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Love and War and Waveforms: Walter Murch Heads to the Front Line for 'Hemingway & Gellhorn'

Director Philip Kaufman has a talent for telling a good story against the backdrop of history. The Right Stuff (covering the United States’ race to space in the 1950s and ’60s) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague) made their marks, and the latest, Hemingway & Gellhorn, continues the trend.

Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn and Clive Owen as Ernest Hemingway.

Conceived as a theatrical film but ultimately completed as a made-for-HBO feature, Hemingway & Gellhorn chronicles the short and tempestuous relationship between Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman). The two met in 1936 in Key West, traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War and were married in 1940. They lived in Havana and after four years of a difficult relationship were divorced in 1945. During her 60-year career as a journalist, Gellhorn was recognized as one of the best war correspondents of the last century. She covered nearly every conflict up to and including the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.

The film also paired another team, Kaufman and film editor Walter Murch, who had last teamed up for The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). I spoke with Walter Murch upon his return from the screening of Hemingway & Gellhorn at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Murch commented on the similarities of these projects: “I’ve always been attracted to the intersection of history and drama. I hadn’t worked with Phil since the 1980s, so I enjoyed tackling another film together, but I was also really interested in the subject matter. When we started, I really didn’t know that much about Martha Gellhorn. I had heard the name, but that was about it. Like most folks, I knew the legend and myth of Hemingway, but not really many of the details of him as a person.”
 

Editor Walter Murch's edit suite.

This has been Murch’s first project destined for TV rather than theaters. He continues, “Although it’s an HBO film, we never treated it as anything other than a feature film, except that our total schedule, including shooting, was about six months long instead of ten or more months. In fact, seeing the film in Cannes with an audience of 2,500 was very rewarding. It was the first time we had actually screened in front of a theatrical audience that large. During post we had a few ‘friends and family’ screenings, but never anything with a formal preview audience. That’s standard procedure with the film studios, of course. I’m not sure what HBO’s plans are for Hemingway & Gellhorn beyond the HBO channels. Often some of their films make it into theatrical distribution in countries where HBO doesn’t have a cable TV presence.”

Hemingway & Gellhorn was produced entirely in the San Francisco Bay area, even though it is a period film and none of the story takes place there. All visual effects were done by Tippett Studio, supervised by Christopher Morley. Effects work included placing the actors into scenes using real archival footage. Murch explains, “We had done something similar in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The technology has greatly improved since then, and we were able to do things that would have been impossible in 1986.

Scene cards pasted on the wall during the edit of Hemingway & Gellhorn.

“The archival film footage quality was vastly different from the ARRI Alexa footage used for principal photography,” Murch continues. “The screenplay was conceived as alternating between grainless color and grainy monochrome scenes to juxtapose the intimate events in the lives of Hemingway and Gellhorn with their presence on the world stage at historical events. So it was always intended for effect rather than trying to convince the audience that there was a completely continuous reality. As we got into editing, Phil started to play with color, using different tinting for the various locations. One place might be more yellow and another cool or green, and so on. We were trying to be true to the reality of these people, but the film also has to be dramatic. Plus, Phil likes to have fun with the characters. There must be balance, so you have to find the right proportion for these elements.”

The task of finding the archival footage fell to Rob Bonz, who started a year before shooting began. Murch explains, “An advantage you have today that we didn’t have in the ’80s is YouTube. A lot of these clips exist online, so it’s easier to research what options you might have. Of course, then you have to find the highest quality version of what you’ve seen online. In the case of the events in Hemingway & Gellhorn, these took place all over the world, so Rob and his researchers were calling all kinds of sources, including film labs in Cuba, Spain and Russia that might still have some of these original nitrate materials.”

Walter Murch’s Final Cut Pro 7 timeline for Hemingway & Gellhorn. Fifty tracks of audio are used to separate narration, sound effects, music and premixes. Twenty-two tracks of video are used to divide material by codec and content, such as Alexa original footage and various archival sources.

