Iranian director Taghi Amirani and co-writer and editor Walter Murch collaborated on revelatory feature doc Coup 53 with associate editor Evelyn Franks BFE.
A follow-up film, charting controversy in documentary circles, is close to completion.

Controversial feature documentary Coup 53, which revealed how the CIA and MI6 changed the history of Iran, is back in the headlines. With this summer marking 70 years since the 1953 coup that deposed democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a follow-up film will look at the legal tussle that took place around the documentary itself.

The original film was received to resounding acclaim, from both press and revered filmmakers, including Oliver Stone. Werner Herzog and Michael Moore. Director Mike Leigh described it as “a masterpiece of humanity, thoroughness and consummate film craft.” The coda is called Coup 53.1, Texts Lies and Audiotape.

The original feature, released in 2019, is still screening to full houses, with the film’s Iranian director Taghi Amirani and co-writer and editor Walter Murch sharing the story behind its creation. They describe it as “an intricate Persian carpet, tightly woven and neatly structured.”

When Amirani first met Murch, in New York in 2012, he was still at the very early stages of development, pulling together threads of the story and looking for funding.

Amirani was a huge fan of Murch. He vividly remembers the first time he saw the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now in 1979, where Murch was both sound designer and editor.

When they met again, Murch was working on the documentary Particle Fever, about the search for the Higgs Boson. Amirani is a physicist, as well as documentary maker, and helped with notes on a fine cut of Particle Fever, later interviewing Murch at Sheffield DocFest about his work on the feature.

Questioning Authority

By 2015, Murch and Amirani had become friends and Amirani asked Murch to advise on Coup 53. The timing was on his side. Murch was planning to come to London for six months, roughly the original time-frame for the documentary. He signed on to collaborate and ended up staying in the UK for four years, until the completion of the film.

“Once I commit that’s it,” says Murch. “It’s part of my DNA. If I agree to be on a film, whatever the circumstances, whatever the salary,

I stick with it.”

Murch’s credits include many films that question political decision making. “Maybe the common thread is a scepticism about the capitalist system in its raw form,” says Murch. In 2005, he worked with director Sam Mendes on the feature Jarhead, about the marines in the Gulf War. Murch had read the history of Iran and knew some of Mossadegh’s story.

Murch is credited as both editor and co-writer of Coup 53.  “Any editor working on an unscripted documentary should get credit as a writer,” he believes. “You’re working with the alphabet at your command – images and sounds in a timeline. You have more freedom because you are an author of the piece.”

When he came on board, there were around 40 hours of archive and video diary, which showed Amirani unearthing evidence about the involvement of the CIA and MI6 in the coup. There was no plan to include this in the documentary, but Murch describes footage from a visit to the US National Security Archive, where Amirani was given access to a filing cabinet with documents about the coup. “There was this moment, when Taghi was looking at this draw of documents and realising that this was the reason why he was who he was. The expression on his face was wonderful.”

Amirani was initially in awe of Murch. “One of the Gods of cinema, working with me in the cutting room,” he says. The relationship took a while to find an even keel. While Amirani was a respected documentary film-maker, this was his first feature: “I was making the most important documentary of my life, about my country’s most pivotal moment in its history.” Having Murch as collaborator was of huge significance. “In the beginning I was very deferential,” says Amirani. “I was always tip-toeing and felt out of my depth on so many levels.”

After a few months, they had a heart-to-heart, Murch saying that they needed to be a unit, on the same level. “From that moment I switched, we became a fusion of complementary experience,” says Amirani.

The film is constructed from more than 500 hours of footage (double the hours of Apocalypse Now). It includes 60 original interviews, huge amounts of archive, animation that recreates moments of conflict and footage of Amirani’s own story, as he discovered evidence.

End of Empire

The heart of the story emerged a couple of years into production, from a transcript in the production archive of Granada TV’s landmark history series on the end of British imperial rule in various states, End of Empire, transmitted in 1985. While there was a paper transcript, apparently from an interview with former MI6 agent Norman Darbyshire in 1983, no filmed footage of Darbyshire existed. Instead, actor Ralph Fiennes took the role of Darbyshire in Coup 53, speaking the words of the transcript in a scene shot in the Savoy Hotel, the original location for other interviews in the same film.

“The testimony gave us the spine of the show,” says Murch. It’s also the reason why the film became so controversial, with the End of Empire team stating that there was never any such interview filmed and that the paper interview itself was from an  off-the record audio-only research interview.


Reconstructing the coup

The coup itself took place across four days in August and there was no footage of the fighting. So animated sequences were created by filmmaker and artist Martyn Pick, who worked with specially shot footage, using a painterly technique to give an animated impression of the coup as it unfolded.

The original footage throughout the film was shot using a Canon C300, alongside Filmic Pro material, captured on Amirani’s iPhone.

