By Mark London Williams
You know a production is heavily into verisimilitude when even the looping is done on location.
Sound supervisor Richard King, overseeing the aural half of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, talks of heading out to the hills for postproduction looping in the not-a-Western starring Brad Pitt as James, and Casey Affleck as Ford, who, in classical American tradition, manages to alter history simply by getting his hands on a gun.
The film was adapted from the novel by Ron Hansen and directed by sophomore director Andrew Dominik, himself a Kiwi, a land lately conversant – in film terms – with zombie sheep and enchanted rings rather than Yankee icons. But when it came to making his uber-American film, Dominick knew what he wanted on screen.
And not just the visual parts.
“We did most of the loop group in Topanga State Park,” King says. “Andrew was there every second of the day. He’s so into sound, and so aware of what can be contributed.”
The sound was recorded at the former ranch-turned-state park in the Santa Monica Mountains because of its outdoor ambiance, King says, “instead of doing it in a studio, where there’s no ambiance at all.”
But heading out into the rare undeveloped stretches of L.A. wasn’t Dominik’s only stab at capturing authentic sound some 150 years after the James gang terrorized the Midwest in a post-Civil War frenzy.
Doug Hemphill was one of the re-recording mixers – along with Ron Bartlett – who worked on the film with King. So it wasn’t merely the oak-flecked outdoorsy-ness of dialogue recorded in Topanga that Dominik was after. “Major elements,” Hemphill says, “the train, the guns, the horses – all those were recorded.”
And, like King, he doesn’t mean in a studio or on a sound stage, either.
That train, for example, was recorded some 18 months or so back up in Washington. King talks of the challenge in “finding the right spot to do what we needed to do” — in this case, provide the ambiance for a train that was robbed on the edge of the woods at night.
To get that, the sound crew found itself recording trains near Tacoma in the woods. At night. Hemphill notes that it even was, specifically, a steam train.
As for the guns, “we spent a week over the summer,” recording historically authentic ordnance in various stages of explosive mayhem.
But Dominik wasn’t merely after an interesting audio agglomeration, or catalog of sound. He also experimented with what the audio tracks could do.
“He wanted to experiment spatially,” Bartlett says, “going down from five channels down to mono – when things got intense or intimate.” In other words, the director wanted the audio version of a close-up.
Dominik also didn’t want things to be too slick or overproduced. Hemphill recalls that in the matter of narration, the assistant picture editor, Hugh Ross, recorded a temp track that, as King picks up, everyone fell in love with. “It just fit. It’s magic.”
“He really did seem like a character in the film to me,” Hemphill says.
There was a rawness, an authenticity, to Ross’ performance, so another actor was never brought in. But Ross was, to re-record his own temp tracks. “Everyone fell in love with him,” Bartlett says, “but it seems to have been love at first sight.”
In other words, it was the rawness of the temp tracks that grabbed everyone. “It was done off-the-cuff,” he says, “in the editing room, with fans whirring and computers growing. The mismatches were incredible.” And Bartlett should know, since his perview was to record character dialog and music, while Hemphill concentrated on the effects.
Ross tried to record cleaner tracks – on the originals, Bartlett says, but when he did, “he couldn’t do it. He felt he was ‘acting.’”
So they went back to the original off-the-cuff tracks and cleaned them up.
And not only for the narration.
Nick Cave – with Warren Ellis – did the film’s score, and Cave “recorded a lot of cues” live, Bartlett says, in his own stab at a temp mix for the final score. “It sounded beautiful,” he says. “We went back to those takes” and used them in the final mix.
Dominik’s edict, which made perfect sense to the sound crew, was that “if anything took you out of the intensity of the story, we got rid of it.”
In retrospect, Hemphill describes it as “a really special project – because I love Westerns, I grew up on Westerns. (This is) what we like to call an ‘anti-Western.’ Working on sound was such a joy.”
A high-energy joy. Bartlett says that “if the actors’ performance had a lot of dynamics in it, (Dominik) wanted to keep that.” In other words, the director wasn’t interesting in modulating the sound, but rather making the original, raw tracks fit in to the final film.
None of that was lost when the final stems – the six-channel mixes of sound, music, dialog, etc. – were loaded into ProTools for the movie’s final aural reckoning. “It was a beautiful experience for me to collaborate on,” Hemphill says. “You bring things to the table you’ve done for years and years and years,” and then suddenly, get to use them in new and surprising ways.
Which, for a group whose pedigree includes films like The 11th Hour, the X-Men franchise, Heat, Hairspray, The Prestige, War of the Worlds, and many others, is saying something.
King himself — noting that the sound crew still recounts snippets of dialog to each other, weeks after finishing the project — calls the film “an adventure, and a journey.”
Much like being in the James Gang itself, perhaps. Even if the ending here is much happier.
Written by Mark London Williams