By Jennifer Walden
Films based on true stories are always popular, and Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood has made his share, including Sully and American Sniper, as well as Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. While those stories were inspired by real people/events, Eastwood has ramped up the reality a notch with his latest. The 15:17 to Paris — about three men who thwarted a terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris — features the actual trio of heroes, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos, as themselves.
Working with non-actors on a feature film could be challenging, so before deciding to cast the heroes in the film, Eastwood did a test run. He called up Warner Bros. Sound’s Oscar-winning supervising sound editor Alan R. Murray, with whom he had collaborated over 40 years. Eastwood mysteriously asked Murray to bring his recording equipment to his office on the Warner’s lot.
The next morning, Eastwood let Murray in on the plan. “Clint wanted to see how these guys would do on camera, so he asked me to walk them around the Warner Bros. lot. They were going to shoot them with a Steadicam, and Clint asked me to record the sound.”
They spent half a day touring the lot with Eastwood and introducing the heroes to people they met. “Walking around Warner Bros. with them, you could see that they were going to be able to pull this off. It was cool to get to talk to them, get to know them and have them re-tell what really happened.”
In keeping with his realistic vision for the film, Eastwood chose to shoot the train sequences on an actual Thalys train (the high-speed train on which the attack happened) instead of shooting on a soundstage. According to Murray, production sound mixer Steven Morrow spent five days on a Thalys train recording all the sounds relevant to the terrorist attack — everything from the doors to the train moving. He even captured the sound of an AK-47 jamming up.
“Everything had to be accurate down to the timing,” explains Murray. “With Steve Morrow’s recordings, we were able to recreate the actual events in sound, which was pretty awesome. We also had the recordings he’d done throughout Europe to help us recreate the atmosphere at some of the well-traveled places that these guys visited.”
The production team visited popular destinations in Rome, Venice, Amsterdam and France, following the path that the trio took on their trip through Europe. Eastwood captured the sites and sound mixer Morrow captured the sounds using a Sound Devices 970 64-channel recorder in conjunction with a 5.1 microphone setup.
Murray relied on Morrow’s library of location ambiences and recordings on the train to build a track that was as close to what the heroes experienced as possible. “We had this great library of sounds to work with and you need that when you are telling a true story. I was thankful that we were able to get all of these sound effects and direction on building the sound.”
Though Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos weren’t on-hand during sound editorial to help Murray piece together the sound of what happened, they had discussed every detail with the film’s editor, Blu Murray, who relayed that information to the post sound team.
One of the important aspects of the soundtrack was the build-up of tension prior to the attack on the train. Murray notes that when Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos first get on the train, the effects are at a comfortable level, allowing the audience to sink into the dialogue. Then as the film gets closer to the terrorist attack, the sounds of the train grow darker, more rumbly and ominous. The sound team pushed the train sounds into darker territory through pitch shifting, low-end enhancement, EQ and other processing via iZotope RX 6 Advanced, iZotope Iris 2 and Avid’s Pro Subharmonic and ReVibe II reverb. They also layered in sound design elements. “This helped to create an underlying tension, so that by the time we are finally into the attack we were going full bore with the sound of the train. It was louder there and more intense and harsher,” says Murray.
This isn’t just a film about the thwarted terror attack on the train. It’s also a story of the heroes’ lives — how they became who they are and how they learned the military and medical skills that allowed them to fight the attacker and survive. The most imagined sections of the film were the early lives of the men, since capturing those real sounds would involve a time machine. Recreating the trials of childhood required more emotion than realism, and Murray had to find sounds that could take the audience back to their memories of growing up and playing with friends. “We had to find just the right sounds to spark the audience’s imagination and memories of their childhood to help them relax and get into the story. The sound takes a backseat to the story in the beginning and then it slowly takes over the soundtrack as we work our way through the film.”
The 15:17 to Paris was mixed on Dub Stage 10 at Warner Bros. in Dolby Atmos by re-recording mixers Dean A. Zupancic, John T. Reitz and Jason King (also co-supervising sound editor). When the mix was complete, Eastwood invited Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos to the dub stage to watch the film.
“Being able to glance over at these guys as they watched their lives unfold on screen and see their reactions was priceless,” describes Murray. “We could see their demeanors change as we got into the story about what happened on the train. They were reliving that experience, and you could see it on their faces. They were so thankful at the end.”
When working on a film that’s based on an actual event, Murray says recreating the event as accurately as possible is at the forefront of the job. “We had to do that on Sully, and now The 15:17 to Paris. The difference was actually getting to meet these people and to talk to them in person. You’re so in awe of these guys and what they did and meeting them makes the experience more than a job. There have been so many cool experiences on this movie but that one was priceless,” he concludes.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.