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The Passions of Bob Beemer

The last four films that Los Angeles based re-recording mix-er Bob Beemer worked on couldn't be more different from each other. The Passion of the Christ,

The last four films that Los Angeles — based re-recording mix-er Bob Beemer worked on couldn’t be more different from each other. The Passion of the Christ, of course, is the controversial film about the last hours of Jesus’ life, from his arrest to his death and resurrection. Around the same time, he was working on Unchain My Heart, a music-filled biopic of the great Ray Charles. Then he jumped into Anchor Man, a Will Farrell trifle about a news reader in the ’70s. Most recently, he’s plunged into The Bourne Supremacy, the action-packed follow-up to The Bourne Identity.

“It’s the variety that keeps me coming back,” Beemer says jovially. “That and the fact that I learn something from every show I do. This job is really an ongoing education in so many ways, from the subject matter of the films to the actual work process, which changes every day. Plus, it’s different groupings of people on every project and everybody has different sensibilities, so you learn plenty from that, too.”

He must have learned his lessons well: He’s become a first-call mixer with a credit list loaded with a wide variety of great and successful films (and some turkeys — hey, when you take the job, you don’t always know which way it’s going to go). He took home Academy Awards for his mixing on Speed and Gladiator, was nominated for Cliffhanger, Independence Day and Road to Perdition, and has worked on such diverse films as City Slickers, Honeymoon in Vegas, Heaven & Earth, True Lies, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, The Crossing Guard, That Thing You Do!, There’s Something About Mary, American Beauty, What Women Want and Sweet Home Alabama, among dozens of others.

A product of L.A. Catholic schools, including Loyola Marymount where he studied film, he counts landing a job as a gofer for Sid & Marty Krofft Productions, makers primarily of children’s TV shows, as his first big break in the business: “Gofer work is actually very meaningful,” the ever-cheerful and personable Beemer says. “You get the ultimate overview of the business. You run out to some actor’s house and bring him a check or a contract to sign. You go to lawyers’ offices in Century City. You go to the scoring stage where they’re working on the music. You go to the editor’s place. You go to pre-production meetings. You’re like a fly on the wall for every stage of production. It was like graduate school!”

His first job in sound was as a transfer recordist for Neiman-Tillar Associates, which provided sound for National Geographic specials and some feature films. “Then you graduate to being a dubbing stage machine room recordist, and that’s what I did for about 10 years. Luckily, I was able to work on some of the biggest pictures of the time, and as a result, I ended up meeting a lot of the top sound editors and picture editors.”

Around 1990, Beemer went to work at Warner Hollywood mixing ADR and Foley, but quickly graduated to the main mixing stage, “where they gave me the opportunity to be the new kid on the block. I worked with Don Mitchell, who was one of the top guys at the time, since retired. I will always be grateful to him for my start.” From there he went to Skywalker South (later Todd-AO West) for five years, and it was there that he hooked up with his current partner, dialog and music mixer Scott Millan. Beemer had a two-year stint at Fox and for the past several has worked at Sony, where he plies his trade on a Harrison MPC digital console — “my favorite console ever,” he notes.

I was moved to contact Beemer after being completely spellbound by The Passion of the Christ, swept away by the grim, visceral beauty of Mel Gibson’s bold undertaking and by the artful sound job, which moves from a frightening hyper-realism to more stylized and impressionistic moments, sometimes within the space of a few frames. Before we discussed The Passion, though, I was curious about a few other films.

I see that fairly early on, you worked onHeaven & Earth,which I’ve always thought was one of Oliver Stone’s most underrated films.

It is an impressive film and it was very interesting to work on from a sound perspective. The way Oliver Stone shoots things, everything has this interesting psychological weight that lends itself to great sound mixes, as demonstrated by how many movies he’s done that get nominated for Best Sound. It’s a great canvas to work against.

Is it something he articulates or is it something in the way he works that draws a level of creativity out of the people he works with?

It’s both. [The re-recording mixer’s] art form is complementary to the cinematographer and director’s art form, which is up on the screen. Unlike making a [music] record, which stands on its own, the film soundtrack reacts to what we see in the picture. We might embellish it and imply things that aren’t there for dramatic purposes and whatnot, but it all begins with what’s on the screen. So if the director is very clever and emotionally complex, it usually follows that the sound will take on some of that character. If the image is very flat and standard in its direction, it’s harder to digress from that and make a very interesting soundtrack.

Who was the first director you worked with who gave you that leeway?

