Tech Support: Greg P. Russell on finding the nuance in action with Sam Mendes and ‘Skyfall’

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.”

Russell takes a moment to recall a scene from Mendes’s “Road to Perdition,” which was nominated for Best Sound (now Best Sound Mixing) and Best Sound Editing at the Oscars and even won the Cinema Audio Society’s award for mixing. It’s perhaps the most iconic moment from the film, mobster John Rooney (Paul Newman) and his seedy entourage approaching their cars on a rain-soaked Chicago street. The sound of rain splattering in puddles drops out entirely, allowing Thomas Newman’s score to delicately take over as Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) mows down the entourage with his Tommy gun, saving Rooney for last. As Sullivan approaches, the rain and other diegetic elements fade back in for Rooney’s key line — “I’m glad it’s you.” — and Sullivan finally takes his revenge, the rackety sound of gunfire hitting the soundtrack for the first time in the sequence.

It reminds Russell of how Mendes chose to handle the Shanghai sequence of “Skyfall,” which has also been singled out as a particularly stunning example of cinematographer Roger Deakins’s work in the film.

“One of my favorite music pieces in the film happens to be this cue of Bond following Patrice to this particular building,” Russell says. “We get there and there”s all of these cuts of cars and high shots of traffic and low-cut angles to tires. In the past we would have been hitting those sounds, the wet street. Sam didn”t want to hear any of that. It”s much more fluid, those cuts and those images, without hearing sound delineate between each cut. It makes it more poetic. It makes it like a ballet.

“And that’s on up through Bond running in and leaping onto the elevator and following him up to whatever floor they’re on. You don”t want to hear Bond’s movement. The two shots where we are close up on his feet, we hear his feet, his footsteps. Otherwise, you do not hear him. We want him completely stealth in pursuit.”

It’s an interesting sequence for sound, too, because of the constant whirring of a glass cutter that fills the sound space. Bond’s target, who eluded him in the first sequence of the film, is cutting a hole for his rifle on an assassination attempt. The whirring stops and then there’s the “thump” of the cut portion popping out and the whistling of wind outside the hole, which itself yields a visceral reaction about how far up we are (a foreshadowing, in fact, of where the sequence will ultimately go).

“That wind was a very specific sound,” Russell says. “That’s a choice, of what wind that should be. Sam handpicked from, I”m going to say, a half a dozen new winds that we tried, that I would audition for him. And again, it’s part of the narrative of the story. We did have other material and ambiance and we pulled all of it out. So really, Sam just likes it clean.”

But while that kind of work might be a little more noticeable, given that the suspenseful sequence has all of a viewer’s senses piqued, Russell and Millan’s work can also be heard enhancing seemingly mundane moments. Take the entrance of Bond’s villain, Silva (Javier Bardem), in the film. It’s perhaps not so mundane, given the interesting choice of bringing the character down an elevator and having him slowly move across the room until he’s face-to-face with Bond, moving out of focus into focus in a highly dramatic one-shot moment, but it’s certainly not something you would immediately identify for its sound. Yet the mix built on that reveal as much as the visuals.

“That”s a bold move, this long entrance, this introduction to our villain,” Russell says. “Because you focus on him and his speech. And yes, it”s clear, but it certainly has more echo and gets drier as he gets closer, and yet there is still a firmness about it. And the same treatment had to happen with the feet. One of the things that”s interesting about Sam is his perception, because it”s astute, his ear. It”s incredible. He will know that if you have a kind of treatment on the voice, you better match that same treatment on everything else so that it”s all in the same space.

“And one of the other aspects of that scene is there would have been opportunities. It”s a long scene and we had a lot of computer-type hums, low-end things. Other directors would have probably wanted to fill that space up. But it was distracting from the voice. We had all that content and we had been playing with it, and finally he said, ‘Just pull that.’ It was very clear that he wanted to keep this really simplistic and not jazz it up too much. And so we had a very light kind of hum, some light clicking. Every now and then there”s a little beep. It was about lettting the rich power of the performance drive the scene and not distracting from it.”

Whether it was the opening chase sequence with Newman’s pulsating score driving the track, Russell’s signature heard in motorcycles and train engines and bullets whizzing past, or a moment like the above, tailoring the audio to serve performance in quiet but purposeful ways, “Skyfall” had it all. Russell says he learned a lot about patience on the film, that during the process of experimentation, things may lead down a direction that doesn’t feel satisfying, but in further analysis and evaluation of the work, the “pendulum” will swing back around. But mostly, he takes away a unique perspective in a brand of filmmaking that has been his business for over three decades.

“I’ve done a lot of action,” Russell says. “For me, I liked finding the nuance of Sam Mendes in the delicacy and the simplicity of storytelling. And that was my gift, of getting the opportunity to work with him, because he”s a very brilliant, very smart guy. It was a little daunting, the expectations of it, being the 50th anniversary of James Bond. But there were so many really cool, emotional aspects of being a part of this film.”

“Skyfall” is currently available on DVD/Blu-ray.