Soundtrack: <I>The Trial of the Chicago 7</I>
Issue: January/February 2021

Soundtrack: The Trial of the Chicago 7

In August of 1968, thousands of protestors gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. Concerned that the protests would disturb the Democratic National Convention going on in town, the gathering was met with the full force of the Chicago police and US military, leading to riots that spilled onto the streets of the city, and hundreds of protestors and policemen being injured. 

Accused of crossing state lines to incite violence, Students for a Democratic Society members Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis; the Youth International Party’s Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin; and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam’s David Dellinger, John Froines and Lee Weiner were all brought up on charges. The Trial of the Chicago 7 — written and directed by Aaron Sorkin — relives the summer and the subsequent months-long trial that Judge Julius Hoffman fought to maintain order over.

The film stars Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, with Jeremy Strong portraying Jerry Rubin and Sir Mark Rylance representing lawyer William Kunstler. Frank Langella presides as Judge Hoffman, who, as the film points out, is in no way related to Abbie Hoffman.

While the film is set in the late ‘60s, sound designer/supervising sound editor Renee Tondelli and re-recording mixer Julian Slater say director Aaron Sorkin gave them a directive to not rely on ‘60s nostalgia for the soundtrack. Instead, it needed to be relevant to today’s audience. And with riots taking place throughout the US during the summer of 2020 — when the film was being mixed on Stage 6 at Warner Bros. — the timing couldn’t have been more relatable. 

Julian Slater and Renee Tondelli

The project marked the first time Tondelli and Slater collaborated on a feature, though she has worked with picture editor Alan Baumgarten in the past. According to Tondelli, the film’s soundtrack presented a range of challenges, the paramount being its short schedule, which was driven for release before last November’s Presidential Election. Not surprising, the COVID lockdown was another, and as Tondelli explains, creating sound for the film’s riot scenes took some creative problem solving.

“Aaron Sorkin loves to shoot one take,” Tondelli explains. “So when we were shooting the riot scene, there was often just one take, and sonically, it was very challenging because the crowds were often behind the actors, while the actors were speaking. The actors had to have their lines clear, so there wasn’t a lot of background-recorded crowds to speak of.”

She continues, “I thought, ‘Oh my Lord! How am I going to do thousands and thousands of people?’ We couldn’t get anyone on a stage. Nobody could be together, so I ended up having to shoot everyone individually, which is kind of like creating a riot of thousands of people, one person at a time.” 

She purchased a bunch of Shure MV88 digital stereo condenser microphones that plug into smartphones and then coached the talent on how to record the necessary elements remotely.

“It’s hard to get outside vocals to sound natural,” Tondelli explains, “but add to that, people in their closets.” 

COVID, as it turned out, would be somewhat of a blessing when it came to capturing sound outside. There were no planes or traffic, so what would normally be next to impossible to record cleanly, actually worked in this case.

“I was able to have the actors go outside and record their lines for me,” she recalls. “One actor was way up in Maine and there was a huge snowfall. It was the most beautiful baffling. It was a very unique sound. And it’s things like that, that you just don’t generally get to do.”

Recording ADR by phone is not unusual, adds Slater, but most of the time, those elements are only used in temp mixes and for scratch ADR. 

“It normally doesn’t sound very good,” he reveals. “But Renee informed me that all the ADR was going to be coming in via an iPhone! Here I was, working for Aaron Sorkin. I thought, ‘This is going to end in tears.’ But thankfully, because Renee had done so much rehearsing — with locations, how they held the mic, and how they held the phone — it all worked, and it was all used and went into the movie.”

Slater was one of two re-recording mixers on the film. He focused on the dialogue and music, while Michael Babcock handled the effects and Foley. 

“My role is to take dialogue and do as much work as I can in the pre-dub stage, and put it in its full glory, as it deserves to be,” Slater explains. “And then I take care of the Daniel Pemberton score, with that dialogue, in the final mix, while Mike has the effects and the Foley.”

With so much chaos happening on the streets of Chicago, in the courthouse, and even in the ‘Conspiracy House’, where the accused gather to strategize their defense, balancing the soundtrack’s many elements was a challenge, Slater recalls. 

“When you are working on a movie that has been written by Aaron Sorkin… he writes such amazing dialogue,” he says. “You have to walk a very tight rope between supporting what’s going on in the dialogue and distracting from it. With the music and with everything, we were constantly aware of not crowding the dialogue.”

Slater points to one scene as his favorite. It’s a flashback to when the crowd of protesters marches on the police station in an effort to free Tom Hayden. The scene is told through the eyes of several participants. Abbie Hoffman is recalling his experience while doing a stand-up routine in front of a large crowd. The event is also being recounted in the courtroom. And then there is footage of the crowd being whipped into a frenzy by Hayden’s speech.

“It starts with this slow, simmering, percolating thing, and it turns into this (bigger) thing when they storm the hill,” explains Slater. “I didn’t know anything about the story. Maybe because I am English and I wasn’t born at the time, I knew nothing about it. We had the Black Lives Matter demonstrations happening, and I remember going home one night and turning on the TV and hearing people chanting. There was something about working on that scene: the architecture of that scene, the way it’s written, and the sound design and mix of it, and the relevance of what was happening that day that always struck me.”

For Tondelli, the mock trial, in which William Kuntsler puts Tom Hayden on the stand to see how he does under pressure, is a highlight of the soundtrack. The sequence is set in the Conspiracy House, but also cuts between a bar, where numerous politicians are gathered, and different shots of Grant Park, where unrest is growing.

“Every time you cut back to Grant Park, it was a different place,” she recalls. “There was this really wonderful element of constantly changing these micro environments.”

She continues, “It’s Aaron Sorkin’s big sound-effects moment, which is always dialogue, so it heats up to this wonderful chaos, and gets tighter and tighter and tighter, until Kuntsler and Hayden are literally on top of each other… It was an amazing level of mixing, and I think Julian did such an amazing job.”

Slater and Babcock completed the mix on Warner Bros.’ Stage 6, which is a large feature mixing stage equipped with an Avid S6 desk.

“It all virtual,” says Slater of the console. “I only work on virtual desks these days because they suit the way I work. I am quite a quick mixer, and I like to have tools that enable me to work quickly, and the S6 does that.”

Sound elements were played back from Pro Tools systems. The film was mixed in 7.1 and then folded down for its 5.1 release.