Sound Mixer Gary Rydstrom Recalls Getting Advice From Mel Brooks on ‘Spaceballs’

Gary Rydstrom is Oscar nominated for sound mixing on thriller “Bridge of Spies.” Among the films for which he received his 17 previous noms (and seven wins) were mega-hits like “Jurassic Park,” “Titanic” and “Saving Private Ryan.” The first time his name popped up in Variety was for work in a comedy — in our review of 1987’s “Spaceballs.”

Do you remember that review?

Oh, God yeah! To get credit on a film, and then mentioned in the press — I thought, “I guess I’m actually working in the industry!” That took a while to sink in. I have always felt close to every movie that I worked on, so I get nervous reading reviews.

How did you get started?

I went to USC film school, and a teacher, Ken Miura, was a favorite of George Lucas. So I was recommended, and started working at Lucasfilm around the time of the “(Return of the) Jedi” release. There was no more exciting place for a film student than that. I was lucky.

What was it like?

Great. At Skywalker Sound — which was called Sprocket Systems at that point — we would all look to Ben Burtt for advice on how to do our jobs and what the world was like. When they hired me, they were looking for the next Ben Burtt. All these years later, I think they’re still asking for the next Ben Burtt.

What was “Spaceballs” like?

Mel Brooks is hysterical. Being on the mixing stage was as funny as anything in the movie. He was a hero of mine before that, so I was glad to be able to work with him. One of my favorite memories is that I tried to make funny sound effects, and Mel would say, “No, you make serious sound effects, and we will do the gags.” I wasn’t supposed to be funny; that was his job.
But it was hard. A Virgin Alarm goes off when Daphne Zuniga is in danger of being too intimate. I had to ask, “What does a Virgin Alarm sound like?” or “What does it sound like when Dark Helmet has to drink coffee through his visor?” It was the only job I ever had where I asked myself those kinds of questions over and over again to create sounds but try not to be funny. “Spaceballs” came early in my career. So I was lucky. And it’s a film people still remember.

Film sound is mysterious. Is there confusion about your work?

Yes, friends and family have no idea what I do. I like to think — for people who can hear, that’s an important caveat — sound is such an important part of our daily experience, but we take it for granted. By extension, as an audience, we accept sound and don’t analyze it. People think they just record stuff when they shoot a movie. Sound does so much to bring a movie to life. I kind of like being in an art form that can disappear. The more it disappears, oddly, the better job you’ve done.

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