I had the great good fortune to interview three of the members of the “Interstellar” sound team, Gregg Landaker, Gary Rizzo and Richard King. Each was incredibly generous with their time – especially since all were right in the middle of working on huge new projects – and patient with the questions I asked about the film’s soundtrack.
For those living outside of the silver screen expressway, the Interstellar soundtrack has been derided by fans, critics and even those in the sound mixing and editing business. Some pros that I’ve spoken with about the film – off the record – were profoundly disappointed in the track.
Me? At first, I was shocked at how loud the effects scenes were mixed. Hurt my ears, to be honest. But, upon reflection, I have concluded that this was one of the most complex and interesting sound jobs performed this year. But, I’m not a critic. I’m a fan who’s profoundly interested in the sound of film. And, occasionally I get to write about it …
Anyway, back to Gregg and Gary. I interviewed them for stories I was writing for a prominent trade publication. Space considerations meant that their quotes were dropped from the magazine. I hate when that happens.
In an effort to make it up to both — Richard’s quotes made the cut — I’ve decided to publish the interviews I conducted without edits. Well, the occasional conversational flub was removed, but this is what these folks had to say about Interstellar.
What was your responsibility on Interstellar?
My responsibility on Interstellar and on Chris Nolan’s films is that I handle the music and the sound effects.
It’s the way Chris likes to work. He likes the way that delegates out. Gary handles the production dialog, ADR, group ADR, backgrounds and Foley. Chris thinks that’s an integral part that that goes together. It’s an interesting way, but it works for Chris. Where Chris is coming from is that he figures that music and sound effects is a dance between themselves sonically. If there is a low frequency in a special effect and the music has that same sonic tonality to it, there [are] ways to say, ‘Okay, let’s lower this sound effect because music is taking this same thing. Or vice versa.’ So, there is always a dance between those two sonically.
And, with Gary as far as the production dialog and all that, he can probably explain it further, but his responsibility – the way Chris thinks – is that the backgrounds and Foley are an integral part of making a package of a good production track.
Instead of the normal way, that people do things on the dub stage is that the dialog handles the dialog, plus the music. The effects guy handles effects, Foley, BGs. But, there are areas where if Gary needed a fill from a background, he knows instantly where to grab it and he doesn’t have to rely on somebody else thinking about, ‘I need a fill here to sneak between these production or ADR lines.’
One of the things that struck me about Interstellar was the use of silence to really set up events.
Yes. Right. No sound in space. That was really Chris’ thought all along. There’s no air in space, so there’s no sound in space. So, anything that we hear should be music based only. No clicks or boinks or thumps or anything like that. So, it was more of a dramatic set up to go from total silence, which gives the audience a chance to go, ‘Whoa. Hey.’ It gives them a pause before you hit them back in again. Inside the ship is a noisy inside of a ship. That’s the dynamics between those two. Chris wanted to make you feel that you were on this journey inside that ship yourself.
You go from silence to being full… Is that a way to shock the audience back into the drama of what these characters are going through?
Basically, yes. I don’t know if that was Chris’ intent to shock the audience back in, but he wanted the audience to feel like the actors or actresses, that storyline that is going on inside that ship. That it is a thin sheet of metal that is holding their lives, because it could come apart at any second.
Can you talk to me about finding balance in a mix like this? I know there’s no pat answer and that’s probably a seven hour conversation we could have, but…
The balance of the mix… Chris drives Hans’ music, whether we’re doing a “Batman” or “Inception” or “Interstellar.” I didn’t do Inception, so I’m kind of the newbie on Chris’ wagon. I did Dark Knight Rises and I did Interstellar. Chris’ thought wave is that the music is such a dance and such an integral part of the feeling and tonality of a movie, it’s not just sugar frosting like a lot of music cues are. He wants that music to get inside your head and make you feel emotionally attached or detached from the film. So, the balance is… Chris wants [you to wonder if] it’s sound effects or music. You’re always reaching for that fine balance. And, he’s always striving for production sound. So, suit movements are not Foley added. That’s production sound that have been hand cut and fit in between the words. He’s very much into the production dialog, the boom mic especially, and the balance of the music up against that.
