Masterclass With Murch: How Sound Design Defines Michael Corleone's Transition In 'The Godfather'!

By Aditya Savnal. Posted on May 06, 2016

Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is a film which we love and revere for various reasons. Be it Coppola's assured direction, the gripping screenplay which does a fantastic adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino's performances, Gordon Willis' cinematography or Walter Murch's editing, the film is an accomplishment on various levels and there's a lot filmmakers can learn from it.

We came across this excerpt from the book The Conversations: Walter Murch And The Art Of Editing Film in which Murch speaks to writer Michael Ondaatje about the scene in which Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) guns down Sollozzo and McCluskey, the people who get Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) killed and marks Michael's transition from an innocent and reluctant family man to a powerful mafia boss.

Republished below are excerpts from the same.

The book is a must read for those interested in filmmaking. Click here to order your copy of the book through Amazon and click here to order it through Flipkart.

Michael Ondaatje: I'm intrigued by what you call "metaphorical sound" ... the idea of emphasizing the visual by artificially focusing on a possibility disjointed or unrealistic layer of sound. Especially because there's also, simultaneously such "authenticity" in the sounds you use in your films. You've described this as "the re-association of image and sound in different contexts." How did you first become conscious of the possibilities of this?

Walter Murch: I remember Roman Polanski coming to my film school, USC, in '66. He talked quite passionately about sound, but he talked about it in terms of celebrating the authenticity of the sound itself . An example he used was the drip of a faucet and what that tells you about a person, about the apartment they live in, about their relationship to many other things. The fact that drip is there says many different things. I agreed with that.

It's always a balance for me, between something being authentic, and celebrating that authenticity, and yet at the same time trying to push the sound into other metaphorical areas. Think of the screech of the elevated subway train in The Godfather when Michael Corleone murders Sollozzo and the policeman, Captain McCluskey, in the Italian restaurant. It's an authentic sound because it's a real subway train and because it seems authentic to that neighbourhood of the Bronx, where the restaurant is located. We don't wonder what the sound is, because we've seen so many films set in the Bronx where that sound is pervasive.

But it's metaphorical, in that we've never established the train tracks and the sound is played abnormally loud that it doesn't match what we're looking at objectively. For a sound that loud, the camera should be lying on the train tracks.

In the restaurant scene in The Godfather, the wine bottle being uncorked was the only sound in a tense moment.

Michael Ondaatje: I was watching that scene again recently, and what's wonderful about it also is that begins with the intimate noise of a cork being twisted out of a wine bottle. It's such a perverse celebration of a minor detail at a tense point, that bottle being uncorked at the start of the fatal meal ... and about four minutes later, there's the manic, screaming train sound and a double shooting.

Walter Murch: That was very deliberately done, to make you pay attention to a tiny realistic sound and then have an overwhelming sound that you have to interpret in a different way - all on a subconscious level.

Michael Ondaatje: And after the gunshots you get opera! It's like the sequence has three or four musical acts. The whole composition of the scene is remarkable.

Walter Murch: Another element in that scene is Francis's use of Italian without subtitles. It's very bold, even today, to have an extended scene between two main characters in an English-language film speaking another language with no translation. As a result you're paying much more attention to how things are said and the body language being used, and you're perceiving things in a very different way. You're listening to the sound of the language, not the meaning.

Michael Ondaatje: What was the word you used last night? Not aphasic but ...

Walter Murch: Yes, that's it: aphasic. You don't know what they're saying, so the only way to understand what the scene is about is to watch how they say it, through the tone of the voice and their body language. The sound exercises the mind in much more complex ways than appear on the surface of the scene, which is otherwise just a dialogue scene between three people. The use of unsubtitled Italian is making you pay attention to sound, setting you up for what is about to happen.

Michael Ondaatje: We are a limited viewer. We're not being told everything.

Walter Murch: And also all this is predicted on Francis's decision not to have music  during the scene. In the hands of another filmmaker, there would be tension music percolating under the surface. But Francis wanted to save everything for those big chords after Michael's dropped the gun. Even after he shoots, there's silence, and in your mind you hear Clemenza saying, "Remember, drop the gun. Everyone will be looking at the gun, so they won't look at your face." So Michael shoots them and then there's this moment of silence and then he drops the gun.

Michael Ondaatje: He doesn't even drop it, he tosses it! It's a much more extraordinary gesture than a subtle drop.

Walter Murch: Yeah, it's as if to say" Look at this gun! The gun hits the ground, and then the music finally comes in. It's a classic example for me of the correct use of music, which is a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than the device that creates the emotion. Music in The Godfather is always almost used in this way. I think in the long run this approach generates emotions that are truer because they come out of your direct contact with the scene itself, and your won feelings about the scene- not feelings dictated by a certain kind of music. The Godfather is a good film to study for its use of music.

Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids. There's no question that you can induce a certain emotion with music - just like steroids build up muscle. It gives you an edge, it gives you a speed, but it's unhealthy for the organism in the long run.

So after being plunged into that astonished silence before the gun is dropped, the audience is confused emotionally. Is Michael a bad guy? A good guy? Here's somebody who has done the very thing he said he wouldn't' do, which is to work for the family. Are we going to watch this Kennedyish character now trample over the ideals he espoused at the beginning.

Michael Ondaatje: So the music comes in to guide us out of the scene....

Walter Murch: The music at that point says, This is an operatic moment. Michael is a character in an opera. Young, idealistic,   now of his own  volition going deep into the centre of the darkness and doing the thing that none of the other family members can do- he's sacrificing his own innocence. Because everyone knows him to be an innocent - the police, the other mob families. This kid is the last person Sollozzo or McCluskey would expect to pull out a gun and kill them. So Michael trades in his innocence and commits these murders in order - he believes - to save the family. In the previous scene, where Tom Hagen and Sonny and Clemenza and Tessio are sitting around talking about what to do, nobody suggests, Let's kill them both. In fact when Michael says it, they laugh: This is crazy! You can't kill a police captain in the middle of New York! But Michael, uncoiling the power of his will -which has lain dormant- explains in that wonderful scene where the camera moves in on him, slowly, how he's going to do it, and you see a kind of snake unfurling out of this Ivy League character, a snake that will remain draped around his neck for the of the film. And in the subsequent Godfather films as well.


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