CRASHING IN RHYTHM, FIRING IN SOUND
Chatting with Julian Slater: Sound Engineer for Baby Driver
On Saturday, February 20, the movie Baby Driver was nominated in the Editing and Sound categories at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards. Directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World’s End (2013), Baby Driver is a soundful and furious riff on the heist/car chase movie, an evolution and alchemy of Bullitt, Fast and Furious, Pulp Fiction, Snatch and dozens if not hundreds of other heist/car chase movies.
Baby Driver is more than a little bit different, as the entire movie moves in rhythm to a stellar soundtrack that is as vintage as Tequila (1958) and as new as Danger Mouse but with a lot of good sounds in between: Harlem Shuffle, Hocus Pocus by Focus, Barry White, Queen.
The edits and synchronization and syncopations are as subtle as windshield wipers moving to the rhythm and as unsubtle as automatic weapons fired on the beats.
A clever movie, that must have been a tremendous amount of work to put together by all involved, including Sound Design, which was lead by Englishman Julian Slater.
On Sunday, February 18 we chatted with Slater in London, through Skype.
And then - because of ironic sound glitches - followed up a week later, when Slater was back in Los Angeles, kicking it with his family after the Cinema Audio Society Awards on February 24 and looking forward to the Academy Awards on March 4.
I apologize for all the communications glitches, but the cell service in Malibu is so bad in some places, they make fun of it on Entourage.
You are clear now.
Your IMDB page has credits going back to 1993 as Assistant Sound Editor on Baby of Macon.
That’s ‘mac-on’ properly.
Got it. 'mac-on' not 'make-on.' Thanks. That was your first?
I guess if it says so on IMDB - yeah.
Well IMDB isn’t perfect. Fairly accurate. After Baby of Macon, some really big shows:
2017 Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (re-recording mixer) / (sound designer) / (supervising sound editor)
2017 Baby Driver (re-recording mixer) / (sound designer) / (supervising sound editor)
2015 Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (re-recording mixer)
2015 Mad Max: Fury Road (sound designer) That must have been some work, I can imagine.
2012 Dark Shadows (sound designer) / (supervising sound editor)
2010 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (supervising sound editor)
2008 Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (supervising sound editor)
2008 The Other Boleyn Girl (supervising sound editor)
2008 In Bruges (supervising sound editor)
2007 Hot Fuzz (supervising sound editor)
2004 Beyond the Sea (sound designer) / (sound effects editor) / (supervising sound editor)
2004 Shaun of the Dead (supervising sound editor)
2003 Girl with a Pearl Earring (supervising sound editor)
1995 Leaving Las Vegas (sound effects editor)
That’s a pretty distinguished list, I would say, and that’s just a partial listing.
Thanks, yeah. It’s quite varied. I mean it’s not just one genre. There’s things like In Bruges and Girl With a Pearl Earring, and then there’s stuff like Mad Max and Shaun of the Dead. And a bit of animation in there as well. Fair bit of comedy. So yeah, it’s pretty varied.
However, your IMDB profile and Wikipedia are sadly lacking, so one end result of this interview could be to improve on that, if that’s okay: Now that your name is being bandied about as a possible Oscar winner.
I don’t know. I don’t pay much attention to that kind of stuff, to be honest with you. Maybe I should!
If you want I will write a little bio at the end of this and you can approve or disapprove of it.
Okay I will take a look.
Where were you born?
Maidstone in Kent, in England.
I don’t know Kent.
Just outside of London.
Do you come from a technical or artistic family?
No not at all. My mum and dad used to run pubs so not in the least way artistic. I’m the exception to my family. My sister is a farmer’s wife and my brother drives the buses back in England. So I am totally the split of the family.
I’m sorry… the what of the family?
The split. I’ve split away. I’ve left England and come to L.A.
Where were you educated?
I was educated in a little town called Hadleigh, in Suffolk, which is a county of England.
A normal… well when you say “public school” in England that means a private school.
Correct, it was just a state school. Left when I was 16 and by the time I was 18 I spent a year learning music production, because that’s what I wanted to do.
And where did you go to learn that?
