In Baby Driver, his fifth collaboration with writer-director Edgar Wright, sound designer Julian Slater found perhaps the greatest challenge of his career that was also his greatest opportunity: a cinematic vehicle that was all about sound.
Ever since 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, Slater had become accustomed to Wright’s desires to push boundaries with cinema, with awe-inspiring images and the sound to back them up. In Baby Driver—a film where sound is a character in its own right—Wright’s visceral sonic palette would be taken to the next level, as sound and music were intricately entangled with picture, bullets flying and tires screeching in a unique cinematic dance.
Managing the sonic geography of complex chase sequences through Atlanta’s cityscape, Slater took on both sound editing and mixing duties on an entire film set to music, a grand artistic experiment that translated to box office success with a $226.9 million global haul.
For Slater, the project was the culmination of his years of experimentation with Wright, which provided him with the tools and know-how to pull the job off. “I needed to do work on things like Scott Pilgrim and Mad Max before I had the wherewithal to tackle something like Baby Driver,” Slater says. “Every movie I do, I take the experience of it and put it in my back pocket, and use it in some degree on the next one.”
How early on did you get involved with Baby Driver? What were Edgar’s first notes with regard to sound?
I think Edgar spoke to me about it for the first time three years ago. Funnily enough I bumped into him at a social event, which I didn’t know he was going to be at. He said to me, “Baby Driver’s definitely going to be next, and it’s definitely going to be the thing that you’re going to enjoy the most because it’s so sound-centric.”
Fast-forward three months and we had a breakfast together where he outlined what he wanted to do and was asking advice on a few aspects of how to do it. Then, he sent me the script, and as you turned each page, the corresponding piece of music played, and even some temp sound effects. When I read the script—and heard the script, as it were—that was the point when I was totally excited to get involved, just because I knew that it was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime thing. A movie that is driven by sound, it’s the lightning in a bottle that you very rarely get to be involved with.
How would you describe Wright’s relationship to sound? How does he want it to function in his films?
In my not short career, I’ve worked with a wide variety of directors. There are some who are happy for sound to be a reflection of what’s on the screen, and there are other directors, such as Edgar, who are not designed to work with sound that way. They want to push the envelope.
Obviously Edgar has a very distinctive style, although one could argue that style is starting to change somewhat, if you look at Baby Driver, compared to say, Shaun of the Dead. But he definitely has a strong visual style, which has to be supported with strong sound; otherwise, one is going to lack drastically behind the other.
That being said, even sequences where it’s not dramatic picture-wise, Edgar is always looking to do stuff with sound that perhaps another director wouldn’t do. Having diegetic sounds that are working sometimes with the dialogue, sometimes with looks, sometimes just with moments of tension. It’s a weird thing: There are so many things that we put into Baby Driver that haven’t even been picked up on.
Sound design working with music is the big thing, the syncopation of everything working with the music—or the mixing, where we’re only hearing the music on the right-hand side of the cinema because he’s only got his right earbud in. Everything’s deliberate and for a reason. Every car passing in the movie has been laid off-screen to work with moments of dramatic pause or moments of menace, and the sounds of the cars have been chosen for more dramatic effect. So a regular car passes as Baby’s trying to think of an answer, and if it’s at a threatening moment when Bats is going to do something and you’re unsure what it is, there are two trucks going past outside.
That’s the kind of thing that’s not normally done, and it’s because Edgar is the kind of person who wants to explore what can be done. There are no simple sequences with Edgar, which I’m eternally grateful for, because it makes me better at what I do, and it also just pushes the envelope of what is possible, further and further along.
What you’re referring to sounds like a psychological use of sound.
Yeah, it’s like an audio onion. There are so many different layers of things that are happening. You’ll be in a diner and Baby’s having a conversation with Bats, and every car pass is deliberate. There’s a reason behind everything, and it’s very covert sometimes. Hopefully it just adds to the sense of tension that isn’t necessarily something you pick up on, but helps support what’s happening on the screen.
As the sound editor and mixer on this film, can you give a sense of how those two processes come together? What was the extent of your involvement from pre-production through post?
