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Interview with Martín Hernández, 2015 Oscar Nominee

By: Ma. Cristina Alemán, editora en jefe (@mcristina)

Some attention has be paid recently to Martín Hernández, who is nominated for an OSCAR for Best Sound Editing for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the 12th FICM’s opening film. This recognition from the Academy is the perfect excuse to talk about a topic that is little touched upon when writing about film, sound, and to explore the career of a man who has worked with some of the best contemporary directors.

Hernández began his career in radio, as an announcer and producer. His first foray into cinema was the directorial debut of his friend and colleague Alejandro González Iñárritu – Amores Perros (2000). Since then he has worked on all of Iñárritu’s films, as well as working with other Mexican directors like Carlos Reygadas, Pedro González-Rubio, Amat Escalante, Guillermo del Toro, Jonás Cuarón, Gael García Bernal and Alfonso Cuarón, among others. Outside of Mexico he has worked with Fernando Meirelles and Sean Penn, to name but a few.

Below is an interview with Hernández, in which he talks about the role of sound in cinema, the experience of working with Iñárritu, his favorite film and the essential first step in any creative process.

How would you describe the role of sound in cinema?

The interesting thing about sound is that it has to go unobserved. So naturally it’s not particularly noticeable, because it has to occur within the context of the film’s story, to help with the narration without becoming distracting. It’s like an actor who over-acts – he makes such an effort that he ends up distracting the audience, and they realize that he’s acting badly. With sound it’s kind of the same – if you are trying too hard, it becomes obvious. Nowadays, there are genres of film in which everything has to be noticed … the visual effects, the sound … in those kinds of cases, that’s part of the film’s nature or ambience, and that’s ok. But in most of the projects I have been involved in, sound work has to go unnoticed but at the same time be full of information. There should be a density of work, but it should at the same time be submerged in the narrative.

That’s the philosophical spiel. The reality is that you speak with the director and he tells you what he wants in the scene. The job of the sound person is to think – how does the environment sound? All of the film’s emotional load is narrated by the sound. And all of this is recorded after shooting, not during. Just as you correct the color and edit, so too you work on the sound – sometimes we even change the dialogue, we put the actor in a studio and re-record some lines. That’s to say, it’s a process that has many stages, all of which are intended to narrate what the director sees. As a sound designer you have to make that vision a reality.

Martín Hernández and {{Birdman}}. Photo courtesy of Martín Hernández.

Are you particularly proud of any one moment in Birdman? Is there a specific aspect of your job that you would like to highlight?

Like all post-production work in film, post-production sound is all about teamwork. There were many talented editors that we had the opportunity to work with. Some of them were with us during the whole process, like Aaron Glascock, who is also nominated as co-supervising sound editor. The supervising sound editor (the title that the Academy uses) and the co-supervising sound editor are in the whole process, from read-throughs of the script, to the final mixing of the film, but along the way there is a team of about 20 people working – like the dialogue supervisor, dialogue editor and assistant dialogue editor. The same thing can happen with special effects – there are many different designers working on very specific things.

As specific as ‘what is the audience’s reaction the first time that Riggan and Edward Norton’s character are on-stage in a run-through of the play?’. At some point they come out of character and the audience reacts – they whistle, laugh, applaud. To create that audience reaction there were five different sound designers working and editing for four months – and through that process we discover a character we didn’t know before. To Alejandro it was a really important figure since he always had a very clear idea of how he wanted that audience to react: not too much, not too soon, not too late, and not too little. How do you know that? You can’t know, you have to figure it out. And it almost goes unnoticed, but every time there’s an audience onscreen, the audience is also a character that Alejandro is directing. Another character who we discover later on in the film is the voice of Michael Keaton being Birdman … after the shoot we recorded every one of these lines 20 times with Michael Keaton, and he was very patient and he did it again and again. The last time we met after finally finishing and thanking him he joked “well, I guess I’ll see you next month”.

At one point in the film we hear the sound of the “tamales oaxaqueños” – what other typically Mexican sounds did you incorporate into Birdman? Have you ever done anything similar with other films?

That sound is in all of Alejandro’s films. Since Amores Perros – the first time that el Chivo arrives and sees his daughter through the window, we hear in the background the sound of the tamales oaxaqueños. In Babel (2006) in Japan it’s also there. In 21 Grams (2003) it pops up in one of the streets. On this occasion it’s in Times Square and we really turned up the volume, so you can hear it clearly. There’s also the sound of a Mexican knife grinder. It’s very subtle, but if you pay attention at the end, in the hospital when Emma Stone leans against her father and closes her eyes there’s the sound of the knife grinder, as though it came from the park.

In Birdman, as well as working on the sound editing, you worked on the music. How was working with Antonio Sánchez?

