Production Sound Mixer Jeff Pullman on Rachel Getting Married
A Feature Film, Shot Like a Doc, Recorded Like an Orchestra
JEFF PULLMAN: I was a musician in my high school days, [but] from a very early age, I always thought I’d end up in TV or television film. I became very interested in animation and the visual image, so when I got out of high school, I was definitely directed in to film.
I started going to Hunter College [where] I was investigating music theory, but then I transferred to SUNY Purchase to investigate the idea of visual music. I was creating these animated, abstract films that were representational of musical ideas initially, but it was really geometric shapes put into rhythmic patterns and standing for the idea of music. So I was literally writing symphonies and sonatas in those forms. I came up with my own visual notation to be able to express size, shape, color on a music staff and then transposed that into a giant image on the screen that would somehow might be experienced as music.
What happened after that, because clearly you made yet another transition?
I was always interested in sound. I was the one who got suckered in film school to be everyone’s sound guy. In line with all the music and sound ideas that I really wanted to express, the sound aspect of it became something of interest for me.
Then you went on to do features? How did that happen?
I left school having worked with some people who were starting to do things: Hal Hartley and Nick Gomez. We all just kind of hung out together. Hal was the one who really took the lead, writing some short films that he would fund himself. REally we all came together to help him out. Then he got some funding to do a very low-budget feature, which was the new thing back then. The studio said, you can’t make a low-budget feature for no money. But there were artists out there who were willing to try. They did and I think that’s actually changed the business.
Rachel Getting Married
How did you get the job?
I think because you turned it down, they called me.
I went in for a meeting where the producers laid out the parameters of how Jonathan was thinking about the movie.
Which were documentaryesque: handheld cameras, digital HD, multi-camera and camera-to-go-anywhere kind of situation, as well as live music being recorded simultaneously with dialogue. Of course that would put any soundman on edge but I actually embraced it right then and there. It sounded very exciting to me, and very challenging. I thought this could be really interesting [similar to] Laws of Gravity, which was one film that I am very proud of, in terms of what we were able to do. [The way we recorded Laws of Gravity was] very much in line with the way I thought about doing Rachel Getting Married.
Did you and Jonathan discuss recording multiple tracks?
Jonathan was not there at the interview. [I spoke to] [unit production manager] Carol Cuddy and [producer] Neda Armian about many possibilities. I explained how I did Laws of Gravity and Hal Hartley’s Trust. Trust was a film all about off-screen dialog. All the on-screen [action] was really just sitting right there looking at you, but we had people passing through backgrounds. The off-screen stuff was what we boomed. All of those things, including my documentary experience and music were really going to come into play here [on Rachel Getting Married] and I had a few thoughts of how to attack the movie.
If the cameras were going to be all over the place, then we’ll need to cover that perspective, but how would we be able to be everywhere at once? My initial thoughts were that documentary idea with having a separate sound unit with each camera. There were, however, going to be other cameras around and live music at the same time with the dialog, which might to happen off-screen somewhere else. Now I am thinking, “Well, multitrack is going to be vital here, but I will try to mix it.”
Then I had the idea that mic-ing this like an orchestra might be more appropriate, or maybe a combination of the two. In each scenario, I might set up a stereo mic in the room in the area where the cameras are really going to be focusing and then embellish that with some closer [plant] mics, or wireless, or a boom, but have a general ambience of the room and then fill that in somehow. It turned out in the end that the combination of the two became the approach.
From day one, did you you have to test the waters to see how they were going to shoot?
There were no rehearsals. They didn’t rehearse because Jonathan wanted this to be a documentary. He wanted us to walk in and just make it happen somehow, with the idea that you still carry a narrative perspective in the documentary style. And that is always the thing; I think people are afraid of crossing that line. The documentary experience came in handy and the music experience came in handy with how to mic the music that was hapening when we are doing the dialog at the same time. It all happened at once.
What were your feelings on Day One?
I was nervous as hell. Here I am with an Academy Award-winning director who knows what he wants and is being very loose about what he is saying we are going to do. He didn’t literally come out and say documentary, so in my mind we are not doing a documentary. Of course, we are making a narrative film, but we are approaching it as a documentary.
They said, “The cameras can move wherever they want.” But in reality they were reasonably confined, because where the action is going to be, the camera is going to be there, so you had an idea. From there I was able to assess how I wanted to really approach it in my mind. I was very nervous because on Day One was the biggest shot of the whole movie, right off the bat.
