“‘Baby Driver,’ is not just an action film. It’s more like an action musical,” says its writer-director Edgar Wright. “The key is actually not that it is edited to the music, but more crucially it’s choreographed to the music.”
Getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) is listening to music through earbuds for nearly the entire movie, but the songs provide more than just a soundtrack; the characters move in precise time to the beat and rhythm of every tune. Academy members noticed, nominating the film for film editing, sound editing and sound mixing.
Julian Slater, whose resume includes “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the recent “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” is nominated for sound editing and shares a sound mixing nomination with Tim Cavagin and Mary H. Ellis. He says he “wore three hats” on the film, as supervising sound editor, sound designer and re-recording mixer.
“This was undoubtedly the most complicated and challenging movie I’d ever worked on,” Slater says. “The sound is almost like a character in the script. For every sound that you, as an audience member, perceive, there are another 10 things happening that are much more subtle.
“The challenge of the movie was twofold: To help emphasize Baby’s journey throughout the movie, and to syncopate the sound design, sound effects, dialogue and other elements to the music at any given moment,” he says.
Viewers learn, partway through the movie, that Baby suffers from tinnitus (a constant whine in the ear, result of a car crash when he was a child) and so listens to music to drown out that whine. Wright says they licensed 36 songs that play throughout the film, and most were written into the script years before shooting.
“The only way to do this is to prep it to the millisecond,” Wright says. “I did a read-through of the first draft in 2012. I recorded the actors, just as a kind of template. We edited all of the songs back-to-back, and then we edited in the dialogue we had recorded of the first table read. We had almost a radio play. We did storyboards and edited those to the music. Then Ryan Heffington designed the choreography, and we rehearsed in the studio and also on set. Everything was so precise that the actors understood this was like a musical.”
Slater worked for seven months to get the sound just right. “Every sound you hear in the movie had to go through a checklist,” he says. “Every police siren you hear, every gunshot, had to sound cinematic but also gel musically for it to work. That process was done with every single sound in the movie.
“To work on a movie where the sound has been written into the script, into the DNA of the story, is gold for someone like me,” Slater adds. “Edgar works very acutely with sound. ‘Baby Driver’ was pushing it even further into the realm of what’s possible. The biggest surprise is that I’m talking about it a year after I finished it.”