Drive garners Oscar Nom for Soundelux's Lon Bender and Victor Ennis Garner
COW Library : Audio Engineering : Debra Kaufman : Drive garners Oscar Nom for Soundelux's Lon Bender and Victor Ennis Garner
Drive, starring Ryan Gosling as an enigmatic Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a 'wheelman' and Carey Mulligan as his love interest, is a film noir-ish tale of a heist gone very, very wrong. The movie -- which got attention for some very gruesome scenes -- also stars Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks (as you've never seen him) and Ron Perlman as the quintessential bad guy.
The movie has also drawn some notice for its very unusual sound design, audio mix and use of music, generated by Soundelux's stable of talent including Supervising Sound Editor/Designer Lon Bender and Co-Supervising Sound Editor Victor Ray Ennis as well as Production Mixer Robert Eber and Sound One's Sound Re-Recording mixers Dave Paterson and Roberto Fernandez.
So I didn't pass up a chance to see a screening of Drive at Todd-AO's main mix stage in Hollywood, followed by a panel discussion. I went with moderate expectations since car chases are not usually my favorite movie genre and I took the promise that I was in for an aural treat with my typical reporter's skepticism.
Was I surprised! Not just because I really enjoyed the movie but also because the audio did play a very unusual and significant role in it. It appears that Drive director Nicolas Winding-Refn (who also wrote and directed Valhalla Rising and Bronson) has an open mind and an adventurous streak when it came to the soundtrack. The results are worth hearing, for a lesson in the significant, front-and-center role that audio/sound can play in a motion picture.
Ryan Gosling with Director Nicolas Winding-Refn. Photo credit: Richard Foreman JR, SMPSP
In fact, as the panel discussion revealed, the director worked very closely with the sound team on the production of the soundtrack, and gave them a great deal of leeway to explore and try out new things. Bender reports that Refn spent several days with him in the studio working on the sound track. Early on, the sound team learned that Refn was not interested in using sound in a realistic way but as a way to get at emotional truths in the movie. "We were always in the main character's head," explained Bender.
The panel discussion -- which brought together Bender, Eber, Ennis and Paterson (Fernandez was out of town), moderated by writer/director Chris D'Arienzo -- revealed the details of this sonic strategy.
First, the car chases in Drive -- although much of the action takes place in a car -- are not like those in a typical action-adventure movie. "There's nothing traditional about it," said Ennis. "In the opening scene, you're inside the car with the driver in this cocoon. You're as much a passenger as the two robbers in the back. You don't get a bird's eye view of what's coming. You're only aware of things as Driver becomes aware of them. You're in his world. It's totally immersive."
Refn's lack of driving experience and his emphasis on mood made him uninterested in matching cars with the authentic noises of their engines. "When Soundelux did Fast and Furious, we made sure all the engines sounds were absolutely correct," Bender said. "Nick said 'make it exciting'. He was more interested in the subjective impact. He also mentioned the wonderful film by Claude Lelouch, C'etait un Rendez-vous (1976) as an inspiration."
Returning to that opening scene in which Driver, transporting the two robbers, is spotted by the police, after a long, surprisingly quiet cat-and-mouse section, Bender noted that the car suddenly comes to life. "It accelerates, decelerates," he said. "The car is shifting, which is unusual because Driver's hand is on the steering wheel and the car is an automatic. But it doesn't matter, because it's an exciting scene about the visceral experience of escaping through the city streets. Nicolas didn't care if the car was automatic or standard transmission--he wanted the audience to strap in and take a ride with Driver."
"We didn't play it as an engine," Bender continued. "It's a pulse, a tone, ground rock, rattles, bumps, whoosh. We used all kinds of things. He's moving through space, propelled by himself, not an engine."
Refn wanted the movie to have a heartbeat, with spaces between them, said Bender. "Some transitions were slow, some were fast," he said. "The character [of Ryan Gosling] was living in two worlds. There was a strange harmony when he was in his car, and another feeling altogether when he was in the real world. Those two worlds fray and knock into each other. Dave did an awesome job mixing those elements together."
