When director Aaron Sorkin kicked off production on The Trial of the Chicago 7, one of his surprising recommendations to his Oscar-nominated sound team of Renee Tondelli (Deepwater Horizon) and Julian Slater (Baby Driver) was to not make the film necessarily about the 1960s. The sound did not need to feel mired within the era. Rather, the focus was to make the allegorical film feel incredibly visceral and raw.
With the modern day movement of Black Lives Matter happening during their work, the parallels between our modern reality and the period-set film were not lost on Tondelli or Slater.
“The Black Lives Matter movement was going on as we were mixing this film, and the weight on it was not lost on us,” Slater explained. “We wanted the those demonstrations and riots to feel not overly polished. To sound very visceral and real. I think [Sorkin] was very key for things like the demonstrations and the riots to have a kind of rawness to them and to be very real.”
To inspire their take on the 1968 riots around the Democratic National Convention, Tondelli introduced Slater to Haskell Wexler’s 1969 drama Medium Cool. Filmed during the 1968 riots, the film includes scenes of Wexler’s actors actually navigating the convention and the riots.
That provided Tondelli and Slater the opportunity to hear exactly what it felt like to be in the midst of that tragic event. It inspired that authenticity Sorkin wanted to the Chicago 7 proceedings.
“We increasingly worked on the instability of the chaos and how it builds. That was an important part of the expression of the people we wanted, that was our voice,” Tondelli remarked. “That was what we made as their voice. That was sort of how we went about that design.”
The sounds of baton hits became a focus to reach that perfect balance between sonic impact and overwhelming the audience. Another key focus of the sound team during the riot sequence was to isolate moments of quiet within the madness. A single woman’s bloodcurdling scream became a key focal point to achieve that effect.
“We focus in on this small, very personal thing that’s happening to this woman. It’s using devices like that that kind of hook you in emotionally, small sounds that play large like this blood curdling scream,” Slater said. “So I think that’s how we tried to approach it. It was intimate moments in utter madness and panic.”
But Chicago 7’s riot sequence, while pivotal to the film, only provides a fraction of the film’s emotional pyrotechnics. Most of the film illustrates key segments of the extended trial of the titular Chicago 7. The sound for the courtroom sequences needed to achieve more than crisply convey Sorkin’s dialogue. It also needed to convey a sense of authority owned by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).
The courtroom sequences are intended to illustrate the dominance of the American government against the individuals on trial. Several sound tweaks were employed to illustrate that dominance.
“For instance, Julius Hoffman, when we dealt with his voice, we often used both the boom and the plant mic. Julian made wonderful reverbs and magnified and enhanced his voice to create this power, really the one that controlled that room,” Tondelli shared. “We used his gavel like a shotgun. That was what happened in that room, and everyone else had a diminished voice.”
Another key aspect of the courtroom sequences’ sound design involved the pivotal character of Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton). While Keaton’s Clark has a small amount of screen time, his impact in the film’s later courtroom sequences is significant to the story. To underscore his importance, the sound team performed treatments on his voice, giving him added resonance and gravitas through reverb.
It’s a subtle touch, yes, but subtleties add up to have significant impact on the viewer.
“We try tricks like that. Things that are perhaps subtle, but I think when you add all those subtleties up, it helps the audience in and makes them lean forward a bit more than perhaps they would,” Slater explained.
Or perhaps but a slightly different way…
The whole world is listening.