“Don’t Go Too Dark Too Soon.” Oscar Nominated Sound Mixers Tom Ozanich and Dean Zupancic Discuss Their Work With Director Todd Phillips on DC’s R-Rated Joker and The Social Commentary at the Heart of The Film Receiving a Record Eleven Oscar Nominations.
In the collaborative medium of film, there’s an necessity for synergy amongst the many artists working under the vision of the director. On Warner Bros. and DC’s billion dollar grossing Joker, Todd Phillips had the good fortune of having an experienced and familiar team when it came to all things sound.
The R-rated comic book film is nominated for eleven Academy Awards including Sound Mixing for mixers Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, and Tod Maitland as well as Score for composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. Their previous experience with Guðnadóttir provided a strong foundation for their work on the film and ultimately maximizing the sonic world of Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck.
Ozanich and Zupancic spoke to Awards Focus correspondent Richard Kenyon ahead of the ceremony, describing the reunion with Guðnadóttir, not going “too dark” too soon in the film, and how her score inspired them to delve deeper into the mix.
Awards Focus: What separates Todd Phillips from the other directors you’ve worked with?
Ozanich: Todd is a very cognitive director, very contemplative about what’s going on and he’s always evaluating what’s going on in a scene. Todd gave us a lot of latitude, especially in the beginning, and is very open to collaboration. He understands that it’s this type of freedom that allows you to discover new things.
Zupancic: I think you get the sense from Todd that even while writing the story he’s hearing the sounds that he wants to put in the movie. I think that perspective as a writer/director is unique. It’s really a cool experience to hear the writer that wrote the scene say this is how he heard it when he wrote it.
AF: What’s your working relationship with film editor Jeff Groth like during post?
Zupancic: Jeff Groth and Todd Phillips are super supportive with the sound, we were all on the same page. Jeff was with us on stage to make sure that we were all heading in the right direction. He was supportive of the mix and he was genuinely excited about what he was hearing.
AF: When you’re on a film like Joker, shrouded in secrecy, did you get the script ahead of time and do you find getting access to the script makes a difference?
Ozanich: I did see the script a while before we got to the mix I was also working sound design on the movie, so I spent 5 or 6 weeks working on it from a sound editorial point before getting to the mix. That really got my juices flowing about the potential of what was going in the movie.
AF: What were the highlights of reteaming with Joker composer Hildur Guðnadóttir and what do you remember about your first experience with her?
Ozanich: Alan [Murray] and I had both worked on Sicario with late Icelandic Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Hildur worked with Jóhannsson, playing cello for him so that was our first awareness of her. On Joker, we really learned how to make our sound design work well with that tone and style of her music. Hildur had already written a few temp tracks that were used on set in production, so we had that as a tonal base as we started cutting and mixing the film.
Zupancic: Hildur came to the Joker sound stage when she was in Los Angeles. She was very happy to hear that we had all touched her music in her two previous films separately and then collectively. That eased her knowing the we could handle her music with care.
AF: There was a lot of excitement surrounding the Joker‘s first trailer, the anticipation grew exponentially, then the premiere was nearly canceled because of the perceived threat of violence. That moment passed and ultimately the film grossed over a billion dollars and set records as an R-rated film and an comic book film. Can you walk me through what that roller coaster was like for you?
Ozanich: It didn’t affect anything we were doing really, you know we were kind of making a movie that we believed in but we were aware of what people were talking about. There is certainly a weight and a reality to the violence in Joker that is horrifying and it is chilling but it’s because it is grounded in reality.
AF:There are very strong emotions in the music for this movie. How did that manifest itself in the mix?
Zupancic: The whole movie is based on a real feeling and our paramount goal was to make everything sonically real and put you in every scene… every space. The violence aspect is horrifically real and it was our job to continue with that theme on a sound level.
Ozanich: I think one of the key things to remember is the sound in this movie is nuanced. There are layers of micro details… it transports you to that place.
AF: What do you hope the audience take away from the film?
Ozanich: We have people in society that are hurting and feel separate and isolated. If they don’t feel connected and if we don’t take care of those people, then they are going to break. That’s really the message of the movie we really need to think of other people, other than ourselves.
Zupancic: The film really toes that line between social commentary and entertainment. We had an edict from Todd to not go too dark too soon. Even though this is the Joker, we have to show sympathy for the man that is Arthur Fleck. It would be easy for us sonically to start putting in a dark sound design as soon as we see him in the first scene. You resist that temptation because we need to sympathize with Arthur Fleck before he becomes the Joker. It presents conflicting emotions and that’s part of great story telling.