SKYWALKER SOUND AND THE MAKING OF “I DO”

| 07/16/2012 | 0 Comments
David Ross and Jamie Lynn Sigler from the film, "I Do"

David Ross and Jamie Lynn Sigler from the film, “I Do”

This week, the independent feature film, I Do, makes its world premiere at Outfest: The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. It’s a charming story about a gay English man living in New York who marries his best friend in order to get a green card, while at the same time, falls in love with a man. It’s an immigration story that really pays attention to one character’s evolution, finding his passion, and finding his zeal for life. It’s not a movie we’ve seen before, yet it’s certainly timely as the country moves through its own turning point and perception of gay marriage.

But I Do elevates itself above the super niche, typical gay film genre through its superb craftsmanship — from cinematography to sound work — it’s a film that could easily play in a multiplex alongside studio fare. The cast and performances are wonderful, and the story of friendship and love is sweet, realistic and relatable. Director Glenn Gaylord has created a power film full of emotion, about a person trying to navigate some very intense situations. It’s his third feature achievement in past four years, as the writer of Leave it On the Floor, which won many awards on the festival circuit just last year, and the director of Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat. The material and universal elements of I Do has helped Gaylord evolve into the sharp director he is.

The quality of the film, is in part, due to the incredible craftsmanship and supportive team behind the lens and in post production. The film was lucky to work with Skywalker Sound and Stuart MCowan, Supervising Sound Editor, on the project. In a strange twist of fate, Stuart had been keeping a watch on the progress of writer-producer-actor David Ross’s career from knowing him several years earlier when they both lived in the UK, and reached out to the filmmakers when they were in production. For a low-budget film of this size, working with Skywalker is probably akin to winning the lottery. Stuart grew up in Scotland and worked for the BBC before he moved to the states where he got hired as a news director, then co-hosted a morning show for a radio station in Northern California.  He decided radio wasn’t for him and had always wanted to work in film.  He got lucky and was hired to assist Academy-Award winning sound mixer, Randy Thom at Skywalker in 1999, and has been there since.

I sat down with Glenn and Stuart in a West Hollywood coffee shop and talked about their experience working together on, I Do.

How did this collaboration happen, between the ‘little movie that could’ called, “I Do” and Skywalker Sound?
Stuart:  Well, I used to work for the BBC a long, long time ago back in the UK and I interviewed David (Ross, writer-producer-actor) while he was in Bad Boys Inc., and our timelines for coming to the states matched. So I kind of kept an eye on him, not in a stalker-type way, just to see what he was doing. And then I heard about I Do, and researched it to see what the film was about, and thought ‘this is great,’ a film close to my heart and interesting. So I tried to get in touch with him over Twitter, and the next day, David was emailing me and we got on the phone with Stephen Israel, the producer, and that was that.

Is it normal that Skywalker would reach out to indies? 
Stuart:  We reach out to indies all the time. A lot of people have this misconception is that all we do are George Lucas or Steven Spielberg films, and yes, we do those, but we are also very much a nest for independent filmmakers. We want to encourage independent filmmakers and get them involved in sound, as much we want to be involved with them. We work with independent films all the time, in fact, Beasts of the Southern Wild, was done at Skywalker as well.

So any indie can reach out to you?
Stuart:  Absolutely. We’ll work with almost any budget. The budget determines crew size and time, not necessary the quality of the work we that we are putting in because that will always be the same.

What was the crew size on this film?
Stuart:  I supervised and edited the dialog and ADR. I worked with effects editor Steve Orlando, and our re-recording mixer, Scott Lewis. Really, it was just the three of us, and the foley crew as well. Scott and I had one day to get through the film ourselves during the 5-day mix, then we worked with the clients Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. We played back in the Stag Theater Friday morning for review and for fix notes. It was really condensed.

How many weeks do you need to do a movie of this size to do it properly?
Stuart:  I jumped onto it earlier than what we had scheduled, just to get a head start on what needed to be ADR’d. I think it was four weeks, including the 5-day mix. It was tough, but we turned out a great product.

