Ready, Set, Interviews: Documentary about a Sound Designer / Mixer for Movies

Three years ago production began on my documentary, “A Sound Life.” What follows is a brief somewhat random encapsulation of why I’m making this film and what it’s generally about, what my preparation process has been before and during interviews, A List film industry experts I’ve filmed, and the intended uses for “A Sound Life”.

My film is a look into sound designer / mixer Richard Beggs’ self-taught, forty-year career — how his background in music and art influence his film work, how he’s provided women a gateway into the industry, how he collaborates with directors and other colleagues, and how he uses ambience and audio metaphors to evoke the psychological aspects of sound.

Thus far, I’ve interviewed five film directors; nine re-recording mixers, (four of them were women who were assistants to Beggs, and currently have successful careers in post production sound); Beggs’ current wife, an Editor; his former wife, an Artist; two friends from high school; and a former art teacher from high school (who has since passed).

My success in getting ‘A List’ film industry professionals to agree to be interviewed is due to the respect they have for Richard and his work. It was tricky to meet them requiring dozens of emails to nail down a location, date and time.

Even though I studied film (Super 8 and 16mm) at the University of Arizona in the 80s, I wasn’t taught anything about sound except how to splice and paste magnetic tape together and sync it with your film. (Aside: learning more about sound for film is one of the reasons why I’m making this film. The other reason is that I make films about autodidacts.) Anyway, I thoroughly researched the history of motion picture sound. I found information from books, web articles, videos on You Tube, documentaries on Netflix and Linda.com, podcasts, and iTunes University.

Next, I familiarized myself with my subject’s background as a re-recording mixer by surfing the internet to find anything they’d written or been filmed saying about it. I began to understand what each person thought was important. Then I hand-tailored questions and edited them many times, narrowing them to the essence of what I needed to know from each man or woman. I compared the interviews with one another, sometimes seeking duplicity in an answer if I wanted more than one response on a particular topic, like the definition of ‘sound designer.’

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Practicing set-up and break-down of lights, camera and sound in my home. 

About a week before the interview, I practiced setting up and breaking down my camera, lights and sound equipment every day. I printed a personal release and location agreement contract, charged my equipment and drew diagrams of how I could potentially light the ‘scene.’

Nervous the night before an interview, I found it helpful to meditate with an AP called Insight Timer. I definitely couldn’t drink coffee a few days before and the day of the interview. I arrived one hour before the shoot to get my mics set to the same channel. I visualized setting up my equipment and reviewed my interview questions. I’ll be honest; it was nerve-racking at times, given the expertise and prestige my subjects had. With each interview, I became more comfortable with the process.

Beggs’ (former) studio in the Presidio (he has since moved his studio into the basement of his Victorian mansion), the library at the San Francisco Art Institute, the American Zoetrope basement studio, and his four-story Victorian home were the locations for our interviews together. Typical to “run and gun” documentary filmmaking, for many of my shoots, I arrived with no idea what the lighting or the room I’d shoot in looked like. (If possible, I asked to visit the location of the shoot in advance to take photos of the room and the natural lighting I always ask for.) I often had a time constraint given to me by my subject and that added pressure as well.

Director Sofia Coppola permitted me to interview her during an afternoon break while she was working in New York City with Beggs on the final sound mix of her film, “The Beguiled.” Beggs has been the sound designer for all of her feature films, up to 2018.

Interviewing American Director, Barry Levinson, in his studio in Soho was fantastic. His unique perspective on the importance of sound for film captured the essence of great filmmaking.

I filmed Richard Beggs at work with Director, Francis Coppola, at Coppola’s Meyer Sound mixing stage in northern California. Beggs got his start in the film industry working on the sound for Coppola’s multi-Academy Award-winning Vietnam war film, “Apocalypse Now.”

Further footage I shot contributes to examples of the San Francisco independent filmmaking scene – with sound being mixed in Beggs studio (formerly) located in the San Francisco Film Center building in the Presidio. Director Jonathan Parkerpermitted me to film he and Beggs working on the sound mix for his film “The Architect.” I filmed Phil Tippetthis crew and Beggs as they discussed the final sound track for “Mad God (part two)” in Kim Aubry’s screening room at ZAP. I interviewed Eleanor Coppoladuring the final mix of her first feature film, “Paris Can Wait.”

Of course Walter Murchhad insightful things to say about sound mixing at his rural Victorian farm house, but an odd thing happened during our interview. His cat brought in a rat it had killed in the field and dropped it on the floor between us and began crunching its skull. (I could hear it in my earphones.) I interrupted Walter to instruct the cat to take its prize away — which it did to my delight!

At Randy Thom’s home, the room where we met looked like it was straight out Architectural Digest. Thom’s perspective about sound design was totally unique. (I won’t give it away until the film.)

I filmed seven-time Oscar winner Gary Rydstrom in Marin in a fancy sound mixing studio. My Skip Lievsay interview was really interesting and took place in Manhattan.

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In the photo above, note the ‘scene’ where I had an interview with Lora Hirschberg. It was an elegant conference room with custom Mission style architecture and furniture, and a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay. Heather Gross, Roy Waldspurger,Julia Shirarand Alyssa Nevarez are other post sound professionals I interviewed in various locations on the east and west coast.

According to George Lucas, a film’s soundtrack is responsible for half of a viewer’s experience. The film “A Sound Life” finally acknowledges the technical and creative prowess it takes to mix all the the elements of a motion picture soundtrack. Film industry experts set a standard for the importance and the integrity of motion picture soundtracks.

My hope is that media studies programs will screen my film with discussion questions. Another use for my film could be with the Motion Picture Editors Guild, as a learning resource for members. Libraries, Art museums and of course film festivals are other distribution venues.

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For more information about the film and how to make a tax-tax-dedutable donation to a “A Sound Life” please visit this post.

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