It was the summer of 1973 and Wayne Bell was part of a crew of young filmmakers making what would become the cult classic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Forty-five years later, Wayne is still in Texas, doing what he loves and making sounds for films. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Wayne and gain some insight into the sound of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Korey Pereira: Wayne, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Can you tell me about your involvement with the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre?
Wayne Bell: I actually worked on Tobe’s film before that, Eggshells, which is a psychedelic, also low budget film. It was all just young filmmakers, just working things out. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college and I did a variety of things on the production, helping Tobe out. It was really Tobe that said, “you’re a natural at sound, that’s really what you should be doing.” So, my thanks to Tobe for setting me down the path to doing sound. I was drawn into all of this through music and by the power of the right sound and the right image.
On Texas Chain Saw Massacre, much of the core team were young graduates of the film school at the University of Texas at Austin, which was not a very advanced film school at that point compared to what it is now. It was a very crude program at that point in time, but still turned out some great talent, like Tobe.
There was another guy, Ted Nicolaou, who had worked on student film, so was more familiar with the Nagra than I was, so he was the recordist, and I took on the boom job.
KP: So aside from the Nagra, what did your setup look like on TCM?
WB: We had a very basic setup. Ted had a mono Nagra with two inputs that we had in a baby carriage that we adapted to work as the sound cart. For most of the film it was just me operating a boom, either a Sennheiser 815 or 416. For one particular scene, the characters were riding in a van. For that scene, Ted had to find a mixer for us to use. We had up to six lavs for that scene, I believe they were Sony ECM-50 lavs. It was not a process car on a trailer or anything. The actor driving, was actually driving the van, so Ted had to lay on his back with the gear on his stomach and mix those scene that way. We didn’t run a boom on that scene because of the space. That was really the only scene I remember a mixer being used. The rest of the time it was just me on the boom and Ted using the preamps and knobs on the Nagra.
Being a boom op is a wonderful job on the set, especially for a young person just starting out in sound. You are literally dancing with the actors when you are booming. As long as you are wearing a good pair of headphones, you can really hear the difference that you make. There was definitely some on-the-job training for me on this film. As we moved through production, I know I could feel (and hear) an improvement in my booming.
KP: So how much of the film is production vs. needed to be looped in post?
WB: I don’t think there was any looping at all. Everything you hear as far as dialogue was recorded on set. I come from the low budget world, and that is just great training. What you walk away with at the end of the day is what you have to work with. You start thinking forward a bit while you are on set. My first days on set, I didn’t so much think about that, but as we went on, I would start figuring out what we might need wild tracks of. Getting wild tracks is a rarity on a lot of sets, but can really help a lot in post. On TCM, we had to work with what we had. Between the various takes and wild track, that is what you hear in the final mix. There are definitely some dubious moments, but this really wasn’t a high-fidelity move, so it kind of worked.
KP: Do you have any advice on how to get the time you need to capture wild lines on set?
WB: Your job as the production sound team is to make sure you get what you need on set. Especially on low-budget productions, there will be little or no budget for ADR or looping, so telling the A.D. you need to get a line can make a huge difference. Also, if you are ever on production and there is a big problem, like a camera going down, you as a production mixer should be thinking of anything to that particular scene that you could capture, as far as sound. This makes the A.D. and the production feel like something is still getting accomplished and gives the person tasked with fixing the problem time to work.
KP: Where there any particularly challenging scenes for sound on TCM?
WB: The final scene of the film was particularly challenging. We have Sally (played by Marilyn Burns) screaming and Leatherface chasing her with a chainsaw. The 816 had a great reach, but you really have to be careful with how you are aiming it. You’ll hear some of that 816 effect on the chainsaw twirling around. Some of that is the chainsaw perspective change and sometimes it is the 816 not quite nailing it. With the Sennheisers of that day, there was coloration that you hear when it goes off-pattern. In this case, that coloration became a part of the iconic chainsaw sound. Frankly, the whole film was great fun.
KP: You were also listed as doing post. Can you talk about your work in the film after production wrapped?
WB: Pretty much my job was finding all the sound effect we needed, which often meant inventing ways to make them. You have to ask yourself, what does chainsaw teeth hitting a wheelchair sound like? How do you capture it? What we would now have a few effects editors, a background editor and a foley team do, I did it all myself back then.
