about the writer
Gabe Klinger currently teaches in the
Film & Video Critical Studies Department at Columbia College,
Chicago, and is a freelance writer and curator.
with Buzz Knudson, Motion Picture Editors Guild Magazine (March/April
from the Prelinger Archives available for download.
Interview with Leslie
By Gabe Klinger
Leslie Shatz won the Technical Grand Prize at the 2005
Cannes Film Festival for his sound design on Last Days (2005),
though the prize, which in years past had always been acknowledged on
stage along with the rest of the Palm winners, seemed barely visible
in 2005. After the 2001 festival, when two of the most challenging and
otherwise ignored films in competition, Millennium Mambo and What
Time is it There?, won the films' sound designer, Tu Duu-Chih (who
was the first direct-sound operator in Taiwanese film history when he
made City of Sadness in 1989), the Technical Grand Prize, the
award mysteriously disappeared for next two years of the festival. It
was then officially reinstated last year, taking a backseat in an off-stage
ceremony where the "Superior Technical Commission" awarded French cinematographer
Eric Gautier for two films in the competition he had worked on. The techies
seem to have become too boring for Cannes, and in this respect the festival
is following the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in their
knee-jerk attempt to focus solely on movie stars.
Tu Duu-Chih and Leslie Shatz's work is as important to
the respective films for which they garnered prizes as the collaborations
of cinematographers, writers, set designers, costumers, and actors. Yet
sound is rarely an aspect of filmmaking that audiences reflect on, perhaps
because we're so used to being bombarded with crashing car doors and
John Williams crescendos that we more or less feel that sound is a byproduct
of the images. The case of Shatz and Last Days — a film
written and directed by Gus Van Sant, but which belongs as much to Harris
Savides' camera and Michael Pitt's guitar as it does to the many other
talented people employed in the production — is that the sound
becomes so painstakingly important that you don't only hear its reverberations;
you can feel it colliding with the images.
Shatz began his career (according to the IMDb) as a re-recordist
on Peter Bogdanovich's Directed by John Ford (1971). He was
later hired as a dialogue editor on Apocalypse Now (1979), where
it seems he picked up a trick or two from famed sound guru Walter Murch.
Shatz has worked on mainstream Hollywood films as well as independent
productions, and even though he has been nominated for an Academy Award
(for 1999's The Mummy), it took an oddity and contra-Hollywood
film like Last Days for a "Commission" such as the one in Cannes
to take notice (Shatz also designed the sound on Elephant, which
took the highest Cannes prize in 2003). The industry has offered compensation,
certainly: Shatz appears to be one of the most sought-after specialists,
with over seventy films to his credit. He has worked with Van Sant since Even
Cow Girls Get the Blues (1993), most recently on the triptych, Gerry (2002), Elephant,
and Last Day.
Shatz was kind enough to talk to me on the phone from Los
Angeles on July 19, 2005. The following is an edited transcript of our
I see your first credit according to the Internet
Movie Database is Directed by John Ford.
That was probably the first film I got a credit on. I was
working at the American Film Institute at the time, and Bogdanovich came
in with Richard Patterson who was cutting [the film] there. They wanted
to get a cheap mix so I was, of course, delighted to work with him.
[At the AFI] I was able to kind of get an exposure to film
theory without going to film school. Many of the people there were fellows
who had already gone to UCLA or USC and they could just call up the librarian
and request any film they could think of. They would get the film and
show it in its original format. So in this projection room they had Ultra-Panavision....
they had all the most exotic formats that were known. They could even
project nitrate film. So they could request these films, and I saw things
like Solaris, Duel in the Sun....
Some of the films that I was exposed to at the American
Film Institute, like those by John Cassavetes, had a very freeform style.
Their cinematic style was the equivalent of musique concrète. Killing
of a Chinese Bookie — it's way ahead of its time.
When you see those films, you get the impression
that the conversations and the sounds are coming from the exact moments
when they were shooting —
Right, and that's what Last Days shares with Cassavetes.
It would be everything that was recorded at that moment. It wasn't prettied;
[Cassavetes] did not want it fixed-up and polished. He wanted it rough,
just like Gus did. And it's funny because what ends up happening [with]
today's audience is that they interpret [the soundtrack] as being surreal.
For them, a real soundtrack is one that's clean and polished and has
no external noises. When you actually put in the stuff that's really
there, all of the sudden it takes on this sort of otherworldly quality.
It's sort of like if you had hearing aids, and you turn the volume up,
you're confronted with a reality that's really in your face. We can tune
a lot of stuff out in the aural realm, because our brain is made to do
I do think that Gus has certainly tipped his hat to Béla
Did Van Sant ask you to see Tarr's films?
