Ryan Coogler has proven himself as a tour de force director, excelling in his first two features, “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed.” If both those films have felt like visceral, emotional rides because of an extra, difficult-to-place quality, that’s likely because Coogler’s influence is just as heavy in departments outside of writing and directing, notably sound and music.
In an LA Film Festival panel discussion talking about those very elements in “Fruitvale” and “Creed,” Coogler, longtime friend and composing partner Ludwig Göransson, sound designer Steve Boeddeker, and moderator/Dolby Institute director Glenn Kiser peeled back the almost infinite layers that make up a soundtrack. Showcasing three clips — including a stunning segment that highlighted the various layers of “Creed’s” sound in comparison to the full mix — the four men discussed the fruits of a close-knit collaboration and the various aspects of how sound is such a vital piece in informing the story and the audience.
The hour and a half discussion on Saturday night brought fascinating bits of knowledge and perspective that offer insight into how and why the sound of Coogler’s films is the way it is.
Sound is Filmmaking
Coogler was introduced to the importance of sound not only early on in his life, but also early on in his studies of filmmaking in general. Before attending USC, Coogler took classes for the film minor at Sacramento State, one of the first being a Pro Tools course. “It didn’t make sense to me why I would have to learn that and start with that before picking up the camera,” Coogler said. But after an assignment where the class had to craft a sound mix for a five-minute clip from “Highlander,” which resulted in each student creating something different, Coogler had a revelation. “Some people were very simple and some people were extremely layered,” he said, adding, “I realized in that class — I was maybe 20 years old, 19 years old — I realized then that sound is filmmaking.”
The unforgivable mistake
In his further studies, that revelation began to make more and more sense, both in practical implementation and in the context film history. When Kiser asked him about whether or not he thinks about sound design and music while writing, Coogler responded, “There was a saying we used to have. It was basically a concept that people will forgive pretty much every technical thing before they will forgive bad sound. Your movie could look amazing, but if on every cut, the audio track is popping and making them aware of the cuts, it will pull them out. It’s so important. Orson Welles, he basically used to make movies over the radio. Really, the gateway to people’s imagination is what they hear. That’s the biggest tool you have as a storyteller.”
The best music takes time
When discussing the first clip of “Creed” — Adonis Creed in the final training montage before the big fight — Göransson layed out the difficulties of scoring the sequence, recounting that he must have worked over 100 hours and scored at least 40 minutes of music for the six minute scene, given its importance to the title character’s journey. Discussing the various cues and where he needed to go high and go low, Göransson touched on his idea that “music needs to tell the story,” which became a big theme throughout the night. At some point, each of the three pointed out how a score, which needs to set the tone for a sequence, needs to fit with the story and the images. Boeddeker summed it up perfectly, saying, “It also seems like [Göransson’s score] fits within the context of the ‘Rocky’ world. You’ve got ‘Rocky’ themes. You’ve got ‘Rocky’ instrumentation. You’ve got current music styles. It’s got everything in it and when I heard that stuff, I thought, ‘It’s great because it’s true to the ‘Rocky’ movies, but it’s contemporary.’”
Echoes of “Rocky”
In fact, the score didn’t start out that way. The studio initially told Göransson that he wouldn’t need an orchestra or live music, which is something that Coogler agreed with, thinking that they would do the same “atmospheric” kind of score that they did for “Fruitvale Station.” Göransson said, “We had a version of the movie with a more minimalistic, ambient, kind of ‘synthy’ score. And we sat through it at a screening and I was like, ‘I can do a lot better,’” realizing that the “energy was missing.” Even Sylvester Stallone, who, according to Coogler, had a big influence on the scores of the previous “Rocky” films, suggested that they “go bigger.” It was a suggestion that Coogler embraced. “Once we went there, it started to feel right,” Coogler said, adding, “And we had to find a way to embrace the new and put us in it because Adonis is a member of our generation. So that, in a way, came in with the rap and Jhene Aiko,” who contributed to the soundtrack along with Donald Glover/Childish Gambino, complimenting the necessary “Rocky” themes of old.
Sounds of The City
With Coogler’s particular attention to the sound of “Fruitvale Station,” the film went against Kiser’s characterization of most first-time directors not thinking about sound like they do about image. Being from the East Bay, Coogler cited the film about the tragic New Year’s Eve death of Oscar Grant as “being about home.” When asked about the subtle emphasis on the sounds of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and how he wanted to “build that world,” Coogler talked about the “constant sound of the train until the point that you don’t even notice it.” The use of BART to build the world of the East Bay and service the story extended to the score. Göransson, when experimenting with the samples he got of BART, recounted that “they turned into more of a musical element. Combining that with other elements made it sound almost like music.”
Coogler takes the atmosphere of a setting very seriously and wants to get the sound of a setting right to add to the concept of building a world, saying that “finding out what places sound like, that’s the big thing, research. With the Bay Area, I could close my eyes and think about what home sounds like and pick out those things. With Philadelphia [the setting of ‘Creed’], we had to get out there and learn what it sounded like. Getting in those boxing gyms and figuring out what you hear.” Coogler and Boeddeker’s research resulted in unique Philadelphia sounds being placed over specific locations with Rocky’s house and the gyms always having sounds of the trains of Philadelphia running in the background.
When the music stops
Responding to an audience question, Coogler talked about the choice to include or leave out music in a given scene. “One thing Ludwig and I would talk about was the idea of dynamic range…having great differences between your highs and your lows,” he said. Coogler described the film as being from Oscar Grant’s perspective. In music choices, that helped reflect the kind of person that Oscar was. “Oscar was that dude who played the music really loud rolling around and he was that dude who would come home and wake the babies up,” Coogler explained.
Also alluding to the loss of the great presence and personality of Muhammad Ali — while wearing a “Cassius Clay” sweatshirt — Coogler said that Oscar’s “presence being totally gone, the silence there, that’s what we were going after.” Coogler touched on not only the absence of that kind of lively presence, but on gun violence death as well, saying, “When someone’s life is cut short by gun violence, you’re left with an incredible sense of emptiness. We kind of tried to characterize that through sound.”
The best kind of co-workers
A brave 14-year-old, who humorously asked Coogler for an internship, also asked him for advice on filmmaking. In response, Coogler touched on something that had been evident since the first few minutes of the night, when he told the story of how he and Göransson met “organically” at USC Film School mixers and quickly became friends. “Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. Find people who you enjoy working with, because it makes it much easier. I would love nothing more than to get a beer with these two dudes [Göransson and Boeddeker] here to my left. Find collaborators that can bring out the best in you and be honest with you, but that you also like working with.” That friendship, trust and easy back-and-forth between the three men resulted in the quality work they presented on Saturday night. The trio made a compelling case for sound as a vital and under-appreciated element of storytelling.