Amirani “fell in love with Filmic Pro, it was the best $14 that I spent.” Much of his actuality footage was taken on the iPhone as he was gathering evidence, “documenting things as they were happening. We didn’t have time to call a crew.”  30 per cent of Coup 53 was shot on the iPhone with the footage integrating directly into “It was so versatile, geared to professional film makers, with controls for aperture, volume, white balance.”

Murch set about making sense of the huge amount of material by breaking it into four categories: expert voices, Iranian testimony, historical archive and the film’s own investigation. Working with a wall chart and using colour-coded cards, he arranged it in time-lines. “I made a timeline of nothing but historical experts and found I could have them toss the ball to each other – a ping pong match – with occasional interjections as Taghi asks questions.” Once complete, each category ran to around five hours.

Premiere Pro

Adobe supported the film, working with them to adapt and develop features for Premiere Pro, setting up the cutting room and work-flow with Murch. “We were at the frontier of Premiere Pro, improving and enhancing,” says Amirani. “It handled our extraordinary amount of material well.”

“There was a very nice triangle between editor, management at Adobe and the engineers at Adobe,” says Murch. “I had this need to cut on the fly, with accurate timecodes. And I said, ‘can you do that?’ and there it was.”

With the material organised, “we began to weave the threads together,” says Murch.

Murch brought composer Robert Miller on board who blended traditional Iranian instrumentation and Western sensibilities.

Murch crafted the sound design including live recordings on location, and creating pieces of sound, such as noises for riot scenes recorded with a group of young Iranians in an alleyway in Fitzrovia.

There were three associate editors during the making of Coup 53, with one leaving owing to a hiatus in funding and another being offered a job too good to turn down. Evelyn Franks came on board before the final push. She mastered the Premiere Pro, organising the huge volume of material, as well as cutting some sequences.

“There were all these very beautifully crafted elements coming into the edit: the animation, music, motion graphics,” says Franks. She describes her role at “the nerve centre” importing material and sequences into Walter’s edit, managing, checking, matching. “Walter is incredibly creative and highly organised,” she says. “What was great with Premiere Pro was the ability to have a very organised folder structure and have multiple sequences open at one time, to dip in and out of.”

Franks used customised work spaces for example when editing in ‘sound effects’ or ‘music’ mode and she colour-coded footage in the archive, graphics and animation folders to know their status. “Purple was for finals,” she remembers.

The first full assembly ran to over eight hours, with music mixes, cliff-hangers, it had all the makings of a streamer documentary series. But there was no funding for a multipart production, so they spent the next eight months finessing it into a two-hour movie.

Despite the resoundingly positive reviews, distributors have been very shy of Coup 53, with the film ultimately releasing via VoD and limited theatrical in the US and UK.

As the film became available through online platforms, the makers of End of Empire said that the film suggested dishonesty on their part. There was then a possibility of legal action. “This had the effect of poisoning the well,” says Murch. ITV, which owns the rights to the 14 minutes of End of Empire footage appearing in Coup 53, withdrew permission for this archive which had been previously licensed.

“A theoretical broomstick was stuck into the spokes of the wheels of the film,” says Murch, for whom it was the best reviewed of all his films.

In the end, ITV dropped its objection to using the archive..

For the follow-up film, Amirani has continued with Premiere Pro, using its new AI features, including its text to picture edit and auto transcription, which he has been running initially from his laptop.

He’s used Premiere Pro Productions which has raised the game in terms of collaborative working and managing long timelines and large projects. The Text Based Editing tool has made editing to rough cut speedier. “I keep thinking if only we had this at the beginning of Coup 53, the auto transcription is so good that we’d be doing in five minutes what it took us days to do.”

While Coup 53.1 is a story in itself Amirani hopes that the release of the coda will also raise the profile of the original feature documentary. “Strangely the film feels more timely and relevant than when it first came out.”


Walter Murch

A Hollywood legend, Walter Murch made his name with his work on ‘70s classics Apocalypse Now, The Godfather and American Graffiti in the role of editor and sound designer. He has been nominated for nine Oscars and won three: for Sound on Apocalypse Now and an unprecedented Oscar double, for Sound Mixing and Editing, with The English Patient in 1996 (the first digital Editing Oscar). In 1975 he also landed a double BAFTA –  Sound Track and Editing – for The Conversation.

While being renowned for his work on scripted productions and having worked closely with director Francis Ford Coppola on several films, he’s also worked on documentary features. Immediately before Coup 53, he edited Particle Fever, about the search for the Higgs Boson.

Murch’s celebrated book on the craft of film-editing In the Blink of an Eye takes a dive into the aesthetics and practical concerns of cutting film.

With a keen interest in technology, Murch introduced Hollywood to the idea of editing films on the non-linear Mac based program Final Cut Pro, rather than the Avid. Having started his work as an editor cutting with traditional film, he’s kept ahead of the curve and helped to develop Adobe Premiere Pro during the making of Coup 53.


Jon Creamer

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