Retouching Evil

Using Detailed instructions left by Orson Welles, top film editor Walter Murch has remade "The Best b-Movie ever" -- Welles' Touch of Evil

And if Caul keeps a brittle distance from his co-workers, Murch fosters a spirited collegiality. Pat Jackson, Murch's most frequent collaborator, had worked on documentaries when she got her first feature job synching dailies on The Conversation. She chalks up Murch's openness to his "supreme self-confidence and artistic generosity. He's not micromanaging. His antennae are so out for what will work for the movie, he makes people rise to do their best. He was making the transition from mixing American Graffiti to cutting The Conversation, and he was perfectly willing to let me cut a scene. I was tied into knots, because I wanted it to be perfect, and he was still busy mixing. I'd anguish over every cut, and he'd say, 'Get out of here! It will be fine, and if it's not, we'll fix it.' That was totally liberating to a novice."

The respect and loyalty Murch commands buttressed him during the arduous mid-'80s production of Return to Oz. This dark, nonmusical sequel to The Wizard of Oz situates Dorothy in a stark, ravaged Kansas straight out of Wisconsin Death Trip. A frightful 19th-century-looking electro-shock gadget dominates the opening sequence, and even Oz has succumbed to depression under the rule of the Nome King. Yet the movie is oddly haunting. The effects have a handmade (not hand-me-down) quality. Marvelous characters, like the mechanical man named Tik Tok or the makeshift creature called the Gump, reflect in a funhouse mirror Murch's fascination for the intersection between the mechanical (or the inanimate) and the natural (or animated).

Piper Laurie, who plays Auntie Em, remembers Murch being "a dear, patient, extremely intelligent gentleman, who seemed to know exactly what he wanted and was definitely his father's son." Indeed, Murch's father, also named Walter Murch, is one of the key influences on Return to Oz; he was a modernist painter celebrated for bringing an intense atmosphere to objects and for suggesting the hidden life of machines.

Late in June, I visited the Murch family manse, Blackberry Farm, in the rural Bay-area shoreline town of Bolinas; its clean, Shakerlike beauty once inspired Kaufman to dub it "the First Church of Walter Murch." Chickens were racing and gobbling through the backyard (Oz features Billina, the talking hen), and the horse barn next door contained not just Murch's office suite but a piece of the Nome King and the door of the electro-shock specialist Dr. Worley.

But if Return to Oz is always close to Murch, making it for Disney was not an experience he'd like to repeat. To Laurie, "He knew the rhythm of things, the pace, how fast things should move, how fast the buggy I was driving should get around the corner. That's not to say there wasn't 'heart' there, it's just that, unlike most directors, he had a really magnificent, detailed understanding of the mechanics." But when she returned to the set after a two-week break in Scotland, "the limo driver who picked me up and drove me to the set said, 'You don't know what's been going on.' When I arrived on the set, he was still working, but sitting in directors' chairs were Lucas, Coppola, and some other director for whom he had done such brilliant work. They weren't even watching what he was doing, they were just chatting amongst themselves. When I found out that they flew over just to support him, I was so moved."

Murch's ordeal was comparable to Coppola's on The Godfather: Between the time Murch made the deal and the time he made the movie, Disney had changed hands, and the new executives disliked the dailies, looked askance at Murch's modus operandi, and panicked over any spike in the budget. In a push to speed up the production (at a studio in England), the first assistant director and cinematographer were fired, others hired; and a studio watchdog replaced the original producer. Finally, Disney decided that Murch would be fired too. But Lucas got wind of the move. And though he was on a publicity tour in Japan for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, he swung into action. As he remembers it, "I called Disney and was told they had shut down the picture. I told them they didn't want to do that--you should never shut down a picture anyway, but if you do, you should do it on a Friday, not a Wednesday. They did continue the picture to the weekend. I flew to London and met with the Disney executive, who was already there, and told him I'd act as an executive producer myself. Things got back on track."

The studio-scarred Coppola, with a subconscious echo of The Conversation's signature line, says, "[Walter] was surrounded by detractors, and he didn't have the natural political instincts to kill them before they kill you."

After the sabotage of Touch of Evil, Welles re-entered vagabondage, making movies all over the world while aching to return to Hollywood. After the crucible of Return to Oz, Murch drew sustenance from his family in Bolinas (and from co-workers who were as loyal as family). He met Aggie in England in 1964, and they married in New York in 1965. He and Aggie have raised a son, Walter, and a daughter, Beatrice, and two foster children, sisters Carrie and Connie Angland, who became members of the family and went into the movies themselves: Carrie as a makeup artist and Connie as a puppeteer.

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