Puerto Rican Reverie: Recording and Remixing for 'The Rum Diary'
Coquí: the tiny little chirping-frog natives of Puerto Rico. In San Juan, where Bruce Robinson's The Rum Diary was filmed, they are literally everywhere—even on the soundtrack—whether one wants them there or not.
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Supervising sound editor Mark Mangini (Soundelux) did want them there, but under the control of the sound department. "With the soundstages they shot in down there, they couldn't get rid of them," Mangini explains. "We never had a properly clean dialogue track."
But Robinson was keen to use the production recordings to keep favorite performances intact. So dialogue supervisor Curt Schulkey, using iZotope RX and other spectral repair tools, carefully isolated the actors' dialogue from that of the frogs. But the coquís are part of life in San Juan and still needed to be heard—everywhere.
That was one of Mangini's challenges as sound designer: to help put audiences in the world of the late writer Hunter S. Thompson's Puerto Rico, in which journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) finds himself entangled. "Most filmgoers aren't aware of how sound is affecting them, dramatically, as they watch a film," Mangini says. "I think great sound design is most effective when it works at that subliminal level, a place at which much great cinema art works." So, coquí.
The trouble was, Mangini could find no library recordings of the amphibians to insert into the background, even in his own 2 TB library of 200,000 sounds collected over the past 35 years. "No one's ever really done a proper recording of them," he says, noting the exception of the production track. "Between dialogue lines, Curt would clean out the coquís, so he just gave me a bunch of the most egregious takes, where the coquís were as loud as the dialogue!" Mangini then cobbled together, from hundreds of takes, a clean, four-minute, stereo-ized ambient sound effects bed, which could then be placed underneath the dialogue in a controlled manner.
Another part of Kemp's San Juan life that plays a big part in the film is his car, the venerable Fiat 500. The tiny two-stroke, rear-engine, air-cooled auto—recently reintroduced by the company, though not with that unique-sounding drive train—had been out of production since the early '70s, so a controlled recording for sound effects purposes became a problem.
"You just can't find them in Southern California," Mangini says. "The couple I did find were restored and in flawless condition. I needed to beat 'em up—drive them like crazy and skid around corners with them."
Mangini called his "usual sources" (i.e., his buddies in the business) and eventually found one of the cars in Barcelona, Spain. "A good friend of mine, a fine sound designer, mixer and editor in Madrid named Gabriel Gutiérrez, found a collector who was willing to rent us his car for two days. And we did everything with it."
Not only was Gutiérrez tasked with recording the usual "full series" of basic car sound effects (starting, idling, driving away, pulling in, interior constants, etc.), but also a laundry list of "performance" recordings corresponding to specific actions taking place on screen.
In one scene, the Fiat is found stripped by thieves, not in particularly good running condition. On screen, the car is seen bobbing up and down as Kemp struggles to control the vehicle, even driving it down a set of stairs. "So I gave Gabriel specific directions: There's a scene where Kemp is bobbing back and forth, and the engine should be revving and stopping, revving and stopping, in a sort of silly, cartoon-y way. Do that for 20 seconds. And then he drives down the set of stairs, so we need even more weird revs and the bouncing suspension sounds." Mangini sent QuickTime videos of the scene to further assist Gutiérrez in visualizing his recording needs. The designer then fine-tuned the recordings to match specific visual cues. "I don't time-stretch," he says. "I just take out little slivers along the way to get a moment to hit."
Gutiérrez recorded a total of 215 such cues of the Fiat, in multichannel, to give Mangini material to create a full, rich spread.
Mangini was able to take advantage of additional background material recorded for the film by production sound recordist Ed Tise. "He's an extremely conscientious sound recordist," Mangini says. "He would get up at 2 in the morning—this was all on his own time—and record these dawn and dusk recordings for us, knowing we'd love to have them. For us in post, this is just gold."
Among Tise's recordings were a number of group wallas (recordings of a crowd murmuring) made specifically for the film. "There's a gambling component where there are crowds of 50 men in these open-air plazas betting on cockerel fights. And it's a unique sound that I could never reproduce. It's a certain kind of Spanish, a certain kind of guy who goes to these things and says certain kinds of things. A group walla could never reproduce this, so Ed captured a whole bunch of wild track."
For those and other crowd scenes, Tise not only recorded the close-miked dialogue of characters seen on screen, he also made multichannel ambient background recordings of those same takes. "The dialogue recording has those same 50 guys betting, but it's in mono. He got a wild track, in stereo, that I could then lay on either side of it. It's like a perfect marriage of sound effects and production sound that doesn't sound artificial."
Good sound effects design usually gets plenty of attention when it involves big action scenes or sci-fi effects, but Mangini notes the type of work created for The Rum Diary is equally important to the moviegoer. "It gives you a sense of place and time," he concludes. "There's no T. rex attack or backward screaming monkeys; I don't have any of those stories on this one. [Laughs] I just think I've done a nice job of putting you in Puerto Rico in the '50s. Everything feels real; it just supports the film."