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His classmate George Lucas elaborates: "Part of the reason sound flourished in USC had to do with the film school being housed in this building that was big and old and built like army barracks. The screen for the screening room was positioned against a hallway that led out onto a patio where everyone would congregate; the speakers would echo into the hallway and the sound would funnel out into the open space. You knew that if you had a film with a great soundtrack you could draw an audience into the room. Sound was always very important to me; it's probably part of why Walter and I became friends. It was always part of our discussions about films. It was a factor in deciding what films we wanted to make--you'd want to do a certain scene because you could build it around a certain sound."
In 1968, Murch and Lucas both went after the annual Warner Bros. fellowship, which set up the winner as an intern on Warners studio productions. Murch says they made a pact before the final decision that whoever won would give the other guy a hand up. Lucas took the prize, met Coppola on Finian's Rainbow, and then went to work for the dynamic, only-slightly-older filmmaker on The Rain People. He called Murch in the fall of 1968 and asked if he'd cut sound for Coppola. In the middle of 1969, Lucas, Coppola, Murch and their families moved to San Francisco in a convoy. And Coppola installed an expensive sound panel at Zoetrope, first thing.
"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, so that, for example, the "White Limbo" prison had the base sound of a big room with a lot of machines running.
But THX-1138 was a cold dystopia headed for cult status. Next time out, Lucas tried to be more 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 'n' 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 rerecorded it a couple of times in the space between the garage and the house where the film was being edited, in Mill Valley. "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 synch."
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."