The opening scene, the car pulls up the driveway. Three actors are in the car arriving from the hospital. They pull up the driveway. They get out of the car.
The camera is in the car. I can’t be in the car, so we had the boom guy running along side of the car. I do believe we had mics planted in the car. The camera pulls up a 200-foot driveway, gets to the back of the house.
We had five actors outside talking non-scripted dialog there, so we let that play wide. Then going in the house, the camera is following [Anne Hathaway's character] Kym. We walk through the dining room [where] we have three people talking. As we are progressing in we hear an oud playing.
The perspective on it, however, never changed regardless of what happens in the shot. She goes up the stairs, but it never goes off-camera.
It never goes off camera because I had a spot mic on [one of the actors.] Of course, we did everything on wireless. We had no wired mics, including the booms. Our boom guy is following the camera getting that perspective. I’m watching monitors and trying to mix to perspective.
You were mixing all that down to one track?
I was mixing all the mics that I had out.
But aren’t you also doing a multitrack?
Yes, at the same time.
Wireless plus boom?
I do believe we did have wireless and boom. We had booms everywhere; wherever the camera was, there was always going to be a boom no matter what.
On the SetWhere was the movie shot? How long were the days? and how long was the schedule?
The movie was shot in Stanford, Connecticut. The schedule was 39 days; it came in at 33 days.
The days were insanely short. Jonathan would walk in and occasionally say, “We’re out of here by lunch.” You probably know his methodologyÃ¢Â€Â¦
I can tell that in working with him over 20 years, only once were we ever out of there by lunch. We didn’t work long days, but we didn’t leave at lunch.
Well, I think the circumstances of this film allowed for that.
Perhaps Sidney [Lumet's] influence also.
Maybe. [laughs] We didn’t really do nights. We did one all-nighter, and he gave us the day off after.
It sounds very civilized.
It was incredibly civilized.
How were the actors?
They were all very approachable and pretty amazing. Jonathan really kept a very loose, fun set.
If you had to have an adjustment for sound ‘ say someone was wired, for example, and they kept hitting the lav ‘ were you able to do an intervention and say, “Please don’t hit your mic when you talk?” Were you allowed to do that?
Well, certainly not during the takes, of course. The problem was we did 50-minute takes. There was one day we did a 50-minute take, a 40-minute take, a 30-minute take, and then we went home. But because it was run that way, you couldn’t really run in. The actors are improvising. Yes, I could go to Jonathan and say, “Can I tell the actor…” and he was, of course, open to that.
Was [Jonathan] complimentary to you? Did he acknowledge your work?
I think he did. I say that because I was very nervous in the first week because here we are trying to do something that is very unusual with the music and the dialog and all of that. I would go to him pretty frequently and say, “Jonathan, how is it going, is it all right? Because we were doing the music thing and this is crazy.” You know how Jonathan is, he was like, “No, it is insane, but it is great!” I don’t know if he was lying. I don’t think so.
It was all very positive. He sets a very positive tone and I think that brings out 150 percent in everybody to do better. And it reinforced what I was doing and I knew I was on the right track with how to approach it. I could think way ahead about what we were going to do in the scenes.
Tech TalkLet’s talk tech.
My approach is actually running two machines simultaneously. I used a Fostex PD-6 [for the live mix] and a Fostex 824 to multitrack.
So how many tracks were you running at one time?
On the first day, eight. By day two, we were running 12. And that’s because Jonathan wanted a unit – me – to run off and get the musicians while they were rehearsing, even when we were setting up [for the next shot]. I can’t be in two places at once, so we hired another guy to do an over the shoulder rig, Roger Phenix, who recorded on a [Sound Devices] 744T. At times, he actually brought two 744T’s, basically over the shoulder all the time, so he can run off and record the music.
I can’t imagine a job with more pressure. You make this mix and you do the best you can possibly do, which seems to me is pretty goddamn good, but not perfect, not what you would have done if you had had time to really work to picture. Does it ever worry you that in post they might just use your mix and disregard the individual tracks?
I am concerned. I mean, I would hope the mix is right. I’m a very meticulous notetaker, so I’m very specific about the problems that I thought happened in the take.
Did you call the cutting room and discuss it?
