Scott Hecker won’t go so far as to compare himself to Harry Caul, but in a sense he had a similar task. Caul, of course, was the private investigator played by Gene Hackman in Francis Ford Coppola’s great 1974 film The Conversation.It’s Caul’s job to piece together recordings of whispered conversations to decide if a murder is about to take place, and whether he’s been a pawn in the crime’s unfolding.Similarly, in Sidney Pollack’s recent thriller—itself invoking a kind of ’70s-era political filmmaking—The Interpreter, Nicole Kidman’s UN translator must decide if whispered threats she hears over headphones constitute a real assassination threat for the corrupt leader of an African state.But there are differences between the two films. “Compared to The Conversation, in The Interpreter the only piece of information that is heard is over the headphones,” as opposed to Caul’s ongoing eavesdropping in the earlier film, notes Hecker, who was the supervising sound editor on The Interpreter.Nevertheless The Interpreter is still about listening, and whether to believe what you hear. Given that information is coming at the characters, and the audience, not just in English, but in numerous global tongues—including the made-for-movies African tongue of “Ku”—Hecker had a Caul-like task in front of him in terms of assembling a montage of plot-connected audio sources and trying to fashion them into a coherent whole.But his task was made easier by the assembling that preceded him. “(Editor) Bill Steinkamp did a beautiful job of laying down a collage” of voices at the beginning of the film, a lingual mix that served as a foundation for the work Hecker would do with his crew, which included Chris Jenkins—Universal’s senior VP for sound services—as one of his two main mixers on the film.Jenkins describes the film’s use of sound as “intelligent,” and even “formidable,” adding, about the latter adjective, “not in a Michael Bay sort of way.” Perhaps the opposite: Jenkins noted that Pollack joked “you need a MENSA degree to follow the plot of this movie.” And though that plot was driven by sound cues, “a lot of (the sound) was done on the fly”—in other words, aural moments were “discovered” while the film was being shot—including on location at the UN itself, a first for any feature film.Jenkins notes “Scott did a great job of building it all,” given that those “on-the-fly” moments came about because “Sidney insisted on having as much going on as possible,” including “sounds of the General Assembly (and) all of those wonderful languages (at the UN) going on all the time.”Hecker said that challenge included not only recording—and later emphasizing—“correct languages, but also (correct) content.” Pollack didn’t want someone fluent in Russian hearing an alleged diplomat loudly declaiming his shopping list at a UN microphone. Hecker credits “Barbara Harris and her ‘loop group’” for the languages they “orchestrated” during postproduction. He notes the film’s sound work was, on the whole, “very subtle—it’s detail work… As far as elements go, it wasn’t like a huge action film. It wasn’t busy in that sense.”And that detail work—the sound on the fly, the loop group’s accuracy, and the like—all came together on what Jenkins’ calls “the most incredible mixing console on the planet,” the Harrison MPC3-D Digital Console. Said console exists in a high-speed Ethernet environment, and allows digital mastering in a “completely file-based audio division. So if a filmmaker wants to make changes 40 minutes before a reel goes up,” he or she is able to do so. Jenkins avers that the setup is better than anything else for trying new ideas.Of course, if those new ideas always pop up 40 minutes before reels are locked, it might make some distributors nervous. Nonetheless, distributor nervousness may get too much play in terms of the types of films that get made and shown, and Hecker echoes Jenkins’ words when he says “with the many films you go to today, with your popcorn and your drink, it really is enriching to see a film like this.” But then, such a film “doesn’t have to feel old.”Certainly the technology isn’t: “Everything is off DAT (recording) now,” says Hecker. “All of our sound was recorded on 4-channel digital files,” all of which were later shuttled—still as ones and zeroes—around the mixing stages by Jenkins and his crew.Jenkins likes the random access, and the ability to quickly move sound from scene to scene, to layer, transfer, and play with the audio tracks. He observes that Kidman’s character hopes words of dialogue can change the world.The words in The Interpreter, he notes, make up the “mÃ©lange of sounds,” providing the “connective tissue” to the visual images. Part of keeping that tissue healthy involved sending sound effects editor Eric A. Norris to record “new New York sounds,” because a lot of the Big Apple’s tonal qualities—at least those in sound libraries—“were getting a little stale.” Some of the new, non-stale ones clearly involved sounds inside the UN building.“It’s such an exotic-sounding movie,” Jenkins says, “but it’s in an urban setting.” He contrasts the film’s story and backdrop again with most of “the stuff that sells these days.” Perhaps, in the handful of decades since films like The Conversation were more routine, that makes it exotic enough.
Written by Mark London Williams