In Jason Reitman’s films, dialogue is often the engine that drives a scene. That is certainly the case with “The Front Runner,” which follows Gary Hart’s tumultuous three-week presidential campaign in 1988, but he also wanted it to sound like like a 1970s film. Specifically, the political dramas like “All The President’s Men” and “The Candidate,” and the long-take, multi-character films of director Robert Altman (“Nashville”).
As cinematographer Eric Steelberg’s camera wove through the ensemble cast, Reitman wanted to enter and exit various conversations and feel the commotion behind the scenes.
“He wanted to hear everybody all the time in the sense [of the] normal life of a political campaign, where everybody’s just talking and working all at once,” said sound mixer Steve Morrow. “Depending on who the camera is focused on is who you’re hearing and understanding what they’re saying.”
Morrow, whose three-person team was responsible for mic’ing, recording, and mixing the production sound, had just finished a “A Star Is Born.” That film required an unusually high number of production audio track recordings, but this project was on another level. There were multiple scenes with 15-20 cast members, and while a fraction of them had scripted lines, he knew Reitman would have every character engaged in conversation in long takes — and he’d want all that dialogue recorded.
“Jason would give the cast a little booklet to say, ‘Okay, this date and time in our movie, June 4th, 1984, here’s the hit song of the day, here’s who won a sporting event the night before, here’s the political background,” said Morrow. The cast used that information to improv conversations to fill in the blanks.
Recording dialogue tracks with a shotgun mic on a boom pole is preferred because it sounds more realistic, and to get a clean audio track, directors tell off-screen actors not to overlap dialogue with characters speaking on camera. In this case, overlapping dialogue was exactly what Reitman wanted. Morrow knew he’d need to devise a system for recording each cast member’s dialogue as cleanly as possible on its own isolated track.
This scene from “The Front Runner” is a good example. The audio you are hearing in this clip is Morrow’s production mix, recorded on set and before any post-production:
Morrow set up a 20-track recording system that would manage up to 20 mic’ed cast members per shot. Boom operator Craig Dollinger pinned wireless lavalier mics to the actors’ clothing, hiding it from camera but as close to the actors’ mouths as possible. Morrow then had to live mix the tracks on set. While the tracks would also be mixed in post, Morrow knew Reitman would be editing with his recording. If the editor had to mix up to 20 tracks to make a shot work in a scene, post production would come to a grinding halt.
“Jason, as a director, gets married to the sound that he hears on set and when they are editing in post,” said Morrow. “He wants to feel the scene as he’s filming it. If you’re giving him just your basic mix, and it’s not really smooth, or clean, then how’s he going to know if he has the scene and [performances]?”
It was a tremendous risk — and a feat of mental and physical agility — to raise and lower the recording of 20 individual tracks in real time. For Morrow, it was all in the preparation. While Reitman set up the shot, Morrow would check to see whose dialogue the director wanted to focus on and at what point. He would then carefully keep his eye on the video playback monitor to watch characters entered and exited the frame.
“The camera went through the crowd, and we picked and chose who we heard as we watched the monitors, bringing up people, or bringing them down as the camera moves around,” said Morrow. “You want to make sure you really hear them crisp and clear so that you can understand what the script is trying to accomplish.”
Once Morrow figured out the scene’s audio flow, he would lay out and label his tracks to provide a logical and clear guide for his mix.
Below is a video of Morrow’s hands mixing the same scene on set.
After the first day, Morrow panicked that what he was doing sounded horrible. He called supervising sound editor Perry Robertson to ask that he make sure it was at least usable.
“Steve did an incredible job and you have to understand the risks involved,” said Robertson. “It’s dialogue-driven all the way through the whole movie, and to be honest with you there was one line of dialogue in the entire movie where the mic did not work, and luckily enough it was covered by the boom mic. So we didn’t do any ADR because of technical difficulties in this movie.”
Robertson points to how similar Morrow’s production mix was to the final mix (see below), but his own work on the film wasn’t easy. In editing the dialogue, he jumped into each of the 20 tracks to create a fuller sense of movement through space. Robertson split each track and adjusted the pan so the audience could feel the characters’ movement in relationship to the camera’s movement.
“We wanted to be able to do all the panning,” Robertson said. “It wasn’t for an effect as much as it was for the audience to know that something’s coming in from the left, and we wanted to make sure that your focus was on the correct conversation. The initial conversation with Jason was just making sure that the focus is on the right place at the right time, and how do we get there.”
At the same time, Reitman wanted to feel the commotion. He wanted the audience to feel the different conversations that were happening. “Jason wants it busy, he doesn’t want it super, super clean,” said Robertson. “He wants to hear that world around them, and the fact that everybody’s mic’d up, but it just doesn’t feel as natural as when they’re on the set, and they’re in that scene.”
Robertson doesn’t believe that this recording would have been possible with the tools available even 10 years ago. Audio software removed the recorded-in-a-vacuum sound of lavalier mics and found the perfect balance of clarity and that ’70s cacophony.
You can watch and listen to the final mix of the same scene below: