Oscars: The Nominee Competing Against Himself for 'Bridge of Spies,' 'Star Wars'

Andy Nelson - H 2016
Courtesy of Holger Max HoetzelH3 Photography

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

With a double nomination in the sound mixing category — for Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies and J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens — two-time Oscar-winning rerecording mixer Andy Nelson now has collected a whopping 20 Academy Award nominations. "It's pretty overwhelming," he admits when reminded of his résumé. He won his first Oscar for 1998's Saving Private Ryan and his second for 2012's Les Miserables.

Born in London, Nelson started working in 1969 at age 16 as a projectionist trainee. "I was so in awe of this room," he recalls, adding that the "first film that I laced up and cleaned was 1969's Midnight Cowboy. I had no idea how movies were made; I just loved watching them." He found himself drawn to sound by "how emotionally it made you feel," he explains. "I approach sound mixing with three elements: clarity, emotion and excitement."

Nelson already was a fan of the Star Wars franchise when his longtime col­laborator J.J. Abrams approached him about The Force Awakens (for which he shares the sound mixing nomination with Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson). He recalls the first time he saw George Lucas' original: "I went to the Dominion Theatre in the West End of London, and I was scared that the build­ing was going to come down. I had never heard rumbling bass sounds so big in any movie theater."

When he saw the first cut of The Force Awakens, Nelson recalls, "I wrote to J.J. and said, 'You combined freshness with nostalgia absolutely brilliantly.' " Strik­ing that same balance became the goal of the sound team, which went back and watched the original films to figure out "how to bring it up to date but still be respectful of the roots of the story. That's hard to articulate; it just felt right. It was also about making sure we didn't overstuff the scenes, because there was so much going on and we didn't want to fatigue the audience."

Nelson says (spoiler alert) that the demise of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) was the toughest scene because it required bringing quiet to the drama as Han walks onto the catwalk and calls out to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). "We wanted to create intimacy between them, but it's a noisy area. I wanted to achieve a feeling that we had reduced all of the ambient sounds until it was just a scene between a father and son, but it had to be done in such a way that you didn't realize that was happening. [Composer] John Williams had written a piece of music that came in about halfway through the scene, very gently. There was tension but no sense of tipping the scene. Subtle scenes are much harder to do than ones with a lot of action."

Spielberg's Cold War drama Bridge of Spies (for which Nelson is nominated alongside Gary Rydstrom and Drew Kunin) presented a very different challenge, beginning with its tense opening sequence. "The opening scene on the subway was all about utilizing everyday sounds, and in the middle of it was the FBI chasing their suspect," explains Nelson. "The tension had to be created out of everyday sounds — the subway train, murmurs and the hustle and bustle of everyone going off to work, doors opening, the announcements — with no music."