I was on the phone with the assistant [editor], Mike Fay daily. He was amazing. We’d talk in terms of ideas and diegetic sound and he’d translate all that to [film editor] Tim Squyres.
How did you make it possible, given all of this equipment that you have to carry, to always be on the move? Did you have rolling carts?
Certainly we had rolling carts: a follow cart and a main recording cart. There was a DIT (digital imaging technician), who was getting feed from the cameras, and we were all tethered together, so we really had to be in one little corner somewhere.
Did you have situations where they panned around and there’s your boom operator?
That happened a few times.
What did they do? Did they cut?
No, they kept going because there were other cameras and other possibilities and you knew there probably was going to be another take.
It really wasn’t a nightmare, for the most part. Dave Pastecchi, [the boom operator] really was all over, observing. He was really right behind the cameras. So, if he got in [the shot], more than likely the other camera got in, too. The biggest obstacle for us was the minimal lighting.
When you were booming that presented perhaps a shadow issue?
Yes and that was something certainly I knew I was going to embrace right off the bat – that the microphone was not going to be literally perspective and the choice of mics was based on that.
What mics did you use?
Schoeps plants and Neumann 81′s. The lighting was reasonably friendly, not a major shadow problem. I think Dave did a great job. He was there with the camera, got the perspective, watched what they were doing and really dove in and out as necessary. [The wireless were] Lectrosonics with a Venue system, Sanken lavs, and B6 lavs.
Usually I know how to do other people’s films. In this case, the way you did it was so ingenious, I’m in awe of it. I would not have done it that way. I would have used many more wires. I would have gone to an 8 track right off the bat. Maybe 12, or maybe even 16, somehow.
[Rachel] proved a lot of things to me, in terms of how I can approach movies. In certain movies and certain discussions, you can have pre-knowledge of what the director’s going to do and how we’re going to do it. I had that experience on Rachel because Jonathan wanted to handle it a certain way. The producers and Jonathan had even brought it up because he initially wanted Roger Phenix, who was doing documentary work for Jonathan, to actually be the sound guy. Roger declined becaue he said it wasn’t a true documentary and not his thing. He was realistic about it.
Talk about the rehearsal dinner scene.
There are some interesting aspects to the way I approached that whole rehearsal dinner. I literally mic-ed that like an orchestra. It was an interesting thing. We had a Schoeps stereo pair overhead. We had some outriggers, so probably either omni or cardioids on the side of that. I even had two PZM’s on the back wall. And then we had two booms and then I think one of the actors was wired.
There’s a cutaway of Anne and the best man in the crowd and they speak as we pan past them. We never hear them. Did we ever hear them in your recording? Was that a rerecording choice?
I do believe that was a re-recording choice because we probably heard it.
What about the scene [where] they are trying on the saris?
The hardest scene we had and it is not really that apparent in the film.
Good, that means you did a good job.
I lucked out. There were mirrors that in that edit aren’t so visible. It was mirrors and shadows everywhere. It was very difficult. It really was not a big room. They way they lit it was with all these pin lights.
Did [you] have wires on the saris also?
I do remember that was the one scene that we were really trying to dodge clothing noise. We were playing like crazy.
Now, we go to the kitchen, and there’s an improv in the kitchen with lots of physical action, before the dishwashing contest. People are all over each other. How did you do all of those improvs in the kitchen with all of the physical ‘ the hugging and stuff like that?
We planted a mic in the kitchen ‘ I do believe it was a cardioid ‘ at some strategic point overhead. Then, Dave was in there as best he could with the boom. We had one or two actors wired.
[What about] the dishwashing contest, which is this mad scene in which these two guys compete in how many dishes you can get in a dishwasher.
That was booms. Two booms and that overhead again in the kitchen.
And no wires?
No wires. Too much physicality.
And then we see music being performed on the porch. How is that done?
That was probably Roger on the stereo mic and maybe one or two other plant mics. [He'd record] onto the 744T, and he might very well have thrown that back to me as a monomix on another track if I wanted to touch it in.
How would he do that?
Transmit it. Everything’s wireless ‘ no hard wire other than to our feed.
[There's] a scene with [Debra] Winger and Hathaway. It’s raining in the background. Was the rain made?
No, it was real.
Do you do anything special about the rain? Did you close mic them with radios and put the actresses on a lav?
