“Michael Clayton” arrived in theaters October 12th. Paul Soucek supervised the sound editorial for the film. Re-recording mixers Michael Barry and Andrew Kris mixed at New York’s Sound One studio D. Kris, who also dabbles in TV mixing, worked on this latest season of HBO’s “The Wire”. Barry who has collaborated with Soucek on previous projects throughout the years, mixed the last two films by the late Robert Altman. Michael Barosky handled production mixing on “Clayton” and has currently been shooting sound for director Kenneth Lonergan whose 2000 film “You Can Count on Me” is a personal favorite. The ever-busy James Newton Howard scored the film on the Fox lot in LA. In the next few months alone, JNH will see his work come to fruition with the release of “The Great Debaters”, “The Water Horse”, “Charlie Wilson’s War”, and “I Am Legend.”
Thanks to supervising sound editor Paul Soucek for taking the time to do this Q and A. A little shy of six months have gone by since I started this thing, thanks to everyone you have participated, now onto the fun!
DS: Inaugural decisions in film are made during screenwriting, even ones about sound. Do writer-directors differ at all in their approach to sound?
Aha, but the inaugural decisions made during screen writing don’t necessarily hold water over the course of making the film. It depends on the “power” of the director, but the studios weigh in based on previews, yadda, yadda and EVERYBODY has an opinion about what’s “best.” I’ve seen films get turned completely upside-down owing to lousy preview numbers and there’s this crazy notion that remixing a bad film is going to make it a better film. No names mentioned. Every writer-director I’ve worked with has had a different approach as their all different people. Tony Gilroy was fabulous as he had written an ironclad script that was clear in the direction it wanted to go and he and John Gilroy saw that through. I’m terrible at reading scripts because I’m making the movie in my head, and what I end up seeing usually has nothing to do with this. Tony is so clear and precise about how he wanted to go that it was wonderful, and he’s also a great communicator. I’ve worked with other writer-directors who are just cashing a paycheck and could care less about what we sound geeks do. I think that by the time you get to the audio post process the environment has changed so much from when the script was being written that it becomes The Director. Every creative has different levels of control and interest in the sound process. I worked with a director who just read the paper during the mix all day and could’ve cared less what we did or were doing. Every film and every director is different when you get to the caboose of audio post. I don’t know if it matters if they wrote the film or not. Once, after all, they’ve directed it, it’s their baby and they will do as they please.
FSD: In a dialog heavy scene that is already tense just through the acting, cogitative judgment must be used to craft the sound that underscores but does not overwhelm what is already dramatic. What determines how sound impacts tense conversation?
PPS: I’ve come to the notion that we sound folk tend to load up scenes that are already working with detritus, and I’ve tried to shy away from that. The scene between Tom Wilkinson and George Clooney when he’s in the holding cell is a good example. We had very minimal backgrounds and I think the key to “punching” things was the way (re-recording mixer) Michael Barry chose to focus on the dialogue treatment. Here they are in this big “jail” environment and I wanted it to feel very claustrophobic, and that’s how we approached it. The reverb settings were certainly tighter than reality and I love how TIGHT the scene sounds. Throughout the film, the backgrounds, which Mike Poppleton did an amazing job on, were kept very low. I think that “tense conversation” is all done through the dialog mix, and when you start loading the track up with other bullshit it’s pointless and distracts from what’s going on.
Again: it’s a case-by-case situation; If a scene is working and you load it up with stuff, you’re wasting your time and taking away from what I call “the proscenium,” that being the screen. It’s the characters and drama that are important, and when you distract from that you are doing a disservice to the film. I think elegant, light touches are the way to go (you don’t hear the wind or the rumble in the jail scene, but you sense them). And blessed be that Tony did not score these pivotal scenes. They fly on their own. I learned a tremendous amount from Tony and John about this. John would always say, “Let’s not remake the wheel here,” and he was always spot-on. The worst is when you have a dialogue-heavy scene that sucks, then they want you to bring in helicopters, sirens, car alarms, whatever to try to save it, and – as the great Lee Dichter has said – they don’t walk out of the theater whistling the footsteps.
In summary, why gild a lily?
FSD: Tilda Swinton’s character-defining scenes happen when she is confronted by the stress of her job. How was her anxiety conveyed in the soundtrack?
PPS: Tilda’s character Karen is a cold, evil and ostensibly pathetic and lonely person. Again, I have this notion of “aural focus-pulling” and we were all in cahoots on this. Every room she’s seen alone in SOUNDS miserable (dripping, wheezing, whatever, excepting the irony of the background kids playing that were in the production track, and that was a great sonic slap in the face to her). I think her performance conveyed everything you needed in terms of her anxiety. What we COULD do was create a claustrophobic environment around her, and that’s what we tried to do.
FSD: I loved the credit crawl at the end because of the unorthodox silence. Much like Clooney’s aimlessly driving cabbie whose daily wish is most likely for all other traffic to get the hell out of the way, all other sounds seemed to take a cue and scram. How was this “silent” scene approached aurally?
