Harry Cohen Special: Opening Inglourious Basterds
I got Harry Cohen on the phone to talk about one of my favorite scenes, the opening of Inglourious Basterds. There’s nothing big or over the top in this scene, it just an excellent example of subtle technique in support of the moment. In the course of the chat, we occasionally diverge into some interesting work-flow tangents. Hope you enjoy it.
Designing Sound: The scene was very subtle and had a lot of quiet sounds. It also had a lot of tension. Was this a difficult scene to approach?
Harry Cohen: Technically the hardest part on that was all the production dialog arrived with a lot of hum on it from the generator. Luckily Izotope RX2 had a De-Hum plug-in in it that allows you to dial in the European frequency. That’s how I had to start, was by processing everything with that. You don’t try to get it all out, or it takes too big of a chunk out of the dialog.
After that, we wanted to come up with some background winds and tones that further helped mask that as much as possible…then do a lot of really detailed foley. We get into what we call hyper-reality, especially on a lot of the Tarrantino films. So, as the scene goes on, we start to back off on the backgrounds and the tones and stuff, and bring the focus in on the dialog We had to suck the air out of the scene a little bit, so that it gives you a little more closeness to the characters.
Mainly it was what Cristoph Waltz [ed. Hans Landa character] did with his performance, his eyes and stuff, as he turns from this bumbling almost Clouseau character into the menacing Nazi Jew hunter he reveals himself to be. It was riveting.
DS: It was a great scene. It really set the tone for the movie and grabbed you right from the beginning. It was awesome.
HC: You know, Quentin and his editor Sally Menke, who we’ve unfortunately lost, they’re so focused in on the tiny details…the sound of his pen, taking things out of his briefcase, and the smoothing of the paper. We agonized over every little sound in that scene.
DS: Well, it shows. You really had that emphasis on all of those movements and foley sounds. What do you feel that decision affords with respect to the dialog and visuals, when you’re getting that microscopic with the sounds? How does that affect the rest of the scene?
HC: My partner in crime…at least that’s how I refer to him…Wylie Stateman, worked on that. He’s a real master of that. He knows when to put the microphone further away from the source than you’d normally think, to get proper distance for marriage with production, and he knows when to go for that real close up detail. The embers of the tobacco lighting, or the cap on the ink bottle, the leather creak of the Nazi uniform, the creak of the wood of the chair, the slosh of the milk in the bottle…all so microscopically detailed out. The flow of the scene determines when we change the balance of those things. It was a very slow coiling of the change in the atmosphere throughout that scene.
Originally, there weren’t cows visually in the scene. But we put cows in the background [ed. referring to the audio], because they said it was a milk farm. Quentin liked the cows so much that he had them put visual effects cows in, after the fact. Then the very last cow that you hear as we’re leaving the scene is Quentin. He was saying, “No, I want one that goes like this.” He did it, and it was, “Well, we’ll just use that.”
DS: [laughs] I really like that. Going along with what you were talking about, as the scene progresses and making room for stuff…you mentioned these drones and other effects going on in the background. I noticed a point where there was a strong drone-like sound when Cristoph leans in and asks Denis Menochet [ed. Perrier LaPadite character] to have the girls step outside; there was something there that becomes much more present.
HC: Yeah, and while that may have worked artistically, it was probably brought up there because we were digging for the dialog track. The hum that was in there probably needed a little bit more masking. If that worked in a dramatic way, I’m glad. But it was probably for that reason.
DS: So a happy accident then, huh?
HC: Yeah. I can’t really remember, in detail, all of the decisions made in the mix. That movie was mixed in a relatively short time. As we’ve gone on with working with Quentin, we try to get it to a point where we start to…I don’t want to say we know what he wants…we start to learn what works for him and what doesn’t. We get things very much in shape; and again, Sally was a big part of it. We’d always run the stuff with Sally before Quentin would come for his playback. She was so tuned in to what we was going to like.
