Walter Murch and Sara Fgaier

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

The mentoring year allowed Sara Fgaier, who teaches film editing, to observe and work with Walter Murch as he made the final edits of a new documentary, Particle Fever. For Fgaier, meetings with her mentor in Cannes, Copenhagen and New York provided an extraordinary opportunity to be guided by one of the most revered editors in the film industry. Murch explained that he enjoys mentoring young people and likes the way their questions make him examine assumptions in established thinking.

Walter Murch and Sara Fgaier

A year of mentoring

Choosing a protégé (Chapter 2 of 6)

September 2012

Walter Murch, 2012-2013 Film mentor

What qualities made you choose Sara Fgaier as your protégée?
All of the candidates were excellent, and I could easily have worked with any of them. After much deliberation, Sara became my choice because her work had a quality that I could not put my finger on, and I wanted to find out more about it. Alone of the candidates, she had not gone to film school, but had studied film history. Through diligence and determination, she taught herself how to edit, and I also found this inspiring. It may also explain something unique about her style.

What do you hope to contribute to her career?
Sara has worked on documentaries, which are in a certain sense more demanding than theatrical films. I am working on a documentary at the moment, so there is some confluence of interest. But I hope to be able to give her insights into the world of theatrical film editing, which will be helpful if she ever goes in that direction.

How do you envisage working with Sara over the next year?
She has just spent a week in the editing room here in New York. I gave her a set of headphones and she just watched me work, constructing scenes for this film, restructuring, trimming and refining. This film is at a turbulent moment in its evolution, so she was also able to listen to the three-way discussions between director, producer and editor. She made a few suggestions which were immediately accepted and which improved the film. I hope to travel to Rome and watch her at work. She will also be coming to Copenhagen for a seminar on film editing at the Danish Film School, where my work is being featured. Also we will have discussions about theory and practice. Both of us are freelance, so it is difficult to predict exactly where we will be and what we will be working on. But that just makes it exciting.

Has someone acted as your Mentor during your career? How did that person – or people – help you to establish yourself?

The person I think of in this way was Fred Zinnemann. I worked for him on the film Julia in 1976-1977, and he was the first person outside of our group of former film-students (Coppola, Lucas, Ballard) to hire me, and I learned a tremendous amount from him – and also from working in London, where things at that time were done differently than they were in the U.S. Fred remained a close friend until his death 20 years later. He was then (in 1976) the same age as I am now. And I was then just a few years older than Sara is now.

Walter Murch and Sara Fgaier

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 3 of 6)

A young and passionate film editor, Sara Fgaier is already winning acclaim for her meticulous work. Here she describes the emotional intensity of her methods and her joy at the prospect of a year’s interaction with one of the world’s greatest film editors.

I have always been a filmgoer, since high school. I love the movies Walter Murch has edited so much that I have seen them over and over again.

When I first became an editor I received a special gift from a dear friend for my 25th birthday: Walter Murch’s book, In the Blink of an Eye, which inspired me with its theoretical ideas and practical advice. Murch’s text really supported me during the difficult process of editing the film La bocca del lupo (The mouth of the wolf) by Pietro Marcello.

La bocca del lupo was my “baptism of fire”, a path crossed on my knees – ad genua – like the 17th-century title music of the film. It was a totally absorbing experience, exciting and complicated at the same time.

Over the past few years I have worked mainly on independent films, where I find myself completely at ease. I usually believe so deeply in them that they become a second skin. For this reason, I consider myself privileged because I’ve been able to work on very interesting projects that I can create as I wish.

I've always worked on “documentaries of creation” where usually the film is written during the editing. The unexpected plays a big role in this editing process, which is an endless search and inexhaustible discovery of new elements hidden in the folds of the material: to enter into the shapeless body of the film, to dig, to take out the hidden possibilities inside the material and to live endless discoveries. Editing manages to stop time, it gives you the possibility of huge control. It attracts me for its potential of re-invention and for the improvisation as well.

When Rolex invited me to apply to be a protégée, I was quite incredulous – because I don’t have any idea who nominated me for this. I immediately felt it was a real “calling”. When I saw the name of the mentor, I almost went into shock. I have long admired Walter Murch. And, also a few weeks before the news of my nomination, I had watched again, by chance, a movie he directed, Return to Oz. I have loved this film since my childhood.

The first meeting with Walter Murch was extraordinary – how could it be otherwise, as I was meeting my distant teacher, my myth? This meeting was full of emotion, but at the same time incredibly natural, enriching and inspiring. He is a great person, humble and sensitive, humorous and with great humanity.

This mentoring year represents everything I could ever desire. I know that it is a big commitment, but I will learn a lot and I shall do my best not to disappoint Walter Murch.

