Tech Support: Greg P. Russell on finding the nuance in action with Sam Mendes and 'Skyfall'
The oft-nominated sound mixer picked up his 16th Academy notice for the film
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HOLLYWOOD - Being in sound mixer Greg P. Russell's shoes at the Oscars must be an interesting experience. He's been 14 times, you see (double nominated in 1998). But he's never heard his name called. He's watched his work on high-octane action hits like "The Rock," "Spider-Man" and the "Transformers" films lose to overall Academy favorites like "The English Patient," "Chicago" "The Hurt Locker" and "Hugo." He's been in the mix (so to speak) consistently since his first nomination, for "Black Rain" in 1989, but hasn't found himself on a project that the Academy at large -- which, whether they know from good sound mixing or not, votes collectively on the Oscar winners each year -- could warm to as worthy of their vote.
That could change this year, however. Nominated for the James Bond extravaganza "Skyfall," Russell finds himself on a production that has clear industry support and sentiment. At the same time, he's staring down Academy favorites once again in "Argo," "Les Misérables," "Life of Pi" and "Lincoln." But that's familiar territory for him.
Russell landed the gig mixing the sound effects of Sam Mendes's film largely as a result of his recent partnership with Scott Millan, who has mixed dialogue in Mendes's films since his debut, "American Beauty." Millan and Russell head up Technicolor's new theatrical sound post-production facility on the Paramount lot in Hollywood and Russell marks it as fortuitous that the relationship could yield such a coveted job as this one.
"It was a real privilege because I've always admired Sam’s films," Russell says, sitting in a plush chair in the facility just after the film's November release. A moment from Richard LaGravenese's "Beautiful Creatures" sits frozen on a giant theater screen as a command center of dials and switches waits for him to again take up the task of blending its aural elements after we speak. "He’s always had a distinct sonic signature to his films. They’re not the norm. He makes choices that even though what’s on screen might be whatever you’re seeing, it’s not necessarily what you’re going to hear."
Nevertheless, it was his first stab at working with the director. With someone like Michael Bay, Russell has an on-going shorthand. So his right hand man, Millan, would provide immeasurable insight into Mendes' sensibilities.
"It really was beneficial to me because going in I kind of got a real inside look at Sam Mendes from Scott’s perspective," Russell says. "There was something that Scott had mentioned that, you know, 'He's going to want to try things that are out-of-the-box.' The pendulum, as he says, swings maybe all the way left and 'let’s pull all of the sounds out and just hear dialogue, music.' And then he’ll kind of come and add stuff back so that pendulum sways. And where he ends up after his process is usually at a really interesting balance."
That process reminded Russell somewhat of his collaborations with another filmmaker, Sam Raimi. Raimi is very specific with his mixers about what he wants to hear and certainly what he doesn’t want to hear. "Everything has to be connected to story for him," Russell says. "Which we always kind of try and do. But in a lot of ways we utilize many colors and textures to fill that frame. Many directors want that energy. They almost are nervous if that energy falls off."
But Mendes trusts his performances and the narrative enough that it stands on its own, Russell says. He doesn't want it convoluted or for anything to get in the way, and Russell respected that. He could see in dialing certain elements back how Mendes maybe was focusing on someone's voice or some other specific track. It's all part of a sculpting process, as Russell likes to call it.
Mendes also has a tendency to let the work of his composer, Thomas Newman, shine in a given production. And that was going to be of the utmost importance in a James Bond film, a franchise identifiable by its musical tradition.
"The music is such a driving force in this movie and I’ve always been a fan," Russell says. "That was one of the other big treats for a guy like me is I’ve been a fan my whole life growing up. I’ve seen many, many Bonds. So the idea of actually even working on a Bond movie was very exciting to begin with."
After getting the basic idea of what Mendes was looking for, the arc of the film from a sound standpoint during the temp mix stage in London, the sound team came back to Los Angeles to prepare all the elements. Everything was refined and smoothed out on a track-by-track basis and then it was back to London for the final mix. And while things like the music are there to drive the production, and the effects, Russell's domain, certainly enhance the overall mixture, it boils down to one thing for Mendes: dialogue.
"It is crucial that the warmth and the resonance and the soul of the performance sound fantastic," Russell says. "So that was the core that we then wrap everything else around. And then the next line of importance for him is the music. Thomas Newman, we all knew from the temp dub -- which had a lot of music from other movies, including obviously Bond movies and 'Casino Royale' -- that it was a daunting task to deliver something that connects to the iconic themes but brings something fresh. There's a constant movement to this movie and the narrative and the score really drive that."
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