Science Fiction Filme) I feel very honored and proud to conduct a small interview with you in this way. You are a re-recording-mixer, sound engineer and a master of your craft. Your credits from over 40 years of film and television are unique. You are the son of the late editor Dede Allen. It's just a guess, but I would imagine that if you are the son of a true master editor, it's inevitable that you were led into the world of film through her. Is this true, and if so, how exactly?
Tom Fleischman) I grew up in the film business. Both of my parents worked in the film world. My mother was a film editor and my father was a writer, director, and documentarian. He made documentary films for the major television networks. As a child I often visited my mom in her cutting room and was always fascinated by what she did. At the evening dinner table my mother and father would discuss their work and I would listen. By the time I was in high school I knew what career path I would take. I just didn’t know yet that it would be in sound. I was interested in editing, directing, and acting. It wasn’t until I dropped out of NYU film school and got my first job in a small sound shop in New York that I fell into the world of sound.
SSF.) What do you think of your kind of work in film? Is it just a technical one or is it art? Do sound get enough recognition?
T.F.) I think what I do as a re-recording mixer is a perfect blend of art and science. There is a vast technical side to sound post production, but mixing sound for films is also certainly and art. As you watch a movie, sound is half of the experience, but sadly in production and post production sound takes a back seat to picture. I think in recent years sound has gained a greater role in the mind of audiences as the presentation technology has advanced to make the sound field more immersive.
SFF.) While we're on the subject of the art of film. You resigned from the Academy this year when it was announced that many categories would not be broadcast live at the awards ceremony. Can you elaborate on your reasoning behind this move?
T.F.) The removal of 5 critical categories in the Academy Awards show was just the last straw in my decision to leave the Academy. It began several years earlier when the Academy decided to combine the two sound categories into one, followed by the decision to allow talent agents into the Academy as voting members, which I believe corrupted the entire process. I have also always understood that the Academy Awards were for the most part a marketing plan to boost box office. It became clear to me that the award was much less about merit and more about selling tickets. In addition I have always worked and been based in New York, 3000 miles from Hollywood. There was always a rivalry between the two coasts. Being in New York, we weren’t in “the club” and were ignored by the Academy for many decades. When I received my first Oscar nomination in 1980 along with my mentor Dick Vorisek for REDS I had only been mixing for two years. It was the first time in history that any New York mixers were ever nominated. I applied for membership in the Academy and was turned down for not having “enough years of service”. It wasn’t until 10 years later when I was nominated again for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) that I was finally admitted to membership.
SFF.) What is your opinion about education to become an expert in sound mixing? Is there any requirement or talent you need to have next to enthusiasm?
T.F.) In order to be a good mixer one has to understand drama and have a dramatic sensibility. One has to connect emotionally with what is happening on screen. My best advice for students interested in sound would be to study Shakespeare, read and see a lot of plays, read voraciously, understand story and dramatic structure. The technical side of it is much less important. The gear, the hardware and software are only tools and they are constantly changing. We all have to find a way to keep up with that. What is much more important is to know and understand when a scene plays and when it doesn’t. As sound mixers our craft must be invisible to the audience and should at every moment serve to help tell the story. Nothing can distract from what’s happening onscreen. No one should ever be thinking about the sound, it has to be natural and the audience should never be reminded that they are sitting in a theater.
SFF.) Without the sound, films would not be what they are today. In the silent film era, films still had to be viewed differently, because they appealed to completely different senses. Do you think that the invention of sound has changed the way we entertain ourselves in films, and if so how?
T.F.) Perhaps at first, but today it’s just part of the experience of viewing a film.
SFF.) If you decide to participate in a film, what are the criteria for this decision? Is it "only" the script or is it perhaps also the idea that you can develop special sounds that did not exist before?
T.F.) I love the work I do and I want to do it all the time. I don’t pick and choose projects. I don’t think I’ve ever turned down a project unless it’s due to a schedule conflict. I rarely have the chance to read the script before the mix, but it is helpful when I do. My job is not to develop special sounds. That is the job of the sound editors. I don’t come on to a project until all that is done. My job is to blend all of the various sound elements, dialogue, music, and sound effects, into a finished track that plays naturally with everything in balance.
SFF.) You have not only scored many films but also a large number of music documentaries. Especially with music, the sound is crucial. Are there any major challenges with the sound of music documentaries? I would imagine (similar to THE BLUES BROTHERS, 1980) that there are many musicians who naturally always sing differently on a song and therefore it becomes difficult to dub it.