Glenn, what was your vision with sound on “I Do”?
Glenn:  This film always had a very specific soundscape in my head and in David Ross’s head, and we talked about that a lot in pre-production because we needed to get inside the head of the main character. A lot of films don’t pay attention to how sound can play a key part in the character’s journey. We did a spotting session via Skype with Stuart, and we went through the film. He would say things like, “let us show you something that we’ll do first,” which was music to our ears. I always want the experts to present something first. I want to let people fly, and then come back because film is a collaborative medium, otherwise people would just go on pushing buttons. So Stuart showed us an early test of the sound, and we were all blown away immediately, and thought ‘oh my god, this is going to be a great ride.’  We knew that Stuart and Scott really were paying attention to the characters and the film, and you don’t always get that. There wasn’t a lot of back and forth early on, it was basically letting them do their job, we get there and we see what they got and we give them notes.

Stuart:  There’s four moments throughout the film where we go inside David’s head, and we needed a signature sound that would carry us through these moments. From a sound design point of view, that was one thing that we had to get nailed down first because of the time crunch that we had. The note that we got from the guys was ‘tinnitus without the tinnitus tone.’ So we came up with some ideas, mixed it and sent it down, and thankfully it worked.

It worked amazingly, you forgot everything and went into his world.
Stuart:  You’ve got to capture the audience right out of the gate, especially at the beginning of the film. The other issue we had to be careful of, was clashing with the music. We hadn’t heard any of the music at that point, just temp, so we had to be careful to marry nicely with the music, to complement each other.

Glenn:  That opening was not originally in the script. It was something I had suggested we do to get inside the character and announce the film right away. I wanted to take you inside this guy’s head and show that he’s not right with the world, and that he needs to go on a journey to get out of that.

It’s beautiful, very poetic. What you did with that soundscape is of such high artistic quality, there’s a fine line between making it work and it being corny. That’s the benefit that comes from working with Skywalker, even if it was a small amount of time, the craftsmanship of what you put together was phenomenal.
Stuart:  Thank you.
Glenn:  It could have been so easy to just do a heartbeat, and we wanted to avoid that in every frame in the movie, and hopefully we did.

What was it like being on the mix stage, when you got there and heard everything for the first time?
Glenn:  Mixing this film was the highlight of my professional career so far. It was a blast of a week with Stuart and Scott, we had such a great time. And David and Stephen and I were on the same page, which is not often easy to do, but we’ve been a united front throughout the process as much as we can — as much as three people with opinions can. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful setting. The ranch is just like… paradise (laughs). I was wondering where the books were to sign us up for some sort of cult! We were in an old building with a vineyard out front and it was just gorgeous. When we arrived, we instantly knew we were going to have a good time with these guys, and we got to work immediately, there was no time to waste!

So you came in on the second mix day?
Glenn:  Yes. They showed us the first five minutes and we were blown to the back of our seats, and we said, ‘ok, this is going to be a good time.’ And then we started fiddling around from there, we’d watch a scene at a time and we’d dig in.

Who made the decisions in the room?
Glenn: We’ve worked out our own silent lingo with each other by now, they’d defer to me, we’d give each other nods and looks. I respect their opinion so it’s not really an issue. We had creative talks and we’ve had creative differences and it’s ok. This is something that David and Stephen have been working on for seven years, so, I better listen!  You want to hear from people that are that passionate about something.

Stuart:  One of the last things you want on the mix stage is conflicting opinions from the clients, and we were slightly concerned when we heard when there was going to be three of them coming to the mix. But 99% of all the notes were unified notes, so it was great actually.

Stuart, how do you creatively prepare to work on a movie?
Stuart: I like to watch the film or read the script without any other input from the clients and then get an idea, myself, of what’s going on. Usually, what I think is happening in the scene is exactly what the filmmakers want to have happen in the scene. I have a dialog and ADR background, so my primary thought is ‘how clean is this dialog’? What are we going to have to re-record, and what additional lines do the filmmakers want to put in? Throughout all this, we’re also thinking about the sound design element of the scenes that are going to happen. How do we make a scene where there are just two people talking, sonically more interesting, using backgrounds, ambiances, off screen things that are going on, without it getting distracting?

It sounds like two-person scenes could be really challenging. How did you specifically handle the sound design with those scenes?
Stuart:  Well, each of the main characters has a different place in the NYC area. So we tried to make it sonically, subtly, appropriate to where these people live. One of the characters lives in a very small apartment, so it’s not the nicest not like Park Avenue, so you make it sound sonically appropriate to where they are. Adding in different cars, horns are louder, neighbors are louder or quieter, you play with the air and the tones in the air.

