SFP: Public Enemies

Jul 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Although director/writer/producer Michael Mann is perhaps best known for his gripping and stylish contemporary action films — Heat, Miami Vice and, best of all, Collateral — he also made The Last of the Mohicans; Best Picture and Best Director nominee The Insider; and the underrated biopic, Ali, each brilliant and different as night and day. His latest is the Universal Pictures period crime drama Public Enemies, with Johnny Depp as '30s bank robber John Dillinger (and Christian Bale as his FBI nemesis), and like all of Mann's films, it is a carefully drawn character study in an exciting, well-told tale.

Mann is a famously meticulous filmmaker, and his obsessive attention to detail even carries over to sound — he is not one of those directors who lets the sound crew go on its merry way until the final mix and then gives the team a few notes and happily signs off.

“He's all over this movie because he screens it every day or every other day in his screening room, and he's got a mixer in front of him and he'll audition things and try things himself, so you'll get very specific notes about where he wants to go,” says Jeremy Peirson, co-supervising sound editor (with Laurent Kossayan).

When I spoke to members of the post team in early June, the film was being print mastered, but there was still serious tweaking of both sound and picture going on. “For Michael, it's all about doing these little moves that in the scene might have a small result, but across the whole have a much bigger impact,” Peirson says. “This is the first time I've worked with a director where we've really been able to work on a scene as it pertains to the whole movie, not just in the playback of a reel.”

“He gets into changing levels half a dB, a tenth of a dB, and he gets into syllables,” says effects re-recording mixer Beau Borders. “If the line is, ‘Let's go!’ he might say, ‘Raise the attack of the “g” on “go,” but leave the “o” exactly where it is, and on “Let's,” I want you to do a rise on the “s.”’ It's not so much for intelligibility reasons; it's because Johnny Depp is supposed to be very forceful in the scene so he wants the attack on the ‘g’: ‘Let's go!’ He alters performances in minute but important ways. If he's telling you to raise the crickets or lower the air in a scene, it's not because he wants to hear more crickets and less air; it's because he has some story-driven intent there.”

“He has an ultra-finely tuned set of ears,” adds dialog and ADR supervisor Hugh Waddell. “He relates everything he does to the drama on the screen. He can be working on dialog in one scene and trying to get one word sounding correct to his ear because it relates to something 20 minutes away in the show. That's how his process works. It's a balancing act.”

Mann used as many of the real locations from Dillinger's saga as he could — from the Little Bohemia Lodge in rural Wisconsin (the setting for a big shootout), to prisons in Statesville and Joliet, Ill., to Chicago's famous Biograph Theater, where the gangster met his violent end. “One of the very first things Michael said was that he wanted the audience to feel that they were in the period — in 1933 — so that was one of the most important elements we thought of when we did our work,” comments Laurent Kossayan. “That's also one of the reasons he shot the movie in high definition rather than on film. He made some tests and put what he shot side by side — in film and in HD — and he said that with the HD, he felt it was like it was happening at that moment.”

Production mixer Ed Novick certainly had his work cut out for him working in so many different locations, not to mention the way Mann likes to film a scene, which Waddell says involves “shooting every angle at the same time — close-ups, wide shots…So [Novick] had radio mics on everyone, booms, all kinds of mics where he could, just so he could cover everything.”

Kevin O'Connell, dialog and music re-recording mixer, comments, “Having had the opportunity to personally visit the locations in Chicago, I saw first-hand the challenges that Ed Novick had to deal with, and I'm amazed how well the original production tracks turned out. That was important because this is the first movie I've ever mixed without premixing the dialog first. Michael likes to work from the raw dialog tracks and use as little — if any — processing for the mix.”

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