Tag Archives: Steve Carell

Richard Linklater on directing the film Last Flag Flying

By Iain Blair

Director Richard Linklater first made a name for himself back in 1991 with the acclaimed and influential independent release Slacker, an experimental narrative revolving around 24 hours in the lives of 100 characters. Since then he’s made the beloved Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise; Before Sunset, (he got an Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay) and Boyhood (which received multiple BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards, and an Oscar for actress Patricia Arquette).

He’s also directed such diverse films as the Western/gangster picture The Newton Boys, the animated feature Waking Life, the real-time drama Tape, the comedy School of Rock and Everybody Wants Some!!

L-R: Iain Blair and Richard Linklater

His new film is the timely Last Flag Flying, which deals with war, patriotism and friendship. Set in 2003, it tells the story of three soldiers — former Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) and former Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) — who reunite 30 years after they served together in the Vietnam War to bury Doc’s son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Doc decides to forgo a burial at Arlington Cemetery and, with the help of his old buddies, takes the casket on a bittersweet trip up the East Coast to his home in suburban New Hampshire. Along the way, Doc, Sal and Mueller reminisce and come to terms with shared memories of the war that continues to shape their lives.

Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with author Darryl Ponicsan, who wrote his novel Last Flag Flying as a sequel to his book The Last Detail, which was made into the acclaimed 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson.

I spoke with Linklater —whose other film credits include Suburbia, Bad News Bears (the 2005 version), A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation, Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach, Me and Orson Welles, Bernie and Before Midnight — about making the film, which is getting awards buzz, and why his image as a loose, improv-heavy director is so inaccurate.

Is it fair to say this is not a war movie, but it’s about war?
Yes, I think that’s right. It’s my kind of war movie. It’s not a battlefield movie but about the effects of war — that sub-category about what happens when the war comes home and how the combat survivors deal with it.

My dad was in the navy in WW11 but he never talked about the war and his experiences.
Exactly. My dad was the same. Very stoic. They just held it all in. Now it’s even worse, I feel. The suicide rate among returning vets is so high today, and the big problem is the way the service breaks you down and trains you, but then they don’t really put you back together. When you’re done, the killing machine goes home, and you’re taught to be stoic and be a man, and you’re left with nothing. To me that’s so tragic. We should talk about it. And all these issues, along with all of the wars since Vietnam, are the subtext to this whole story. War is such a political minefield today.

Is it true you started to make a film of this a decade ago?
Yes, I tried to adapt the book, but I’m glad it didn’t happen back then. It wasn’t meant to be, and no one was really ready to deal with the war in Iraq. It takes a while to want to analyze a war and get a perspective. A little distance is very helpful.

You’ve got three great leads. What did they bring to it?
Everything — all of their intelligence, humor, experience and work ethic. They really dug in, and we spent a couple of weeks rehearsing and really talking about all the issues. Each character is very different, and the guys really found them and jumped in. The biggest contrast is probably between Sal and Doc. Sal is the life of the party type, clearly self-medicating, always talking, eating, drinking, while Doc’s very low-key and quiet. Then Mueller’s somewhere in the middle.

Technology has changed a lot since you started, with the whole digital revolution, but you still like to shoot on film? Was that the case with this one?
We shot Boyhood all on film, but we did this digitally. It was just more practical, and I think now you can get any look you want with digital. It’s pretty impossible to tell the difference between film and digital now. But I don’t think film’s dead, although economically it’s changed, obviously, but I don’t think it’s going away. I hope we always have it as a choice. Digital’s just one more tool.

Where did you do the post?
We posted in my offices in Austin, as usual, and we began cutting while I shot.

Do you like post?
I love post and all the stuff you can do to shape your film, but I actually feel the most creative in rehearsal and then shooting. That’s when I feel like I’m really making the film. I don’t feel like I’ve ever “found” the film in the edit and post, like some directors do. There’s a certain schematic at work that I’m trying to follow. I know certain kinds of films have to be deconstructed and then reconstructed in post, but mine aren’t like that. It sounds boring but I do all that in advance. I’m a big preparer.

So you’re not the big improv, loose guy people like to think you are?
(Laughs) No, no. I prepare everything. And with experience you just know what you’re going to shoot and actually use.

The film was edited by your longtime collaborator Sandra Adair. Tell us about that relationship and how it works.
She doesn’t need to be on set and we just send dailies and then we talk a bit. I don’t usually shoot more than necessary, as I tend to have pretty limited budgets and schedules. I usually have a fairly good cut done about a month into post. I used to cut my own stuff when I began, like all filmmakers, and then she cut Dazed and Confused for me 24 years ago and we’ve been a team ever since.

Linklater on set.

