By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Walter, George, and I always thought that sound, when you take advantage of it, is 50 percent of the movie," says Coppola. "It operates in extremely subtle ways. I like to borrow a phrase from Jim Morrison: He said music is your special friend, but to a filmmaker sound is your special friend. It's incredibly inexpensive considering the effects you can get with it. Whenever I see the 'sound design by' credit I chuckle to myself, because Walter and I concocted that credit for him partly because he wasn't in the sound union. And he was performing a function no previous job description would fit, creating a tapestry of sound, one that supports a picture more than literal or even atmospheric sound effects."
Lucas says that just when he was ready to give up on expanding his student film, then known as THX 1138:4EB, into a feature, Murch pitched in on the script and later cut the sound while Lucas was cutting the picture--"not," notes Lucas, "the way things usually were done" but true to the film-school spirit of complete collaboration among total filmmakers. Lucas wanted a "musical" approach to sound in that movie, and Murch now refers to what they came up with as a "Dagwood sandwich of sound and music with no clear split between them." Murch lifted tracks off records, slowed them down, sped them up, played them backward; he gave every section of the film's futuristic world its own aural signature.
But THX 1138 was a cold dystopia headed for cult status. Next time out, Lucas tried to be more accessible. He mounted a paean to pre-'63 teen culture called American Graffiti. It was a pop explosion and an airball jamboree. "We wanted the sound to be naturalistic in its effect but abstract in its placement," explains Lucas. "I wanted the music off the car radios to melt into the night. It was designed to be the opposite of most movies, where the sound effects carry the action, and the music is used for the most intense, dramatic moments. In American Graffiti the music would be constant, and the sound effects would carry only a few scenes."
Lucas and Murch initially produced the movie's Wolfman Jack broadcast in a studio--two hours of an old-time rock-and-roll radio show, with introductions, commercials, music, and call-ins. But that was "clean." So they clamped that tape on a Nagra tape recorder, with a portable speaker, and re-recorded it a couple of times in the space between the garage and the house where the film was being edited. "George held that speaker and would slowly move it from side to side," Murch recalls. "I stood about 50, 75 feet away with another tape recorder and a microphone and did the same thing. The goal was for us to be only occasionally--if at all--in sync."
Because of Murch's dexterous mix of the clean and airball tracks, the movie had an effervescence that got audiences giggly and euphoric. "Depending on what I was looking at, and what the dialogue was, and what we felt was right, I could feature both of the airball tracks, in which case what you got was a musical mist--but with movement in it, because the sources were moving," Murch adds. "So you feel that wherever this sound is coming from, it's sort of swinging through the town, coming out of all these cars; and then at the end of a scene, when people had finished talking and you just wanted music, you could suppress these two tracks and push up the 'dry' track and you'd have thumping rock and roll."
Even the film's toughest critic, Pauline Kael, noted in The New Yorker, "The old-rock nostalgia catches the audience up before the movie even gets going." But Universal executive Ned Tanen refused to acknowledge its appeal when he attended a fabled preview in San Francisco. Coppola, the film's producer, angered by Tanen's reaction and flush from The Godfather, offered to buy the negative. The studio opened the film small and spread it wide only after it sparked a sensation. The mass audience responded viscerally and transformed the anemically budgeted youth flick into a commercial and cultural phenomenon.
The point of airballing was to keep the soundtrack unpredictable and alive. Although that helped make American Graffiti a megahit in 1973, Murch surmises that it got Welles in trouble with his proto-airballing in Touch of Evil just 15 years earlier. "People in studios still have a hard time with that concept: 'You pay for an actor's face, why aren't you lighting the face? I paid for it, I want to see beautiful things.' So in sound, what Welles was doing was paying for a beautiful thing and then lousing it up. They just didn't get it. In the art direction he got newspapers blowing everywhere, he put together a very gritty, stained look, and he wanted the sound of the film to have the same staining."
In 1957 Orson Welles was only 42, but he already needed a second chance. In his 20s he lit up New York theater with a Euro-fascist Julius Caesar and a voodoo Macbeth and irradiated the airwaves with his you-are-there radiocast of War of the Worlds. Descending on Hollywood with plans to film a slate of ambitious properties at RKO, including Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Welles received unique acclaim for his picture-making debut, Citizen Kane (1941). Unfortunately, theater owners were too scared of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, the film's semi-disguised subject, to back it solidly.