I don’t think we mixed final for even two weeks. I can’t remember, but it was something like that. Then they took it to Cannes and came back. Then we did, like, 4 more days of fixes…and that was it. That works for him, because he likes to keep editing and tweaking…and there was some discussion about some additional music being added. So, if he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time leading us through what he wants the soundtrack to do bit by bit, then he’s all the happier.
I think on Grindhouse, we only had him for five or six days on final “final,” but, again, Sally was there. Eventually, after enough films, we get to a point where he would trust us more; and we would send him more stuff, early on, for them to have in the Avid. When we first started working with him, we would get an Avid track that was fully built out, and it was real indicative of what he wanted. Then we would have to work to achieve the same thing, emotionally, that he did in his Avid track…with what we thought were better sounds. or he would just want to use his Avid track
Finally, we’d reach a point where…like the anime sequence in Kill Bill…when I got the Avid track back, there was nothing in there but what I had sent him. So it was, “OK! We’re starting to get the hang of it.”
It reminds me of the shoot-out scene in Inglourious Basterds. When I got the Avid track…production track…the gun shots that were in the production track were very unusable. It was just digital clips and smacks, and kind of ugly. But all of the really dirty, rough, sounds of the movement that were also in the track…I had a suspicion that they were going to be used to hearing that. I took that track, I cut out the gunshots, and I created a track of just the cleaned up production movement. Not totally clean, but cleaned up of anything that was obnoxious. Then I had Effects Mixer, Tony Lamberti, we were all done with the scene…and I said, “I got one more track. I just want you to prepare this and stick it in there. And just leave it until I tell you I think we might need it.”
Then sure enough when we were reviewing the scene, Quentin and Sally were saying, “It’s really good, but there’s something missing.” I said to Tony, “You remember that track? Turn it on now.” And that was it for them. They had gotten used to hearing all of that stuff. That was the final spice for them. I learned that, because I remembered back on the production of Kill Bill…the sound of all of the Crazy 88’s running around the club. I went through all of the wild tracks and collected all of that material. I created a supportive track for the foley, that ran around the way we did with the foley, but it all was production track. We used that to sweeten it, and, again, that was the final spice. Directors like him are very tuned in to their production, and they’re used to hearing what was there in the Avid.
DS: That’s not very surprising, considering all the things I’ve heard about him in the past. When this first scene opens, Menochet [LaPadite] is chopping wood, and it’s very rhythmic. Then there’s this pause that’s seemingly leaving space for the Nazi car to appear in the distance. And then we have the music that comes in, and the pitch of the car seems to blend in with that first chord of the music. How carefully was that moment planned out?
HC: The really cool thing about Quentin, from our point of view, 95% of the music he chooses from his own library. And he cuts that into the Avid. I suspect he also cuts some of the sequences to the music, and that’s why it works so well. So, when we get sequences and reels turned over to us with music in it, almost all the time, that’s the music that’s going to be there.
So, we can work against the actual music, and do things like tune elements in the effects track so that they’re constant with the music…or dissonant if that’s the point that we need. That’s something we do with elements like train whistles, and with that car engine as well.
DS: That music is kind of a “Spaghetti Western” adaptation of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, which is wonderfully absurd and crazy in a way.
HC: Yeah, I’m not sure where it came from, but that was the music that was in the temp track…and that was the music that was in the final. That’s such an advantage to us. Most of the time, the music that shows up is a temp score put together by the music editor. It just indicates what the director thinks the function of the music is…you know, the mood or what the density of it is. Sometimes when the composer takes their pass at it, they choose to go in an entirely different direction. Sometimes they’re correct in doing so. In any event, that means that sometimes I show up on the mix stage with a design sequence that’s very heavy and fat sounding, because I’ve been working against the temp music…but the composer has decided to do something really ethereal and wispy. So, my stuff is completely wrong, and I have to re-engineer it at the last minute. That’s not very likely to happen on a Tarantino film.
DS: Did the tone of that music affect the way you approached that opening scene?
HC: It did in both conscious and unconscious ways. When you watch the movie, and you’re getting the vibe of it, we’re affected by the music emotionally just like the audience would be. I affects the choices of everything you do. It even affects choices in what you’re going to go out and record…especially on this film, knowing that that’s going to be the final music.
