VIFF: Talking COUP 53 with Walter Murch

One of the more renowned figures in Film Editing circles is that of Walter Murch. A contemporary of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, Murch got his start in sound mixing in the late 1960s, first hitting the road with Coppola and company on the cross-country drama, The Rain People before moving on to fruitful collaborations with Lucas creating the unique soundscapes on THX 1138 and American Graffiti.

He would soon segue into picture editing with Coppola’s 1974 surveillance thriller, The Conversation which would begin a string of nine Academy Award nominations of which he would win three (two were for editing and sound mixing on The English Patient making him the only person ever to win for doing both on one film).

Never one to settle for routine, Murch has cut a variety of films on an almost equal variety of systems from Moviola, to KEM flatbed, to Avid to Final Cut and most recently on his latest project, Adobe Premiere.

It’s this new documentary Coup 53, that brings Murch to Vancouver. Nearly 10 years in the making (4 1/2 with Murch), the documentary sets out to peel back the curtain on the real story of British involvement behind the 1953 coup in Iran which ousted the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in favour of the Shah monarchy. Combing interviews shot across decades and even re-creating one which could not be located due to likely political interference, the film is a fascinating re-examination of an event of the which the long term effects are only beginning to be understood.

I sat down with Walter Murch during his stay in Vancouver to discuss both this latest project and his long and storied career.

How did you come to be involved with Coup 53?

I met Taghi Amirani, the director in 2012 when I was working in New York editing another documentary, Particle Fever, a very physics-heavy science documentary. It turned out that one of the investors in that project was also an investor in Taghi’s project. 

And so we found ourselves in this man’s apartment at a party together. So we talked physics and film and he was instrumental in helping that film get into the Sheffield Festival. It had been rejected by a number of festivals previous to that.

And so we bonded and when he would come to California to visit people to raise money for his film, he’d stay at our house. One thing lead to another. I was fired off of the film Tomorrowland which I’d been working on for 15 months. I was at loose ends and Taghi and my wife put their heads together and said “We’ll all go to London and work on this historical documentary about the coup.” which I knew something about already. 6-8 months eventually turned into 4 and a half years, so here I am.


Your additional credit as writer as well as you appearing in the film suggest a more intimate involvement with this project.

On Particle Fever, essentially there were no writers credited on that film. But to the extent that an editor on a documentary that has no script is a writer, on this film we decided to call me a writer along with Taghi. It certainly wasn’t planned to have me in the film, but there were developments that had to do with missing footage from a film (End of Empire) that was shot 30 years ago. And so to track down this mysterious MI6 agent required a kind of cinematic forensics. So that’s why the camera comes into the editing room and we start to deal with that reality.


That was a fascinating subplot, trying to track down that lost interview with a key figure in the coup, MI6 agent Norman Derbyshire which unfortunately was never found. At what point was the decision made to re-create the interview with Ralph Fiennes?

In the great scheme of things, I don’t think it was unfortunate. We were trying to find the interview that had been filmed, but then suppressed and we were unsuccessful at doing that. But that lack of success prompted a solution which was to re-create that interview in the same room in which it had been conducted 35 years earlier. And rather than the original guy, we asked Ralph Fiennes to come in and read from the transcript we had discovered. 

So these are the words that the man (Derbyshire) said during the filming, but the film itself has been lost or suppressed or hidden. It may turn up someday which would be another fantastic twist in the story. But in the years we were making the film, we never succeeded breaking through that wall.


It’s a little disconcerting at first, but within minutes, the audience comes to accept him in the role.

Yeah. When we approached him with the idea which was in the summer of 2018, immediately he was interested. But he said “you don’t want me to try to be him.” And we said “No, no, no, you’re just his avatar. You’re gonna be speaking his words, but just wear your street clothes.” He has a beard in the film and this was the beard that he was wearing in his performance as Antony in Antony and Cleopatra at the national theatre which ironically, you can see outside the window of the interview that he’s giving. So it’s as if he took a break from being Antony and he walked across the river to the Savoy Hotel and sat down and became Norman Darbyshire.


So that interview was done in one day?

It was done in two and a half hours in one afternoon. We had a screening in London last Sunday in which Norman Darbyshire’s wife was in the audience. At the end of the film she said “That sounds like the Norman that I know.”


Are there any ongoing efforts to locate the original interview?

I think the film makes some very provocative points about British involvement in the coup in 1953. The film itself might be the crowbar that pries that interview loose from wherever it’s hidden unless it’s been destroyed.


It was just such a fascinating subplot. Who suppressed the interview? Where is it now? Who leaked the interview transcript?

These are at the moment, unanswered questions although at that same screening that I was talking about, John le Carré was in the audience and he knew Norman Darbyshire. Norman was about seven years older than John le Carré and he doesn’t know the particulars of it, but he says it follows the events that are very familiar to him. There would be something called a “D-notice” that says to any media “Don’t allow this material to be screened.” and then Darbyshire himself would be threatened with the loss of his pension and then even jail if he persisted.

So he said agents at that time lived in terror of punishment for speaking out the way Norman Darbyshire did.


Has there been any sort of response to the film from the British government either during production or after the premiere?

No. The film has just come out. It was just screened for the first time in London last week and we expect that there will be some answer, but the policy of the British government regarding the coup in Iran is not to talk about it. Essentially, we don’t talk about those things. That’s it.


I understand this is your first time editing something on Adobe Premiere. Has that been challenging compared to Avid or Final Cut?