The School of Audio Engineering in London.
How did you know you wanted to do that? What inspired you?
The video for The Police’s Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.
Oh good call. Great song. I’m going to watch the video. Yep, there they are dancing around the sound room. Dancing on the machines. Shame!
They are at a mixing desk, and they’re pushing faders up and down and I said: “I want to do that.” That was it. That was the thing that kind of set me off.
Have you met any of the Lovely Lads since then? Sting?
I have not. Sting did do the score for Leaving Las Vegas, but I’ve not met them, no.
I’ve seen Sting around Malibu once or twice. I saw The Police at the Cow Palace in 1982 and that was a great show. They rocked the house.
I can imagine, yeah. I thought about going to see them when they did that reunion. But I’d heard they all weren't getting along by that point.
Okay so Every Little Thing She Does is Magic put the hook in you and then you went to the Audio School of Engineering in London and you took right to it?
Yeaahhhh, yeah I guess so. I mean part of the curriculum is you got put on work placement for two weeks. And by pure coincidence I was assigned to go work at a place called De Wolfe Music. And they have one of the world’s biggest music libraries. I was in the transfer bay where we used to kind of transfer 1/4 inch to 35 mil, or 35 mil to DAT, which was a new thing at that time. And after two weeks they said to me, “When you finish your course, if you want to come and have a job here, we’d love to have you.”
So I finished my course and I went to De Wolfe Music and after about a year of working at De Wolfe Music, the lady who ran the sound effects department became pregnant, and they asked me if I wanted to take over the sound effects department. Which was literally the days when a film editor would come in and say, “I need the sound of a dog barking - exterior.” And we had all the sound effects on quarter inch tape. And I would go to my book and look up “dog exterior” and that would refer me to quarter inch tape #34 and I would spool down to #15 and play them the dog and they’d say, “No, don’t like that.” So I would lace it back up, take it back off, unspool it. Play them the next one and they’d say, “Yep, I want that one.”
And so... that’s where I started my career in sound effects. In sound design. Was in the effects library at De Wolfe Music.
Did you work on movies in England before you came to Los Angeles?
Oh yeah. I’ve only been in Los Angeles [los anja-leez] for four and a half years. Everything up to The World’s End for Edgar was done in England.
So four and a half years ago you moved to Los Angeles… I know the English cherish good weather. Do you like it here?
I love it here. This is my home. We’re not leaving. We love it for various reasons. We love it because of the weather. We love it because of the attitude and the lifestyle and also I love it because working in Hollywood - if you’re going to be at the top of your game - Hollywood is the place to be.
At the BAFTAs they gave the Editing award to Baby Driver and not the Sound Editing and they are one in the same, really.
Yeah, to be honest when Jon and Paul [Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss] won for Picture Editing I thought, “Oh man this is going to be great. We’re off!” But it wasn’t to be.
I reckon you wuz robbed.
Mixed feelings. I mean I’m happy to be nominated but the final result is… It’s all good.
It’s a tough room because you are up against Dunkirk and Star Wars and… who were the other BAFTA nominees?
Exactly, well this is the thing. At the BAFTAs we were up against Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, Star Wars and Shape of Water. One of the reasons I got into sound design in the first place was watching Ben Burtt working on the original Star Wars. On any other… another year, I could have had a better chance. There are some amazing sounding movies in that batch. Like I say, just to be nominated is great.
A few years ago I went to a dusty old Foley room in Santa Monica full of dusty couches and conga drums and everything. These are the guys who had done the sound for Kill Bill. I asked them 'What is the sound of one decapitated head hitting the ground?' and they said it was a cantaloupe wrapped in a towel or a football helmet. They said to do the sound of the swords it was tuning forks run backwards. Was there much physical Foley for Baby Driver or it is mostly electronic now?
No all the foley is mostly physical throughout the whole thing. There are software programs that allow you you to play the sound of someone walking on a keyboard, but it never sounds realistic. There are still guys and girls in front of microphones, walking the walk.
From the first time you sat down for Baby Driver until the time you stood up and said, “This beast is finished!” How long was that, do you know?
