There are a handful of sound mixers in feature films whose work has ascended to the highest echelon of the industry. These names, even known to the average filmgoer, represent a small and storied pool. One member of this exclusive pool is Chris Newman, a three time Academy Award winning (eight nominations) sound mixer. You’d have to be living under a rock not to have seen one of the films he’s worked on. From The Godfather, Amadeus, The Exorcist, to Fame and The English Patient, Newman has seen 50 years of sound mixing and experienced the sea change of Hollywood first hand in the process. He sat down with me to chat about his life, his career, his teaching and his reflections on the state of filmmaking.
A Career in Sound
Mixing and Production
Newman’s career is anything but typical. At the age of sixteen, he attended M.I.T. “It was overwhelming for me, intellectually, socially, in every way. It was a mistake to go at such a tender age, but I did,” he said. I couldn’t cut it. I was gone in a year and a half. I was selling soft ice cream in Times Square.” By the time Newman was twenty, he crash landed into the bustle of New York City. Newman boldly announced to the world “I am a sound mixer!”
In the 1960’s, Newman began work on documentaries using his trusty Nagra recorder; “The first Nagra I ever had was in 1961, and when I got it, no one knew how to use it. The em ployer didn’t know how to use it so we had to figure it out together.” Luckily, by the time Newman landed his first feature, Haskell Wexler’s critical hit Medium Cool, his love for the Nagra was in full swing.
An old school love, the analog Nagra can be a hard thing to shake. Newman loved his Nagra; “The thing I miss about those kinds of recorders is the simplicity of using them. Working on the set is an almost bizarre experience where you are constantly bombarded with decisions, decision making and tension, your tension other people’s tension.” Keeping a simple recorder, he said, makes “life easier.”
As technology progressed in sound mixing and recorders, Newman eventually transitioned to hard drive based digital recorders. The first movie he solely used hard drive recording was Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004).“I had problems, problems in the field. But we muddled our way through, and it made things a lot easier for the editors. Tthat was important. Prior to that, all we used was the Nagra D.”
When I asked Newman if there was a change in style of work since he began his career, he paused for a long moment; “Look, all this business about making movies, working on movies, all of it boils down to problem solving. We are constantly problem solving. One of the big differences I notice between movie making now and earlier on is that we had a hell of a lot more fun back then!”
A Set Life
Newman was surprisingly candid, “All I did was make mistakes, get better, make mistakes, get better.” He had a mentor, Jack Jacobsen, known for his sound work on Apocalypse Now and Kramer vs. Kramer.Jacobsen would call from time to time and tell him, “Chris, nice job.” But something Jacobsen said has stuck with Newman all these years later, “Look, all of film recording is about one thing. Signal to noise. It’s always about signal to noise.” Indeed, Newman encourages, “Question how much pull does the microphone have. How much of what you want can you get and how much of what you don’t want, can you eliminate.”
Newman has encountered his fair share of problems with sound on set. That is almost inevitable for all crews, and for him, the importance was always in how one is able to address and troubleshoot problems on set effectively and quickly. On his last film, What Happens in Vegas,he had problems finding enough channels for the wireless radio mics. Unbeknownst to him until production day, they were close to a Navy Yard. Almost all 16 channels were swamped. “I don’t know what happened, but it was probably God telling me time to stop working,” Newman laughs.
I wondered out loud if there was a film that Newman felt he had missed out on. “Plenty, but that’s no one’s business but my own. I turned down a movie that became Taxi Driver to do All the President’s Men and at that time there was no reciprocity between East Coast and West Coast unions. Ultimately, I was not able to do All the President’s Men. So, I lost both movies within a very short period of time. I tried my best not to have a nervous break down!”
Since Newman, couldn’t do All the President’s Men, he recommended Jim Webb.Webb asked if there was anything he could do for him. Newman simply said, “When you win the Oscar, you can thank me.” Webb did win the Oscar, but forgot to thank him. Humbled about it now, Newman reflects “I didn’t talk to him for 10 years. When I finally confronted him, he said, “I was so overwhelmed, I forgot. I apologize.”
Newman ultimately recommended Les Lazarowitzfor Taxi Driver. “He did an amazing job and an even better job on Raging Bull. That was worth a lot to me because he was my second boom operator. I was very happy for him.”
Appreciation of his sound crew is important. “Sound mixers become famous because their boom operators were great,” Newman explains. “It’s not all the sound mixer. It’s a bunch of people… When you find great boom operators like Gregg Harris, Marc Jon-Sullivan, Dennis Maitland II, Ken Weston, Pat Suraci and David Sutton, you simply let them do their job.”
School’s in Session
Now an instructor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Newman’s hard learned lessons on set are applied to his teaching syllabus.
In some form or another, Newman has taught throughout his career, starting as early as the 1970’s. At SVA, Newman would bring students to the set, if he was working a job. “When we were working with Sidney Lumeton 100 Centre St.,a seriesthat he treated like live TV from the 50’s, Lumet was very generous. He’d let students sit with him when he called shots.”
Dealing with students has its challenges. A much more technically oriented generation has emerged, yet they are sometimes more insular in their risk taking. Newman reflects on this, “The whole idea of bringing discipline to kids 18-22 years old is very elusive. Try to get them to show up to set on-time.” And not just for sound consideration, teaching students how to put their boots down on the battlefield requires a total understanding of the production process, working with people, teaching them how to work on set, work in teams, how to shoot, how to take sound on the set, how to cut and criticize.”
There are many clichÃ©s about the sound mixing profession. Jack Solomononce said, “We’re technicians not magicians.” Newman is quick to share wisdom with his pupils. “I tell them, always be thinking. Always be conceptualizing. Trust no one myself included. Assume nothing. Double check the equipment endlessly. Always have fresh batteries as well as fresh underwear.”
Students in Newman’s courses are directed to be meticulous and to check everything again and again. Because in his eyes, something will always go wrong no matter how careful or prepared you are.
One must always be thinking about how to deal. “I won’t enable my students. Meaning, I will not show them how to do things very often. I expect them to kind of blunder through things as I did.”
The Ultimate Reflection
As my candid interview with Newman came to a close, I asked him to reflect on his accomplishments, and true to form, he didn’t miss a beat. “I have been extraordinarily lucky and been in the right place at the right time over and over again. I had a lot of discipline. I tried as I got older to be more reasonable, just a little.” He paused one last time, “One learns that doing sound is not about the sound man. It takes a sound man a long time to learn that.”