I don’t know if it’s the first one, but one of my early projects that was a turning point for me was a Sean Penn — directed movie called The Crossing Guard with Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston. It’s a very heavy, unpleasant kind of movie about a marriage being broken up in the aftermath of their small daughter being killed by a drunk driver. It’s a very bleak examination of grief, rage, guilt and forgiveness, but it’s really well done. The way Sean shot the movie, there were all sorts of subjective camera moves, variations of film speed for emotional impact, and that opened up the sound possibilities. His editor, Jay Cassidy, further enhanced the themes with pace and optical effects. So we were able to do all sorts of things, like having a lovely little girl’s laughing voice echoing out in the distance, which added to the angst of this poor dad; lots of things like that. Now if the movie had been shot flat, it would have seemed kind of contrived and self-important if you threw in some echo-y girl in the distance. Everything from buses to a flock of birds going by had an emotional component to them that was more important than their literal meaning. It was a really interesting sound job. Not so much because of me, but because of all the license afforded by the filmmakers and the great collaboration with Per Hallberg, the sound editor on the show.

Speaking of buses, you got your first Oscar forSpeed.

Well, the truth is, I was the handmaiden to Steve Maslow and Gregg Landaker on that show. I helped them predub the sound effects and they finalled it, but as a wonderful thank you to me for my contribution to the mix, they said, “We’re gonna put you on the credit,” and in an odd turn of events, it ended up winning an Academy Award. It wasn’t my project per se, but I’m not giving the Oscar back. [Laughs] Incidentally, I turned down Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers because of the content of the movie and ended up working on Speed.

Independence Dayis sometimes cited as one of the first of the modern superloud — many would say too loud — films. How do you feel about that?

I think it was too loud. But it wasn’t like that originally. That was the director’s choice. Different directors become sensitive to different things. Although the movie was incredibly popular and tested through the roof, [director] Roland Emmerich and [producer] Dean Devlin — especially Roland — were hypersensitive about the models, the buildings that were being blown up in the film, which were some significant landmarks. To us, they looked completely real, but to them, they looked painfully like models because, I think, they were there; they knew they were just 12-foot-tall models. So they always wanted the explosions and fireballs to be louder to give the models more size and weight. That’s the director’s choice. You can encourage them not to do that, but as a mixer, you are an instrument of the director to express him or herself. We influence a lot of things, but in the end, it’s their choice. And the volume in that movie was a Roland Emmerich choice. Sorry, Roland! [Laughs]

Tell me a little about working onGladiator.

Gladiator was one of the greatest experiences in my working life.

Making a movie is a very complicated enterprise, from scriptwriting to pre-production, casting, picking the craftspeople, shooting the movie. So many things can and do go wrong. Some things go better than you imagine them; some are worse. But the sheer complexity of making a movie is what causes so many of them to be mediocre. It’s really hard to do: pay attention to everything you need to pay attention to. But once in a while, for a number of reasons, but generally starting at the top, the director — in this case, Ridley Scott — every single thing comes together and you get lightning in a bottle. That’s what Gladiator was. Every single person hit a home run as far as I’m concerned, which was a phenomenon that was really exciting to be a part of. There were battle scenes and great sets and these fantastic crowds, different ethnic crowds. We spent a lot of time working on the crowds for that film. We had [sound] library crowds, specifically recorded crowds and group ADR crowds, which my partner, Scott [Millan], was dealing with. There were also so many different locales, which had to be treated completely differently, from small venues to the grand arena at the end. So the crowds had to have different feelings and even different ethnicities.

How do you change the ethnicity?

That goes back to the wonderful job of the sound editors who worked for the supervising sound editor on that show, Per Hallberg: picking all these flavors, and when they weren’t available, going out and recording them and developing all these different spices that I could have never done just by turning knobs. Then it becomes my challenge to take all these elements and direct the focus of the viewer so they get the right amount of everything — smatterings of people and things — so they get an impression of the differences of all these environments and people without them being self-important or calling too much attention to themselves.

As different things become more important, their sound becomes more accentuated. When [the gladiators] are down in the dungeons waiting to go out, the crowds are all muffled and echo-y and muted, but you can hear the thumping of the crowd stomping their feet and you can feel the terror of the gladiators waiting to go out; you can almost smell what it’s like out there.

The trouble with movies is they’re missing a few key senses. You can’t taste something or feel them or smell them, but through exaggeration, we try to imply those other things. You can make something “sound” damp and then your mind fills in the more tactile aspects of that.

