The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 397 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’re going to fulfill a promise that we made last week on the podcast where we said that we would talk about sound and how it’s used on the page, on the stage, and in the mixing room. After nearly 400 episodes I cannot believe it has taken this long to talk about sound. To help us out we’re joined by a guest from 250 episodes back.
John: Andrea Berloff is a writer whose credits include World Trade Center, Straight Outta Compton. She wrote and directed this summer’s 1970s gangster movie The Kitchen. She just came back yesterday from New York where she finished her sound mix. Andrea Berloff, welcome home.
Andrea Berloff: Thank you. It’s so good to be home. And really if I’m going to return to Los Angeles is there any better place than to have my first stop be here?
Andrea: With the two of you.
Craig: We are the definition of Los Angeles.
Andrea: My family doesn’t need to see me. Nobody.
John: No, no.
Craig: Why would they?
Andrea: They’re fine without me.
Craig: They know you and they’re bored of you.
Andrea: That’s absolutely true.
Craig: We still appreciate everything you say and do.
Andrea: I don’t know about that. But we’ll see. [laughs]
Craig: You’re fresh to us.
John: Andrea Berloff brought Matzo for Passover which is fantastic.
Andrea: I did. I brought Matzo for Passover, but also just because I knew it would be a great opening conversation with Craig.
Craig: We got to talk about the Matzo for a second. And just come along with us gentiles. You need to hear this story. So a little quick refresher course on Passover. Passover is the reason that the most of you have your Easter, because The Last Supper was a Passover Seder. Interesting trivia: Jesus was Jewish.
Andrea: Ooh. Really?
Craig: I still feel like a lot of people miss that one. So Passover is the story from the Bible and one of the deals is that the Jews are running away. They’re leaving, they’re fleeing. It’s an exodus of sort from Egypt after all their travails. And they don’t have time to leaven the bread. Right? They have to make bread. It doesn’t have time to rise. So instead they just leave that out and end up with this terrible bad bread. The point is the bread has been damaged. OK? It’s damaged, because they’re fleeing.
And I’m sure everybody when they first saw Matzo come out of the oven said, “Oh no, what happened? There’s been a terrible mistake.” And the bread-maker said, “It’s not a mistake. It’s just that we didn’t have time to do it right. So this is wrong bread. It’s bad. But it’s all we have.” Right?
Andrea: Right. I’m with you. Go on.
Craig: So in a very Jewish way Jews are like let us now impose this terrible, broken food upon every generation of Jews to follow. And so during Passover Jews are not supposed to eat any leaven bread, or any leavened anything, but only things that are no bread-like at all. Or this horrible, broken, misshapen food that is in defiance of all that is good.
Andrea: Now here’s what I have to say about that. I will grant you that perhaps Jews have extrapolated out a little far. That perhaps just because the Matzo screwed up why take that against pasta?
Andrea: What did pasta factor into this? Nothing. Pasta is fine. Had nothing to do with this story. So I will say to you that I’m with you in there. But I will take issue with the idea that Matzo is inherently a terrible thing. Because the Matzo for example that I brought you today–
John: Was delicious.
Andrea: Thank you, John. Covered in caramel and chocolate, a little bit of sea salt. Delicious.
Craig: Sure. That’s how they tell you that crickets are good. They’re like, look, we took this bug and we covered it in chocolate and sea salt and caramel.
Andrea: I feel like that’s your cultural bias. Some people do find it delicious, crickets.
Craig: No. Everybody finds chocolate, caramel, and sea salt delicious. And then it is literally masking – when you purchase Matzo, John…
John: Yes, tell me.
Craig: Have you ever bought a box of Matzo?
John: Never once in my life. I never had the occasion to.
Craig: How strange.
Andrea: Well the real conspiracy at this point is that you can no longer buy a box of Matzo. If you go to the grocery store they only sell them in six-packs. And nobody wants six boxes of Matzo.
Craig: No, exactly.
Andrea: But that’s the only way they sell them now.
Craig: The reason they have to do that is because Matzo actually probably costs less – because it’s such a terrible product it costs less the more you sell. It defies physics and nature as I pointed out. Also, true fact, Matzo is packaged in Matzo. I don’t know if you knew this. Yeah, you can eat right through the – there is no box.
Andrea: Oh, I didn’t know.
Craig: The box tastes slightly better than the contents.
Andrea: With a little butter and salt.
John: Well because the ink, the printing on the box.
Craig: The ink adds a little zest.
Craig: So my birthday is in early April.
Andrea: Happy Birthday.
Craig: Thank you. And the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, like the Muslim calendar. And because it is a lunar calendar that’s why for instance Christians have you ever wondered why Easter keeps shifting around on you all the time? This is why. Because it’s based on Passover.
Andrea: It’s funny that they never settled that down on the Christian calendar. Because you know what they settled down Christmas. They settled down other things. I wonder why they didn’t do that.
Craig: They shifted the Sabbath one day. Why not? They could do anything.
Andrea: I don’t know. Just declare April 15 Easter.
Craig: They should.
Andrea: Right. I don’t know.
Craig: Anywho, a lot of times my birthday would fall during Passover.
Andrea: That’s the worst. My dad’s, too.
John: Oh, so what would your birthday cake be?
Craig: That’s a great question.
Andrea: The worst. The worst.
Craig: So what they would do is they would take something called Matzo Meal.
Craig: What is Matzo Meal? So Matzo is horrible. But if you take it and smash it up and grind it into a quasi-ersatz powder flour type substance it gets even worse. Then, you add eggs and you whip it up and it turns into a kind of a thick dense cement. Then…
Andrea: Like papier-mâché. What you would make papier-mâché out of.
Craig: Yes. It’s a glue. It’s essentially a glue. A mucilage if you will. And then you add a little bit of sugar. Not too much, because we don’t want anyone to enjoy this. Then we put it in the oven and we bake it until all pathogens are dead, so I think we’ll put it in the oven at 7,000 degrees for 100 days. Then when it comes out you cover it in – OK, and this is another, this Passover chocolate always has the same disgusting taste to it. Why can’t chocolate be right? Is there leavening in chocolate?
Andrea: It’s the corn syrup, isn’t it? I don’t know. I’m saying that like I know what I’m talking about.
Craig: You can’t use corn syrup? It’s so horrible. It’s like sickly-sweet. At that point it’s like a diabetes prune juice that they pour all over the whole thing. Then they put it in front of you, they stick a candle in it, and they sing Happy Birthday. But even as they sing Happy Birthday to you, John, there’s a slight sneer. A little bit of a sneer.
Andrea: We know it’s not that happy.
Craig: No, this is bad.
Andrea: See, I really think that the moral of this is that it’s not really your issue with Matzo and Passover. It’s because it screwed with your birthday.
Andrea: [laughs] And you’re still really angry about this and about all the trauma.
Craig: Yeah, that’s actually the headline. There’s no secret there. The absolute headline is that I was traumatized repeatedly.
Andrea: Matzo is not the issue.
Craig: No. That said, I have taken this with me very far.
Andrea: I see.
Craig: Somebody posted a picture on Twitter of a Matzo cake covered in that glistening, brown, weird, shimmery fake chocolate.
Craig: And I got the shivers. I got the spinal shivers.
Andrea: I’m sorry. What else happened to you as a child?
Craig: That was actually the worst of it. Weirdly–
John: It was the root of all Craig’s anger was the Matzo cake.
Craig: Just a brutal insult year after year.
Craig: Yeah. So anyway, Happy Passover.
Andrea: Do you want to hear the worst? My birthday is on Christmas Day. As a Jew. Think about that.
Craig: Yeah. I have another friend who has that, too. I mean, I guess as a Jew it’s not super bad because you weren’t going to get Christmas anyway.
John: But you couldn’t have like a normal birthday party with friends.
Craig: That’s the problem.
Andrea: I got a cake, but there was no party.
Craig: Oh yeah you got a cake.
John: My husband’s birthday is on Halloween.
Andrea: Oh, that’s fun.
John: Well, it’s kind of fun, but also–
Craig: That’s a rough one, too.