They were probably wired and boomed, but I think what’s in the film is boom.
In a situation like that when they’re both wired, the wires are working well and you have good signal to noise, why do you use the boom?
I guess I’m not a believer in completely eliminating the background sometimes. I think the way it was shot and the intimacy of it played that way. I think you can allow the rain to work. I think you don’t have to eliminate it all the time. When we walked in and it was raining, we were certainly concerned. Then, they wanted the door open at the same time so we had to live with that. It was my aesthetic choice to go with [the boom]. We recorded a wild track of the rain, and laid that back. I think that worked.
Would you have given the same answer if you weren’t dealing with a real time film? Essentially, this is a film that’s done in real time. Suppose the film was a film that was done more traditionally. Would you feel the same way?
No. Certainly if we didn’t have multitrack, and to be able to offer the other alternative, I would be more meticulous about it and probably try to eliminate it. The backgrounds are going to be all over the place. Even natural rain will fluctuate, especially if you’re booming it. If the boom makes the cue, the background changes. If you use two booms, the background doesn’t change, but that’s twice as much noise, potentially.
Now, Kym is involved in an automobile accident. Just prior to the accident, she’s speeding along high speed and talking to herself. It’s really quite a marvelous shot. How?
Two plant mics in the car. One is in the visor, probably a Shoeps. Then, we had one in the back to get some additional ambiance in the car and to spread it out a little bit.
Then, we come to one of my favorite scenes. I’m sure it was a favorite of yours, too. The drum corps comes in and the samba.
[sigh] Yes. Oh my God.
Another difficult scene. Tell us about how you did the samba scene.
We had to mic that whole tent. Again, because of where the stage was, we had an MS stereo pair middle with some outrigger mics. We had live mics on the stage, and one or two lavs on certain musicians to bring out the piano/violin.
Then the booms were for the dancers and the whistle guy?
Right, and then we had some other [Schoeps] omni mics up top. The catastrophe of that was what I had rigged for me was overloading like crazy for the drums. We didn’t have any prep time or anything to set it so I underestimated it. Of course, Roger was there with the over the shoulder rig. He had, probably, the stereo mic overhead and the two outrigger mics.
But the levels were just phenomenal. They were like line levels.
Roger saved the day on that. His mics worked, mine didn’t.
During that samba thing, we see all the people are mashed together. Rachel and all of the others are all kind of pushed together. Just boomed?
Then finally, Kym looks out. This is the ending of the film into a very wide shot. The musicians are playing quite far away. I presume that there’s some kind of plant or something on them.
Yes. How would you guess that, Chris? [laughs] Yeah, exactly. We had it in a bush. I do believe I even wired [the musicians] for that.
There is one more fun, interesting scene. Anne is lying in bed with Kieran, the guy she meets. They’re talking but the camera’s really wide in that low-ceilinged basement.
We really couldn’t boom it. So, we had an 81 behind the pillar aiming at them with a reasonable reach. Then I planted mics all around, just little tiny Sennheiser switchable capsules ME2 lavs under the sheets. I put a couple of those in and another mic somewhere. The boom guy was way back and it was crazy. I went in and said, “Anne, here’s where the mics are so you’ve just got to be careful with what you’re going to do here.” The minute the scene started, she went and hit every one of them. It was hilarious because it was one after the other. I’m sure it was not intentional, but because of the moment that she was in, she just ended up nailing every one of them. It was very funny.
I could not have done this job the way you did it, and I think the way you did it was so remarkably inventive, remarkably so, so clever to understand that it was in many ways not even about the dialogue; that it was a musical event, totally. The soundtrack is a piece of music. And, sure, the dialogue is important for the narrative and for people to understand what’s going on, but in fact, if you dumped all the dialogue and just looked at the just silent film acting, you can get one hell of a lot out of it.
The way you did it was the perfect, perfect way to solve it. It probably took years off your life, but it’s a brilliant, brilliant solution. I could not have done it this way. I would have done it differently.
Jeff: Chris, it’s amazing to hear that. I have to say, I really appreciate your comments and it’s… wow! Thank you! I consider your acknowledgement a huge compliment.
I also need to acknowledge the crew: Dave Pastecchi, boom operator, Teferra McKenzie, , sound utility; Neil Danziger, additional boom op; and Roger Phenix, additional sound mixer. They were a huge part of this.