Skip Lievsay needs almost no introduction: He is one of the most distinguished and prolific sound editors in the movie business. His many collaborations with The Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Jonathan Demme, to name just a few, are often considered classics. Lievsay has been nominated for four Academy Awards, two for No Country for Old Men and two for True Grit. He is a New Yorker but has been working in Los Angeles for several years. Recently, he moved back to NYC and talked with Designing Sound at a new Warner-sponsored sound facility on Manhattan. Part 1 of this interview can be found here.
DS: Skip, I’ve picked some different titles you worked on where I think there’s a very interesting interaction between music and sound effects – I’d love to hear your thoughts about the work. I wanted to go back in time and start out with a true classic: Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. I’ve heard Tom Fleischman talk a lot about his wonderful mix of the film but I don’t think I’ve heard much from you about how you did the sound effects for the film. I think one thing is to mix the film, another thing is to kind of use the songs almost like a foundation for your sound effects, which I thought was very creatively done.
SL: Yeah, it’s interesting… Marty’s really, really committed to that thing of drama and music. And in those days music was all about songs – songs from his youth and pop songs of the moment, of the day. In Goodfellas he wanted to use Layla by Eric Clapton, and as Marty and Eric had become friends on The Last Waltz, Eric said that Marty could use Layla, and he said that he would take, I think it was 50.000 dollars. That created a baseline so that they could then go to all the other players and say: “Well, Clapton’s giving us Layla for 50.000. So we wanna get that song from you for no more than 50.000”. And that enabled them to put together the 50 or 60 songs that were in the movie without it costing, you know, 50 million dollars just for the cues.
So the movie was really about connecting those songs. It was set by Marty and Thelma [Schoonmaker, picture editor] that there would be music to music, scene to scene, music to music, pretty much rapid-fire throughout the film – the engine of the movie was that connection. That kind of rhythm. That tempo. So our role was, like you say, that connection.
A lot of times we had to do the bridge. And sometimes we had to make bridges that enabled hard music that couldn’t go to together to seem like it had a handoff, and that really was the role of the effects that we did. Like the music would go there to there and there’d be a gap, and it’s like “how can we get across that gap there?” And the sound effect would come in and make a big hrumpf that would disguise the gap. It was almost like a drum fill, you know, or an orchestra splat that allowed us to bridge the gap. That was really fun and we just did a ton of wild stuff, you know, we tried everything. There was no mystery about what music was going to be playing or the syncs or transitions… It was our job to push the envelope a bit on those segways and try to help infuse the soundtrack with a little more kind of energy. That was 99% of it… Making energetic transitions. And Marty was really cool, he was just thrilled with it. He loved all that stuff.
DS: You’re not gonna work with him again now that you’ve moved back to New York?
SL: Well, you know… Over the years I worked on a bunch of movies with him and we had a core group with Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty… And when the chips were down on Casino it just seemed like the time to go. I had a handoff when I first started from Frank Warner, because he had done Raging Bull and New York, New York but when Marty decided to move to New York after that, Frank basically said: “I’m handing it off to you, Skip. Now you’re the New York guy, you do the movies. And there may be a time where you decide you don’t want to do that anymore. It happened to me, it might happen to you”. And it did.
I had spoken to Tod Maitland, the sound mixer who had done Age of Innocence, and when it came time to do the next movie which was Casino, I said, because Tod and I were close: “Are you gonna do Casino?” and he said: “No, no. Age of Innocence was really, really hard, I don’t want to do that.” And I’m like: “Yeah, but you know, it’s a big film”, and he said: “You know… When it’s all done you only remember the yelling and all you have left to hold on to is that your resume has another word on it.” I’m like: “Woah. I did not know that. I didn’t know you could just say ‘no’!” So…
I guess I just got cocky and I said: “This is too hard and I don’t enjoy this”. At a certain point we’d been working for like six weeks straight with no time off, and I just said: “You know what? There’s not enough downtime”. The studio kept insisting that the movie be cut back and shortened, and Marty and Thelma were pretty brutally cutting it back and I just basically said: “This is bad and I want out”. I never really got to say goodbye to Marty and tell him… He was furious that I would leave them. He said: “What are we gonna do? What’s gonna happen?” And I said: “You can have your crew. You can have all the same people working on the movie. Just, I won’t be there.”
