Filmmakers on Film: Randy Thom

In order for film as an art form to advance, those involved with it need to look to the past, and it is astonishing how few film students or young filmmakers have any knowledge of what came before, despite having a limitless amount of films at their fingertips. Thus, I reached out to notable industry members and asked them to recommend one film to film students and young filmmakers and explain their choice in an effort to encourage these young minds to view something new.

Randy Thom has been the Director of Sound Design at Skywalker Sound for 14 years but continues to spend most of his time doing hands-on work designing sound for films. He has been nominated for 15 Oscars and has received two: one for THE RIGHT STUFF and one for THE INCREDIBLES. He has also received the British Academy Award for the sound on THE REVENANT.

The following is an appreciation of THE CONVERSATION by Randy Thom:

Francis Coppola has often started shooting movies without finished scripts. Tricky as it is to get the money and momentum to make a film happen, there is something to be said for plowing ahead, regardless, because money and momentum can disappear as fast as the snap of a slate. Riding high on the success of THE GODFATHER, Francis saw an opportunity to make an art film, and he took it. Paramount funded it, as they had THE GODFATHER, which had only been released a few months before, and they were willing to let Coppola make his little art project as long as he was willing to do a GODFATHER sequel ASAP, which turned out to be a little too ASAP.

THE CONVERSATION is very much Francis Coppola’s film, but it would not have been the film it became without Walter Murch. When Francis had to abandon the movie early in the editing process in order to rush away to begin shooting THE GODFATHER PART II, he handed the loose ends, which had never been resolved in the script, to Walter and asked him to try to figure out how make a movie out of it. Loose ends have never been in more capable hands.

There was no doubt that THE CONVERSATION was about a brilliant and troubled loner engineer who makes a living secretly recording conversations for wealthy businessmen. Also certain was that the story would focus on one particular recording he was hired to make of a young couple talking as they wandered around Union Square in San Francisco. Little else was sure about the way the movie would turn out.

One of the narrative themes in THE CONVERSATION is the unreliability of human perception. Another is the unreliability of... humans. The central character, Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman in what he characterized as the most creatively difficult role of his career, is the best bugger in the business, or maybe just the best bugger on the West Coast. We never learn which, if either, is true, but we do learn that Caul can work some magic with hidden microphones, circuits, and tape recorders. He is able to filter street noise out of an unintelligible recording of a conversation in a busy city square so that only the voices remain, and become devastatingly clear. But, as Murch himself has pointed out, Harry Caul forgets about the most important filter of all: his own preconceptions about those voices.

Preconceptions that cause him to completely misinterpret what is being said. That part of the story was never in the script. It was invented by Murch in post production out of... loose ends.

When I do lectures about film sound I use clips from lots of movies. For a long time I resisted using a clip from THE CONVERSATION because it seemed like a cheat. After all, in a way it’s a movie ABOUT sound. I finally realized that it isn’t about sound at all. It’s about listening, and as I’ve already said, about perception in general. It’s also a wonderful character study of a certain kind of engineer, one who is overwhelmed by the effort to communicate with other people, where he feels he has no control, and who finds comfort in a world he CAN control, the world of microphones and circuits feeding speakers in his vast, mostly empty studio, where few are allowed.

Walter Murch has been the film editor on most of the projects for which he has also supervised the sound. In addition to working miracles in the film editing room, he personally designed the key sound effects for THE CONVERSATION. They are beautiful and beautifully sparse. The same for David Shire’s heartbreakingly lovely solo piano score.

Coppola and Murch worked together on the iconic GODFATHER films and APOCALYPSE NOW, films that reshaped the landscape of moviemaking. Could this small project, THE CONVERSATION, be their best work? In my opinion, yes, it could.


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