When Alan Robert Murray took on the job of Supervising Sound Editor for Sicario, it was with Bub Asman–Murray’s working partner for some 40 years–and with a wealth of awards and noms between them. The duo won the Oscar last year for American Sniper, and in 2007 for Letters From Iwo Jima. Now Sicario’s nom brings them to a total of eight shared Academy nods. Sicario was, says Murray, a highly enjoyable prospect. “I love working on movies that are suspenseful and tension-filled, and I love the fact that Denis (Villeneuve) is very interested in the soundtrack and has a lot of say in it.” Murray and Asman had worked with Villeneuve previously on Prisoners, and sound edited Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River, among many others.
The music is a huge part of the tension-building in Sicario, how did your process work alongside the score?
We used a lot of subtle sound design atmospheres, with a pulsing low-end bass in it, sort of like the score. A lot of times, you really don’t know if it’s Johann Johannsson’s score or sound design that’s going on, because they blend so seamlessly. So it was one of those movies where everything worked. It wasn’t muddy and it was a very articulate soundtrack.
What were some unique challenges of this movie?
I think it was following the structure of the movie, ratcheting up the tension. Also applying specific gunshots to the personalities in the movie, matching their mood and their character. Benicio (del Toro)’s character had a silencer, but we knew, once Benicio started on his secret mission, and the rage and the violence that was pouring out of him, we had to make a gunshot that would portray that even though it was a silencer. We ended up adding a lot of elements, like a synthesized bear trap to the mechanism of his gun. Things that would make the gun concussive, visceral, but still keep it in the silencer mode, so it was a lot of detail on the guns and painting them to match the specific characters in the movie. I think on those points it was what we felt we wanted to bring to the movie. Again, it’s so subjective. I think somebody else might have just had a regular silencer sound in there and been done with it, but I just think it’s the way you can accent the mood or the subject in the scene without being obvious.
How much back-and-forth did you have with Villeneuve?
Denis would spend most of his time in Montreal where he lives. He and the film editor, Joe Walker–as they cut the film–they went through and made a specific blueprint for the articulation of the soundtrack. So by the time it got to me, it was pretty well drawn-out where they wanted to go with it. My job was then to expand on it, and deliver it back to them dynamically, and with my input on it too, but at least we had a guide track.
What would say makes you and Bub Asman such a great team? How has that evolved over time?
Well, number one, the fact that we’ve been together for so long, we both understand the rhythms and the structure of film, so there’s less communication. He understands right off the bat where we’re going to go, and I think it’s just the relationship of knowing each other so well.
How did you come to start working together?
I was a young, ambitious sound editor over at Paramount Studios, and I heard that Clint Eastwood was coming to the studio with a movie called Escape From Alcatraz, and I had gotten to know Bub there. He was a film editor on, I believe it was Laverne and Shirley. So we had talked about it, and decided that we wanted to go after it and see if we could work on Eastwood’s project because we had both been a fan of his. We got together and started talking to the film editor and introducing ourselves, and then he in turn gave us a shot and introduced us to Don Siegel, who was directing Alcatraz. Don said, “This is the perfect timing because Clint’s changing sound crews, and I’ll give you a shot on the movie.” So Clint carried us onto the final, and that started a 40-year relationship.
It takes a certain temperament to work that hard behind the scenes and not necessarily get recognition–what do you love about your job?
I think it’s the chance to contribute artistically, and I don’t mind not having that much recognition because we’re kind of behind the scenes anyhow, and I think most of us people would prefer to stay behind the scenes. It’s a very subjective job, so sometimes it’s difficult to talk about. I think a lot of supervisors have some innate process where when they sit down and they watch a movie for the first time, they actually hear the sounds in their head, and they start formulating a plan, and I can’t exactly tell you where that comes from. I know a lot of us grew up where our families enjoyed going to the movies, so maybe that’s something that subconsciously got ingrained in us. I don’t know, it’s kind of hard to explain it. It’s also putting yourself forward and having a direct response from the director or the film editor at that time; it’s being on the same wavelength with these people. It’s just something that happens, and I think that’s what forms relationships in our field.
What’s up next for you?
I’m going to start the next Eastwood movie called Sully, which is about the guy who landed the airliner on the Hudson Bay. Tom Hanks plays Captain Sullenberger, the pilot. We’re going to start in a couple of weeks, and I’ve been going out in the last two months doing field recordings. I had to build a huge library on the specific airplane he flew, and we went down and recorded some F-4 military jets. There’s a sequence in the movie involving F-4s, so I’ve been doing a lot of background work right now before they actually turn the film over, which is nice that Clint allows us to do that.
How do you go about recording an F-4 jet?
We actually went down there with a camera crew, so we were there with Clint and the whole crew. You know they’re difficult things to record, but I’ve had a lot of experience recording jets throughout my career, so I’m kind of used to it. We also had to shoot a complete library on the actual ferries in New York that rescued the people off the airplane.
What do you love about working with Clint Eastwood? You have a long history.
He gives you the freedom to bring what you can to the movie. It’s kind of like a blank easel, and he says, “Go ahead and do what you want to bring to the movie and we’ll listen to it.” He doesn’t overly influence your choices. He likes to see what you bring to the table, and I think that’s great that he has enough trust in us where we have that type of relationship now. I think we’re getting close to 40 years.