Like all crafts, sound design is integral to any film production. As the lines continually blur between the roles of sound editors and sound mixers, the 93rd Academy Awards have opted to combine the two awards categories into one: Best Sound.
One of the five films nominated for Best Sound this year is Greyhound, a World War II film directed by Aaron Schneider. Tom Hanks adapted the script from C.S. Forester’s novel, The Good Shepherd. Hanks also produces and stars as Captain Krause, a Navy commander leading a convoy of supply ships across the Atlantic.
We recently spoke with three nominated members of the Sound team, sound mixer David Wyman, supervising sound editor Warren Shaw, and re-recording mixer Beau Borders about their work on Greyhound and the innovative techniques they used to help craft an experience war movies we’ve seen before.
Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: Congratulations to on your Oscar nomination. Were you all together (virtually) when you found out you were nominated?
David Wyman: I was on a location scout, driving from one house in New Orleans to another when they gave the lot the nominations.
KP: Who was the first one to text everybody else?
Beau Borders: I actually slept through it. I actually, genuinely did not know that was the day the nominations were going to come out. And I woke up and my girlfriend had been very politely lying there for about two hours, just waiting to tell me and as soon as I woke up, she just exploded. She was the first one to tell me.
Warren Shaw: That’s cool! I didn’t know that. [The publicist] texted me about eight seconds after it was announced.
DW: I’m in a different time zone. It was five o’clock in the morning in LA time, but it was 7:15 in the morning for me in New Orleans, so I watched it live. Throughout the morning, I was like, “I don’t know, I don’t think so, I don’t know.” And then it happened. And I was genuinely surprised and humbled and excited all at the same time. And of course, I’m working with this film crew, many of the people I’ve worked with a lot over the last few years out here in New Orleans, I went, “I just got nominated for an Oscar!” and they’re like, “Shut up.”
BB: That is a funny thing to say. Somebody gave me a piece of advice a long time ago, if you do go to work that day, you have to remember that you are sitting in a room with a whole lot of people that did not get nominated for an Oscar that morning. So a bit of humility should be utilized there.
KP: Let’s talk a little bit about where this project started for all of you.
DW: I got a call. Not from Aaron [Schneider], but I got a call from the producers. I was sent the script, and I read through it. And then I read through it again and I realized I know absolutely nothing about World War II naval ships. So I started to do my own research. Then I had conversations with Aaron, the director, and his vision for how we were going to shoot this was absolute authenticity at all times. So that was really my first awakening to the fact that I had to prepare myself to have a knowledge base about what happened in World War II, during the Battle of the Atlantic, in, in a war situation, because I know nothing about that.
So I went and scouted on the USS Kidd, which is the ship that we shot on when we weren’t on stage. We spent about 10 days, I think, shooting there. And thanks to the veterans that work on that ship, many of whom served on ships — either that very one or ones very similar to it — they were able to impart a lot of knowledge about how the situation works in regard to the flow of orders. So when I read these lines in the script, and it says, “hard, right rudder hard over” and then you see helmsmen, “Hard right, rudder…” And then you see somebody else repeats it, and so on and so forth, I started to be able to formulate a picture of how I was going to capture that audio, how I was going to serve the actors by giving them their own discrete communications channels on our set that mirrored how the USS Kidd would have been. That’s basically was my first introduction.
WS: For me and the fourth nominee who’s not here with us today in our category, Michael Minkler — who was the co-supervising sound editor along with me, and the re-recording mixer along with Beau — he has worked with Tom Hanks and Tom’s company for a long, long time. They go way back. Two films ago, Michael introduced me to them, and I started working with them on a movie. And while we were mixing that movie, this movie was coming into fruition and even getting ready to shoot. So I was given the script and it’s based on a book, Tom based it on a book, so I read that book. What’s interesting, though, is the movie we were working on at the time that Tom and Gary [Goetzman] were producing was Mamma Mia 2. So I would work on Mamma Mia 2 during the day, and then go home at night and research WWII naval history. So that’s a little dichotomy.
KP: That’s an interesting day!
WS: Yeah, but Tom and Tom’s amazing producing partner, Gary Goetzman, they just have their hand in a lot of pies, and so these were the two pies at the time. So that’s how I got involved. And because Gary was there with us doing this other movie, we were being told how the shoot was going and even providing the sound effects to David. There was an interest in playing sound effects on the set to give the actors a sense of authenticity. So it was great because of this production team. Because of Tom Hanks. I was involved far before much earlier than I would have been on a standard movie, so it was in my head for a long time.