Every editing system is a different dialect of the same language. Basically you just have to tune yourself to the different emphasis and the different kinda pronunciations so to speak, that each system does. A nickname for Premiere a couple of years ago was “Final Cut 8” meaning it was the version of Final Cut that would’ve been produced had Apple not decided to abandon Final Cut and move to Final Cut X. So to the extent that I was very familiar with Final Cut, it was an easy shift. You know, there were particular things in Premiere that I learned and that I keep learning. But that’s true of every system, you find new ways of doing things.


What are you hoping audience take away from the film?

The film has to operate on two tracks simultaneously. The one track is to inform people who have no idea what happened; that there was a coup and that there was a democratic Prime Minister that was deposed in a coup in 1953 and this set certain things in motion in the middle east. So it has to be understandable by an audience that’s completely uninformed about these facts. On the other hand, it also has to be interesting to an audience who does know something about it.

So I think particularly the emergence of this shadow that’s been suppressed, Norman Darbyshire, fulfills both of those functions because he speaks very clearly about what happened and what his role was in it because he was directing the coup for the British and had a huge influence on what happened especially at several crucial points where it looked like it was going to fail. But he is not known to people who do know stuff about the coup.

We showed the film to Malcolm Byrne of the National Security Archive who knew the name Norman Darbyshire, but didn’t know the particulars of what he did. At the end of it, he said “Some books are going to have to be rewritten after this film comes out.”

Overall, I think you need to understand a lot of people, especially given the situation at the moment, people need to understand what happened in Iran in 1953 because it set in motion things that are still reverberating to this day. And if you don’t know about it, the events of 1979 seem to come out of nowhere and are more outrageous because of that, like “Why are they doing this?”. Well the answer is the hostage-taking was the result of 25 years of suppression that happened as a result of the coup that happened in 1953. And the anger that many Iranians feel toward the United States was the result of a love that they felt for the United States in the late-1940s and early-1950s under the Truman administration. But that all changed with Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers. That betrayal of emotion is a very powerful mode of force in history.


Shifting to your overall career for a moment. Other than an episode of the animated Clone Wars series, you only have one directing credit to your name which is Return to Oz. Have you ever considered returning to the director’s chair? 

I tried for a few years after Return to Oz, but the failure of that film commercially and critically did not endear me to the people who make decisions in film. I had a couple of projects that I was interested in doing, and no one was interested in doing those, so I stopped after a while. I’m a dad and I have four kids and you can only pursue those kind of things for so long.


Can you elaborate on a few of those projects?

One of them was a story about the conflict between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. And actually, it’s not the same script, but there’s a film called The Current Wars with Benedict Cumberbatch and that’s that story. That was one of them.

The other one was a story set in a kind of reincarnation afterlife Egyptian story.


You mentioned earlier that you had been fired from Disney’s 2015 film Tomorrowland. What happened on that project?

There’s an expression in Chinese warfare where they say “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey”. In this case, I think I was the chicken and (director) Brad Bird was the monkey in that the studio was increasingly unhappy with the film. I don’t know what film they had in mind because they read the screenplay and this was the screenplay (laughs).

But they were unhappy with it. There had been some reshooting done and they were unhappy with how that reshooting worked. And in order to enforce their will, they decided that the editor had to walk the plank. They put in a new editor who was somebody that they had chosen rather than somebody that Brad had chosen.

It happens frequently, especially these days and especially on big budget films. This was like a $150 million movie. So you know, it was very disappointing to me obviously, because I had put a lot of work into the film. The film did not fundamentally change after I left. It got shorter, but we were planning on making it shorter as it was.


That film was largely shot here in BC. Did you do any of the cutting up here?

Like all films, while the film is being shot, you are cutting the film. So I did. As soon as shooting stopped, we moved back down to San Francisco which is where Brad and I live.


You’ve been in this business for decades. Have the changes you’ve seen in post production over the years changed things for better or worse?

Fundamentally, I think it’s still the same as it was. I’ve been working in film for half a century since 1969 and it fundamentally has not changed at all, that aspect of it. It is in general about a year from the time from when the film starts shooting until it’s in the theatres.

With all of the turbulence that’s happened as a result of digital technology, that’s still the same. So digital technology allows you to move faster in some areas, but because of its potential, people want to do things that only digital can do and some of that takes the time that you have saved by going digital in the first place.

The one thing that is really different that not many people think or talk about is that there is no such thing as dailies anymore in the traditional sense. In the old days, you would shoot film. Nobody would see what was on that film, there was no video tap or anything. The exposed film would be sent to the lab, it would be developed, it would be printed. And then the next day at lunch or maybe in the evening, the crew would get together and see what they had shot.

Everyone’s tired, no one really wants to be there, but you have to be there. So it’s a mixture of annoyance and excitement at the same time to go to dailies. And yet in that screening, the only agenda is “let’s look at what we shot yesterday.” And everyone can pick up, as any audience picks up, you pick up what the director is feeling about what was shot, either overtly or wordlessly. And vice-versa, the director picks up the feeling in the room about shots. The heads of departments are all there. It’s a chance to even silently commune with the material.

With digital, there is a video tap and that’s being sent to half a dozen plasma screens all around the set. So everyone’s seeing what the camera is seeing all the time and the illusion is that you’ve seen it. The difference is that you’re seeing it in a chaotic environment and you’re seeing it apart from everyone else. The producers have their own monitor, the makeup department has their own monitor, the camera obviously has their own, the director has his own.


So they’re all looking at their own element essentially.

You’re right, and they’re thinking about what they just did, and they’re thinking about what they have to do next. So they’re not really looking at it with dispassionate observation, which is what happens in dailies. And that’s a huge thing that I think is a much bigger effect than any of the technical differences between film and digital.

Coup 53 screened as part of VIFF and can next be seen in Washington DC at Landmark Cinema, Oct 17 @ 7pm

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