Alan Murray has been working in sound since the 1970s and began working with Cecil B. DeMille’s personal sound editor Howard Beals. Since then, he’s had countless credits to his name including Grease, Lethal Weapon, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Escape from Alcatraz.
His newest credit is Todd Phillips’ Joker, creating the dirty, gritty sounds of a decaying Gotham City. There are sirens, loud mufflers, crowds, all while Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is transforming into Joker. Murray discusses how his production team recorded sounds of New York City’s subway for the subway scene and how they used a Soundfield mic to capture the ambiance needed to help envelope the audience in the film’s key scenes.
Once Todd Phillips gives you the script, what’s your process?
Todd and Jeff Groth (editor) had a very specific plan for the movie. They didn’t want any overdone sound design because it’s not a DC comic book. It was more based on the grittiness and Gotham City is always this city on the edge of exploding. There’s tension and a lot of areas where we would discuss where the scene would start off normal and then you’d get subtle hints that things were breaking down in the atmosphere. So, you’d have flickering lights or all of a sudden, Arthur’s door that didn’t have a creak would have a sinister creak to it. That led you into knowing that anything based on reality was going to break down and go mad at any moment. They wanted to keep people on the edge of their seats, anticipating what was going to happen. I think also, there was a theme in keeping the audience in never knowing what was the reality and what was not. Are we diving into Arthur’s madness or is this really happening? That was the general theme of the soundtrack.
Also, putting people in the middle of the experience like making people feel as if they’re in the audience of the Murray Franklin Show. We did that with Dolby Atmos where we tried to totally involve the people.
You really do, and you feel that more so with the subway scene. It’s the score, the editing, the screeching of the subway. Break that scene down because there’s a lot going on there.
From reading Todd’s script, we knew it was going to be the turning point of him becoming the Joker. We had the production mixer ride on subway trains late at night in New York. We specifically picked out a microphone for him. We picked out the Soundfield NTFS1 Ambisonic mic that records in four channels in a circle. You get the fronts and backs all at the same time. It folds out into a 7.1 recording and that was another way of enveloping the audience into being in the subway car.
We started with that and as the scene progressed, the light would start flickering again. Something was not right on the subway train. We built that like a symphony. All of a sudden, trains were going by in the opposite direction and the sound kept getting more sinister and that’s how that developed.
The trains were loud with shrieking brakes to give that fingernails on a chalkboard feeling. It was an “Uh-oh” here’s what is coming.
What other sounds did you go out and record for this?
We shot subways in New York, and that was done for Joker. We sent the production manager to go out on the streets and into tenements. He recorded those sounds for the film and it was a big ordeal to get that all ready.
Gotham was also a period, so we had cars with big mufflers. Everything was loud and aggressive to keep the tension of the city going.
The film starts off in one place and gets aggressive, talk about that progression through the film.
Todd wanted us to build. We start off in the dressing room. At that point, we wanted you to hear Gotham City. The focus was the radio, so you knew there was the garbage strike and super rats. We build until when Arthur gets the gun. We get deeper and deeper.
Our ADR was done out at night time, so we could get the sound of the reverb bouncing off buildings. When you go into Arthur’s apartment, it’s not just quiet. It’s people yelling in the alleyway, and it was always keeping the tension and decay of the city around you.
What was the hardest sound to get right for the film?
I think the subway was hard. Also, the rioting was hard. Todd didn’t want people chanting “Joker” because it took you into the DC Comics, so we tried to create a crowd that was threatening, but also we wanted to recognize the sound of Arthur. It was just non-specific. It was more of a slowed down war cry, orchestrating him into him becoming the Joker. That was difficult not to get specific with it and yet have it be powerful.
I think continuing the sounds of Gotham going crazy was another challenge. We had an instance in Arthur’s apartment where he’s watching TV and trying to practice for the Murray Franklin Show and all of a sudden the audience is in the apartment with him. It bounces off the TV and is fully surrounding you. All of a sudden you are in the audience in his apartment. So, you don’t know at this point what’s real and what’s not, I think the toughest element was that.
Where does it begin for you and how long does it take to work on the sound?
We knew we were going to do some temp mixes and then do some audience previews. We started with what you could call a temp mix because we had full Foley. Todd wanted to hear all the elements going into the soundtrack. He wanted to take time to pick and choose as we went through the process. So, when we got to the final, we knew exactly what we wanted and where to go with it. It was a little more involved.
We had to have a full crew for the first mix and then we refine stuff down the road. I’d say we had eight weeks to prep the temp and then we work on the final for probably four more weeks after that.
Talk about the door creaking in Arthur’s apartment and how that’s symbolic of what’s going on with him and the emergence of Joker.
The two buddies from the clown shop come to visit him. All of a sudden, Arthur’s door has this sinister creak to it. There’s this guy in white face and his total appearance is scary. It’s slowly going into the sudden violence that takes over the scene. It’s playing the violence real, aggressive and frightening. There’s a lot of tendencies to hold back on stuff like that, but I don’t think you get the full impact of the scene if you do that.
We’d sit on the stage, and we’d watch Joaquin, totally mesmerized by him. To me, he is the Joker now. He took another step with it in a way that’s never been done before. I was blown away by his performance.
Joker is on general release