The Flashback Interview: Russell Williams II
I was first exposed to the work of today’s interview subject, sound designer Russell Williams II, when I saw the 1986 Cannon version of Invaders From Mars on WPIX, New York’s Movie Station, in the 1990s. Upon revisiting that movie as an adult, I could better appreciate what Russell was able to do considering Cannon’s stinginess.
Looking at Russell’s IMDB page many years later, I was amazed by the depth and diversity of his sound work, work that led him to become the first of only five, as of 2023, African-American artists to win multiple Academy Awards. I reached out to Mr. Williams about an interview last year, and he agreed to it. We spoke late last year about his work as a sound designer and as a teacher, and now I can share this interview with all of you. I hope you all enjoy getting to know this amazing man.
Say hello to Russell Williams II!
Russell: Is this Johnny?
Johnny: Yes, it is, Mr. Williams.
Russell: How are ya, handsome?
Johnny: I’m doing good. First of all, thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me.
Russell: Look, I was just amazed by some of the movies. “He said he actually saw this movie?” (Russell and Johnny laugh) They made an impression on you one way or the other, so I said okay. I’m doing good.
Johnny: I do have my questions ready to go…
Russell: …And I’m ready to answer.
Johnny: So what inspired you towards a career in sound design?
Russell: Okay, Johnny, so what happened was that when I was 10 or 11, I really wanted to get into music. I was taking piano lessons, so that was the first phase in turning me into a critical listener, and using my ears to navigate through the world instead of just my eyes. By the time I got to American U as an undergrad, which would’ve been from 1970 to 1974, I started working with another group of students, and we created a radio program on WAMU-FM. I think this was slightly before NPR came around, but WAMU-FM was part of the NPR network and still is.
The show was jazz and blues, public affairs…Long story short, it was where I got my first exposure to professional audio equipment, things like AMPEX tape decks, Scully tape decks, Gates turntables, McMartin radio consoles, I think, and, of course, the microphones like Electro-Voice and Shure. Down the road, I think the stations moved up to brands like Neumann, but I didn’t realize at the time that it was going to be the foundation for how I approached working on location and recording sound, and how the soundscape should work in the film.
To me, as I’ve mentioned to a director or two along the way, the soundscape of a film should still work as radio, even without the picture. Of course, when synched with the picture, it should support the picture. I would say that would be my foundation. The only reason I would say I ended up doing sound is because of two pieces mail. I sent in applications to the AFI conservatory to try and get into their directing program, so in the same pile of mail that had their rejection letter also had a fairly substantial refund from the IRS.
I said, “Okay, there’s more than one way to get to Los Angeles”, and that would’ve been July of ’79. I took the Nestea plunge, got on the long-defunct (at least the original) TWA Airlines, and came to Los Angeles.
Johnny: Alright, so when starting out in film, did you encounter racism, and if so, who were your strongest allies in battling against it?
Russell: Okay, so Johnny, this is something that surprised me. I actually encountered more resistance while I was still working in Washington D.C television and news media.
I was an engineer at WRC, NBC Television. I was actually working mostly with one pf these gentlemen, but there were three gentlemen at the time who were card-carrying Klansmen. Because of their association with what was known as a subversive organization, they could not go to The White House or the State Department or any of those venue if they were doing a press conference or something.
It wasn’t a rumor. It was fact, and working with one of these gentlemen was one of the first indicators that I could pretty much get along with anybody as long as there was no disrespect on display. There was a rental house in D.C at the time where, as long as I was coming in under the auspices of either Channel 7, which was the ABC affiliate, or NBC, I got great service at the counter and so on. Once I became a freelancer, then it became like pulling teeth just to get them to show me the new gear, or get store credit towards buying my own rig.
I was very pleasantly surprised, when I moved to Los Angeles, that there was an outfit there at the time called Audio Services which still exists. It was owned by two brothers. Eventually the NYC location held on to the Audio Services trade name, and the West Coast ‘store’ became and still is Location Sound.
It was very impressive how the doors were flung open, and I was introduced to various sound people who were working on top movies of the time. The people in the rental and sales sections were very helpful. They would say, “Try this rig out for the weekend and see if you like it. Just let us know what you think about it”.
It was completely not what I had expected. (Laughing) I had expected that show business would be a big wall to climb over. The wall I had to climb over really was getting into the union, IATSE Local 695. It took me seven years to break through that wall. Of course, younger people today won’t have that issue because part of the issue was that, if you were working non-union in those days, your non-union days did not count towards getting in IATSE. A few years ago, they righted that wrong in the sense that I think they realized they had essentially created the non-union pool of labor they had to compete against.
Other than that, maybe there were jobs that I didn’t get, and maybe the permanent tan was a reason. Maybe, as I tell my students, when you’re the unknown quantity, that’s still the scariest thing anybody’s ever seen, so maybe, especially at the beginning, I didn’t have enough what I would call Los Angeles industry credits. Had I come from the New York industry, maybe my resume with only five credits on it may have looked stronger because, of course, New York did, and certainly still has, a serious narrative fiction, and a serious documentary, community.
D.C was known almost strictly as a news center, so D.C credits didn’t necessarily translate to you being able to work on the projects the Los Angeles film community held dear, and really held in high regard. There were interviews that I took, and there’s one I talk about in class quite a bit where race did come up, by this time I’d been in L.A about five or six years. By this time, I was really comfortable in my skin, and this producer, ostensibly, was trying to make sure that I knew there weren’t going to be other black people on this particular project, which had us going to Japan to work on a documentary with the Marine veterans who fought on the island of Iwo Jima.
He made sure I knew that the Marine Corps was the last branch of the service to desegregate, and so there wouldn’t be any black Marine veterans or spouses, and he said, “Well, there aren’t any other black people on the crew”. I told him, with a smile on my face, “Sir, that’s not even unusual here in Los Angeles. I do believe you have a first-class plane ticket for me, and if you need me at LAX at what time on Thursday, then I need to start prepping now” because It was less than 48 hours before we had to leave.
The other thing I have to say about my early days, Johnny, is that when I got off the plane at LAX, there was no red carpet. There were no searchlights or any reception of that nature, right? (Laughing) I was just like anybody else getting off the plane with a dream, a dream that was not an original idea in 1979. It wasn’t an original idea in 19*49*, okay?
When my phone was ringing, my phone was generally ringing because the person who they were trying to employ wasn’t available, and as I started making friends and professional connections in Los Angeles, they might say, “I’m not available, but I can refer you to this gentleman who has a real strong documentary and news background, and is reliable”, blah blah blah, and most of the people who would be referring me would be white. The producers or directors or union managers, if they called to see if I was available, this conversation is happening over the phone, right?
Russell: Okay, so two or three days later, or whenever the job started, they realized that I have a permanent tan. I, of course, was more prepared for that than they are, and if it was an issue, it became an issue right away. Generally, it didn’t mean, “Alright, get back in your car and go home”. It was like they said in the original The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3, when Walter Matthau talked to Julius Harris, “Oh, I, uh, thought you were, uh, like a shorter guy or… I don’t know what I thought” (Laughing)
All they gave me was 5’ 6’’, but I would extend my hand and say, “Hello. I’m Russell, your sound mixer. Where’s our first set-up?”. Of course, they would come over and try the headphones and, once they verified there was sound on the tape that was usable, then the shock usually wore off, at least by lunchtime. Maybe further down the road, when I’m taking interviews for larger shows, they don’t necessarily tell you why they went with someone else, but I don’t really think that race was the biggest hurdle I had.
The biggest hurdle I had was getting into the union and then, after that, it was trying to manage the projects that you accepted, so you were always trying to get more projects on what was then paper. This was well before the digital world, and that had a certain amount of gravitas, so I’ll stop there.