In any relationship, the exchange is everything: if you don’t give, you get nothing. In life, we become poor if we do not transfer our knowledge. And, in the future, it will be my duty to pass all my experience to younger people.

It’s difficult to choose my greatest-ever film – I have fallen in love with too many. However, I can’t help thinking about The night of the hunter (made in 1955) by Charles Laughton. I love this black fairy tale for its power, beauty, mystery, fantastic and polyphonic nature, and sense of astonishment. It is a unique and unclassifiable film.

Five years from now I will still be working on documentaries, but I will also be dealing with fiction films, in Italy and abroad. I will still be an editor, a researcher, an author of little projects, and I will continue to teach editing. I will continue on my path, widening my horizons, developing different projects and facing new challenges.

Walter Murch and Sara Fgaier

A year of mentoring

First steps with the mentor (Chapter 4 of 6)

December 2012

Sound check

Sara Fgaier, from Italy, was astonished when she was chosen by renowned film editor Walter Murch as his protégée. Now she is getting a chance to observe the master up close. Sara Fgaier was interviewed in Geneva for the Rolex Arts Initiative.

Rolex Arts Initiative: You’ve recently spent a week with your mentor in New York. What happened during that week?
Sara Fgaier: Walter Murch was working on a documentary about CERN, [the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, famous for its Large Hadron Collider] here in Geneva. The film, Particle Fever, directed by Mark Levinson, describes the life and discoveries of physicists at CERN over the past five years. During the time spent with Walter Murch I’ve mostly observed his way of working and followed group discussions about the film between the director, Mr Murch and one of the protagonists and producer, David Kapland. Then in our spare time, he was so kind as he helped me to discover some special and extraordinary places in New York.

Does Walter Murch edit in a way similar to you?
I found there were a lot of similarities. However, I believe that everyone has his own way of exercising, expressing his personality and his own way of acting. However, these differences do not indicate the capability and skills of an editor, I think that everyone has his own style of working.

How would you describe the interaction with Walter Murch?
I mainly observe Walter Murch working. I don’t want to talk a lot with him, as I respect his work and do not want to “defocus” him. At the same time, I know how important it is to work in solitude. It’s very rare to have the opportunity to watch closely other people at work. I feel totally lucky especially with someone like Walter Murch.

Is there any particular aspect of editing that you are eager to learn about?
During the time I’ve already spent with Walter Murch, I was really impressed by his use of sound. I hope that, thanks to him, I’m going to improve my sound editing skills and learn some tips. I also hope that I will have the opportunity to observe the editing of a fiction film. In fact, by chance, the project that I am following is his first documentary editing.

What did you talk about in your free time with Walter Murch?
We talked in our spare time about many things, not only about cinema. Mr Murch has so many interests. We started to get to know each other a little more.

Film editors are generally not famous, with a few exceptions like Walter Murch himself. Does that annoy film editors? Do people know what you actually do?
I believe that film editors don’t expect to be in the public eye. It is a job done in the shadows, behind the scenes. But directors know well how important can be the role of an editor. Generally, I think the most common mistake is to think that it is a technical job.

What qualities does a good film editor need?
I think it is important to know the mechanisms of the story: you have to be able to melt the story elements with the sense of time and narration and to find forms and harmonies both in the surface and in the deepest levels. It is essential to possess synthesis and analytical skills, critical thinking, a good visual memory, perseverance, tenacity, patience, listening and comprehension skills. Then it depends on your own sensibility – from the same material different editors can create completely different films.

Are there many female film editors?
Certainly women have always had a place in this field much more than in other fields. I believe that women have often been on the margins of power hierarchies in the mainstream industry, and they have often found a space in the editing room. Perhaps because they tend to be more collaborative and handle well the alternation between sensitivity and synthesis.

Have you already begun to learn from Walter Murch?
I’m still processing a whole series of teachings, practices, passionate stories and suggested techniques that I have seen. I want to start working standing up like him, he has already convinced me. This was the first time in my life that I had a teacher or a mentor, so this mentorship is particularly important for me.

You also teach film editing.
This year I will go to ZeLIG [School for Documentary, Television and New Media] in Bolzano, Italy, to supervise a film class. I will, of course, be able to use what I have learned with Walter Murch. But this is not something new for me. In fact, the course that I’ve already given so far are mainly built around his texts In the Blink of an Eye and The Conversation. I have taken both theory and practical techniques and I made different summaries organizing them for the themes introduced by film pieces and examples.

When will you next meet your mentor?
Very soon I will be in New York, I will follow the final phase of the editing that Walter Murch is currently doing. Later, we will meet in Copenhagen where he will hold a master class for a few days.

