Interview with Mike Minkler
As a third-generation sound re-recording mixer, a three-time Academy Award winner, and with another 14 prestigious wins, and 59 nominations, Mike Minkler is a true Hollywood legend. He’s worked on productions such as Once upon a time in Hollywood, Dreamgirls, Black Hawk Down, Chicago, Star Wars, Inglorious Basterds, JFK, well, the list could go on for quite some time.
He was introduced to the family trade back in the 60s when he was just 15 years old, and he hasn’t looked back since. At the moment he’s on the production of a new Elvis movie premiering this summer. Along the way he has, of course, also introduced his own son to the family trade.
He’s actually been mixing for 25 years now, and he’s mixed eight movies with me including Once upon a time in Hollywood. As for me, I’ve never had feelings about going anywhere else and doing something else. I’ve been exposed to other things in the film business, but I’ve never wanted to leave what I do.
What exactly is the role of a sound re-recording mixer during a production?
A lot of people don’t know what we do, including producers and directors. There’s an idea that we oversee the sound of the movie because we are at the end of the filmmaking process and that it all comes down to us all sitting on a stage for 2 to 3 months. But there is a lot of work that’s been done before that.
When they shoot the movie, the production sound mixer’s only job is to record the actors’ voices as well as possible. Hopefully, they have done a really good job and those recordings won’t have to be replaced. Over the next six months, after they’ve shot the movie, the sound editors come on board, and they start to record and design sound effects. The composer is writing the music, designing it to fit into the story. All these things happen before the rerecording takes place.
It all funnels down to the final phase which is when the re-recording mixer is handed all these elements and all the ideas of how things should work. Everybody involved in the sound production meets and then the recordings go through the rerecording mixer’s hands whose job it is to try everybody’s ideas out, make everybody happy and make himself and his own team happy.
Obviously, we’re influenced by the director. In some cases, very much so, in other cases not as much, and sometimes the director wants to sit with us the whole way. But the film, not the way we work together, is the only important thing. The overall goal is always to produce a good-sounding movie.
And what is a good-sounding movie?
Well, it all started years earlier with an idea on paper. I have all these elements in front of me. Maybe hundreds of thousands standing in front of me, and I got to make it into a movie, turn it into a two-and-a-half-hour cohesive story that could be entertaining, exciting, dramatic, sad, or funny. It’s about using sound to deliver all those things.
That’s a lot of weight to carry. How do you make that happen?
I don’t really know. It’s like asking an actor how he does what he does. It’s through training, it’s through observation. Watching other movies, getting ideas. It’s listening, a lot of it is listening to other people’s thoughts. They come up with ideas and one of the things I love about the mix stage is everyone’s talking, they’re contributing with wonderful ideas, and I get ideas from their ideas.
Then I have to experiment and deliver. A re-recording mixer has to know how to use sound to convey these ideas. And these ideas are not necessarily black or white, “Let’s do this with the sound, let’s raise this and lower that, let’s EQ this”; that’s not really what they are saying to me. What they are saying to me is something that’s substantial, there is a reason for everything that we do, and it all has to do with the storytelling and the emotion at a particular movement. “Right here, let’s do a little something that triggers excitement”, you’ve got to know how to interpret what they are saying and that’s what I do. I interpret people’s ideas and then funnel them through onto the screen.
How do you know when you have the right tone, the right balance between the different elements that constitute the movie’s sound?
I’ve never had an opportunity to keep on mixing until everybody’s ideas are exhausted. My job is to figure out how to deliver the best possible product within the project’s timeframe. Usually, it starts off kind of slow but then we start to pick up speed and by the end, you’re cooking. As we get closer to the end, after playback after playback, hopefully, there are fewer notes.
These notes come from me, the director, the music editor, the supervising sound editor, the sound effects editor, the dialogue editor, the music editor, the composer, the producer; everyone is allowed to give notes. Our first playback may have had 300 notes and if we can windle that down after 4–5 playbacks and address all of these notes to where nobody has any notes, and we haven’t run out of time, then, wow, we did it!
Are there any Mike Minkler trademarks in a movie? When I see the movie, can I tell you were on the production?
People say to me “I can hear a Mike Minkler mix”. I don’t know exactly why they say that, but they describe it to me as the dialogue being beautiful, that it was an emotional journey, that the sound didn’t get in the way, that the music sounded phenomenal and did its job of bringing the audience through the movie and accented the points that needed to be accented, and that the sound delivered on an emotional level. If I’ve done the mix properly, and everyone else has done their things properly, well then everything is working. So, I guess maybe, my highest compliment when someone says they can hear a Mike Minkler mix is that everything was working. The sound was great, the music was great, the dialogue was great, and not only did it sound good but it worked really well with the movie. That’s what I try to achieve but of course, I’m not a hundred percent successful every time for one reason or another.
Looking back, how have your skills evolved through the years? What are you better at today compared to when you were in your 20s or 30s?
Knowing when to say when. But first of all, I want to get to a certain point really quickly. If anything, I’ve learned to deliver really fast. Accurately and efficiently, it gives us more time to do more things, leaves us time for more options.
