Interview: Tom Fleischman Talks ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ and Scorsese

Sound Mixer Tom Fleischman may not be a household name, but you have certainly watched some of his incredible work over the years. Fleischman began as a sound mixer in the late 1970s, with “Melvin and Howard” from Jonathan Demme. He went on to mix many popular films over the years, including the vast majority of Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Jonathan Demme films. “Silence of the Lambs,” “Goodfellas,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and many more make up his filmography. He won an Oscar for “Hugo” in 2012. Mr. Fleischman is back again with another Spike Lee Joint, “BlacKkKlansman.” While he was at it, he also scored an Emmy nomination for “Fahrenheit 451.” I sat down with Mr. Fleischman to discuss his incredible work on Spike Lee’s new film, his collaboration with Martin Scorcese, and how he began his illustrious career.

AF: What would you say is your job as the Sound Mixer? 

TF: At any moment, there should be one sound element that should be featured in any movie. That’s the challenge I face on every scene in every movie. Trying to balance the sound, dialogue, music and any other sound in a way that the audience is not distracted from what is going on narratively in the story.

Really the film tells you how it should sound as you understand the story. Story is the thing that really drives me in my work to make sure the audience is in it.I’m not interested in how cool the sound effects are, or what gear I’m using, it’s whether I’m telling the story well, and is the story being advanced or is it being hindered? If it’s being hindered, I have to find out what’s wrong.

AF: How did you first get involved with sound mixing? 

TF: I grew up with a family that was in the film business. My mother was an editor and my father was a documentary director and producer and writer for the networks. Growing up, I was kind of always interested in working in film in some capacity. After graduating high school, I went to NYU for a couple of semesters at the film school there. That really wasn’t too interesting to me. I had such a background in it I dropped out and I just got a job. I was actually looking for a job in editing and there was really nothing available that summer. One of my mother’s assistants suggested that I contact this guy that had opened up a small sound shop in New York called Image Sound Studio. His name was Elisha Birnbaum and he agreed to hire me.

AF: Were you still in film school? 

No. I had been raised with the background so I didn’t find it terribly interesting. I was 19 years old, dropped out of college, and he hired me for $90 a week off the books. He said if I did good, he’d give me a ten dollar raise every month. I started to work for him, and the first thing he did was sit me down in a room. He had come from Israel and he had gotten from an auction a large real amount of tape. Boxes and boxes of them on quarter-inch tape.

So he sat me down in a room with a tape recorder and said go through these reels of tape, listen to what’s on them, and make lists of all the sound effects. I worked on that for a couple of months, and by the time I was done, I made a sound effects library. Then the editors would come in and ask for sound effects. I’d audition sound effects for them, and if we didn’t have something they wanted, I could go out and record it if possible.

AF: That must have been a really good education. 

It was. I did that for about two and a half years, just learning about doing transfers, and how some of the gear worked and recording techniques. A couple of years later, I got offered a job at a large post-production studio called Trans Audio, where Dick Vorisek, who was probably the premiere sound mixer on the East Coast, was working. I started working there in the transfer room and Dick was kind enough when I had free time to let me sit in the studio and watch the mix. I worked there for a number of years, and I began doing some mixing itself. That’s sort of the short story for how I got into it.

AF: Now you’ve had a very interesting collaboration with Martin Scorsese over the years. How did that come to pass?

TF: I had begun mixing in 1979 on a feature film called “Melvin and Howard,” where Jonathan Demme was the director and Craig McKay was the editor. At that time Marty Scorsese was working on “Raging Bull.” I had met Marty earlier at NYU, he had been an adjunct professor when I was in my freshman. I’m not sure that he remembered me, but I had started mixing at Trans Audio. Thelma Schoonmaker had brought in a scene for technics in “Raging Bull” because they wanted to add some music and sound effects. I did that, and she brought it Marty and he liked it. They sent me another scene and he liked that too.

They wound up mixing that in California on the West Coast, but when he came back to New York to make “King of Comedy” they had booked Dick to do the sound mix. However, Dick had had a heart attack and couldn’t work overtime. Marty liked to work into the evening, so I was assigned to work with Dick in the 2nd chair. When Dick would leave at 6 o’clock, I would continue working with Marty. That was the first time I really worked with Marty. I wound up moving to Sound One, another facility, and we worked on “After Hours” there. The first thing I really did by myself at Sound One was “Goodfellas.” I think I’ve worked on everything since then with Scorsese, except for some of the documentaries and commercials.

AF: When you won your Oscar for “Hugo,” how good was it to win that Oscar for a Martin Scorsese film? 

TF: Yeah I had been nominated for “Reds,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Gangs of New York,” and “The Aviator.” What’s not to like? I had gotten a little bit cynical about it because I had been out there four times before and not won. When I got out there, all my fellow nominees were telling me, “this is your year,” and it turned out to be. It was quite a thrill. It was really great to be able to look down at Martin Scorsese in the third row and tell him what a privilege it had been to work with him all these years and what an honor the award had been. I loved “Hugo,” and I was extremely proud of my work on it.

AF: Now you’re about to open “BlacKkKlansman,” but simultaneously you’re also nominated for an Emmy for “Fahrenheit 451.” How was that experience? 