John: Everyone wants to trick or treat rather than, you know.
Andrea: Yeah, than celebrate him.
Craig: And the theme of his birthday is blood. Bleh. All right, well anyway, that’s my – so don’t eat Matzo. That’s my basic—
Andrea: Well then I’m sorry I brought you my delicious treat. John liked it.
John: It is delicious. It is genuinely delicious.
Craig: We can keep continuing to argue about that.
John: Andrea Berloff is not only a Matzo expert. She is also a WGA board member. So we’ll start today by talking about some WGA stuff because that’s what we basically do. Stuff happens and we recap it. But we recap it sort of on a Saturday and then everything changes by the time the episode comes out.
Craig: Let’s see how completely obsolete our information will be.
John: Let’s see what happened this week. So on Wednesday the WGA filed a lawsuit seeking to establish that talent agency packaging fees are illegal under both California and federal law. So the defendants in the lawsuit are WME, CAA, UTA, ICM, the big four talent agencies which represent 80% of the packaging fees paid by Hollywood studios and networks. The plaintiffs in the suit in the WGA East and West include Patty Carr, Ashley Gable, Barbara Hall, Deric Hughes, Chip Johannessen, Deirdre Mangan, David Simon and Meredith Stiehm.
Andrea, we know a lot of those folks.
Andrea: I think we need to take a moment to really honor that group of incredibly brave people because they – it’s not even so much that they specifically, you know, I don’t want to speak to individuals, but we needed plaintiffs who just simply have been on shows that were packaged for whom we could fight on all of our behalves. And the fact that that group stepped up and put their names on the lawsuit is really brave. And people don’t typically stick their necks out like that for others. So I really want to commend them and thank them.
John: Yeah. I got to see three of them yesterday and just pulled them aside and thanked them so much for what they’re doing because it is just putting yourself in the spotlight in that way.
Craig: David Simon kind of prior to the lawsuit had already extended his neck, torso, limbs, and yeah, he’s been pretty outspoken.
Andrea He’s been vocal.
John: So Meredith Stiehm is from the show Cold Case. And she spoke about sort of how the agency was making $0.94 on the dollar of everything she made in the backend. And Deirdre Mangan I didn’t know before, but she did Madame Secretary which is another big hit show. And so these are great plaintiffs. And as we sort of said in the speeches and the lead up to all this stuff, this lawsuit we always said we were going to file it, we also said it was going to take a really long time. And you sort of don’t know what the ups and the downs are, but the lawsuit is now filed. And we’ll check in with it.
Andrea: And it will take years. We can be checking in on this conversation for years and years and years. My mother just had a lawsuit settled this week that took 10 years. 10 years. So it will take some time.
Craig: Well, I thought that I had a pretty good case against her and I was willing to fight. And I was. I was ready to take it the whole way.
Andrea: You know.
Craig: If you guys weren’t on the board, if other people were on the board and we were hearing about this information then I would say a certain kind of thing. And so I think I should just keep saying that certain kind of thing. And you don’t have to react to any of this. But my general analysis in a situation like this is that the lawsuit is part of a strategy to try and get a deal. I believe – my theory is that in fact this lawsuit will not last years. It will not go to court. It won’t do any of that.
My great hope, I’ll just keep saying this, my great hope is that we resolve this quickly. I know that there’s been a suggestion from some people – some people have come back from meetings and things and said that people at the guild were saying, “Look, this is going to take a really long time and we really think maybe we should be looking at forgetting about the big four and looking at midsize and smaller agencies.” And my feeling is that that’s never going to happen, ever. That’s just my personal opinion. And that we do have to make a deal with the big four agencies. And so I’m very, very hopeful that that happens.
This is a nerve-wracking time because – it’s an interesting time because unlike our labor actions with studios, which must come to end. I mean, you can’t strike forever. They can’t lock you out forever. Nor can a deal last forever, right. So these things are constantly churning and then resolving. This could last forever. And that’s frightening because I do think that there’s great value in the way we work with these people. And also we’re talking about these relationships that have gone on for a very, very long time.
You know, I’ve been talking to people on both sides and it’s fascinating how there’s a lot of similar feelings on both sides of hurt and confusion. But there’s also I think a weird wistfulness like on both sides what you hear people saying is that this personally is really distressing and upsetting because we have relationships. You know, the businesses that are the umbrella of a place like WME for instance or CAA, that’s that. And like the Writers Guild is an institution and that’s that. These are the umbrellas under which people exist.
Then you have individual people who are just like this feels terrible. And I’m hopeful – hopeful, hopeful, hopeful – that all of this stuff, saber-rattling and fire and all that, leads to some sort of resolution. The resolution has to be better for writers than the status quo. And I think that there is a resolution to be had.
So I just continue to urge – I urge you guys, I urge them to get into a room that both sides recognize as productive and then produce and get a deal so that we can just sort of get back to our lives. Because I like the life that I had.
Andrea: I like the life I had, too. But I will say this. I picked up on a word that you just said which was this wistfulness. And I think nobody when they’re a kid wants to – everybody wants to grow up and go to Hollywood and make movies. And you have an agent and you think that sounds so cool. And all of that kind of no longer exists in a sense. Nobody dreams of growing up and creating content for a multinational conglomerate that is then going to be streamed and you’ll never see it again and you don’t know how many people watch it. Like that is not your childhood dream.
Your childhood dream is not working for an agent that is no longer an agent. I mean, our individual agents may function as that, but the agencies no longer function in the way that we perceived it as being. So I think part of this is also a wistfulness for the way things used to be. And the way things are evolving is frightening to everybody. And I don’t think it’s just endemic to our relationship with our agents and the conversation we’re having regarding that. I think it’s also regarding what will be writer’s place in the future of this world, because I think that is very much in flux and I think that this fight is a symptom of the larger thing going on right now.
John: I had a conversation with a reporter this week. We were talking about – he’s not a person who covers Hollywood at all. He covers labor. And so he’s asking these questions about how is this reflected in the division of labor versus capital, or labor versus management. And it was a really fascinating lens to look at it through because obviously we only see this as Hollywood, our own little unique thing. But as writers we are labor and agents are sort of the people representing our labor. But it feels in a strange way that this influx of money has made us like we are assets and the split of labor and capital is – it’s just a different mix.
If I were not in this business at all I’d be looking at this and be really fascinated to see sort of the questions that it brings up in terms of what does it mean to be an employer versus an agent, a manager. So it’s a fascinating thing even if you weren’t part of this mess and trying to figure out the way through it.
Craig: And we are weird labor. I mean, we’re labor, but we also – there was a New York Times article that misunderstood the relationship and said agents play a massive role in matching writers to the room. And I’m like, no, no, no, writers do that. And then you realize very quickly we’re employers. That’s the weird part is that we’re labor but we’re not labor. We’re also employers. When the agents are – people say, look the packaging fees has disrupted what I call the you make more when I make more relationship, which is crucial, when we say packaging fees has disrupted that and thus pushed down the salaries of lower level writers towards our minimums it’s also important to remember that there’s a writer in charge of that who is signing off on that.
Andrea: That’s right.
Craig: And whose budget is being improved because of that. There is an inter-relationship here. It is not as clean and clear as the big guy versus the little guy. This is a strange relationship that has gotten twisted but can be untwisted I believe.
And, of course, for those of us who mostly have done feature work our agents have operated in a traditional sense. I mean, until I did Chernobyl I had never had any relationship with an agency other than you get 10% of what I make. So there’s still I think a lot of room for this to be fixed and worked out.
You know, and I do think that when I think about life where there’s a kind of forced separation I immediately start thinking about unintended consequences. And essentially what I start to ask is who now will benefit from our not being there with those people? And some individuals and institutions come to mind. So, you know, I’ll just keep urging a peaceful resolution. But that doesn’t capitulation and it doesn’t – for either side. Neither side wants to just go like, oh OK, whatever you want.
Andrea: Never mind.
Craig: Yeah. If there’s any way to fix this. That would be great if you guys could do that.
Andrea: We’re trying. We’re working on it.
