Are Nolan Movies Too Loud? A Look Back at the Director’s Defense of His Sound Design

"Tenet" is the latest Christopher Nolan film earning complaints for its over-powering sound mixing.
Warner Bros. YouTube

Over the last decade, Christopher Nolan’s sound mixing has become as hotly debated as Christopher Nolan’s storytelling. “Tenet” is no exception. One of the biggest complaints against the director’s $200 million espionage epic is that its over-bearing sound mix makes important dialogue unintelligible. It’s a criticism Nolan has often faced, notably with Bane’s dialogue in “The Dark Knight Rises” and the overpowering “Interstellar” score. Many moviegoers even complained the explosive sound design of “Dunkirk” was deafening.

“I don’t know what Chris Nolan has against dialogue,” Forbes critic Scott Mendelson writes in his “Tenet” review. “What was a glorified joke with Tom Hardy’s masked monologuing in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and a relative annoyance in ‘Interstellar’ becomes a clear and present danger in ‘Tenet.’ Yes, film is a visual medium, but ‘Tenet’ is an espionage thriller with copious amounts of exposition…Once again, the audio mix emphasizes music, key sound effects, and seemingly irrelevant background noise over dialogue.”

Mendelson adds, “For a film that’s supposed to show audiences that theatrical moviegoing is worth saving, ‘Tenet’ will probably play better on Blu-ray with the subtitles turned on.”

Are Christopher Nolan movies too loud? It’s a question IndieWire’s Chris O’Falt attempted to answer in 2017 just as “Dunkirk” was taking off at the box office to an abundance of complaints about its sound design. That each of Nolan’s last four movies have been met with the same sound mixing criticisms means that Nolan’s sound design is here to stay whether moviegoers like it or not. And there’s a reason for it, too, at least in the director’s eyes.

“There are particular moments in [“Interstellar”] where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is,” Nolan said in 2014 in response to the “Interstellar” sound complaints, proving to his fans that the divisive sound mix was purposeful and not some audio mistake.

“I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue,” Nolan continued. “Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound. I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it’s the right approach for this experiential film.”

As O’Falt wrote in the aftermath of “Dunkirk” complaints, “experiential is a key word for Nolan.” What this means is that in many instances Nolan would rather overpower the sound mix to leave the viewer as confused as his characters than deliver a perfect sound mix. In the case of “Dunkirk,” it meant turning up the volume on explosions and gunshots to provide the level of shell shock for the viewer that World War II soldiers experienced.

“Chris wants that dense, like punk-rock kind of vibe,” Nolan’s longtime sound editor/sound designer Richard King told IndieWire in 2017. “Not trying to present an idea of how something is, but try to convey the actuality of it within the realms of how we could do it.”

Nolan also admitted in a 2017 interview with IndieWire that his team decided “a couple of films ago that we weren’t going to mix films for substandard theaters,” adding, “We’re mixing for well-aligned, great theaters.” For this reason, seeing “Tenet” or any Christopher Nolan movie in a theater with substandard audio equipment won’t make hearing his dialogue any easier. Nolan understands his films put a pressure on theaters to keep up with the best sound and projector systems, and he can’t mix his films to please every exhibitor.

“At a certain point, you have to decide if you’ve made the best possible version of the film and you’re trying to account for inadequacies in presentation,” Nolan told IndieWire. “That’s chasing the tail. It doesn’t work. I will say, with our sound mixes, we spent a lot of time and attention making sure that they work in as predictable a way possible.”

Whether you can hear Christopher Nolan’s dialogue or not, the way the director’s movies sound is the way he wants them to sound.

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