In three decades of moviemaking, Sir Alan Parker has made an indelible mark in both his native Britain, and in Hollywood, as a director of thoughtful, provocative, and invariably entertaining films. His talent comprises a remarkable range of genres – musicals like Bugsy Malone, Fame, and Evita, pugnacious action movies such as Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning, and politically charged films like Birdy and The Life of David Gale. As hands-on Chairman of the UK Film Council, Sir Alan is also responsible for guiding British film policy forward into the new millennium. And despite his prodigious work-load, this soccer fan still manages to visit Highbury for most of Arsenal’s home games!
"I feel very strongly about sound," he says, "yet I also feel very strongly about its contemporary misuse. I hate the expression ‘sound designer.’ But of course Andy Nelson is hugely important to me as the re-recording mixer on my last five or six films, and Anna Behlmer complements him as part of his team. Andy’s one of the leading mixers, if not the leading mixer in Hollywood."
Sir Alan scoffs at the notion of preparing a sound "storyboard" prior to shooting. "I think it’s a nonsense," he declares. "It wouldn’t be possible to do so, because in the end what I write before I start is a screenplay, and the screenplay might have references to sounds, and maybe music that has to be an integral part of a scene. Almost all sound effects on a movie are done afterwards. That’s because it’s just too hard during the sharp end of shooting with regard to working with the actors, telling the story, for those things to intrude upon what we’re doing."
Sir Alan leaves little to chance. "We always shoot wild track on every single new location that we do," he emphasises. "For example, on Mississippi Burning, we recorded wild sound all over the South to give the film its atmospheres. But the sound men are always very busy, and their priority has to be recording the dialogues." He uses a boom mike for around ninety per cent of the time. "I’m very sensitive to the needs of sound in that regard. I feel very strongly about original dialogues. I dislike looping. It’s a creative issue for me, because I think you lose dramatic truth if you loop too much. I actually loop less than one percent, which is quite a low figure."
Like most major filmmakers, Sir Alan sees the theatrical release as almost always the first priority – "It’s pretty great what you can do now with that [six-track] spread. On the other hand, it depends on the kind of movie, and for the kind of movies that I do, surround has to be used very judiciously. This is a matter of taste more than anything else, but I tend to like to focus the sound because usually it complements the dramatic simplicity. Evita was an opera, so the music was obviously paramount, it had to be big, and had to fill the auditorium, as opposed to a film like Mississippi Burning, which had a good music score, but the subtlety of the effects contributed significantly to the soundtrack."
When reminded that the single most frequent complaint received by Dolby Laboratories concerns the excessive loudness of theatrical movies, Sir Alan chuckles: "I think we’re all a bit guilty of that. I had complaints that Evita was too loud. Shoot the Moon used just one single finger on a piano, but that was nearly all effects, all atmospheres. I think you do dubbing for such a long time, that we all end up a bit deaf!"
"When sound works well," continues Sir Alan, "you really ought not to be aware of it. Because of the advent of the flash, bang, wallop film, contemporary films these days are so loud that they vulgarise the use of sound. The beauty of sound is when it’s used correctly and with great subtlety. It’s all to do with balance – everything should serve the story. One of my favourite films is Raging Bull, and everybody points to the fact that the sound effects, the punching and so on, are so amazingly special. On the other hand, does the film work because of the very beautiful musical score? Stanley Kubrick always said we should get back to simple stereo, and concentrate the mind on the story.
Sir Alan is not desperate for more channels, so much as for consistency in the way sound is delivered to the audience. "The great thing I would like," he reflects, "and which is why I always get so involved with Dolby – because Dolby are the best at what I require – is consistency in each individual theatre. You never know if the surround speakers are turned down, or if they’re too loud. When you’re irritated by strange sounds that are coming from behind, it probably isn’t the fault of the mix, it’s the fault of the quality of the speakers in the cinema, and how they’ve been balanced. We’re lucky to have Dolby, because it’s the very first call I make when I have to show my film. But I can’t do that in every single cinema where a picture’s screened."
How has technology changed the way he makes and post- produces a film? "There are disadvantages and advantages," he asserts. "I have to own up to the fact that Steven Spielberg and myself were the last to cut on film. Obviously in post-production there’s the huge advantage of digital editing, but we still cut on film because my editor Gerry Hambling has always worked that way. But now Gerry’s retired, so Steven’s the last person cutting on film! And he’s very proud of that fact, and wears it like a badge of honour."
On the subject of DVD, he expresses guarded enthusiasm. "Now, because of DVD," he reflects, "a filmmaker has the possibility to see his work in the correct ratio, as opposed to the hideous practice of pan-and-scan on video. But you have to use sound in the home very judiciously. The right balance of surround / front is vital in the home to convey what the director intended, but of course personal taste can come into play."
He and most other film-makers always thought that the "great lost audience" (i.e. anyone between 22 and 70), which is no longer being catered for, would be available to watch films on DVD. "But the evidence so far is that this has not happened, and the people who are buying DVDs are the young men who go to the cinema anyway. But I remain optimistic for the future, because that huge untapped audience is still out there, and may well explode again when a different audience discovers DVD."
Looking back over his career, Sir Alan feels that no one element has radically changed the film experience. "There are lots of things – and they’re all important," he maintains. "Smaller cameras, faster lenses, better film stock, faster film stock, digital sound, and CGI. As far as the future is concerned, he muses: "The audience demographic is getting younger and younger, an enormous audience of older people has been lost, and therefore an enormous area of creative work is not being done. That’s a huge concern, I think. Of course as DVD grows, more people will certainly have more sophisticated set-ups in their own homes. But I still think that the cinema is still the best place to go and the best place of reference for sound. It provides the pleasure of a communal experience, as well as the bigger screen and better sound that I don’t think you are ever going to get at home."