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‘Argo’ Sound Mixers Pumped Up the Tense Tehran Volume, Kept Things Quiet for Tinseltown Titters

The "Argo" sound team faced some very different challenges going for 1980 audio realism than they did going back to the future on their Oscar-winning "Matrix" mix

Sound mixers John Reitz and Gregg Rudloff have been working as a team for 30 years and previously won joint Oscars for "The Matrix." But working on "Argo" sent them down a very different kind of rabbit hole, in which they felt like they were mixing three different movies at once — reflecting the distinctive tones of the movie's Tehran, Washington, and Hollywood settings. 

Rudloff (at left in photo) sat down with TheWrap to talk about the challenges posed by "Argo's" multiple story threads.

You got your first Oscar in the '80s, for "Glory." Could there possibly have been any challenges on "Argo" that you haven't been confronted with before?
The main thing was that we used a lot of different styles of mixing on this film. Because the film takes place in three very diverse locations, Ben (director Affleck) wanted to use sound for different purposes in each location.

In Tehran, he wanted a very aggressive-style mix with rawness and edginess to it. He wasn’t looking for smooth transitions from all the different angles and cuts. In Washington, with the state department and the CIA, it was more about keeping the tension that’s there while they’re trying to figure out how to rescue the houseguests.

Then when we’re in Hollywood, that’s where the humor of the film lies, so that was more of a traditional style of mixing, where there were smoother transitions to let the humor play. So it was all about balancing the different styles and trying to transfer from one to another without distracting the audience.

And the Tehran scenes probably represented the most complicated of the three settings.
When the houseguests were in the Canadian ambassador’s residence, it may just be a scene with them talking, but there’s still this underlying tension and this offstage threat. So while that was a more subtle scene, we still had to have something going to preserve the threat that they were under.

How did you establish that underlying threat? With a low rumble?
It wasn’t so much that. It was more never letting the audience — and, of course, the characters — forget that they were in a foreign country and hiding out. So we were keeping military vehicles and helicopters offstage. We would have offstage gunshots, because the revolution was still happening at this time. We would have offstage Farsi voices. We had call-to-prayer PAs going off off-stage.

These weren’t meant to be in-your-face for the audience, but they do keep you grounded as far as always reminding you that these people are in danger.

The most chaotic scenes involve the initial takeover and then the visit to the marketplace. Is it tough to strike a balance between wanting to accentuate the confusion in front but also keep dialogue coherent, on top of adding score as an element?
In the opening sequence with the embassy takeover, Ben chose not to use music, which might have been a more traditional way to go. In that sequence — which is almost nine minutes long — he felt that having just the dialogue and the sound effects would give the more real, raw feel that he was looking for at that point in the film.

You have to be very careful to make sure that the pertinent dialogue that you want to get through does. There are also times when the dialogue may not be as important, and you can bury it with some of the other sounds. But you have to be very cautious in doing that, because your audience needs to understand that it was OK if they didn’t understand some of the dialogue.

One of the things that can be very distracting for an audience is, if they feel they missed an important line, then they’re gonna turn to whoever they’re sitting with and go, “What’d they say?” — and that just pulls them out of the movie. So you’re always riding a very fine balance amongst all the elements in the sound palette, trying to give the emotion and the tone the filmmaker is looking for but making sure the audience is never pulled out of the story.

You mentioned the bazaar scene. When everything started to go haywire for the houseguests when they were out in the bazaar, and the shopkeepers start coming out and everybody started screaming in Farsi, if you notice, there were not a lot of subtitles there. Ben wanted the audience to be almost as confused as the characters were. And in that case even some of the English dialogue was past the edge of being discernible, because Ben wanted more of the chaos to rule the scene, versus the specific dialogue that was being said in the scene.

As you noted, there is a lack of music in some of the earlier tense scenes, but eventually Alexandre Desplat's score does become fairly dominant. 
I thought the fact that Ben chose not to use score in certain scenes made it even more effective when he did use it. There’s one in particular where the houseguests think they’re getting out the next day, so they’re starting to throw their own little party within the residence.

Ben’s character, Tony Mendez, has been informed by Washington they’re going to abort the mission, and he goes back to his hotel and spends the night soul-searching and then comes to this resolution that he’s going to carry on the mission regardless. Basically from the time he leaves there’s about two words of dialogue in the whole procession of scenes, but you’re never in doubt of what’s happening. It's the music that absolutely tells you what’s going on. 

From an outsider's point of view, it might seem that doing sound on a futuristic film like "The Matrix" would be tougher than doing a realistic one like "Argo," though it's also easy to imagine you might not consider that the case. Tehran is almost as much of a fantasy world to us as the world of the matrix.
They’re both challenging in their own way. The big visual-effects-driven films always have a lot going on, and there are challenges of dynamics and clarity. Now, "The Matrix" is a film that questions: Is this real, or is this not real? So that gives you a little bit broader of a range of what you can do. Because if you’re questioning reality, you’ve kid of got free rein about how you go about it.

A film like "Argo," on the other hand, when you’re telling a true story, sometimes those are even more difficult to do. If you want to get down to the math of it all, you’re using less sounds, and sometimes less sound is more difficult to mix than a lot of sound, because everything needs to be exactly right.

In the middle of a chaotic effects-ical, if something’s not quite right, it might get missed. There’s so much going on that people might not notice. But when you’re in a very subtle mix, something that’s a little off will stand out much more. Also, a great deal of attention was given to trying to stay true to the sounds that fit the location and the time period of the film, yet still trying to subtly manipulate the audience into where Ben wanted to take them at any given point.

We get equal satisfaction doing both kinds of films. 

You and John must have a pretty set division of duties after 30 years of teamwork.
Yes, John does the dialogue and music on the films, and I do all the sound effects and foley and background. We work on separate stages and then come together for the final mix. We’re very comfortable with each other and definitely know when to jump in and help or get out of each other’s way.

Having that long a connection makes it easier on us. You can take the two best mixers there are and put 'em together, and if they’ve never worked together before, they’re gonna bump elbows a little bit till they get used to each other. Fortunately, John and I are past that point, although I’m sure there are times when he’d wish I could get my effects out of the way of his dialogue or music, and there are times when I’m like, “Dude! Let me get my footsteps in there!”