Telling the sonic story of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty meant accommodating a mundane reality frequently interrupted by whimsical fantasy. Actor and director Ben Stiller recruited production sound mixer Danny Michael and supervising sound editor Craig Henighan to capture and design the film’s eccentric sound-scape. Both have worked with Stiller previously, Henighan as supervising sound editor on Tropic Thunder and re-recording mixer on The Watch, and Michael as sound mixer on Zoolander.
To execute an ambitious re-telling of James Thurber’s short story, Stiller wanted to shoot on locations as raw and surreal as Walter Mitty’s imagination. As the film unfolds, reality outside of fantasy becomes equally surreal, begging all the more for locations and scenarios that would challenge any film crew. Michael knew recording on the locations Stiller wanted would present challenges to his team, but a commitment to capturing real environments had them hiking equipment to remote mountain tops in Iceland and fighting a loud Atlantic ocean. Achieving clean dialogue along the busy sidewalks of Manhattan was another challenge.
“Ben didn’t want to compromise on his environments. It was a challenge to record on 6th Street in Manhattan at mid-day, but there’s a level of intensity you get that helps foster authenticity,” Michael expressed. Some locations, such as the shipping vessel Walter chases down and boards in the film, presented the challenge of even fitting a boom operator in the same space as Stiller and the cinematographer. Choosing not to replicate these environments as malleable sets served Stiller’s mission to present as authentic a journey as possible.
“There are so many things that look like we might have done them with a green screen but they’re all real. He was in that ocean and it was frigid,” said Michael. “The first time we shot it, he thought the ocean was too calm. He wanted to go further out where it was more rough and cold. It was a challenge, but that’s what makes it more interesting. I think some of the audio we recorded, at least, was usable.”
Stiller and Michael collaborated on using music as a tool for conjuring a specific mood on set. A special in-ear monitor was used to feed Stiller carefully selected music in many scenes, including a risky skateboard ride down a steep Icelandic road.
“When we approached this, Ben said he wanted music piped into his ear as often as possible,” Michael explained. “So, we had a wireless set up to an earwig, playing music to put him in the appropriate mood for the particular scene he was doing.”
Sound was edited using Pro Tools HDX version 10 and Avid’s ICON console, with a Dolby 7.1/Atmos mix.
“The approach we took from a sound design standpoint was: in Walter’s everyday life the sound should be bland – a simple and basic soundtrack. When we enter the fantasies, we’d go into huge sound moments, open up the sound field to big-7.1, buildings could explode. From black and white to technicolor. We were trying to do the sonic equivalent of that idea,” Henighan explained.
Creating a realistic sound-scape from location recordings meant populating the sound spectrum strategically while sweetening the environments to support dialogue and story. For the 6th street dialogue scenes, Henighan said, “Danny gave us great tracks to work with. It was my job to enhance the city sound, which was already noisy, without getting in the way.”
Henighan also used music and rhythm as tools to blend Walter’s lackluster reality into each heroic fantasy. A tribute to Thurber’s own “Ta-pocketa”, Henighan created a rhythmic subway train, synced to the score, that initiates one of the first fantasies in the film; a concept and relationship between reality and fantasy presented in variety throughout the film.
“If you listen closely you can hear, in the office, a fax machine and a printer going in the same rhythm of the ta-pocketa… Ben is a pretty keen drummer and liked using musical sound effects,” said Henighan.
In another scene, Walter leaps into a helicopter as a musical build-up seemingly thrusts him into action. “I listened to the song in the scene a lot and played around with the pitch of the helicopter’s rotor-blades, making sure I was in the same key,” explained Henighan. “As the blades wind up, everything goes into where the song does, so that when he finally makes his leap into the helicopter, it blooms into this big moment.”
Both Michael and Henighan praised Stiller’s commitment to detail. “I can’t say enough about Ben’s ability as a craftsman,” said Henighan. “As a guy who takes everyone’s ideas and uses them as an instrument to drive the story forward.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty hits theaters Dec. 25.