'Transformers' Sound Mixer Greg P. Russell Hopes 15th Oscar Nom Is Finally the Charm (Video)
The re-recording mixer tells THR, "I pray and hope that, if it's God's will, it will be, and, if it's not, I will go on and work very hard and do the best work I can do."
To his colleagues in Hollywood's sound community, Greg. P. Russell, a re-recording mixer, is a bona fide legend.
The 52-year-old, who made his name at Warner Bros. (1988-1995) and Sony (1995-2011) before moving to Paramount last year, has played an instrumental role -- pun intended -- in bringing to the big screen an astonishing number of aurally-outstanding blockbuster films. Moreover, he has received best sound mixing Oscar nominations for no fewer than 15 of them: Black Rain (1989); The Rock (1996); Con Air (1997); Armageddon (1998); The Mask of Zorro (1998); The Patriot (2000); Pearl Harbor (2001); Spider-Man (2002); Spider-Man 2 (2004); Memoirs of a Geisha (2005); Apocalypto (2006); Transformers (2007); Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009); Salt (2010), and the film for which he is nominated this year, Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). That's more than any other sound technician in history, save for one.
To the general public, though, Russell is known -- if at all -- as the guy who has put on a tux and headed over to the Academy Awards year after year, only to go home empty-handed ... every single time.
It seems to me that Russell's story perfectly illustrates the single most boneheaded thing about the Oscar voting process: the nominees for each category except for best picture are determined exclusively by the people who belong to the corresponding Academy branch (i.e. the members of the film editing branch, which is composed of film editors, pick the best film editing Oscar nominees); the winners of each category, however, are determined by the entire membership. In other words, each category's nominees are chosen by people who are expert practitioners of the craft in question, but each category's winners are chosen predominantly by people who have little or no familiarity with the field that they are being asked to judge.
Of the 5,515 members of the Academy, only the 407 members of the sound branch and portions of the 236-member music branch, 367-member directors branch, and 446-member producers branch have any clue what sound editing and/or sound mixing entail. If you add up all of the members of each of those branches, they number 1,456, or just 26% of the total membership. In what universe does it make sense to allow screenwriters, art directors, and makeup designers, among others, to determine the winner of best sound editing or best sound mixing (which the vast majority of them can't even differentiate from each other) or vice versa? Not this one.
But that's precisely why the films that end up being recognized in "below-the-line" categories tend to be plot/performance-driven, like the films that most Academy members prefer, rather than effects-driven, like most of Russell's films. For many voters, it's simply a matter of coattails: they vote for the best picture nominee that they liked the most in every category in which they can. And that's why a guy like Russell, whose work is obviously revered by his peers, is still Oscar-less.
Last week, I visited Russell in his "new home," the brand new Technicolor post-production facility on the Paramount lot, to try to get to know a little bit more about the man behind the undesirable stats. You can do the same by checking out the video of our conversation (above) or reading text excerpts of it (below).
On how he first developed an interest in sound...
"I was born in New York City and I was raised in New Jersey until I was 12 years old. My father was the lead alto sax player on The Merv Griffin Show, and so music was a part of how I was introduced to sound and engineers in general. I used to go with my father to the taping of the show, and I actually sat with him on the bandstand. ... The reason for the move to California was The Merv Griffin Show moved from taping in New York to Los Angeles in 1971, I believe. I was 12 years old."
On his first steps into the field of sound...
"If there was a bass and treble on -- whether it was a stereo, phonograph, anything -- I was always, kind of, playing with that. 'Oh, a little more bass and it will sound better!' ... But I wanted to make records, primarily, and I studied with one of the very best recording engineers, Bill Lazarus, who has since passed, and he was my mentor at the very beginning. I took his class at a recording studio, TTG in Hollywood. ... I was 17 years old and still in high school."
On his personal troubles as a young man...
"I worked at TTG until I was, like, 22 years old, and then moved to Evergreen Studios in Burbank -- again, television scoring, motion picture scoring, a lot of record work. I worked with people like Harry Nilsson, and there was a lot of drugs around ... I got caught in that, from cocaine and various other things, and it had me, and I needed help. And there was a gentleman who was in the industry with me and knew all of my behavior who said, 'If you ever need any help with this, give me a call' -- a very dear friend to this day, Tommy D. -- and he was my 'eskimo' to Alcoholics Anonymous. And I ... on May 9, 1984, got sober."
On the surprising phone call that set him on a new career path...
"I got a call... a young man named Jeff Haboush was looking for someone to join him him at a little facility called B&B Sound. ... I was just getting clean. It was a transition I didn't see coming, in terms of moving from recording to re-recording. But there was a small stage that he was now going to be taking over, and I joined him and started mixing music because I had such a background in music. And that's how my re-recording career started. We were [also] doing a lot of cartoons. Oddly enough, we actually mixed many Transformers cartoons."