It was a really interesting exercise because before filming ‘el Negro’ (Iñárritu) took Antonio to a studio in New York and told him that they were going to do some ‘wild rhythm’ tracks, and he started humming a rhythm. Antonio started playing and improvising, el Negro asked him for changes and they worked on it – 24 takes came out of that. Later they shot the film, edited it and showed it to me and Alejandro gave me these tracks and said that his idea was to make a soundtrack out of them, by selecting specific moments and cutting them together. So I watched the film and I took bits out of each track, and bit by bit I constructed the narrative. From this process, I ended up with 22 takes. When it started making more sense with the dynamics of the image, we went back to the studio in LA with Antonio and finally showed him the film. He saw the scenes for the first time, and heard what we had put together through headphones. He did overdubs (recorded over the tracks). We asked that he watched the scenes and did something new, then with these new takes we added what ‘el Negro’ calls the ‘frills’. From these new takes we made 60 new tracks and that was the final soundtrack. That process took four months in total.

You have worked with Alejandro González Iñárritu in all of his films, how has he changed the way he works since Amores Perros?

Every film is new and demands different things. We always learn something along the way and we try not to waste it, but it’s hard because there are always so many things that have to be done from scratch each time, because it’s always a new film and we ourselves change along the way.

How does the way that each director includes sound editing vary?

Alejandro is very much a ‘sound’ person, over an ‘image’ person. Of course I’m exaggerating, but not a lot… The narrative that sound creates provokes more ‘explosions’ that the narrative generated by the image. Few directors have this sense – he might be the only one I have worked with. I’m talking about the totality of the film. There are directors who ask for a sound narrative with very specific elements… how they want a train to sound, or a character within a scene. But Alejandro has sound exploding all throughout the film.

How similar is sound editing for film to working in radio?

It’s very similar. Technically it’s very similar, the tools are very similar, if not the same. The approach is also similar, but the payoff, the communication with the audience is what makes it different, because the medium is different. The narrative is very similar. In radio, you use a few elements and you let the listeners fill in the blanks, they imagine the rest. In film many things are determined by the image, but there are also a lot of things happening on a subliminal level, with sound. It was a natural transition for me to work for many years in radio, and then move into cinema.

What is the first thing that you would want to teach people about sound editing?

Read and write, because that’s the basis of any narrative. And if you can’t make sense of a narrative in your own mind, you’ll find it difficult to order any other type of narrative. That’s just my opinion – I mean, in my experience there’s only one way to narrate. There are many tools – the pen, paper, microphone etc, but just one way to narrating, because it comes from you and you have your own way of narrating things. What is it? Well, I don’t know, its different, you develop it, but if you don’t use the words, if you’re not used to writing them, the ideas get stuck. It’s not that you don’t have ideas, it’s just that you don’t have the right tools to get them out.

When we talk about creative people it’s not that they’re just creative, it’s that they can order their ideas, put things together so that they become something new; they are just applying an unusual mindset, but actually it’s the same mindset that we use every day. And if it’s the same language, the same mindset, why aren’t we all this creative? Well, I think it’s just the difficulty of implementing ideas, on the page and in your head – like everything in life, when we don’t use muscles they atrophy, the brain too. Ideas get stuck and they never get out. You can use all of the other tools, cinema, the camera, the lens, the sound recorder, whatever you like, but if you don’t have anything to tell, nothing much will come of it.

What films would you recommend for people interested in learning more about sound design?

I think that our favorite films are always those that achieve this coming-together, so the best way to appreciate this is through your favorite films, whatever they may be. And once you work on this you’ll understand ah! there was a piece of sound work; there was a piece of musical composition. That’s how you come to know interesting works, and the door opens because it’s your favorite film.

Many of the films that I have loved don’t actually have great sound work. I love the general ambience in a film by Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, which is called Furyo or Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) and which is the story of a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World War, where they were holding British prisoners. There’s a really interesting relationship between David Bowie, who is one of the main actors, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who apart from starring in the film was also its music composer. It’s a fantastic film and the music is incredible. Thanks to this film ‘el Negro’ and I became very good friends, because we were at school together, we worked together, and then we realized we had many tastes in common – we liked much of the same music and many of the same films. I’d been to see Furyo and he had too, he had the soundtrack and I didn’t, so he recorded it for me onto a cassette tape. We really admired Sakamoto’s music and the fact that he also acted in the film drove us crazy. Who knew that so many years later Sakamoto himself would give Alejandro a piece of music for Babel?

So, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is one of my favorite films. The sound work isn’t particularly special, but maybe that’s what makes it so efficient.

With regards to the OSCAR nomination and the possibility of winning, Martín Hernández said:

Making the film is the most important thing.