Six months ago, it looked as though The Hurt Locker, though critically acclaimed, would go down in history as yet another Iraq war film that didn’t perform at the box office and be forgotten. But then something extraordinary happened. Critic after critic put it on their year-end “Best of 2009” lists and the film started to gain new momentum. Everyone, it seemed, loved that film and it just wouldn’t go away. It was nominated for several Golden Globes and a number of other prestigious awards, and then when it was released on video (do we still call it that?), it got a whole new life: Everyone who had thought about seeing it but hadn’t suddenly leapt at the chance to finally screen it—myself included. (I’m usually very good about seeing films in theaters, but last summer and fall I was swamped with a few big projects and missed a bunch.)
Anyway, I saw the film in HD on the “big” screen in my living room, and was blown away by every aspect of it—the story was terrific, the script natural and compelling, superb acting. And I loved the sound design. Now, going into it, I had no idea who had done the sound, but while I was watching it, I was struck by the way the sound job combined a stark and gritty realism with scenes that showed tremendous imagination and creativity. I was particularly amazed by one scene toward the end of the film that had the same nearly hallucinatory feeling of parts of Apocalypse Now, and it was the sound design—specifically, things we heard but didn’t see—that really carried the emotion of the scene. At the end of the film, I watched through the credits (as I always do; I can’t count the number of times I’ve been the last guy to leave the theater at some multiplex) and was delighted to learn that the principal sound man on the film was Paul Ottosson, whom I interviewed a few years ago about his work on Spider-Man 2 (which earned him an Oscar nomination).
Ottoson's a good guy and great craftsman, so I contacted him literally a couple of hours after I’d seen The Hurt Locker to see if he was up for talking a bit about his work on the film. A few days later—coincidentally, on the eve of this year’s Academy Award nominations—I interviewed him over the phone. I learned he had already been nominated for a BAFTA (that’s the British film awards group), so I obviously wasn’t the first guy to figure out that the sound for The Hurt Locker was something special. Indeed, Ottosson—who was sound designer, supervising sound editor and the sole re-recording mixer on what was a fairly low-budget (by Hollywood standards) film—garnered two Oscar nominations—for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing (where his co-nominee is production mixer Ray Beckett). He’s up against some of the best in the business, too, all of them representing big-budget films: In Editing—Chris Boyes and Gwen Whittle for Avatar; Wylie Stateman for Inglourious Basterds; Mark Stoeckinger and Alan Rankin for Star Trek; and Michael Silvers and Tom Myers for Up. And in Mixing—Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson and Tony Johnson for Avatar; Mike Minkler, Tony Lamberti and Mark Ulano for Inglourious Basterds; Anna Behlmer, Andy Nelson and Peter Devlin for Star Trek; and Greg Russell, Gary Summers and Geoffrey Patterson for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
I’m not copping out when I say, sincerely, that any of those films could win and you wouldn’t hear a complaint out of me. But there is something about Ottosson’s work on The Hurt Locker that really affected me deeply—it felt so intimate and real and it was such an important part of the fabric of that film. And, truth be told, there’s a part of me that always roots for the underdog; for the folks who didn’t have the luxury of endless resources, which was certainly the case with Ottosson and The Hurt Locker. Now, though, just days away from the Oscars, is Ottosson even the underdog? After all, he just won the sound award at the BAFTAs!
But let’s not get hung up on awards. It’s about “the work,” as everyone likes to say, so take a read through Ottosson's words about his work on The Hurt Locker.
On the morning we spoke he had just finished watching The Hurt Locker on his own TV for the first time.
So what did you think seeing it on your home system?
I liked it. I thought the mix held up pretty well on the TV, too.
I really love this movie. You know, usually when I’m done with a movie I’m really done with it. But with this one, I don’t know how many presentations and Q&As I’ve gone to, but I never get tired of it. I usually end up going two hours early and watching the movie again.
When the film came out, it got extremely good reviews, but like so many of the Iraq films, it didn’t really find an audience initially. I think what helped it, ultimately, is that it’s above all a really tense, well-told story—there are no politics in it; really no historical context. It’s a micro-view with just a couple of episodes, and I think its relative "objectivity" is appealing to people. It shows the horrors of war without pointing fingers.
That’s exactly right. This movie could have been a Western or about any other war—I think it’s broad in that way. It’s a picture of man in war and how it destroys them. Like [the lead character] James in the movie—he can evades the bombs, but inside he’s being completely destroyed. I think it’s a really strong movie without hammering you with it. It makes you think, and it stays with you.
Had you worked with [director] Katheryn Bigelow before? How did you get involved with it?
No, I hadn’t. I got a call from the post supervisor and the producer telling me that Kathryn would like to meet with me about this movie. It was still being written when I talked to them. They sent me the script and I was blown away—I said, “I’ve got to work on this—unless I don’t get along with them at all! [Laughs] So I drove up and met with her and the writer [Mark Boal, another Oscar nominee] and we talked about it, and she talked about how important sound was going to be because her original intention was to have no music at all in the movie. That was our first discussion.
Wow. Well, there are certainly long stretches where there isn’t any music, but the music that did end up in it is really cool.
The music [by Oscar nominees Marco Beltrami and Buck sanders] is simple, but it’s so strong, so powerful when it happens. I think she made really good choices by going this route. They also tried it with more music at an earlier point, but it felt like when you heard the music you were more aware that you were watching a movie. Reading the script it was so realistic—it read like you were part of the [bomb] crew, and that’s what she tried to put across. She wanted to draw you in and make you part of the movie instead of just watching—to let the experience be yours as well.