I’m sure there are other directors that do that, but I can’t think of any other directors we’ve worked with…other than Quentin.
DS: I work primarily on television and documentary programming at work. It’s rare that we get stuff the way you are with Quentin Tarrantino there, but I do have the advantage that the music composer is in the room right next door to me.
HC: That’s great. So, you can have a dialogue with him.
HC: We try to do that as much as possible on the films, but it’s successful to varying degrees. The composers are going through the same kind of thing that we are. They’re doing something, then going over it with the director, and making changes. The more I work on these films, the more I see that everything is prone to remain fluid later and later into the process. Visual effects are showing up at the last minute, final tweaks in the music are happening at the last minute, last minute ADR…the picture is often still being edited until the last day. So, the days when we used to be able to do something and consider it locked are long gone.
The more we can position ourselves to respond to the final shape of the film, of all the elements, the better off we are. And we make a point of knowing that’s what we’re going to go into there. It’s especially true on a lot of these big budget movies. With a solid release date and late breaking visual effects, lots of pressure from the studio… So, really what it means, is that no matter how long we work on a film, or how much lead time we have, there’s always a big crunch at the end. That’s just the nature of it. I bet it’s the same for you.
DS: Yeah. I just got a project this past week that’s already behind schedule.
HC: Yeah, as soon as you get it, you’re behind schedule. On Green Lantern, which I helped out with with some creature stuff, that fell into our laps at the last minute. It had nothing to do with the quality of what had already been done. Someone had been working on it for months, and they had been doing really good work. The project fell to Soundelux, and they made the decision to redo all of the sounds. My first day on the movie, was the first day of effects pre-dubs. So I was WAY way behind…crash and burn schedule. So, I see more and more of that.
DS: I don’t think that’s going to go away anytime soon. It’s probably just going to become the norm.
HC: The more they advance technically, the more that’s going to be like that. When they finally get to the point where we’re delivering the final directly to the movie theatres…with digital, where they don’t have to strike prints…we’ll be working until the day before it’s in theatres. You can see from the film-maker’s perspective…why not?! If you can make the film better, then why not go ahead and make it better?
DS: Let’s turn back to this opening scene that we were talking about. As far as the ambiences, we’ve talked about using the background sounds to mask noise from the production track, but these cows and roosters that pop in every once in a while… Were they primarily to mask noisy elements, or were they more? I feel like they accent certain moments in the scene.
HC: Yeah. Not so much story as rhythm. You might have a bird track, but go and put in certain spotted birds or something. In the opening scene, the backgrounds were done by Ann Scibelli. The individual spotted stuff is something that we went through and shifted the position of once Quentin was there. “Cut that one out. Move this one here. That one’s good.” You know, you put a cow moo in the wrong place and you make something funny where you don’t want it funny. And you put it in the right place, and it just accents the pause in between the dialog.
DS: The cow when Christoph pulls out that giant pipe was just perfect.
HC: [laughs] Yeah. It becomes about rhythm…the rhythm of the scene and rhythm of the dialog.
DS: Would you talk a little bit about your approach fro the spaces above the floor and below the floor?
HC: We wanted it to be a definite shift, and a subterranean feel, when we went below the floor. It’s kind of a cave tone, and we played with some more subjective things, almost haunted…it’s very light in there. It’s not a huge thing, it’s just enough that we’re closer to the ground and below the house. It’s very cool, because up until that point we didn’t know that anyone was under the floor.
DS: The rhythm of this scene just carries itself through so perfectly.
HC: That has everything to do with the edit and the dialog. I first watched the rough cut of that scene in Berlin, working on the sound of the movie within the movie, Nation’s Pride. We went to Berlin and actually posted that as its own movie, so that it had the soundtrack ready…so Quentin could project it in the theatre while he was shooting the rest of the movie. While we were there, Sally ran the opening scene of the movie for us. It was already 90 percent of the way there with its rhythm and spookiness. It was such a great performance from the actors, that it was very powerful even before we did anything to it. It’s really great when you watch a sequence, and just by watching it, it let’s you know pretty much what to do with it. That’s how that sequence felt. There wasn’t a lot of searching going on. It just kind of speaks to you, and let’s you know what is needed to do.
