By Mel Lambert
Early on in his process, The Front Runner director Jason Reitman asked frequent collaborator and production sound mixer Steve Morrow, CAS, to join the production. “It was maybe inevitable that Jason would ask me to join the crew,” says Morrow, who has worked with the director on Labor Day, Up in the Air and Thank You for Smoking. “I have been part of Jason’s extended family for at least 10 years — having worked with his father Ivan Reitman on Draft Day — and know how he likes to work.”
This Sony Pictures film was co-written by Reitman, Matt Bai and Jay Carson, and based on Bai’s book, “All the Truth Is Out.” The Front Runner follows the rise and fall of Senator Gary Hart, set during his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1988 when he was famously caught having an affair with the much younger Donna Rice. Despite capturing the imagination of young voters, and being considered the overwhelming front runner for the Democratic nomination, Hart’s campaign was sidelined by the affair.
It stars Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, Vera Farmiga as his wife Lee, J.K. Simmons as campaign manager Bill Dixon and Alfred Molina as the Washington Post’s managing editor, Ben Bradlee.
“From the first read-through of the script, I knew that we would be faced with some production challenges,” recalls Morrow, a 20-year industry veteran. “There were a lot of ensemble scenes with the cast talking over one another, and I knew from previous experience that Jason doesn’t like to rely on ADR. Not only is he really concerned about the quality of the sound we secure from the set — and gives the actors space to prepare — but Jason’s scripts are always so well-written that they shouldn’t need replacement lines in post.”
Ear Candy Post’s Perry Robertson and Scott Sanders, MPSE, served as co-supervising sound editors on the project, which was re-recorded on Deluxe Stage 2 — the former Glen Glenn Sound facility — by Chris Jenkins handling dialogue and music and Jeremy Peirson, CAS, overseeing sound effects. Sebastian Sheehan Visconti was sound effects editor.
With as many as two dozen actors in a busy scene, Morrow soon realized that he would have to mic all of the key campaign team members. “I knew that we were shooting a political film like Robert Altman’s All the President’s Men or [Michael Ritchie’s] The Candidate, so I referred back to the multichannel techniques pioneered by Jim Webb and his high-quality dialogue recordings. I elected to use up to 18 radio mics for those ensemble scenes,” including Reitman’s long opening sequence in which the audience learns who the key participants are on the campaign trail. I did this “while recording each actor on a separate track, together with a guide mono mix of the key participants for the picture editor Stefan Grube.”
Reitman is well known for his films’ elaborate opening title sequences and often highly subjective narration from a main character. His motion pictures typically revolve around characters that are brashly self-confident, but then begin to rethink their lives and responsibilities. He is also reported to be a fan of ‘70s-style cinema verite, which uses a meandering camera and overlapping dialogue to draw the audience into an immersive reality. The Front Runner’s soundtrack is layered with dialogue, together with a constant hum of conversation — from the principals to the press and campaign staff. Since Bai and Carson have written political speeches, Reitman had them on set to ensure that conversations sounded authentic.
Even though there might be four or so key participants speaking in a scene, “Jason wants to capture all of the background dialogue between working press and campaign staff, for example,” Morrow continues.
“He briefed all of the other actors on what the scene was about so they could develop appropriate conversations and background dialogue while the camera roamed around the room. In other words, if somebody was on set they got a mic — one track per actor. In addition to capturing everything, Jason wanted me to have fun with the scene; he likes a solid mix for the crew, dailies and picture editorial, so I gave him the best I could get. And we always had the ability to modify it later in post production from the iso mic channels.”
Morrow recorded the pre-fader individual tracks at between 10dB and 15dB lower than the main mix, “which I rode hot, knowing that we could go back and correct it in post. Levels on that main mix were within ±5 dB most of the time,” he says. Assisting Morrow during the 40-day shoot, which took place in and around Atlanta and Savannah, were Collin Heath and Craig Dollinger, who also served as the boom operator on a handful of scenes.
The mono production mix was also useful for the camera crew, says Morrow. “They sometimes had problems understanding the dramatic focus of a particular scene. In other words, ‘Where does my eye go?’ When I fed my mix to their headphones they came to understand which actors we were spotlighting from the script. This allowed them to follow that overview.”
Morrow used a Behringer Midas Model M32R digital console that features 16 rear-channel inputs and 16 more inputs via a stage box that connects to the M32R via a Cat-5 cable. The console provided pre-fader and mixed outputs to Morrow’s pair of 64-track Sound Devices 970 hard-disk recorders — a main and a parallel backup — via Audinate Dante digital ports. “I also carried my second M32R mixer as a spare,” Morrow says. “I turned over the Compact Flash media at the end of each day’s shooting and retained the contents of the 970’s internal 1TB SSDs and external back-up drives until the end of post, just in case. We created maybe 30GB of data per recorder per day.”
For easy level checking, the two recorders with front-panel displays were mounted on Morrow’s production sound cart directly above his mixing console. “When I can, I color code the script to highlight the dialogue of key characters in specific scenes,” he says. “It helps me mix more accurately.”
RF transmitters comprised two dozen Lectrosonics SSM Micro belt-pack units — Morrow bought six or seven more for the film — linked to a bank of Lectrosonics Venue2 modular four-channel and three-channel VR receivers. “I used my collection of Sanken COS-11D miniature lavalier microphones for the belt packs. They are my go-to lavs with clean audio output and excellent performance. I also have some DPA lavaliers, if needed.”
With 20+ RF channels simultaneously in use within metropolitan centers, frequency coordination was an essential chore to ensure consistent operation for all radio systems. “The Lectrosonics Venue receivers can auto-assign radio-mic frequencies,” Morrow explains. “The best way to do this is to have everything turned off, and then one by one let the system scan the frequency spectrum. When it finds a good channel, you assign it to the first microphone and then repeat that process for the next radio transmitters. I try to keep up with FCC deliberations [on diminishing RF spectrum space], but realize that companies who manufacture this equipment also need to be more involved. So, together, I feel good that we’ll have the separation we all need for successful shoots.”
Morrow also made several location recordings on set. “I mounted a couple of lavaliers on bumpers to secure car-byes and other sounds for supervising sound editor Perry Robertson, as well as backgrounds in the house during a Labor Day gathering. We also recorded Vera Farmiga playing the piano during one scene — she is actually a classically-trained pianist — using a DPA Model 5099 microphone (which I also used while working on A Star is Born). But we didn’t record much room tone, because we didn’t find it necessary.”
During scenes at a campaign rally, Morrow provided a small PA system that comprised a couple of loudspeakers mounted on a balcony and a vocal microphone on the podium. “We ran the system at medium-levels, simply to capture the reverb and ambiance of the auditorium,” he explains, “but not so much that it caused problems in post production.”
Summarizing his experience on The Front Runner, Morrow offers that Reitman, and his production partner Helen Estabrook, bring a team spirit to their films. “The set is a highly collaborative environment. We all hang out with one another and share birthdays together. In my experience, Jason’s films are always from the heart. We love working with him 120%. The low point of the shoot is going home!”
Mel Lambert has been involved with production and post on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember. He is principal of Content Creators, a Los Angeles-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also a long-time member of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.