This was Murch’s first experience working on a film recorded using an ARRI Alexa. Rogier Stoffers served as the film’s director of photography. The production recorded 3K ARRIRAW files to a Codex recorder, and then it was the editorial team’s responsibility to convert these files for various destinations, including ProRes LT (1280 x 720) for the edit, H.264 for HBO review and DPX sequences for DI.
 
Murch was quite happy with the Alexa’s image. He says, “Since these were 3K frames, we were able to really take advantage of the size for repositioning. I got so used to doing that with digital images, starting with Youth Without Youth, that it’s now just second nature. The Alexa has great dynamic range and the image held up well to subtle zooms and frame divisions. Most repositionings and enlargements were on the order of 125 percent to 145 percent, but there’s one blow-up at 350 percent of normal.”

In addition to Bonz, the editorial team included Murch’s son Walter (first assistant editor) and David Cerf (apprentice). Walter Murch is a big proponent of using FileMaker Pro for his film editor’s code book and explained some of the changes on this film. “Dave [Cerf] really handled most of the FileMaker jiu-jitsu. It works well with XML, so we were able to go back and forth between FileMaker Pro and [Apple] Final Cut Pro 7 using XML. This time our script supervisor, Virginia McCarthy, was using ScriptE, which also does a handshake with FileMaker, so her notes could be instantly integrated into our database. Then we could use this information to drive an action in Final Cut Pro—for instance, the assembly of dailies reels. FileMaker would organize the information about yesterday’s shooting, and then an XML out of that data would trigger an assembly in Final Cut, inserting graphics and text as needed in between shots. In the other direction, we would create visibility-disabled slugs on a dedicated video track, tagged with scene information about the clips in the video tracks below. Outputting XML from Final Cut would create an instantaneous continuity list with time markers in FileMaker.”

The film editor’s “code book” takes on an electronic form through Murch’s comprehensive use of FileMaker Pro. This image represents all relationships to any individual shot in the database.

The way Walter Murch organizes his work is a good fit for Final Cut Pro 7, which he used on Hemingway & Gellhorn and continues to use on a current documentary project. In fact, at a Boston FCP user gathering, Murch showed one of the most elaborate screen grabs of an FCP timeline that you can imagine. He takes full advantage of the track structure to incorporate temporary sound effects and music cues, as well as updated final music and effects.

Another trick he mentioned to me was something he referred to as a QuickTime skin. Murch continues, “I edit with the complete movie on the timeline, not in reels, so I always have the full cut in front of me. I started using this simple QuickTime skin technique with Tetro. First I export the timeline as a self-contained QuickTime file and then re-import the visual. This is placed on the uppermost video track, effectively hiding everything below. As such, it’s like a ‘skin’ that wraps the clips below it, so the computer doesn’t ‘see’ them when you scroll back and forth. The visual information is now all in one location on a hard drive, so the system isn’t bogged down with unrendered files and other clutter. When you make changes, you ‘razor-blade’ through the QuickTime and pull back the skin, revealing the ‘internal organs’ [the clips that you want to revise] below, thus making changes like a surgeon. Working this way also gives a quick visual overview of where you’ve made changes. You can instantly see where the skin has been ‘broken’ and how extensive the changes were. It’s the visual equivalent of a change list. After a couple of weeks of cutting, on average, I make a new QuickTime and start the process over.”

Murch is currently working on a feature documentary, Particle Fever, about CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. Murch, in his many presentations and discussions on editing, considers the art part plumbing (knowing the workflow), part performance (instinctively feeling the rhythm and knowing, in a musical sense, when to cut) and part writing (building and then modifying the story through different combinations of picture and sound). Editing a documentary is certainly a great example of the editor as writer. His starting point is 300 hours of material following three theorists and three experimentalists over a four-year period, including the catastrophic failure of the particle accelerator nine days after it was turned on for the first time. Murch, who has always held a love and fascination for the sciences, is once again at that intersection of history and drama.