Also, I don’t like technical things to distract me. Twenty years ago, we used to say “Look, this is not rocket science” but today it kind of is rocket science. People spend a lot of time wrestling with technical issues and technology changes so fast, from one movie to another. But I don’t want to have to live and die by that so I surround myself with associates and assistants who can spend more time towards that stuff while I can devote all of my time to delivering the story part.
Different perspectives sometimes influence the perception of a story. How do you make sure your perception syncs with the original vision of the story?
It’s conversations with the director and conversations with the picture editor who is very, very important. He is the right hand of the director. The director has a vision of the movie, and he has to deliver for his reasons. He has the studio to think about, the writers to think about and the actors to think about. The editor is inserted into the process, and he has the story to think about. The editor is extremely important in how the film is put together. I’m talking to the director about his vision of the movie and to the editor about his vision of the story and all the little nuances in between, what do they want to achieve and how can I help them achieve that. All that information is enlightening to me because I wasn’t there when they wrote the story, I wasn’t there when they directed the movie. I was not working with the actors or the script, so I have to pick up the pieces as they come down the pipe. And it does happen that I miss things and don’t get it till the last week of the mix.
You’ve worked on some hugely successful productions. You have won three Academy Awards (Black Hawk Down, Chicago, Dreamgirls) and have been nominated several times. But on what productions did you yourself feel that you really nailed it?
One of them was Black Hawk Down, we all worked so hard. It was the most difficult by far of all the films I have ever done before and since. But we really hit it, we did nail it. Chicago was another, but not because it won awards. It started out as a small film, but I quickly realized we could do way much better, and the picture editor realized this and then the producer realized this. There was a better movie there than anybody thought at first, so we worked harder and harder to make this into something it was not expected to be. That was very rewarding.
Another favorite of mine is Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast from 2017. It was a very complex movie. It made a lot of money and a lot of people liked it but there were some people who considered the original to be better even though it was way simpler. Because of its complexity, so much wonderful work went into that movie.
Quentin Tarantino’s films always surprise me. First of all, we get to look at the picture for the first time at the point when he is ready to show it. And not before. We don’t talk a lot; we don’t really connect until he is ready to connect. Until he’s got it on film, and he’s got a rough cut. Then he is ready to show it and connect with us. So, he works a little bit differently. And when I get to see the movie, I’m always so in awe by what I see. Even though I’ve read the script I’m surprised at what he did with it. How he shot it, what he did with those actors. The nuances, it’s just mind-blowing, so when we go to work it’s just fun time, just go for it. He gives us the blueprint and that blueprint has some sound in it, so we have an idea of what to do. Then we go as far as we want. It’s always been rewarding and when all’s been said and done it has always put a big smile on my face.
In the notes process, in the funnel process you described before, how involved is Quentin Tarantino in that process?
We get it to ourselves for 6 to 8 weeks. We do a few playbacks, get it to where we like it and to where he might like it. Then we say, “Okay, come on down”. Then he will spend 6 to 10 days with us working on it a little bit more, playing it back, working on it some more, and playing it back again.
But my job is always to deliver something that is already pretty good. I call it my ninety percent rule. I want to make sure it is ninety percent correct so that the director is not shocked or surprised. That last 10 percent is all his. He can turn it, twist, we will make everybody happy, but we can’t get there until I’ve done my ninety percent.
So, when I’m sure that we are really close, we ask the director to come in full-time. It’s not like we ignored him prior to that or didn’t have discussions. We’ve been talking with the editor, producer, and the director but we have to get it to a certain point before it’s “Come on in, sit down with us and let’s go”.
You also worked on Mama Mia 2, as did Pole associate Bernard Löhr. What was that like?
It was a wonderful experience. The initial concept of the film of course came from Benny Andersson. The music is so wonderful and the story the director and writer came up with around the music was wonderful. It was just a bunch of joy. The recordings were fantastic, and we had Bernard there who recorded everything and mixed it all down and came and sat with me through the whole mix every day. My job was to make him happy. Take what he did in his world, in his 5.1 world studio, and translate it into the Atmos world of films, where we introduced all these sound effects, and all this dialogue and crowd noises – and that can really ruin the music and the purity of the music. But in movies music is not supposed to be pure, it has to work with all the other elements. And it did work very well, and Bernard was there to help me out so we could deliver something that made him and everybody else happy.
Sounds like a great production. What are the best parts about being a sound re-recording mixer?
On the surface, when I talk to people who don’t have a clue about what I do, the thing that really makes their eyes pop is that you get to sit with the director for about a month. “You get to sit with Quentin Tarantino or Ridley Scott for a month!”, and I go, “Yeah”. And that is a cool part. I’ll tell you, I recognized this early on in my career, when you are surrounded by really good people you become better yourself. And all of my best work was for the best directors. All of the good ones, maybe the movie wasn’t that good, but I was really proud of what we did. Because great directors, you feed off them. That’s the biggest joy that I get out of what I do.
Then of course it’s the final product. The journey to get to the final product is difficult and sometimes surprises me, how did we do this? Very few people comment on the sound, except sound nerds. But when I see the joy that people get when they watch the movie, then I know that the movie worked and then I know I’ve done my little part.
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“We kind of want to ‘dispel’ some of the magic around audio processing”