Johnny: Okay, so in the 70s, one of your first credits as a sound designer was Disco Godfather…
Russell: Ooh! (Laughing)
Johnny: …A movie that was something of an anomaly in Rudy Ray Moore’s filmography. What did working for Mr. Moore teach you that would apply to your later work?
Russell: It’s funny. That is one of the first feature films I worked on, and I was basically there to do what are called pickups. The majority of the work had already been done before I actually got off the plane in Los Angeles and, literally, Johnny, that was my very first job in Los Angeles (laughing). Think back to Eddie Murphy’s 2019 film Dolemite Is My Name, and it was almost exactly like that. Some of the people portrayed in that film were people I actually worked with.
Rudy was a character, and fun to work with, but because of his gutbucket humor, my then boom-man on that show, a since-Oscar-nominated sound mixer (Lone Survivor) named David Brownlow, came back into the room where I was set up. He saw me stamping on the floor and tapping on the walls, and he said, “Man, what are you doing?”. I said, “I’m trying to make sure there’s no sub-basement under where we’re sitting, that this is actually the bottom. I can only go up from here”.
That’s kind of how I looked at that job but, again, nice people to work with. Not much money to play with, and I tell my students that everybody on that project was moving up their own respective ladders. Every project you work on in a highly competitive field like this …The people may be mentioning your name as somebody you might like to call if he or she is available, or avoid this person at all cost. Your reputation-building struggle starts right then.
For me, it was July of 1979, and so was this job something the Criterion Collection would put out on a special edition Blu-Ray with behind-the-scenes footage? That was a no, but it was an important project to the producers because that was the movie they were going to put their reputation out there and say, “This is the best Rudy Ray Moore movie he’s ever produced”. You have to take everybody’s project seriously.
The other thing I tell my students about my own journey is that people are watching you, so if you’re doing your job right, that’s a good thing. If you’re somebody we can stand to be around 12 or 15 or 18 hours a day (laughing) in the process, that’s another part of it. As I tell my students, all the jobs that ended up getting me more notoriety essentially started with lower-budget projects.
This is how my actual reputation was built, one project at a time. My class at Cal State Northridge, I take them through this imdb.com page and say, “Now why did I take this job? Why did I take THIS job? Other than it was a paycheck, what was it about this that said ‘take this one’ as opposed to another that I may have been weighing at the time?”
Sometimes it was the crew. I was working with better, stronger crew members. Sometimes it was the fact that the people in the cast had names and reputations, and so this might help me grow my own reputation. Sometimes it was strictly the money as there was nothing else being offered, so take it. You said you wanted to be in show business, so for the next seven days, or two weeks or, Lord have mercy, five months when you start getting projects that are going months, you say, “Hey, that’s show business”…A lot of those projects (laughing) felt like months, but they were only two days or work.
Johnny: Going into the 80s, you were a sound mixer on Penitentiary II. Had you seen the first Penitentiary, and if so, how did that influence your work on the sequel?
Russell: The first Penitentiary was clearly part of that tranche of films that would be considered blaxploitation. When I asked to do Penitentiary II, again, I would say, the reason I took this one, was because they just wanted to make sure the dialogue was recorded as clean as possible, and that it was in sync with the film that was going through the camera, so let me be frank about that. I took that because it was the first time I would’ve completed a feature film project from beginning to end as opposed to Disco Godfather or Taps.
Here’s the other thing that’s not made plain on IMDB. I didn’t *finish* Penitentiary II as the mixer. There was a much better opportunity that I at least thought was going to give me an entree into big studio productions, and that was to go and do the sound effects for Taps which, of course, had a lot of now-famous cast members in it who were very young and just getting started in their on-screen careers.
It was myself, another gentleman named Bill Cooper, who was a mentor of mine when I got to Los Angeles, and our sound editor Gordon Daniel, a really nice British guy who basically had us do a two-track sound effects reel and a mono sound effects reel. I learned a lot about post-production and how it actually can, if necessary from a sound point-of-view, save the studio a lot of money. In this particular case, only had some of it done because the studio didn’t want to pay the money to license a Sousa march they used when they shot the original footage.
In that film, when they did the pass-and-review of the entire cadet corps, I’m not sure which Sousa march they used, but the licensing fee, apparently, was so egregious (laughing) to the studio’s bean counters that they sent us back there. The primary thing they sent us back for was to reassemble the cadets, the horses, everything, but instead of the band playing the song, they kept 120 beats per minute on the bass drum (Russell imitates a drum sound), so their composer would write a march and charge them an appropriate fee they were willing to pay (laughing).
The reason we had to go back was because dialogue, efx and music were locked together, and they lost all the foley. They lost all the horses, the close order drill, the commands, the marching footsteps as they pass in review…We also went into the dorms and other places around Valley Forge Military Academy, near King Of Prussia, PA, to get sound that they could lay in behind scenes. For example, you see George C. Scott and Timothy Hutton sitting in an office. They were on Fox’s soundstage, but when you hear the scene, you actually hear the real military academy.
It wasn’t even surround sound back then, but you hear that in the background. You hear cadets drilling outside the windows and sounds like that, so the sound sells you on the fact that you’re at this military academy when the actors in that scene were really sitting at Fox. That was kind of like my first taste of working on a studio production.
I also noticed that Gordon Daniel, as a sound effects editor, was much more appreciative of what Bill Cooper and I brought to the program, as opposed to the folks I worked with on primarily low-budget films. They didn’t want your opinion, as I said earlier. They just wanted to get some sound as clean as possible.
Of course, that doesn’t make up for the fact that we are almost never invited to the preliminary location scouts, so we can’t actually hear the locations or sets that they’re planning to do the movie in. They basically just bring us in once they’ve made the decision. They said, “Get some good, clean sound there”, and I said, “Fine. Do you mind turning off LAX while we do these scenes?”. (Russell and Johnny laugh) That’s it in a nutshell. It’s a pretty big nutshell, but I think I did two weeks of Penitentiary, and then I jumped off of that to do Taps.
Now let’s go back to David Brownlow. One of the things we did was that he had a portion of a sound package, meaning gear, and I had a portion of a package. When we put both our rigs together, it actually looked like we had enough gear to do a feature film, so our arrangement was that if he got the job, then I would operate boom for him, and if I got the job, then he would operate boom for me.
What happened politically on Penitentiary II, even though I didn’t feel like leaving Penitentiary was going to hurt my career, was that you didn’t want to leave people in the lurch, so I let David know. “Okay, I’m going to leave this next week. Can you get somebody to boom for you? Because I’m fairly sure there’s going to be no argument by me saying, ‘Hey, David’s moving up to mixing’. He’s already a mixer, and he’s already done the first two weeks of this with you, so there’s no sense in bringing anybody new”.
Of course, they were happy that I already had an exit strategy that would help them, and got me out of the mixer seat on that, and put me in my first introduction to seeing real post-production at work, and how critical it is, and what happens to the sound after I’m usually where I would have been finished if I had been the production mixer, say, on Taps. These are the things that they hear and see that need to be added in post. I learned a lot more by leaving Penitentiary II then if I had stayed (laughing).
Johnny: Indeed. As a boom operator, you worked on Valley Girl.
Johnny: What are your favorite memories of that shoot?
Johnny: Well, first of all, again, that was a show where David was the mixer, so I came on as our arrangement had prescribed. Working with Martha Coolidge was great, and she would’ve been the first female feature director I had the honor of working with. Of course, the cast was fun, and I got really deep into the Valley Girl jargon. Sometimes I’ll run that on students to this day. When they don’t understand the homework assignment, I’ll give them a little Valley slang to let them know I’m not buying it. I mean, I tried that excuse when I was an undergrad a hundred years ago, and it didn’t work.