John: You know, and that was only Wednesday.
Andrea: There’s more.
John: And so on Thursday night a bunch of members led by screenwriter Daniel Zucker put together a big mixer with the #WGAmix. And I’ve never been sort of prouder of a party that I wasn’t at. It was this huge event, two stories of a bunch of people together in a room.
So it reminded me Craig that during the strike we would have events. This is sort of pre-social media, but you had your blog and I had my blog. And Jane Espenson had her blog. And so we’d put on our blogs like everybody meet at Warner Bros and we’ll all picket together. And it reminded me of how important it was during times of unrest to sort of gather people together. And so I just love that these members self-organized and did this thing.
Andrea: I will agree with you. I would say to you that some of my most significant relationships with writers were formed during the strike. People who are still genuine friends today were people who I met during the strike.
Andrea: Because we’re screenwriters and we sit alone all day long. I didn’t know anybody.
Craig: Can’t we have parties without–
Andrea: You’re welcome to invite me any time.
Craig: Throwing grenades around. I mean, strikes are very expensive ways to meet people.
Andrea: They are. They are.
Craig: I mean, I think it’s great, obviously. And, look, a large part of this is a sense of solidarity, but I will also, as always, because I am disagreeable and I am that guy, I want to also say to people in the guild don’t be so quick to scream and yell and be abusive at people that disagree or dissent. Because I think that makes us weaker.
Andrea: I agree.
Craig: Look, I did not like the essay editorial that – what’s the writer’s name?
Andrea: Jon Robin Baitz.
Craig: Jon Robin Baitz.
Andrea: Yeah. I thought that was a big mistake.
Craig: Right. So he wrote this long piece about why he wasn’t going to leave his agent and how much he loved his agent and how agents were great and how this made no sense and all the rest of it. And I just thought, well, this is a massive miscalculation. What do you think? People are going to read this and because of your grandiloquence everyone is going to go oh my god he’s right and the scales will fall from our eyes. That’s not how it works.
Also, I just didn’t think it was a very well argued piece. And it was super long. That aside, I’m sure he’s listening to this going, oh thank you very much Scary Movie 4 guy. Regardless, people went crazy and they started yelling at him and making fun of him and mocking him. And say what you will, the guy is a very well-regarded writer. But that aside, even if he weren’t when do that it makes us look weak. It’s implying that we are one defection away from collapse and we’re not. Ever.
Andrea: No. I couldn’t agree more. And I think one of our big flaws, not just with this action but with almost every action we take, is that we do not create enough safe space for dissent. Dissent is not particularly welcomed. And I don’t think that we can ever–
John: Dissent is democratic. And we are a democratic organization so we have to make sure that we are listening to those things. And a lot of my job this last week was listening to people who were freaked out and unhappy. And Monday was a really tough day because I was hearing a bunch of that stuff. And then Tuesday was a much better day because I was hearing better things.
Craig: I think in part the attitude of fearing dissent is engendered by the natural guild position that the more of you that support this the stronger we are. Which implies the fewer of you who support it the weaker we are. Which implies if you don’t support this you are weakening us. Which makes you a kind of enemy for disagreeing. And if there’s anything I wish I could kill in the guild body politic it’s this whole you have to vote yes or else you’re weakening us. So your yes isn’t really a yes. It’s sort of a yes, but it’s mostly kind of a – you know what I mean? It’s an act of patriotism to vote yes. We have to stop doing that.
And I know it’s hard to stop doing that because it’s helpful. It is. I get it. It’s useful. But the more we keep saying you have to vote yes to be patriotic and effective the more we’re essentially defining people who dissent as internal termites gnawing at the foundation of our union.
Andrea: Or just anti-guild. People are out to, I mean, same way you just said, out to destroy us. And loving something also means sometimes seeing its flaws and being able to speak to that as well. Doesn’t mean that you’re trying to tear it down.
Craig: That’s the song I have sung for so many years.
Andrea: Yes. I know.
John: That was Thursday. Then on Friday—
Andrea: What happened on Friday, John?
John: On Friday there was small happy news. So the guild announced the Weekly Feature Memo.
Andrea: I think that’s great.
John: And it’s sort of inspired by the CAA Book Memo. It’s a newsletter that goes out every Friday to producers, to studios, listing available specs and pitches. It’s available to current, post-current, associate members. You can make up to two submissions a month. And you get those in by Wednesday. We’ll put the link in the show notes. But essentially it’s just a simple straightforward newsletter that goes out of like these are the things that are out there. All the agencies always sort of had their own version of this. This is just a system-wide thing that people can (crosstalk).
Andrea: I think that’s really great. And I hope that this continues after this action is settled. Because to give writers who may not have number one agent or something like that the ability to have a list out there. I guarantee you every assistant in town is going to read that list. And just say that’s a really cool idea. Yeah, I’ve never heard that kind of idea before. I would take a look at that script.
I really think that this could be tremendously helpful for screenwriters.
Craig: Isn’t there at one of the theaters they will do a little live creation of an unproduced pilot?
Craig: There’s an interesting idea of this bin of forgotten toys. And inside of them are these gems. And people won’t read them because they’re old. There’s this sense of like, oh, that’s been around. It’s old. That doesn’t mean a damn thing. It could have been around for 30 years. Who cares?
If you love it, and you see the potential, and you know how to do it, and then you find somebody else that really loves it, well then that’s a thing. It counts. So it makes total sense to have some mechanism by which we can kind of reintroduce things that have fallen by the wayside. I’m not even thinking about writers at this point. I’m actually thinking about audiences at this point because there are a lot of – you know, somebody said that literally if all you did – oh, you know what it was? So escape room. I did an escape room and it was – you know, escape rooms are always located in like weird parts of town and stuff because they just need cheap real estate. And one of them apparently was either in the same building or near the building where the Writers Guild keeps all of its printed scripts from their screenplay registration service.
John: Yeah. That’s a whole thing.
Craig: And we were talking about kind of a storage wars where you buy a pallet and go through and try and find a script that’s great.
Andrea: Think about the gold that’s in there.
Craig: But someone said, you know what, if I could what I would do is just go through all the scripts written by women. Because they were all ignored for decades. So go in there. There’s probably like a hundred amazing scripts that just got ignored.
Think about like that alone. Right? So I think it’s a great idea.
Andrea: Someday we’ll have an archivist. Right? How about that? We pay for an archivist for a year to do that.
Craig: Just go through and sort. Great idea.
John: Craig, it occurs to me that with this weekly feature memo people will be looking at loglines and you and I are always so dismissive of loglines.
John: And now people are going to have to write loglines.
Craig: Well they’re the worst and my logline would just be like “Seriously, just…”
Andrea: “Just read the script.”
Craig: “Just read the script.” Just read five pages and if you don’t like them throw it out. There’s the logline. There is no logline. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Read five pages.
Andrea: But it does. It does matter. People say what is your movie about.
Craig: I know. They should stop it.
Craig: And you should just keep saying to them read five pages. If you don’t like them it’s not going to be for you. And if you do you’ll keep reading. And eventually you might get to a point where you go oh here’s where I realize I don’t like this. But the logline will never – because I can tell you, I can give you terrible…
Here’s a logline. The son of a mobster struggles with the legacy of his family and the direction of his own life. Well that’s The Godfather. That’s terrible.
Andrea: I know.
Craig: Yeah, so anyway, read five pages.
Andrea: OK. I’ll tell them.
John: Now we finally get to the marquee topic.
Andrea: Let’s do it.
John: Which is sound. I’m so excited to talk about sound.
Andrea: Me too.
John: So we’re going to start with talking about sound on the page. So as a screenwriter you are responsible for everything that an audience sees and hears in a movie. But really if you look at a script you’re really mostly describing what people see. There’s dialogue which of course you hear, but I’ve been thinking back sort of like how often I reference the sound in a script and it’s probably not even every page.