I know exactly: It was seven months, to the day, between me starting the process and… I mean I was involved... I talked with Edgar during the shoot.. But my full-time involvement was seven months to the day that I started the journey. So total was seven months.
How many hours per week do you think?
Well I left my family… I live in Laurel Canyon and I left my wife and two boys in Laurel Canyon when I went off to do this. So because I didn’t have my family with me I kind of threw myself into the show. I would get up on Saturday morning but because I didn’t have my family I would go into the studio. So I don’t know how many hours but Baby Driver was probably the most invested I have been on a movie thus far.
Well maybe it’s good your family stayed in Los Angeles because for a project that complicated you need as much undistracted time as you can get: Eat, sleep, edit.
Yeah and all my crew put in the hours. We knew we were working on something we felt was unique, or special, and we all just threw ourselves into it.
What would you say was the most complicated sequence? The most layered scene?
Well, every scene had… The car chase scenes - like the one scored by Hocus Pocus - every scene had its own set of challenges.
Okay I just went and watched the foot-chase scene set to Hocus Pocus by Focus - a seventies classic if ever there was one. Yodeling!!! Watch it carefully and you will see how clever and choreographed and precise the action and editing and sound editing is - action to music. As Baby is hiding behind the tree, out of breath, there is yodeling - when the yodeling ends, he is off again. There’s a tremendous amount of pre-planning in that scene - and post-production. A lot of it is almost subliminal, but it’s great.
Yeah well that’s a trademark of Edgar’s. He plans everything to the minutiae detail beforehand. He knew how long each music cue was and he knew how long each sequence needed to be.
Then Baby grabs that screwdriver and bangs the window open on the beat and that starts the whistling.
The more you watch Baby Driver the more you appreciate the layers of detail both visually and sonically.
Do you have a favorite scene?
It's hard to pick any one out. You know the car-chasing scenes are themselves pretty complicated because you know... everything is syncopated to the music tracks: Squealing wheels and revving motors and guns and police sirens and bank alarms. They’re all working together with the music tracks.
I thought maybe the Tequila scene because you’re synchronizing or syncopating automatic weapons to the beat of that song. Has that ever been done before, like that?
Not to my knowledge. Yeah, Tequila is the most obvious example of it, I would say. But you know even to the point of Intermission, by Blur. When they go to the back of the post office to do the job the windscreen wipers are working in syncopation to the music. There is a guy walking a dog across the screen and the guy’s footsteps are synced to the track and the dog panting. Everything is working in sync with the music and it’s all being pitch-corrected to work at that particular time. Some things are more obvious than not. Certainly the Tequila sequence is like a minute of full-on rapid fire - all of it syncopated to the Tequila track.
So for example, how long would you spend doing the sound engineering on the Tequila sequence? Days? Weeks?
That was probably three weeks worth of work.
When I edited the Surfer Video Awards we would have an opening montage cut to California Sun by the Ramones or The Ocean by Led Zeppelin. When you edit to a song like that, sometimes that song gets stuck in your head and you can’t get rid of it. Of all the songs from Baby Driver, which, of any, are stuck in your head? All of them I hope not.
There was a moment when I was doing the diner scene to Barry White’s Never Gonna Give You Up and I spent three days doing the mixing on that sequence. At the end of that third day, I remember I was walking to the tube - the subway - and I was still listening to that music track on my IPhone and then I went home and I remember taking a bath and inadvertently I had that on while I was taking a bath. I couldn’t remove that song, and it is a great song. Most of the songs on the soundtrack are great, but that Barry White song particularly stayed with me for an unhealthy amount of time.
Barry White is great. When I saw the David Letterman show live, Barry White was the guest. For me, I can't get Hocus Pocus out of my head - the yodeling! You used two different versions of Harlem Shuffle, but not the Rolling Stones version...
Well there are multiple versions of a few of those tracks that we used, but Edgar was very diligent in the songs that he chose.
So when we edited on an AVID I thought that was pretty impressive, but that was decades ago. I wonder what psychotic machines you use now to edit on. Are you using the video editing machine to do the sound, or is sound done on a different set of machines?
We use Pro Tools.
Do you have a favorite sequence?
