Behind the scenes of Oscar nominated movie Baby Driver with Suffolk sound designer Julian Slater
- Credit: Archant
Baby Driver’s sound designer, editor and re-recording mixer Julian Slater talks about his Suffolk upbringing, working with Edgar Wright on the smash heist movie, the Marvel Ant Man movie that never was and the power of sound as a storytelling tool.
Multi-award winning sound designer Julian - nominated for best sound editing and best sound mixing at this year’s Oscars for his work on Baby Driver - grew up in Hadleigh. Despite swapping Suffolk for Los Angeles, he still considers himself an Ipswich boy at heart.
Inspired by the wizardry of Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt and the video for Everything Little Thing She Does is Magic by The Police, he declined his careers officer’s offer of a job at Barclays and studied music production in London.
He moved into sounds effects and started his own sound studio, working on TV shows like Brass Eye, Spooks and Life on Mars and films including In Bruges, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Mad Max Fury Road, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz where he started his long-term collaboration with Baby Driver director Edgar Wright.
Q: LA’s a long way from Suffolk
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I was born in Maidstone, Kent, but we all moved to Suffolk when I was about three and I spent my entire school days in Hadleigh. I think of myself as from Suffolk because that’s where I grew up. That’s where I got very drunk at Hollywood’s and got up to all kinds of fun and games. I’m an Ipswich boy at heart.
At the age of 19 or 22 I started working in London so spent my entire life - apart from the last five years when I’ve lived in LA - doing that commute from Colchester or Ipswich down to Liverpool Street every day. When people moan about the LA traffic I’m like ‘it’s nothing’.
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We still own a house in Suffolk. For Baby Driver I had to come back to England for seven months, we had to post it in London. I’d be back and forth on the trains going to see the family in Suffolk every other weekend.
Q: How did you get into sound design
In Suffolk I’m the only person I know from my friends and my family who do this kind of weird thing. I remember two things probably influenced it. I remember when I was about eight or nine being struck by a documentary about how Ben Burtt made those sounds in Star Wars; the blasters, the tie-fighters, Chewbacca.
A bit later, I must’ve been 12, I remember seeing a video of the Police’s Everything Little Thing She Does is Magic; pushing all these faders on this mixing desk and thinking ‘that looks really cool’. Fast forward to when I’m 15 or 16 and my careers officer at Hadleigh asked ‘what is it you’d like to do?’
I remember I wanted to get into music production and he said ‘oh, I can’t really help you there but I can offer you a job at Barclays’. I declined and my dad funded me to go for a part-time course at a place called The School of Audio Engineering in London. So, twice a week, I’d go down to these four-hour evening classes. I learned how you might mic up a drum kit, how you record vocals.
From that they offered me a two-week work placement at De Wolfe Music in London. At the end they said when I finished my course if you want a job with us let us know. I then got into the sound effects department and aged 21 I started my own sound studio in London called Hackenbacker.
I did that for 16 years and we did a mixture of TV and film work doing the sound for movies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, all the Chris Morris stuff so Brass Eye, Day To Day, Jam. Stuff like Spooks, Life on Mars...
Q: During your 25-year career you’ve collaborated with top directors including Tim Burton, Joel Edgerton, George Miller, Louis Letterier and you frequently work with Edgar. What was it like reteaming with him for Baby Driver
We all felt it was something pretty special and rare. We had no idea it was going to be so successful because Edgar’s movies are successful in the UK but not that successful in America, they’ve got like a cult following. It’s great because it’s important movies like that get seen by a lot people so he gets to make his next movie, whatever it is.
Q: Edgar walking away from Marvel’s Ant Man movie was a shame
That’s why I’m out here. I came 10 years ago for a look around. I fell in love with LA but it’s very hard for someone like me because there are so many sound designers out here and just don’t get the opportunity and then you got to join the union... then Ant Man got greenlit and Edgar said ‘this is the guy I want to do the sound’.
Eight weeks before Edgar was due to start filming he walked away from it, which left me with a year’s worth of work that evaporated. I’d left (the UK) being one of the top five or six people in London doing what I do. Then you get out here, no one knows who you are, no one cares... so I had to start from scratch.
My job is all about reputation, relationships; so I started from the bottom again and worked on very low budget movies. You hope you do a good job and then the next time that picture editor or director is doing another movie - whether it’s a low or slightly better budget - hopefully they’ll ask for you. It’s like stepping stones.
I’m very blessed because if you look at my CV they are very different things (there) you know - In Bruges, Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Danish Girl are very different to Mad Max Fury Road, Jumanji and Scott Pilgrim, so I’ve been lucky. My career is a mixture of hard work, determination and luck.
I’ve read his (Ant Man) script. I don’t want to see the other one, I’m sure it’s great, but his script was amazing. It really was ‘oh my God this is doing something completely new with the superhero cinematic universe. Ultimately I think that’s why it didn’t work out because Ed was going to do something that was very different for Marvel but you can’t rue the past.
Q: Baby Driver was certainly very different
All of Edgar’s movies are very testing but in different ways. Whatever he does next - and I don’t know what it will be - I know its going to push me to the limits. That’s what’s great about it. Some directors think about sound as just being a reflection of what’s on the screen and that’s fine.
Then you get directors like Edgar or [Mad Max Fury Road’s] George Miller who understand the power of sound and the power of what it can bring as a storytelling tool. I’d work with those directors every day of the week because, ultimately, you get a far more rewarding experience.
