Few people can boast that they’ve been nominated for multiple below-the-line Oscars in a single year. Yet “Baby Driver,” a surprise nominee to some, has one of those unique individuals. Julian Slater, the incredible sound mixer and sound remixer of “Baby Driver” has had a very impressive career to this point. He’s worked with Edgar Wright on every film since “Shaun of the Dead,” contributed to “Mad Max: Fury Road” and takes on multiple roles on set. Slater is one of the below-the-line stars of 2018, and his profile has risen dramatically. We sat down with Slater to discuss his impeccable work on “Baby Driver,” working with Wright, and how he started in film.
AF: How did you first get into working with film?
JS: Well that’s a long history, but it stems from always being interested in sound. One of the defining things to me was seeing The Police video for the single “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” where they’re on a big mixing console and I remember thinking, ‘oh that looks really cool. I really want to do that.’ So I studied for a year to get into music production. During that time, my work placement for two weeks was going to work in a music library called Dwarf. At the end of the two weeks, they told me that when I was done with my studies they’d love to have me around. Over the course of the next few years, I went from wanting to do music from wanting to do movies. At the age of 21, I started my own studio with my then business partner, and for 16 years we did a mixture of TV and film.
AF: What kinds of projects were you working on?
JS: All kinds of stuff. We did all the Edgar Wright stuff, “In Bruges” and TV stuff, mostly for the BBC stuff.
AF: One of the things that stood out about your career is that you’ve worked with Edgar Wright all the way since “Shaun of the Dead” in 2004. How did you two first begin working together?
JS: You know that’s a question that I’m not 100% certain on. I used to have my own post facility in London called Hackenbacker. We used to do a lot of comedy. Honestly, it’s probably a lot of comedy you wouldn’t have know. Very English centric things like there’s an English comedian called Chris Morris and he did “Brass Eye” and “The Day Today.”
I think Edgar was quite a fan of that stuff, and we got approached by the post-production supervisor to do a quote on “Shaun of the Dead.” Subsequent to that, once we put our quote in, Eddie came in and met with us and decided he wanted us to do the sounds to his movie. Now it’s become a cult classic and I’ve been very lucky that Edgar has brought me work with him on every movie since. I got out of that facility about 10 years ago, but Edgar has continued to keep using me and my services ever since.
AF: What is your favorite sound that you’ve worked on for Edgar?
JS: I can’t answer that! I can’t, there’s too many. The thing about working with Edgar is that he’s such a sound focused director. He’s really across all departments, but for me, working with Edgar means I get to jump into a playground of fun stuff. I cannot point to any single sound because each of his movies is so distinct from each other.
I mean “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is one of my proudest sounding movies because each fight with an Evil-Ex has a different sound about it. The punches in the Lucas Lee fight are different than the punches in the Matthew Patel fight. Each sound sequence is completely different from another. I’m not answering your question at all I’m afraid. But every time I get to work with Edgar, I just sit there, turn off my phone, and gobble up the script.
AF: By the way, “Scott Pilgrim” is one of my favorite movies of the last 10 years. The way you put together the sound is so nuanced and incredible. So I love that.
JS: Good man!
AF: Let’s transition over to “Baby Driver.” There is so much going on in the film. At what point in the process did you know you were going to work on “Baby Driver?”
JS: He often gives me a heads up about what he’s working on next if he knows. So I actually moved to LA to do “Ant-Man,” so I came here 4 and 1/2 years ago with a year’s work already done. Of course, Edgar left “Ant-Man,” so that didn’t happen. But pretty soon after the dust had died down about that he asked me to have a breakfast with him. That’s where he first talked to me about “Baby Driver” and the kind of premise and how the sound was going to be integral to the storytelling of the movie. It was while I was doing “Mad Max: Fury Road,” where I actually introduced Edgar to George Miller. I didn’t know it at the time, but he wanted to pick his brain about how to use practical effects and practical stunts instead of CGI driving.
AF: From that initial idea, did you know it was going to be a jukebox musical mixed with a heist film?
JS: Yes! From that breakfast, Edgar told me the concept of it, and then when he sent me the script, the script was an iPad app. When you turned each page it played the relevant piece of music and had temp sound effects in there. So even from an early stage, I knew how it was going to work.
How we achieved it was a different story. To be honest, I don’t think anything like this has ever been done, certainly not to this degree. We had to come up with new ways to edit the sound. We were working musical notation, in terms of bars and beats instead of timecode which we think sync and worked with the film musically. I would say we knew what we wanted to achieve but we didn’t know how to achieve it at that point.
AF: As I was rewatching it, it was incredible how the gunshots and engines would blend seamlessly into the movie of choice. How painstaking was that process?
JS: VERY. That’s a good catch, but I’ll bet your bottom dollar that you haven’t picked up on everything going on in those scenes.
AF: Oh, I guarantee I didn’t.
JS: So the sirens, regardless of what kind they are, whether it’s the yelping siren or the wailing sirens and other kinds of sirens in there, they are syncopated to the music. To do that, we had to turn the siren into music, into a piece of music. This is something that I had to work with the music supervisor and editor. We had to tempo-map for each piece of music so that we could tell the tempo of that track any given moment. So that first car chase scene, the one with the Red Subaru WRX, the one with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion? The tempo to that piece of music is not a constant tempo. It’s not a traditional dance track that goes 1, 2, 3, 4.
Once you map, once you make the siren match that temp, it just sounds ridiculous. Sometimes it sounds like its going way too fast to be believable. We had to figure out how and when you’re going to hear it in the mix and establish it in there when it feels realistic, and then reel it when it is not. So every single sound in the movie, every single sound, we would take the sound and pitch correct it, either up or down, to work with the piece of music it was up against. Then we change it’s tempo and temp map it to work with the music. Then, after we see if it works musically, we have to see if it works cinematically.