Edgar spoke to me before the shoot to get some input on different ideas, because again, this is something that’s not been done before. As much as I would like to say that that’s all me and I had all the answers for everything, that’s not the case. I’d give my five cents, as much as anyone else. Then during the shoot, I’d be contacted by Nira [Park], the producer, because Edgar’s clearly under the gun, and they’d perhaps have certain setups that they needed my advice on how to tackle.
I didn’t visit the shoot; in fact, I’ve never been on a shoot with Edgar. Edgar gets me involved much earlier than I would normally be involved, on the post side. I came on board on Week 3 of the director’s cut. At that point, he had only done his part on two reels, and he brought me into the cutting room and showed them to me. We discussed loose ideas, but he doesn’t micromanage at all. Then, they get turned over to me and I’m literally in the room next door to the picture cutting room.
I’ll work on the sequence, Edgar will come in and we’ll look at it, and we’ll discuss ideas. Then, once we sign something off, that [sequence] goes back into the Avid and they cut around it. We even make cuts because of the sound, and then it comes back to me again. It’s constantly ping-ponging between picture and sound, sound and picture.
That kind of close working relationship is echoed with Steven Price, the composer, who’s worked with Edgar now on three movies, and was a music editor before that. This is the great thing about having collaborations that have lasted over the years, because no one’s afraid. I’m certainly not afraid to throw up ideas that are potentially crazy, and potentially aren’t going to work.
There’s a sequence when they go back to Doc’s hideout after the “Tequila” sequence where every didactic sound in the scene—whether they’re light switches or bag drops—once you hear them for the first time on screen, they are echoed repeatedly and become part of the score. That’s something that can only be done when you’ve got a very close collaboration between the sound design and the music.
Have you ever seen sound design and music interwoven in this way, prior to working on Baby Driver?
No, I have not. I think it may have been done over, let’s say a sequence, but to do it from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie? That’s certainly not been done before. The challenge is to do it in such a way that it doesn’t detract from what’s happening.
For everything that’s in time and in rhythm with the music that you do notice, I can promise you there’s another 15 to 20 things that are working subliminally in the background, whether it’s a car going over a speed bump, or a train going over noisy points in the background. There’s even a dog walking past camera where its footsteps are working in syncopation with the music.
Can you expand on the process of finding the proper balance between music, sound effects and other sonic elements?
That was one of the main challenges of the movie because normally you have a score. Let’s say you’ve got a car chase sequence. You’ll have a score that’s been written specifically to that car chase sequence. The composer will put in ebbs and flows, quiet bits and loud bits, and bits that have been scored to work with specific action. On this movie, we didn’t have that luxury. We had things like music cues, like The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat,” which is quite an abrasive sounding piece of music because it’s some guys in a basement in SoHo strumming the hell out their guitars.
Firstly, we had to do a kind of remaster process on all those pieces of music to make them sound as mellow and as good as possible. Then, you’ve got to mix them in such a way that they are propelling the scene forward, not only because they’re driving the sequence, but also because Baby’s listening to them. You’re playing it from Baby’s perspective, so you’ve got to mix it very loud. Then, in between all that, you’ve got to fit in the sirens, the engine revs, and everything else.
When we were editing the movie, we would choose certain frequencies that would work with that particular music cue at that particular time. One of the things that we managed to do was to synchronize everything to the piece of music. Hopefully, everything blends with the music. You hear it as a sound effect or piece of sound design, but you’re aware that it’s working with the music and not against the music.
That was one of the challenges, because it was not scored that way. But equally, that was a luxury because we knew that the pieces of music were not going to change. If you were going to lay 1500 sound elements to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, if Edgar had decided to change that music cue, we’d have been slightly screwed, because everything that we had put into that sequence was timed and syncopated and pitched according to that music cue. We had the luxury of knowing that those music cues were written into the script, and they were all cleared, and they were not going to change. The music was pretty much written in stone.
Were there particular sonic discoveries for you in the making of this film?
I did a fair bit of research into tinnitus and discovered that it’s not a set sound. Some people hear it as hums. Some people hear it as whistles. Some people hear it in higher whistles. All of the science behind tinnitus and how it affects different people, that was an interesting curve to learn.