July 25, 2024

Interview: Oscar Winner Tom Curley

Tom Curley has been working professionally as a sound mixer for nearly fifteen years. In that time, he has worked on numerous film and television projects, including 2013’s The Spectacular Now and Sarah Silverman’s We Are Miracle. His sound work on the 2014 film Whiplash earned him a Satellite Award, a BAFTA Film Award, and an Academy Award. Tom was kind enough to spend a little time with Film Dumpster and answer a few questions for us.

How did you initially get  involved in the film Whiplash?

The first Assistant Director, Nick Harvard,  is a friend of mine. We worked on probable half a dozen movies together, and he gave them my number, and the producers called me up.  They told me they got a first time director, and working with first time directors is something I’ve done quite bit of.  I had a meeting with the director, Damien Chazelle,  After that they said, “yeah, you’re our guy.” We started the  pre-production stage, which was I actually a lot more involved with this time around. We had a lot of meetings about sound, and music playback, and how we were going to do everything so that everyone was on the same page.

It seems like with this type of film with so many instruments, especially so much percussion, that the sound mixing, and the whole the sound process, was probably a little more difficult than the average film.

Yeah, it was challenging for sure, but we had probably one collaborative efforts I’ve seen on a film in my career.  From the pre-production stage all the way through post, everybody on the crew was amazing. I had my boom operator and my playback guy, who i’ve know for very time- they brought their A game. Everybody basically did everything right, which is sort of the dream in film production.  It was really lighting in a bottle.

How often have you found that collaborative spirt in your fifteen years in the business?

It’s generally there in some degree or another. Usually there’s one or two bad apples in the bunch that  just make things harder than they should be, or aren’t as prepared as they should be, but that didn’t happen here.

What do you attribute that to? 

Partially to the script itself, which was incredible, and I think everybody knew they were working on something special from the start. Also, you hear a lot of people talk about a directors vision,  and part  of having vision as a director is knowing how to get it, and knowing when you got it as well. Damian knew exactly what he wanted, and had it all edited in his head. He had expressed so on multiple occasions where there were questions being thrown at him asking “should we do things this way, or this way?,” and he’d say “I’m not even going to use this part, so don’t waste time on it. Focus on getting this part right.” That help things move along. That and the planning of our assistant director  with all the logistic really made things possible, because we shot the film in nineteen days.

How many different types of microphones did you use?

Really, four different kinds, We didn’t get really crazy with experimental microphones. We had a pretty standard approach to the dialogue portions of the movie. Mostly where we got creative was incorporating the live drumming into playback music. All the extras that were playing band members that were actually musicians too, so they would be playing live to playback, but they would be really playing. So we didn’t have to worry about recording the instruments for the movie. We only recorded them as part of the playback process. We didn’t have to get crazy with how to properly record a french horn, or a trumpet.  There was a lot of live drum scenes, and we used a combination of the normal boom micas that we use, which are Schoeps brand, or Sennheiser,  with some hidden microphones. We had to put one on the snare, but that was a  standard body mic we’d use on an actor, and that was mostly to help the editor ad the music effects people line things up. that was something that was very important, making sure that the drum hits were all accurately aligned.

How often is sound emphasized to the extent that a sound mixer is brought in during pre-production?

Fairly rare, at the indie level, anyway. A lot of times people don’t even have an editor set up, let alone an audio person. This was a $3 Million budget, so there was a lot more room than someone that has a $150,000 budget, but either way, the foresight was there from the beginning. That’s just how Damien Chazelle’s brain works. He had the whole movie made already.

Are you surprised by all the attention the film received?

A little bit. It went further than I thought it might. I’ve worked on some other indie hits. The Spectacular Now got a lot of theater time and a lot of acclaim, but it didn’t really get a lot of rewards. I didn’t really expect this to go far beyond that. But it’s been kind of an awesome ride.

Going into the Academy awards, you had already received some accolades for the film, but were you at all prepared to hear your name called?

Having already won the BAFTA award, I at least had the experience of having been through it all once, so it took some nervousness away. I kept telling myself that we wouldn’t win, because I’d rather be pleasantly surprised then to have my hopes dashed. I had been hearing from bunches of people that we would certainly win, and so I wasn’t completely surprised, but it doesn’t make sense statistically, as no film that small had won best sound in the history of the awards, so I doubted our chances.

Anything in particular stand out from the Oscars experience?

What stood out to me was the opulence of the whole thing. Hundreds of celebrities gathering to celebrate the best films of the year while wearing $30,000 clothes, $100,000s of jewelry, eating food prepared by celebrity chefs at exclusive closed door parties with performances by top name musicians, and the public totally goes wild over it. Having now been on both sides, it’s just wild to know that I was able to break through, and got to hang with the big dogs for a day.

What do you think your drug of choice will be when you spiral out of control?

Is crank still a thing? I might do crank.  Or I might do Nuke from Robocop 2.

Now that you have an Academy Award, what are most looking forward to the poon, or the work? 

Well, I was thinking the work, but now that you put it that way…

Editors Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that Tom attended film school with Film Dumpster’s Nick Berg, Kevin Schadel and Jeff Heller. Portions of this Q&A were taken from our interview with Tom from Film Dumpster Podcast #89. 

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