Road to Perditionis another film that had an interesting look and sound to it, but was also very character-driven.

On some shows, you work with people and it’s almost like you’re going back to school, you’re learning so much. [Director] Sam Mendes is one of those people. It sounds trite to call somebody “brilliant” because that word is so overused and Sam really is just a regular, fun guy. But the fact is, he’s a brilliant person in a nonstandard sense, which makes him a fantastic talent for drama. Both of the movies [I worked on with him] had Conrad Hall as the cinematographer, God rest his soul. Connie was a master and could do many different styles: American Beauty and Road to Perdition are completely different in visual style.

Road to Perdition was so beautiful visually, and we all — Scott Millan and Scott Hecker, the supervising sound editor — rose to the occasion and made the most beautiful soundtrack for it. And I can say this because I’m about to shoot myself down. [Laughs] The rain sequences, the gunfights, the bar scenes, the nightclub — there are so many fantastic sound concepts we tried that got thrown out of the movie. Some of the best work I’ve ever done got thrown out — and all for the betterment of that movie! [Laughs]

We made this completely realized soundtrack and it drove Sam out of his mind. At the end of the film, there’s a big shootout and it’s raining in the street. It’s shot so beautifully: There’s rain coming off of gutters, it’s hitting the street, hitting cars, it’s hitting their hats, their umbrellas — oh, my God, fantastic! Between Scott Hecker and his people and me, we mixed an awesome symphony of rain; it was the most beautiful, emotional thing, and it fit the picture perfectly. And for every reason we loved it, Sam hated it! He said, “You’ve done a brilliant job of mirroring the picture,” and he said it in the most damning tone. [Laughs] To me, to mirror Connie Hall’s picture would be the ultimate compliment. But what he was saying was I totally screwed it up. He was mad!

So what did you end up putting there?

A simple gentle rain that didn’t match anything you were seeing — this light shhhhhh monotone, 5-channel loop of rain. Sam said, “Bob, you don’t understand — everyone in this movie is dead. This is a boy’s memory. The picture already says what it says. The sound in this movie has to have its own meaning and its own purpose and it’s never to simply be augmenting what we see. It can never be the obvious.” So I learned something from that about flexibility. And Sam and I are still good friends. [Laughs]

How did you get involved with The Passion of theChrist?

There’s a young man named Sean McCormack, who’s an engineer and an aspiring sound editor and mixer I know from Sony Studios. About 10 months ago, he came up to me and said, “Hey Bob, I’ve got a project you’ve got to work on.” He didn’t know I’m Catholic or anything about me personally, but he knew a little about my sensibilities, I guess, so he mentioned it. I said, “Oh, okay, that’s cool.” I’m thinking it’s one of his friend’s student films. He says, “I’m involved with this picture about Jesus, and it’s the most amazing movie I’ve ever seen.” Then he told me it was by Mel Gibson and I sort of looked at him funny. “Mel Gibson as Jesus?” He explained and purely from the excitement he had about the project — I hadn’t seen a frame of it — I knew I had to do the movie!

So he got me an entrée to go meet with Mel and his producer, Steve McEveety. I’d met Mel before [on What Women Want] but hadn’t really spent any time with him or talked to him much. I knew the picture editor, John Wright, very well; I’d done a few movies with him, but nothing like this. Anyway, I could see the devotion and the correctness of the motivation of both Steve and Mel, and I was fascinated by it. It’s such a trend-breaker because it’s so un-PC to be religious; the boldness was very impressive to me.

Then Mel — who’s a very affable and down-to-earth person — took me in the back and showed me a still frame on the Avid, which was a profile of Jim Caviezel as Jesus up on the cross, all bloody and looking up into the sky. I swear, it looked like a painting from the Renaissance. It was so violently beautiful. And from seeing one frame, I could tell the depth he was going to on this movie.

Was there much direction from Mel about the sound?

At that point, no, because he was dealing with so many other things. But we all knew it was going to come down the road later. So we started working on it more-or-less independently. You can do the obvious things: You know you’re going to need atmospheres, footsteps, and you’re going to want the cross to sound heavy, the whips have to sound menacing, the crowds need to have certain textures to them. Sean McCormack and Kami Asgar supervised the sound editing and were gathering sounds months before we mixed.

When Scott and I first saw the film with a handful of people — this was a videotape image with pixilated visuals and temp music; very rough — the truth and dignity of it were so staggering, the boldness totally came through. My reaction to Mel was, “I think we have to make sure that none of the sounds are particularly contemporary, because they’re still going to be looking at this movie 100 years from now and every cute, slick sound effect will seem contrived in five years, not to mention 50 years.” Hopefully, we accomplished that.