Where was it shot?
In Jordan mostly, close to the Iraqi border. Originally, Kathryn wanted to shoot in Baghdad and she wanted me to come along, and I said, “You know what, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I got married a little bit ago, I have a kid at home…I don’t think so.” [Laughs]
Anyway, we all got along really well and I ended up being the first person hired on the movie. We found a production mixer from England, Ray Beckett, that we both loved. Even though we’d never worked with him, the movies he’d worked on sounded really good and needed very little ADR in them. We had a long discussion before he went to Jordan, talking about miking and what we were going to do. And he did a fantastic job. I think we ended up with—tops—five onscreen ADR lines for the principal actor. That’s never happened for me before ever—even movies shot on sets.
We cued probably 300 to 400 lines just to have it, but we really liked the performances. Later, we went to the ADR stage—me and Kathryn with our ADR cue sheets—and the actors were rolling in with their lattes and donuts—it just didn’t work. [Laughs] The shoot was really hard on everybody, but that’s one reason I think it came out so well. The actors became, sort of, what they were in the movie. Because the situations they were in were really hard—it was like 120 degrees, you’re wearing a 100-pound suit and armor and they’re sleeping in tents—they were far away from hotels most of the time. So when we shot the ADR it was almost impossible to get the same performances out of them.
So we ended up working really hard on the dialog. Robert Troy [dialog editor] did a fantastic job on it. We had at least eight mics going in every single setup there, so there was lots to choose from.
Where did you post?
At Sony in Culver City [Calif.]. We shot most of the ADR there. Foley we shot outside, and then I ended up mixing it at Sony on the small stage over there on a DAW.
I suppose there were some budget constraints…
Oh, yes! [Laughs] Sometimes you take a movie because you have to pay the bills, and sometimes you take it because you feel you have to do it—this was one of those movies. When I hired the crew, I told them the same thing: “This one you’re not doing it for the money, you’re going to love this.” Once you know your limitations, though, you just work the way you have to work within that.
Did you do much original effects recording?
A fair amount. I also had a lot of my own library material that I’d recorded through the years. Ray Beckett also recorded a lot out in the Middle East from the set, and some of that was live things they were shooting. Then I also went out and did some [ordinance] recordings out in the desert here about half-way to Las Vegas.
But I’ve probably never recorded this much Foley on any other movie I’ve worked on.
That makes sense because so much of it is an intimate perspective, where you’re either hearing it from the main character’s POV or, at the very least, you’re right there on top of the action.
That’s right. It was important to be able differentiate the main character from the others. Even when the camera’s moving, I was doing things mixers usually would not do. I would pan dialog and Foley with him, so I needed a lot of coverage because often they stick Foley in the center and it lives there because that’s where the dialog is sitting and usually people don’t pan dialog because it becomes a nightmare. But I said we needed to do that because we’re playing it from the perspective of you being this person, so when the guy is talking from the left I want to hear it from the left, and then when the camera moves over we bring it into the center, and whatever Foley we had needed to follow that. But then we also needed Foley for the guy on the right side, so mixing it was not easy because you had to really differentiate what sounds came from where.
Foley was done independently by a couple of guys—Alex Ulrich [Foley artist] and John Sanacore [Foley mixer]. They rented a place and did great work.
Tell me about that scene at night after the suicide bombing, where you don’t see that much, but you can hear helicopters and screams in the distance. It’s very strange and trippy. Is that something you discussed in detail with Kathryn in advance?
We talked about everything, but mostly in broader strokes: How we needed it to sound real, but also every scene we needed to play it like there wasn’t music because we didn’t know which ones we were going to use music in and which we weren’t.
That part of the movie was basically like a depiction of hell. We have the Americans there and the Iraqi police and all these people who’ve been killed. Just a lot of havoc and chaos and not knowing what’s going on. So we talked about the importance of communicating that. It’s true what you said—there’s so much sound there that isn’t on the screen, and that was to sell what the scene was about. It’s the scene that shows how it affects so many people. They’re all walking around confused; it’s the biggest bomb they’ve seen.
Did you have effects stems of multiple helicopters that you could then pan, or screams, flames? There’s a lot there…
I started the sound design of it as we were cutting it and working on it, but I never mixed out of stems because there were so many things to do I couldn’t lock anything in too early. So I ended up predubbing it but keeping it live on individual channels. I had around 300 tracks running there on the FX and dialog side, and then we had about 60 on the music side—and I was the only guy mixing it.
It was a very emotional mix. I always tried to convey the feeling of the person we were with [in the film]. Technically, I think it is a very different mix from what most are used to.
Well, you’re going for gritty.
It had to be what the character was feeling or the sense of pressure, which is hard to communicate. I built the helicopters up for that scene, and there was also a lot of group [ADR] with kids, women, boys, men, screaming. We shot with real Iraqi refugees so we were very true to it. It was very intense for all of us. Even a lot of the Iraqis in the film are Iraqi refugees, as well. The guy who has the bomb strapped on him [in a key scene] was a big-time actor in Iraq before all hell broke loose.
I really like the “home” scenes in the film, too.
That’s where you get a sense of how destroyed he is. He gets into the supermarket and he is so uncomfortable and so far out of it, but then you see the confidence of when he walks up to a bomb that can kill him and everyone else around him. Kathryn did an amazing job of showing those sides of him.