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Interview: Sound Designer Julian Slater on Creating The 60s Through Sound for ‘Last Night in Soho’

Thomasin McKenzie stars as Ellie in Edgar Wright’s LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, a Focus Features release. Credit: Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features

Julian Slater is a highly regarded sound designer. Amongst his most notable works includes Mad Max: Fury Road, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle and The Trial Of The Chicago 7, and this year alone he’s worked on the films The Tender Bar, Being The Ricardos and Edgar Wright’s latest psychological period thriller Last Night In Soho, which has been shortlisted for Best Sound for the Academy Awards. Slater is no stranger to Edgar Wright, having first worked with him on Shaun Of The Dead and then continued to work with him on Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, The World’s End and Baby Driver, the latter of which earned him two Academy Award nominations for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.

In Last Night In Soho, Wright takes us back to 60’s London, in all of it’s the glamour and terror, through the eyes of aspiring fashion-designer Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie). We were lucky enough to speak with Julian Slater and discuss with him the different ways he approached this film as opposed to his previous work with Edgar Wright and how he made London both scary and fabulous.

Read the full, transcribed interview below:

Adriano Caporusso: Obviously, this isn’t you’re first time working with Edgar Wright. How did you approach this film differently than his other films?

Julian Slater: I think there was much more of a journey of discovery on this one than his previous movies for me, because it wasn’t necessarily what was happening on screen, a lot of it has to do with Ellie’s state of mind, and what she’s thinking, how she perceives things. So it was really kind of trying out a variety of different kinds of techniques to tell Ellie’s story, and to figure out whether you play stuff his straight, where the stuff is played a bit disjointed, and then also the kind of flips of the world, as in Soho. Soho is two distinct places, there’s the workplace that I’ve spent a long, long, long part of my career in and Edgar has and the sound crew has as well, where it’s just this kind of bustling metropolis during the day. And at night, it turns into this kind of huge nightclub, of which the streets are different areas of the nightclub, and then past 11:20, it turns into this very different seedy, cagy place. And it was the idea of taking those two different types of Soho and making it that, not just modern and old, the kind of optimistic and the very negative aspects of what Ellie and Sandie were going through. So all that stuff took a fair bit of experimentation. I’d love to say day one, we knew exactly what it was we were trying to achieve, but it was not the case on this one. a lot of ideas that were thrown out. And then hitting on this idea of going back to recording techniques of the 60s, which was so fruitful in kind of changing of the techniques used in records, like what The Beatles were doing, and then trying to figure out how to try and play into that. So we went back an used the echoes and the delays and more old style techniques. But that was not something that we approached from day one, that was something we discovered.

AC: Did the time period affect how you approached certain sounds in the movie?

JS: Yeah, we definitely had a stark contrast between modern day Soho and period, so at least for the start of the movie, we essentially do a thing there the movie is essentially mono for the first 24 minutes, which I never thought I would do on an Edgar Wright movie. It’s just up until Ellie goes into period Soho for the first time, the movie is pretty much mono. No surround information, and even sounds that could be potentially exaggerated because of it being an Edgar Wright movie like a train going into a tunnel, we underplayed it all so that the audience is lulled into an almost false sense of security about how the movie is going to sound so that when we go into period Soho, we light all the speakers up around you and it becomes very much rich and kind of a magical place. Bur I don’t think we could have done without toning it down for the first 24 minutes. And from that point onwards, the movie is in full surround and it’s opened up. We experimented with doing that every time you go to period Soho, but that was too much of a job. The mix of period Soho, we used tape emulation plugins and stuff to give it a warm analog feeling, so that there’s very much a different feeling and a different vibe to the sounds of Soho in period than there are in the modern day. And then of course, as she keeps going back to period Soho, and the things start to get darker and darker, those are the sounds that we set up in period Soho at the beginning, which are warm and fuzzy, they turn much darker and dissonant and become much more weird sounds as those journeys progress. So it evolves what period Soho is vs modern day, it changes as we follow Ellie and Sandie’s journey.

AC: How did you approach the music in this movie?

JS: Obviously, Steven Price did the score. And we had a vast array of needle drops, that Edgar Wright writes into the scripts. So, as soon as I’m sent the script, I make a playlist of all the songs because there are a bunch of songs that I do know and there’s a bunch of songs that I don’t know. And I want to just throw myself into those songs, whether I know them or not. And the great luxury we have with them being in the script means that we can design the sounds around those music cues, like we did with Baby Driver, knowing that they’re not going to change. So there’s an awful lot happening in conjunction with both Steven Price’s score and the needle drop cues. So it’s a constant handoff between the three different areas. Steve score is working around the needle drop cues. For example, when we go into Soho for the first time, 24 minutes into the movie, and she walks down the alley, it sounds like it’s this amazing Cilla Black track, You’re My World, opening up around us. But it’s kind of not, it’s Steve’s score that he scored. He kind of replicated and then scored around that track, so that in the mix, I have control of that. So it’s actually Steve’s score that’s blooming out as much as Cilla Black, but you don’t perceive it as such. And then the sound design is happening in the street, the bus bells and car horns, they are then working in conjunction with both Steve’s score and that needle drop cue. So it’s a constant exchange from those three different areas working many times all together at the same time.

AC: What was your approach to the horror elements of the movie, like the ghosts or the jumpscares for example?

JS: We thought very hard about it, because for whatever reason, maybe it’s just my kids, but I’ve got a 13-year-old who just doesn’t seem to be scared by movies. And I remember being absolutely terrified when I watched movies. And I think they’re just desensitized to it. And so we tried to figure out what was scary, and for us, it was trying to make the audience feel very unsettled. And as an example of that, the shadow men who are the punters, the ghosts, that Ellie sees, we tried so many different sounds for those ghosts, but nothing seemed to work. And then we realized, it was taking line of dialogue that they had said and other people had said throughout the movie and doing this kind of Beatles esque treatment on it at various times in the movie. There’s a moment in the movie where this guy called Mr. Pointer, who’s the person that Sandie’s forced to sleep with, and there’s a scene where Ellie kind of is in the apartment and Pointer comes out of the toilet. And what’s happening is as that’s happening, there’s this line “I know you’re not asleep,” which we’ve kept repeating with echoes and filters so it’s very muffled and we don’t quite understand what it is but it kind of pricks your ears up and also kind of puts you on an unease, and then as we wind the filters out and you start to understand what it is, and then it goes into his actual line that he’s saying, that is really kind of spooky and freaky. As opposed to doing a full on loud brash sound, which movies do very well, there are great examples of it. But we felt like taking a different approach on this one, and that making sounds unsettling and unnerving was the way to go. And funnily enough, in that scene, there are some jump cuts where we do turn the volume up to 10. But we try and do it in a very restrained way. We try and play it pretty quite up to that moment, so that you’re not desensitized before those moments happen.

AC: One final question, for you, did any movie or movies in particular inspire some of the choices made in this?

JS: I wouldn’t say any particular one. Edgar gave a list of movies to watch, which we did, some of which I knew, some of which I didn’t know. There’s little nods to things like Repulsion in that flat above Miss Collins, where the house creeks and stuff. But it’s interesting, because the movies that were the inspiration didn’t necessarily have a huge amount of sound design in them. There’s a lot of stuff with score. What I try to do with anything I work on, you know the inspiration, but you try and do something different. So hence doing the thing with the older style techniques of filters and delays and echoes, and using those in perhaps a slightly different way to how they were used all those years ago. So that’s tipping the hat to those movies, but trying to do our own thing with them. So kind of, not reinventing, but pushing it into a new direction.

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Written by Adriano Caporusso

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