We worked a lot as far as experimentation on the stage to get your seat pants or socks to move. We researched frequencies within the stage. We brought in an oscillator, swept an oscillator to where we got certain speakers to move x-amount of air. We figured out that this frequency worked on the left and right, this frequency worked on the center. So, when we started attacking Richard King’s stuff, not Hans’ music, because Hans’ music spectral on that thing is from 10hz to 20k – his is a broad range spectrum as far as a music cue. But, trying to find that balance and trying to get Richard King’s sound effects to work into that, we found frequencies that worked the best to really move the speaker system, without hurting your ears. That was our strive – make a big powerful film that sits in chest and in the seat of your pants, but not in your ears where you’re plugging your ears going, ‘This is too frickin’ loud.’ He wanted it in the chest. He would get in front of the console and go, ‘I’m not feeling it in the chest.’ So, we’d try it in a different frequency. Then it would start to move his chest and he’d say, ‘Okay, now we’re getting there.’
I’m also interested in sound design elements that are used to convey an emotion. Obviously, if we hear an explosion the audience is going to have one reaction to it. But, if we have some kind of sound design-y, funky thing, which I think Interstellar was full of because it was space and stuff we’ve never heard before…
Well, what’s interesting… If you think about sound design… That’s one thing that Chris always shied away from. ‘I don’t want this Hollywood-esque planet’s tonalities. I want it very organic, so that people can latch on to it.’ So, when you go down to the water planet, you hear water laps, you hear wave movement. When you go down to the ice planet, you hear ice cracks and things that we were able to latch on to. He kept his worlds out of that sci-fi tonality, as I call it, and left that to the music.
In the break-up going through Gargantuan, into that with the motors and the ships coming apart with all the metal shredding the skin of it. That is all organic sounds that every body has heard, whether it’s a wrench clank or glass breaking. It’s all organic. It’s not some synthesized strange sound that has been added.
So, having that reality was important to Chris?
It was very important to Chris, because Chris, and I’m reading in to his head a little bit based on the things that he said, was, ‘I want people to feel that if we’re on this planet it’s not a sci-fi world that we’re not used to. Okay, we could make a life out here.’ These were sounds that we’ve heard and that we’ve grown up with. Everyone has grown up with the wind out on an ice field or a desert island or water laps. He tried to keep it very organic and very real sounding to the human ear. We didn’t want it to go alien on us. If we were going to occupy those worlds, then we had to make those worlds sound like something we were comfortable with. Let’s put it that way.
That was great. I think I’m going to stop there so I don’t press my luck.[Laughs] There were so many things that we experimented with. One of the things, David. This was not an Atmos mix. Chris is a traditional 5.1. So, the power and energy that we generated was out of a 5.1 mix. A lot of people were surprised it was only a 5.1 mix. Yes. In experimentation, we did a special set up that we started experimenting with on “Dark Knight Rises.” We didn’t implement it in that show, but it was started there. Gary would say, it was sketched out as a schematic on a napkin and handed to our engineering staff and we went from there. We tried to change the way we would traditionally do a film. We did a whole different ballgame on this one.
It was pretty cool.
I almost, instead of calling it a 5.1 mix, want to call it a 6.0. That sixth channel is working 100 percent, all the time, except for the silent scenes. We did a whole other ballgame on it. And, we road showed it. Every time we finished the film at the end of the week, we’d take it out to a different theater, whether it was the Grove or Burbank 16 or the Arc Light or Universal City Walk. We played these reels back in that environment. How does it hold up? What could we do different? How can their speaker system get better? This was a good experiment all the way down the road and we all learned a lot.
Interstellar was my 200th film and I said to Chris, ‘We’re venturing in to an area where I had never gone in my 200 films.” He said, ‘No time for caution now, Gregg. Let’s go until it breaks and then we can back out.’
