Carol Sound Designer Leslie Shatz
It’s the middle of the week and I’m walking with sound designer Leslie Shatz from 34th Street toward Times Square. Manhattan’s mayhem is a fusion of random crowds and even more random noises. Leslie abruptly asks me to keep quiet for a few moments while he takes out his phone and starts recording the sounds of the street. I realize that he is in search of new ideas. “You can shut your eyes, but you cannot shut your ears,” he says. “Sound is always a tool you can use in interesting and different ways.”
Sound designer Leslie Shatz, winner of a rare technical Grand Prize in Cannes for Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, is surrounded by noise 24/7. He continually listens to sounds, records them, and eventually weaves them together, marrying that final product with an image. “If you compare a movie to the human body, the film image would be the brain, and the sound would be the heart,” he says.
A heart-maker and heartbreaker, Shatz’s filmography since 1971 contains over 180 credits, including two Palme d’Or awards, two Emmy nominations and one Academy Award nomination for best sound for The Mummy. He says he hates to work on torture porn movies, especially those with violence against women — which is most of them. In his recent work on an upcoming film, where someone is bludgeoned with a hammer to the skull 10 times, Shatz refused to lay eyes on the screen during the sequence. He can endlessly listen to his favorite sound — his 12-year-old daughter’s laugh — and feared his own “Apocalypse” at times during his four collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola.
Shatz dreams of working with director Jonathan Glazer, loves Elem Klimov’s Come and See, and he tells me he is eager to watch Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s dialogue-less drama The Tribe. Right before the New York Film Festival, Shatz and I met to speak about his recent collaboration with Steven Klein and Dior, his work on Academy Award winner 12 Years a Slave, and three directors that, for the most part, shaped his career and brought recognition: Gus Van Sant, Francis Ford Coppola and Todd Haynes, whose Carol he recently completed.
When we were finishing our first day of the interview I was still hesitating whether to call you an artist or technician. I am neither artist, nor technician, but somewhere in the middle. I really get pleasure from both and consider them both equally important. My recent work on Carol can show what I mean. This film serves as a good example of the importance of both the technical and artistic parts: to marry all the sound, and balance the dialogue, music and sound design to create the proper feeling. And that’s exactly how Todd Haynes works on his films; they’re very stylish and emotionally rich, but also deeply dependent on a filmmaking technique of great expertise. No one single element stands out — they are all perfectly integrated. The idea is, when the person leaves the theater we want them to say, “What a great film,” but not “what a great sound design” or “what a great costume.” And that’s exactly what our job is about, both as technicians and artists.
I know that you’ve been working with Todd for the last 13 years, including on films such as Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce. How was your collaboration with Todd different this time? We had the rare opportunity to go back to Carol a few months after we finished to polish it one last time before it got released. After we mixed the film and let it sit for a while, some things were bothering Todd, so he proposed that we go back and review it once again. It was such a luxury. I really enjoyed having this opportunity to mix it exactly as we all wanted to with the benefit of perspective. I wish every film could be made that way, without rushing to finish the project as soon as possible.
You recently worked on 12 Years a Slave. Was it challenging for you to create sound that supported this true story without overdoing it or making it artificially dramatic? Here’s a good example. There’s a scene where the main protagonist is being beaten in a jail, and we had to create that feeling, but not by being loud. You cannot turn sound up beyond a certain point — the audience will think it’s phony. So we had to create layers with leather and wood splintering, different experimentations so the audience really got it. I would say I just try to have good taste, but sometimes it’s hard to find the absolute correct sound that doesn’t go too far.
How often do you use silence as a sound tool? I wish we could really use silence. Unfortunately if you make things totally silent the audience thinks there’s something wrong. Film silence usually implies something very small. There are certain limits to when you can use silence, and courageous directors sometimes use this color from the sound palette, but it’s rare.
In an interview, you said, “One of the things that cinema audio is becoming very good at is being loud.” And when you were working on a movie, Immortals, directed by Tarsem Singh, you said, “I am looking for a new ways to express creativity.” What are they? Sometimes I feel that when directors mix the sound screechingly loud, they are trying to make up for something they feel is deficient in their movie. There are other ways of conveying the sense of loudness. Resonance, a certain tone that resonates inside your body. When I worked on Immortals, for example, we took an upright bass and plucked its strings, then slowed them down and changed frequencies. There’s a scene where one of the characters shoots arrows, and it was all created with that feeling of the base rhythm, when the resonance finally reaches the critical mass, you feel it inside your body. One of my favorite examples to convey the feeling of loudness is in Kubrick’s 2001 where the monolith is in the pit and the guys in the space suits are approaching the monolith. And all of a sudden this piercing sound cuts through everything. And they are putting their hands over their helmets and trying to close their ears but they can’t. It’s not a loud sound, but it is still piercing. You feel like, “Oh my God, this is the loudest thing I’ve heard in my life,” but really it was the choice of the sound and the way it was working in the scene along with the scene design that gave this feeling. You empathize with the men because they are helpless. So the emotional feeling of loud is a lot more powerful than the physical one, because you cannot shut your emotions off.
