How Action-Packed ‘Skyfall’ Showed the Quieter Side of James Bond

Nine-time Oscar nominee Scott Millan pumped up the volume for James Bond's more explosive moments, but as a longtime Sam Mendes collaborator he relished embellishing 007's no-frills dialogue scenes

If a sky falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it … well, that's where sound re-recording mixers like Scott Millan come in.

Millan has picked up his ninth Oscar nomination for "Skyfall." The sound mixer's last Oscar nod came for 2010's "Salt" — and "Skyfall" represents a unique cross between that "Salt"-y type of big Hollywood action movie and the "prestige" pictures Millan has previously done for director Sam Mendes, who was moving into tentpole territory for the first time.

And Millan is even prouder of this Bond film's dialogue scenes than its crashes and explosions. TheWrap sat with the four-time Oscar winner to talk about giving the 007 franchise a more nuanced set of audio dynamics.

Some laymen would look at the sound awards and think they should go to the movies that juggled a lot of crash-bang sound effects most deftly. "Skyfall" has its share of that, but it might be the Bond film with the greatest number of quiet moments, too.
It’s true. People sometimes think sound is good if it was loud or aggressive or had a lot of content. In a really good sound job, there can be all of that in there, but as soon as it draws attention to itself as trying to over-amplify something or hype it up, it sounds artificial.

I believe sometimes filmmakers are anxious that they don’t want to let down the energy in a film because the audience might back off. But some of the best sound jobs I’ve been involved with in my career are ones that have that ebb and flow — where you pull the audience way into something quiet and get them close to the performance and drawn in, and then you get a chance to shift and go to the other side of it and be bold and stylize the sound.

Can you point to something in "Skyfall" that wasn't a big action sequence that you're especially proud of?
Early in the film, when Bond comes back to London and is revealed inside of M’s house in the dark, it’s a pretty straightforward scene. There are two people, in a dialogue sequence, with rain in the background. But there are nuances of how we manipulated dialogue levels so there was an edge to their performance early into the scene — before it relaxes back into kind of a normal dialogue.

Those subtle nuances, which no one would ever comprehend the first time through, were all manipulated to to be lonely and atmospheric at a certain moment and crescendo at a certain moment. It’s almost like a wave, continually moving and shifting in an invisible fashion.

It’s a pivotal scene in the storytelling, because you wonder, "Is Bond done? Does he no longer want to be that person anymore?" He's at the point where he has to decide to recover and battle back and then basically be a hero again.

And how, literally, do you alter the sound to accentuate that pivot in the story?
Again, no one would know; it should be natural enough that it isn’t perceived as manipulated.

The first time I had gone through the scene to mix it, I hadn’t gotten aggressive with it. I had played it more as I thought the tone of their performances was conveying. Sam went back and said, “No, it’s gotta be more pointed here. They’ve got to be more at each other here.”  Then I got what he was going after, and it made perfect sense for the story. 

Sam was, in the performances, trying to emphasize that edge between them. And sonically, we could help that. I could manipulate that by how I use levels or EQs and those sorts of things to set a color to a performance or even just a dialogue line. 

When M first comes into this dark house alone and sees Bond's silhouette across the room, there’s this adversarial kind of tit for tat. Then they talk about the agent who got murdered, and he crosses the room, and at that point everything kind of shifts and becomes more solemn and less about sparring. 

In some cases I think we can affect performances pretty substantially — not by doing something that is unnatural to the voice or to the performance, but shades of the performance can be emphasized by how dialogue is manipulated. And if somebody grasps what we’re doing, then we failed. It’s that fine balance of doing it but getting it in the right pocket so no one knows we did it — the magic act.

Any other scenes like that in the movie that people might not think of as a major sound accomplishment?
One of the other scenes you would think is so simple, but we spent quite a bit of time on, was the revealing of Silva, Javier Bardem’s character. It’s a scene that a lot of people tell me is their favorite scene in the movie, but they can't really tell you why, except they enjoyed the performances, and they weren’t distracted by anything.

It was a five- or six-minute dialogue scene with no music at all, and almost no atmosphere — just two people, toe to toe. They're basically in this lonely, cavernous space that is living inside of a computer itself, but it’s not an obvious scene where sound effects are playing computer sounds and beeps and hums and whirs. The performances are riveting, and you want it to be as intimate between them as possible.

All the subtleties to the balances were very important to Sam, and we spent a lot of time on it. Those kinds of scenes are so important because they kind of suck you in, and you lean in as an audience. You’re on the razor’s edge, and you don’t need everything telegraphed to you.

But "Skyfall" certainly has scenes in which Thomas Newman's score and the sound effects take over.
I think even the big action sequence in the first part of the film has a lot of ebbs and flows, and music gets a chance to play, too, and make you feel like it’s driving you along without making you feel like it’s slathered in there to fill the gaps of energy. Priority-wise, as Sam builds the soundscape of a movie, it’s words and then it’s music. He likes music to play proudly, or he doesn’t want it there. He doesn’t usually have music that’s filler in his films. 

At the end of the opening reel just before Bond gets shot, when Moneypenny realizes she has no more road and starts communicating back and forth with MI6, the score has been playing for 10 minutes, almost, and the editing is driving us to this moment where the score is getting bolder and bolder and more aggressive.

Yet it’s hard sometimes to get a woman’s voice that’s speaking kind of in a normal tone above a blaring orchestra, much less a woman’s voice playing back on a speaker or an earpiece, above an orchestra just wailing to a crescendo.

The first time I went through it I was trying to moderate a little bit and not let the music get too aggressive too soon and not let it infringe on the dialogue, so the audience could understand every word. And Sam said, “No, you’ve got to get the music bigger. It’s got to go for it.” So obviously the dialogue has to go up there with it.

The music crescendos and the dialogue is right there crescendo-ing underneath it. It’s almost like holding onto a runway train, and then you have the emotion when M says to Moneypenny, “Take the bloody shot.” It is a very uniquely balanced music and dialogue sequence, in a very finely woven tapestry to emotionally get us to that moment, and if not done right, it would sound manipulated. 

You've worked with Mendes on every film he's done since his very first one, "American Beauty." What stands out?"
On "Road to Perdition," there was a great sequence where there’s a shootout, and we took all the guns out — took all the sound out — and went music-only and made it very stylized. That kind of thing is the fun part.