Since Sony’s The Green Hornet will be hitting theaters this weekend (January 14th), Sound & Picture got the chance to sit down and speak with the film’s production sound mixer John Pritchett.
The history of this masked vigilante originally debuted on the radio during the 1930’s followed by appearances in several media outlets. The first film came out in the 40’s followed by a variety of comic book series and TV shows. Despite 75 years of variations, dozens of actors and filmmakers, the 2011 version scribed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, directed by Michel Gondry, will be released Friday in 3D (also in 2-D). Though a reported price tag of a hefty $130 million was spent on this remake, Rogen mentions, “They strived to create a unique kind of action-adventure film. We didn’t want to do a 100% safe version.”
In this adaptation, Brit Reid (Seth Rogen) is heir to his father’s media empire after he mysteriously dies. Befriending an unlikely employee, Kato (Jay Chou), at his newly inherited company, they see an opportunity to do something meaningful with their lives — fighting crime.
By posing as criminals themselves, they venture on a heart-pounding quest to rid the city of this mob once and for all. With the help of an indestructible car dubbed The Black Beauty, they start to hunt down the man who controls LA’s gritty underworld, Benjamin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz). But Chudnofsky has plans of his own – to swat down the Green Hornet once and for all.
It was up to sound mixer John Pritchett and his crew to capture this exhilarating adventure comedy over three and half months of shooting. Before stepping on the set of The Green Hornet¸ you might have heard Pritchett’s work in films like Road to Perdition, Sin City, Memoirs of a Gesha, World Trade Center, There Will Be Blood, Dan in Real Life and countless others. He’s working on his 94th film right now that involves another type of “web-slinging” superhero.
Originally from Dallas, Texas, Pritchett is a drummer at heart. While going to school to study film and TV, he tried to make a living as a drummer. Finding it wasn’t so easy, he and a friend opened up a recording studio… more business soon started trickling in thus, the drumming slowly faded away. Pritchett decided to go freelance in the sound field and got his first sound package by convincing a banker to loan him the money.
Like a lot of other mixers, Pritchett developed his reputation by working on independent films and documentaries. His first being in 1979. What really kicked off Pritchett’s career was landing a gig on an indie film with director Robert Altman. The original sound mixer on the show left to take on another job and John was able to take his place. Since then, he did 7 films with Altman before he passed in 2006. Pritchett mentions, “When people are looking to hire a mixer, they want to see that you’ve worked for someone more than once — it shows them there is a reason why they use you over and over again.”
After Altman’s name landed on his resume early on, he began to work with people who were doing projects that had more meat to them… which made Pritchett a lot more interested in motion pictures. When he hooked up with director Larry Kasdan on Wyatt Earp, John knew he didn’t want to work in anything else.
Now teamed up with long time boom operator Dave Roberts, The Green Hornet was their first big action movie. Pritchett and his crew normally find themselves doing more dramatic, dialogue-driven shows, but said the change of pace in the level of action was quite a positive experience. With the help of Shawn Harper as a second boom and utility, they were able to work out all the challenges that derived during the show.
When I asked John how it is working the same boom operator for such a period, he couldn’t explain how much easier everything really is on set. “We hardly have to say anything to each other and we just get it,” says Pritchett. “Our first film together was Born to Be Wild in Seattle over 15 years ago and it’s been a great relationship ever since.”
Since this was director Michel Gondry’s first big action film, the crew consequently had to work hard to achieve what Gondry wanted. “His directing style comes from more of an organic, visual approach to shooting, and he tried to create as many of the sequences you’ll see in the movie without the use of any CG. He didn’t want any CG in the film,” says Pritchett.
“The challenge Michel needed to understand was what was involved to get the shot… what seems simple on paper is a lot different when you actually try to do it,” explains Pritchett. “Sometimes he would want to just take off in a car to do dialogue and would leave the follow car behind where all the sound was being done. We had to stop a few times to tell him that we needed to go together or there won’t be any sound.”
Besides shooting on the lot at Sony, they floated all around Los Angeles, filming at different locations. One of those places was a gravel pit in the Mid-Wilshire district. It was basically a huge lot that looked very toxic and nasty. They shot the movie’s big cement truck scenes here. Since Gondry wanted to use very little visual effects, they brought in one of those large baja dune buggies and mounted the top of the cement truck to its roof for the actors to stand in. Unfortunately, the only way for John to record the audio was to be strapped in the front seat like some kind of NASCAR driver. “It was really rough… they raced like crazy to roll this thing over, but it all worked out and the experience was quite invigorating,” says Pritchett.
To record this scene, John used his mobile Zaxcom Deva package. “In the olden days with the Nagra — we wouldn’t be able to do this kind of work. The hard disc recorders are great and soon enough the solid state drives will take over, and we won’t have to worry about movement at all,” explains Pritchett. On set, John pairs his Deva recorder with the Cameo mixer by Zaxcom. Boom David Roberts usually works with a Schoeps CMIT 5U and Sanken COS-11 lavs for their Lectrosonics wireless. They also have a couple Neumann KRM 82s if needed and 4 Audio Limited 2 channel wireless devices as well. For plant mics the crew places Countryman B6’s on set.
Pritchett tries to be consistent as a mixer when he works. He’ll record his mix on track one, use the next few channels for his booms, and then set his primary actors on different tracks. Once he assigns those tracks, he’ll try not to ever change them to make it easier for post to do EQ later if they need to pull anything from the 24 frame time code ISOs recordings.
Talking with everybody on set, especially post as early as he can, has always been John’s M.O. “Working with cinematographer John Schwartzman was fantastic,” says Pritchett. “The guy is a genius. He knows so much about everyone’s job and tries to accommodate them any way he can. He’s the kinda guy who tries to figure out ways to do whatever the director wants while at the same time suggesting what might be better.”
Seth Rogen works in a similar fashion. “He gets it,” says Pritchett. “The guy is so young and really smart and savvy about all aspects of filmmaking. But if he doesn’t know something, he will listen to the people that do.”
When I asked John what he would do if he wasn’t a sound mixer – he replied, bowling alley management (laughs). He’s always said this as a joke and then, it actually turned into quite a hobby for him. He has a few 300 games under his belt already and looks forward to a successful return to form after a knee surgery by the end of the year.
One thing John told me an up-and-coming sound mixer should realize is: how much you know is easily as important as who you know — it’s a business of networking.