DS: And as it carries through into the climax, we’ve got the guns, and the music, and Mélanie Laurent [ed. Shosanna Dreyfus] escaping…
HC: And the guns. [laughs] Let me talk for a second about the guns.
DS: Go for it.
HC: I swear, we do new guns for every film. I start off thinking, “Are we going to have to do new guns? We’ve got so many guns.” You know, at Soundelux, we’ve been out to record guns, like, 45 times in the last years at least. And yet, when we get to the next film, and it’s got its own vibe and its own feel, I find that I wind up making new guns all over again.
In Inglourious it’s a “Spaghetti Western,” and I know Quentin was inspired by the vibe of The Dirt Dozen in some way. I went back and listened to that movie, and the effects didn’t sound great, but I thought that I wanted to get a real analog sound for the guns. The gun sounds have come a long way since the early stuff. You’d just over-record on Nagra and get that big powerful analog smeared sound. Now we have a lot more detail and a lot more transient, and low-end and size, the gun sounds have become a lot more realistic…in some ways. In this movie, I wanted to give a nod to that analog character that was in some of those movies.
The same with the soundtrack on Nation’s Pride. If you watch the movie within the movie, you hear late 30’s/early 40’s audio on the gunshots…but most of that is either production audio that I processed, or other gunshots that I processed to sound vintage, then added surface noise to take it the rest of the way there. Technically, that was probably the hardest part of the movie; creating a “vintage” chain that worked for us. In mixing, I think I had five versions of that chain going; one for dialog, one for backgrounds, effects and such. And we did that all in Berlin. So that was pretty audacious.
We weren’t sure. We had developed two approaches to “vintagizing” the sound for Nation’s Pride. One was that real extensive chain that I developed, and I think I even detailed everything that was in that chain in an earlier interview about the movie in the Editor’s Guild magazine. We also took this old Magnavox metal speaker horn, that Wylie had come across, and we brought that to Berlin with us. We finished the mix on the movie, and we looked at the engineers and said, “Now we want to run it through this.” They just thought we were out of our minds. [laughs]
But they did it. They had to remove panels, because they weren’t set up to do anything outside at all. We had to do some extra wiring and stuff, and we did it. We got the whole track coming through this ancient Maganavox horn, which I still have in my office. It sounded really cool, but ultimately we decided that it sounded maybe just ten years older. You know, maybe early 30’s rather than late 30’s/early 40’s. So it was kind of specific.
DS: With these guns that you just talked about, the moment of most tension is when Christoph is aiming at Mélanie…the gun doesn’t go off. But, we still we a gunshot like sound. Was that an effect, or was that part of the score?
HC: I can’t remember exactly. I think he does something with his mouth, and he chooses not to shoot her. He chooses not to, but he could have.
DS: Right, but there’s this kind of heavy sound that implies gunshot that cuts off the music…
HC: It was either music, or it was something that we did dramatically…just as a little stinger. Honestly, I can’t remember which at this point. Sorry.
DS: It’s been over two years since the film was released now. I’m impressed with how detailed your memory’s been so far.
HC: It’s been seven or eight films for me. It stays fresh when you’re working on it, but a few weeks after your done and it starts going away. So, I can’t remember all of the details of the mix. Do you get to go and sit in on the mixes of the documentaries you work on?
DS: Oh, I do the mixing as well. I have to do everything where I work, soup to nuts.
HC: That’s great. I was bringing it up, because some editors don’t necessarily get to be on the stage and hear how they’re sound is utilized…and see what works and what doesn’t. That’s a really important part for the education of designers and editors. We try to make the mix an additive process, instead of subtractive one.
