“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.
I guess that’s unique in itself to be able to tell story so specifically with your work. So often I guess sound is building out the world in helping to tell the story sonically, but to just be able to just convey the story in that way, almost in a narrative fashion, to carry that across is interesting.
And that’s what we worked out with Pete. We said, “Let’s make the sound a character in this film.” In the case of radio, let’s make radio story about what word we want to hear or what piece of a word, and by the way, we don’t even have to tether it to exactly the right time. So we’ll repeat words sometimes two frames apart and sometimes 10 feet apart. So there’s no consistent time delay in our theory of radio, there’s just a story. There’s just the fragmented words that you want to play and then placing those words in time where they fit best in the story and in the cut. Also with [film editor] Colby Parker, the same thing. Between Pete and Colby Parker, we established this idea that it’s story. And so with the radios, like I say, there’s fragmented pieces of radio that just fit into his editing patterns, not into the fact that we had a rule to adhere to.
So the idea that Pete had, and Colby, for that matter, is to kind of break the traditional storytelling rules by allowing sound to sonically – or let’s say allow the gunfire and the bullet ricos [short for “ricochets”] and that sort of thing and the falling sounds – you’re “in” that sound. When you’re tumbling down those rocks, the microphones are actually, you know – all of that was shot MOS; there was no production track. But what we did with the foley is we actually put the microphones in the foley artist’s clothes and in his gear. So instead of having the microphone six feet away the way we would normally record something, we actually put it in the backpack and you’re in that moment, you are that tumbling soldier.
I assume you had some elements like the sounds of a body hitting a tree or a boulder, did you go out and get some of these elements separately.
We recorded all of that on the foley stage.
But really what it is is it’s the concept for how to record it. It’s like instead of saying we’re going to make a recording of a body hitting a tree, we said, “What would it sounds like if the microphone where the body and the microphone hit the tree?” It’s like what we wanted to do was have a first-person experience with the microphone, with the sound, with the concept for the sound for the film. So maybe that’s a better way to explain Pete’s direction in this and Colby’s needs. It’s like, this is a first-person sonic experience. So meaning the microphone is telling the story, the acoustical environment is telling the story. When you hear a gunshot glance off a rock next to your head, it is right there next to your head as a first-person experience. There was no proscenium. Most sound is proscenium presentations. People are in the audience and they’re looking at this experience on the screen. We wanted the sound on ‘Lone Survivor’ to be a first-person experience.
Indeed, so instead of the microphone just passively capturing sound, it’s actively a part of…
…the world. And the situation is different from shot to shot. That’s the other key to this. It would be one thing to have that as sort of the rule, but in order to do that you physically have to make each shot have its own unique, you know, acoustical point of view.
Did you ever hear from Marcus Lutrell about how close to reality it felt or did that even process for him at all.
My relationship to the film is through Pete and Colby Parker. So the three of us – and yeah, they’re in constant touch with Marcus Luttrell. But his impact on the sound is really minimal, whereas Colby Parker and Pete, between us we were very much in sync with what this film was going to feel like sonically.
I talk to a number of you guys in the sound community every year and love hearing these stories. Getting these kinds of perspectives and hearing how people take to each other’s work in that community is always interesting. What kind of feedback have you gotten from your peers?
I get calls from people all the time saying, “Wow, fantastic, wonderful, interesting,” because it’s kind of a unique perspective. I really think between the radios and the gunfire and the bullet impacts and that sort of thing, you know, people that see this film – and it’s particularly my professional friends – they look at it and they understand what kind of achievement it is to break from the traditional, like I say, sitting in the audience and looking at a film through a proscenium versus being in those shots. And that, I think, is what ‘Lone Survivor’ is all about. You are there. And it’s a very honest track. There’s not a lot of music playing these beats, it’s all sound design and acoustical designs.
Well this being the first time I’ve actually talked to you, somehow, after all these years, I wanted to close by asking about your big moment on the Oscars back in 2006 when you were nominated for “Memoirs of a Geisha” and Jon Stewart had that funny bit that mentioned you [see below]. What was your reaction to that?
You know what, it was wonderful for my mother. And I love John Stewart. I watch his show. I’m like so many Americans, that’s where I get my news from, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. So, you know what, it’s all fun. It’s all part of the wonder and charm of working in this business. I try to have very little ego about it other than to say – I guess one of the things that I marvel about in terms of the film industry is the fact that you can get on a bus or an airplane or a train almost anywhere in the world and you’re sitting amongst people who have consumed something that you’ve made. And it’s a very rare opportunity in the world of today, to have a chance to touch so many people. Jon Stewart called me and said he was going to do this and was I cool with this, and I was like, “Absolutely.” Yeah, so that was fun.