So I want to talk about sort of when you make the decisions to call out the sound and when you don’t. I remember looking at my first – as I was first starting to read screenplays, like the old screenplays, like every sound effect was capitalized. It was like an old radio play. So that the person with the coconuts could make the horse galloping. And now I think there’s an expectation that unless you’re saying something is weird we assume that everything that we see onscreen is going to make the sound we expect it to make, unless we’re calling it out differently.
But, Andrea, as you’re writing how often are you calling out on the page special sound things?
Andrea: I tend to do a lot, and probably too much. I probably write too many stage directions as is. I’m very verbose on the page. I feel like when you’re writing a screenplay you are trying to entertain people enough that they want more. They want to see what actor would you put in. They want to make that movie. And so I tend to overwrite a bit in the screenplay. I always say – I mean, not me just saying this, everybody says this – there’s a reading draft and a shooting draft. And my reading drafts tend to be pretty heavy on all of that stuff. I love sound. I love music. And I put a lot of it in.
So I will often say, you know, the sounds of the city, the screech of the tires, the clap of lightning. I do it a lot.
John: You’re trying to create that feel of what it would be like if you were in that theater experiencing this. Craig what’s your sound take on the page?
Craig: I’m probably not as heavy as it sounds like you are in terms of visual description. I will describe visuals in a very kind of reportorial war correspondence style. But sound I’m obsessed with. Because I realize, especially now having just gone through all these sound mixes, how much more in tune with sound I am than with the granular aspects of stuff.
Visual information is important to me, but sound texture and I think all the emotion comes from sound. So a lot of times when I’m writing a scene and I want you to feel scared, or I want you to feel confused I’ll think in terms of sound. Things will go whistling by, or falling or going kerplunk. But really the sounds are lying because then you realize it’s something else. But I love to bring the reader into a space with sound because I don’t know, for me at least that’s where all of the emotion lives in the environment.
That said, when you actually arrive at the moment of production sounds have to reorient and change to what you see. But then you get to write again. Because sound is yours to control and it’s the best part of production to me because, look, what you shot is what you shot. Yeah, VFX can help and all that, but sound you can do anything.
Craig: Oh joy.
Andrea: It’s fun.
John: Let’s talk about, this is very esoteric, but on the page what you capitalize in sound and what you don’t capitalize in sound. Because sometimes do you capitalize that Whistling By or do you capitalize the thing that’s whistling by? Or are you capitalizing any of that stuff? What are the things–?
Andrea: Well, it’s funny. I think it’s really individual and I think, you know, I think there are some writers who just love the all caps. And I’ve looked at some screenplays and it’s almost impossible to read because apparently every single page is so exciting that we scream about every word. I tend to not do that and really reserve my all caps for when it’s worth it.
John: Holy cow – pay attention to this.
Andrea: Holy cow. Like probably not more than 10 to 15 a script. Because there shouldn’t be many, in my opinion, many more than 10 or 15 like holy cow sound moments. On the page that is. So, most of them you just – it’s in there for feeling, for texture. And when it’s a big moment that you’ve got to really make a statement with it then I hit the all caps.
Craig: I’m with on that one. I’ll all caps things that are sort of introductory weird items that aren’t meant to be like oh my god but just more like, you know, he lifts up a mechanical BLINKING DEVICE. That’s an important thing. So I’ll just say prop guy, blinking device. But for sounds, unless it’s an explosion mostly I’m not capping them. Sometimes I will, if it’s meant to be kind of evocative or emotional I’ll put all of that line into a kind of italicized position.
As I get older I find myself stylizing things more like Stephen King does, you know. We’ve all read these Stephen King books where suddenly there would be a paragraph in italics that was sort of an internal process. And I find myself doing this more and more now where I just start – in my action descriptions I spend less time describing what the room looks like and more time describing the inner dialogue that we will never hear, but I find it actually helps, you know.
John: If it’s shootable.
Andrea: If it’s shootable. Well, you know, even if it’s not shootable. In my mind it creates that emotional moment when again the screenplay is getting somebody to make your project.
Craig: It’s inform-able. Right.
Andrea: It creates that emotional buy-in that if it’s just dialogue and just description you don’t get. Like you need to understand the core of why this character cares about what they’re doing. Why they’re in a panic about what they’re doing. And it does inform the actor’s performance ultimately. You know, it sort of makes the actor realize like the three sentences you have to say here might be that interesting, but let me explain why they’re interesting.
Craig: That’s exactly right. And see that’s how actually we get to direct on the page. Because I’m not a big fan of like “we meet Jane, smarter than everybody realizes, and hiding her brutal past.” I don’t know any of that and I can’t see it. And also that’s just a writer reading off of a card to me. But we meet Jane. She’s standing there. She sees a car dive by. And then in italics: I don’t know why I do this every time.
Oh, I’m in a character’s mind. I’m feeling something. That’s actually really exciting. And I’ll do that a lot around sound because I think the experience of sound is something again that just feels more emotional and less intellectual. It’s more of an I Feel than an I Think.
John: Great. And before we move on let’s define the categories of sound we’re talking about. So obviously almost literally the tracks you’re going to see on your nonlinear editor. You have your dialogue, so everything the characters are saying. You have your ambience, which is the sound within a space. It’s the diegetic – it’s what the space itself sounds like. You have your music, obviously. And then you have your sound effects, like those big pops. Those things that are classically the things that would get uppercased on a page. Those are the things we’re talking about with sound.
And so all those things show up in the script, but then when you actually get to production, let’s transition to production, that changes. And when you’re in production a lot of what you’re recording is the dialogue and it’s weird – I remember the first time I showed up on a set and you’re watching the scene happening and they hand out these things called Comtek which are so you can hear the microphones and you can hear what’s being recorded. And you realize like, oh, it sounds so thin because all you’re hearing is the actor’s dialogue.
You’re not hearing the space around them because it doesn’t sound right. Because you’re only recording for that dialogue.
Andrea: When done properly. And that’s kind of all you want is to hear the dialogue.
John: Yes. Completely clean.
Andrea: And the worst case scenario is if you’re not, if you’re hearing anything else. I had an incredible sound recorder on set, Danny Michael, and we were in our tech scout. And there was a location that I really liked because I thought it looked cool. And Danny said, “Yeah this looks really great. Are you interested in hearing the scene?” That sort of thing. Because he was absolutely right. We were standing on top of subway tracks basically. There was a subway underneath it. So we were never going to get through the scene. So we had to move our location.
The worst is when you finish production and you get back to the stage and you realize I can’t use this dialogue because it’s too messy. You want the cleanest dialogue you can get.
Craig: And that’s actually something you can protect against slightly as a writer. I mean, most of the time it’s bad choices being made by a director that puts somebody in a place where like I need to be in this place therefore we’ll just go ahead and loop or do an automatic dialogue replacement later. That’s when actors go into a studio and just lip-sync to their lines so you get this – but it’s never – and we’ll get to ADR, because it can be both life-saving and it can also be the devil. So it’s one of those things, like all tools.
But if you are writing a scene and you are hell bent on putting it somewhere that you know is inexorably loud and noisy, just be aware if it’s a heavy dialogue scene you’ve probably screwed up. That you need to reduce the dialogue as much as possible because on set not only is the job of the sound recordist to get the cleanest possible dialogue, usually in combination of a little lavalier mic, which is right on them, and also a boom microphone. If you can get both at the same time it’s great. But also even in terms of what they call overlapping – you know, if I can only see one character I can’t hear another character step on the character’s line that I see because then I can’t edit that dialogue cleanly. So they’re really obsessed with–
John: But as a writing choice you might choose to set it in a loud place, but if you’re choosing to set it in a loud place you’re going to make different choices about what the characters are going to say because they’re going to have shout over that noise and it’s going to completely change the nature of the scene.
Craig: And they have to be together in the shot because you can’t edit it because the background sound will get all chopped up.
John: But there may be good choices to do that but it’s different content of that scene and different context—
Andrea: You have to be creative about how to achieve that. If you want to have it in a big club, that’s great, but everybody has to be dancing silently. And then you can get their lines out.
Craig: That’s the best.
Andrea: Which is the best. Which I might have done.
Craig: Everybody does it. Everybody does that.
Andrea: But it’s very awkward.