T.F.) With regard to music documentaries, the music that comes to me has usually already been mixed. I am often provided separate stems so that I do have some control over how the music is balanced with the other sound elements. The process doesn’t really change. The film still has to play. The dialogue in these films is as important as the music and the proper blend and transitions have to be achieved.
SFF.) How should I specifically imagine a day in the life of a re-recording mixer?
T.F.) It’s amazing how time flies when I’m working. The mix goes through several stages, dialogue predub, Fx predub, and final mix. I start with just the dialogue and mix it by itself so that it plays. I incorporate the ADR and get that working. While I’m mixing dialogue the FX editor predubs the FX against my dialogue predub, and in the final mix we combine the dialogue and FX predubs with the music to create the final mixed track. A day in the life? I sit down in the morning and before I know it it’s time to break for lunch, then the next thing I know it’s time to quit for the day. The days go by very fast.
SFF.) If you compare the wide range of products for creating sounds from the past and today, how do you feel about them? Did people improvise more often in the past than today, because there were fewer possibilities to create certain sounds?
T.F.) I don’t think anything has really changed. The technology has made it easier to create and mix sounds, but the point is not to make a “cool” sound effect. The point is to create a sound effect that will work with the picture and make the scene play. The audience should NEVER think, “oh, what a cool sound effect”.
SFF.) Let's assume there is movie of you, what you would do better with the means of today, what would this be and why?
T.F.) Advanced technology has enabled sound designers and mixers to do things that we only dreamed about years ago. But whatever we do still has to serve the telling of the story.
SFF.) Can you please tell us what the difference is between a re-recording mixer, sound mixer and a sound editor?
T.F.) When you see “Sound Mixer” in the credits it usually refers to the Production Mixer, the mixer that records the sound while the camera is rolling. The main responsibility of the Production Mixer is to get a good clean recording of the dialogue. The “Sound Editors” are the crew that prepare the sound tracks for the mix after the picture editing has (hopefully) been locked. This crew includes Dialogue Editors, ADR Editors, Foley Editors and Sound Effects Editors. There are also Music Editors who prepare all the music for the films. Every sound must be placed in sync and made to work with the picture. And finally there are “Re-recording Mixers”. We are the ones who play all of these tracks together and blend and balance them to create and “re-record” the final soundtrack that the audience will experience sitting in the theater.
SFF.) We live in a complicated geo-political world. This has always been the case. But in the past, there were films like SOYLENT GREEN (1973) or SILENT RUNNING (1972) that could show society what the current state of affairs is like and what could become if we are not careful. Personally, I miss this kind of films and their statements a little bit. How do you feel about that?
T.F.) The motion picture industry in the United States is a business. It’s all about making money. I think the majority of the films that come out of Hollywood are crap. Recycled old TV shows, cartoons, and comic books. It’s good for children, I suppose, and sometimes they are entertaining, but they don’t make you think. They disappear from the mind as soon as the credits roll. But they do make money, and that’s why so much of what comes out of Hollywood is uninspiring. I like films that entertain AND make people think. I think there needs to more of these kinds of films.
SFF.) In addition to your longtime collaboration with Martin Scorsese, you've also provided sound for many other films. One of these films was one of my all-time favorites: THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. A very quiet thriller that generates its tension from the sound. How exactly did you go about it? Were there certain basic requirements for the sound?
T.F.) The goal was to keep the audience in suspense. It seems we succeeded.
SFF.) One of the most impressive sound effects in this film for me was always the soft beating of the Archerontia's wings. How did you manage that?.
T.F.) That was the work of the brilliant sound effects designer Skip Lievsay. He designed these sounds. I just made them play naturally with the other elements against picture.
SFF.) Do you have a project you always wanted to do or are there something in progress we can enjoy in the future?
T.F.) I just want to keep working as long as filmmakers are willing to hire me. I have just finished working on an 8-part limited series for Apple TV about Benjamin Franklin in Paris and his work to convince the French to assist America in it’s revolution against the British. It stars Michael Douglas as Franklin and is very good. I hope the Hollywood strikes end soon so I can get back to work. Artificial Intelligence is going to be a huge problem in our industry with regard to job loss. Everyone who works in film or television needs to work to protect our jobs and also use the technology to help us do our jobs.
SFF.) I held up with the most important question for everyone to the end: What was the most difficult effect you were working on and why?
T.F.) I’ve been mixing for nearly 50 years now. I’ve mixed almost 250 movies, TV shows, and documentaries. They are all difficult in one way or another. One of my favorite sayings is, “Nothing is easy”. I can’t pinpoint one. They are all a challenge
SFF.) Dear Mr. Fleischman. Thanks for your time doing this interview and I wish you all the best for the future.
T.F.) It’s been fun doing this. Take care!