There’s loads of favorite sequences to be perfectly honest. I don’t have a particular one. But I’m so proud of it as a piece of work. To be part of something unique and so different. It’s an honor.
This script must have gone around Hollywood like a whirlwind and I wonder how many people auditioned for Baby and Debora and all the parts, because this is one of those screenplays you could read and have an idea it would be great. I would imagine everyone wanted to be in it, right?
That I don’t know. I do know that Edgar wrote the part of Buddy with Jon Hamm in mind. And I know that everyone else… mostly… he cast people who had some kind of musical talent… background. Ansel is a musical artist in his own right as is Jamie Foxx as is Kevin Spacey.
The whole movie moves to rhythm. It’s all choreographed in a cool way - subtly, but also unsubtly - because automatic weapons are fairly unsubtle.
On set, those guys and those girls were listening to the songs as they were acting. When Baby puts on those earpods, the real music is playing in there.
Is it bad luck to ask if you have prepared your Oscar speech?
I have not. Well at this point I’ve lost the BAFTA and lost the CAS on Saturday. So I feel like.. Well God knows what’s going to happen on Sunday. But currently I have not written a speech. And the thing they tell you at the nominee luncheon is, you know: Prep a speech. But so far on Monday, whatever day this is, I have not written a speech.
You said the CAS?
On Saturday it was the Cinema Audio Society, which is all for mixing. So I feel a little… well we’ll see, but I haven’t prepared a speech.
Who won in your category at the CAS?
Again. I don’t see that at all - or hear it. I liked Dunkirk, but it’s not as complicated or layered as Baby Driver, is it?
Yeah well I…. I can’t explain it. It’s…. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Or the ear.
Well maybe Dunkirk has gravitas or something. But you never know, the Oscars can be… well the Oscars are flawed anyway. How did Kramer vs Kramer beat Apocalypse Now for Best Picture in 1980? Why wasn’t Naomi Watts nominated for Mulholland Drive? Why wasn’t Josh Brolin nominated for No Country For Old Men? But getting nominated is still a really big deal, isn’t it?
It is. And more so because it’s from your peers. It is. And I’ve said it before and I do mean it: Obviously, to win would be great. That would be lovely. But it’s all great, it really is. Whatever happens, I feel like I’ve won.
Did you go to the Academy portrait shoot where they got everyone together?
Yeah that was the nominee luncheon, yeah.
The guy who made Icarus. I interviewed him and he had a story about that Oscar photo shoot.
Oh I met him on Saturday night. Yeah. Lovely guy. Bryan.
I think he’s got a shot. Did you watch it?
Yeah. It’s a great documentary.
So has being nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA and a CAS… is your phone ringing more?
No… no…. I don’t know... I don’t think… I mean…. No, it’s not. I know people who have won Oscars and it’s made no difference to them whatsoever because people think they are either:
Must be really busy.
But you know I’m certainly staring down the barrel of a busy period of my life but I don’t know if I’m ever going to know if that’s because of the nominations, or of it’s five years… four and a half years... of being in L.A. and my reputation is doing well or whether it’s… I think it’s a mixture of many things. You know, Jumanji being very successful was obviously great. I’m getting quite a good reputation around town. People want to use me. Obviously the Oscar nom and the BAFTA nom won’t hurt that. But I think it’s a combination of all those factors that will hopefully stand me in good stead.
Are you in a situation now where you are turning down jobs?
Yeah I’d never been one of these people who juggle jobs. You know. I’m not one of these people... In my job as a sound supervisor there are certain sound supervisors who do four jobs at one time. I’ve never really been like that. I feel like I’m more of a bespoke service. I want to concentrate on one production at any time. So that always means you are potentially turning jobs away.
Are you working on anything right now?
I’m not. I’m at home. My next gig isn’t until… my next full gig, like a whole, complete movie, isn’t until April. So I’m actually taking a little time out, doing a couple of mixing projects. A week here and there, just chilling out and spending some time with the family.
Your work on Baby Driver: Were you on schedule and on budget?
Yep, I don’t think we did any overtime. We pretty much brought it in exactly on budget.