That was interesting, because directors walk in to a studio and say that they want their films to sound totally different than anything else. I think we achieved it on Interstellar with Chris. We tried something completely different. Nobody has tried, to my knowledge, what we’ve tried in Hollywood or overseas.
It will be interesting to see how that propels the art form.
If they find out. Chris doesn’t really want us to talk about what we did, because I don’t know if you want to call it Nolan-esque. There’s a mystique. We always said to not pay attention to the man behind the screen. There was some trickery going on.
Would you mind talking about the drama about this film? Or would you rather not?
Out of curiosity, did Gregg talk about it?
No, but Richard did.
Can you share with me what he said?
Of course. He said there was a feeling of vindication. And I told him that I felt like people were missing the point, that this wasn’t a documentary film. This was a piece of art. He answered, ‘Right, this was an experience. The hope is that the audience will go along with the audience will go along with the experience, accept it, and enjoy it. Also, the hope was to surprise people and give them some imaginative sense of what these environments in space must be like, these spaces that no one has yet been to, these experiences that no one has yet had, and try to give them some real ‘experiencial’ — I think he made up that word — and being able to relate to them in a strong definite way.’
I’ll talk this out. I haven’t prepared anything about this, but [long pause]. When it comes to Hollywood mainstream big tent pole pieces, a lot of sound mixes are quite conservative. I think we’re fortunate to be able to work with a filmmaker like Chris who can take some risks in an endeavor like this and do some things that maybe people wouldn’t normally do, making an experience that they normally wouldn’t have and surprise people along the way. I know surprise is such a poor term, but really shock people along the way. We have a myriad of creative tools and decisions that we make in an effort to do it. I don’t want to say the same thing that Richard said, but yeah, you want to give people an experience that will surprise them and will shock them and will put them in an emotional place that they did not expect to go, that they could never have forecasted that they would be when they went into the movie. That to me is the beauty of this movie, the adventure that Cooper and crew go on and it’s equivalent to the emotional journey that they go on, too. I don’t think everyone expected all of that in one package. That may not directly relate to the controversy, but it does relate to the big picture of what we’re attempting to do with this movie.
I don’t know if I want to go any further than that. You start to get in to some sketchy territory – people do love to hate. They want to find a problem with everything and it seems like they get a release from finding something to pick on.
But, I’m the guy that likes a movie that doesn’t have a button on it. That’s why I love Chris’ movies. He does leave you hanging to some degree and he does surprise you and shock you. He shocks me! Every time I work with him, I get shocked. But, I enjoy that as an audience member and I enjoy that as a film professional. If we kept making the same movie time and time again, I assure you we wouldn’t be selling many tickets.
It’s an absolute pleasure every time I get to work on these movies. I’ve worked on all of [Nolan’s] since “Batman Begins.” I did the whole Batman trilogy. I was on for “Inception” and “Prestige,” as well as Interstellar.
Chris definitely has his style and workflow and aesthetic that comes out of the speakers. The best kind of mixer, I think, is the kind that can figure out what a director wants and he’s got to be a chameleon, somebody that can take direction like an actor would take direction and figure out exactly what the flavor and the style is that the director is after and be able to deliver that. It’s like making the same movie over and over again. If all the movies sounded the same, it wouldn’t be very interesting. Let’s shake it up a bit and do something different. I think this track, in a lot of different ways, takes a lot of risks but it does things quite differently from most other movies that are out there.
I just remember seeing the opening scene of that last Batman.
Oh, yeah, we all do.
I wanted to stand up in my chair and say, ‘Holy, shit, something is happening here I’ve never seen before.’ I thought everything about that was amazing.