I remember when I first read the script thinking ‘this could be totally amazing for someone like me’. When I first saw the movie in its raw form, the first two reels, I remember shaking because I was excited about what it could be and trembling with fear because how do you pull off something like that which had never been done before. I think we did a good job.
Q: The two of you worked very closely.
Normally someone like me comes on board after what’s called the director’s cut. With Baby Driver I came on board almost as soon as he started it. As soon as he’s finished a sequence he’ll call me, literally two doors along from him, and say ‘hey, come into the cutting room and have a look and we’ll talk about the ideas’. Then I go off and I do my first pass. I mix the sequence before I play it to him, so it’s literally bouncing back and forth between the picture and the sound departments.
Q: The syncopation goes deeper than people may think
With Baby Driver, people often say ‘oh that’s really cool because the gun shots are in sync with the music’. It’s all in sync with the music, that Harlem shuttle sequence where he’s getting coffee... even as he walks into the shop there are two workmen walking past in sync with the music, they’re listening to a radio that’s got a rap track that’s in sync with the music, the guy who’s standing outside the shop with headphones on, the track in them is in sync, he’s texting on his phone, that’s in sync, the door to the shop, the cappuccino machines, the banging of the coffee grinders... the whole movie is syncopated to whatever track he’s listening to at the time.
Q: It could’ve become gimmicky
That thing of syncopating to music, we’ve done it very briefly in Shaun of the Dead when they’re beating up John the landlord with the pool cues to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. We also did it in the Roxy fight in Scott Pilgrim... but to do that over an hour and 52 or so minutes... the point of what I do is to help enhance and tell a story, not to detract from it. It can’t be something that after 35 minutes as an audience member you aren’t going ‘alright, I get it, just stop’. We did it subtly so the audience doesn’t get fatigued with it but that was one of the biggest challenges.
Q: How did you wrap your head around it
I had to learn from scratch. Every piece of music in the movie is what’s called tempo mapped. That first Jon Spencer Blues Explosion track, which is the first car chase sequence; running alongside that is what is called a click track. Of course that piece of music isn’t a steady tempo, so the click track is going ‘click click click’ and then you take something like the police sirens and you figure out the tempo of those and tell this piece of software to map the tempo to the tempo of the track.
It then time squashes beats to the piece of music, so what you’re left with is a siren that is totally in sync with the piece of music and it’s going ‘wee wee wee’. Then we have to figure out if it works because it’s in sync with the music but quite often doesn’t sound believable as a sound effect or a piece of sound.
If it works musically, cinematically and sounds believeable, you get a tick. Every sound in the movie went through that process, Which made the workload four times more than one would normally do.
Q: How did you feel when you saw the final cut
Very proud. We felt it was very special, but if you’d have said to me last February when I finished it are you going to get a BAFTA nomination and two Oscar nominations and all these other things that happened afterwards I would have said ‘no way’.
Q: Edgar’s spoken about a Baby Driver sequel
I don’t know what he’s doing next, he’s the kind of guy who’s always got five or six things floating around in his head. Like you I’m an Edgar Wright fan, I’m just lucky enough to be working on his movies. The guy is clearly a genius. Just look at his first movie, and his most recent movie - Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver. Then throw in Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim and... I feel Baby Driver is a slightly different movie for him, different from the Cornetto Trilogy. I can see as he gets more confident with his filmmaking... I’m excited to see what he does next and looking forward to being a part of it.
Q: You’re an Emmy and BAFTA award nominee, a MPSE Golden Reel Award and Variety’s 2018 Artisan Award winner. I was surprised you left the Oscars empty-handed
Me too but here’s the thing. As someone said to me afterwards, Paul Thomas Anderson has never one an Oscar and Kobe Bryant now has. The thing that means the most to me is the nomination, because it means your peers have watched your work and said ‘we feel this is something special too’.
Who knows what a 65-year-old white dude sitting in Hollywood thinks best sound is? Most people don’t understand what sound is let alone what sound mixing and what sound editing are. I would’ve loved to have won... if you look at the things that have won over the past 10 years it’s so arbitrary it’s crazy.
Look at Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour is up for best movie; Dunkirk was up for up for best movie. It’s tough if the category you’re nominated in isn’t up for best director or best movie. That means there’s a whole raft of people who, when they get those voting DVDs through, aren’t going to watch yours. They’re not going to watch every single one. The first thing they’re going to do is look at the movies up for best movie.
I’m a member of BAFTA, I think I’m about to be a member of the Academy; every Christmas I get about 50 DVDs through and watching all of those is a tough ask. I’ve asked Edgar if he can make the [Baby Driver] sequel a war movie just to help the chances of winning [laughs].
Q: What are you working on at the moment
I’ve just finished mixing a movie directed by Emilio Esteves called The Public which is great. Then I start on a film called Bad Times at the El Royale which is a really amazing script so I’m keeping busy. I’ve actually got a couple of weeks off which is great I’ve actually got time to decompress from the craziness of the awards season.
Q: It must’ve been quite the ride
The lovely thing is lifting the lid a little bit on this kind of weird thing that I do that most people don’t understand. Most people think it’s all recorded on the day and of course it’s not. Everything apart from the recorded dialogue is replaced and sometimes that is too.
That sequence at the laundrette, when Baby’s with Debora for the first time that’s 100% looped because those dryers going round in the background were making so much noise you couldn’t hear what they were saying. It’s good to explain to people what it is that people like me do [laughs].