he accompanied Fgaier to a Manhattan cultural salon where he read from his translations of the work of Italian writer and diplomat Curzio Malaparte, best known for Kaputt (1944), a phantasmagoric account of World War II’s Eastern Front.
Murch recalled that when he was in France in 1987, he found a book about cosmology by Hubert Reeves. In it, Reeves referred to a horrific scene recounted in Kaputt: Cavalry horses flash-frozen in a lake during the Siege of Leningrad, or as Murch summarized in an email, “caught in a sudden violent phase-shift of super-cooled water turning to ice”. Reeves connected the horses triggering the water’s freezing to “the Higgs field precipitating atomic matter from pure energy” milliseconds after the Big Bang. Reeves’ allusion led Murch to seek out Malaparte’s books; a quarter-century later Murch was celebrating the publication of The Bird that Swallowed its Cage, a selection of Malaparte’s writing that he’d translated and edited. Shortly before it went to press, he took on the editing of Particle Fever, a film about the search for the Higgs boson. Murch savours this kind of synchronicity.
During the editing of Particle Fever, Fgaier often put herself into “listening mode” as Murch and his collaborators kept on top of developing events. Fgaier knew it was extraordinary to see this master of her craft deal with a drama that was still unfolding. CERN’s particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, has been working at half-force because of an accident five years ago. Even before that, the film had a cosmic suspense: Once the Higgs boson was found, would the results suggest the existence of multiple universes, or hint at a catastrophe for ours? The accident intensified the human drama.
Even when handling weighty material, Murch keeps the atmosphere unpredictable and playful. Sometimes he passes around a basket of what look like fortune-cookie papers. They actually contain aphorisms from great filmmakers, like Godard. Fgaier wound up picking a quote from Robert Bresson: “Provide the unexpected. Expect it.”
Murch explains, “In the early ’80s I was reading Bresson’s notebooks, and a lot of what he said struck home with me. I kept thinking, what did these remind me of? Finally it dawned on me: They were like the fortunes in fortune cookies… So for Christmas that year in San Francisco, I made them up into fortune cookies and gave them to all my friends.” Over the years, he’s added pithy comments from other film-makers, but Bresson still dominates the list.
“I loved it straight away. I still have the little papers I picked out in New York,” Fgaier says. She adds it was “inevitable” that she chose a quote from Bresson: She wrote her undergraduate thesis about Bresson’s Pickpocket.
During Fgaier’s protégée year, she finished editing The Train to Moscow, a documentary drawn from the home movies of a group of small-town Italian communists who spent a disillusioning three weeks in the former Soviet Union in the 1950s. While working, she says, she often thought of Murch – and not just because she now edits standing up. “While I was beside him, I was aware that it was an extraordinary experience, but I realized that I’d only really benefit from it afterwards. And that’s what happened. I’m experiencing it now – everything resurfaced once I returned to work. Now I find myself quoting him constantly.”
Michael Sragow is the author of "Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master" and the film critic for the Orange County Register in California.