Yeah and the fact that somebody can orchestrate that is amazing. I look at that and think, ‘I don’t know, man.’ I’ve seen Chris blow up hospitals with nine cameras running. I’ve seen him flip trucks in the middle of Chicago. I’ve seen him shoot a lot of impressive stuff, but when they dropped that fuselage and you watch that thing tumble out of frame… That’s a practical shot. That is amazing. He does things in a practical manner that most people wouldn’t think of doing. That’s what makes Chris’ films really threatening and … Sometimes his movies can feel so oppressive is because it’s so real, it’s so visceral, it’s so right there in front of you that you’re frightened because you’re there in the shot. It’s encompassing and overwhelming and not a lot of people can put their finger on why and I think it’s because he keeps things as real as he can in camera as well as on the dub stage. His philosophy doesn’t change from one craft to the next. It’s the same all the way through, to the point where he’ll even… It’s no secret that 99 percent of our track is production sound, because that was what he heard when he was shooting the picture. That’s what he heard, that was the performance that was the moment. Even if there is noise in it, he would rather leave the noise in because that was real when they were shooting the picture and it didn’t detract from the actors nor the crew nor the cinematography. It didn’t stop that moment. That is a moment and if you change that moment through visual effects just to get a reflection out, you are degrading that moment. Don’t degrade that moment. It’s crucial that you leave the reality and the energy of reality in that moment. It’s as true for picture as it is for sound. So, we really lean on the production track and the real recordings. We sneak in a couple of ADR lines here and there, but it is uncommon the way we do, with the amount of production versus ADR that we have in our movie. But, that’s part of his philosophy. Down to even the orchestra. He loves the real instruments, the real things that happen in real time that you can capture and utilize them for emotional impact in the movie.
There’s even a great moment when Dr. Mann self-destructs, when he dies. Part of the sound that is in there is actually from when they were recording the score. The scoring stage at Air Studios, the air conditioning comes on and it creates this massive sound. If you have all the microphones set up for the orchestra and you record that sound, it is incredibly powerful. I’m not saying it’s loud and it’s not particularly a dynamic sound, but it is a very moving emotional step forward. It’s a sound that’s got some momentum for you. It’s moving a lot of air through this building that is this famous old building. It’s a wonderful sound that we used that sound from the scoring stage in the sound effects to play at that moment. It’s nice to see things bleeding over from one area to another.
That’s what I have to say about Interstellar. All the crafts, I think, in this movie came together. Yeah, we can talk about the mix and we can talk about how loud it is or we can talk about how loud the music is, but the fact is that our track has a lot of dynamic range. Yeah, space is silent. But, we go from a crucial scene where we have only a thread of production sound to an overwhelming amount of sound. We go there very quickly. The music track clearly has a lot of dynamics. That opening cue is very light, very windy and wispy. Some of the wind and wispy elements of the wind are actually within the music. It’s very light, very sensitive, very fragile. Then we will get very loud, very quickly. But, I don’t think it’s just the sound mix that does it. I’m convinced it’s all the crafts that are doing it. It is the cinematography, it is the picture editing that helps with that dynamic range, it’s the acting. You’ll go from a performance that’s sensitive and light and just through their performances, they will elevate and they’ll elevate quickly. Sometimes the pace of their elevation changes. But, one of my favorite scenes, and I mentioned it in another interview, and I don’t know if you want to duplicate it or not. One of my favorite scenes is where Cooper says good-bye to his daughter and it’s a very difficult conversation, because he can’t actually own when he’s coming home and it’s just grueling. I could identify with it, because look, I live in the Bay Area and I come home for the weekends to see my kids and then every Sunday night I say goodbye to my seven-year-old daughter. I lived that scene every Sunday night and the irony is just unbelievable that I was mixing this movie, which is about a father daughter relationship and I’ve got two little girls, three and seven, and I lived this scene every week for the seven weeks of this final mix. It’s like the parallels are uncanny.
But, anyway, that scene starts in one emotional state and it almost turns into rejection, but he knows that it is his destiny, he has to go to save her as well as everybody else and we are instantly launched into this rocket launch where he is taken away with rocket fire. All the crafts are doing it – the production design, the acting, the picture editorial, the music, the mix, the sound design. It’s all the elements coming together. This is just one example I think in our movie where everybody is firing on all cylinders to emotionally pull off what Chris is trying to pull off. I think that dynamic range is so well represented in everybody’s crafts across the board in a scene like that.