Refn and Bender worked together for a couple of months, trying sound design and that dynamic heartbeat to replace temp music. "He wanted to have a flavor of the different scenes for [composer] Cliff [Martinez] to work with," said Bender. "He was writing cues and delivering them at night. It was seamless. We were all on the same page. The music often has a beat and tonal quality that matches with the sound design." "The film is an emotional roller coaster, going from warm and sweet to dark and disturbing," adds Paterson. "It lends itself amazingly to creative use of sound."
D'Arienzo reported that Refn is a big fan of horror films and asked the sound pros if that was a jumping off point for the soundtrack. Paterson, who noted that he's never worked on a horror film, affirmed the observation. He pointed in particular to a scene in a hotel room that goes very quiet just before a shocking bloody act occurs. "That's exactly what happens in a horror film," he said.
"This movie is about silence," added Ennis. "Less is more. This was about deconstructing. We started with layers and kept pulling them back. It's amazing how much tension that created. It created a pinhole view focusing on the moments that Nick wanted us to focus on." Bender notes that, sometimes in the mix, Refn would hear something he thought they didn't need and take out music, design...or even dialogue.
Ryan Gosling and Bryan Cranston
In Drive, silence really means silence. "Silence [in a movie] is usually room tone or kind of quiet," said Paterson, talking about the scene just before a gun battle erupts at a pawnshop. "We went to complete silence and I've never done that before."
One of Refn's rules for the audio was that if the person or object (say, a radio) is not on camera, we don't hear it. "As [sound artists] we spend a lot of time trying to create this off-camera world," said Paterson. "This was completely the opposite. There's no sound the minute someone leaves the screen." Bender agreed. "Nick felt that the characters are having an intimate experience and anything happening off-screen that wasn't intimately tied to the story would take the audience's ear away from what is really going on," he said.
Another very noticeable aspect of sound in Drive was the music, which was loud enough to be much more than "background" audio. At one point, the romantic sounds of "Oh My Love" plays during a very tense moment in the film. The song, by Riz Ortolandi, originally appeared in a horrific 1971 look at slavery, Goodbye Uncle Tom. "Nick was using the song as a counterpoint as well as paying homage to that film," explained Bender.
Paterson noted that mixing was about "embracing the changes that create a rhythm." "It never becomes static," he said. "It was the same in the quiet moments: knowing what to push in each moment and accentuating whatever we can. When Driver pulls the emergency brake and the car skids, the sound goes down before the big hit when the car flips. Just like a horror film, it's about bringing the sound down enough to have someplace to go."
Ennis reported that in the hotel room sequence, silence was interspersed with literal sounds. "It makes everything more impactful," he said. "The sound of Driver squeezing his leather glove takes our attention because it's surrounded by silence." The moderator agreed, pointing out that, after a silent moment, when Standard gets shot at the pawn shop, the sounds "hit us in the gut. "It surprises us in a visceral way," he said.
In another very tense scene, in an elevator, Driver attacks a would-be assassin before the man attacks him. Driver gets the man on the elevator floor and begins kicking his head. "Victor worked very hard on the breathing," said Bender. "We hear the breathing take over, so it's not just gore. And every time he kicks the head, the elevator rattles." "The scene needed to feel real, and that made it more painful," added Paterson.
D'Arienzo's last question to each of the panelists was their favorite sonic moment in Drive. Bender described finding a way to make the heroine's apartment sound "like a magic castle." He said, "I processed chimes along with some other goodies. And Nick wanted to mix it in. So many other people would have said forget it, but Nick was willing to put in a lot of different things that no one else would have. It was subtle, and it worked."
No other panelist could nail down a single, favorite sonic moment, but Ennis encapsulated how they were all feeling. "This whole movie was a gift," he said.
Seeing how inventive audio was in Drive, the result of an intense collaboration of director and sound crew, makes me wonder what movies could be like if more directors invested as much and took as many leaps of faith as Refn did. In the meantime, go see Drive and enjoy the sound.
All Drive photos are courtesy of FilmDistrict and Bold Films and OddLot Entertainment. Photo credits: Richard Foreman.