Well you have that English thrift and efficiency about you, perhaps.
Yeah, maybe. I’ll tell you what it is. As my role as a supervising sound editor, I want the mix to go as smoothly and… my role is to not make it go over budget. Even though as a mixer that’s not necessarily your primary concern. So when you mix the two things… when you combine the two things together I always try and bring it in on budget wherever possible. Unless the goalposts are moved.
Was Baby Driver pretty big budget?
Yeah it was a solid budget for a movie of its… the total budget. The sound budget was pretty good. That’s because of my relationship with Edgar I’m able to get in early and specify what’s required. And the producers are very good in that regard, too. I’ve done nine movies - I think it’s nine movies, maybe this was the tenth - with Nira Park, who’s the producer. So I’m lucky that I can be forthright and realistic with the budget that’s required for Edgar’s movies. And Edgar’s movies do require… they are all complicated sound-wise.
Did Baby Driver make money? I think it did.
Did it make money? Yeah! It made more money than all of Edgar’s movies put together. I only learned last week when I saw Edgar for dinner, Baby Driver grossed more than Justice League over here. Which is great.
It was Sony and MRC and Working Title and I think the budget was $35 million and the total gross was something like $220 million.
Oooo, righteous bucks! As Jeff Spicoli would say.
How old is Edgar? Because a lot of those songs are from my era.
No I think he is about 42 but he’s got a very eclectic… you know, taste in music and movies. He is an encyclopedia of both music and movies.
I have a similar encyclopedic brain when it comes to surf history or Malibu history or other things. So just one more thing: You said you were working on Baby Driver for seven months, but they brought you in early?
Yeah so I came on board in Week Three of the Director’s Cut, which is very unusual. Normally someone like me comes on board - certainly after the Director’s Cut which is Week Ten. But for this one I came on board on Week Three.
And that’s Week Ten of post-production.
Yeah, well the Director’s Cut is ten weeks of post production. That’s how long the director normally gets, but I came on board in Week Three so they literally just started cutting when I came on board.
Were you daunted?
Yeah. Totally. I remember sitting down and seeing the first two reels, and thinking: “How the f#$% am I gonna do this?” But it’s like climbing a mountain. You know… you put one foot in front of the other and you start. Or doing a hike. You start chipping away at it.
I think the same way for writing books. I compare it to climbing Everest. You don’t look up or think of the whole thing, because if you do you’ll get freaked out by the enormity of it. You just focus on what’s in front of you: “Inch by inch, everything’s a cinch!” I’m sure it’s the same for you.
Yes that’s exactly it. And my least favorite time, when I start a project… is the beginning. Because it seems so daunting and there’s so much to do. So much to.. It’s not the work. It’s not the work hours I find daunting, it’s the pressure of trying to do something unique and original each time. That’s one pressure I put on myself.
Okay as promised, a special bonus: Here is your profile for IMDB and Wikipedia. I used Alex Gibson’s as a model - sorry, man - and expanded on it. Let me know if it’s okay to post this on IMDB and/or Wikipedia.
Julian Slater is a British music and sound editor, who has lived in Los Angeles since 2014. Coming from a British family neither artistic nor technical, Slater was inspired to learn sound engineering by The Police video for Every Little Thing She Does is Magic. At 18 Slater attended the London School for Audio Engineering, which lead to an internship and then employment with De Wolfe Music - one of the world’s largest sound libraries. Slater took the sound effects job and that started his career in cinema sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer.
Slater’s first credited job was Macon Run in 1995, and since then, he is known for his work on a wide variety of live and animated movies: Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003). Shaun of the Dead (2004), In Bruges (2008), Mad Max: Fury Road (2005), Jumanji (2017). A frequent collaborator with British director Edgar Wright, Slater was the re-recording mixer/sound designer and supervising sound editor for Baby Driver (2017) for which he was nominated for the BAFTA Sound in 2018 award, the 54th Annual CAS Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing at the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing at 90th Academy Awards.
That sounds good. One change. I am nominated for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing.
I'll fix that, thanks.
Cheers. And you might want to hold off posting it until Sunday. See what happens.