BB: I was the last one to get the phone call. The final sound mix is truly the last thing that you do to the movie, before it’s just all buttoned up and done. And we just knew that this film was going to be incredibly dense with sound. And in relation to other schedules, we had a pretty short schedule to begin with. We expanded it later, thank goodness. But at the time, I think I got the call because I’ve worked with Mike Minkler before, I hadn’t worked with Warren yet, but we had a great mind meld on the first day. I think we both just understood each other and really just started on scene one and just decided, what are we going to hear and when? Let’s get through it.
KP: There are so many films set in World War II, but what were some of the things that you all did specifically to make this stand out, to make it something a little bit different and more unique?
BB: David’s got the best answer for this one.
DW: Yeah, there are a lot of World War II films. It’s true. There are not a lot of films about the Battle of the Atlantic. There were films that were made in the late 50s, there’s Das Boot, which obviously, we all know what that’s about. So I think the reason why this film stands out in its own uniqueness in the whole genre is the fact that it’s a story that’s not often been told.
And then the way we filmed it, we sent our actors to boot camp so they could learn exactly what happens to a sailor in the middle of the Atlantic, under attack from a U-boat or attacking a U-boat. The consequence was that our actors then had an expectation of what they would expect to hear on set when they were acting their roles. So my job, not only from recording all of the audio and having to decide on a daily basis, how do we address that? But we had to give these actors an immersive experience, which was unique to any movie that I have ever heard. And that was, we created a complete communications channel for the sonar guy, for all the talkers, for Tom Hanks in the pilot house, we created phones, we created hidden microphones, microphones in plain view, all to supplant and supply audio between all the different set parts, and we actually shot two sets simultaneously.
So when you see that edit of Tom and Stephen Graham talking about the U-boat for the first time and there’s this back and forth, and Tom goes to the piece of equipment, and he presses the button, and you hear his voice come out of the speaker at the other end, well, that was actually happening in real time. Both sets were working with each other, and they were acting with each other and then they pick up the phone and they have a private conversation. I don’t know of any other movie set that has achieved that on that level. I mean, I’ve given communications to actors that have been underwater so the director could give them screen direction. That’s one channel. We’re talking about 5, 6, 7, 8 different channels of audio all happening simultaneously, because the intensity of this action, and the way the script was written, the scenes encompassed, guy comes in with a report, there’s a U-boat sighting, “Oh my god, we’re being attacked,” this is a torpedo in the water, so on and so forth. And that’s the way the scenes were written. So that’s the way we shot them. That, to me, was one of the most unique things, that we did that.
BB: I told you he was gonna have the best answer!
KP: That sounds like such a logistical challenge, but also like a really great opportunity. Was it particularly complicated? And how did you figure out the right way to proceed?
WS: It was extremely complicated, for sure. We took everything that David recorded, which was fantastic, and then with our team of editors, spread that out and organized that in manageable ways. Mike Minkler is the person who actually mixes the post-production dialogue. He had umpteen channels, everything David had recorded for all the different kinds of processing, which kind of communication devices are coming through, and there were multiple types of communication devices. So the amount of tracks, as it were, spread out extremely wide, as did the sound effects.
The thing I always like to say about this movie, and this might sound minimizing but it’s not, it’s a character study of this man’s journey. And that always, to me and the team around him, that always kind of created the spine of where we were to focus. Tom did such a great job both in the writing and the performance that it really gave us a blueprint of how to focus. Because yes, we had a million tracks to figure out, but I can’t think of a time on the mix stage where we weren’t all kind of on the same page, because the screen told you where it should be focused at that moment.
BB: Yeah, and all the dialogue that David recorded, I mean, it always made logistical sense. They were the real naval commands that the captain would give, they got relayed through the exact officers that they would get relayed to. And then visually, the ship would do the thing that he just told the crew to make it do. So we have this thread of reality that we never deviated from. We just had to stick to the story.
KP: Can you talk a little bit about working together and working with editors Sidney Wolinsky and Mark Czyzewski to really bring out the intensity of the story with the sound?
BB: The joy of being on the mixing stage at the end of the process is I inherit all the ingredients, starting with David’s production dialogue, adding everything that Warren has come up with and his team with the sound designers like Ann Scibelli and Jon Title. They just did incredible weaponry and water and all the different environment sounds to convince you that you are in a radar room and down in the bellies of the ship or up on the pile house, and I have all these as ingredients. And then there’s the music. I mean, there’s several hundred tracks of music as well.
Warren, myself, Mike Minkler, Aaron, Gary Goetzman and Tom Hanks, we basically sit back and we just decide, what ingredient is going to tell this part of the story? You know, what combination of ingredients or lack of ingredients? Sometimes removing sounds is the best way to go and you will reveal reveal parts in the music that give you the emotional connection that you’re looking for. Sometimes pulling the music out and really letting the sound effects make you feel the power of the ship crash through the waves or something, maybe that’s telling the story.
