That’s My Squeak
Walter Murch on the soundscapes to George Lucas’s dystopian debut, THX 1138
interview by Dave Tompkins
illustration by Optigram
I grew up watching George Lucas’s 1971 sci-fi film, THX 1138, in fragments, switching from Saturday cartoons to a narcotised underground world dictated by computers and, possibly, an iguana. Often aired in the morning, THX was the anti-Saturday movie. The whiteout sets were suffocating and there was no outdoors, just the Superstructure. It was easy to lose your day in the film’s nothingness, a world of holograms, bald human blanks, and ‘unassigned spaces’. There were cordial, chrome-faced police officers (inspiring a Captain Beyond gatefold) and a dwarf who favoured Charles Manson. In this medicated, push-button future, ‘drug evasion’ was a crime, as was sex and food fighting.
As a child, I never gave the movie a proper listen — I just figured that the mumbling somehow led to a car chase. I didn’t dream that a piercing beam of noise could have its own title: ‘The Mindlock Theme’. The only sound I remembered was the ending, when Robert Duvall’s THX character emerged from a manhole and into a sunset that was caught somewhere between the end of the world and the start of Saturday chores, his first light being the day’s last, all while drowning in J.S. Bach. The transition was not easy. I’d leave the TV and stumble into blind noon and start mowing the lawn, chewing up pine cones and gumballs with the St Matthew Passion still blaring in my head. What did THX end up doing with all of his newly-acquired fresh air?
Originally a George Lucas college project while attending USC in 1967, THX would be stewarded by Francis Ford Coppola and receive a theatrical release in the spring of 1971, accompanied by posters that instructed: ‘The Future is here… Stay calm’. In 2004, I interviewed THX’s screenwriter and editor, Walter Murch, mainly focusing on the sound — from Lalo Schifrin’s score, to the disembodied voices that told us, ‘The theatre of noise is proof of our potential’. I learned that God was a black funeral director from Oakland, and the wookie was from Texas. The lizard, of course, was on purpose.
DT — The first ten minutes of the film, inside the control room, is all intercom and push-button voices.
WM — The proliferation of recorded voices, telling you to do things, was beginning to happen. We were making that more extreme, making a whole society that functioned at that level. There was very little interpersonal communication at all. Everything was done through intercoms and electronic filters of some kind. If you can find the digital waveform of music and subtract that waveform from itself, you’re left with anything that’s not that music, which presumably would be the voice.
One of my favourites was, ‘A libido leveller has been mislaid near the pulse-levelling gate’.
That was a mixture of stuff that George and I came up with writing the screenplay. In the late 60s, the world was full of psycho-babble. We got an improvisational group from San Francisco called The Committee and sat them around a table and gave them a few of these lines as examples of the way people talked in this world. That’s where the phrase ‘wookie’ came from — an improv line that one of the actors came up with, a guy from Texas named Ralph Wookie. He’s the driver of one of the cars and you can hear it in his intercom: ‘Hey — I think I ran over something. I think I ran over a wookie back there.’
The part where Duvall gets brainlocked while being forced into all these different positions. The voice from the console asks, ‘What’s the real dope on those cortex bonds?’
We set these two guys up, also from The Committee, at the console. Imagine that you’re teaching this other fella the console. Imagine that somebody is attached to this console but you don’t really care what happens to that person. We seeded them with a few key lines but they just really took off from there.
How did you get the voices to sound so removed?
We recorded all the voices and took the tape to a technology school that had a ham radio. We broadcast the tape out into the universe and picked it up on a sideband receiver. Then I would twiddle the dial to get all those phasing effects. That was all live. If somebody had tuned to our frequency for that hour they would’ve picked up all kinds [laughs]. We set up our own pirate radio station in a way.
You filmed at KTVU in San Francisco…
At the time, nobody had shown television consoles in the background of a shot before. They were there for visual interest. Nobody’s doing any work back there.
What was that iguana doing behind the bank of monitors? I saw an iguana grinning next to a reel-to-reel player.
I don’t know. That was simply to give the idea that this was a recorded voice. That it isn’t live. And George just wanted to put an iguana in there. You don’t really see it at first. Then it moves and you might catch it.
The iguana appears to be creating the voices, as if in on the joke. We assumed he controlled the city.