Walter Murch and Sara Fgaier

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

August 2013

After a year of mentoring

ilm editor Sara Fgaier journeyed to New York from Italy twice to observe her mentor, Walter Murch, edit a documentary and she attended an editing conference in Copenhagen featuring Murch and other luminaries. The mentorship gave her a chance to closely observe Murch working and to make other valuable contacts.

The Rolex Arts Initiative: During your mentoring year, Walter Murch was one of five editors who led masterclasses during a three-day seminar at the Danish Film School of Continuing Education in Copenhagen. What did you take away from these sessions?
Sara Fgaier: One of the most interesting things about the Rolex Arts Initiative is its international aspect: the chance to meet other interesting people together with – and thanks to – your mentor. The editing seminar was a great experience and a really unique occasion. I think about it often and I am so grateful to Mr Murch and Rolex for this opportunity. Besides him, there were other great editors such as Mary Sweeney, Joe Bini, Juliette Welfling [The Diving Bell and The Butterfly] and Valdís Oskarsdóttir [Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]. And this was a wonderful surprise. I found out they were there when I got to Copenhagen. They shared their reflections with film students and editors.

It was a vast panorama of editors working in different situations. They were mostly editors of fiction films, with the happy exception of Joe Bini, who is the editor of [Werner] Herzog’s extraordinary documentaries. His presentation was particularly valuable because it brought a different experience from the others, and I felt closer to it. Another special case that has fascinated me a lot is that of Mary Sweeney, the editor of David Lynch’s films, as well as producer and screenwriter for his film The Straight Story. I am very interested in cases of “monogamy” in the [director-editor] work relationship.

You didn’t go to film school to learn how to be an editor. How did you react to the film-school setting?
I have preferred to dive into the work and figure out my way. But this school in Copenhagen looked really nice. One interesting thing is that editing students have to make a film as authors.

Did seeing Walter teach the class bring into focus or clarify some of the experiences you've had with him so far in the editing room?
Absolutely. His speech summarized many of the things that I have learned, seen, heard or imagined in these recent months. But I have also discovered new things; I really like his way of telling stories.

When you were with him in New York, Walter Murch explained that what he was doing in one section of his new film, Particle Fever, was trying to find the editing equivalent of a musical “stop".
I like this expression. In the end, an editor is not so far away from a musician. He has to orchestrate the film, he must have a good sense of hearing and find and give the film its rhythm.

You had wanted to work on a fiction film with Murch. But Particle Fever – a documentary about scientists searching for the particle that binds the universe (or many universes) – is, by the nature of its subject alone, not your typical documentary.
It is completely different from the projects I’ve worked on so far. It allowed me to observe, as a privileged witness, the director-editor dynamics and ways of working together and alone to find solutions. I was struck by how these dynamics are often the same that I have with “my” directors. This experience also gave me a great desire to get back to work!

You’ve been editing Michele Manzolini and Federico Ferrone’s film, The Train to Moscow, which chronicles three young Italian communists who travel to the Soviet Union in 1957 and confront a reality that challenges their idealism. You use their Super 8mm footage to tell the story. Blending archival footage and newly shot material is something you’ve done since The Mouth of the Wolf (2009), which depicted the deterioration of Genoa as it told the story of an ex-convict living on the margins of the city. Walter Murch, too, has mixed archival and contemporary media in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Hemingway & Gellhorn.
I want to continue working in this area. In the case of The Mouth of the Wolf, the archival materials offered the possibility to draw an inventory of urban transformations and their human consequences, bringing back the reality of disappeared places, still alive in the memory of the city and of its inhabitants. But the archival materials also spoke to the private dimension of a character’s life, giving form to his thoughts and also widening the course of the individual story to confer on it an epic tone.

The experience of The Train to Moscow, so far, is different, because we have followed the facts – the adventures of the protagonists as they filmed them. The film is composed [almost entirely] of archival materials, so this is a movie totally made during the editing phase. The documents belong to the protagonists; the film follows their gaze. In rare cases we have used other images from other contexts, so we can adhere to the private and collective history … And there are parts entrusted more to free creation and invention to create moments of passage and describe emotional states and thoughts. We built the film using, as a guide, the tale told by one of the protagonists.

How important to you is your work’s political content?
It is important but it’s not the only point. I believe that a film can be a political act; [Jean-Luc] Godard said, “Every shot is a political act.” I think of Godard because I have always loved the sense that he gave to political cinema. He said that we have to make political films and not movies about politics. In a political film, made in a political way, what matters is the formal operation, the subversion of language, how something is said and not what is said.

Walter Murch and Sara Fgaier

A year of mentoring

After a year of mentoring (Chapter 6 of 6)

October 2013

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

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.

Lyrical essays
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.

Real-life drama
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.