But in the end, we tried to establish this emotional arc of momentum. It’s never supposed to let you take a break. If you see what Captain Krause goes through, he doesn’t get to sit down, he doesn’t get to eat a meal. He doesn’t get to sleep. It just doesn’t stop for five days and five nights. And so we had to do that with the sound. We also didn’t want to overly bombard you to the point where you just mentally shut down if we played every sound at once, as loud as we can at all times, you just emotionally check out. It’s just the human condition. We try to make choices that best serve the film.
WS: There’s one moment, a battle early on in the film, where we’re following the sonar man tracking the U-boats. I wanted to learn all the actual rules of the authenticity of a World War II naval ship. What does sonar actually sound like? The hydrophone, what is the guy hearing? Once I know all that, then we can allow ourselves to be a little bit subjective because in this one sonar scene, we let the sonar pings grow and become bigger and become a heartbeat that kind of drives you through this drama. Allowing the sound to become subjective in that moment, because that’s telling us the story of the heartbeat of all the men and the terror that they feel. That was a moment where sound worked again to be accentuating the drama.
KP: David, what were some of the the environmental considerations that you had to make? And how did that impact what you did?
DW: We did have a hell of a lot of water. The majority of this film was shot on a set that was on a gimbal. And the gimbal was absolutely massive. It’s the biggest gimbal I’ve seen. It sat about 15 to 20 feet above the stage floor, and it was hydraulically controlled, and it was built out of steel “I” beams. And then they built the pilot house set on top of that gimbal platform. And the gimbal could move 30 degrees in any direction, 360 degrees. Several of the crew members actually got seasick from this motion. They had to be led off the gimbal so that they can actually get down onto terra firma and stop feeling seasick. So that was a huge consideration for us because with that amount of movement, any cabling or any people that we put up there, they’re all going to stumble around. And you have to be really careful about where you put stuff, how you secure stuff.
Then we add in all of the wind effects and the rain and the mist and all the fog machines. Well, the set wasn’t built to be waterproof. So there were leaks in it. We had to really double our efforts to make sure that we didn’t get anything damaged by water, because — not that it’s not replaceable, but it’s not replaceable while the actors are delivering the performance of their life. This sort of idea of a double system or a lot of protection, going into each scene to make sure that we weren’t stymied by some failure was really of paramount importance. And it’s that sort of forward thinking and thinking outside of the box and trying to plan for eventualities that really made our job difficult and at the same time rewarding.
BB: Yeah, it’s an interesting perspective, if you think about it. Warren and I, because we’re all post-production, you know, the film has been shot and we’re adding sounds and balancing sounds, we have the infinite ability to go back and try something over again, or try a new idea or try a different balance or try a different sound. Whereas David has one chance. He has one chance to get it right. And that’s it. So pressure’s on.
KP: Final question, how did working on Greyhound impact you personally?
DW: It’s quite a simple answer, to be honest with you. Like I said before, the Battle of the Atlantic is not a story that that has been often told in film. We’re all all aware of all of the other fantastic war movies that have been made, but to understand and to meet the veterans on the USS Kidd, and then to understand that over 70,000 souls lost their lives during that period of time, trying to get supplies across the Atlantic and back again, that’s really the impactful part of it. And to feel that we made a product that captures the emotional intensity, the danger and the bravery of these people in real life, it’s really the most rewarding part of it.
WS: I have to be just to be an honest person, I have to come a little bit off what David said, but it’s absolutely true. I spent one day with four World War II veterans, touring the museum ship on which a lot of this film was shot. And so it was just me and these four men in their 80s, one might have been 90, walking through and they had been on ships like this. They told me what it was like. And they told me what it was like emotionally. Because I wanted to know what the guns sound like because I’m a sound editor, but I want to know what it feels like to shoot one of those guns. How does it feel? And I spent the day with these guys, we walked around, we went to lunch. I’ll never forget that.
BB: I wish I got to meet those guys. In addition to that, though, this is a really special year for sound in that this is the first year where they’ve taken what used to be two sound categories for the Academy Awards and combined them into one. And to me, what that has reminded me of is we’re a team. Starting with David all the way through Mike Minkler and I as the mixers, with Warren and his sound designers and sound editors and the entire music team and everybody, we are one unified team. And that, to me, is really special. And I’m really proud that our movie Greyhound got recognized in this very specific year.
We would like to thank David Wyman, Warren Shaw, and Beau Borders for speaking with us.
Greyhound is streaming on Apple TV+ and is an Academy Award nominee for Best Sound.