In certain cases, the hours got long, but it was really fun working with not only the stars Nicolas Cage, who I believe was Nicolas Coppola at the time, but also people like Cameron Dye, Colleen Camp and Frederic Forrest. They were fun to work with and, again, I was really interested in watching the actors as I got on better-quality, better-written projects, to see how they were more solid, and the different ways they work.
Also, for me, it was like, “So how do I approach an actor? Do I go through the director?”. That’s what I would usually do. I would ask, “Does this actor want all the communication to come directly through one voice, or could I approach such-and-such a person directly and put a mic on them, or is there a way we can separate the business from the dialogue in this particular scene as long as it doesn’t violate what the director or the camera department wants?”.
All of these things were what I was learning, and I’m thankful that I was moving, one project at a time, closer to where I thought I wanted to be. Now where that was, I still hadn’t firmly envisioned (laughing), but I knew I was getting closer to something.
Johnny: Alright. As mentioned, in my introductory e-mail to you, I mentioned that one of the first movies where I heard your sound work was 1986’s Invaders From Mars, one of quite a few Cannon films you would work on in the 80s.
Johnny: I’ve interviewed quite a few Cannon Films veterans, and their opinions on Golan and Globus are definitely mixed (Russell laughs), so when I say Golan and Globus, what do you say?
Russell: Well, I would say that, first of all, I worked on Making The Grade, which was released in 1984. I want to say that it was the first feature film I mixed from beginning to end on location. I want to say it was the first feature film where they took us on location. We went to Memphis, Tennessee to shoot that film, another highly instructive film in terms of post-production issues.
That was my first experience with Cannon, and that’s where I first noticed that, yeah, there are always places, no matter how big the budget is, where you have to cut corners, but let me put it this way: Philosophically, I always felt that you could cut corners as long as the result wouldn’t show up on the screen, or degrade what was going on screen.
With this soundscape, I found that they would very rarely use what we would call “virgin” Mag Stripe, even to do the final mix. They would run audio on that Mag Stripe that had two or three movies previously on it erased, and they’d run another movie on it, and maybe some of the Mag Stripe had splices in it. This is just what I thought was going on, and this was confirmed for me by the time I got to where one of the unit managers, a gentleman I’d had many discussions with, always questioned why I’d, maybe, cut off that last 30 to 60 seconds of audio tape on the Nagra.
We were recording on quarter-inch audio tape at the time, and we’d run that off on the floor so I could quickly reload a full seven-inch reel on it. That reel would hold 1200 feet per reel. He told me with a straight face that they would’ve picked all that tape up and spliced it together, and by the time they finished splicing, they had a new 1200 feet of quarter-inch spliced tape that they could use to record the original sound. I was like, “Excuse me?”. What happens when the splices go over the record and playback heads while an important syllable or word of dialogue is being spoken, and they’ll say, “Oh, we’ll fix that in editorial”. That wasn’t Golan or Globus. I don’t know if I met either Golan or Globus. I think maybe one of them was hanging around one day when we were doing Invaders.
I was called to MGM to listen to some post sound that they did on Making The Grade. They had done ADR and all this other stuff to try to fix the fact that Gordon Jump’s dialogue sounded terribly muffled, like he was eating hay or had a burlap bag over his head. I was listening to this on the big screen at MGM, and I said, “Okay, fine. Did anybody bother to go listen to the quarter-inch originals?”. The mixers looked at each other and said, “No. We assumed that was from the original tapes” as the director and producer were sitting there.
To return to race, this was one of the times I volunteered the race card. I said, “Gentlemen, you’ll notice that I’m a black guy. I can’t turn in work that sounds like this and expect to get another job”. Since the script supervisor’s notebook was there, I said, “Okay, what scene was that?”. I went into the script supers’ notebook, which correlates the scenes with the corresponding sound and camera rolls, and I called Cannon post-production from MGM and said, “I need you to send reels 35, 36, 38”, blah blah blah, “over here. We’re going to lunch, and by the time we get back from lunch, we need these reels in”.
They delivered them by motorcycle messenger, and we didn’t have time to sync it up to Mag, but when they played the original quarter-inch in the room, these post-production mixers jumped out of their chairs because that was the first time they heard the mid-range. They heard the highs. They heard the detail. They heard all the sibilance in Gordon Jump’s voice, and then they looked at the producer and said, “You need to retransfer this entire movie if that’s what the originals sound like” (laughing). They had been cutting on old material, and who know how many times the Mag had been run through? Who knows what the condition of the Mag was when they made these original transfers for?
Now cut to Invaders. By the time I got to Invaders, the thing that made that film attractive to me was who was working in the crew. In other words, there were people working on that crew like John Dykstra. I got the chance to work with Les Dilley, who had done James Bond movies, and Cyrus Yavneh, a unit manager whom I had worked with on one of my first really big pieces of work, which was a television series. Cyrus was my on-ramp to getting onto the particular project and, of course, there was John Dykstra, who was doing the visual effects.
I said, “Man, if this movie comes out anywhere near watchable, or even good, now I’m associating with people who have strong Hollywood productions under their belt”. I looked at myself as moving further up that ladder, and everybody I mentioned was really great to work with.
When it came to Tobe Hooper, I appealed to him because there were certain things that I noticed would need a two-track machine. When you look at how many channels are available to you on location, it’s funny to say, “Are we actually going to record this on a two-track machine?”.
They wanted to separate one actor from the rest of the cast because it was clear we were going to have to re-record all that actor’s dialogue, and I didn’t want to have them forced to bring everybody back, so I said, “We’re going to have to separate this person out”, and again, Cannon were too cheap to want to rent the stereo machine so they could transfer my dailies.
They appealed to Tobe Hooper, and he said, “No, this is what we *need* to get this film done correctly, and this is what we’re going to have”, so that was one of the first times I had to really appeal to the director to back me up against the folks in post-production, and that meant I also got it right.
I tell my students referrals are sacred, and if someone goes out on a limb for you, you’d better make sure the limb doesn’t break. I’m getting stronger in my career as a political being and now a department head, and also trying to figure out how to get as pristine location recordings as possible since we aren’t using real soundstages, and there’s a lot of stuff that creates the effects, visual and that make noise. You’ve got E Fans as opposed to the gasoline powered ‘wind machines’ and worse, and you’re trying to figure out how to deal with all of that, and still try to deliver usable product at the end of the day.
I’m glad you actually saw Invaders from beginning to end. I can only say we were all disappointed when we saw the final cut because they threw most of that movie away. I think it was just 100 minutes with credits. A few of us crew members went to see what it was going to be, and we were like, “Huh?” (laughing). I don’t think I’m going out on a limb. As far as I’m concerned, although I haven’t seen every Cannon Film, I think the only Cannon film, in my opinion, worth watching is Runaway Train.
Johnny: That’s what a lot of people have said.
Russell: (Laughing) Now that was a real film. I’m glad you liked it. I don’t know if you could hold the remake of Invaders up to the original, because the original was scary as hell, but you liked some of what you heard, and I’m impressed that you are because, you know, Cannon was a company that cut corners.
Johnny: (As Russell is laughing) Yeah, that’s definitely a common theme among the talents I’ve interviewed, but to switch gears to a talent who cared more about his work, you worked on several projects with the late Mike Nesmith, including Television Parts and Doctor Duck’s Super-Secret All-Purpose Sauce, so what do you recall the most about working with Mr. Nesmith?
Russell: When you grow up seeing people on television, or on the big screen as I ended up doing with folks like Burt Lancaster and George C. Scott, and then you have the pleasure and honor of working with them, they’re really great human beings…Most times.
