Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Listening to THE FIGHTER

Los Angeles, CA.  January 9, 2011.

     Friday night I attended a reception for the makers of “The Fighter,” followed by a screening, at the home of John and Nancy Ross.  Their beautiful abode, just off Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, has a breathtaking view of the city.  It also has something other canyon houses with great views don’t:  a state of the art motion picture dubbing stage.  That’s where the film’s sound was mixed.  And it proved to be a perfect place to experience fully the sonic delights in David O. Russell’s story of welterweight Mickey Ward and his crack addict brother, Dickie Eckland.   What a way to hear a movie!

      Reception guests included Oscar winning editor Alan Heim, editor/ producer Mary Sweeny, post production supervisor Bruce Markoe and “Fighter” sound designer Odin Benitez.  After fine dining and chatting with these esteemed colleagues, I made my way to the impressive sound stage.  In opening remarks, Mr. Russell thanked the Rosses, the audio crew and picture editor Pam Martin, and spoke about how, following the example of Frank Capra, he personally directed background and even off screen performances.   

     Mark Wahlberg, noting the room’s wide, plush chairs, joked that he didn’t want anyone to get comfortable enough to snooze through the picture.  He  added that great care and  thousands of judgements went into making “The Fighter.”  Less care and a few bad choices, he suggested, might have resulted in a movie that put everyone  to sleep, comfortable or not.  

      Talking about the manifold decisions entailed in making a film played like gangbusters to this crowd.  Script, casting, photographic, design, costume, hair, make-up, location, editing and, of course, sound choices are, after all, the group’s raison d’etre.  A simple look at the mixing console in front of us, with its hundred plus faders and thousands of knobs, was a reminder of how much work and planning, unbeknownst to most viewers, goes into the soundtrack of any motion picture.  

     “The Fighter” announces its audio signature of “pre-lapping” before its first image even appears on screen.  Over black, we hear Dickie’s flat New England stacatto.  Then we see him -- gaunt, full of nervous tics.  We hear an interviewer but he’s “off mic,” and that sound quality brings us right into the room -- not into a movie with its artifice of putting all dialogue on  mic.  We hear sparse background traffic and local, seasonal birds.  And these subtle choices by Mr. Benitez, Mr. Russell and Ms. Martin tell us all  about the size and feel of Lowell, Mass., home of Dickie Eckland and Mickey Ward.

    Soon -- again over black -- there’s a scraping sound, rich in metaphor.  Scraping by.  In and out of scrapes.  Scrape.  Scrape.  The image of Mickey’s rake appears, dragged over torn up Lowell pavement.   The welterweight is at work on a road-paving crew.  But the abrasive sound of his tool is soon upstaged by Dickie’s fists, annoyingly darting in and out of frame.  As a fighter, Dickie’s so “squirrely, you don’t even know (he’s) there.”  But as a brother to Mickey, he’s more irritating than harshly raked gravel; you can’t forget  he’s there.

     Dickie bellows that he’s “the pride of Lowell,” and a song bursts onto the soundtrack -- one of many pieces in “The Fighter” known in film editing as “scorce.”   The term refers to a song -- which might come from a source such as a radio or juke box -- used as motion picture underscore.  Dickie’s crackhead mania, Lowell’s fever over having an HBO documentary crew on its streets and Mickey’s lusty optimism are all conveyed sonically as the cue blends with dialogue, background chatter, hard sound effects, bird and traffic backgrounds -- literally dozens of tracks subtley woven together to create a unified whole.

     After the screening, I discussed what we’d just heard with sound designer Odin Benitez, who was still excited as can be about a film he’s seen over a hundred times!  Mr. Russell’s ability to “think outside the box” and his high level of comfort with lulls in the soundtrack remained impressive to him as ever.  Without quiet moments, Mr. Benitez pointed out, the “busier” scenes -- Mickey’s bouts and Dickie’s arrest -- wouldn’t have packed the roundhouse punch they do.

      It was delightful to listen to the sound designer enthuse about using Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times” in “The Fighter.”  The classic song plays as “scorce” when Dickie’s fundraising scheme (posing as a police officer to shake down a john) is foiled by real cops and he and Mickey are brutally beaten.   In John Ross and Myron Nettinga’s mix, ear-piercing police sirens and Jimmy Paige’s shreiking guitar riffs become indistinguishable, signalling a shattering of  the characters’ dreams.  And the  soundtrack’s emotional impact is overwhelming, a sonic equivalent of Edward Munch’s “The Scream.” 

     This powerful final mix of dozens of music channels, dozens of dialogue channnels and hundreds of sound effects channels is the product of weeks of hard work by many talented people.  On the road to the finished product, Odin Benitez said, “The Fighter” had three “temp dubs,”  or temporary mixes.  These mini-mixes, completed in a few days time, are a tool filmmakers use for test screenings.  They help create a track that -- with rudiments of music, sound effects and “cleaned up” dialogue -- becomes an audio facsimile of a finished film, enabling test audiences to feel like they’re responding to a movie they’ve bought tickets to see.  

     But temp dubs are also rehearsals for the final soundtrack.  In Mr. Benitez’s case, they provided an opportunity to preview “design elements” for the director and to learn how Mr. Russell wanted Lowell, Mass. to sound.  The mini-mixes also enabled the designer to see  how closely he could match the director’s sonic model, “Raging Bull,” without making “The Fighter” sound dated. 

     As motion picture budgets shrink, the temp dub has, unfortunately, become a “corner” some independent film producers think they can cut.  But they can’t.  Not if they want to create films that, like “The Fighter,” will be remembered for generations to come.  As everyone at Friday night’s screening learned, the film’s carefully constructed, dynamic and brilliant soundtrack is a key to its huge, lasting emotional wallop.  And brilliance doesn’t come from cutting corners.


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