The Rum Diary | Frogs and Fiats
Nov 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Matt Hurwitz
MARK MANGINI AND THE RUM DIARY
Coquis: the tiny little chirping-frog natives of Puerto Rico. In San Juan, where Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary was filmed, they are literally everywhere—even on the soundtrack—whether one wants them there or not.
But supervising sound editor Mark Mangini (Soundelux) did want them there, just under the control of the sound department. “With the soundstages they shot in down there, they couldn’t get rid of them,” Mangini explains. “We never had a properly clean dialog track.”
But Robinson was keen to use the production recordings to keep favorite performances intact. So dialog supervisor Curt Schulkey, using iZotope RX and other spectral repair tools, carefully isolated the actors’ dialog from that of the frogs. But the Coquis are part of life in San Juan and still needed to be heard—everywhere.
That was one of Mangini’s challenges as sound designer: to help put audiences in the world of late writer Hunter S. Thompson’s Puerto Rico, where journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) slowly finds himself enveloped. “Most filmgoers aren’t aware of how sound is affecting them, dramatically, as they watch a film,” Mangini says. “I think great sound design is most effective when it works at that subliminal level, a place at which much great cinema art works.” So, Coquis.
The trouble was, Mangini could find no library recordings of the amphibians to insert into the background, even among his own 2TB library of 200,000 sounds collected during the past 35 years. “No one’s ever really done a proper recording of them,” he says, noting the exception of the production track. “Between dialog lines, Curt would clean out the Coquis. So he just gave me a bunch of the most egregious takes, where the Coquis were as loud as the dialog!” Mangini then cobbled together, from hundreds of takes, a clean 4-minute, stereo-ized ambient sound effects bed, which could then be placed underneath the dialog in a controlled manner.
Another part of Kemp’s San Juan life that plays a big part in the film is his car, the venerable Fiat 500. The tiny two-stroke, rear-engine, air-cooled auto—recently reintroduced by the company, though not with that unique-sounding drive train—had been out of production since the early ’70s, so a controlled recording for sound effects purposes became a problem.
“You just can’t find them in Southern California,” Mangini says. “The couple I did find were restored and in flawless condition. I needed to beat ’em up—drive them like crazy and skid around corners with them.”
Mangini called his “usual sources” (i.e., his buddies in the business) and eventually found one of the cars in Barcelona, Spain. “A good friend of mine, a fine sound designer, mixer and editor in Madrid named Gabriel Guttierez, found a collector who was willing to rent us his car for two days. And we did everything with it.”
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