In Memoirs of a Geisha, directed by Rob Marshall, Young Pumpkin, portrayed by Zoe Weizenbaum, is swept away from her humble fishing village and thrust into a geisha house in 1929 Kyoto. Through her innocent eyes, and those of the celebrated geisha Sayuri, played by Zhang Ziyi, emerges a visual and audio tapestry of geisha culture. For the film’s supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman it was a collaborative journey to capture the essence of this world.“Rob’s first concern is the aesthetic, the texture of the Geisha world,” says Stateman. “He wanted to capture the sensory experience of the Japanese aesthetic. It was austere in nature, simple and uncluttered. And every aspect of the film would reflect that.”From the sound point of view, it meant understanding the simplicity of Marshall’s aesthetic and merging it with the visuals. “The music score by John Williams was graceful and there were moments launched from the quiet of silence which were very effective in creating mood,” says Stateman. “We needed to craft the dialogue, music and sound effects to be flowing and elegant.”From the seaside sounds of the fishing village, to rainy streets of Kyoto, to Sayuri’s seductive dances in flowing silks, every moment had to be timed and merged to reflect the precise Japanese nature. “Rob is a very hands-on director. He loves and is involved in every aspect of the making of this film. He meticulously addressed every decision. He wanted the audience to be swept away by Sayuri’s lifelong geisha experience, and for Western senses unfamiliar with this world to not be jostled but to experience the journey over time.”Stateman credits sound designers Harry Cohen and Ann Sapelli for their unique contribution to the film’s sound palette. He describes how the pair crafted every background sound that was then evaluated against the visuals and put in pitch and time to capture this “precise” Japanese tone. Dialogue ADR supervisor Renee Tondelli modulated dialogue to match the characters. Stateman also credits his sound crew at Sony, led by mixer Kevin O’Connell, for their work on sound effects, musical instruments such as the bamboo flute shakuhachi, violin and cello defined the classic Japanese atmosphere. Taking advantage of last year’s California rainy season, Stateman field-recorded around 100 hours of rain direct to disk. At his home in LA’s Topanga Canyon and in nearby Malibu he captured he sound of rain hitting tin roofs, tile roofs, dripping from roofs, splashing—all sorts of variations to create a library of rain sound effects transferred to the streets of Kyoto and to other scenes in the film.For Stateman, supervising the sound of a film is equivalent to “turning 100,000 decisions to the 100 really important ones that serve the story.” In Memoirs, the less-is-more philosophy governed the film’s sound fabric.
Written by Kathy Anderson