The sonic abyss behind the harrowing WWII battle sequence in ‘Greyhound’
In “Greyhound,” there’s a frenetic pace to the action that never lets up. Directed by Aaron Schneider, the fast-moving allegory is based on the novel “The Good Shepherd” by C.S. Forester, from a script written by Tom Hanks, who plays Capt. Krause, a commander of a U.S. destroyer tasked with escorting supplies and troops to Great Britain during World War II.
The Battle of the Atlantic is one of the lesser known wartime stories and dates prior to America’s official involvement in the war. Convoys would travel through the “Black Pit,” where German-led U-boats would relentlessly attack them through the dead of night. For Krause and his men, it’s either kill or be killed.
What it meant for the Oscar-nominated sound team was ratcheting up the intensity without romanticizing the war.
Production set sail in Baton Rouge, La., shooting exteriors on the Kidd, a decommissioned WWII destroyer. Interiors of key locations were moved to a soundstage and built on a giant gimbal in order to recreate the turbulent winter sea. Much of the action takes place in the pilothouse and bridge wing, which serves as a balcony that overlooks the ship. A second set was built nearby to represent the Combat Information Center, the tactical center and ship’s radar room.
A challenge behind the film was authentically re-creating the communication between the officers throughout different parts of the ship. The technology of the era isn’t as advanced as today’s modern vessels. To relay instructions from the captain, crew members called “talkers” wore headsets plugged into the ship’s intercom system and would repeat the orders down the line, often overlapping each other to scurry the life-saving information along.
Schneider envisioned a visceral experience for the actors, where scenes would play out as faithfully to the era as possible. This meant that production sound mixer David Wyman had to diagram a number of different communication techniques to record the dialogue and allow the actors to hear any off-camera lines no matter where they were performed on set.
“We had to create a double system: one to cleanly record the production dialogue and a second for the actors to hear each other or any instructions from Aaron,” Wyman says. “The issue in each scene was figuring out what channel of audio to open to avoid any feedback or overlaps with the dialogue.”
To amplify the sets, Wyman sent over 500 feet of cable and an army of small microphones to the art department to be painted in order to hide them in plain sight. He also modified modern microphones to mimic the communication device of the “talkers” and various PA systems found on the destroyer.
The four-person production sound team worked in a labyrinth of close quarters often with two cameras rolling deploying a number of small overhead boom mics and wireless systems to record the critical audio elements for postproduction to expand the stirring soundscape.
Sonically, the mantra was to never let the vigor of the lurking danger from the U-boats diminish. “Having gone through the book and reading the script, one thing that was clear was this never-ending momentum to the story. We used sound to never let it slow down,” says rerecording mixer Beau Borders.
The dialogue was a key motivator to the feverish pace. The production sound tracks served as a road map for the postproduction team to follow, allowing it to control the energy, timing and, more important, the quality of the sound in order to authentically mimic how it would be heard on the destroyer.
“We spent a lot of time to get the commands and responses right,” Borders notes. “We wanted the audience to hear what the captain said clearly, but as it repeats down the line, we wanted it to overlap. It’s very fast-paced and gives an anxious feeling to what will happen next. The fact that some lines of dialogue are clear while others are chopped off as another sentence begins is a character in the film.”
The postproduction team also layered the dramatic journey through the viewpoint of Capt. Krause. “If you keep your eye on Tom Hanks’ performance, you see his full deterioration. He doesn’t get to sleep. He doesn’t get to eat. He goes through this experience over a couple of nights, and sonically, we had to tell that side of the story. We wanted to make it about his journey and get inside his head,” says Warren Shaw, who served as supervising sound editor.
Adding authenticity to the mix, supervising sound editor Michael Minkler and Shaw toured the Kidd for firsthand experience. “The entire movie takes place on one ship, but that doesn’t mean it is one location. There are different sonic subtitles to each location on the ship, whether you’re in the cabin, the pilothouse or galley,” Shaw says. “We worked on designing distinct subtle shifts so it didn’t feel like you’re in one location as you move from space to space.”
The team also researched a number of military weapons on the ship, including the massive 5-inch 38-caliber guns, the Bofors 40-millimeter antiaircraft weapons, the Oerlikon 20-millimeter autocannons, and K-guns that release depth charges into the murky waters below. Watching WWII footage, the team was able to recreate the sounds of the heavy artillery using design techniques and other sonic elements.
With each mix, the postproduction team was able to tune the dialogue, personality of the ship and the blustery conditions outside. “We had to convey 48 hours of terror that doesn’t stop day or night, and in bad weather and in bad seas,” notes Minkler, who also served as a rerecording mixer. “We realized with the dramatic pace, the heroism sticks out — and the fear. The soldiers are afraid of what might happen, but they must keep going and perform.”
Borders adds, “Sound can be a great manipulator in film. If we use it properly, we can make you feel lonely, scared or tense, and you won’t clue into what element makes you feel that way. If we’ve done our job, and we’ve introduced those things subliminally, you’re just going on the ride of the movie.”
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