Craig: It’s the weirdest thing to see shot. Like if you’re in a big – like that scene, like The Social Network when they’re in that club and they’re like yelling over the – there’s no music playing on the day and people are just shuffling like zombies, so it’s this quiet thing. And then two people are just yelling pointlessly in a silent room where people are shifting around to lights and no sound. It’s creepy.
John: So classically what you do is the music plays, boom, boom, boom, boom, and then it stops, and then everyone has to keep dancing, like basically it’s still there.
Craig: It’s so weird.
John: We have no videos to show.
Andrea: I will say this, because I feel like this is (unintelligible) statement on sound overall, you know, I shot a dance scene and I was adamant that we had to play a song that people could dance to, because music affects people in a very different way than a click track would affect people. And really feeling that sound and that music in your bones really changes the performance.
Craig: Yeah. You get your moment where you actually play it for people so they can dance and have a great time. And then when you need them in the background of the shot of two people talking, like in singles, then you are going to have to get some stuff where they’re just shuffling–
Andrea: Shut up back there.
Craig: Like weird zombies. So creepy.
John: What other lessons did you learn shooting your film about sound?
Andrea: In production?
John: In production. Let’s talk about whose responsibility it is to do sound in production. So obviously you have your sound recordist. The sound recordist, did that person go out on location scouts with you?
Andrea: Yes. Absolutely. It’s imperative because he had to go into each set, like I gave that previous example, but also even things like, OK, you’re going to shoot in this diner, except that industrial refrigerator is humming the entire time. So we have to make arrangements with the establishment, the owners of this diner, to unplug that refrigerator. And if that’s a deal-breaker then we can’t use this location. That sort of thing.
So, there’s a fan whizzing overhead that nobody else can hear. He has hearing like a dog. Thank god. So, yes, he’s there every step of the way to make sure that you’re–
John: And in production can we talk about “Hold for Sound.” So sometimes you’re about to shoot something, or cameras are rolling, and then the plane goes overhead or this thing, you know, a motorcycle passes by. It can throw off performances. It can throw off your rhythm.
Andrea: I had some incredibly skilled actors in my movie and they kind of knew it the second we all knew. Everybody knows at the same time. There’s a bus going by. And so the actor would be in the moment and be like, “I’m holding,” and then we would continue.
Craig: They can find their light and they can pause for passing noises. They’re very good that way. Yeah, I mean, your sound crew is actually quite small on a movie which is always surprising to me. A movie with even enormous crews and enormous things, your sound team really boils down to the sound mixer, who is the person sitting at the cart with the mixer, driving the various inputs which is just lav mics and boom mics.
John: And also looks a lot like what we have here for this recording setup.
Craig: It’s not that different actually.
Andrea: A little cart.
Craig: Yeah, it’s a cart. And then you have your sound, I guess your sound assistant, or the second sound–
Andrea: I’m sure we’re bungling that title. Another guy runs around.
John: We’re going to butcher terms.
Craig: There’s a person whose job is to basically mic up all the actors and handle all the Comteks, the wireless things, and make sure that all the mics are in place and every actor has them on when they need them. And then there’s a boom, sometimes two boom people, but usually just one boom man or woman whose job is to put themselves in what I think is the most horrifying spinal position you can imagine.
John: Arms way over their head.
Andrea: Their shoulders are incredible.
John: The very long boom. And just out of frame and they magically know how to stay out of frame.
Craig: And I will say to like the sound mixer, “Isn’t that bad for them?” And he’s French, he goes, “No, the pole is very light.”
Andrea: It’s not light enough.
Craig: “Like a feather. It’s like a feather.” And I’m like even if it weighed nothing, just having my hands up like the Y in the YMCA for more than five minutes hurts so much.
Andrea: All day long. 14 hours a day.
Craig: All day long.
Andrea: God love them.
Andrea: It’s amazing.
John: So if you’re a writer on set, one of the things that I had to learn is sort of when to freak out about sound and when to not freak out about sound, especially in terms of dialogue. So if both characters are in the shot and you see them talking to each other you know you can’t cut around a mistake. But if you’re on a single, if you’re looking at one actor and not the other actor, the other actor is off camera and kind of off mic and they mess up a line, it reminded myself that, oh, that doesn’t matter. The sound that matters most is the sound that you’re seeing that is reflected in that shot. And not the other sound. And training yourself to be like, OK, did I get all of what I need of both sides of that and will I be able to – imagining yourself later on in the editing room like do I have all the pieces I need to make that scene work?
Andrea: Well there’s that part of it. And now we’re sort of dipping a toe into ADR as well, but there’s also the idea that you can also say please hold, just give me that one line again please, actor.
Andrea: And let them repeat that specific line in a different way. And then also just making sure you have enough takes that you have options so that if you’re off of an actor you can get them saying it 15 different ways and you don’t know that they’re saying it 15 different ways. You might have one take that you see on screen, but you could have 15 takes that are the dialogue that’s informing that scene.
Craig: Yeah. You need to know how to edit. I mean, that’s the – writing doesn’t necessarily prepare you for how to manage that aspect of production. But editing does. So, the more you can get a little bit of editing experience before you go into a situation like that, the better off you’ll be because you can actually – and here’s the thing. If you don’t quite know how that functions what will happen is you’ll start asking for things and people start looking at each other like, oh, director is stupid. They don’t know how this works. Because they all know.
Andrea: Yes. Oh they do.
Craig: They know.
Andrea: Much more than you do.
John: And let’s transition to the edit, because a thing I also didn’t realize until I was actually in the middle of editing my first movie is how often the dialogue that we hear is not actually the dialogue that matches that take. The editors are masters at making things fit and work, and so that you can cut together a scene where they’re not quite saying what was matched with that video. And it doesn’t matter.
And so they’re remarkable. Things that I assumed like, oh, we’re going to have to ADR that and we’re going to have to fix that, like oh-no-no they’ve got that.
Andrea: They’ve got it. Right.
John: What was your experience with them?
Andrea: Well what’s amazing about this and still as a writer-director you know the emotional truth of that scene better than anybody around. So the sound editor might try something that you never thought of and you think that’s a great idea because that’s exactly, you know, that is getting at a different emotional truth than the flat performance we might have gotten in the take that we got. But if we can grab that sound take from a previous time, or get the actor back into a booth and get them to record it with a different emotional truth it really can enhance a scene.
John: And as we’re talking about this part of it, traditionally this is your main editor. So this person who is cutting picture is also cutting that first sound and there may be assistants there to help out. And that first cut is largely about performance. It’s about the storytelling.
John: Yeah. It’s picture. And so I’m always reminding myself that like, oh, I shouldn’t expect this to sound right. I shouldn’t expect the world to sound right. Everything is temp. We’re just trying to get the storytelling to work.
Andrea: What story are we telling here?
Craig: And that sometimes will also get lost by editors and sound people. Because we know, and this is why I love the way that things function when you’re making a feature and it’s a writer-director, or you’re making television and the writer is ultimately supervising postproduction, sometimes what will happen is I’ll watch something back and I’ll go I know there was a better version. There was a better reading.
Andrea: Where is that?
Craig: And they’re like, “Oh this one, yeah. Somebody dropped a thing and it made a noise back there.” I don’t care. Fine. Then you know what? Someone made a noise back there. This makes me feel something. Who cares? So sometimes they’ll get a little over-pristine because they don’t quite see what you see. Which is fascinating to me. But that initial process of editing, it’s interesting.
It used to be that your first pass was really raw and it was really about story, dialogue, that. As nonlinear and computerized editing has advanced and become faster and easier, the first pass you kind of now also expect a certain kind of beginning of creation of environment, atmosphere. You’re starting to zero in on an aesthetic of sound effect. So for instance when we were doing Chernobyl there were a lot of moments where we thought like, OK, what would this room – we have a lot of choices. We’re in the pump room of a nuclear reactor. And if you give that to 20 different editors and ask them to do 20 different atmospheres you’ll get 20 different atmospheres. So the question is what is our aesthetic? What are we going for?