PPS: Naturally we were loaded for bear with this: the typical NYC traffic sounds, specifics, etcetera. But the reality here is – again – “aural focus-pulling.” We’re in Michael Clayton’s head, and when you’re in a cab and something is on your mind, you don’t hear the world. I like to think about the notion of what a character might be thinking, and chances are Michael was not thinking about bus bys and sirens. James Newton-Howard‘s cue there is also very prominent, so why pollute this with a bunch of other sonic rubble? Michael remains lonely, and who knows what the hell he’s going to do? But he has had that last victory with Karen in telling her off at the Hilton, and he’s at least somewhat liberated. We kind of made it a mental vacuum by stripping things away. Again, Tony and John were instrumental with this kind of approach. I think some people in sound have a tendency to stray from the fiber of what’s going on dramatically. We are all paranoid and afraid there won’t be enough ammunition on the dubbing stage, but Tony and John Gilroy were so clear about the direction they wanted to pursue that this was a non-issue on Michael Clayton.
And I don’t necessarily agree that the silence is unorthodox. In fact, I think it should become modus operendi. We’re in Michael’s head, so why should we be distracted by stuff? I agree it’s a rather abrupt dive into silence, but you can get away with that with sound in a very magical way.
FSD: I always battle with the level of radio or phone futzing used in scenes. There is a bit of surveillance equipment broadcasting dialog out of a speaker in the film. Is there any set way to approach this kid of futzing? Does it depend on the necessity or word comprehension or just aural aesthetics?
PPS: Again, I think it depends on the DRAMA that’s going on. I don’t think one needs to be so literal with futzing stuff. The audience SEES you’re talking on a phone; you don’t need to squeeze the shit out of the other end of the line. John and Aaron Marshall – the picture assistant – did most of this work in the AVID, and it followed the drama. I loathe it when people just put in some futz setting and stay there. It’s robotic. One inspiration for me is a scene in The Rain People where Shirley Knight is talking to her husband (who she’s left) from a pay-phone by the side of a highway. I may stand corrected, but I recall the husband’s voice become less filtered as the scene continues. Then again, Walter and Barry are geniuses. I think The Conversation is the epitome of how and why to futz things. When YOU’RE having a phone conversation does it sound “futzed”? Futzing actually clarifies the dialog by making it brittle, like the 411 operator. Again I’ll retreat to my notion of it being all about the drama and the focus of the scene. I don’t think you can take a technical approach to any of this or you’re doing a disservice to the film. Much as Dede Allen broke all the “editorial rules” with Bonnie and Clyde, I think we have to continue to break rules and break new ground. When you’re on a great project, it’s really exciting. Of course the audience doesn’t notice it, but that’s what’s so cool about – as one of my mentors Richard Portman used to say – “working in the invisible.” I can understand how with a war movie or something chopping back and forth between helicopter shots you’d want to preset your futzes, but with a film like Michael Clayton it was very flexible. As I wrote, John and Aaron mapped it out.
FSD: What was your first gig like?
PPS: My first gig was fabulous. It was worked on as Blue Jean Cop and released as Shakedown. It was also terrifying because “film-school” doesn’t give you a clue about the actual workings of the film business. For example, I didn’t know what the hell was going on (I was clueless) and when everybody shouted “THEY LOCKED PICTURE!” I thought it was the most important thing in the world. At that time we were on mag and we struck track dupes in-house, and that was one of my jobs. I didn’t know anything about overtime or the union and so I just stayed for five days straight striking dupes. And the effects editor, Jack Haigis, was a wonderful teacher. It was a big action show, and the FX tracks were WIDE! I built all of them, and never made a single mistake! I think my most exciting moment was when we got a call from the mix because there was a plane landing and the director (a delightful fellow, Jim Glickenhaus) wanted to have tire chirps. Nobody was around and I was in a panic, scrambling through the library book trying to find tire chirps. I was literally breaking out in a sweat as I – by that point – knew how important and expensive the mix was. I couldn’t find anything, so I thought about varispeeding some poodle barks and I – for the first time in my life – got onto the upright Moviola and cut them in, built them into sushi rolls and scrambled to the stage. They worked perfectly, but re-recording mixer extraordinaire Tommy Fleischman turned to me and said, “Those are dog barks.” I said nothing. It was an insane but great crew, and it was baptism by fire. I knew audio gear and all that stuff but had NO CLUE about how a sound department was run. The crew played a cruel joke on me at one point when we had some picture changes and I was told that the supervisor didn’t approve of the color of the conformation labels, and I was to change them all.
There were HUNDREDS of units, and I was still building more units.
I also suppose I got spoiled in that we had a really straight-shooting producer (the late Boyce Harmon, a wildman but also a gentleman) who treated us well, made sure we were well fed, and didn’t hem and haw about overtime if we needed to work it. Suffice it to say, it’s been downhill from there.