In fact, going back to Invaders, the late Louise Fletcher was ten years down the road from winning Best Actress, and I’m thinking, “Why is she on this project? I know why *I’m* on this project (laughing), but why is she?”. That’s one of the things I noticed, where you can see people’s careers fall, and that’s going to happen to you, whether you’re in front of the camera or behind it.
Coming back to Mike Nesmith, he was a great boss. The only reason I got on that show was because of director Alan Myerson, who was a person I had worked with on a comedy pilot that didn’t get picked up. I think it was a five-day week, $100 flat per day, and the last day of that shoot was 22 hours.
Alan was very apologetic, and I said, “Al, first of all, it’s a great honor to work with you. I had a lot of fun”. I said in regards to the 22-hour day, “The reason I knew I had the stamina to work in this business is because when we were doing the Watergate Hearings, we would do 22-hour days five days a week”. Of course, I made a lot more money then as that was a union job, but I’m trying to move into big show business, so it wasn’t even a sacrifice.
You hear so many people in this business say, “One of these days, when I have some real money, I’ll call you”. I would say, three years later, I get a call, not from Alan, but from a young lady saying, “We’re doing a five-day music video with Jimmy Buffett, and our director requested you personally”. I said, “Who might that be?”. She said Alan Myerson, and I said, “I’m there. Day and rate”.
I do that gig, and during those five days, a unit manager comes out and talked to me. Maybe the documents hadn’t been signed by NBC at the time, but by the time the video was done, it turns out we had five months of work ahead of us, which was the Television Parts series. The unit manager said that Mr. Myerson wanted to know if I was available, and I actually faked like I was checking my calendar. “What the hell else do I have on my calendar?”. It was five months of work. I worked three or four weeks, maybe one month or six weeks, something like that. A lot of my work back then was a matter of days, but five months of work?
Mike was a great boss, very supportive. One of the things I remember most about him is that we were out working near Edwards Air Force Base doing the lead-in to one of his routines on the show, and the show was so good to me that I bought my first brand-new vehicle off the lot, which was a Chevy Van. It was all shelved out and carpeted because, again, you have to present yourself as a professional.
I was no longer pulling stuff out of a Volkswagen Rabbit or an old Toyota truck or Corolla. Mike had this little make-up tissue in his collar, and he had a bib over his wardrobe. As he walked by the van, he backpedaled and said, “Russell, is this a new van?”. I said, “Yes, sir. Television Parts has been very, very good to me”. He said, “I like a man who invests in his own business”. Again, that was another indicator that I was making the right moves.
Again, some of the people I worked with on that show, we worked with each other down the road. As our credits got stronger, we’d show up again on different projects. I really appreciated the opportunity to work on Television Parts because…Look at all the comedians on that show who ended up being among the top comedians of the 20th century. I think the only person we didn’t have on at the time was Richard Pryor as he already had his show going. It was a lot of fun. The concept of the show was a lot of fun.
Johnny: Indeed. To switch from the comedic to the serious, one of the most prestigious projects you worked on was the documentary Eyes On The Prize.
Johnny: What made that project so special for you to work on?
Russell: It’s interesting. I was buddies with the director/producer, Orlando Bagwell. He’s originally from Boston, so he and Henry Hampton, the executive producer, knew a lot of the filmmakers who were based in Boston. Blackside, Hampton’s company, already had this project in mind and were raising money for it. At a certain point, Orlando was doing most of his work in Los Angeles and said, “I’m going back to Boston to work on this series of documentary shoots, and if things go well, I’ll give you a call”.
What ended up happening is that John Else, who was one of the principle cinematographers, and Orlando, who was one of the director/producer, wherever they went, what they did to save money is they would pick up, say, an assistant cameraperson or a sound person or maybe a lighting person, regionally. With Eyes On The Prize 1, everyone I recorded was based either in Los Angeles or The Bay Area.
I got a chance to record their interviews, and I would say, of the great people that I got the chance to work with, Myrlie Evers, Medgar Evers’ widow, was the one that shook me to the core. For me, I was remembering a lot of this from watching television growing up in Washington D.C, where there were the protest marches. A lot of the energy of the 60s took place while I was coming up through junior high and high school,.
To hear from these people who were icons, and what their lives were like, and how they would’ve been happy to have a normal life like anybody else, fall in love, get married, have kids, go on vacation, but in the midst of this, were dealing with protests and picket signs, the Klan and battles on Capitol Hill and Selma, for me, it was even more important than a fictional piece. We were never going to have a chance to go back and ADR any of these interviews, so it was incumbent on me that all these interviews be just as crisp as NPR Radio sound bites.
I was really honored that I was asked, and in working with Orlando and John Else, I had people of like mind. They didn’t want to turn anything in where you’d be like, “Okay, what did he say? What did she say?”. To me, it’s one of the highlights of my resume, especially since I’ve always had one foot in documentary and one foot in features, but if my career had stopped there, I would’ve been fine because that’s history on film, right there with all those interviews.
Johnny: Indeed. Definitely powerful material. Switching gears from the realistic to the fantastic, you’re the second person involved in the sound work for Field Of Dreams that I’ve interviewed, the first being the movie’s ADR coordinator, and my friend, Leigh French…
Johnny: …So what drew you to working on Field Of Dreams?
Russell: I would say relationships. Let’s go back to Martha Coolidge. After I hadn’t seen her for a few years, Martha actually got the chance to direct the pilot of Sledge Hammer, which became a semi-successful television series. For some reason, they didn’t ask her back to do any of the other episodes, but her direction was strong enough to get the pilot moved to episodic. UPM Brian Frankish heard that pilot, and then he called our unit manager, a buddy from my first days in L.A named Alan C. Blomquist, and said, “Who did your sound?”, and my name got dropped.
The unit manager called, somebody I didn’t know at all, and asked me to come down and talk to them, not about Field Of Dreams, but about Phil Alden Robinson’s first project as a director. We shot it as The Woo-Woo Kid, but it was actually released as in The Mood. That project got me in the room with Phil and his director of photography, John Lindley, who I think just stepped down as the head of the ASC. The crew that they put together for that film was just like family.
Now cut to Phil, who has written the script for Field Of Dreams. The Gordon brothers, Chuck and Larry, who are more famous for the Die Hard franchise, had apparently really wanted Phil to direct, and he was like, “Eh, I’m not excited about that”. After they put a few options on the table, they said, “Okay. What is it going to take?”, and what he said was, “Okay, if you really want me to do this, the only way I’ll consider it is if you hire my entire crew from In The Mood. That way, I’m actually standing on set amongst family, and the only new people on set would be the actors”. The Gordon brothers said, “No problem”, and that’s how I get there.
Working with Phil a second time was like…I’m going through the screenplay. and Phil is always good about putting certain sonic cues or details into the script. I was happy to sit out in the corn field many, many nights just recording night music, thinking about, “How is this going to play? How are you going to mic this? How can we make this realistic?”.
We also had some challenges in Field Of Dreams because, on the neighboring farms, there was noise going on that there was no real explanation for on camera, and worse, it’s out of context where we’ve filmed, especially some of the night scenes. We also had livestock who were getting to know each other at night time, like a lot of humans do, and that sound wasn’t going to play with these very close and quite conversations with Shoeless Joe and Ray Kinsella (laughing). That wasn’t going to work in the background.
That film basically led to Dances With Wolves. Kevin was like Phil. For his directorial debut, Kevin pulled people from different films that he liked working with. He had people from No Way Out (editor Neil Travis). He had people from Bull Durham (transpo), and a few of us from Field Of Dreams (Sound and script supervisor). Again, the relationship aspect of the business is what really, in many ways, is the key to how my, and most people’s, careers advance, or not.