You probably know that 20th-century choreographer Merce Cunningham did music experiments with his troupe sometimes. For example, he would not let the whole troupe hear the music that was going to be in the show up until 20 minutes before the performance. I know that is not directly related to the movie industry, but have you tried something similar – written sounds for a movie before even watching it? Yes, a little different but similar. What I do is I have a musical keyboard with different sounds attached to different keys, and I try sometimes to play random sounds while I am watching the scene. The harder I press the key, the louder the sound becomes. I feel like computers are taking away human expression from a lot of things we do. The typewriter keyboard, as well as the mouse, is an on/off thing — it does not express the feeling inside of you. Working with Gus Van Sant, for example, he’s a big believer in using the accidental things that happen. So we’ll just sit together for a month working on the let’s-try-this sort of way, and just by accident something will click. Like once when we were working on Paranoid Park, it happened that the soundtrack on the film randomly got merged with the soundtrack of another movie, but just very slightly, and it was playing backwards. So when we noticed there was a background sound of someone speaking Chinese and marching [sounds] playing backwards, which had nothing to do with our movie, I was about to get upset, while Gus said, “I love it, we’ve got to keep it.” That’s the kind of random thing you would never intend to do, but when you hear it you feel like that’s exactly what you were looking for. I think it’s a kind of attitude; you have to be open to it.
When the movie has a very slow tempo, such as Van Sant’s Elephant, and you, as a sound designer, have to create a sort of tempo in order to maintain the organic speed of the movie, but at the same time not make it boring, what is your approach? When you watch a movie like this, it takes a period of adjustment when you first start to settle in because we all watch movies with the sort of expectations based on previous movies. But the most successful movies are the ones that are able to go beyond the conventions that existed in the past and ultimately create new conventions. When I work on sound, I am trying to support the rhythm, but not the pace. I am mainly trying to find something that is going to interest the viewer emotionally and cause them to invest themselves in the film. That’s what makes it organic.
How much freedom does Gus give you when you are working on films with him? Is he listening to your tips/advice, or is he a bullheaded guy who knows exactly what he wants? On one hand, we’ve worked so many years that I have a way of putting my ideas that he trusts and respects. But Gus can be bullheaded. When he makes his mind up, that’s the way it is and you can’t argue with him. A lot of times he would want to do something and I would be like, “Gus, this is ridiculous, we can’t do that.” But we do it anyway, and it really works. I eventually think to myself, “He is the genius and I am an idiot,” because I thought we couldn’t do this, and I was wrong. He trusts his instincts 100 percent.
But here is an interesting issue that can appear: You are trying to make a sound unique using all these unusual effects and then you go to the production company and they say that it’s unacceptable. How do you manage it? It all depends on the case. I just got through working with fashion photographer Steven Klein. We did a commercial for Dior with Rihanna in the Palace of Versailles where she walks by herself surrounded by lit-up chandeliers in the middle of the night. Steven thought it should be like a horror film. I loved his idea that Versailles was like a haunted house. So we added some scary sounds like crows and breaths, and, when they heard it, the people from Dior just flipped. They said we cannot have [these sounds] — they were too scary. Not even a 5-year-old would have found it scary. Eventually Steven put his foot down and said that’s the way it’s going to be and stood up for his vision. Steven was very complimentary toward me at the end, saying that I am really an artist of sound and he appreciates what I do.
Your breakout was in 1976 when you worked as dialogue editor on Apocalypse Now. What was working with Coppola like? I was young, and he could get me to gladly work morning, noon and night, which I did. “I don’t care if you are going to be dead by the end of the movie, just do it,” he said once. He was the greatest director at that time and remains one of the greatest. His films, I can watch again and again. When they offered me work on this film, I was saying, “Wow, dreams do come true.” By the end of the film I was thinking, “Please get me off of this film.”
Coppola’s method was just go and do it and don’t ask me anything, the complete opposite of working with Gus. I remember we started working on the ADR for Martin Sheen. We had a lot of lines to do, and it was going to take four to five nights because the studio was booked during the day. So the first day [Coppola] came around 9 p.m. and said, “I’m just going to sit here and watch what you do, and I’m not going to say anything unless I see something I don’t like,” and that really scared me. But by midnight he was asleep. And then the second night around midnight Francis fell asleep again. The third night he left early and then the fourth night he did not show up. And that was it. And this was my first time working with him. But I don’t think that he really took me seriously until we did Dracula. The guy that he normally worked with [as sound designer] took another job, and I was his second choice. He told me, “I want the soundtrack to be really crazy.” I said “Okay,” but my mind was saying, “What does it mean, crazy? I will never succeed. This is going to be a complete failure. I would never be able live up to his expectations.” Yes, I had already worked with him before, but now it was going to be me being the creative leader of the soundtrack. So, I was overwhelmed with feelings of failure to that point that I started to see a psychotherapist. But eventually it all went well. By the way, Dracula won an Oscar for Best Sound Editing. I am proud that my work was recognized in this way.
If Coppola would offer you a job today, would you agree to work with him again? Totally. I have so much respect for him as a filmmaker and all the risks that he took. But at the same time it’s scary, because Coppola had this insane temper and he really knows how to get people to do things the way he wants, with the person often thinking it was their idea. That’s one of the reasons why he is such a great director.
Summarizing your experience working with different directors: do you usually end up working with people with similar characteristics as Gus Van Sant or Francis Ford Coppola? To be honest, I would be happy to work with any of them. They are two extremes, and you know what’s interesting? I believe that Francis has now turned toward directing of smaller more personal films like Gus, and Gus is working on more epic “Hollywood” films like his upcoming Sea of Trees. Todd Haynes is somewhere in the middle between Francis’s “do whatever you want” approach and Gus’s “I’ll tell you what I want.” Todd is extremely collaborative; he really wants to know what his people think, but at the end of the day he makes up his own mind. Working with him is also simply so much fun. He creates this atmosphere of everybody being involved, and this makes the process really enjoyable.