It’s always good to hear what strikes you guys. One of things that I loved the sound about this film was the sound of the dust. I thought that was phenomenal. Just the way that was conveyed I thought was amazing.
Well, we had loud dust and we had quiet dust. (Laughs) We don’t shy away from the loud stuff, but again it’s part of that dynamic range. It’s part of that emotional dynamic. The threat is there from the beginning of the movie and we don’t shy away from it. Everybody on the planet is supposed to be effected by it, and we communicate that everybody on this planet is effected by it. But, yeah, the dust is something that everyone is familiar with. It effects everybody, but not everybody acknowledges it and I think by the time where we get to where humanity is and what they are experiencing at this point, it’s effecting everyone (stretches that out). We wanted to make sure that was an element that’s communicated. But, I think the dust has a handshake relationship with the music, too. Well, all of it. That’s why we call it a mix. It really is all of it coming together. It’s the delicate Foley and the delicate production performances playing with the music, and then fantastical things happen. Fantastical. That might be a made up word. Fantastic things happen that will shock and amaze you and that’s what really the mix is all about – finding the right emotional combination for any given moment. Chris is the master orchestrator of that. Chris directs us just like he would direct any actor or the cinematographer. He communicates with us in adjectives, not in terms of decibels or in technical terms. He’s an artist in every way. And he knows enough about the craft that he can talk the technical stuff if he wants to, but he doesn’t.
It’s a pretty magical collaboration. Then you put Hans Zimmer in the equation, who brings fantastic notes to the mix. Most people get worried when the composer comes in and they say, ‘Oh, he’s gonna wanna turn the music up. Turn the music up.’ No. That’s not Hans Zimmer. Hans Zimmer is the guy that is more like a director than most other composers. He’s a guy that is clearly communicating on a level with Chris and on a level with us where he sees the colors that we’re mixing. How’s that for a crazy term? He sees those colors and understands that we’re trying to get a different shade than the color than we have and trying to figure out how to get there. We don’t always talk in vague, overly artistic terms like that, but sometimes we do. It’s just a great collaboration and in this movie it came together in a way that it hasn’t… it came together in a more intense way on this movie than ever before.
This team has been together for the last two movies and we were able to collaborate and communicate in a way in this movie that really we haven’t done before and it was wonderful.
We had a lot of experimentation with this movie and I think we came out with a really unique, bold, daring and emotional product that is really different from anything that we’ve worked on.
Did the backlash to this film surprise you?
No. (laughs) I’m not surprised by it. It’s the 21st Century Internet Generation. It is what it is. I would hope that for an artistic community that we work in and we live in that we can appreciate art for what the art is and what the art is trying to say, versus criticize it because it isn’t perfect in somebody else’s perspective.
Last time I looked at “The Starry Night,” it was not photo accurate. But, that’s why I enjoy van Gogh. That’s why I like van Gogh and I think a lot of people like van Gogh. I’m still going to like van Gogh, even though someone says, ‘That’s not what a star looks like. That’s not what nighttime looks like,’ that’s okay. I kinda like what that nighttime looks like. I can appreciate that for what that is.
Am I actually making an Interstellar to Starry Night analogy? I could be ridiculed in my community for making that kind of analogy, but you know what? I’ll let you run with that. I can’t be embarrassed over making a Chris Nolan, Vincent van Gogh analogy.
Let me think about this one second – one of the angles I’m writing about and thinking about for all the films that are nominated is the art of articulation. While it’s a sound editors job, it comes down to you guys to put it together. I’m wondering when it comes to articulate sounds how important that is…. What inspired this is that Interstellar, Hobbit and like that are dealing with worlds that none of us are going to experience, and yet you have to have some kind of anchor to reality. In the audience I have to identify and understand what’s happening. It can’t be some ephemeral thing that I don’t understand.
If it’s got web feet and a beak, it can’t bark.
