“There Will be Blood” – Exclusive Interview with Re-recording Mixer Michael Semanick and Sound Designer Chris Scarabosio
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Blood” gushed into limited release this December. Supervisor Matthew Wood and Sound Designer Chris Scarabosio manned editorial. Scarabosio lent his sound expertise in 2007 on “The Simpsons Movie.” Wood supervised the “Star Wars” prequels. Mixing took place at Skywalker Sound on the Akira Kurosawa Stage. Tom Johnson handled dialog while Michael Semanick tackled effects and music. The team had yet another film released Christmas week with “Sweeny Todd”. With “There Will Be Blood” releasing one week after “Walk Hard”, production sound mixer John Pritchett shows his range. Score for “Blood” was composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. BBC composer in residence, Greenwood is no stranger to orchestral arrangements. Amongst the coverage about his collaboration with P.T. Anderson, Entertainment Weekly has a nice piece HERE.
Designing Sound: Semanick has been with PT since 1997’s “Boogie Nights” where he temped the show but was ultimately unable to final it. He teamed up again with Anderson on 1999’s “Magnolia” and they have been rolling together since. Knowing that Semanick has been with P.T. on four films now, I was interested to hear how their sound relationship works.
Michael Semanick: Paul will call me and say, “This is when we’re going to post it, these are the dates.” When it gets closer, if I have time, I may go to the set but usually I’m mixing another film. As the sound [editorial] crew starts getting put on I try to at least go hear stuff. It’s always fun to see which direction it’s going in. I mean, it’s one thing on the page and then those things take a different light once you start shooting. You’re so riveted by Daniel’s performance and Paul’s direction of him that it plays much better in actuality than on paper.
DS: Along with P.T.’s directorial skills comes the favorable command he has over the film’s cut.
MS: Paul’s deal with studios lets him never really preview for audiences. I think that’s a good thing and a bad thing. I don’t like when directors have to do that. I mean studios see it differently and some directors do, too. If you’re making a movie that’s going to be a blockbuster, then maybe you should preview it a little bit. In that sense it’s good to get audience reaction and see how things flow. So I’m not totally against previews but P.T is in a unique situation, because he’s so damn talented. They just let him go make his movie.
DS: Before Scarabosio worked on “There will be Blood,” he worked on Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love” as a designer. He explained how PT loves to experiment.
Chris Scarabosio: I remember on “Punch Drunk” I sent down a bunch of sounds that were just kind of weird “sound designy” things. And he cut them in weird places that if most sound editors would have done it, they would have gotten yelled at. I wouldn’t normally cut something like that for that — but that kind of juxtaposition makes it work better. Or certainly makes it more interesting. It’s kind of a cool way to do it. It’s, “Here’s a bunch of stuff-use what you like.”
DS: The score for “Blood”, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, was handled somewhat in the same vein.
MS: Jonny gives music editor Paul Rabjohns his stuff and then he’ll take this part and move it here. Then he might trim the pitch or change a cue altogether. They send him a palette of stuff and it’s “Oh that’s great! And parts of this are great; what if I put these two things together and this together…” etc. The tone is set and P.T. pretty much guides it all the way; Lets you run with it and then pulls you back in.
DS: In a recent interview, P.T. described the oil derricks on set: “…It was hypnotic to watch this thing just slam a pole into the ground – over and over again. It’s like poking a monster in the chest and daring him to get mad… eventually, he gets mad.” The derricks were a important symbol of the effect this kind of business was having on Little Boston.
MS: [THE DERRECK’S HAVE] a constant grinding-they’re going and going, you know. And I mean a constant (he makes a “Chug! Chug!” sound). It’s like poking at the town’s folk and poking at the preacher kid because they got shorted out of the money. And the derricks are still pumping away, so it’s this ongoing character in the background, a constant track audible every day in these people’ lives.
CS: [Paul] was pretty adamant about it sounding dangerous. But Paul doesn’t like things to sound too over produced So, it’s the challenge of trying to create that without it sounding too over done. Give it that sense of darkness, danger, but also convey it’s this big piece of wood with these big metal wheels and stuff and they always have to have some kind of imperfection to them as well.
DS: Crafting the sounds aren’t always the hardest part of the job, translating the director’s wishes can be a beastly burden in itself.
CS: I don’t like surprises in final mix. I’m try to show anything I’m working on as often as possible so they get a sense of what I’m doing. So when we get to the final, we’re talking about details more than re-designing.
There’s a scene at the Little Boston train station where there’s a lot going on. There’s cars going by, there’s animals, there’s a lot of people and these guys are rolling oil barrels along the platform. And PT’s like “I want those barrels to sound like money, to sound like they’re just making money!” And it was kinda like “Oh, okay…?” And you have to just stop and think about it. It’s just trying to decipher what that means. But that’s the good thing about working with them in the past.
MS: Well, you learn their taste and their styles and whether they change — the picture always seems to. I can usually just look at a movie and know what they’re going for.
DS: When the filmmakers feel confident in the sound crew’s work, they are more willing to experiment. One of the most daring stylistic choices P.T. made was to open the movie without any dialogue between characters for roughly twenty minutes.
MS: I knew from seeing a rough cut of it the first time, that there were people who were a little uneasy about not having any dialogue. It’s a long time [without it]. [I thought], “Are we going to hold the audience’s interest?” And when I saw it, I totally was — you just get sucked right in.
CS: Yeah, it’s more riveting. It allows your mind to work more instead of having just too much going on. And you don’t really have the chance to think about where it’s going. You just react to the visuals. What makes it such a great film is that there’s time for the audience to catch up, to stay focused and to take in what’s happening.
DS: Focus is something I have been trying to bring to this blog; Focus on the behind the scenes things that people in our community do that most audiences don’t think about.
MS: I mean yeah, for the most part audiences are not supposed to think about sound. They are but they’re not. I had a film screening just a few days ago and some guy came up to me and said the foley sounds amazing. And I was like “What the hell?” You know? If you’re listening to the foley and not the story, then I screwed up. It should be there and be natural. [However] as you educate an audience more and more, they’re going to say things like that. They’re going to say the foley sounded great or the sound effects were fantastic. I think all those elements should support the story and take the audience on the same journey that the director wants you to go on without being totally aware of it.
Thanks so much to Michael Semanick and Chris Scarabosio for taking the time to do this!