Coincidentally, not at that time but later, I tried to work more as a mixer and I decided to bite the bullet and give my filmmaker clients to my co-workers, so I gave Spike Lee and Scorsese and others to Philip and Eugene. I just said: “You do those”. And then I tried to concentrate on mixing. At that time I was mixing, you know, 15-20 movies per year. Small movies. And it was really cool and exciting. Then it became clear that the only path left was to go mix at Sound One, which I didn’t want to do. And then I decided with my family to move to Los Angeles.
I did see Marty at a Paramount party for Hugo. We had a hug and it was nice. He was happy to see me, I think, and I was very happy to see him, particularly at such a moment of great success. They hadn’t won the awards yet, but you could see it was gonna happen. It was nice. I think Marty wanted to have that success, and it’s really nice that he got it. He’s a really interesting filmmaker with so much to say.
DS: You mentioned Spike Lee and I was going back in time to an old Spike Lee joint, “Jungle Fever”, where there’s this clever use of Stevie Wonder songs, especially during a sequence when Wesley Snipes is coming into this, like, warehouse, where he’s with all these junkies.
SL: Sam Jackson was one of them.
SL: I think Spike and maybe Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese – they understand that connection between film and opera really, really well. If you look at Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X, there are moments where it really does feel like a unified force of drama and music. Truly embracing the music the way opera does it. Jungle Fever, that moment you’re mentioning was definitely one element. Spike had clearly picked the cue and made the film work for the cue. It’s all about the happy wedding between the lyric and the tempo and the way it was shot and the rhythm of the edit.
Basically, as I recall, it’s a steadicam shot that goes into the building and it follows him up the stairs, he breaks down into the big main room and the shots gets gigantic all of a sudden and we said like: “Let’s make something really big happen”. We had the sound effect of bats flying out of a cave, and that made the cave association work so everything became a function of that – boom! We come into the drug haze, you know. And that’s where we meet the brother. Wesley Snipes’ name was Flip, and I can’t recall what Sam’s name was, but he was fantastic. Spike, you know, he’s a student of human nature and he’s very good at grabbing a few key things and then letting it unwind. He’s very clever in that way. “Do the Right Thing” is filled with moments like that. A lot of his films are.
DS: Agreed. I’ve written down another film, which is quite a new one, Stone. I’ve not heard much talk about the sound, but I thought it was very interesting, it felt like an abstract sound collage. Could you talk about that?
SL: The filmmaker, John Curran, is a guy I’ve known for a long time. He’s an American who lives in Australia and he’s very interested in sound and music. He hired me on this cool period film called The Painted Veil which was shot in China, a really beautiful film. Alexandre Desplat did the score. Beautiful, beautiful film. So we had a nice meeting there. Although that film is more conventional I guess, without meaning to sound negative, the approach was more conventional.
And then the next chance to work together was Stone, and he called me up to ask me about it, and at the time it had a really interesting foundation. The music was going to be Jonny Greenwood [the guitarist of Radiohead who did the scores for There Will Be Blood and The Master], and there was gonna be a lot of sort of abstract musical compositions, and moments where we would experiment with having sound and music and picture a little more abstractly applied.
I guess what happened was that Jonny Greenwood did a certain amount of work and then he had to go on tour. And John was pretty happy with what was going on. Jim Schultz, the music editor, did a fantastic job of taking pieces and splicing them together, but then they got to a certain point where John wanted to have some more thematic work done, and Jon Brion was hired to come in and do some additional music. And what an interesting character that guy is. Jon did a lot of stuff and dumped it into Jim’s lap. Jim and John Curran worked out an overall game plan with all these interesting parts. And because it wasn’t scored closely it led to a more broad and abstract soundtrack.
The film itself had scenes where John and his editor had cut away this sort of more traditional construction and made it into a more abstract, montagey type of thing which was fun. I hired my old friend Eugene Gearty to do sound design and he concentrated on sound design issues and I concentrated on dealing with the dialogue. We got together in LA and spent two weeks mixing the movie there together. It was very… It was like a fistfight there for a while. A lot of yelling, but I have no problem with that. I don’t mind being yelled at if it has a purpose.
