As movie theaters attempt a return to a post-COVID normal, Hollywood delivered some big blockbuster experiences in 2022. One such example is the war film Devotion (directed by J.D. Dillard, interviewed by Joey here), based on the true story of the first African-American aviator to complete U.S. Navy training. Integral to the film’s power is the work of score mixer Alvin Wee, who recently spoke with Awards Radar to discuss how the team balanced the big sound and tender emotions of this personal, yet epic story.
Shane Slater: Tell me about the starting point for your work on this film and some of the initial discussions about the score.
Alvin Wee: When I was brought on, it was kind of really deep into production at that point. Generally, the director and composer kind of get things done. And the score mixers don’t come until pretty down the line when all the music’s approved. A couple of screenings had been done, and they write these demos that get put into edit bay, and you can listen to it. And on this film, in particular, Chanda really cares so much about the music, she wanted to get it right. Even in initial screenings, she said, “Hey, I’ve got a couple of scenes for this film.” She didn’t tell me what it was.
So at that point, I’m like, Okay, sure. We’ve had a great working relationship from before. So she said, “Can you mix this? I’d like you to mix it. We want it to be big. I know you’ve worked with a couple of composers who are very familiar with that kind of gigantic, cinematic sound. Can you make my demo sound like that?” I’m like, “Oh, absolutely.”
So this was earlier, even before scoring, even before they book orchestra, even before they’ve booked any musicians. So I just went all into my mixes and made it sound big and loud and proud. And then when it came time to score the music, she gave me a call and said, “So this is the film, it’s called Devotion. The director’s J.D., we are going to score this and I’ve been talking to a couple orchestras. I’d like you to record it and be very involved in all the elements of it.” So I said, “Absolutely, I’d love to do this. Let’s get this sounding as good as possible.”
SS: We tend to think about sound and score mixers as a technical contribution that is removed from the emotions of the filmmaking. How would you describe your contribution to the emotion and art of Devotion?
AW: Oh, absolutely. First of all, I think that at the base level, you’re right that a lot of it is having that technical knowledge to translate the music, or the picture or the movie or the story. At the end of the day, I like to think that as a score mixer – and also in this case, mixing and recording it – you are still part of the storytelling process.
For me, it’s all about making sure that the story on screen translates to the audience, whether it is a technical thing with moving faders or sculpting certain sounds or putting a microphone somewhere. I think it’s all to serve the idea that the music is well represented in the way the composer has intended it to sound in theatres how she meant to write it for the movie. She has to focus so much on the notes and the chords and the instruments and the emotion.
So as someone who comes in kind of a little later in the process, I have a little bit more of that perspective of just saying, “Okay, let me handle the technical stuff. You don’t have to worry about it. Let’s make sure I am supporting you and you are able to get your music the way you want it on all musical levels.” And in that technical sense, there is still a lot of creativity to be had, because you may be recording a very difficult passage, for example, or you may be recording something that’s very specific to a specific time.
You may not have access to certain microphones or certain musicians, for example, who may have left us, or are unavailable for whatever reason. And so, within the scope of mixing and recording and the entire score production process, there is a lot of creativity to be had to make sure that we still get the most immaculate performance possible.
SS: Were there any specific sounds or instruments or music styles that you wanted to focus on to get that big sound?
AW: First of all, to respect what Chanda’s music was doing. And obviously, a huge part of it is the orchestral sound. You want an orchestral sound as big and as lush and as enormous as possible. And sometimes it is the physical size of the orchestra. And a lot of times it’s also the place it’s recorded at. We got to record in Nashville, and we recorded a huge ensemble there. We put up all the right mics and put it up in a huge hall. And that kind of constitutes that big orchestral sound. We had a big contrabass section, and we had a big cello section. That kind of gives you the low end. And you have a big, luscious high string section – violins and violas to kind of fill that out.
Then on top of that, you mix in the five horns and three trombones and just a big symphonic sound for the orchestra. Then on top of that layer, Chanda is also incredible in all her electronic and production stuff in her music. And how she described it to me originally and how I’ve come into this mix, was the concept of EDM meets symphonic orchestra. So it’s like big driving baselines, big kicks, big 808s, which you don’t typically associate with a symphonic film score.
So I had to kind of strike that beautiful balance. We have a traditional classical score at certain points, the big Hollywood moments, you know? The string swells, the horns are taking the melodies and all that. And then in certain points, when there’s big action, you want things to be driving focus on the action, then you kind of peel that back and bring up a little bit more of the electronic stuff to just support the tense moments or the action on screen. All that’s to say that there are a lot of elements that were in play on this score.
One of the more prominent moments for me was the big band scene. And it’s a piece by Chanda called “All Bets Are On” and it’s a part in the film where they were in Cannes in the casino and there was a big band piece. And so she said I need to replicate the vibe of a 50s big band back in the day. So I researched recording styles, how things were played, the technology back then. And I think that was the more technically creative and rewarding part of the score for me.
SS: This is a big war film, but the narrative is also very character-driven and intimate. How did you make sure that you were balancing those big moments with the more intimate moments?
AW: Well, truth be told, just even by the title Devotion, my mind went into a place of what’s the story about? Why is this important? And the more I learned about it, the more I learned about how this is the first ever African American naval pilot, and his story of ascension, on top of being a devoted husband, and also a friend, and also a person who served his country.
I think my goal with all the tender moments is to make sure that all the elements of how his relationships kind of interplay with everyone, the tender parts of the music were heard and not stepping on each other. Like, if there was strings meeting pianos and harps. And even let’s say, a cellist or guitar. I made sure that they felt like they were just as tender in terms of the delivery. And in terms of the representation in the speakers in a big action moment and there’s a big gong or a big timpani, I think I gave it just as much care during the mix process.
SS: You we worked on another big aviation-related movie this year in Top Gun: Maverick.What was the main thing that distinguished the sound of that one versus Devotion?
AW: Well, it was two very distinct composers. The biggest similarity is obviously, that it’s story driven. There’s are a lot of characters involved in it. And also, we have an actor that was involved – Glen Powell. But I think that’s as much as the similarities go, you know? The music is completely different. One is focused on the big action, the exciting nature of just being in flight and being in flight school and flying. There is more of that action-adventure type feel to it in Top Gun. And in Devotion, I think the way it was approached in the score, it was more focused on the story and the character and his emotions.
So when you approach something like that, the idea behind it is to kind of make sure that there is that tender balance of the storytelling versus the action. And you want to be sure that there’s this kind of development on top of that story. Whereas in the other aviation film, we had a lot of fun, trying to find different sounds and, and make it feel exhilarating and kind of being on an adventure during the film.
SS: Was there something particularly surprising or memorable about your experience while working on this film?
AW: Typically when we score films, when we are in the scoring stage, the recording studio, it’s hard to get everyone in the same room together and just paying attention to the music. And on Devotion, one of the most memorable moments was that entire week or so, when we had Chanda, our music editor, J.D. and the producers and the picture editor. And the orchestra and the conductor Anthony Parnther, everyone kind of just enjoyed the music the entire time.
I mean, it’s just rare to get everyone, because of the schedules, to sit there and just listen to music and enjoy it. Every time the lights come down, there’s a silence. The music and the picture starts playing, and Anthony’s ready to go. It was magical that week. That weekend in Nashville was definitely one of the most memorable moments in my career, to be honest. There is definitely some magic to it. And that’s why I feel so passionately about it.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Devotion is now playing in theaters.