Wylie Stateman explains the first-person sound experience of Oscar nominee 'Lone Survivor'
"Lone Survivor" sound editor Wylie Stateman picked up his seventh Oscar nomination to date last month, though despite wonderful work in films like "Cliffhanger," "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained," he's yet to win an Academy Award.
The sound design of "Lone Survivor," you could tell the instant you heard it, was destined for awards recognition this year. And it was all approached in a very unique way to put the viewer right there in the harrowing experience of the four soldiers dodging bullets and plummeting from great heights throughout.
I spoke to Stateman about his work on the film toward the end of the year, well before he had been nominated. I figured holding it until later made sense because I had no doubt he'd find himself among the nominees. And here he is. It's possible he's in the thick of the race, too, as Best Sound Editing has often provided an opportunity for voters to spread the love, even when one of the other nominees may be dominating the race otherwise, from "Speed" to "The Dark Knight" to last year's shocking tie between "Skyfall" and "Zero Dark Thirty" (presented by "Lone Survivor" star Mark Wahlberg, interestingly enough).
You can read through our back and forth below detailing the experience of crafting the film's soundtrack.
HitFix: First of all, this movie is such an amazing sound experience. I'm just curious from the start, how did Peter Berg talk to you about approaching what you hear in the movie and how you hear it?
Wylie Stateman: Pete was making very a visceral personal film. And his point of view about this was really that of highly trained professionals engaged in their work practice in a very hostile environment, and then sort of the cascading series of mistakes and/or problems sort of leading them into this terrible journey where their options become diminished and the entire story and experience is very close-up and personal. Pete's thing was he wanted for us to feel like we were "in" this movie, in this environment, in this experience with these guys, shoulder to shoulder with them. And so we really set out to create a soundtrack that is disturbingly close and personal, placing the audience both in and next to these characters, but in a situation where, as an audience member, you can't process the rhythms of the guns or the nature or the direction of the gunfire the way you would normally do it as an audience member viewing cinema in a normal environment. So what we did is we basically took the film sort of moment-by-moment and created environments that were correct in the acoustical space and not a linear nature of the story. So each shot got its own acoustical environment as if we were sitting there in the middle of experiencing it from the point of view of the center of action. Does that make sense?
It totally does but I'm curious just how unique that approach is in the world of sound.
Most films are approached with, you know, a "good guy gun" and a "bad a guy gun," or, "This is Mark Wahlberg's M4 and this is his RPG. This is what a Taliban RPG sounds like." We didn't do that at all. We in fact threw away the rule book that dictates that kind of procedural work and we said, "We want to be in these shots. We want to be in these moments." So that means creating an acoustical fingerprint or an acoustical experience for each one of those shots, not a literal experience. So you can never really identify whose weapon is being fired, you just know that there's somebody shooting over your shoulder, or that a bullet has just glanced off a rock next to your head. Does that make sense?
Yeah it does and it kind of answers my next question which is, you've worked on films like "We Were Soldiers" and "Born on the Fourth of July" with war elements and I was going to ask how did this film differ from those experiences, and I guess that's it, right?
This is exactly it. In fact we did the same thing with the radios. We fragmented the radio calls based on the words we wanted to hear, not the idea that we're representing a "bad" radio call. We said, "Okay, we're going to take the story content and we're going to fragment that." Instead of just doing like what they call a 'futz,' which is to make it sound like a radio, we actually looked at it and said, "What if it was just packets of information and you only got this word or that word?" And so we built the drama of the bad radio communications one word at a time based on story and not based on creating a sound effect that sounds like a radio.