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Legendary Editor Walter Murch Talks the Physics of 'Particle Fever'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood March 14, 2014 at 2:04PM

Mark Levinson's "Particle Fever" is the first great doc of the year (and let's hope it gets remembered during the next awards season). It's about the ground-breaking, Nobel Prize-winning experiment that helped unravel the nature of existence. Veteran editor/sound designer Walter Murch ("Apocalypse Now"), whose always had a fascination for physics, was brought on to "galvanize" the project but ended up spending a year humanizing this compelling work about the collision of science and art.
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"Particle Fever"
"Particle Fever"

Mark Levinson's "Particle Fever" is the first great doc of the year (and let's hope it gets remembered next awards season). It's about the ground-breaking, Nobel Prize-winning experiment that helped unravel the nature of existence. Veteran editor-sound designer Walter Murch ("Apocalypse Now"), who's always had a fascination for physics, was brought on to "galvanize" the project but ended up spending a year humanizing this compelling work about the collision of science and art.

Walter Murch
Walter Murch

"Particle Fever" follows six leading scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider (built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research from 1998 to 2008). This marked the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in history (costing around $10 billion), with 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries joining forces to recreate conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and find the elusive Higgs boson, the key particle that holds the universe together, potentially explaining the origin of all matter.

"I knew director Mark Levinson for 30 years -- he was an ADR editor but graduated at Berkeley with a doctoral in particle physics in the mid-'80s," Murch recalls. "I grilled him on the string theory of time. I knew from 2007 on that he was working on this film. I kept in touch and he sent me a cut in early 2012 to get my opinion. Then a job fell through and I became available to work on it for three months as a consultant...sifting through 300 hours of footage."

"Particle Fever" is actually quite suspenseful for such a cerebral subject. The arc of the story was clearly "the vicissitudes of the machine." After getting up and running, the Collider suffers a leak and breaks down (that's where Murch decided to sneak in the scientific backstory after gathering invaluable comments from a slew of test screenings). His mandate was to "visceralize" the experience, which he accomplished through pacing, a ticking clock, music and sections that alternate graphics and photography, creating little safe zones within the film.

This article is related to: Particle Fever, Walter Murch, Editing, Immersed In Movies


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.