TF: Yeah it’s exciting. It was my first time working with Ramin Bahrani, who is a fantastic gentleman and we got along really well. I really like the film, and it had a lot of opportunities for interesting soundscapes. There was the whole idea of the computer voice, that was in everyone’s homes and watching everybody all the time. We had to do something special to affect that voice. Then there were all the projected images and the loudspeaker effect we used on that. The fire effects and the fire truck was an interesting idea. How do you change that to sound like the future? It was an interesting project from a sound perspective.

AF: What part of “Fahrenheit” are you most proud of? 

TF: I think the whole idea of the different perspectives in the dialogue between the projected images and the live sound. That was really a challenge. I worked very hard to try to differentiate each shot as it moved from one place to another in the city. To make all of those voices that were coming from the building to have slightly different perspectives throughout the movie.

Also the music. In that film, it was a very dense track, very layered. You had all of these different backgrounds and drones flying around. Voices coming from the buildings. The musical score kind of blended in with all that, so the track had to be very balanced for it to work. I would say that’s probably the best part of the work.

AF: How did “BlacKkKlansman” come your way? 

TF: Well I had been working with Spike Lee on many films over the years. I started with Spike on “School Daze.” I think we’ve done something like 20 movies together until “When the Levees Broke” was my last Spike job. He had done some very low budget films, and then he came back with “BlacKkKlansman.” They called me up so I was available, and it was great working with Spike again.

AF: What stands out about “BlacKkKlansman” that stands out from some of your previous work? 

TF: Well I think “BlacKkKlansman” is probably Spike’s best work since “Malcolm X,” which I thought was also terrific. It’s very typical Spike Lee in the way he blends dark humor and social consciousness. It points to the racial problems that exist in America that are thematic through all his films.

As far as my part in it, it’s not real complicated from a sound perspective. I guess that the most challenging piece was the speech with Kwame Ture (Stokley Carmichael). He gives the speech and there was a lot of audience participation that had to be carefully place and perspectivized. That was challenging.

AF: That was one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie. How did you mix in that call and response from the audience? 

TF: Some of it is actually from the production track, so some of that was natural to the scene. There was also a lot of added little snippets from ADR. That had to be integrated obviously and had to sound natural. That’s a big part of what I do is mixing the dialogue and making it fit. Spike actually recorded a couple of things himself, including the shouting. The “boom shakalaka” was him. It was an idea he had while we were mixing. He said how about we do this, so we got a mic, recorded it and put it in.

AF: You were also about to mention the score? How did you bring along the score with a little bit of the pop music? 

TF: Well the pop music isn’t overly featured other than the one scene with the dancing. That’s really a source piece and we treated it as if we were in a club and people were getting up and dancing. The score itself was obviously a big orchestral score, Terence Blanchard, and that really scored the music more than the pop song. Especially when we got into the end with Charlottesville.

Spike didn’t want to add any sound effects other than the raw videos that were captured at the time. We didn’t augment that in any way, that’s pure out of the iPhones. We put the score underneath that and it’s very powerful.

AF: That is an extremely powerful moment the way that worked. I also found the sequence between the klansmen watching “Birth of a Nation” and the Black Student Union very interesting. Were there any difficulties mixing that as it cut back and forth. 

TF: Well the biggest challenge there was cleaning up Harry Belafonte’s track. The track was problematic in terms of the original recording, so I had to make that more intelligible so it could play with the music and the reactions from the room where he was speaking. The “Birth of a Nation” sequence was really a challenge. There was this player piano track that was playing under the movie. The movie’s obviously a silent movie, so there was no film track, but there was the player piano plus all the reactions of the klansmen. There was a lot of production but also a great deal of group ADR that was added later. Some of the main characters had lines that had to be heard. It was again about balance.

AF: Alright what’s next for you? 

TF: Well I’ve got the Marty Scorsese documentary on the Bob Dylan “Rolling Thunder Revue.” It’s really interesting and there’s some fantastic footage. It’ll be on Netflix sometime this fall. I’ve also finished another documentary feature about Alex Honnold, who is a free solo rock climber who scaled El Capitan in California, Yosemite, with no ropes and no gear. Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi shot the whole thing. Jimmy is a rock climber and a filmmaker, and he got a camera crew up on ropes at El Capitan and shot the whole thing. It’s quite phenomenal and that should be coming out on Nat Geo at some point. I think it’s going to Toronto as well.

AF: That sounds awesome. Any chance we’re going to see you on “The Irishman?” 

TF: I will be on “The Irishman,” but that one is not coming in to mix until sometime next year. That’s going to be a big murder and mayhem gangster film from Marty.

AF: I think every film fan is very excited to see “The Irishman.”

TF: Well and the cast is amazing. It’s going to take a lot of time de-aging them, that’s why the process is taking so long. It takes quite a bit of time, and they’re working on editing now. It’ll hopefully be coming in during the Spring sometime, in February or March.

AF: Well I hope to be talking to you about it sometime next year as well! Best of luck with the Emmys and best of luck with “BlacKkKlansman.” It’s a phenomenal film. 

TF: Yeah, it’s really terrific, I’m really excited to see how it’s received.

What did you think of Tom Fleischman’s work on “BlacKkKlansman?” How about “Fahrenheit 451?” Let us know in the comments below!

“BlacKkKlansman” is now in theaters nationwide.