DS: For me, Jonny Greenwood and Jon Brion are two composers who really try to do something new when scoring movies, and in my opinion are even pulling it off quite often.
SL: They really are. They’re definitely on like a wave, a new wave of reinvigorating the film and music linkage. Really talented and interesting people too. It’s not just that they have a new idea; they have a new experience that they’re bringing to the table. It’s the same thing with Trent Reznor, where you have a fresh view of an older idea, basically. It doesn’t hurt to have that infusion of, you know, rock music, popular music. Symphony music isn’t exactly infused with the pulse of today’s youth.
DS: Talking about rock music, I’d also like to hear a few words about U2. You seem to have done a couple of things together?
SL: Yes, it started out with me doing the U2 3D live film – basically just trying to help them. Tim LeBlanc and I tried to help them interpret the live sound to be more like a film sound, and it was a fun exercise. Except for one bad moment. The film had a screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and the band decided to go there and, without telling anyone, performed live on the steps of the theatre right before the screening of the film. Ordinarily, having a screening afterwards would be fine, because the movie could stand on its own. But because it was in 3D, there had to be a 3D screen, and because a 3D screen is like a gain screen, you have to take the other screen down – otherwise the speaker’s going through two screens that are far apart, and that creates a sound disaster.
So the festival assured everyone that they would take the white screen down and the silver screen would be there, and they would balance the room so that the sound would be appropriate to the silver screen, but they didn’t do that, and it was awful. I wasn’t there, thank God, but Bono got up after five minutes and said: “This is fucked! Whose idea was this?” and ran out the door. Frankly, I’m amazed they let it continue after that terrible screening. But everyone regrouped, and we went back to the theatre, had some test screenings in Los Angeles, and everyone realized it was just the film festival, and that it wasn’t an issue with the movie.
DS: And that’s how you got to meet U2.
SL: I got some quality time with Edge. Later when I did a movie called It Might Get Loud with Jimmy Page, Edge and Jack White, Edge came in and I was teasing him about that. And he was very gracious. It was nice. I feel like I’ve done quite a few things that their music is in. Recently I worked on a movie with Jim Sheridan, and they did a song for the end of the film. That was called Brothers, with Jake Gyllenhaal. Jim and the band are very close.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but basically the band controls their music in the movie. If you want to put one of their songs in a film, then Cheryl, who’s their co-worker, brings the drive and helps you figure out how to put it into the movie and then supervises and blesses whatever you’re doing and then goes back to the band and reports to the band how you changed the song and made the edit. If you do any kind of an edit, short of a fade-out, you need to get their permission.
We spent a lot of time working with Cheryl on It Might Get Loud, but more recently I did a documentary with the director Davis Guggenheim, about the making of Achtung Baby, which is called From the Sky Down… And that’s a really nice film with a lot of nice access to the band about making that record, which came out as a part of a 20th anniversary package. So Cheryl was very helpful in making that and making a lot of the red tape go away. She gave us access to the band, which was really nice.
DS: I didn’t know you had done that film as well, Skip.
SL: I did, yeah. That involved having to go on the tour as well. I had never been to a stadium concert before, and it was the 360 tour at a baseball stadium in California. And it’s mind-blowing what they do. I was unprepared for the scope of it. And it completely ruined me. I couldn’t hear probably for like two weeks after that. I don’t know how they do it. They must have very elaborate hearing protection.
DS: Yeah, they do, and I guess they have this in-ear monitor-system which also helps in some way.
SL: Well, you figure it’s blocking out the horrifyingly bad sound of the concert itself. So that’s gotta be blocked, otherwise you couldn’t hear the monitor, right? So it’s blocking the disaster that’s happening in the baseball stadium and then it’s playing a mix. It was a fantastic event, though, and I was thrilled to go. From the Sky Down was a fun movie and it was lovely having Flood and Daniel Lanois talking about the record. There’s footage of them at the breakthrough moment when they started recording. After months of nothing it just came out, and it was the song “One” – and we see that happening. It’s just beautiful, fantastic stuff. So now I feel like I’m part of Team U2, practically.
DS: I guess that’s a pretty good way of wrapping things up. Thanks for taking the time, Skip, I know you’re a busy man.
SL: I’m just sitting here working on a movie.