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October 2014
Issue: November 1, 2007

NOW HEAR THIS! 'AMERICAN GANGSTER'

HOLLYWOOD — In American Gangster, director Ridley Scott paints a vivid portrait of the violent world of the New York City heroin trade in the 1970s. An important element in Scott’s storytelling arsenal is sound. Heavily textured sound elements permeate virtually every scene in the film, helping to establish the tough, street-wise atmosphere and enhance the emotional tenor of this true-life tale.

Creating this rich sonic landscape was the work of several longtime Scott collaborators. Supervising sound editors Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers of Ascent Media Group’s Soundelux facility, here, had previously worked with the director on such films as Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. Re-recording mixers Mike Minkler and Bob Beemer, from AMG’s Todd-AO West in Santa Monica, had also worked separately with Scott on Black Hawk Down and Gladiator, respectively

The New York in American Gangster is more than a backdrop for the story; it envelopes the story and its characters like a living force. “You want to feel the pressure is how Ridley described it,” recalls Hallberg. “It’s around you all the time and it never lets go.”

THE SOUND OF NEW YORK

The backgrounds and other sound elements created by Hallberg, Baker Landers and their team are very specific in terms of time and space. Car engines, sirens, trains and other environmental elements were carefully researched and are authentic to the period. Moreover, each individual sound is set into its environment with precision. “Ridley is so three dimensional, he goes deep into the shots, and that is what we tried to do sonically as well,” Hallberg says. “Because of the depth and specifics in it, it had to be made of single stuff. You want cars, horns, people walking by, all those things, but if you simply put in dense backgrounds, you fill the spectrum and not feel the depth. Instead, you have to build it up piece by piece.”

Those carefully composed sound backgrounds are not only designed to tell the audience where they are, but also to provide insight into the character of the environment. “Anytime we go into the streets of Harlem, we hear an oppressed city in full swing,“ says  Baker Landers. “It has a life and a pulse.”

Although the sound design is realistic, it does on occasion slip into abstraction to support the story. “There is a scene in Madison Square Garden when Russell Crowe’s character begins to figure things out and we move inside his head,” says Hallberg. “We suck out the sound and it becomes almost quiet, even though you are in an arena with a lot happening all around.”

For a scene like that, notes Baker Landers, it is important not to overplay it or seem affected. “We need to support what we see on screen and not try to push sounds too much,” she says. “You don’t want to create a veil between the audience and the performer, rather it should percolate underneath as he gets more and more intense and in the moment. It is also a mixing thing. A great mixer helps the process by blending the sound so that you don’t even notice it.”

IN THE MIX

Because of their familiarity with Scott’s aesthetic sensibilities, Minkler and Beemer did not require a lot of specific instruction prior to embarking on the mix. “We looked at the film on the Avid with Ridley and the editor [Pietro Scalia] and discussed the feelings, emotions and plot points,” recalls Minkler. “Then they let us do what we do.”

Minkler and Beemer blended Hallberg and Baker Landers’ sound elements with production sound, dialogue and music. The results are loud and aggressive, keeping up with the film’s driving pace, frequent shifts in location and ratcheting emotions — but always, insists Minkler, it is purposeful and carefully choreographed.

“Everything has a value,” Minkler observes. “If it doesn’t have value, it’s clutter and you don’t put it in. Some movies don’t require much manipulation, but movies like American Gangster, it’s all about storytelling and emotion.” Beemer agrees, “Every sound has a role in embellishing the characters and emotion.”

Like the sound effects, Marc Streitenfeld’s moody score is omnipresent, although often operating on a subliminal level. “It’s rich and full sometimes, and rich and not so full at others,” Minkler says. “It works with the sound and dialogue, and with the characters and their hand and eye movements.”

Achieving the right balance and pitch is made easier by the rapport Minkler and Beemer have developed in collaborating on similarly challenging projects over the years. “Bob and I have the same intentions, the same sense of where we need to go,” Minkler notes. And it works: the two men won an Oscar last year for their work on Dreamgirls.