KP: So once you captured these sounds, were you the one that had to cut them in?
WB: No, Sally Richardson or Larry Caroll, the picture editor, or Tobe himself would have cut them in. What I did was very meticulously made a list of every sound we needed, including a lot of things like chair scoots that you would now do in foley, and create a whole library of sounds for them to then cut into the film. We also recorded a lot of sounds on set. When we were shooting the big climatic scene at the end where someone gets hit by a truck, we took some watermelons and threw them high up in the air and recorded them splatting on the pavement on the same highway we were filming the scene on. I also went back to the house we were filming at after production had wrapped to capture some sounds in the space. I also did some wild car recordings. They also added a few sounds during the final mix at Todd-AO.
KP: So what recorders were you using to capture these sounds in post?
WB: Some of it was with a Nagra. I also had a ReVox half-track stereo machine. At the time I was also doing radio commercials at Austin’s first hippie ad agency where we had a studio with quarter-track Teac machines. It was really the classic hippie low-budget studio with egg crates on the wall with cloth in front of it to deaden the room. That is where we recorded the various radio voices in the film. The first voice was my friend, Levie Isaacks, who went on to be a wonderful cinematographer, and is now the treasurer for The American Society of Cinematographers. He is the first voice you hear in the film. The country radio station was Joe Gracey. Kim wrote the radio parts and I recorded them over at that studio. I just used what I had to capture the sounds I needed.
KP: So, as far as the chainsaw sounds, how much of that was production vs recorded in post?
WB: We didn’t do any post chainsaw. We made a point to capture what we needed while we were on set. On set. Gunnar, the actor that played Leatherface, was a real team player – most of the production chainsaw you hear in the film was operated by Leatherface himself. Leatherface, the big, silent scary guy is actually this wonderful, intelligent, erudite guy named, Gunnar Hanen, who became a really good buddy of mine. One funny story is that for my honeymoon, we went up to Boston. At the time, Gunnar was living in Maine. Gunnar bought us a coupe nights at a beautiful bed and breakfast over in Maine. We really loved it out there, so decided to stay a third night in the area at Gunnar’s. So, my wife gets to say she spent her honeymoon at Leatherface’s house.
KP: So one thing I noticed with the sound is we don’t hear a lot of squishy sounds during the film’s more gory scenes. Was this an intentional choice?
WB: Yes. I already knew this from doing radio, but you can introduce an idea and the mind of the listener fills it in. This was a conscious decision on Tobe’s part to show very little blood. All you needed was one or two moments of scare and the rest you could just imply, often through sound. You didn’t have to do a bunch of gushy sound for that.
Take for example the scene where Leatherface is attacking Franklin in his wheelchair. There is a lot going on in this moment. You have the chainsaw going full speed, then you have Franklin yelling. The blade hitting the metal really needed to cut through. In that moment you didn’t need any gush. It was actually great fun shooting this scene. We sort of see blood, not a lot of it, but as Leatherface is attacking Franklin and the camera is in the wheelchair POV, we needed some blood splash, so Dottie Pearl, the makeup person, would get mouthfuls of stage blood and spit it at Gunnar from over the cameraman’s right shoulder. However, it wasn’t enough blood, so Tobe then started spitting blood as well over the cameraman’s left shoulder. However, this STILL wasn’t enough blood, so while I was holding the boom, I was also spitting fake blood OVER the camera, being careful to not get it on the lens. So all of us were just spitting mouthfuls of fake blood, and what you see is just a light spray in the final shot. The truth is the film is kind of humorous and there were a lot of times we found ourselves laughing on set.
KP: That is such a great story! Were there any other specific sound elements with a fun story behind them?
WB: So one funny fact is that the hammer we used on set was actually made out of foam. In post, I remember thumping some melons and cabbage and handing those off, and Sally would have cut them in. If you listen really closely, you can hear a little of the foam hammer from production in the production.
KP: What about the animal sounds we hear while in the house?