Glenn:  We also played with the subway sounds throughout the film. We’d really ramp it up as it went along, to where it was a cacophony later in the film.

Stuart:  There’s an epiphany moment later in the film where everything is building up and just suddenly hits him hard in the chest, and that culminates with him in the subway, so we played with that a bit.

The score is really lovely, and the choice of source music is perfect. How do you balance the musical soundscape of the film with the sound design?
Stuart: You never want it to clash. You kind of intuitively know when music needs to carry the scene, you know when sound should carry the scene.

Glenn:  One of the composers, Jordan Balagot, got to come up for a day.

Stuart:  Working with her was fantastic, because usually composers are like, ‘bring down the effects and bring up the music,’ and effects people are like, ‘bring up the effects and bring down the music,’ (*everyone laughs*) but this was a true collaboration. There was a complete mutual understanding for the film for what needed to be up front.

Glenn:  To underscore the short schedule a little bit, they were re-writing a couple of cues while we were still mixing and sending new cues. This was a work until the end process.

What I really loved about the score was the minimal moments, a very elegant way of using music and mood.
Stuart:  You don’t want to play like the audience is dumb and tell them how to feel, because the acting and the narrative should be carrying the emotion. Music should supplement what’s going on, it shouldn’t demand how you should feel.

Glenn:  And we were very specific with the composers about the score. We wanted a lush orchestral feel, but to undercut it because if you don’t, it becomes condescending.

Was the composer working on the score before you locked picture?
Glenn:  Yes, they wanted to be involved right away, before editing. We first had a conceptual talk, then I showed them photographs from the film to put them in the headspace of the film. And they started writing cues right away. They said, ‘these are just spitball cues, we’re trying to feel it out and find ourselves,’ and that went on for months. It was a very organic way to find the character. I kept on prodding them and said we needs Jack’s theme, and everything needs to come from that. So they started to figure out how everyone fit around Jack, and the score played out that way. It was a really cool process.

How was the general quality of production sound?
Stuart:  Overall it was pretty good. You know, when you’re shooting outside, on location, you can’t control traffic or other external sounds, so there are a couple of scenes that were challenging just by the nature of the location. We ADR’d a couple of scenes where you need to hear the dialog.

Do you have any general advice for indie filmmakers when it comes to sound?
Stuart:  Get a really good production sound mixer. Get someone who knows what they’re doing. That’s key. A lot of filmmakers think, ‘as long as we’re recording it, we’re getting something.’ But it’s going to hurt you in the long run, if you get someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. You need someone who has the balls to say, ‘hang on, we need to record it one more time’. Or do wild lines on set as well, because the characters are still in that emotional moment.

Like anyone else on the production set, the director is key. But everyone is hired because of their professionalism, so if they’ve got an opinion, they should voice it. And if the director says ‘no’, at least you asked. But if you get a clean track from production, then everything else that follows in post is a lot easier.

Glenn:  We know the reality of indie filmmaking is that it’s not always possible to get clean sound and control the environment. I have this saying — I don’t know if I made it up or if I’ve heard it before — that the quietest street in production, always becomes the loudest street. And that was certainly true on this film. We had endless cars going by and honking their horns, where there would never be people normally.

Stuart:  With independent film, you don’t have the time to do another take, so it’s challenging. You should go in thinking you’re going to get the best sound recorded. Don’t go in saying, ‘we’ll fix that in post,’ because that’s lazy filmmaking.

Glenn:  And it’s not particularly fair to the actors, either. When they have to come back and re-created a performance that they aren’t in the mindset to do. From my point of view, when I’m looking for professionals and department heads, what always impresses me the most, is when they are more than technicians, when they actually look at the characters of the film and try to make the film through that person. It was very clear from the composer, from the cinematographer, and from Stuart, that that’s how they were thinking, and that’s not always the case.

Stuart:  Well, it’s not a conveyor belt, either. You get invested in the film, you get caught up in it, and you want to put your best work forward. You have to work in the best interest of the film, because that’s why you’re there. Otherwise, what are we doing?

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

 

Filed in: INTERVIEWS, SOUND
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