Editor Walter Murch Pieces Together a Key Moment in History

The legendary editor details his decades-long journey of cutting together Coup 53.

Walter Murch is an icon. His influence as a filmmaker goes well beyond his on-screen credits, which are a masterclass of storytelling on their own.

In 2012, Murch met Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani at a party and the two hit it off. Three years later, Murch found himself in London working on a project Amirani was spearheading.

The story centered on a significant day in Iranian historyAugust 19, 1953which marks the climactic moment when MI6/CIA operatives led a coup that toppled Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and reinstalled the Shah.

Why is it significant?

Mosaddegh wanted to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian oil industry which was then run by British Petroleum (BP). The coup was about who would get to control the oil. By replacing Mossadegh, the British and the U.S. could continue to influence the oil-rich country.

The covert action was called Operation Ajax, and after 10 years of exhaustive research, Amirani, with the help of editor Murch, who served as co-writer alongside Amirani, has detailed the historically appalling event in the documentary Coup 53.

“You never know once you start on a project where that project is going to take you,” Murch tells No Film School in an interview over the phone. Financing for the documentary was met with hurdles over its decade long production, with one Hollywood studio even pulling out without saying as to why. But the filmmakers took advantage of the time to dive deeper into the research, which uncovered things that had been hidden for well over 30 years.

Though the story lifts the lid on the secrecy behind what happened, the report on the 1953 coup still remains classified under the British Official Secrets Act. It wasn’t until a found transcript of the 1985 British series End of Empire that filmmakers were able to piece together the events which were influenced by lead MI6 operative Norman Derbyshire, who was purposely cut out of the 14-part series because he openly admitted to the UK’s involvement.

Combining archival footage, interviews, and animation, the documentary is a lesson in representing fact in narrative storytelling. “We were very aware when making the film that it had to work as a film, but it’s also a history document in a very real sense,” says Murch, who used Adobe Premiere Pro for the first time to edit the film. “So we shouldered that responsibility, and at every opportunity, made sure that we had multiple sources for everything that is said and had visuals to back it up. When we ran out of visual backup, we resorted to animation.”

Director Taghi Amirani
Director Taghi Amirani

While accuracy played a critical role, the documentary is still driven by its characters. “Film is a character-driven medium, especially in long-form. When you’re dealing with film, there have to be characters that carry the story,” says Murch.

In Coup 53, Amirani and Murch become very much part of the story and take their places in front of the camera, an idea the editor came across early on in the project. “This is such a contentious story and has been told many times that there is no way to tell it from a God’s point of view,” says Murch. “So you have to ask yourself, who is telling this story and do I care about this person and their perspective?”

Murch was looking at early footage of Amirani visiting the National Security Archive in Washington D.C. where the director finds the file that tells exactly what happened to his country. It’s a scene that’s featured in the documentary. “There was something about that moment and the expression on Taghi’s face that made me think he has to be in this film,” notes Murch. The editor found himself on camera because part of the story is about the history of film and the oppression of a filmed interview. The scenes with Murch also give a glimpse of how he worked with the 532 hours of footage, using different colored note cards plastered on his office walls. 

Ralph Fiennes playing Norman Darbyshire
Ralph Fiennes playing Norman Darbyshire

Working with different formats, including 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, and DV tape, Murch sought a unique way to present the archival footage. Instead of blowing up or reformatting the material for a consistent frame, the editor shifted the talking heads to one side to make it appear as if they were speaking to each other. So if one character was sitting left and looking camera right, the footage would be positioned on the left-hand side, while the person on the right looking camera left would be positioned to the right side of the frame.

The visual motif reaches its climax with the interlaced dialogue between CIA operative Stephen Meade and Norman Darbyshire, whose lines were reenacted by Ray Fiennes because Darbyshire is now deceased.

The idea emerged during the process. “Once you start editing, you start to respond to the material, and you wake up in the middle of the night saying, 'What if you did this or what if you did that.' And these things start to feed off each other. It’s especially rewarding when those techniques help the audience with the story, and in this case, a very complex story that involves people and different foreign languages, names that are difficult to remember, and the history of it all.”

You can watch Coup 53 August 19th, followed by a live Q&A with Walter Murch and Taghi Amirani on August 20th. Details can be found on the Coup 53 website    

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