Music Mixer Scott Millan on Salt
The Oscar Nominee on Movie Soundtracks as Magic Acts
Well, IMDb probably doesn’t indicate that my first job was in broadcasting. I was on the set, doing camera work and sound work, learning about video and video tape and technical directing. I did a lot of production work and pre-production, and I would go and record music so we would have it available to integrate in TV dramas, sitcoms, and soap operas. I got a chance to get into the Directors Guild and direct some daytime dramas, as well, but I kept going back to sound.
When I got out of broadcasting and into post for television, I was working in a three-man dubbing environment – not so dissimilar to film. I moved into the music chair. We did movies of the week, miniseries, and TV series, and I learned about sharing tasks and coordinating work with other people in real time.
Going from TV to film was a great opportunity, and it wasn’t happening that often. I moved into a music chair, in a re-recording capacity, for feature film work, and it was pretty transparent. We had more time, and the scale was larger. There were more politics, perhaps, and the demands may have been higher, but my responsibilities translated pretty well. I had done a lot of dialogue recording and post-production as well, so I had a rounded background in mixing. It made the transition pretty easy. I was fortunate.
It did. Movies of the week and other TV programs were evolving into stereo broadcasting, but when I first got into features most of the work was Dolby A, and then Dolby SR. Ultimately we got into the six-track digital release formats that we’re used to doing now. But at the time, it was a different form.
The other process that was different was having the time to prepare and pre-dub. Usually in television, if you were in post, tracks were cut and prepared for you and that’s what you had to work with. In production, you were recording those tracks in as pristine a form as possible, because when you went to post, what you created on set was what you had. I didn’t have much chance to do ADR, or get group and walla, the sort of material that would be recorded in post for integration in the soundtrack for television.
The first time I did a feature film, we had a schedule of four or five or six weeks. I remembered doing two-hour TV movies when we’d have three or four days. You wonder, “What are we going to do with all this time?” But you eventually realize there’s never enough time to do what’s expected.
Had you worked with Jeffrey Haboush and Greg Russell before?
Jeffrey and Greg had worked together often, but I had never had a chance to do a whole film with them although I had known them for quite a while. This was a unique case, because I work for Todd-AO and I used to work over on the lot at Sony Pictures. So I had worked closely with these gentlemen, who were over at Sony, but had never sat down and mixed a film with them. They knew the workload on Salt was going to be rigorous, and [composer] James Newton Howard’s music department at Sony reached out to me.
We don’t often work as three-man mixing teams anymore. Mostly, teams are two-person, and the dialogue mixer does music. That means 99.9 percent of the time I do dialogue and music together, and I have someone with me doing all of the sound FX – normally that’s David Parker, who happens to be nominated this year for The Social Network, with David Fincher. We’re both nominated but, unfortunately, we’re not on the same team!
So Salt was unusual for you, in that you weren’t working with your normal collaborator.
Yes, and there’s a familiarity and a shorthand – and an etiquette – on the dub stage when you know how another person likes to work. It becomes more fluid. Jeff and Greg were already together as a two-man team, and I had to be integrated into their environment on the Sony lot, in the Kim Novak Theater. It worked out great. It was a fantastic opportunity for me.
What was your collaboration with Phillip Noyce like? Did you always get feedback directly from him?
When I came onto the project just before the final dub, Phillip was very involved. The music editor, Joe E. Rand, has done multiple films with Phillip and knew his sensibility very well, so whenever Phillip was not in the room with us, I could rely on Joey to have a good understanding of the direction the film should go. But Philip was pretty amazing. The very first day I was on the stage with Phillip was the first day of the final mix, and he was very articulate in explaining how the soundtrack of the film – and in particular the music – had to be a character like the character of [Evelyn] Salt [played by Angelina Jolie]. It had to portend what was going on with her. There was approximately 90 minutes of music, and the film was only a little bit longer than that. It was a critically important facet of the soundtrack.
That said, Phillip knew every line of dialogue in the movie – the group dialogue as well as the principal dialogue. He knew the ADR and the sound effects, and what he was trying to accomplish in each sequence. His perspective helped us focus like a laser.
Give an example of the process you go through to determine what a certain scene should sound like.
As we discussed earlier, you often get an opportunity to pre-dub material and get it into shape before your final dub. Jeff and Greg had done that, so they already had a temp dub for Philip. I was the new kid on the block. I didn’t have a bias toward what had happened before, so I came into it with a sense of exploration.
The first thing we would do on a reel is what we call a crash-and-burn pass. We put the dialogue and sound effects up as they’ve been pre-dubbed and I go through the reel with the music one time, without stopping, to hear what we have in the music and to get a feel for the dialogue and effects. That lets me know what we’re working with or against – where we’re complementing each other or where there might be conflict that will create some clarity issues. I also get a sense for what the sound of the score is. That gives me an overview of the reel. And then we go back to the top and start working on segments.
On this film, there is so much music that it starts and doesn’t really stop. We had to propel the soundtrack and the storytelling, but we had to use our tools and material astutely. Philip wanted the music to be featured, without – and this is always a predicament – turning the audience off by overstimulating them. It desensitizes the audience if the music is just constantly there. Sometimes it’s wallpapered into a film. Brilliantly, James composed a score that didn’t do that and allowed us to play the music boldly. Often you don’t know what Salt was thinking or who she is, so the score always had to be there to complement the underlying intrigue and emotion of the story.
We would go back and forth through sequences and find a way for the music to co-exist with sound effects. The sound effects are often the most challenging thing to music in an action movie, and vice-versa. The sound effects people might say, “The music is getting in the way,” and the music people might say, “The sound effects are clouding what we’re trying to do.” But Greg has a musical background as well, so he was cognizant of making everything work together. It was challenging, but never to the point where we were unable to accomplish Phillip’s directive.
It sounds like the goal is to have the different tracks working together organically.
Absolutely. What we do is invisible. Sound is a magic act. If it draws attention to itself, it takes you off the screen. The audience shouldn’t be paying attention to what is re-created. They should go along with it and believe it. The best work I’ve done in my career is the work where people didn’t know what I was doing.
These days, there’s a lot of talk about home theater systems providing a better movie listening experience than many movie theaters. Where do you like to watch movies?
I like to go to a theater. I like to share the experience. It’s infectious. Whether it be a comedy or a thriller, you can feel what others in the room are feeling. it’s much more enjoyable. But often the exhibitors are not playing the soundtrack is it was created to be played. That might have to do with not wanting to play it at spec because they think the theater next door may hear it through the walls. Sometimes they’re playing to the lowest common denominator. If someone comes in and says, “The film’s too loud,” well, that might actually have been a trailer that was too loud. Those are frustrating things when I go out and see films in the real world. That being said, I always try and see them there.
There are some very good theaters in California who are trying to keep the quality of the presentation up. When exhibitors start to be concerned about motivating audiences to come into the theater and not stay home and watch in the comfort of their living rooms, if there’s a wow factor to the way the film looks and the way the soundtrack sounds, that will keep people coming back. If I were an exhibitor, I would want to make sure I was reproducing what the filmmakers strive to create as closely as possible. I can’t speak for picture, but there are so many nuances that we spend hours and hours striving to create [in the sound mix] that are particular to the director’s desire. There are thousands of choices in every movie, and if somebody arbitrarily turns the sound down 3 dB or 6 dB lower, it changes all that nuance.