I really believe that with Field, I got more of a chance at the location level to add a little bit more to the soundscape, the latitude to say, “Let’s try this. Let’s see how this works. Let’s see if we can make this something that’s not going to stick out in a way like, ‘How did they do that?'”. It should all blend in. I think the worst part about doing sound, even in this digital stage when you can hear so much more, is that people say, “Yeah, it sounds okay”.
If it doesn’t hit them over the head, some people don’t understand that the quieter soundscapes are, in many ways, harder to put together. To me, you can have someone who’s acapella singing, and you can tell after one note if they know how to sing or not, but if I’m singing in front of the Count Basie Band or The Rolling Stones, they’re covering all the real energy. If I don’t sing, you’re not going to notice. As soon as the band turns on, you’re like, “Where are my earplugs?” (laughing).
I think that on Field, again, I had a great relationship with the director. In many ways, whether the sound works on a project or not depends on the director, and if they’re willing to put as much prep into what we hear as to what we see.
Johnny: That makes a lot of sense. To go to a very big project in your career, one of your most noted projects as a sound mixer was 1989’s Glory, so what went into the research process for that movie’s sound design?
Russell: On Glory? That was my first opportunity to work with someone who had the sound design. It was so productive because now there was somebody back in L.A who was coordinating with editorial, somebody I’m communicating with every day on set, or at least a couple of times a week. We’re discussing all of the little nuances and details that would go into being able to sell the audience that when they’re looking at the screen, they really are in the 19th century. That gentleman’s name was Lon Bender, who is still working these days.
The other thing that made Glory a pleasure to work on was our late producer, Freddie Fields. There’s nothing like having a producer come to you as a department head every day and ask you, “What can I do? Do you need anything? Do we need to make an adjustment?”. He visited with each department head every day, as I recall.
Going back to how to actually make this film come alive, any time I got a chance to work on a period piece, and this was my first real anamorphic, broad-canvas period piece, I thought, “What man-made things would be heard by the population in that era? What things of the then-20th century would not be heard? How far away are we physically from the (then) 20th century so that, even if it’s leaking in the distance, it’s something that’s not prominent enough that we can’t mask with period-correct sounds?”
I’m not sure if I should credit Freddie Fields or the art department, but there’s a scene where, again, the viewing audience wouldn’t pay much attention to it unless there was dialogue. When Matthew Broderick’s character realizes that he’s going to be commanding the 54th, he and Cary Elwes’ character are standing out in front of a mansion, and in the distance, you see horse-drawn carriages going up and down a street.
The art department knew that there was no asphalt back then, so they bought trucks and trucks worth of soil to cover the pavement. I don’t know if they went back and Foley’d any of it because I think, when I’m hearing it, it sounded exactly like what I heard when we were doing the actual dialogue. The dirt basically muffles the wheels and the hoof-prints of the horses. It just blends in perfectly, and then, of course, the inverse square law is that they’re far enough in the background that the sound falls into place just where it should.
I want to say that, whether it was because we had some semblance of traffic control or because we were in an area of Savannah with no traffic to be seen, what you heard of the 20th century in the distance could easily be covered over by either more Foley of people walking on that particular covered-over pavement, or even in battle scenes. When we were training, in the distance there was a piledriver going at the Savannah River Bridge. We found a way to mask that, and part of that was Freddie Fields’ idea.
Our reenactor corps was excellent, so whenever we had, say, the Confederates on camera, most of the reenactors had the complete rig to be in either army as needed (laughing), so uniforms, weapons and canteens could change. I was usually 50 to 100 feet behind camera, so I usually listened on set through speakers. I almost never work through headphones. My boom person has headphones on, especially when I was working exclusively for theatrical releases. I wanted the sound that I was hearing through the microphones to come through the speakers, and not through my headphones, because it was a different feel altogether.
While one army was doing a reset for camera or relighting, 200 feet behind me, I might have the portion of the opposing army that’s not on camera, and I might be getting wild lines of them doing close-order drills, or looking at the script to see the first scene where they meet the Confederates in the woods. I’d say, “Okay, what would be the list of commands you would issue? What other commands would you give in that situation?” Ready, front, reload, fix bayonets”, and so on.
We would get the non-coms saying that, as well as actors who were not necessarily principle characters, but there would always be an echo. “Battalion! Company! Squad!”. However it goes, we would get all of that. We were sending Lon reels and reels of stuff like that each week, a lot of weapons stuff, even though I know the weapons are always going to be re-recorded in most cases because we don’t have live ammunition going down the barrel.
I won’t make any comments about the tragedy that happened last summer, but those sonic details were generally done later as they brought a whole SFX crew in to get the sound of the cannon firing with real ammo, real balls in it. Of course, they were shooting out towards the Atlantic Ocean. I’m assuming some fish were injured, but no human beings.
Glory has only one real scene where a radio mic is used. Because of the great camera work of Freddie Francis, and because we had a hard matte on that anamorphic camera, our boom was almost always in the right place, regardless of how wide the shot was. The only time we needed a wireless mic was at the end. Right before Matthew goes to command his troops at the final battle, he gives the Harper’s Bazaar reporter some personal effects, and we knew that was going to be shot up from the ground, looking at him on horseback. The fish pole microphone wouldn’t have fit in with the 19th century look we were trying to create in the shot.
That was a shot where there was a wonderful collaboration between myself and our costume designer, Francine Tanchuck, where she actually cut, into that blouse that he’s wearing, a spot where a lavalier microphone would fit perfectly. The outer wool fabric that you see, looking at the front of the jacket, was the only thing that was untouched. It worked good enough to be a windscreen, but not so much that it muffled anything that Matthew was saying.
That microphone sat in that blouse because something else I learned on that movie is that the officers of that era of the Army had six or more blouses, jackets to the civilian population, some formal, some general duty, some mounted, sitting in your office, whatever. I asked her to pick me one that would normally be worn when he was on horseback, and something we probably wouldn’t be seeing over and over again. That microphone lived in that blouse for months until that one scene when we needed it (laughing), you know what I’m saying?
I would say also that the horse wranglers were kind as well. This was something you could get away with fairly easily on a location shoot. On our seventh day, our Sundays, since they’ve got the horses and wagons anyway, they said, “Hey, Russ, do you want to come down to the stables and get some sound this weekend? Just let us know”. I would show up at 10 in the morning, and they might take a wagon and do a 360 around me, or take a single horse or two for a 360 around me, get some neighs and sounds. We were building a library of effects so that if they got back to post, and it was going to be time-cosuming to create something, they would just check our reels and see, “Yeah, they’ve already done it”.
When I first heard Glory, it would have been at The Plitt, which has since been torn down in 2004. I saw it in 70mm, and I was just sitting there and thinking, “Huh, this actually has a chance of being nominated but, of course, that depends on if the people at the Motion Picture Academy went to see the film”. That was the first time I felt that, and the rest was history.
I mean, Field Of Dreams could have, but what I remembered about the sound awards was that most of the movies that had already won for sound were war pictures, big special effects pictures, or action movies, and the others would have been musicals.
There had been very few dialogue-heavy movies, like Field Of Dreams, that would’ve even been nominated if you looked at the earlier winners for sound. They were loud movies (laughing), and that’s why I thought Glory had a fairly good chance. If somebody had seen it, maybe they would say, “They actually did a good job on that”.
Johnny: That does, of course, lead us to how Glory would win you your first Best Sound Oscar, so were you nervous on Oscar night, and do you recall what you felt when your name was announced as a winner?
Russell: You have no idea, Johnny. That was one of the most nerve-wracking evenings, and why? To this day, one of my best buddies is Donald O. Mitchell. Every time I see him, I want to hug him, even though I don’t see him as often as I used to when I lived in L.A.. Donald was our lead post-production mixer, and I want to say this was the second time in his career that he had been nominated for two films in the same year. Are you with me?
