Oscar-nominated sound editors discuss dream project ‘All is Lost’

“All is Lost” is nothing if not a showcase for post-production sound. Bereft of dialogue, a story told virtually through score and sound effects editing, it would be a dream project for any sound editor. And so it was for Oscar nominees Richard Hymns and Steve Boeddeker.

But the film’s post-production fate was in flux for a time as affordability was a huge consideration for the indie production. It finally did make its way to the halls of Skywalker Sound, however (where it was known affectionately as “Bob on a Boat”), and Hymns actually came to it first through his wife, who had worked for star Robert Redford’s company for 10 years before they married.

At a reception, the actor “was talking about this film he’d just finished and it was set on a boat with no dialogue,” Hymns recalls. “As a sound editor, I’m salivating. And I love sailing. I’m a water person. I said, ‘Who do I have to talk to to get on this film?’ I’m always looking for projects like this.”

Boeddeker adds that after Redford encouraged Hymns to work on the film, it became a fight to have that opportunity. “We contacted J.C. [Chandor] and his guys and they were going to do it in Toronto for the tax break,” he says. “We had to match that, which was [financially] insane. But Richard and I were really passionate about this – with three lines of dialogue, we knew it could be fun.”

The film was a candy shop for those who work in this trade, crafting virtually an entire soundtrack in post-production. And it was a unique one as well. That tightened budget meant there were only four sound editors on the project: Hymns, Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor and Hymns’ assistant, Andre Fenley. “Definitely not financially gainful,” Hymns says. “Definitely not a reasonable schedule. But we just did it and went all out. All gave much more time and many more hours than we were paid for. It was just a wonderful opportunity.”

Hymns continues to describe the film as “an opportunity to really do something special,” where he could have great fun with the sound without being distracting. He explains that normally sound editors need to walk a fine line in this regard.

Hymns goes on to note how a project like this was catnip also because he could have such great fun and not keep an eye on holding back too much. “When the sound is really perfect, you don’t notice it because when you notice it, you’ve kind of blown it,” he explains. “But there are certain projects like this one where you can showcase sound but make it totally believable. There’s a thin line between doing it really well and having it be authentic and not flashy. It’s absolutely a danger to be too flashy with the sound. I see it all the time. If I’m aware of the sound, they fail. It’s my inclination to pay attention to it so if I’m engaged in the story, that’s great sound to me.”

Boeddeker concedes a great deal of credit for the film to director J.C. Chandor, who wrote a film where “sound was basically another character,” he says. “It was written and directed to play an important role. That’s what I was most excited about.”

That said, the nature of the film tossed out any notion of doing it in a typical fashion. The elements would be divvied up and the person assigned to dialogue would be “sitting on his ass the whole time,” Boeddeker says of the nearly wordless film. “So we started kind of breaking it up by characters. Brandon was the Robert Redford character and I did the ‘character’ of the boat and the world around him. I had this freedom to do all kinds of things. I could kind of go off and do whatever I wanted and Richard, who is a sailor, was the one who’d make sure it was authentic.”

Indeed, Hymns put his sailing prowess to the test when he and the team shuffled off onto San Francisco Bay during a small craft advisory to collect a number of sounds for the project. “He neglected to tell us it was going to be a stormy day,” Boeddeker says. But it ended up being a significant windfall for their effects library. “What we thought we were going to get was a bunch of boat sounds. We ended up getting a ton of great storm sounds. It was a really fun, exciting, semi-scary trip.”

Says Hymns, “We had to be able to get a sense of the despair and loneliness as the film progresses. The most important thing was to be inside Robert Redford’s head. A lot of the sound is a bit louder than it would actually be but he was losing his home, transportation, survival so we played all that up.”

Of course, the importance of sound to the film as a whole came with an added element of responsibility, but Hymns is used to that by now, even though certain elements of the film’s soundtrack – such as a storm at sea – he had never done before in his long and illustrious career.

“I believe fear is an integral element to what I do,” he says. “I think at the beginning of every film that I do I’m scared. If I ever get to the point where I don’t care, I think my work will suffer. So I was scared on ‘All is Lost.’ But I was excited.”

As for being in the Oscar race? Hymns is on his ninth nomination (his first came for “Willow” and Jimmy Stewart misstated his name on Oscar night). H says the fun will continue regardless of whether or not he wins. “I never expect to win,” he says. “I will be speechless if I do. I’m thrilled to be there; it’s fun to be there. Win or lose, it’s an incredible honor.”

Boeddeker, on the other hand, is on his first nomination. But the reward has largely already come in the recognition he’s received from his peers. “I’ve had some legendary sound people who work in our building come up and say, ‘We thought you did an amazing job,'” he says. “That feels good.”