When we were making Gerry he talked a lot about
Tarr. It's not easy to see these films; I was in London and they happened
to be showing Werckmeister Harmonies and I was really blown
Gus's films are almost like commercial versions of Tarr's
films. People will scratch their heads, I'm sure, when they see Last
Days. But there are other films, like Klimov's Come and See,
and Tarkovsky's, and other examples in the past of these types of films.....
Some people have really been responding to Gus's films. I think that
he's moving this genre of contemplative films forward.
Van Sant has been editing on film with Gerry, Elephant, and Last
Days. Does that affect how you work?
Oh yeah. 'Cause you know a lot of these things happen by
accident. That's what's kind of fascinating about working with Gus and
also kind of infuriating and scary. For instance, I devised a strategy
of recording the dialogue in stereo. With film, the most convenient way
of adding stereo is onto a three-track piece of magnetic film. The fact
that we had stereo microphones and wireless microphones — which
are the microphones on the person's body — means we had a total
of three tracks. So that worked out: we could put the three tracks on
the film. But another representation of the three-track is left, center
and right. So when you're projecting a three-track mag the people who
project it will ordinarily make track one go to the left, track two go
to the center, and track three to the right, but the way Gus heard Elephant,
people who were on the left-hand side of the screen were coming out of
the right-hand speaker — all by accident. I asked Gus, "Shouldn't
we pan the sound to where the characters are seen on the screen?" And
he said, "No, no, no, I like it like that." So on one hand, as a professional,
I'm thinking, my career will now come to an end. On the other hand, I'm
like, wow, the guy is so in touch with his own creative process that
he's just not going to follow the traditional path.
To be honest, I've read some articles about Last Days,
and they talk about [Michael Pitt as Blake] in the river being a baptism,
and at the end it's like Jesus Christ and all that.... I've never heard
Gus talk about any of this. I don't know if he keeps his ideas inside
that deeply, and no one really knows about [them]. But really the way
we've worked together on these last three films is a dream, because he'll
have cut the film on a flatbed and it will be pretty much together. Then
I'll come up to Portland and we'll put up reel one on the flatbed, press
play, and we'll just look at it. We'll look at a scene like the one in
the beginning when he's thrashing around in the river and I'll say, "We
need a little more sound on the river, a little more sound on the splashing...."
Is it just playing with levels?
Some of it is, and some of it we recorded. We took this
wacky field trip up to a river, brought sandwiches, waded around in the
water, snapped some twigs, and kind of fit it into the film. I did this
one thing where in the scene at the beginning the waterfall is on the
right, and then the camera pans over and the waterfall comes into the
center. So I panned the sound in the river like that. All of the sudden
a light went off for Gus and he said, "No, no, that's too much." To him
that was like, "Uh-oh, we're going Hollywood." So we kept it all in the
center. Bit by bit, we ended up taking out most of the stuff we had added.
It's really funny because he just wasn't comfortable with the fact that
we were trying to polish and embellish it. We did leave some of it though
I don't know where Gus drew the line.
At one point in the film there's a mic bump. I asked if
we should take it out and he said, "No, I like that." As you know, we've
collaborated on many films, and so I believe there's a lot of trust between
us. But sometimes when I'll propose something he'll say, "No, I like
it the way it is." And I just know from the tone of his voice that that's
the end of the discussion. Usually it comes up with things that are technical,
like moments when you can't understand the dialogue. I'll say, "We really
should try to find another reading," and he'll say, "No, I like it."
Can you talk about the difference between working
on these films and working on Good Will Hunting and Finding
Gerry, Elephant and Last Days are
homegrown films. They're Gus's deal, and we'll go through the film, for
as long as it takes us, and then they're done. On Good Will Hunting and Finding
Forrester, those were studio projects so they had to have the formal
look of a studio film.
I've read you citing musique concrète as
an influence on those films.
Well, more Good Will Hunting than Finding
Forrester. In Good Will Hunting there's the scene in
the basketball court where they go to beat up the guy. That was fun
because Gus wanted to make it strange.... To do that we got like 50
tracks of different musique concrète sources and different
sound sources and put 'em all up on the console. Gus just wanted to
take faders and play around with them. At first, it was like, "Is this
guy crazy?" [Laughs.] Then I realized there's a method to this madness.
One thing I've learned over the years is that I have to control my
impulse to dismiss what the director's doing when it doesn't conform
to my own preconceived ideas. It was the same with Francis Coppola.
These guys shoot from the hip and it's scary sometimes because you
don't know where you're going to end up, but it really makes it a much
more interesting experience than working with someone who's just trying
to copy a formula.
