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‘Interstellar’ Mixers Tackle Glacier, Corn Field, Spaceship Sounds: ‘We Started to Cry During Some of the Scenes’

In our series on the Oscar-nominated sound mixers, team ‘Interstellar’ talks about the particular challenges of working with Chris Nolan

From dust storms on Earth to huge waves on alien planets, from the roar of a rocket engine to the silence of deep space, Christopher Nolan‘s “Interstellar” presented a daunting task for its sound team. For added complications, throw in a director famously particular about the sound of his movies (and perfectly happy with the idea that lines of dialogue might be lost here and there) and a Hans Zimmer score that ranges from delicate melodies to thundering organ passages.

Re-recording mixers Gary A. Rizzo and Gregg Landaker and sound mixer Mark Weingarten were entrusted with the task; Rizzo and Landaker had worked on previous Nolan movies, while Weingarten had not.

Also read: Cinema Audio Society Thinks ‘Interstellar’ Sounds Just Fine

What were the biggest challenges for you on “Interstellar?”
GREGG LANDAKER: Chris wanted to make this a ride, and the ride relied a lot on low frequency. Whether it was the organ notes in the music, or the spaceship and rocket sounds, he wanted almost like an amusement ride. And he wanted people to feel it without us using gimmickry.

MARK WEINGARTEN: For me, I was out of my comfort zone recording and mixing sound from space helmets and stuff. That was fun to figure out, but it was also challenging just being on glaciers and trying to get production sound without falling off. And getting to know Chris … who has very specific ideas about sound.

How particular is he about what he wants?
LANDAKER: It’s the director’s vision, but our collaboration. If we can get him to walk out at the end of the mix with a smile on his face, happy with the project, everybody has done their job very well. The man had the vision to bring it to what you see and hear on that screen, but it’s a group effort to get it to that point.

Also read: OscarWrap: Christopher Nolan and ‘Interstellar’ Dream Team Talk Sound, Edit, Design

What was the introduction to the film like for you guys?
LANDAKER: My introduction was the first day of framing, in the re-recording room with Gary Rizzo, who was handling the dialogue. There was no lead time for us: we hit the ground running.

Chris wants us to hit it frame by frame, and emotionally attach to it. How do we react to the film, with the sounds in our hands? I have Hans’ score, I have Richard’s sound design, I have Mark’s production tracks. We went through it frame by frame, and we started to cry during some of the scenes. And Chris was getting a kick out of it, because he saw emotionally how we were attaching to his film. He’s emotionally attaching to it, too.

And once you hit it, you don’t change it. You don’t try to embellish on it. When Chris comes across and says, “I like that scene,” he doesn’t want you to keep playing with it. Don’t try to better it or you’ll actually ruin the experience for him.

Mark, what were your initial conversations with Chris like?
WEINGARTEN: I didn’t have too many. I just jumped in and started out in space, with McConaughey and those guys in space suits.

LANDAKER: What was your first day of the shoot?

WEINGARTEN: My first day was in Iceland. When we were in the water that was waist deep.

LANDAKER: Welcome to “Interstellar!” [laughs]

WEINGARTEN: It was fun, actually. I really enjoyed the glacier stuff. We all had waders so we could walk around in the water, and initially I thought, well, I can take my recorder and strap it to my chest. But if the thing got wet and got trashed, that would be really bad. So we had these monster truck things that drove around in the water, and I stayed inside my monster truck and mixed from there.

And once we got on the glacier, that’s when I had the stuff strapped to me, and I brought a little folding chair because I didn’t want to set my gear down on the ice. But the glacier was really cool. Sometimes we’d take a helicopter to the top and be dropped off.

See video: ‘Interstellar’ Themed Short Film in the Works from Google Play, Paramont (Video)

It must have created some sound problems, though.
WEINGARTEN: Well, Hoyte [van Hoytema] had an IMAX camera — the giant thing was like a refrigerator. And that camera is unbelievably loud. It sounds like a lawn mower. But in the space helmet, you can’t hear it. So we were able to get a really good production track, even with the IMAX camera running. I remember in “The Hunger Games” we did production tracks with the actors, no helmets, and they were completely unusable.

The sound mix was initially controversial — at least, it attracted more attention than any other mix this year.
LANDAKER: Every note, every sound effect, every piece of dialogue was specifically at a certain level. If it was muddy, it was intended to be. If it irritated the audience, it was intended to irritate the audience.

And if we don’t push the envelope, how do we know where the envelope is? If we didn’t send a spaceship out into space, we wouldn’t get exploration out of it. If we don’t push the envelope on some things to give the audience something new to listen to, it’ll be the same thing over and over and over again.