Locarno: Oscar Winner Walter Murch Pays Tribute to 'A Conversation'

Locarno Film Festival
Walter Murch

The triple Oscar winner recreates the Francis Ford Coppola classic through sound.

Walter Murch, the triple Oscar-winning editor and sound designer, received a lifetime achievement Vision Award at Locarno Film Festival on Thursday. Murch not only paved the way for modern day sound design, but he even coined the term.

His achievements in the audio-visual arts span his two loves of sound and film editing. The frequent collaborator of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, Murch was awarded Oscars for best sound for Apocalypse Now, and best sound and best film editing for The English Patient.

But his first nomination came in 1975 as sound designer on Coppola’s The Conversation. In the landmark psychological thriller (which lost the best picture Oscar that year to Coppola’s The Godfather Part II), Gene Hackman starred as a surveillance expert, Harry Caul, whose recordings reveal a potential murder. The use of sound played a role in the film unlike any before, and became a study used in film schools for decades to come.

In Locarno, Murch paid tribute to the film, speaking overlooking the Piazza Grande, similar to the film’s opening in Union Square in San Francisco where clever editing lets the audience mistake an eavesdropper for a sniper. Next he entered a loft underneath with an echoing boom, reminiscent to Harry Caul’s warehouse, and plays with the recording in homage to sound editor Frank Warner (Raging Bull, Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

"He had a very large tape library of sounds and when he was getting ready to do a film, he would pick reels of sound at random," said Murch of his fellow editor Warner. "And then he would play, just as I was doing, fast forward and then stop."

And yet despite how good the results were, they were never recycled. "And then when the film was done he would destroy everything so nobody, including himself, would use those sounds again," said Murch. "This is like the cook serving up the same dish twice in a row to the same clients at the restaurant. You always want to be unique."

Murch is also the editor of the quintessential book on film editing In the Blink of an Eye.

Past recipients of the Locarno Vision Award include special effects guru Douglas Trumbell, and last year’s Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown.