When Not to Edit, Pt 4: Coppola’s Eavesdropping Camera

Time for another post discussing an instance when a director chose a sustained shot as opposed to a more conventional, edit-filled approach. Today is all about Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the camera in one scene in The Conversation.

My prior examples in this series (Laurel & Hardy’s The Finishing Touch; Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus; and Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) were static shots, with all the movement occurring via the blocking of the actors. Today’s example broadens the scope a little, since the camera does move, yet it’s the way it moves that makes it note-worthy. Coppola does something I call character-driven filmmaking, which is when a character’s emotions dictate the mechanics of the film, such as the editing, the lighting, and, in this case of this entry, the shooting. (I wrote about this before in my post about the editing in Silkwood.)

The Conversation (1974) is about surveillance expert Harry Caul. It’s a 70s character study disguised as paranoid thriller: Harry eavesdrops for a living but, not surprisingly, lives in fear of being watched or even noticed, preferring solitude.

In this scene, which happens early in the film, Harry enters his apartment at the end of the day. He checks his mail, calls his landlady, and takes off his pants. Such a straightforward scene could be shot and cut several different ways, all expanding our understanding of Harry. These possibilities include:

• a handful of medium shots where Harry’s décor is visible in the background, each with Harry in the frame as he walks from room to room
• a dolly shot either in front of him (camera dollying backwards) or behind him, showing only his back; in both cases his décor would be visible on the sides of the frames
• a slightly more esoteric approach: static medium shots or close-ups of parts of his apartment, without Harry in frame

So how does Coppola shoot it? Well, I think when a filmmaker is crafting a scene, he or she needs to constantly ask, “What information does the audience need to know right now?” Here’s how Coppola answers that question…

I love this shit. Coppola’s tableau is wide and sparse. Harry lives simply, so the director foregoes showing us his apartment in detail and instead lets the camera behave as an extension of Harry’s state-of-mind, which is one of surveillance. In fact, the first time he leaves the frame, he appears to be consciously trying to get away from the camera.

Gratefully, Francis Ford Coppola did an audio commentary for this film, so I can let him speak for himself. Here’s a minute-long clip of his explanation of this shot and its style:

Couldn’t be much clearer than that, could he? It’s nice to hear him say that, but, truthfully, when I first saw this film in the 80s, it was crystal clear to me.

(For what it’s worth, I think the lone CU in the scene—a generic birthday card from his bank—is so sad it only reinforces our understanding of Harry’s isolation. Instead of showing us one of Harry’s personal belongings, Coppola shows us the exact opposite: what could be more impersonal than a form birthday card?)

Obviously, such a self-conscious shot could be perceived as gimmicky, but if you haven’t seen the film, believe me: Coppola successfully uses this style for maximum effect, abetted enormously by Gene Hackman’s performance.

I could go on and on about this film—I freakin’ love it—but I’ll leave it at that. However, if you’re interested in a great essay about The Conversation, I recommend this post at Precious Bodily Fluids.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Director Tod Browning thinks freaks work best without too many edits.
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By the way, the DVD for The Conversation is unique: It not only has a full-length commentary by the director, it has one by the editor. Why? you ask.

Those familiar with the history of this film are aware of the uncomfortable relationship between Coppola and editor Walter Murch. The director had to leave the project prematurely (to begin pre-production onThe Godfather, Part 2) and left a good deal of The Conversation in the hands of the editor. Murch’s changes to the structure of the film were radical enough for some to claim he saved the picture, and it seems it’s been a sore spot for both men ever since. Case in point: for the aforementioned DVD, they each say surprisingly little about the other’s input on the film.

Anyway, I had planned the second half of this post to dissect that seemingly rocky relationship, but, alas, that will have to wait for another post.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “When Not to Edit, Pt 4: Coppola’s Eavesdropping Camera

  1. MW

    Wow, didn’t know that about Murch and Coppola…kinda sad considering what they did for the other’s career (and hell, Murch came back and worked with Coppola on “Apocalypse Now”).

