Sean Penn is ex–Special Forces soldier Jim Terrier in director Pierre Morel’s new film The Gunman. The script is based on the French novel The Prone Gunman (La Position du Tireur Couché) by Jean-Patrick Manchette, and plots a story of survival with lost love in an action-packed thriller. Eight years after Terrier and his associates were paid to execute the minister of mining of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Terrier finds himself running to prevent his own assassination, colliding with people from his past who want to tie up loose ends.
The narrative mixes in some other familiar faces like Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Mark Rylance, and Jasmine Trinca, who plays Annie, Terrier’s love interest. Morel, who’s known for his cinematography and camera work on films like The Transporter and Taken, sought help from cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano to lens the film’s landscapes using Arri Alexa XT cameras. Capturing the production dialogue on the main unit was sound mixer Colin Nicolson; we sat down with Nicolson to learn more about him and his workflow on the project.
So between us, if The Theory of Everything added a few more airplanes, some guns going off, and more close-ups of the band – it’s a shoe-in for a sound mixing nomination, right?
Yeah…that would be right!
Colin, sadly I know nothing about you and the Internet is antiquated. What made you want to pick up a pair of cans in the first place?
I met up with a fellow student at Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland who completed a postgraduate degree in filmmaking and chose me as his sound man. We had a steep learning curve in news and documentaries, and in the process of gaining a union card, I joined a small recording studio producing radio and TV commercials, jingles, corporate presentations and some, mainly folk, music albums. The lure of location work tempted me away and after traveling the world shooting documentaries, a chance recommendation by the young Andy Nelson led to more music and light entertainment TV work and into drama. A chance call to location mix on Neil Jordan’s The Miracle led to The Crying Game and eventually Shallow Grave, followed by Trainspotting.
Danny Boyle. Such a great flick. You’ve worked with a lot of big-name directors, sometimes only once. What was your connection with Morel for The Gunman?
I would appear to get more repeat contracts from producers rather than directors. Producers can judge your “performance” on set with the results in post to access your value to the whole process, which is so important when you are part of a large team shooting a movie. I had previously worked on Unknown and there were a lot of connections between that film and The Gunman.Who did you bring along on your sound team?
Unfortunately because of the financing package I wasn’t able to bring my regular team and had to use ‘local’ crew in Barcelona, who were great.
What kind of conversation did you have with post before production got underway?
Unfortunately (again), prior to shooting the post production route had not been determined and establishing a workflow was rather tedious.
Some mixers like to use microphones that play to their main actors. Did you look to anything specific for Penn’s low, rumbling voice?
Not really, just used normal recording practices and, dare I say it, always tried to get a mic on Sean, which wasn’t always that simple!
How did you and your team work for the majority of this show? Overhead mics and lav when needed, or was the early decision to ISO the entire project?
I think nowadays with the facilities and plug-ins they have in post, it’s always desirable to wire artists up whenever possible but not rely on that totally. A quality mic operated by a good 1st AS is always the better option, but sadly with multicamera shoots and “ambitious” lighting plans this is not always possible. Some diplomacy and an understanding director backed up by guys in post always helps.
How did you set up your cart for the project?
On The Gunman I was still using a Fostex DV824 fed from a PSC Solice desk and using Lectrosonics radio mics. I have since converted to Sound Devices 970 backed up for portable work with the Sound Devices 633.
The final edit had the audience traveling to various locations, but where did shooting take place?
The bulk of the shoot took place in and around Barcelona in Spain. There was then a three-week shoot in the UK, which I had to opt out of because of an overrun and my commitment to The Theory of Everything. There were also some pickup days in South Africa.
This was more of a dialogue-driven film than just a bunch of connected action sequences. How did the tech scouts go?
We did have reasonably good tech scouts and some concessions were made and problem areas modified, but in the main we had to roll with the punches.
There are a few driving scenes. The first is when Cox (Mark Rylance) is laying out the kill orders. How did your team get to approach the vehicle work?
Most of the interior vehicle shots were done as ‘poor man’s process,’ static in a controlled environment. For car rigs, I love to use the Sennheiser 8050s…they are such good compact and punchy little mics and because of the crushed-up group and ‘difficult’ costumes, they were ideal.The scene where Jim (Sean Penn) visits Felix (Javier Bardem) at his ranch home had a lot of action mixed with dialogue. It looked like a very difficult sequence for sound.
It was. And sadly because of the fighting, guns, costume ripping, fire special effects, and multiple cameras shooting the sequence, we had to opt for boom and some placed mics. I rather suspect much had to be replaced by ADR.
An end scene between Jim (Penn) and Cox (Rylance) played out in what looked like an underground aquatic center. How tricky was recording in that location?
This was a really tough location but at least we establish where we are. We used a combination of lavs and boom and endeavored as best we could to control the near-distance water flow. The overhead had to help because of the difficult positions and physical contact the actors find themselves in.
We’re guessing the no-shirt Jim scenes were overhead only?
Ha ha. How was it working with Flavio and his camera team on set?
We were rolling two cameras a lot of the time. I worked with Flavio on Unknown and would like to think we have an understanding and mutual respect.What’s your favorite thing about being part of the storytelling process?
Whoa, that’s a difficult question. I enjoy the creative process and being part of that process. Sound wise, we can never really place a microphone where it really should be to record ‘perfect’ dialogue, so we are compromising from the start. The fun is how we deal with these compromises to deliver the best possible sound from the set…always challenging and always endeavoring to find new solutions and methods to achieve this goal.
You always seem to be working. You worked on Grimsby, which looks like a great project.
The least I can say is Grimsby was challenging, demanding, and pushed some of my kit to its limit. You’ll have to wait and see! Funny…sometimes…depends on your taste!
Did you challenge Sean Penn in arm wrestling?
Yeah, but he declined…pussy.
Wireless or hardline?
Nowadays wireless is so good it’s a no-brainer.
Bacon or breakfast sausage?
Last film you watched or book you read?
I have a 12-year-old son…Big Hero 6!
Better superpower: faster than a speeding bullet or super strength?
Super strength to really scare Sean!
The Gunman from Open Road Films hits theaters March 20, 2015.