If you haven’t seen Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, drop everything and seek it out now. From the car chase scenes, the camerawork, the editing, to the standout performance from Ansel Elgort, Baby Driver is an excellent heist movie with an excellent soundtrack that accelerates the movie into a higher realm of car chase films unlike any we’ve ever seen. Elgort’s Baby listens to music all the time. It’s who he is. Even when Baby has to talk to someone, Wright weaves the music into the film so seamlessly that the sound becomes another integral character of the movie. You see, Baby has tinnitus and he’s drowning out the sound.
How did Wright pull it all off? I caught up with his sound partner in crime, Julian Slater, to find out just how different this film was and how the world of sound mixing and sound editing collided to bring us Baby Driver.
You’ve worked with Edgar before so what had he told you about Baby Driver?
I’ve been working with Edgar for almost fifteen years and he’s good enough to give me a heads up before the script comes around. I went to a BAFTA screening three years ago and he happened to be there. We bumped into each other and he said, “I think I know what I’m doing next and you’re going to love it. It’s going to be your sound masterpiece.” A few months later we had breakfast and he’s gone on record as saying he wrote the script around all the songs and the sound is a character of the movie.
Well in advance of filming it, I knew what the style was going to be.
What’s your reaction when you finally see the script?
Edgar is very particular about making movies and his current average is once every three years. He really cares about sound and he’s one of those directors. If you look and listen to the movies that we’ve worked on together, they’re known for their sound as much as anything else. The picture cutting and dialogue is equally unique, but when I know there’s an Edgar movie coming, I make sure I’m available for it because I know that it’s going to be something that I’ll be incredibly proud of.
You’ve got this thing where the sound is a plot point. I feel like it’s a once in a career type of opportunity where you can have a movie that is so sound-centric and many people in my position never get to go anywhere near something like this.
What did he say to you about his goals for this in regard to the sound?
There were two things. I’m the supervising sound editor and I look after the team of sound editors. I also do the sound design and I mix it. You have the syncopation of the diegetic sound to the music which happens throughout the movie. That was one of the main points we wanted to get through and do it in a way that wasn’t on the nose the whole time.
Telling the story through Baby, he’s in every scene of the movie, and it was about hitting the sound from his point of view. Things like his tinnitus, playing that when we don’t hear music and in different keys so it would blend in with the incoming music. Hearing the music on his left earbud when he takes that earbud out in his right ear.
It’s syncopation to everyday sounds to whatever piece of music he’s listening to and enforcing what’s happening to him through the use of sound and the sound mix.
How do you build that out in the sound editing?
I’d like to say I sit down on day one and I know what I’m doing, but I’d be lying. I genuinely feel it hasn’t been done before. I didn’t know how to do it. Normally, we work in timecode. For this, we had to work in musical integers. So, when you have the police siren, every one of that is being tempo matched to the piece of music that’s happening at the same time. Every sound in the movie had to be pitch-shifted and time stretched to match with the music. It made it musical and often didn’t work as a sound effect. Every sound effect you hear in the movie was altered to make it work and be sympathetic to the music, but it had to work as a sound and often it didn’t happen so we’d take it out and put it in. It was a process of elimination and discovery for every sound.
How did the sequences evolve?
I came on to the movie earlier than I normally do. Edgar has his cutting room, two doors along, I’m sitting in my cutting room, but I had a mixing desk and a cinema speaker system . Edgar would say he had ideas, I’d take that picture and spend some days mixing it and I’d get Edgar in and we’d listen to it. Anything he liked, we’d keep and it would roll forward through to the final mix. It’s about trying different ideas and seeing what would stick. The material that would stick would stay in the mix. We were doing sound editing and sound mixing at the same time. Sometimes things didn’t work. It would sometimes take up to three weeks to realize not all things worked, and then we’d stitch those and start again. It was a multi-layered mix and process.
When you’re looking at the cut, was there anything that was particularly hard to crack?
All of it. [laughs]. There’s so much of it that was tough to figure out how to do and tough to do, but that’s what makes it so rewarding for me the fact that so much was tough. Let’s take that first chase scene with Bellbottoms.
Yes, that’s perfect.
You’ve got every police siren and bank alarm syncopated to the music. The problem is that the piece of music is not a constant tempo. If you have a police siren matched to that, the siren is going up and down and sounds ridiculous. We had to learn to figure out times where you have it in the mix where it works with the music and sounds realistic.
You’re only hearing the sirens when it works musically and realistically and doesn’t sound stupid. You can only figure it out as you go along, you figure out one problem and then you go on to the next one.
What about the final confrontation scene and the sound design in there?
The mix part was the trickier part of that as Freddie Mercury is singing falsetto in this screechy voice. You want to play it loud, but you also want to play the car rev loud. So, we divided it into two parts. The first part has the music coming out of his speaker system in the car. We favoring the sound design and the sound effects.
When he’s being chased by Buddy, you don’t hear the sound design and effects so much because you’re hearing Freddie. That was a tricky sequence because we’re flipping hat you’re hearing. Sometimes it’s Freddie and sometimes it’s the sound design. We’re trying to play everything loud but not fatiguing the audience.
We don’t want them feeling it’s too much and too in your face.
I truly think Edgar did something so spectacular and something we’ve never seen.
I agree. Every week my crew and I would review our work. I’d get goosebumps because of what we were doing and what we were doing to a movie that we believed was so unique. It was meant to be released late August. Sony accelerated the release after SXSW. It was released in between Spiderman and Transformers and two weeks before the Apes movie. It was a unique story told in a unique way. I was worried it wouldn’t find an audience, but it did.
I feel it’s really healthy for cinema to have movies made by Edgar and for them to do well. I think it’s good for our industry.
Julian Slater is nominated for Best Achievement in Sound Mixing Shared with Tim Cavagin and Mary H. Ellis. He is also nominated for Best Achievement in Sound Editing.