On his big break (which came after five years at B&B Sound, during which time he had begun to mix films, such as John Waters' Hairspray)...
"I got a call from Don Rogers at Warner Bros. Don Rogers was kind of like the president of the club of sound in the sound community, in my opinion and in many others', as well. It was like talking to the president. And he said, 'Greg, I hear great things about you. I'd love to meet you.' I was honored. He hired me to come over and work ... on Stage A at Warner Hollywood. It was like getting a call from the big leagues to come up from triple-A ball."
On his time at Warner Bros....
"From '88 to '95 I was at Warner Bros. with Don Rogers and that entire group, which was just a tremendous experience to work with people I admired so much. ... When Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) came out, I went to see that movie at the Cinerama Dome, and it was in six-track, discreet 70-millimeter, yadda, yadda, and I sat in the mdidle of that theater and I was in awe of what I was hearing. I thought, 'Oh, my God.' I was listening to sounds that were rolling -- you know, the ball rolling over your head and the rumble of the room. And all of the surround activity -- things were panning all around all the time. ... They won the Oscar for sound that year -- Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, and Gregg Landaker -- and I was so inspired. ... That's when I was in music and thought, 'Wow if there was ever an opportunity to get to do something like that, that would be really cool.' And to go to Warner Bros.? This is where they were! I was honored to be working at the same facility that these guys were at."
On his time at Sony...
"In '95 I [moved] to Sony, and I had an amazing run there. Kevin O'Connell and I had done some films at Warner Bros. when he was there, and we got together at Sony, and we had a tremendous run together -- 12 years and many nominations, some of my best work ... I love those guys down there. It's a great department. ... They were so kind to me, and generous, and supportive. ... It was hard to leave... But, after 16 years -- just about two months shy of 16 years -- you know, this opportunity [to come to Paramount and usher in its first on-lot post-production facility] became a reality, and so I made the move."
On the Technicolor facility that motivated his move to Paramount...
"It's a brand new facility built from the ground up with all the latest and greatest technology available to us. It's a phenomenal facility. We're very proud to be here. It's the first time Paramount has ever had a full post-production facility. Two-and-a-half years ago, I received a call from Adam Goodman, who [had just been made] head of production here, and he said, you know, 'There's talks of building this. Would you consider making a move? We'd love to have you here.' And I said, 'Absolutely. If it's done right, I would love that opportunity.'"
On Transformers: The Dark of the Moon, the first billion dollar grossing movie in the century-long history of Paramount Pictures, which has earned Russell another trip to the Oscars...
"It's bigger. It's bolder. It's more challenging, more complex. This one was the most challenging film of my career. There is no doubt about that... It's a culmination of the first two, which were very challenging. [Director Michael Bay] said originally that we were going to tone down the action in the third one, be not so much sophisticated, but kind of intriguing, more espionage. This movie actually has more action than the previous two! One of our supervising sound editors said, 'I think it's got the amount of action of [the prior two] combined!' It is the biggest. It's epic. The set pieces in this film are extraordinary, and they're very difficult from a sound design standpoint, as well as a mixing standpoint. Very difficult to do and make believable and not be overwhelming."
On Michael Bay, the director of Transformers: The Dark of the Moon, with whom Russell has now collaborated on eight films...
"I've been with him on every movie except his very first, which was the very first Bad Boys in '95. But from '96 -- from The Rock to Armageddon to Pearl Harbor to the Transformers films to Bad Boys 2 to The Island. ... It's just been incredible because he's such a visionary. I don't think anybody shoots action like Michael. ... He says that sound is 50 percent of the experience of his films. ... And he gives us such tremendous creative license and freedom to create. He certainly has his own ideas and his own vision, but he really lets us kinda go, and then he'll reel us in -- 'I like this, like that, don't want this,' etcera. ... It really is 'a Michael Bay film'... we are all there to serve and help bring to life his vision. ... I can say that I'm a better mixer as a result of working on Michael Bay films because I've been challenged. Each and every effort I've had to raise the bar. He's raised the bar -- I have to meet him there. We all do."
On the fact that he has been nominated so many times but has yet to win...
"It has been an honor to be singled out by my peers ... they know what it takes to do this work. ... I never want to seem like I have sour grapes and what not ... but there's no doubt that there are those times -- even times when I wasn't nominated -- when I knew that there would be a [film] that would absolutely win if it was left to just the sound branch ... and then it goes to something else because it happened to be the best picture of the year ... [But] I am always thrilled and ecstatic [just to be nominated]. ... There's nothing like it. ... If I were to go on and never win it'd be tough, but I'll still know that I've done what I love to do for a living. ... I pray and hope that, if it's God's will, it will be, and, if it's not, I will go on and work very hard and do the best work I can do each and every year. It's a privilege to be a part of this industry. I'm very grateful."
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