OK, well we’re going for hyper-realistic. What does that mean? That means let’s have somebody record one. And if it sounds boring, then that’s boring. That’s fine. Then it’s a boring atmosphere in that room. We’re not there to make it like whoop-whoop-whoop.
Now, if there’s nothing there and the reality is so jarring that it makes us feel like we made a choice to not be realistic then we have to slightly fudge reality to make it seem like reality. But all those choices start to get made early on and they will all ultimately inform the people that then make the real choices in the mix.
Andrea: Right. Well, figuring out what rooms sound like and what environments sound like has been an incredibly fascinating learning process for me. And the idea of how it informs character has been fascinating. You know, I have three main characters in my movie and they’re all at slightly different economic levels. And so what would one person’s apartment sound like versus another person’s apartment? Would a wealthier person’s – and nobody is really wealthy in the movie – but would a slightly wealthier person’s apartment be quieter than somebody who is poor? And so really playing around with OK this person’s apartment has this tone, and this person’s apartment has that tone. And then when they step outside those apartments and they’re all in the city together what are basically those three tones together sound like, all three of them mixing up, and how do those inform the characters? And how does the city become–?
Craig: It’s writing.
Andrea: It’s writing.
John: That is writing. Now, we’re talking about tone in the sense of like the ambiance you’re going to build later on in the process. I think we skipped over while you’re recording there on the set or on the stage you’re also recording room tone, which is one of the most annoying moments of the day. But it’s that moment either in the middle of shooting or generally at the end of shooting where everyone has to stand still and they record 30 seconds, 60 seconds of what’s called room tone.
And the reason why you do that is because as you’re cutting dialogue you need just the base level of that so that you don’t hear the backgrounds of dialogue coming in and coming out.
Andrea: Dropping in and out. Right.
Craig: Well, also if you – I mean, the way I’ve almost only used, exclusively used room tone is if you need to expand a moment that isn’t there, like in other words you’re just like adding stuff, then where like, OK, I’m going to say something and then I’m going to cut to Andrea and she immediately starts – she hears me saying it and then she starts following it. Well I want her to absorb it first. So I want her to just sit there and then start. Which means I have to take my voice out of her side. Well, if I take it out there’s nothing. And nothing is different than nothing.
So you have to put room tone in there to make it seem like she was in that space.
Andrea: Right. Otherwise it drops to dead silence and it’s very awkward.
John: It’s incredibly jarring.
Craig: Again, our wonderful sound recordist on Chernobyl was – like sometimes I would think like, OK, I’m shooting in Europe, these are European crews. We had this pan-European crew. They do things somewhat differently there. They have different words for things. But it’s all basically the same.
The first time that we were on stage and he called to do room tone he recorded it for I think upwards of four minutes.
Andrea: Oh my god.
John: Was everybody going insane?
Craig: I mean, I personally was like what’s – is this what they always do? Maybe this is European. So at some point, like after a full minute of this I look across the room at our French first AD and he looks at me like I have no idea what he’s going to do. But it was just–
Andrea: It’s just this guy.
Craig: Our guy, Vincent, who is the best. He just really liked to get a full breadth and variety of room tone. And the work that we did get was outstanding. And the room tone was helpful. The one thing we never had to worry about was not having enough room tone.
Andrea: Right. There was plenty of it. Room tone for days. We did very little of that. I think we only did it a couple of times.
Andrea: Yeah. We really did very, very little room tone. Because it’s all so heightened and pulpy and fictionalized, the whole movie, that we were just creating environments anyway. We weren’t going for ultra-realistic.
Craig: You can always steal room tone if you have to.
Andrea: Maybe he was stealing behind my back. It was happening and I wasn’t aware. That’s possible, too.
Craig: And even in editorial you’re like, OK, we need some room tone here, well find a shot where people shut up for two seconds.
Andrea: Some other movie.
Craig: Take that and just paste it over here.
John: Let’s talk about the mix. So we’ve written the scenes, we’ve shot the scenes, we’ve edited this thing. And so once you’ve picture locked, usually, but then it’s time to actually do a mix. And so this is where you’re going from the folks who have just been editing picture and doing dialogue and stuff to a generally a whole new team—
Andrea: That’s right.
John: That does not involve your original sound recordist.
Andrea: At a new location. New facility.
John: Yeah, new facility. And they’re seeing what you’ve done and then they’re building out whole new tracks and giving you a lot of new choices about what you’re doing. So what is your first conversation with them, Andrea, with the people who are going to be doing your real post-production sound?
Andrea: First of all you sit down and you watch the whole movie together and you all think oh my god there’s so much work to do.
John: And you’re watching it on a big screen?
Andrea: A big screen. The nice thing is when you get into a sound – I mean, at least my experience in New York – you pretty much edit the movie almost on a laptop. I’m exaggerating, but you are not editing the movie on a big screen.
Craig: You usually put a little monitor to the side.
Andrea: But it’s not the same experience as seeing a movie. And then you get into the sound stage and at least they have a big screen set up. And the most killer speakers in the entire world with the most pristine setup as if we’re all going to have an incredible theater in our homes. But that gives you the full scope of what do we have once you hear it that way. And the answer is not much usually. Turns out we’ve got very little.
And so you watch it through that first time with the team and you all realize, OK, we’ve got a lot of sound effects work to do and we can talk about sound effects later. We’ve got a lot of dialogue work to do, because as pristine as you may record it what you suddenly realize is this is the writing part that I absolutely love is I wish that she had not said that. I really wish that we could use this moment to have her say something else. And that is the best part about it is to go back and get something else entirely that can really change the entire course of your movie.
And so you all sit together and think we’ve got to get that, we’ve got to get that, and then you also look at what lines like for whatever reason somebody dropped something on and you really do need to get them to record it again because it’s crucial and we just don’t have it clear enough. The audience can’t understand what they’re saying. And then like I said creating the soundscape overall. So where is this movie set? What does it feel like? What is the era? How does it sound differently in that era or that world versus this world?
And then finally, you know, you go into that first mix definitely with a lot of ideas about music, but you do not have your score recorded. You do not have all your songs locked down. And you have to then figure out what are we trying to say with music. What are we trying to say with every other sound?
Craig: You go through a sound-spotting process where you go through and sort of say, OK, scene by scene generally speaking what’s our theory on the sound effects we’re going to need here? What’s important? What can we keep from our sync track? That’s what we start to refer to the recorded sound from the day. What can we use from our sync track? What do we have to create? Are we doing a score here? Are we doing a track, like a cue from a song? Are we doing no music? Do we need – so let’s talk about looping for a second.
So looping or ADR, everybody has experienced this even from an audience point of view when suddenly appears that the character’s voice seems a little bit different because it’s been recorded. The idea of ADR is you go into a recording room and they play back a scene and the actor has a bunch of takes to kind of sync their own voice up to their own mouth to improve it. Or, if it’s an off-camera line they just record it.
The interesting thing about ADR is a lot of times it comes down to the actor’s voice. Literally the quality of their voice. I think some actors – Emily Watson I think could probably ADR an entire movie and you’d never know because my experience of her doing an ADR line is just her voice has this beautiful consistency and it just drops in. You’re like I didn’t actually – just watching you record it I didn’t realize you were saying it. You know, like I’m watching you fake it and I don’t see.
But then other actors their voices have so much variation that it just sticks out. That day they sounded like this and this day they sound like this.
Andrea: Did they get a good night’s sleep? Did they have tea for breakfast? Like all of that.
Craig: All of it. And those sometimes can take you out of moments. And that’s always tricky. So you have to kind of gauge how all that looping works. But it can be a remarkable opportunity. And for instance are you guys Game of Thrones watchers?
John: We are. Of course.
Andrea: Listen, I’ve had a busy week. I did not watch so don’t say anything about the first episode please. But yes.
Craig: OK. So I’ll use code. So annoying.
Andrea: I’m sorry.
Craig: So John, towards the end of the first episode someone makes a remark about waiting for an old friend. And you see how that turns into an interesting thing. That was not scripted and that was not shot on the day. Dan and Dave watched the episode and thought you know what would be good if he says this here and it was looped.
