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Inside the Production Mix of ‘West Side Story,’ Part 1

Four-time Oscar-nominated sound mixer Tod Maitland shares what it was like to work on the new remake of 'West Side Story' while also discussing what to listen for during the picture.

New York, NY (January 3, 2022)—2021 was a fruitful year for Tod Maitland, as the longtime sound mixer’s work could be found on numerous high-profile projects, from the Fran Lebowitz/Martin Scorsese Netflix series Pretend It’s A City to music-centric films like Respect and tick, tick…BOOM. Arguably the biggest of them all, however, was Steven Spielberg’s epic reinvention of West Side Story.

Across a 40-plus-year history in film sound, Maitland has worked on films known around the world—JFK, Independence Day, Born on the Fourth of July, Joker, The Greatest Showman, National Treasure, Seabisucit, Donnie Brasco, The Irishman and dozens more.

In mid-December, the four-time Oscar nominee and three-time CAS nominee spoke just before a press screening of West Side Story in New York, extemporaneously recounting what it was like to work on the film while also tipping off the audience on what to listen for during the picture. [The following has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity].

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On Remaking a Classic:

“Obviously, almost everybody’s seen the original film, so this movie takes that movie and puts it on steroids. It is huge, it is beautiful, it is basically a masterclass in filmmaking on every single department. I’ve worked on 100 movies, and I’ve never worked on anything quite at this level.”

On Working for Steven Spielberg:

“When you work with Steven—I’d never worked with him before—everything is about accuracy and being 110% at every single moment. When you arrive in the morning, Steven is there 15 minutes ahead of time with a lens in his hand, marking off marks on the street where he’s going to be shooting.

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After you get a shot, he’s back in there; as soon as the shot’s over, he grabs a lens and is saying, ‘Okay, give me a 35 over here, you come in over here, give me 85 here. You come over here and say that one line to her here. Okay, 20 minutes everybody; let’s go.’ And you just GO. That was 78 days of what this movie was like—everybody elevated their craft.”

On Planning On-Set Recording:

“I got Tony Kushner’s script for this film, and it was a 180-page script. As soon as I got that, I realized, to use a famous Spielberg-ian quote, ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ We took six months to develop a system so that we could ultimately record a Broadway show on the streets of New York in the middle of one of the hottest summers that we’ve had in a long time. We went through so much criteria to pick equipment out. We went through every major [wireless audio] manufacturer; Peter from Gotham Sound and I spent weeks testing them one at a time and went through each one. Shure was the winner, and by far the overall winner.”

On The Mix of West Side Story:

“What’s really interesting about the mix on this film is the subtlety of it. When we were filming, we had 24 lavalieres and I would wire every actor almost 100% of the time. We also had microphones placed all over for different ambiences. When you work on a period film, you want to capture as many of those real period sounds as you possibly can, and one of the only environments you can do that is when you’re on a film set when they’ve quieted down everything around you. You have a car going by over here, you have kids playing with a period toy over there, you have people speaking different dialects elsewhere. We had four microphones on stands that we would leave at the sound cart, and we would deploy them out to wherever there was a sound. We’d always try to capture as many little sounds that were going on in every single scene. When you listen to West Side Story, listen for all the nuances in it—it’s a jam-packed, very subtle, extremely detailed mix.”