A number of movies evolved from Broadway or off-Broadway plays or musicals, but how many films can claim an anti-drug campaign as their origin?
First produced by a Christian morality group in 1936, Reefer Madness began life as an anti-marijuana propaganda film called Tell Your Children. It was rediscovered in the late ’60s — no doubt by film buffs high on pot — and it became an instant cult classic, playing on the repertory circuit for years and drawing stoned revelers to many a midnight screening. Several years ago, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney fleshed the slight story into an elaborate, campy musical. It originally opened in Los Angeles in 1999, and then enjoyed a critically acclaimed run off-Broadway in 2001.
Now the musical has been made into a glossy, big-budget film for Showtime, with the director of the original stage production, Andy Fickman, at the helm, Murphy and Studney as screenwriters, and several original cast members reprising their roles amidst a handful of “name” actors, including Alan Cumming, Steven Weber and Neve Campbell. Fickman has described Reefer Madness as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Grease,” but it also has some of the decadent spectacle of director Ken Russell’s most twisted visions and the razzle-dazzle of a Busby Berkeley musical. The film is one of the first major original productions to come from Showtime since Robert Greenblatt assumed presidency of the network; clearly, he is out to show the world that HBO is not the only player in town when it comes to making high-quality cable features. A screening at Sundance in January drew a sustained standing ovation, so prospects for the film are…um…high.
Above: Adam Jenkins (left) and Glenn Morgan
Right: Dialog and music mixer Rick Ash
Reefer Madness is virtually wall-to-wall musical production numbers in a wide variety of settings, from a school classroom to a reefer den to an S&M dungeon and a prison. Recording the music was the logical first step: “It all happened incredibly fast,” says sound supervisor Glenn Morgan. “The actors met on the set and within minutes, they were rushed off to record their songs, and then, boom, they were in the scene.” Initial recordings were made in Vancouver; later, much of the music was re-cut at L.A.’s O’Henry Studios, where they also recorded the original score.
Fickman, Studney and Murphy were understandably very protective of the show they’d developed for the stage, but they quickly learned that film had different requirements, especially for sound. “They were new to this world,” comments effects re-recording mixer Adam Jenkins. “Glenn was saying, ‘Look, we can do big-time Foley on this, add some effects and it’ll make everything come alive more.’ We can do that and still stay out of the way of the lead vocal, which is what they were worried about. They were nervous about not wanting to hear someone crashing through a window or someone being pulled through the chalkboard by a zombie because there’s a vocal there. But once they saw that we could mix it in a way that you could hear the music and the vocals and have effects and Foley in there, they seemed really pleased.”
For Morgan, who has been with Soundelux for 17 years “and known [company principals] Lon Bender and Wylie Stateman for 25,” one of the greatest sonic challenges on the production was working on the big dance numbers. “When you see the show onstage, there’s so much power and energy in the dancing: There’s a big number called ‘The Truth,’ which takes place in prison, plus various others like the jitterbug sequence and one with some native dancers. I really wanted to be able to convey that energy through the screen, so one of the first things I mentioned to Andy [Fickman] was that I wanted to do dance Foley.
“I think that Foley is usually looked upon as two guys with some shoes and a coconut in a small room, but that’s not what I meant at all,” he continues. “We got a room at Capitol [Studios] and set up a 5.1 Pro Tools recording environment. We had the dancers come in and re-rehearse the numbers for two days, and then we went and spent a couple of days just doing dance Foley. We set up shotgun mics on the floor to really get the power, and then we had mics left and right to get the spread, and we also recorded left and right ambience mics to give it more density. We gave all the dancers headphones and said, ‘Don’t worry about what you see around you; just dance to the music because that’s where the energy is.’ So we ended up layering it quite a bit and then [for the prison scene] accented it with shackle movements. We even did the claps in 5.1. So when it was all said and done, we had 75 channels of dance Foley to work with. We did the same thing with the orgy sequence, which was intense because we had natives wearing grass skirts, some wearing beads and they were barefoot. All that Foley brought a lot of movement and energy to those numbers.”
When it came to effects, Morgan and his crew (including sound effects editors Kerry Carmean and Chris Assells and Foley mixer Derek Vanderhorst) had plenty of latitiude: “We had a lot of fun with comedic sound effects, but we tried not to go over the top,” Morgan says. “But there were certain gags we had to play and make them bigger than life. Like there’s this character named Sally who’s always running into things and falling down, so we had to play that up. It becomes almost like a cartoon. But all the actors are so in tune with their characters that they bring a lot of humor to everything they do, so our responsibility wasn’t to carry every scene but to support their comedy.
“It was more about choices and making the right sound,” he continues. “For example, opening up a cigar box that has reefer in it: You want to make sure it has just the right creak to go with Stephen Weber’s eyes. Then there’s a scene where Sally walks offstage to get her baby and you hear this doon-dun-doon-doon — it’s her falling down the stairs, and you have to make that definitive enough so that you know what is happening instantaneously [without seeing it]. We Foleyed that. We had six different sounds just to make that work. Whenever someone would light a joint, we would exaggerate that: the clicking sound. And then there were all the different kinds of smoking — the inhale, the bogart hit, the water bong, all very distinctive,” he says with a laugh.
Morgan notes, too, that in certain spots where the music and effects seem to clash a little, “We would take some of our sound effects and re-pitch them in Pitch ‘N Time so they would be more in tune with the music. So there are points where you can’t really tell what is music and what are effects.” According to mixer Jenkins, “We also used that to cover a couple of musical glitches.”
Jenkins and his mixing partner, Rick Ash (dialog and music), did their work on the Neve DFC in Stage 2 at Todd-AO Hollywood, which is, as fate would have it, just two blocks from the venue where Reefer Madness got its start: the Hudson Theatre. “We’d have 32 channels of effects — eight channels of mono and 24 of stereo — and 32 channels of background, left and right, and a regular Foley session that was 16 channels wide,” Jenkins says. “Then in addition to that, there was the big dance Foley in a couple of reels, which was 70-some odd tracks, though we pre-dubbed that down.”
Everything was mixed in 5.1, which Jenkins notes also helped provide some needed separation between the music and effects. “Rick [Ash] did a great job of spreading music in the surrounds, too,” Jenkins says. “There were some unusual things he did with the music that were very effective for keeping things away from the vocal. Like in one of the songs, he had a lot of the percussion in the surround. They were wreaking havoc with the vocals — this timpani roll over a female voice — so he said, ‘Okay, let’s get it out of there and move it to the back.’”
Additionally, Jenkins and Ash created a “theatrical [Lt-Rt] 2-track mix and a television 2-track. The vast majority of people who see this will hear the television 2-track, and you really have to treat each one separately. Like on that timpani roll that was interfering with the vocal, when you do the television 2-track, you can take some low end out of the timpani — that sort of thing.”
In the end, it all fell together remarkably well, even with the usual time and budget constraints. “This movie was mixed in a quarter of the time it took to do Chicago,” Morgan states. “There’s never enough time, but I think we accomplished just about everything we set out to do.”
The stoners will be pleased.
Blair Jackson is Mix’s senior editor.