At the closing ceremonies for the 58th Cannes Film Festival on May 21, the Commission Superieure Technique de l’Image et du Son (CST) decided unanimously to bestow the prestigious Prix Vulcain de l’Artiste-Technicien to Leslie Shatz for his minimalist sound design on Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. Shatz shared the award with Robert Rodriguez for his visual treatment on Sin City.The Prix Vulcain, originally named the Grand Prix Technique, is presented to an artist-technician for work on a film screened at the festival that is deemed to be outstanding. Not awarded every year, past winners include Eric Gautier, director of photography for Olivier Assayas’ Clean (2004), and Tom Stern, director of photography for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2005).The Prix Vulcain has never before been given to a sound designer and most film festivals, if they honor the below-the-line crafts at all, generally acknowledge the work of cinematographers. Shatz admits, “I was very honored to be singled out by the Cannes Film Festival. I think that they were drawn to the use of sound as being somewhat exceptional when used this way. It is very abstract. It is almost like a meditation. Some people have really responded to this, especially in a film-festival environment where you have real lovers of film; it’s very appealing.”Over 15 years, Shatz has designed sound on all but two of Van Sant’s films. Working together on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Good Will Hunting, Psycho and Finding Forrester, Shatz and Van Sant have developed a close collaborative relationship. Shatz explains their common ground: “We both grew up in the ’60s and liked psychedelic music. He also liked this idea of musique concrÃ¨te that started in the ’50s. You might say that musique concrÃ¨te is the original sound design. It was created by two guys in France who thought that they might make music by using real sounds. That way the entire world would be their orchestra.” Shatz believes that the movement evolved and took root in films, partially because film uses sound effects already to support the images. “Certain directors are trying to be more experimental with sound effects that don’t necessarily adhere to the image,” he comments.Shatz and Van Sant first played with the concept in Good Will Hunting in one sequence—a fight on the playground—where the camera and the whole scene goes surreal. They experimented with sounds that were subjective and not necessarily connected to what was happening in the picture. Shatz continues, “When you see the films that followed like Gerry and Elephant, this technique is continued and expanded until finally in Last Days much of the sound you hear is not related to what’s happening on the screen. And then much of the sound is absolutely connected to what’s happening on screen, but to an amplified and almost mundane extent.” Abandoning the usual conventions, Shatz and Van Sant evolved a philosophy on the role of sound in Last Days that rejected the multilayered, classic movie sound prevalent in contemporary American features.Instead sound is used more like music, to evoke feelings and in support of the filmmaker’s intention of drawing the audience into the emotional state of the protagonist. With a story reminiscent of the Kurt Cobain’s shooting-star career and descent into suicide, Last Days explores the deranged state of mind of a Seattle rock ’n’ roller, Blake (Michael Pitt), while trying to convey what it must have been like during the last days of his life. Used abstractly as a counterpoint to the image, the sound effectively conveys the character’s alienated state of mind.Shatz technically treated the soundtrack with a simplicity that followed the lead of the picture edit, which had very little cutting. “I think our technique was the absence of technique,” says Shatz. There is no layering, no Foley in the traditional sense, no regular backgrounds. There is very little dialog and very little music, so the chosen sound effects play a greater role.In mixing the soundtrack, Shatz also strayed from the norm. Instead of mono dialog coming out of the center speaker, production sound was recorded and mixed in stereo to create an ambient feeling, further contributing to the sense of a psychotic state of mind. “It’s almost like you’re inside of the character’s head when you hear it,” he says.Shatz is proud of the range of films he has had the opportunity to work on, from experimental, budget-conscious indies to big-budget blockbusters. His past credits include Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola; The Mummy, for which he received Academy Award and Golden Reel Award nominations, and The Mummy Returns, for which he garnered a Golden Reel Award—both for director Stephen Sommers. Shatz is currently gearing up for his next film, Martian Child, directed by Menno Meyjes for New Line Cinema.
Written by Mary Ann Skweres