Did having worked onGladiator,which is set in a similar time, have any effect on your work onThe Passion,any insight into the people or the age?

That’s a good question, but actually not much. It’s a different director’s approach to a similar time frame. This story is a much more personal, close-in story, and Gladiator was a much grander canvas. It was all over the place geographically, whereas [The Passion] is a very provincial story, so I don’t know if it helped or not, because they’re so different.

What were the most challenging aspects of the sound?

Well, as with any movie that has a lot of blows, or repeated events of any kind — whether it’s gunshots or waves in a surfing movie — what I try to do is make each event sound different so it doesn’t become boring. Sean and Kami gave me lots of variety in sounds of whips, hits and whooshes, so instead of making it sound like some sampled sound effect that got repeated over and over, I did my best to make each event sound somewhat different.

Is that a function of choosing different whip hits and then putting different reverbs or effects on them?

I used the same reverb treatments in each physical environmental setting; in this case, I was still using the old Lexicon 480. It’s more using EQ and different balances of the hits; different types of whooshes. I might exaggerate the panning a little bit with a very stereo image, so when things are repeating over and over, it’s coming from here, then it’s coming from there. I like to mix it up. And whenever we could, we sort of went into a dream format: When we cut over to the Devil or Mary, we’d soften the blows up and make them sound more diffused and the hideous counting that the head torturer was doing, we’d go into a kind of reverb version of that and then it would snap back to the harsh reality of the hits. So there was variety with it.

In the more obvious beating scene, the treatments were all the same until we went into off-speed camera work, and then we got a little creative again.

Let me try this theory out on you. In the flaying scene, we’re definitely the observers: We’re Mary and Mary Magdalene, we’re people in the crowd, we’re the Romans. Later on, when Jesus is going up Calvary, the perspective changes and we are more in Jesus’ head, carrying the cross with him, so things become stranger and more confusing and distorted sonically.

Yes, I think that’s pretty accurate. We become more delirious and deluded as he’s beaten down more and more. And the perspective does change. One of the things that was important in that scene [going up Cavalry] was to get across the weight of the cross as he drags it. We put the hits through the boom channel to make it extraordinarily heavy. In general, I used the subwoofer sparingly, but to me, that was the perfect device for it because the metaphor of [the cross representing] the sins of the world and all that, it seemed to be the correct thing to do.

And at least in this movie you got your big storm at the end.

[Laughs] Actually, we had all sorts of gorgeous thunderclaps and wind and cool stuff going on, but it ended up being an epic music moment. But it was still great. I’m not complaining. The composer, John Debney, did an incredible job.

You trusted Mel’s choices…

Completely. This was his vision from beginning to end. There’s a part where Mary goes into a sort of Zen moment and all the sounds drop away except for her breath. She puts her head down on the floor and the camera follows her down and through the floor to reveal Jesus in chains below in a dungeon. That was totally a Mel thing: All the sounds go out.

Then we recorded some breaths for Mary; those weren’t the actress’ original breaths, it was Renee Tondelli, who was the ADR supervisor. She was on the stage and we recorded breaths right then and there. It was a very fluid environment where we recorded a lot of little embellishments to Pro Tools on the stage, especially Mel’s vocal and sound effect enhancements. The biggest challenge of all was the fact that Kevin O’Connell [who replaced Scott Millan for part of the final, because Millan had to work on Unchain My Heart] and I had no temp dub. We had no shakedown process with Mel and John Wright to establish style, so we had to go from zero to 60 on the final stage. Mel really enjoyed hearing all of our full sounds for the first time, but I’ll always remember him tactfully suggesting, “The problem is, everything has the same value.” That is, no style or point of view was evident. That’s when the real mixing begins and our contribution is particularly needed.

So much of it was Mel’s sensibilities: How should the Devil sound? Should this part sound realistic or not? He was usually of the mind that [the sound] be unflinching, focused. But he relishes taking chances. This film wasn’t made for this summer or to be the biggest movie or critically acclaimed or any of those normal motivations. This was made as an act of devotion. He never wanted to “go Hollywood” with this film. At the same time, it’s so obvious that he’s a great accessible artist. It shows in every frame. This movie changed my life. There’s nothing I’ve ever done before that compares — the boldness, the social significance. People are still going to be watching this film in 100 years. Hopefully, by then I’ll be in a comfortable place looking down at it.