Oscars: 'Mad Max' Sound Editor Mark Mangini On A Film You Can See With Your Ears

Of the many aspects of the multidisciplinary craft of filmmaking, it seems that the art of sound design is the least appreciated, and also the least understood. Luckily, Oscar-nominated supervising sound editor Mark Mangini got on the phone with Deadline to shine a little light, after receiving a fourth Oscar nod for his work in George Miller’s singular tentpole film, Mad Max: Fury Road. In a career stretching back to the ‘70s, Mangini considers Miller to be one of his greatest collaborators, and one of the strongest advocates for sound artists everywhere. Below, Mangini weighs in on the challenges of the job, his responsibilities as supervising sound editor, the public perception of sound artists, and exciting technological progressions in the world of sound.

How did you get involved with Mad Max: Fury Road, and what was discussed in early conversations with George Miller?

George and producer Doug Mitchell rang me in Los Angeles. They were heading into postproduction on Mad Max and asked if I would come to Sydney and look at the movie with them, and get my thoughts and ideas about how sound could help George tell his stories best. I’m couching it that way because George is not a micromanager, and he sees very rightfully that sound is a narrative player, not a technical process.

The creation and implementation of sound is one of the least understood crafts in the world of filmmaking. What exactly were your responsibilities as supervising sound editor?

The responsibilities of a supervising sound editor are pretty traditionally outlined—to put on screen the sonic vision that the director has for the film. It’s the sound equivalent of the Director of Photography. It requires recording lots of new sound that’s unique to your film and it requires creating new sounds for things that no one has ever heard before. Sometimes it means digging into a sound library for things that you know you have that you like, or things that you just can’t record new, because maybe they don’t exist any longer.

I might add that in a movie like this, which is virtually a silent movie, no sound is incidental. No sound happens by accident or eluded the ears and the scrutiny of the sound team. Our job is to make it feel like it’s very natural—like it all happened in front of the camera and someone just hung a microphone—but nothing could be further from the truth.

How big of a team did you work with on the film, and for what duration?

There was an Australian unit and an American unit. The Australian unit starts with my co-nominee, David White, who was on for a year and a half with George even before I came on, and he was embedded with Margaret Sixel, our picture editor, and George in the editing room, beginning the early steps of recording raw elements that would eventually be processed later on. I came on in August of 2014 and started to amass the team of additional sound editors, dialogue editors, foley editors, sound designers, to begin the final build of the movie and bring George’s vision fully to the screen. I was on for another seven months after that. In Australia, we had a team of 20 strong, and then here in the US, another 15 or so. It was about as big as a crew gets these days.

Was working with George Miller a purely positive experience? He seems very well regarded in the film community.

George is a spectacular person to work for and with. I’ll never forget when we finished the mix on Mad Max—and this says a lot about the way he sees our involvement—we had just finished the last reel and the lights came up and he was very happy. After the playback of every reel of the movie, George would stand up and shake every one of our hands, and at the end of the final playback where we’re going to say goodbye to George, he said to us, “You know, Mad Max is a movie that we see with our ears.” And that was a way of him saying that it’s a very dense film, visually, but sometimes it’s the sound that tells you where to look. George intuitively understands that.

In previous interviews, you’ve addressed the fact that sound artists are too often regarded as mere technicians, rather than as the creative collaborators that they are. Other than Miller, who else would you consider an advocate for the sound community?

I just finished an amazing Ben Affleck movie, also for Warner’s, called The Accountant. It’s a directed by Gavin O’Connor, and Gavin is very much like George. Sometimes I work with Gavin in the script phase and he’s asking me, “Mark, I’m stuck here, I’m having a writer’s block, how can sound tell this story? Because I don’t have the words right now.” And he’ll carry me through production and postproduction, and I’ll be a collaborator every step of the way. He works much like George does, which is that we’re all in it together—we’re like the four Musketeers and we watch the movie and brainstorm together, as collaborators and storytellers. Whereas there are filmmakers who don’t appreciate that sound can actually have this narrative quality, and we’re just the guys that put in the explosions and the gunshots— then you just feel like you’re a cog in a machine.

An up-and-coming director I did this movie last summer with called 99 Homes—Ramin Bahrani— is just a lovely, creative man who values sound and wants sound to be a big participant in his process. I did a couple of films with Frank Darabont, very much that way. JJ Abrams, I did a Star Trek film for. There’s a few out there. Obviously, directors I haven’t worked for, like Steven Spielberg, who clearly value the contribution that sound is making. They’re making films that rely on sound to be part of the storytelling process.

The technology of film has evolved at breakneck pace, but we don’t often hear about the evolution of sound technology.

I’m old enough that I go back to working on Moviolas and sprocketed film, so of course we’ve made this huge leap. When I first started, you could touch the image and the sound, and now everything’s removed—it’s inside of a computer in ones and zeros. I’m a huge advocate of that technological change because it’s unleashed this immense amount of power to pre-visualize and experiment without the expense and the mechanical limitations of film. Digital recording technology has been hugely liberating, not only in the creation phase, but also in the exhibition phase.

What was the greatest challenge of this job?

The biggest challenge was focus. The movie is so dense, visually and sonically, it was always trying to find what the narrative thread was and addressing it with sound. That was the biggest challenge, and I wouldn’t want to imply that that was difficult—my recollections of this film were of fun and adventure and discovery, and that’s pretty rare.

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