I think we share the same brain at this point, a certain shorthand; we have great chemistry, and she’s just really good. She can just look at the footage and know what I’m thinking. I don’t have to explain it. The big challenge on this was finding the right balance between all the heavy drama and then the moments of comedy, and keeping that tonal balance all the way down the line. So in the edit you go, “This is a bit dialogue-heavy, let’s cut to the joke,” and “this is redundant,” and so on. The re-writing never stops.

How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
A few hundred, all done by Savage VFX who’re in LA and (Pittsburgh) Pennsylvania, where we shot — mainly greenscreen, train stuff, compositing, clean-up and so on. Hopefully, you don’t notice them at all.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
It’s always been huge to me, and a couple of the songs — “Not Dark Yet” by Bob Dylan, and “Wide River to Cross” by Levon Helm — are so important. Big choices, with the Levon Helm song at the graveside, and Dylan at the very end. Again, it’s a tonal thing. There aren’t that many songs, but they’re all crucial, like the Eminem song “Without Me” and its humor.

Graham Reynolds, who’s done the score for a lot of my films, composed a beautiful score and I probably used it in places I usually wouldn’t because I felt the story needed it emotionally, and I wanted to give more clues in that area, and carry things through more.

The film has a very bleak look. Talk about the DI and how that process helped?
We did it at Light Iron with colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz (using Quantel Rio), and that bleak, rainy look was baked into the whole thing and started at the conceptual level — “We’re never going to see sunlight.” We’re going to have a lot of rain, grungy locations and a sort of texture and tone that’s fundamental to telling this story. Corinne did a great job, especially in the scenes where nature didn’t give us what we wanted. (From Corinne: “The movie was shot beautifully by Shane Kelly, who conveyed in the DI that the visuals needed to emphasize cool and dark tones.  At the same time, we worked to maintain a naturalistic feel throughout.”)

What’s next?

I’m in the middle of post on my next film, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a comedy-drama starring Cate Blanchett, out next year. And I have a big TV project that began as a film, a huge, sprawling historical thing. TV is now this really viable medium for filmmakers.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Creating sounds for Battle of the Sexes

By Jennifer Walden

Fox Searchlight’s biographical sports, drama Battle of the Sexes, delves into the personal lives of tennis players Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) during the time surrounding their famous televised tennis match in 1973, known as the Battle of the Sexes. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris faithfully recreated the sports event using real-life tennis players Vince Spadea and Kaitlyn Christian as body doubles for Carell and Stone, and they used the original event commentary by announcer Howard Cosell to add an air of authenticity.

Oscar-nominated supervising sound editors Ai-Ling Lee (also sound designer/re-recording mixer) and Mildred Iatrou, from Fox Studios Post Production in LA, began their work during the director’s cut. Lee was on-site at Hula Post providing early sound support to film editor Pamela Martin, feeding her era-appropriate effects, like telephones, cars and cameras, and working on scenes that the directors wanted to tackle right away.

For director Dayton, the first priority scene was Billie Jean’s trip to a hair salon where she meets Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). It’s the beginnings of a romantic relationship and Dayton wanted to explore the idea of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response, mainly an aural experience that causes the skin on the scalp and neck to tingle in a pleasing way) to make the hair cut feel close and sensual. Lee explains that ASMR videos are popular on YouTube, and topping the list of experience triggers are hair dryers blowing, cutting hair and running fingers through hair. After studying numerous examples, Lee discovered “the main trick to ASMR is to have the sound source be very close to the mic and to use slow movements,” she says. “If it’s cutting hair, the scissors move very slow and deliberate, and they’re really close to the mic and you have close-up breathing.”

Lee applied those techniques to the recordings she made for the hair salon scene. Using a Sennheiser MKH 8040 and MKH 30 in an MS setup, Lee recorded the up-close sound of slowly cutting a wig’s hair. She also recorded several hair dryers slowly panning back and forth to find the right sound and speed that would trigger an ASMR feeling. “For the hairdryers, you don’t want an intense sound or something that’s too loud. The right sound is one that’s soothing. A lot of it comes down to just having quiet, close-up, sensual movement,” she says.

Ai-Ling Lee capturing the sound of hair being cut.

Recording the sounds was the easy part. Getting that experience to translate in a theater environment was the challenge because most ASMR videos are heard through headphones as a binaural, close experience. “In the end, I just took the mid-side recording and mixed it by slowly panning the sound across the front speakers and a little bit into the surrounds,” explains Lee. “Another trick to making that scene work was to slowly melt away the background sounds of the busy salon, so that it felt like it was just the two of them there.”

Updating the Commentary
As Lee was working on the ASMR sound experience, Iatrou was back at Fox Studios working on another important sequence — the final match. The directors wanted to have Howard Cosell’s original commentary play in the film but the only recording available was a mixed mono track of the broadcast, complete with cheering crowds and a marching band playing underneath.

“At first, the directors sent us the pieces that they wanted to use and we brightened it a little because it was very dull sounding. They also asked us if we could get rid of the music, which we were not able to do,” says Iatrou.