We figured out a while ago that if we present too much stuff to the mixer, every eventuality, then we put the mixer in the position to have to figure out what they need to remove to bring clarity and focus to the scene. So, we’d rather work on the stuff that we know we want the focus to be on, and add stuff as we need it during the mix. That makes for a much more intelligent process.
I’ve seen a lot of mixes in the past where, especially if it’s a short schedule on a temp mix, the editors will cover everything and try to sort it out at the mix. But there’s never really enough time to sort it out in the mix. So, often times you end up with a mix that’s full of great sounds, but it’s so thick that you don’t really hear anything clearly. That’s a real shame.
DS: So you sat in on the mix during this film?
HC: Yeah, I’m there the whole way there; to help make all those billions of decisions…and to be the effects mixer’s wingman. Not to be obtrusive, or obnoxious, but to let the mixer know, “This track is supposed to do this,” “What you’re looking for is over here,” or “I gave you this, but you might not need it.” More than that , to at least influence the shape of the effects mix so that, as a starting point what I hear, represents my original intentions. Sometimes an editor will cut sounds, and when they hear the mix back, it will sound like the mixer has reinvented their sounds. I think it’s not a conscious reinventing of the material. But when the mixer hears those tracks, he’s got to listen to them one by one and make decisions right?
You life a fader and go, “Well, I like that.” You lift another, “I’m not so sure about that.” You make decisions as you go along, because you’ve got a lot of decisions to make. So, if I’m there, I can at least say, “Leave it up. It works with the other ones, and we can come back to it later.” That way, it presents itself from the starting point I wanted it to, then we go from there.
DS: So, what about the end of the scene. The ambiences come up heavily again, we get cicadas and insects that come in for the first time. Did that come out the way you had envisioned it?
HC: Some of that shaping definitely has to do with the mixers themselves. We didn’t necessarily sculpt the rise and fall of all those elements as much as they are, other than to prepare them and make them available there. I think on that film, if I’m not mistaken, I think Mike Minkler pre-dubbed the backgrounds. I can’t remember if he mixed them as well. Because he pre-dubbed them, he was very familiar and very tuned into them. If a mixer pre-dubs material, he almost assumes a little bit of ownership over them. Mike Minkler has a big voice in the shaping of the whole track. He’ll give me notes, and I’ve learned to take them very seriously, and try to figure out what he’s after with those notes.
It almost always makes the scene better. He’s thinking in terms of momentum, like in the last sequence…the burning of the theatre. He would come to me and say, “I think we need a long rising vocal thing that sweeps up through the whole thing to a crescendo.” That was something I hadn’t thought about, but when I prepared it to put into the track it worked really well as an element of the background crowd that’s screaming. There’s this thing which is rising in pitch, like a big choral swell, and that helps build the tension and the drama throughout that scene.
So, he was probably the one who said, “Let’s push the backgrounds at the end of that scene.” He was very familiar with them, and probably had a concept of what they might do for that portion of the scene.
DS: And is there any particular moment in this opening scene that you’re really proud of? I know you talked about the Nation’s Pride work as being the most grueling challenge, but is there anything in this scene that makes you say, “I’m really glad this came out this way.”
HC: All of it really. I, of course, love all the guns that are in the movie. [laughs]
Just the fact that we were able to effectively support the way that scene unfolded as a whole, and the way it just goes from benign to really threatening so subtly. It’s hard to pick a point where you realize that it’s gone from bumbling fool to real menace. Everything was just trying to be in support of that whole vision.
DS: The scene just works perfectly together. The dialog, the visuals, the editing, the sound…Of course, a lot of that credit goes to Quentin Tarrantino, but it also goes to the people he had working on it…pulling in the people that he did. I think it just came out beautifully.
HC: I agree. And, you know, it was funny. When we were working on it, they knew it was really different and unusual. But they weren’t sure it was going to find its audience. He gets to follow his muse.
A lot of films, they do screenings and reviews, and they change things according to the audience reactions. Quentin pretty much gets to make the movies that he wants to make, and his audience is there for him or its not. But it’s what he intended, so it’s not film-making by committee.
DS: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me.
HC: My pleasure. Thanks for taking the time to talk about the film.