Since I am in the middle of late-stage edits of my novel and because I am also writing an essay on adapting fiction into film, I recently revisited one of my favorite books on art-making, The Conversations, a fascinating dialogue between writer Michael Ondaatje and Walter Murch, the rennaissance editor who worked on, among many other masterpieces, the film version of Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Ondaatje and Murch ruminate on many subjects, from Buddhism to silence to mortality, but what becomes clear is that the film editor and the novelist are both primarily occupied with a similar grammar of story, of what to say and what not to say, of how to cut, smooth, and juxtapose so that truth is revealed. The old adage that fiction and film are fundamentally different because you must show everything on the screen is exploded here—much of Murch’s work happens out of frame, through tiny sonic and associative gestures that evoke electrical signals in the viewer’s subconscious. As a character bites into a plum, a distant church bell can be heard (or not heard by most), signaling a memory that will materialize several minutes later.
While unpacking many of Murch’s moves in movies like The Godfather series, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now (the original and Redux), the book also provides a beautiful portrait of how an artist came to be. Murch recalls first seeing Bergman’s The Seventh Seal in New York City when he was fifteen:
“The Seventh Seal was the film where I suddenly understood the concept that somebody made this film, and there were a series of decisions that could have been different if someone else had made the film…When you’re younger than [fifteen] movies just kind of happen to you. You look at them the way you look at a landscape. When you ask a ten-year-old, “What did you think of that movie?” it’s a little like asking, “What did you think of that forest?” He may like it or not but he doesn’t readily imagine that it could be any way other than it is. Of course buried in that realization that somebody made this film is the corollary that I could make a film…”
I have long said that the editing process is the real writing process, where the story actually becomes true, where the magic of a novel or movie crystallizes into something greater that itself. Late-stage editing is the time when I am most aware of being a writer…the messy act of creation was more like swimming in a vast and unnamable sea, but now I am in the boat, sails unfurled, following a directional heading. And scrutinizing all these little choices, four years deep into a project, ensconced in a fertile, impossible world of one’s own creation, these are the moments when I marvel at both the strangeness of the human mind as well as our capacity for great belief in everything which is not.