In your interview with Buzz Knudson ,
he talks about how important it is to conform to different director's
Yeah, it's true. Buzz is the straightest, squarest guy
you can imagine. He was a pro ballplayer in his youth, and in the '70s
he was the mixer that the Rolling Stones wanted for their movies! He
was more of a company man and a professional, whereas I like to think
that I'm still able to look at it from an amateur's point of view, and
not have to abide by all the rules.
I want to talk about the style of sound. People are obsessed
with the quality of sound, and they somehow think that word digital means "good." I'd
like to think it's not the medium that counts but the content. One of
the films that I always cite as a reference for sound is Once Upon
a Time in the West. The first twenty minutes of the film are completely
orchestrated with sound effects. You listen to it, and the sound effects
themselves are pretty bad — they're almost cartoonish. From a pure
reproduction standpoint they would be rejected in any Hollywood film.
But when you look at the way that they're incorporated into the scene
and how they're a part of the script, then you realize that this is how
sound should be used.
This is one of the suggestions I make to directors: if
you think of sound when you're writing the script, then you've really
integrated it into your movie. It's easy to do that since sound is so
suggestive and so capable of creating imagery. It's also a lot cheaper
than a complicated shot; not that you can replace a complicated shot,
but it's really best to integrate sound in the beginning. When Pudovkin
found out about talking pictures, he said it would be the end of cinema.
He thought films would become theatrical. In a way, he's right, in that
that's a very normal use of sound: to take dialogue and make a stageplay,
not have anything going off in a different direction.... I think what
happens with Gus's films and other films we talked about is that you
take a sound that's a complete juxtaposition of what's going on in the
image and it forces you to listen — you have to look to the sound
for the cues of what's going on. Even if the sound doesn't give you a
specific direction, it gives you a sort of broader experience than if
it was just the dialogue being repeated over and over again. I think
that filmmakers are having trouble making this break. They think of film
as a visual medium. I've worked with a director recently who said, "I
want a soundtrack like Elephant." I said, "Fine, but you gotta
be ready for what that means." This was a studio film, and I
thought, the studio isn't going to go for this.
Sure enough, they didn't.
That surprises me that a studio would be able to
make that distinction.
The minute you introduce sounds that don't pertain to the
images being seen on the screen they start to wonder. But that's not
to criticize them; just because they're the studio doesn't mean they're
idiots. If halfway through making your film you decide to go in a different
direction, don't think you're gonna end up there. It's something that
needs to start at the beginning. People in Hollywood, they're just like
everybody: they cling onto trends. After I did Bram Stoker's Dracula,
I would get these phone calls from people saying they wanted "a Dracula soundtrack." It
made me feel bad, because I don't just want people to get my name from
the credits of a film, and say, whoever that guy is, get him. I didn't
want to say it, but if you want a Dracula soundtrack than you
have to make a Dracula movie.
It's like saying I want a soundtrack like Last
Days but your movie has a lot of fast cuts.
That's a good point because the long takes support the
development of sound. The lack of a very specific narrative also helps
with that. I guess this was the main problem I had on this Hollywood
film: it had a very specific narrative that went from point A to point
B and there wasn't a chance in the film to just let the audience wander.
There are scenes in Last Days where the
sound is more conspicuous. The scene when Michael Pitt is playing the
guitar and drums on all those loops — what was that like during
the production and then afterwards?
He was playing all that, he had those loops already made,
so it was just recorded. The main discussion we had was how loud to make
it. Gus is not a big loud person, but I think in that moment
we felt like we needed it to be loud, just like the "Venus in Furs" scenes.
I mean, these guys are rock 'n' rollers....
I think there are a lot times in the film when volume is
used effectively, like with the door to the greenhouse opening with that
great creaking. Just doing something simply like that takes the sound
out of context and makes you question what it means.
And who knows? I don't know that Gus intentionally thought, "Here's
the coffin door closing." [Laughs.] Maybe all the circumstances make
it turn out that way.
How involved are you in the production stage of
We talk before the films. On Gerry, I went out
to location; I recorded some of the great crunching footsteps, some of
the insects.... things like that. I hung out for a few days, which was
W e never know with Gus if these films are going to go
off in the first place. He's been talking about doing Last Days for
a long time, and I had thought that there would be a lot of music, and
Kurt Cobain, and the band — but you can never imagine what kind
of movie this is going to be. Again, I have to constantly check myself
and not go down the traditional path when I'm working with Gus.
On your byline it says you're a freelancer, as
opposed to a lot of editors who are company men. I assume that gives
you freedom to work on projects like Last Days.
