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July 2014
Issue: April 1, 2008

SOUND EDITING: PARAMOUNT PICTURES' 'STOP-LOSS'

By: Robin Rowe
Paramount Picture’s Stop-Loss had a six-week delay due to an actor dislocating a shoulder during shooting. That resulted in changing sound supervisors, using two dialogue editors, and other disruptions due to schedule.

Stop-Loss is the story of a soldier ordered back to duty in Iraq against his will, testing everything he believes in. The film was released on March 28, 2008. We talked about Stop-Loss with dialogue editor Jac Rubenstein and sound effects editor Wyatt Sprague.

The film was shot in Austin, TX, and Morocco, with post production at Sound One/C5 Inc. in New York. On the first day of the shooting, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Tommy, dislocated his shoulder. While waiting for him to recover, the picture lost its dubbing dates with mixers Lee Dichter and Roberto Fernandez in New York. Sound designer Eugene Gearty, who records at his studio in South Carolina, became occupied with design for Ang Lee’s Lust Caution. And composer John Powell got involved with Bourne Ultimatum.

Stop-Loss dialogue editor Jac Rubenstein has worked on such films as Boys Don't Cry, Shaft, The Manchurian Candidate, The Departed, and Margot at the Wedding. “If the dialogue doesn’t work then nothing else will,” says Rubenstein. “The reason I got involved with Stop-Loss is on The Departed I worked with Eugene Gearty. And, I’d worked on another Kimberly Peirce film, Boys Don’t Cry.

“I was the original dialogue editor on Stop-Loss,” says Rubenstein. “The schedule was inconsistent. The film kept going on hiatus. I got offered another film, Reservation Road. I was on that film for three months. Eugene Gearty was supposed to be done in April but went to August. Larry Wieland, who does all of Ang’s films, became supervising sound editor.” To substitute for Rubenstein, Stop-Loss brought on Branka Mrkic as dialogue editor, but then she got another film and Rubenstein came back.

“I had just gotten out of the hospital and into a high pressure cooker that everyone had been on for a long time,” says Rubenstein. “It was pancreatic surgery, pretty grave, but I’m fine now. The job was in constant state of flux with crew because it went on so long. They kept recutting. They started the film in one direction and when I saw it, it had taken a very different shape. It went from more of a road film to being a movie about two main characters at odds and their duty. We were working seven days a week. It became crazy by the end. It was hardest on the ADR department. We were recording ADR on the day of finaling.” The schedule was so intense that Rubenstein even worked on his 50th birthday, a Sunday.

“With dialogue editing, a lot of it is organizational,” says Rubenstein. “I still think of it as mag. I still lay it out as though it’s on an editing bench. For me as dialogue editor it’s mostly coordinating with ADR. I got notes from Eugene, but I didn’t talk to Claire or Kimberly until I came back. Some editors cut very loose. You can get alternates. Some are very specific and cut to breaths. The most interesting part is editing the dialogue and judging from how they’ve cast what you’re at liberty to do. I’ve worked on a movie where any time I mention ADR the director bristles. Stop-Loss went ADR-happy. They were rewriting a lot of it using Franken-bites.” A Franken-bite is three syllables clipped together to make a word because you don’t have the actor available to voice the changes.

“New York is different from Los Angles in how we approach editing,” says Rubenstein. “In New York we cut as though there’s going to be nothing else there. No gaps. There’s a lot shot here on streets, and we had to make those tracks work. In Los Angeles they anticipate where music or car crash will be, because [they] know it will be covered with other stuff. We’ve got one mixer, where in L.A. you’ve got three mixers. I don’t do equalization. That’s the mixer’s job. Doing equalization is not a good idea. It sounds completely different under headphones than when you get on stage. There were three temp mixes. Branka cut the dialogue. A spotting session is where you screen all the reels with director and he gives you notes, takes a day, maybe two. On Stop-Loss we didn’t have that.”

Sound effects editor Wyatt Sprague got started in sound editing relatively late in life. “I had been in a band called Urban Blight in Manhattan,” says Sprague. “When I was 33, I had major wrist surgery. I got some books out of the NYU bookstore about film sound that had interviews with various sound people. One that stuck out was Skip Lievsay. He’d worked on a lot of movies that I really liked such as Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, and all of the Coen brothers films. The facility that Skip co-founded with Ron Bochar and Phil Stockton was called C5, and about 15 blocks from my house. It took a lot of legwork, phone calls, and persistence, but I eventually got in there as an intern and then hired as an apprentice. I worked at that level for a year or so and then got moved up to first assistant for Ron Bochar. I stayed with Ron for about three years as first assistant and then got the chance to cut backgrounds and effects on Murder by Numbers.

“I’m always hired by the supervising sound editor,” says Sprague. “I'd worked with Eugene on the Aviator and Brokeback Mountain. With typical understatement he said the first reel of Stop-Loss needed some work and gave me a week to cut it. Once that was done there would be some time off and then we'd come back and cut the rest of the movie. He was still mixing another project so he couldn't start right away. It turned out to be a full-on firefight in Iraq with a Humvee chase thrown in.

“My approach to a film is based on who I'm working for,” says Sprague. “Eugene conveyed to me that Kimberly Pierce wanted a realistic sounding track. I believe her brother was fighting in Iraq and she got a lot of information from him about what it actually sounds like over there. We were very lucky that the guns that were fired during filming had full loads so they sounded authentic. I did a full pass with just production guns and then cut some sweeteners here and there as needed. Because a lot of the gunfire is in a narrow alleyway, the production recordings had great perspectives that are hard to achieve artificially. The overall feel of the film is very natural, but there are also some scenes with subtle but powerful sound design. This movie also had the good fortune of having CeCe Hall, who has a sound effects Oscar, and Scott Rudin at the mix. They both have very finely tuned ears. Also, it was mixed by Lee Dichter.

“Surprisingly, the biggest challenge on Stop-Loss for me wasn't the gunfight,” says Sprague. “That took a lot of work, but I find it more challenging in some ways to make locations feel real. There are some scenes at hotels/motels that have a very natural feel to them. Does the distant traffic have the right perspective or does it sound like close traffic played very low? I want to get across the atmosphere of the place without relying too much on obvious sound cues. A couple of tasteful things in the right places can give you a lot of information without being obvious. These cues get absorbed almost subconsciously. You don't need to hear the drunk guy screaming in the background for two minutes to know you're in a cheap motel.

“It's hard to say what a typical day was on Stop-Loss because it was a very atypical job,” says Sprague. “I was on for eight weeks or so but that was spread over six months. I cut the first scene for a screening and then didn't work on it again for a month. I think over those six months the longest I worked on it at a stretch was two weeks. I cut at C5 in New York City while Eugene was working from home in South Carolina. We worked off the same sessions using Pro Tools. It could have easily been a mess but Eugene's assistant, Larry Wineland, made sure that the workflow was absolutely smooth and clean.”

While working on Stop Loss, Sprague started and finished Reservation Road and Chicago 10, and worked on an independent film called Tennessee with Ben Cheah. Sprague and Rubenstein are now working on The Happening by M. Night Shayamalan.

Robin Rowe is a partner in MovieEditor.com. He can be reached at robin@movieeditor.com.