That’s part of the whole idea. When we looked at science fiction films that had been made up to that time, they were all films about the future. It’s like an American company making a film about Japan, but it’s a film made by one culture about another culture. They were made by the present about the future. We wanted to make a film from the future, which has the same difference as when you see a film from Japan, made by Japanese. There are just mysterious things in there that you don’t know because you’re not a part of that culture. Not everything is digested for your consumption. THX is full of those kind of things. Things that presumably meant something to the people in the future, but we don’t know what to quite make of it — it adds to the charm of the film. George’s original intention was to shoot THX in Japan. We just couldn’t make it work financially. We just had an almost zero budget to make the film. Think of the challenge of shooting the real world and making it seem like the future. We didn’t add much. We’d go to a location and put a bunch of numbers up on the wall just to make it seem strange.
I’m curious about the people who appear to be watching a tennis match played by squids.
It was a combination of a squash match and me making sucking sounds. ‘Shkewup!’
The court room scene — there’s this babbling chant mixed in there…
That was inspired by the music of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. These layered things. I took the dialogue of the trial and made loops of it and superimposed them all. We staggered them at different time sequences so they’d rub against each other in interesting ways. At one point, you hear the prosecutor’s voice but she’s not speaking. She’s just scratching her ear. We were just fooling around with people’s perceptions of who was in control of the court system.
How much did you collaborate with Lalo Schifrin?
I temped the whole film with pre-existing recordings, mostly classical music. But I’d play the music [Stabat Mater by Pergolesi] upside down and backwards and slow it down and layer different types of music on top of each other at different speeds. Lalo took that score and transcribed it note-for-note and then had the orchestra play it. If you take the opening credits of the film and speed it up four times and play it backwards, it becomes another piece of music. Lalo was taking backwards music and transcribing it for forwards play.
Donald Pleasence played a great twitcher, as SEN 5241, not to mention that quick gleam in his eye after popping Etrecine.
When you hire Donald Pleasence, that’s what you get. He would take written lines and do them in a way that you just believed they were happening right in front of you, that he was making them up as he went — but it was all scripted.
What was THX’s occupation, engineering cops?
We didn’t know exactly what it was THX was doing. The cops’ source of energy was some kind of nuclear device that was inserted into the middle of their heads. So he’s building the head of the robot and inserting the nuclear ampule into the critical phase area. He’s coming off drugs and doesn’t know it — the whole society is on Prozac. We didn’t know about Prozac back then, but that was what it was. His roommate [LUH 3417, played by Maggie McOmie] has been changing his medication so he goofs and there’s an explosion.
The police officers were so polite…
George had a particular idea for the police officers: a sort of unctuous, solicitous, very kind voice. He found a black funeral director who had this voice when talking to bereaved people. He also voiced OMM, the God.
All the African-American actors in the film were holograms…
There weren’t a lot of black programmes on television in those days. It was just beginning to emerge. In that society, black people were the newscasters and the entertainers. The only hologram who’s not black is the guy who’s getting beat up. One of the channels is the violence channel — a spooky pre-reference to Rodney King, where every time you turned the TV on you saw a policeman beating Rodney King. This was a whole channel of police beating people.
As with The Conversation, so much of THX was about sound…
[I wanted] to create a different world, a universe in sound. All those devices were real. A lot of the things Gene Hackman was doing in The Conversation are still not able to be done. Eventually they will be. In a similar way to THX, we were taking certain trends that we were seeing at the time and pushing them to their limit.
You got caught sampling a French squeak.
I got caught sampling something off a record. It was a squeak in the scene where Duvall and Don Pedro Colley are trapped in a room with foetuses in jars. I looped it off a French album of musique concrète that had been a big influence on me in the 50s. When the film ran in Paris, Pierre Henry, the composer, said, ‘That’s my squeak!’ I saw my career ending before it began. The legal decision was that I had altered it sufficiently — that it was no longer what it was to begin with. It was Variations for a Door and a Sigh.
I’ve noticed THX has been sampled a few times — Ren & Stimpy definitely stole your eyeball gurgles.
Yeah, the bugger gets bugged!
Dave Tompkins is the author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop. Based in New York, he has contributed to The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Grantland and The Wire. He is currently writing a natural history of Miami bass.
Optigram is based in London.