Craig: So that’s the kind of thing that happens.
John: So they were able to put it over another character’s–?
Craig: They were able to put it over another character’s face. So there’s a conversation between two people, I just have that person – sometimes you can also slide things around. So it’s not ADR. It’s from production. Like I’m going to use the visual of you on take three but I’m going to use your line reading from take two and put it in your mouth.
John: Oh yeah. All the time.
Craig: And it can be a little rubbery for a second or two. But it’s OK if it sounds great and we glide by.
Andrea: You can usually get away with it.
Craig: You can usually get away with it.
John: All right. So we have now done our spotting. We have a whole new team that is building all these tracks for your movie. So you may have done little small mixes for test screenings and stuff, but this is the real final thing. This is what you just flew back from New York for.
John: And so how many days is that process for you and what–?
Andrea: It’s hard to pin down because the good people on the team were – you do that spotting session much earlier on. Months ago we did it. So they had been working, and working, and working, and building, and building it before I get in to the actual stage. My process on the stage is I was there about three weeks working it through with them. But it went on far longer than that for those people.
John: A thing I always fight both in mixing and in color-timing is just fatigue. Where like I can’t tell the difference between two things anymore. For me the worst moments in sound mixing are like how should this doorknob sound? Should it sound like this? Or like this? Or like this? And I can’t tell the difference.
Andrea: Well, my motto this week became “let’s move on and let’s come back to it.” Because, yes, you get absolutely fatigued. I have one shot in particular that is a bear for color – now we’re talking about color-timing. But I have a shot that has been a bear because there is VFX in a real environment and it has been so hard and I’m hoping that nobody notices. We can talk about this after August. Everybody sees it and see if they can pick up the shot.
But it was 1am Wednesday morning this week and we have nine people sitting there being like, “Bluer. Grayer.” And you know what? We’re going in circles. And so we just all to say like let’s move on.
Andrea: And we’ll come back to it. Because you do get fatigued. Your eyes and ears get fatigued and you’re tired.
John: But in the mix your team is helping you decide. They’re asking you for decisions about like so how big should the music be here versus how much do you want to hear your environment.
Andrea: And this is where it’s storytelling. This is where the writer, the director knows what they’re trying to create. Even this week there’s a scene where a deadbolt gets turned in a door. And I kept saying like I’m not into that deadbolt. You’ve got to get me – it’s got like a thud. I don’t care if it becomes unrealistic. It’s got to feel like it’s saying something. It’s not just about locking the door. It’s about saying something. What is the emotional moment with that deadbolt?
Craig: Yeah. And the great thing about being in the executive producer position in television is the director has to do all this really hard-hard work. And then I get to come in for review, which is wonderful.
Craig: Because my job then is to sit there. I listen to a full playback. And while you’re watching there’s timecode running and you just write down the number and your note. Number/note. Number/note. And then you go through and you go through every single thing and what it is that you think should change and why. And for me what I find so fascinating about this process is that there are all of these specific choices that I consider writing. What should that sound like? What should the deadbolt sound like? And what line should I be hearing? And what is the score?
But then the magic is in also the relational choices you make. Who should I be hearing louder? When does the rest of the world fade away? Is this music too loud? Is it now telling me to feel something? If I pull it back will I feel more because I don’t realize? All of those mixing – those are true mixing choices – I find to be where actually the most remarkable writing can occur because what you’re doing is you’re focusing people on what has emotional value. I love that.
Andrea: I love it, too.
John: We are going to take a listen to a clip from Mad Max: Fury Road.
Andrea: Oh wow.
John: Which is an example of there’s a bunch of stuff happening simultaneously. So we’ll listen to this. There’s a moment where it gets really silent and then it gets sort of big again. But after we listen to it I want to talk about the relationship between music and sound effects. And sometimes in the mix you’re not quite sure who is driving it and sort of which of those tracks is driving it. So let’s take a listen.
[Mad Max: Fury Road clip plays]
John: I mean, that was so complicated. Just imagine how much time it took just to build that one minute of sound?
Andrea: That was a sound mixer’s dream come true.
Craig: Exactly. But there’s like 40 tracks running in there. And so one category that we should probably break out from sound effects is sound design. So sound effects are really like, OK, somebody put a glass down on a table. Somebody revved a motorcycle engine. Somebody threw a grenade. People have recorded that. Here’s what that is. Here’s 20 different versions of that.
Sound design is more of a kind of creative computerized process where you’re starting to mess around with sound. So like, OK, it’s a grenade but it’s doing this really funky thing. So we’ve taken a grenade noise and we totally warped it out and ran a comb filter on it. And then a high-pass blah-blah-blah. So that becomes a little bit more of the sound equivalent of visual effects. But in this case what I loved about what they’re doing there is they are obviously playing to emotion. So when you drop out you feel like you’re falling through the air. Or you’re in shell-shock.
And then when you come back they are very smartly making you feel a little sick and scared from all this rumbly base. And then there’s this high, gravely, tinkle-y stuff going on that makes you feel like needles are going into your eyeballs. And it’s all feeling. And it’s so smart. And I love that.
Andrea: I think there’s a very low music track in there.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Definitely. Percussive.
Andrea: But at the beginning of that track, sort of the music was louder and the vocals were underneath it. And then by the end the music was incredibly low and I don’t know if it was Russian or whatever was on top of it. It was very interesting.
John: And so some of the music is diegetic because they’re playing these big drums on the back of their cars. All that decision about sound was made in the writing stage because they’re playing these crazy guitars.
Now, I want to contrast that with a scene from Can You Ever Forgive Me? which is not as loud.
Craig: Really? Because I’ve seen Can You Ever Forgive Me? and I recall that there was a huge chase with 40 trucks and 90 motorcycles.
John: I just want to point out that one of the requirements for all of our guests is they have to have made a movie with Melissa McCarthy which you just did.
Andrea: That’s right. How funny is that?
Craig: Isn’t she the greatest?
Craig: So this is what we keep saying now over and over to all of our guests. Isn’t she the greatest?
[Can You Ever Forgive Me? clip plays]
John: So this is – we were just listening to this, so where was that space? As you guys listened to this where was this happening?
Craig: So it’s a bar. We also forgot to mention Foley.
Andrea: How could we forget Foley?
Craig: How could we forget? So Foley is when you hear the footsteps for instance going across this creaky wooden floor of an old bar. And that is an old bar in Manhattan. Probably almost certainly that is Foley because our microphones generally aren’t picking up feet very well. So people will walk and record themselves on things like wooden planks and – anytime you hear soldiers marching through gravel that’s Foley and all that. They’re enhancing certain things like the glass, the tinkling of ice. These things are not pickup-able on the day.
But what I thought was really interesting was the way that Mari contrasted – she included the other conversations in the bar. So those would have been faked. We’re not hearing those on the day. Those are recorded later and then seeded in. She wanted you to feel like this was not some fake bar but there were things happening.
And also there’s quite a bit of reverb on these. Which either is a function of the day, but I doubt. I think it was a choice. When you add reverb, a little bit of echo to these conversations, it makes the space feel a little lonelier. A little emptier. So it’s like there’s empty people over there, and you’re two people over here, and you’re talking in this old, creaky, verby bar. And you almost feel like it’s like ghosts are having conversations over cocktails. It’s very evocative and I like that a lot.
Andrea: It really puts the characters front and center I think because really what you’re hearing the most is the dialogue as you should be hearing in that kind of environment. And everything else is in service to the dialogue and in service to those characters.
As compared to the first track we watched which is in service to this giant action scene. It’s not necessarily about character development.
John: Absolutely. So those people talking in the background, sometimes you’re pulling clips from stuff, but more likely it was a Walla group. So it’s actors who were brought in—
Andrea: Group ADR.
Craig: Loop group.
John: Loop group.
Andrea: I have to say that was one of the most fascinating days I had.
Craig: It’s wild, right?