I guess I'm known primarily as freelancer. I've been working
like that for over thirty years. I work on Hollywood-style mainstream
films and I work on independent films, so I don't know that I would necessarily
fit into an established operation. Not like Buzz, I think Buzz worked
at Todd AO his whole life. But he's great, I just admire him so much.
He worked on a wide range of films, too. He worked with Cassavetes, William
Friedkin, and Barbara Streisand. I'm sure in between there was a lot
of crap that I might not have the patience for. I've done some.... I
dunno.... I wouldn't say crap. I mean, I'm proud of The Hot Chick though
people might look down on that film. I really liked working with Rob
Schneider, and I think the film has a good message. But there are other
films I wouldn't want to do, films with violence against women....
Part of being freelance means I can decide what I'm going
to charge for my services. For Gus's films, you know, they're not always
very lucrative. But what I get out of them is worth much more than money.
What was it like to work on a project like Tough
Guys Don't Dance?
Oh man, that was just the greatest experience. I had read
some of his [Norman Mailer's] books and I knew he had a reputation for
being a bad boy. But he was so warm, and so interested in learning. You
know, when we previewed the film, which was supposed to be a thriller,
people just started laughing and I felt really bad for him. He ended
up saying that his film was a comedy, so they changed their whole marketing
My favorite story about working on that film is that, well,
you know there would be these nights where he would get pay-per-view
and we would watch boxing at his house. My dad was really into boxing
and he always told me that I could have been a great boxer, that I had
the build for it. When I told Norman this, he was like, "Oh yeah, we
gotta do some sparring." And I would keep asking, "Okay Norman, when
are we going to go to the gym?" Finally, he was like, "You're gonna go,
and there's gonna be some punk who wants to break your nose, and once
that happens, it's over." So I never got to go sparring with him. But
at a certain point when this was happening he said, "I think punches
in film always sound phony." So he proposed to sit in a room and punch
himself and have me record it. So we did a few recordings, and after
about ten minutes he was all punched out. All I could think is here's
[Norman Mailer] punching himself in the face.
I still have those punches in my library and I use them
to this day.
How do you store the sounds in your library? I
mean, Tough Guys Don't Dance was almost twenty years ago....
It's kind of a problem. At that time we recorded on quarter-inch
tape, and then they were transferred to DAT. But now that's obsolete.
Then they were transferred to DVD RAM — and that's obsolete. I
feel like at any moment I'm at risk of no longer being able to access
my library. It's something that I fear but that I welcome as well. I
don't like using library sounds but sometimes you have to. On most films,
you can't go out and record every sound and make every sound. You don't
have enough time. What I do is make a deal with myself where I only use
sounds from my library. You can buy libraries, every single sound you
want, but these sounds to me are tainted, they're like muzak.... My sounds,
even though they may have been recorded for another film, are real because
I know how they were made.
Do you use an iPod?
Yeah, I do. One of the things that really bothers me about
them is that the MP3 format is a compressed format and so the quality
of the sound is compromised.
I'll tell you what I do really like: internet radio. I
was into shortwave radio when I was a kid, and to me this is the new
extension of shortwave radio. You can tune into radio from anywhere and
get all sorts of points of views and different kinds of music.
Another thing I've been listening to online is the Prelinger
archives . That's gold. I listen
to the old stuff, what was going on in old radio programs.... This movie
I'm working on now, My Life with Idlewild, is set in the '20s.
The director, Bryan Barber, pointed out to me that the old radio stations
used to introduce songs with these bells, like the NBC bell [mimicking
the sound]... but there were whole sets of them. So I went into the Prelinger
archives and I found a lot of these sounds.
So who are your heroes, aside from Buzz? Did you
work with Walter Murch on Apocalypse Now?
Walter Murch was my hero in the '70s. Also, Alan Splet
[Eraserhead, Elephant Man, The Unbearable Lightness
of Being], who was a great friend of mine.
What was it like receiving the Grand Technical
Prize in Cannes for Last Days?
Well, I'm a bit of a Francophile, I've lived in France,
and I speak French. So for me it was amazing. I was there for the screening
of Last Days, and people were complimentary about the sound,
and the audience gave the film a standing ovation in the Palais. After
that I was sort of like, well, that's all there is, now I go home. No
one even told me that there was such a prize or that I would be considered
for it. I mean, I think I kind of knew about it, but I thought they gave
it to cinematographers or people a little higher up.
You know, the films that win all the big sound awards in
[the U.S.] are action films. Those films have a lot merit in their sound
work and in their craft and I don't want to put them down because I know
what goes into them. But a film like Last Days would never be
considered for a sound award in this country. It just doesn't fit into