Sound Garden

Scene and heard: Last Days audio guru finds a method to some mumbles

Opening with a nearly wordless retreat into nature, Gus Van Sant's ethereal Last Days replaces rockstar mythologizing with something far more cosmic. As with Kurt Cobain's lyrics, it's less about literal meanings than a stream of impressions that haunt for days afterward. Clocks chime discordantly. Insects chirp. Weather changes moods. Most strikingly (and all too rare in rock movies), Last Days is a film that demands to be heard: "The overall effect for me is what's really satisfying," says the movie's sound designer, Leslie Shatz. "I really love the impact the soundtrack has once the film is over." Long stretches pass with no dialogue, and most of Blake's lines are mumbled, causing some anxious moments for Shatz. Of Van Sant, with whom he's worked on several films (beginning with 1993's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), he says, "Working with Gus is difficult because I have to give up traditional, so-called professional ideas that are a part of my craft. We're taught in the sound field that the dialogue is king." The challenge is passed on to the spectator: "The viewer has to give up on the idea that it's all going to be spoon-fed. You have to get into the totality of the experience and not just the dialogue."

As if to prefigure the film's climactic body/soul schism, the Last Days soundtrack detaches itself from the visuals, with birdcalls, ticking sounds, and other recurring noises seeming to emanate directly from Blake's disintegrating mindscape (Shatz is quick to mention the influence of musique concrète on his films with Van Sant as far back as Good Will Hunting). It's a less-is-more approach: "In most movies, the soundtrack is completely filled up," Shatz explains. "There's an effort not to leave any gaps for the viewer. Gus didn't want to do that—we don't add anything trying to make it seem 'real.' Because there's none of that, any sound that you add takes on a huge importance." Noting the ironies of this strategy, Shatz muses, "The fact that there's nothing added [to the production track] except for these iconic sounds makes it seem hyper-real or surreal. You'd think that by playing the real sound, it would seem more real, but the opposite is true." Even more disorienting is the unusual approach to stereo recording—cinematic convention dictates that all dialogue must run through the center speaker, but Last Days channels some lines through the left and right in addition to (and often instead of) the center, enhancing the interior-monologue effect. "It's very easy to break that rule," says Shatz. "People don't do it because it's not a part of the current landscape of cinema."

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  • Shatz, who has over 70 films to his credit, dating back some three decades (he's currently working on the forthcoming OutKast project My Life in Idlewild with director Bryan Barber), says the hands-on style of a "total filmmaker" like Van Sant is a welcome contrast to the frantic production schedules of most studio films, which allow directors little time for sound work. With Van Sant, "it's a 100 percent collaboration" from script through post-production. "To have the director completely involved is a luxury," Shatz says. "I don't have to try and guess what they want."

     
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