As a work-around, the directors asked Iatrou to record Cosell’s lines using a soundalike. “We did a huge search. Our ADR/group leader Johnny Gidcomb at Loop De Loop held auditions of people who could do Howard Cosell. We did around 50 auditions and sent those to the directors. Finally, we got one guy they really liked.”

L-R: Mildred Iatrou and Ai-Ling Lee.

They spent a day recording the Cosell soundalike, using the same make and model mic that was used by Cosell and nearly all newscasters of that period — the Electro-Voice 635A Apple. Even with the “new” Cosell and the proper mic, the directors felt it still wasn’t right. “They really wanted to use Howard Cosell,” says Iatrou. “We ended up using all Howard Cosell in the film except for a word or a few syllables here and there, which we cut in from the Cosell soundalike. During the mix, re-recording mixer Ron Bartlett (dialogue/music) had to do very severe noise reduction in the segments with the music underneath. Then we put other music on top to help mask the degree of noise reduction that we did.”

Another challenge to the Howard Cosell commentary was that he wasn’t alone. Rosie Casals was also a commentator at the event. In the film, Rosie is played by actress Natalie Morales. Iatrou recorded Morales performing Casals’ commentary using the Electro-Voice 635A Apple mic. She then used iZotope RX 6’s EQ Match feature to help her lines sound similar to Cosell’s. “For the final mix, Ron Bartlett put more time and energy into getting the EQ to match. It’s interesting because we didn’t want Rosie’s lines to be as distressed as Cosell’s. We had to find this balance between making it work with Howard Cosell’s material but also make it a tiny bit better.”

After cutting Rosie’s new lines with Cosell’s original commentary, Iatrou turned her attention to the ambience. She played through the original match’s 90-minute mixed mono track to find clear sections of crowds, murmuring and cheering to cut under Rosie’s lines, so they would have a natural transition into Cosell’s lines. “For example, if there was a swell of the cheer on Howard Cosell’s line then I’d have to find a similar cheer to extend the sound under the actress’s line to fill it in.”

Crowd Sounds
To build up authentic crowd sounds for the recreated Battle of the Sexes match, Iatrou had the loop group perform call-outs that she and Lee heard in the original broadcast, like a woman yelling, “Come on Billie!” and a man shouting, “Come on Bobby baby!”

“The crowd is another big character in the match,” says Lee. “As the game went on, it felt like more of the women were cheering for Billie Jean and more of the men were cheering for Bobby Riggs. In the real broadcast, you hear one guy cheer for Bobby Riggs and then a woman would immediately cheer on Billie Jean. The guy would try to out cheer her and she would cheer back. It’s this whole secondary situation going on and we have that in the film because we wanted to make sure we were as authentic as possible.”

Lee also wanted the tennis rackets to sound authentic. She tracked down a wooden racket and an aluminum racket and had them restrung with a gut material at a local tennis store. She also had them strung with less tension than a modern racket. Then Lee and an assistant headed to an outdoor tennis court and recorded serves, bounces, net impacts, ball-bys and shoe squeaks using two mic setups — both with a Schoeps MK 41 and an MK 8 in an MS setup, paired with Sound Devices 702 and 722 recorders. “We miked it close and far so that it has some natural outdoor sound.”

Lee edited her recordings of tennis sounds and sporting event crowds with the production effects captured by sound mixer Lisa Pinero. “Lisa did a really good job of miking everything, and we were able to use some of the production crowd sounds, especially for the Margaret Court vs. Bobby Riggs match that happens before the final Battle of the Sexes match. In the final match, some of the tennis ball hits were layers of what I recorded and the production hits.”

Another key sonic element in the recreated Battle of the Sexes match was the Foley work by Dan O’Connell and John Cucci of One Step Up, located on the Fox Studios lot. During the match, Billie Jean’s strategy was to wear out the older and out-of-shape Bobby Riggs by making him run all over the court. “As the game went on, I wanted Bobby’s footsteps to feel heavier, with more thumps, as though he’s running out of steam trying to get the ball,” explains Lee. “Dan O’Connell did a good job of creating that heavy stomping foot, but with a slight wood resonance too. We topped that with shoe squeaks — some that Dan did and some that I recorded.”

The final Battle of the Sexes match was by far the most challenging scene to mix, says Lee. Re-recording mixers Bartlett and Doug Hemphill, as well as Lee, mixed the film in 7.1 surround at Formosa Group’s Hollywood location on Stage A using Avid S6 consoles. In the final match, they had Cosell’s original commentary blended with actress Morales commentary as Rosie Casals. There was music and layered crowds with call-outs. Production sound, field recordings, and Foley meshed to create the diegetic effects. “There were so many layers involved. Deciding how the sounds build and choosing what to play when — the crowds being tied to Howard Cosell, made it challenging to balance that sequence,” concludes Lee.

Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.