Johnny: Yeah, I’m with you.
Russell: We’re sitting in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and they announced the winners and the nominees in this category from Australia. At first I was thinking, “Okay, the satellite feed from Australia is going to go dead when they open the envelope”. That didn’t happen. They’d already worked that out. When Rachel Ward said (Russell slips into an Auusie accent), “The award goes to Donald O. Mitchell”, he’s up out of his seat like a bat out of hell.
He still doesn’t know for which movie yet, and guess what? He doesn’t even care (laughing). He was on his way. That was his 12th nomination, and the first time he got a chance to stand up. Because they have to read each name, you’re like an idiot in suspense. “For which movie? For which movie?”. Donald O. Mitchell was also nominated for Black Rain, and on the Black Rain team, there was Greg *P.* Russell. On our team, there was Gregg *C.* Rudloff.
Russell: Yeah, ooh. When the second name was read, it was Greg, and it was, “Yeah, but which Greg?”. (Laughing) Can you see how I died, like, 15 times between those two names? Finally, one of the post guys heard “C” before any of us, as the audience is applauding all through this, and said, “That’s us!”. We’re almost all the way to the stage before they say “Russell Williams II for Glory”. If you go back and look at the YouTube video, you’ll see that Donald Mitchell almost knocks the ABC cameraman out of the way, he’s so excited.
The other thing that happened, which was a complete surprise, was that none of the rest of us had planned to say anything. Being Donald’s 12th nomination, and as the Academy instructs you that if you have a shared award, to choose one person to speak for the team, we said, “There’s nothing to vote on there. It’s going to be Donald”, but he got his thank yous out of the way in 15 seconds. They give you 30 seconds, so he looked over his shoulder at me and said, “Jump in there”. I had nothing prepared, but I wasn’t going to miss that opportunity to get to the mic (laughing).
This has nothing to do directly with your question, but this is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. They don’t do this anymore, but two minutes after you get your Academy Award, what they did when you get backstage is they take the number off the base of the statuette so that number will always be associated with your name, and then they ask you if you want to leave your Oscar with them that evening, and a couple of weeks later, when they get the badges with the name of the movie and the participants, come back down to the Academy and pick it up?
I was like, “No”, and then they said, “Would you like to take it with you and get the badges later?”. I said, “Yes, I’ll take it. How else am I supposed to get into the parties?” (laughing). All the nominees and their ticketed guests go to the Governors Ball. It’s the other parties where holding that little guy would get us past the velvet rope. As I explained to my wife, “That Oscar you saw me with? I gave it to them and I’ll see it in another two weeks…No. No!”. They fixed that problem a few years ago, so you get your badge affixed backstage the night of, but that was really unnerving.
There were no slackers in the list of nominees that year or the following year. The only things I was hanging on to were that first, the most important thing is the nomination, in the sense that if you didn’t get nominated, you had no chance of winning, and second, as soon as I heard back in February that we’d gotten nominated, I immediately felt, “Okay, we’re going to win”.
Johnny: …And indeed you would. You would win your second Oscar, back to back with Glory, for the aforementioned Dances With Wolves, so were you as nervous the second time as you were the first time, or did it seem easier that time out?
Russell: Johnny, when THAT nomination came out, I was the first cheerleader AGAINST me possibly winning back-to-back Oscars. I said, “There’s no way I’m going to win two years in a row”, so although everybody was encouraging to me, I said, “There’s not a chance”, and I firmly believed that until the night before the Oscars. That night was the first time I saw an omen that gave me the inkling that, well, maybe I will. That would be a history-making moment if that happened, right?
The omen was this. There are so many more parties these days leading up to the Oscars, and the Golden Globes and the Emmys and all these other major industry events, but back then, they used to have events called The Friends Of The Black Oscar, or The Friends Of The Black Emmy, Nominees. The Friends Of The Black Oscar Nominees would basically always be that Saturday before, and as a nominee, you get to say a few words to the crowd and get your applause, and they also give you a different type of award for being a nominee that year.
I looked out in the audience, and there was this very distinguished woman, sitting almost in the center of the room, named Maya Angelou.
Russell: Ooh is correct. Now cut back to when I was a jock on that college public broadcast radio show. It was called Spirits Known And Unknown, by the way, and Maya Angelou was kind enough to give me an interview when she was doing a tour for her book, Gather Together In My Name. It was about a half-hour, and she was very gracious, but she made some really interesting points in that interview about how young people need to take an informed risk, a calculated risk, to push their careers ahead and pursue their dreams.
Of course, I’m playing this over in my head, again and again, when I’m about to leave D.C. for Los Angeles in ’79, or about to take a big interview on a show where I had no chance of getting that movie, but I’ve got to go in there with my head held high and my shoulders square, blah blah blah. I hadn’t seen her once in person since we did that interview in 1974, and she is sitting in the crowd the night before the Oscars. That’s the first inkling I had, right there, that this might actually happen. I assure you that since the nomination, I said, “Don’t look for me to stand up tomorrow. Forget about it. It’s not going to happen” (laughing).
The other thing that was nice about that was that there weren’t any team members nominated for other movies, so as soon as I heard Jeffrey Perkins’ name, who was our lead post mixer, I stood up. I was sitting on the aisle, and I knew I didn’t have to wait for a second or third name to be read out. It was us, and if you look back at the YouTube video, you’ll see that they have my entire walk down the aisle to the stage.
The reason that happened is that the ABC camera people have the seating chart of where the different teams are seated in the room, so he’s standing right next to me, and he knows that somewhere in these two rows, there’s a group of people who are going to stand up for the sound awards. He has no idea that the person standing right next to him, or in front of him, is going to stand up.
When he sees my shoulder filling up his frame, of course he has to back up, and he has to refocus. With my extensive television background, I know we’re not on the air yet because this is the money shot, and he’s still adjusting. I stand on my mark like a good actor, and once that red light comes on, then we walk, and that’s how you have coming all the way down the aisle, past Bob Hope (laughing) and up to the stage, and if you look back there, you’ll see the rest of the team still gladhanding in the aisles. That was a whole different night, but I assure you that until I saw Ms. Angelou in that crowd, there was no way you could’ve told me I’d win back-to-back Oscars, no chance.
Johnny: It’s definitely an amazing record you have and, again, it’s great work you did on those films. We now move firmly into the 90s as you did sound work for two Eddie Murphy movies in 1992, Boomerang and The Distinguished Gentleman…
Johnny: So what’s it like to work with Eddie Murphy?
Russell: Well, I was really surprised. I kind of had a taste of this when I was doing some work with an EPK (Electronic Press Kit) crew on a movie that Richard Pryor directed. I found that Richard Pryor, before you said action, was very quiet and very reserved, and so soft-spoken that you had to get close to hear what he was saying. Eddie was somewhat similar to Richard. Once you said action, you see all the big Eddie Murphy laughs and smiles and gestures, but my experience working on those two films was that, between takes, he was fairly quiet, or he would immediately leave set with his entourage and go back to his trailer.
Of course, when he came on set, there was going to be rehearsal, and maybe some ad-libs, but once they said action, we were all having fun. The hardest part was trying not to ruin the take with your crew laughing. I thought Eddie was really supportive on Boomerang of the Hudlin Brothers because they wanted to make sure that younger and diverse filmmakers got to intern and see the process, shadow department heads and things like that to see what a costume designer does, what a production designer does, what a sound person does, what all the hubbub is with camera and lighting.