Andrea: Because my movie takes place in Manhattan, 1978, and I really wanted that feel. One of the cool things about New York is when you’re walking down the street you can hear conversations in every language imaginable. And I really wanted that feeling of that assault of the city. You know, as you’re walking through New York you hear somebody screaming their head off for no reason over here. And somebody speaking Spanish over here. And just that kind of – that assault that is so intense.
And so we got most of that through our group ADR. And we had this one guy in group ADR who speaks 15 languages. He speaks Yiddish. Who speaks Yiddish? Nobody speaks Yiddish.
Craig: Nobody. Zero Mostel.
Andrea: He speaks Yiddish. And I was like, you know, we have a scene set in the jewelry district and he gave me a little Yiddish to stick in.
Craig: That’s where it would be.
Andrea: Right. That’s where it would be.
Craig: Borough Park, or you know.
Andrea: That’s right. And so the group ADR session I’m sure as Craig pointed out that that little conversation in the background was two incredibly talented group ADR actors having a conversation that they recorded some months after they finished shooting and Mari was able to use that in her bar scene.
Craig: Every now and then you will have to write that. Usually you don’t. Usually because it’s meant to be barely heard your loop group will just kind of come up with some cocktail chatter or bar chatter of various kinds. And then it gets seeded into the background. But every now and then, for instance I knew like, OK, we’ve got a scene with all of these firefighters. A bunch of them are going to be saying things. We could have them come up with their own things to say but do you want some specific things, and I did.
And even if you barely hear them I wanted them to be accurate and correct and relative to what was going on. So I wrote those. You will write maybe some of those things, but usually it’s just kind of improvised.
Andrea: It is. But I did quite a bit of writing, too, because it was a period piece. And so what I didn’t want was people talking about–
Andrea: Current stuff. And so we pulled a bunch of articles and what was going on in city politics in 1978 and what might people of New York been talking about on that day. And I ended up just writing a bunch of sentences. Like let’s complain about the trash. And let’s complain about taxes. And let’s complain about unemployment. You know, that’s what it’s like.
Craig: ConEd. A lot of chatter about ConEd.
Andrea: ConEd. I know.
John: So when do we get to see and hear your movie, Andrea?
Andrea: August 9, theaters everywhere.
John: Very nice.
Craig: That’s coming so fast.
Andrea: It’s coming up. The trailer will be out mid-May.
John: I’m so excited to see your trailer. So I was looking for a trailer so we could hype it up.
Andrea: It’s not out yet.
John: Remind us who is in your film.
Andrea: It is starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elizabeth Moss.
Andrea: And I got more. I got Domhnall Gleeson. Brian d’Arcy James. Bill Camp.
Craig: Brian d’Arcy James is fantastic.
Andrea: He’s fantastic.
Craig: Did he sing for you?
Andrea: James Badge Dale. He did not. Because I felt shy about asking.
Craig: Really? I would have asked him to.
Andrea: You know, we shot in New York and we had three big musical theater actors. We have Brian d’Arcy James, Will Swenson, and Brandon Uranowitz. And all I wanted was them to do Kitchen: The Musical. Like I was just like guys get together.
Craig: I think I would have gotten Brian d’Arcy James to sing for me only because I wouldn’t have said, oh, sing some Hamilton or whatever. He was the original king in Hamilton. But probably I would have asked for some Shrek. I’m obsessed with Shrek: The Musical.
Andrea: I was too shy. Brian right now is starring in The Ferryman on Broadway and he gives an incredible performance. And if you haven’t seen it you should go see him.
Craig: Yeah. It has been touted as such.
Andrea: He’s great.
Craig: That’s a fantastic cast.
Andrea: It is. I got very lucky.
Craig: Boy, if it’s not a good movie—
Andrea: It’s my fault.
Craig: I’m laying it firmly at your feet. And if it is a good movie I feel like the cast elevated it.
Andrea: It’s not my doing.
John: I’m giving all the credit to the sound team.
Andrea: That’s perfect. As we should. Because it really does sound amazing.
John: All right. It’s come time for our One Cool Things, where we talk about the things we wish people would know more about. My One Cool Thing is this article, speaking of musicals, Seth Abramovitch wrote for the Hollywood Reporter about the musical Nerds, which I was not aware of. So it’s a musical about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And how this musical kept crashing down and sort of half made it to Broadway and went through all these workshops.
It’s just a long history of what happened there. And it gave me such triggering flashbacks to Big Fish: The Musical and how hard it is to get something up to the stage. And so I recommend you look at it. Maybe this musical will actually happen at some point. But the weird way that musicals are financed to put together it was just a great look at sort of how that all works.
John: Terrifying. Andrea, what’s your One Cool Thing?
Andrea: So 14 months in New York working on this project, tried to come home for 36 hours every weekend to see my kids. Which meant that I was jet-lagged always. There was never a time where I was like on east coast or on west coast. And I have been having a very hard time sleeping. So somebody turned me on to there’s an app called Headspace. A lot of people know about Headspace.
John: Love Headspace.
Andrea: Within Headspace there’s a subcategory called Sleepscapes which is this bananas thing. It’s like a bedtime story. And you plug it in and a very soothing voice will start telling you a bedtime story. But after you listen to it for about five minutes it becomes nonsense. So it becomes, “The cats love rainbows. The cats are up on rainbows. The clouds…” So you’re listening and you’re like, wait, where are the cats? I’ve lost the cats.
John: That’s what falling asleep is like?
Andrea: And then eventually you’re like, oh never mind, and you go to sleep. And this has worked better for me than almost – I have tried Ambien. I have tried all of these things. There is something about this that triggers the perfect thing in my brain that it worked like a genius. And I had been addicted to it for the last six weeks.
Craig: Wow. Very cool. I’m going to try that. That sounds cool.
John: Craig, what’s your One Cool Thing?
Craig: My One Cool Thing are these wonderful little creatures that we call yeast, because they leaven bread. They give us alcohol.
John: They do.
Craig: But most importantly they leaven bread. Because without yeast all delicious bread would be horrifying and disgusting Matzo.
Andrea: Have you ever had too much yeast though in bread?
John: Not good.
Craig: Oh, like a yeasty bread?
Andrea: Super yeasty.
Craig: Where it tasted sort of like weird beer?
Andrea: Yeast can go awry. Calm down, yeast. Get in your lane.
Craig: Calm down. Don’t go crazy. Be happy doing all the wonderful things you do. But you’re really meant to be in the shadows.
John: You’re a supporting player.
Andrea: It’s not your moment.
Craig: Yeah. We don’t want to taste you. We want to taste bread.
John: You’re the ambience, you’re not the featured sound.
Andrea: Exactly. You need a mixer.
John: That is our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by the Arbitrary Jukebox Experience. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Are you on Twitter?
Andrea: I got off. I canceled the account.
John: Congratulations, Andrea Berloff.
Craig: But you may want to hop back on just to pimp out your movie.
Andrea: Instagram. Find me on Instagram. How about that?
Craig: People say like, oh, I can’t deal with Twitter, instead I’m on Instagram, the thing that gives everybody an eating disorder.
Andrea: Nope, not me.
Craig: It’s better?
Andrea: Not me. In fact, it shows me what to eat.
John: Here’s your food.
Craig: That’s great.
Andrea: I’m all about obsessing over people’s food.
Craig: OK, great. Good. Good. You’re using it in a healthy way.
John: You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, wherever you listen to podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there leave us a comment. It helps people find the show. The show notes for this episode and all episodes are at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We try to get them up in the first week after the episode airs.
You can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net or seasons of 50 episodes at store.johnaugust.com.
Andrea Berloff, welcome back.
Andrea: So good to be home.
John: And thank you for talking to us about sound.
Andrea: Thank you for having me.
Craig: Thanks Andrea.
Andrea: Thanks guys. Bye.
- WGA Lawsuit
- #WGAMix led by screenwriter Daniel Zucker
- Mad Max Fury Road Clip
- Can You Ever Forgive Me? Clip
- The story of the “Nerds” musical article by Seth Abramovitch
- Headspace’s Meditation for Sleep
- Accepting recommendations for updating the Listener’s Guide
- Submit to the Pitch Session here
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
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