    • I don’t doubt there’s mutual respect and even friendship–I just think this one film is a touchy subject. And even at that, I think it’s mostly inferred by the general public; I strongly doubt either of them ever has talked trash about the other. But if you can stand listening to 2 full-length commentaries for the same film (I know few who do), there’s a lot that’s NOT said.

      • Jansen

        That’s some fascinating s@#t indeed. Also one of my faves. Murch is a legend. Never knew he finished this film. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. I’m sure you’ve read his book “In the Blink of an Eye” where he talks at length about Hackmans performance in this film and how he(Murch) began to realize that he was often cutting at exactly the moment that Hackman would blink (hence the title ) He realized it was sort of an emotional period to an acting sentence that they were both feeling.
        Have you ever seen THX1138? George Lucas first film. Produced by Coppola with a screenplay by Murch, and editing and sound montages by Murch. Sadly, George did what he can’t seem to help doing and did an elaborate digital “fix” of the film. This is the current DVD version. It kinda ruins the film in a lot of ways. I have the original version on laserdisc. If you’re interested I’ll make a copy for you.

      • Maybe I’m being a reactionary, but I’ve never been crazy about Murch’s writing. I’ve always been partial to Ralph Rosenblum’s book When the Shooting Stops…, not that it has to be an either/or situation.

        I’m not a fan of TXH1138, though I appreciate the offer. On the other hand, I did find this awesome video about Lucas’s intelligent low-budget filmmaking. It’s exclusively about that film. Here’s the link: http://vimeo.com/5980198.

  2. Jansen

    Wow, how do you find this stuff? That was a wonderful breakdown of everything I love about that film. The essayists point about how Lucas goes just the opposite way now is very true. Sadly, his “Digital Fix” of this film sabotages that very documentary feel of the original which gives it much of it’s power. Also Murch is a genius editor. It’s clear that Lucas always wanted to do more exactly what was in his mind but because of limited technology or budget he came up with photographic and editing short cuts, that end up being strengths. There are some Director’s who do just fine with a massive budget and getting exactly what they want, but so many do more interesting things when limitation force the to think creatively to solve the problem instead.

    His fixes rob the film of it’s documentary realisim.

    here’s comparisons of original and fixes.

  3. Pingback: When Not to Edit, Pt 5: The Kissy Face Workaround « Peel Slowly

  4. Pingback: When Not to Edit, Pt 6: Kubrick’s Breath Control « Peel Slowly

  5. Derick

    I can think of three other examples that really made me think differently about filmmaking…
    One also by Coppola, and the other two by Scorsese.
    The Godfather. The very first, opening scene. We open with an extreme closeup of the undertaker telling the story of the abuse of his daughter, and requesting the help of Don Corleone. As he tells his story, the camera takes a full 2 minutes to pull back and reveal the rear-quarter profile (out of focus) of the Don. This slow camera move is almost imperceptible. But it allows us to stay focused on the story, as the Don would be, but only at the end do we realize we are not POV of the Don listening to the story, but witnessing the exchange over his shoulder. Brilliant move to shoot, and NOT edit that moment..

    The two that come to mind are in the film Taxi Driver. Again, the opening scene in the cabbie garage. That slow, rotating continuous shot with Travis leaving the shot – the camera actually leaves the primary subject of the film to focus attention fully on the surroundings. It then picks he back up completing the rotating pan and bringing our attention back to the protagonist, and thus the emerging story itself.
    Later in the move, in the late-night diner, as the people are talking at the table, Travis drops Alka-Seltzer into the glass of water. The camera holds on the POV of Travis staring into the glass – obviously we become Travis, thoughts traveling off into the distance by diving deeper into the glass of effervescence. The first time I saw this, all I could think was, “what do I need to be staring at this stupid glass of nothing going on when there’s obviously a whole conversation going on that I should be listening to, right?”
    It wasn’t until I understood that the whole of what we were experiencing was the deepening darkness and separation from ‘normal’ reality of this tortured, troubled mind. Then I thought back to that Alka-Seltzer. “THAT’S why! They didn’t forget to cut back to the conversation. We are supposed to experience the drifting off away from the surrounding reality!”
    So many, many brilliant works of art assembled into one unbelievably astounding piece of work.

    Cool blog, by the way…

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