I get it. For us, knowing we were going to a place where nobody has ever been, nobody has held a recorder in a wormhole to capture that moment, the thing that Chris does is he has to go for – you’re absolutely right, he has to go for what the audience can attach to and what the audience can identify. At that point in the story, the identification is the emotion. That’s true throughout the movie. That’s the number one thing you’re trying to do, is recreate and convey that emotion through every craft and through the mix. Through the wormhole, it’s threat. They are scared for their lives. They are worried that what is their lifeboat could – we want to communicate that that ship could get crushed like a tin can at any moment. At the same time, this magical phenomenon happens with Anne Hathaway’s character where you want to sell the emotion of mystery, too. This mysterious entity reaches out – the first handshake – and you’re not sure what that is, but at the same time you’re worried about your own survival. So, you go for the emotions and you’ve got to figure out what sound is really going to articulate the given emotion that you’re trying to communicate. If it’s the threat or if it’s the magic. To me that’s a very complex moment to communicate. So, we go for a lot of the physical rattling and Richard had a vocabulary of rattles whether they are deep low pitch metal rattles and vibrations to very high-end fast fluttering kinds of metal rattles. Anything that would see different parts of the ship vibrating as though it’s going to fall apart. At the same time, we enter a bit of a musical element for the hand reaching out, which was not there until we assembled it on the dub stage and that was to go with the illusion of the magic. You’re always trying to stay attached to the emotion of the moment that the audience can relate to. Yeah, you have to figure out what the audience is going to be relating to at any time. To me, the varying degrees of emotion in this movie, I like. We do have fight scenes where you want to feel the threat of man on man, versus the threat of nature versus man. We play the spectrum. That goes back to my explanation of dynamic range. The spectrum of this movie is so broad, that having the articulation for any one moment is really important, that’s super important to Chris, and that’s why we labor throughout the final mix.
In our workflow … on a traditional movie we go through pre-dubs where every category of sound is mixed in and of itself and that’s after editorial and design. So, we’ll do a dialog pre-mix and we’ll do a sound effects pre-mix, and within the sound effects pre-mix there will be many categories. You’ll do all the backgrounds and then you’ll do all the explosions and you’ll do all the guns and you’ll do all the vehicles and then you’ll do all the fire, the smoke, the dust. All the sub categories. That is not the approach we use with a Chris Nolan movie. With Chris’ movies, there are no pre-dubs. We have the same amount of time, but nothing is committed. We are not committing what any one category of sound is going to be until we are altogether as a group and we are assembling is scene by scene by scene. We do it all together, which is great because everybody is on the same page. We don’t give any opportunity for anybody not to be on the same page. We are all in the same room when this whole thing is assembled. When we decide that we are throwing out this particular background track because it doesn’t work, everybody knows and why we are throwing it out and what we are going to replace it with, or if we’re going to throw out that sound effect or we’re going to go with the Foley… Whatever choices we’re making, like everyone is in the know. There is no excuse. That is part of our super tuned machine. That’s part of what helps with that collaboration that I was talking about with all of us there, between Richard, Gregg, me and Chris and Lee Smith and Hans. Hans isn’t there every day, but when he is there, he is part of those conversations. What’s nice is that will spark other ideas from other people. If Gregg pulls something out it may spark an idea for me on the other side of the console. And vice versa. I’m back to collaboration.
But, yeah, I want to get back to articulation. Yeah, certainly in a mystery of an environment where no man has ever been, you want to choose very carefully, what is going to be the connective tissue to the audience and it is really about what they are supposed to be feeling in that moment. I don’t know if I answered your question or not. I’m sorry.
If you didn’t then you spurred me on to something else. That’s one of the reasons I like doing this job. I think we covered it. There are seven more hours of conversations that I would love to have, but space is always the issue.
I understand. 200 words or less. How many words do people really want to read about the sound department? We are the category where people go for nachos. They get up, they stretch their legs. I know where we stand on the totem pole. It’s okay. [Laughs]