WB: All of the creaking doors were from the house that my parents lived in. My father could imitate animal sounds. So in that scene where the first victim gets offed and the metal door slams, before the scare moment (and a few other spots), you hear animal sounds. That is my father doing his imitation of those animals. I was just recording a creaking door when he asked about the film and just started making the sounds. Tobe didn’t ask me to capture that, but he heard it and figured out a way to use it. Tobe was the one who decided to cut them in where he did. Tobe gets credit for that one.
KP: Now, I would love to talk a bit about the music of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. What were some of the instruments you used to create the sounds?
WB: A lot of what you hear was children’s musical toys – cymbals, xylophones, and shakers. I am a drummer, so we also used a lot of my Cymbals. We also used my Kay stand-up 5 string bass with a movable bridge, that lets you change how high off the board the strings are. We just tortured that bass. It was a wonderful instrument. We used a bow, plucking and rubbing various things on it. It was really versatile and got a lot of sounds out of it.
KP: Did you use any electric instruments?
WB: We did use a lap steel guitar, which I still have – a Fender twin-neck. That was the only electrified instrument we had. Most of the process was just figuring out what strange and wonderful sound we could make. All this was done in the extra bedroom of Tobe’s house with instruments all over – the two of us sitting on the floor. We would get an idea and create a sound to go with that idea. It wasn’t so much scoring action, more like scoring an idea and creating a library of sounds to build from.
One article, by Charlie Brigden, Why We Should Listen to Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Score as Musique Concrete, references our score as musique concrete, which there is some validity to that. One of the things we enjoyed the most was playing that line between music and sound. We would create ideas with sound and only in the editing process did it come together as what you hear in the film. The music is very much about creating an uncomfortable environment. We really loved working in that grey area and musique concrete also lived in that same space.
KP: What was the process for cutting the elements together?
WB: Tobe cut the music very quickly. We created this great body of material, then we came under deadline and Tobe had to do all the cutting in a night or two. It was very fast. I would have loved to go through every bit to find the best takes, but he had to just crash it out on his own. I feel like there was a much better version of the score that could have been made, but this imperfection became a part of what the film is and why people love it. The source material is all very LoFi, distorted, noisy and dirty. Some of this came from the technology we were using. We were using cheap mics that we would just abuse them running into tape recorders running at 3 3/4 and 7 1/2 IPS. But, everything about the film was very LoFi, so it worked.
There is an interest in finally doing a TCM soundtrack album. All of the original quarter-inch tapes still exist. Unfortunately, we do not have the final versions of anything Tobe cut together, so I would be facing the challenge of going through all the source material to re-create the score. Another challenge I will face is how this LoFi material will translate to a standalone format.
There is also one signature sound in TCM that is NOT LoFi that everybody asks about. I call it the ‘stinger’, which you hear in the opening scene and again at the climax of the film. A lot of people have asked me about this sound, but it is so signature to that film, I kind of like to keep it that way. It is one of those distinct sound design moments that will go down in film history.
KP: So this film was made in Texas in the summer of 1973. How have you seen the film scene change here in Austin?
WB: Chainsaw came out in 1974. Shortly after, Tobe moved out to LA. The next film he made was Eaten Alive, starring Neville Brand. When the time came, he asked me to work on the score for that film. I loaded up my un-air-conditioned VW Beetle, loaded it up with instruments and drove out to California. He set me up at his girlfriend’s place. We spread out in a bedroom at her place and just did it again. I was a young guy having an adventure. I took the money I made from working on that film and rented a place and stayed for a couple of months. At the time, the music scene in Austin was actually better than LA, which was a large part of what brought me back to Texas. Once I was back in Texas, I did a lot of production sound mixing in Austin and around Texas. By the 80s, LA kind of discovered they could shoot TV movies here in Texas and we had a crew that was ready to shoot. As time went on, the film community here in Texas has really burgeoned.
KP: How do you split your time between production and post?
WB: I have always wanted to split my time between production and post. Production is great because you get to be out in the world, but I love the creative aspect of post, but that means long hours in a dark room. Especially with the opening of this great new post production facility, Soundcrafter, here in Austin, I have been doing more post. I would say my favorite experiences have been working with a tight documentary production where I am able to do the production sound and follow it all the way to the final mix. That is one of the things I love most about making films in Austin. I can work on everything from high-dollar features, to documentaries, to making funny sounds in a dark room.