I want to thank sound supervisor Richard King for taking the time to do this Q and A. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a film you need to experience on big screen. Hopefully Warner Bros. will decide to open wider, for it would be a shame not to see it in a darkened theater.
DS: The trailer depicts a very unique and specific visual style. I have read that the director may have literally blurred the edges of some shots to portray how history has blurred the Jesse James myth. Since a lot of sound effects work is heightening real sounds, how were those lines between the real and surreal blurred in the soundtrack?
RK: The track attempts to follow the emotional arc of the characters moment to moment. Each sound, both prosaic and abstract, was carefully chosen to encourage the audience’s participation in their situation. So there is the non-pictoral, emotional thing going on at the same time that we wanted to create a strong sense of place, (Kansas/Missouri area in 1881). Often these two ‘styles’ collided, and we would have to strike a balance. Ron Bartlett and Doug Hemphill did a wonderful job creating a very story-driven mix.
DS: Obviously the film must reach its climax when “The Coward Robert Ford” assassinates James. How was the sound leading up to the epochal gunshot (as well as the gun shot itself) handled in such a pivotal scene?
RK: Well, there’s a sort of Kabuki Theater feeling to the scene, a sense that all the participants knew what was going to happen and just allowed the inevitable to play out. The sounds were chosen with surgical precision, and decided upon after much experimentation. Jesse James’ little girl is sitting in the yard reciting a poem to herself and provides the main counterpoint to the violence which the audience knows is about to happen. There are a couple of distant mournful train whistles, some sad flat wind blowing the grass outside, but the sounds which ended up being the most important were small sounds in the production track such as Bob Ford’s nervous breathing, shoe scuffs & floor creaks.
DS: We’ve seen with this month’s “3:10 to Yuma,” how much effort is put into the sound details to sell period pieces. What details are you most proud of in this film?
RK: I’m very proud of the entire track; I think it works as a whole. I couldn’t really pick out a period detail I’m most proud of. Hopefully the audience is drawn in and just accepts they’re in 1881 without thinking about all the details. I’m happy that we had the time and resources to leave no stone unturned in recording and creating sounds.
DS: I recently touched on the importance of a dedicated sound effects recordist and I have read your “huckleberry” is John Fasal. Assuming that you guys got to record extensively in the field for Jesse, what were some of you favorite sound excursions?
RK: John Fasal, Eric Potter (who’s my other “secret weapon”), Hamilton Sterling and I flew to Tacoma, Washington to record a large steam train. It was a later vintage train then would be absolutely appropriate, but steam trains from the 1880’s were small and tend to have a cute ‘chug-chug’ sound. I wanted a monster; threatening and powerful. We had full use and control of the train for several days. We also recorded a large number of period weapons. The ammunition was all custom loaded black powder live rounds (black powder has a different sound and fires the bullet slower then smokeless powder). Something which we relied on heavily was the outdoor loop group we recorded at Topanga State Park(seen in video below). We shot with four mics – two stereo pairs for a close and a distant perspective. We got the usual chat, plus a variety of whistles, yells and distant singing which is used almost as score in the film in a couple of spots.
HERE IS SOME RARE FOOTAGE OF LOOP GROUPERS IN THE WILD!
DS: I saw a trailer for this film over a year ago. Though I am sure you were not literally on the show from production wrap in 2005 until now, it must reap some benefit to be able to take time with a project like this…Is an extremely long schedule a gift or a curse?
RK: I worked on the film off and on for a year and a half (mostly on). Being involved for so long allows you to get fully immersed in a project, which I very much enjoy. On the flip side, working with an intensely obsessive director like Andrew Dominik can be extremely trying at times. Having said that, I really admire how he threw himself into the minutiae of building the track. He is the true sound designer on the film.
DS: What was your first gig like?
RK: Well my absolutely first gig in the film biz was on the set of a super-low budget horror film. It was my job to lie under the bed of the ‘victim’, (actually a dummy), an
d manually pump blood out of the body as the insane killer chopped it up with an ax. Someone made the unfortunate decision to use real cow blood, and I still remember the smell. It was around that time I decided I’d give post-production a try. My first supervising job was with Cannon Films on “Alan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold”; kind of a low-budget ‘Raiders’. I did a huge amount of sound effects recording (I had to, as I hadn’t accumulated a sound library yet). It was a blast! I supervised three films the first year I worked there.