It’s kind of hard to say, but in some respects, I think Boomerang was the most fun I had on a location. One reason was that Eddie was going to work a five-day week, so that meant that we had weekends off in New York, and you can’t get into any trouble in New York with a weekend off and Paramount’s money in your back pocket, can you?. The other thing I want to say I really enjoyed about that project was that, with Regiland Hudlin as director and Warrington Hudlin as producer, they made it possible, along with a gentleman named Larry Bucher, who I think was a VP of Feature Production at Paramount, to get me on the production.
I emphasized, “The only way I’m going to do this movie is that you need to bring me to New York while the production designer, director, producer, cinematographer and location manager are doing the preliminary location scouts”. They get to see the sets long before anybody else, and they typically don’t bring in the sound people until the tech scout weeks later. By the time I’m on the tech scout, if I don’t like how a location sounds, it’s too late. They’ve already spent the money painting and swapping out the furniture and whatever they’re doing to make the set look right, but if I can get my ear in the room while the location is being considered, now that’s where I really and hopefully save you money if I hear problemantic sounds.
Now it’s not as difficult on a movie that’s present-day. I mean, Eddie existed in the 1990s, so contemporary sound was correct for that period. We just didn’t want those sounds overwhelming the dialogue we were recording. Getting a chance to work with the DP, Woody Omens, and the director on locations, we were all working creatively as a team to find something that would work for camera and would work for sound. We still had challenges as it was New York. You have subways and traffic, a lot of people in the streets having a good time, but again, that was one of the first times I really got a chance to exert some creative influence that early in the process.
My team went right from Boomerang to The Distinguished Gentleman. We came to D.C over a weekend to see and scout those locations while we were still working on Boomerang. We also shot in Baltimore, MD and Harrisburg, PA, and then California. A lot of that was done on stage, which was much more manageable, by the way (laughing), because they were real soundstages. You have a lot of movies that use warehouses, and yeah, they have high ceilings and enough electric power that you can bring in generators and other equipment, but they’re just big empty spaces.
We had a great unit manager, Richard Prince, on The Distinguished Gentleman, and we also had a good, robust cast. In my opinion, a good actor is a loud actor. Now that doesn’t mean you’re inappropriately loud for the character or the scene, but you do project your voice enough so that, even if we do have some background noise, we have more than enough vocal energy to cut through. Later in post there may be music or foley and other effects, but if you have these tiny voices, then where is that dynamic range that we need to put the other things in the soundscape and still hear the principal dialogue?
The last time I worked with Eddie was on Life, which was another blast, but Eddie’s more reserved than you may think when he’s off-camera.
Johnny: I’ve heard that. I read that, in the 80s, he very rarely drank caffeine, so when he was working on Beverly Hills Cop, he drank some coffee and totally improvised the Super Cops monologue. Yeah, I’ve heard he’s a pretty mellow guy off-camera.
Russell: Yeah. That was my experience. I would say he was the type of star that wasn’t afraid to flex his muscles the right way to make sure that he had talented people around him, and the people at the studio knew he expected the studio to take care of his people. Of course, his makeup, hair and wardrobe people got the best of care, but I really got taken care of well for a sound person.
Don’t get it twisted. I wasn’t riding MGM Air, and that wasn’t necessary for me, but when we got to New York, I had a fine place to live, a fine group of Teamsters to transport us and work with, a fine crew of New York people who worked with us from L.A or wherever we came from, and we had fun. It’s not like I would give them the money back that I made, but it was almost like I should be paying them for having this much fun (laughing).
Johnny: To go to my next question, moving a few years down into the 90s, you worked on Waiting To Exhale, which featured a memorable soundtrack headlined by Whitney Houston’s song Exhale (Shoop Shoop). Did your sound work on Waiting To Exhale extend to the movie’s soundtrack?
Russell: It did not. My work on most of these movies would’ve been restricted to location, but on some projects, like The Temptations mini-series or projects that have a musical component to the film, that falls under my department’s responsibilities. On Rules Of Engagement, there’s a scene where Tommy Lee Jones’ character is having a retirement party, and ambient music is being played to get everybody in the bar in the spirit of things until dialogue is heard. Understanding playback and understanding the distance that the loudspeakers are from the talent is critical.
Even though Hollywood has been selling this bit that sound and light are in sync, I think it took Spielberg to really demonstrate that, if you see a weapon at a distance, and you see the muzzle flash and smoke, you’re not hearing the weapon simultaneously. In playback, you have several additional things that you need to be aware of like, “Is there spoken dialogue when we’re supposed to see people singing and playing live in the background? If that’s the case, the performer need earwigs. They will hear the playback track of the music in their ears, and maybe for a portion of that scene, the crowd in the club, or wherever the sound is being filmed, will hear ambient music, but by the time the dialogue is about to enter the scene, that ambient music from the loudspeakers disappears.
The musicians can still hear the track in their ears and mime in perfect time with the actual track, but if the crowd in the room is supposed to be dancing, or just moving their bodies to the music, we also can utilize a thumper. It creates a very low frequency “boom boom boom”, and the music department decided what the Beats Per Minute setting on the metronome is going to be, so either they have the music to lay into the scene or will write it. In either case now, have the reference tempo for what the music is, and can record location dialogue at the same time.
I think the only time I got involved in going to the recording studio to do something was on a commercial in the early days of timecoding. It turned out a particular recording studio didn’t have a timecode generator, and that’s why our playback tracks weren’t holding synchronization, but luckily I found that out before we got to set (laughing). When they got to set, they said, “This isn’t syncing up”, and then they looked at me and I said, “It’s not me” (laughing).
Johnny: To go into the 00s, in 2001, you worked on the sound for Training Day.
Johnny: A rather graphic movie, did you recoil at some of the more violent scenes in the movie, or were you able to just work on it as is?
Russell: Training Day was a hard movie to work on because, if I remember correctly, most of the people who were portraying gang members were REAL gang members. That’s why there was so much more authenticity on that screen than may have been achievable if you were using extras to play those roles. That’s one, and two, one of the things that I really appreciated about working on Training Day, besides my second time working with Denzel, was Antoine Fuqua. Having come from music videos, Antoine was very honest about saying, “Look, I’m not well-versed in location sound and what you need, so PLEASE let me know what you need, or how I can help you”.
I mean, that’s all you want to hear from a director. If a director is already well-versed in my field, and looks at me like a collaborator, that’s one thing, but if they know what sound’s supposed to do, yet the actual nuts and bolts of it are not something in their wheelhouse, then I’m sure he know a lot more now about location sound than when I worked with him on Training Day. He just let me know to pull his coat, and let him know if there was anything I need. We got a LOT of prep on that show, which is another thing I really appreciated. What do I mean by that?
When you see Denzel and Ethan in the car, we basically had two full-size self-drive cars. Only one of them had hydraulics in them, and I think you only see that once in the very beginning, and the other two cars were really just shells. None of them had an undercarriage or tranny, no suspension or wheels. One of them doesn’t have an engine compartment, so we can shoot into the windshield at their faces, and one of them, strangely enough, didn’t have a trunk because we had a rig where we were actually pushing them in a few scenes, and you’re looking over their shoulder at the front windshield, which I’d never seen done before.
Months before we actually got to the street, we had an opportunity to work with the special effects people when they were putting those shells together. They cut what we call “rat holes”, where the transmission hump and drive shaft would normally be, so we could feed our cables into the vehicle behind the front seats of the car. We had actual junction boxes there, so I had the flexibility of using a hardwire mic in the sun visors over Denzel and Ethan. We could use a wireless mic on them if it was a scene where windows were down. We had already pre-wired the vehicles, and all we had to do on that day was decide which mics we were using and where.
Another thing the special effects people did was find a piece of foam to cushion the sheet. It would’ve been at least a foot thick, 76” wide and about 100” in length, and strapped it to the process trailer. The whole point was to prevent rubbing and bouncing between the bottom of the passenger compartment and the process trailer. It was actually riding on foam, and then the camera department and grips are very careful if they put anything around that car, and the car that had to be lit for camera. If they had a box of lights or extra lenses, it was secured and weighed down with sandbags.