There were times when something would work musically, and not sound as cool as a piece of sound design. In that case, we’d have to pull it out and remix it. Or sometimes, like in the “Harlem Shuffle” scene, there are things that worked so well in the music that you couldn’t appreciate them as a sound effect. So we’d have to pull them out and slightly adjust it so you could hear it. It was a constant adjustment of playing and manipulating the sounds to work with the music. Then we’d keep them in, or pull them out later after we’d test. So every sound in the movie had to go through this rigorous test to see if we could make it work musically and make it work cinematically.
AF: There are so many scenes where that works. I was going to specifically bring up the Harlem Shuffle scene but you beat me there. How about the Tequilla scene in the warehouse? What were some of the challenges with that scene?
JS: A lot of the stuff we were syncopating may not even be happening on camera. So the in Tequilla scene, some of the gunshots you see are in syncopation with the music. However, all the ricochets that are happening off screen are working with the drum riffs. You just don’t see them but you do hear them.
Sometimes its a question about building multiple levels of sound. So if I were to play you the sound effects without the music if you were to close your eyes, to you it would sound like the song “Tequila” but without it being that song. It almost stands on its own two legs as a piece of music. But it really goes to the next level when you add in the “Tequila” song. When you mix it, sometimes you’re hearing more of the “Tequila” song, sometimes the sound design element of the guns. It’s a constant kind of cat and mouse game to hear the syncopation without you getting tired of it as a viewer.
AF: How many tracks do you use in the film?
JS: I believe there are 42 or 43 tracks in total? It’s very rare that there’s a single scene in the movie that doesn’t have music playing in it. Even if he’s not listening to the music in his earbuds, there is music playing in the environment. A story point in the movie is that he has tinnitus and he listens to music to drown it out. I don’t know if you noticed, but whenever he’s not listening to music, or there’s not music in his environment, his tinnitus is playing. And the more stressed he is as we go through the movie, and his world is collapsing, it gets louder and louder and louder. I’ve also got a nice little easter egg. It’s his tinnitus changes depending on where you’re at in the movie because it’s either at the pitch of the music that is outgoing or the music you’re about to hear.
AF: How about the final heist scene when it goes bad between him and Jon Hamm. How difficult was that, what seven-minute scene?
JS: The foot chase? That one has probably got the largest variety of sounds that work with the music more than anything else. If you blink you’ll miss it. He runs past some dogs, and the dogs are barking with the music. Helicopters flying above him, the blades are playing in sync. Even when he goes into the mall, the rap track that is playing as Muzak in the thrift shop is syncopated to “Hocus Pocus.” So many things, from the shop alarm when he walks out, to the sunglasses that have the security tag, to the music in the electronics shop, they’re all in sync with the music. I describe it as a symphonic cacophony.
AF: I know Edgar is a big fan of heist films. Did Edgar have you watch other films like “Heat” or “The Driver” to prepare?
JS: Yes and no. Not as in Edgar wants you to see this, but he held a series of film nights at the local cinema. This was also open to the public, but he’d ask us to go along. It was a series of movies that inspired me for “Baby Driver,” so there’d be “The Driver,” “Blues Brothers,” a whole range of movies that he’d want us to see so he’d know where he was coming from. But it was never, “you must listen to this” or “you must watch that.”
Personally, I’d never done a car chase movie before, so I was thinking about watching those “Fast and the Furious” movies because they sound pretty cool. I ultimately decided against it because I didn’t want to be influenced by someone else’s work and come at it from my perspective. Make it sound unique and not like someone else’s movies. “Fast and the Furious” sounds amazing, but I didn’t want to go too far into that.
AF: Now can you tell me what’s it’s like to be both the sound mixer and sound editor in terms of the Oscar categories?
JS: Yes! So it’s getting more and more common. In the old days, you’d have a supervising sound editor who would sit in the back of the room and tell the mixer what to do. But I don’t work like that, so I wear three hats. I’m the sound designer. So for example, that chase sequence at the beginning in the Subaru WRX? I did all the sounds for that. Then I work with a great team of people that help me with other sequences and I sit on the board and mix it all together. So on “Baby Driver” I took care of all the musical effects and the sound design because they were all integral and work together.
So for example, there’s so much music in this movie, we had to do a process of premixing and remastering all the music tracks. Because Barry White, who I think sounds great when I listen to him at home, sounds a little different when coming through giants speakers. Sometimes that may not sound so great. So I do some remastering to make it sound great for the movie. So I wear three hats in that film.
AF: Last question, which scene were you most proud of when you finished work on “Baby Driver?”
JS: I can’t answer that. Here’s the truth. Someone like me is so lucky to ever go near a movie like that because the sound is written into the DNA of this movie. I hope, I really hope, but I may never get another opportunity to work on a movie where sound is one of the main characters. There are so many different things that I’m proud of in this movie. There would be times that I would review the movie with my team and get goosebumps. Just some of these things had never been done before.
To do something that you know is unique and to be part of something special, not only your role in the movie but the movie, is really special. It’s not a 2, or 3, or 4, or a remake. It’s something original that one person has written on his own and got released after “Transformers 5” and the week before “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It still found it’s audience and it resonated with people. I’m just really proud to say that I’ve worked on something so original. All of those sequences, the “Bellbottoms” sequence, the Subaru sequence, the sequence in the diner with Barry White, many may not appreciate for all that’s going on. I’m proud of all of it man, both as a piece of what I’m capable of doing and what this movie is doing.