I know there was a lot of ADR that had to make those scenes sound natural, especially if the windows were down. As to the violent nature of that movie? I’d been on some that were even more graphic. They just didn’t turn out to be one of those iconic films of that particular genre, like Training Day did and does. Also, I think it was really important not just to hear the actors, but to also hear those parts of Los Angeles the way they really sound. The wild track got sent back to post, and I’m not sure how much of it got used and how much they created, but it was important to me that you feel like you’re in this situation.
There were a few scenes we did on the soundstage, but for the most part, there were scenes like that in the alley where Ethan was wrestling with the two crackheads. That was a tough day work-wise, but it shows up on the screen, and that’s really why you pay the price of admission, to actually feel like you’re in jeopardy as well. That’s what the film is demonstrating, what it’s portraying.
Johnny: Fantastic stuff. Switching gears, you’re currently active as a part-time teacher, continuing on from having taught full-time for a number of years, so what led you to enter the field of education?
Russell: Well, Johnny, I would say I was in the field of education even before I went to undergrad. That radio program that I was involved in during the 1970s was a training workshop to get people on the air, either writing news or operating the radio console. The show was called Spirits Known And Unknown.
As I got into the motion picture and TV business, I always thought that it was important to continue to bring new faces in,. I couldn’t do a full-on workshop like we had at the university, but I could bring in one or two trainees here and there, and if they were strongly interested in sound, they would stay with me…if they were serious.
That hurdle was hard to clear because a lot of people think they want to be in the movie business until they see there’s no red carpet here, son. You’re standing on the corner in the rain for 12 hours, and they want to see a smile on your face for all of those 12 hours, you know? It’s not how they envision it until they actually see the time and commitment it takes.
The business I really loved was features. I mean, at the time, TV series were just really starting to show how good storytelling could be in a form that wasn’t necessarily accessible to us in the 70s, 80s and 90s. On the other hand, feature film, pretty much for my career, was going to Canada, so I had a decision to make. Did I want to apply for Landed Immigrant status so I could work for six months out of the year in Canada, or did I want to load up the truck and get free of Beverly?…Hills, that is. Swimming pools, movie stars.
Answer ‘B’ was move back to Baltimore and teach at my alma mater, American University. More importantly, it gave me 11 more years, roughly, to hang out with my dad before he passed away. When I looked at their curriculum, I realized that even though they had an audio technology program at the time I came back in 2002, it was not in the School Of Communication.
When I came back, they didn’t have any dedicated sound courses. Sound was a portion of some film production overview courses, and they were aimed more towards documentaries. I wanted the kind of sound courses that would prepare students for the Hollywood industries.
The only reason, I think, I survived in Hollywood was that the instructors I had in the 1970s prepared me for the hours and the work ethic, and they told me what would be expected of me as a professional. They also told me it was going to take a time investment and a monetary investment as well. In 2002, I felt that, as the only member of the faculty at the time who really had that length of specific Hollywood experience, it would be a great opportunity for me to give back because I owe that university a lot for my career choices. I wanted to do that on a full-time basis.
Once I moved back West again in 2021 permanently, I said, “Okay, I’ll teach part-time, but I have other opportunities pulling at me nowadays other than just teaching”, but I still enjoy it. A lot of my students have gotten into the business in various areas and had successful careers of their own, and that’s really the best reward.
Johnny: Fantastic to hear. To go to my second-to-last question, as COVID is now endemic as opposed to a pandemic, how has that impacted your work?
Russell: When I was teaching full-time, it was much more difficult to teach a course where the students were doing something hands-on with real hardware, and you had to guide them through Zoom or Skype or some other meeting platform. It’s not ideal in terms of student/faculty interaction, but it’s an ideal way of not getting sick or transmitting something to somebody else.
It also, I think, forced most of us on the faculty side to figure out different ways to keep our student body engaged, and it also freed us up in different ways. I don’t mind going on record here. One of the things I don’t miss about teaching full-time is that there were too many meetings to go to. Once the meetings were done remotely, I was like, “That’s just fine”.
I mean, sometimes you want face-to-face interaction and the energy of the room, but other times it’s just reading off a list of things we’d like to do next semester, or line items we’d like to see if we could acquire, or what the provos have on their lists. I don’t need to get dressed to hear that. I think that the creative space will probably recover once we’re sure that the public health hurdles are being addressed properly, and people are showing the proper respect for each other’s well-being.
All the big companies, down to small one-or-two person shops, have had to figure out how to use the Internet to do their editing, to do their post and have their business meetings, and to actually be international. I mean, setting up a Zoom where you have people in four or five different time zones is not the easiest thing I’ve ever done (laughing), but I did it, you know? It has basically forced us to find new solutions to the same challenges, which are how to creatively solve problems.
Johnny: That’s something we’ve all had to figure out over the course of these past few years, and I think we’ve done a pretty decent job of it. I now come to my final question: What’s next on the horizon for you?
Russell: Whew, if I only knew. I wouldn’t be upset if I could step out from behind the camera and be in front of it, but I’m not talking necessarily about serious dramatic stuff, you know? I know that I have one or two lanes that I might be able to represent a character, or a feeling, or a mood, or an energy, but I still want to keep my ears looking for new ways to have sound work organically. I think, because we have so many creative sound designers, that people are getting a lot more comfortable with how they can move the story with what we hear sonically.
I still think that I’ll keep a hand in teaching, not full-time, but I really do enjoy trying to be a positive role model for young people. As I say, any day above ground is a victory, and at my age, it’s even more victorious as the days go by. I want to make sure I’m being relevant, to go back to a word we used in the 60s (laughing), and look for me on the tennis court, just having fun.
Johnny: Alright. Well, that does it for my questions. I again thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me.
Russell: My pleasure, man. (Laughing) You hooked me when you mentioned Invaders From Mars. I said, “What?”. Trust me, no one would know about most of those films if it weren’t for IMDB. If I’m writing my resume, I leave Penitentiary II off as an example. I’m only trying to highlight the ones that actually had gravitas, but it turned out to be very instructive in the sense that, “Okay, my career didn’t start with Glory or Dances… or Training Day. It started running through the woods in Rock Creek Park in ’76, and then Rudy Ray Moore, and then…And then…” (laughing).
I’m sure that, with all the people you’ve talked to, their on-ramp looked somewhat familiar, yet a lot different. I’ve talked to Ron Bartlett a couple of times about this. It wasn’t until I got to IMDB, and I went through these films, that I saw Ron Bartlett and I had worked on a Cannon film together, but he, of course, was in post and I was in production. The next time I catch up with him, I’ll have to say (laughing), “Ron, do you remember that, way back in the salad days, we both worked for Golan-Globus?”.
Hey, man. A pleasure talking to you. It’s a pleasure that someone wanted to hear an old fool’s stories.
Johnny: Well, they’re fantastic stories, and I hope that you have a good evening.
Russell: You, too. Thanks for doing this on FaceTime because we would’ve stopped 15 times if it had been up to AT&T, so enjoy the rest of your night, my friend.
Johnny: You, too. Bye.
Russell: Thank you, partner.
I would like to thank Russell Williams II for taking the time out of his schedule to speak to me, and for supplying the pictures you see in this interview. He’s an amazing person, and I look forward to what’s next for him.
Coming soon to the Flashback Interview are conversations with Oscar-winning makeup artist Kevin Haney, actress/singer Tricia Leigh Fisher, and Oscar-winning hairstylists Anne Morgan and Gail Ryan.
Thank you as always for your time and support.
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