The First Independent
An interview with Legendary Sound Editor Kay Rose
by Leslie Shatz
(This interview is reprinted
here with permission of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.)
(This interview is reprinted here with permission of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.)
Kay Rose’s career began in a film class at Hunter College in New York. When the professor realized that Kay knew more about film history than she did, she let her teach the class. In 1942,
Kay was hired by the Signal Corps as a film apprentice and worked on training films like the classic, 'How to Erect a Double Apron Barbed Wire Fence' and documentaries like John Huston’s 'Report from the Aleutians'. She started on a Tuesday morning and didn’t come home until Friday night. This was her introduction to movie-making.
She left the Signal Corps and came to Hollywood in 1944. In 1951, she married film editor Sherman Rose, and together they produced what is now considered a sci-fi cult classic, 'Target Earth'. Sherman directed and edited and Kay cut the sound. They were the first to create an educational children’s television series in the 50s, with folksingers Marais and Miranda. They shared a soundstage with Orson Welles, who was shooting a little (never-released) film on his own, which Kay and Sherman then edited. When they divorced, Kay resumed full-time work.
Kay’s approach to sound editing has always been through story. "The story dictates what you do to it," has been her mantra. It is her caring about the total filmmaking process that has attracted her to the directors she’s worked with: Sydney Pollack, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman, Gene Kelly, Michael Ritchie, Martin Scorcese, Alan Pakula, Blake Edwards, Richard Brooks, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Haskell Wexler, Robert Towne, Carl Reiner and Mark Rydell. It was her work on a Rydell film, 'The River', that earned her an Oscar for Best Achievement in Sound Editing, making her the first woman to be so honored. She served on the Board of Governors of the Aca demy from 1987-1993 and was chairperson of the Sound Effects Editing Award Committee. In addition to her Oscar, she has also won Best Sound Editing for 'The River' from the Motion Picture Sound Editors. In 1994, she was honored with the MPSE’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Her credits include: 'Intersection', 'The River', 'The Rose', 'Ordinary People', 'On Golden Pond', 'The Prince of Tides', 'For the Boys', 'The Way We Were', 'Tequila Sunrise', 'Milagro Beanfield War', 'Looking for Mr. Goodbar', 'Wrong is Right', 'The Professionals', 'The Cowboys', 'Paper Moon', 'California Split', 'Crimes of the Heart', 'Frances', 'All of Me', 'Where’s Poppa?', 'Nickelodeon', 'Daisy Miller', 'Bite the Bullet', 'New York, New York', 'The Candidate', 'Cinderella Liberty', 'Medium Cool', 'The Fox', and 'The Pit and the Pendulum'.
We first met, I think, on Nashville. I don’t know if you remember –
Well, I wasn’t on 'Nashville'.
You didn’t work on 'Nashville'?
No, I didn’t. I worked on 'California Split', the first movie where dialogue was recorded on 8-track 1-inch tape. They were filming 'Nashville' in Nashville while we were finishing 'California Split' in Los Angeles.
I just remember this picture of you at the synchronizer with 8 dialogue tracks all lined up. I’d never seen such a thing – I remember thinking how incredibly innovative that was and still is.
That was such fun, making something work that had not been done before and that nobody knew how to do. It was a challenge to work with Bob Altman and his crew.
When I worked there, I would see the door to the editing room open and a big cloud of marijuana smoke would blow out and at 5:00 pm they’d open a bottle of scotch. How did you deal with that?
The picture editing crew worked upstairs – I worked downstairs. It was a good thing – I’m allergic to marijuana. After we ran the picture the first time Bob asked, "What’s this movie about?" I said it was about losers and he said, "That’s good – you do whatever you want to do – just make it work." The only conversations we had after that were about crossword puzzles – honestly.
Whose idea was it to record 8-track dialogue on the set?
When Bob Altman shot 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' he experimented using existing sound processes to get dramatic effects. For example, in the sequence where Warren Beatty and Julie Christie meet for the first time in a very noisy saloon, she propositions him to run a house of prostitution together.
She then proceeds to devour a huge breakfast. As Beatty watches her eating, the raucous background slowly fades away as he becomes entranced by her. His concentration wipes out everything else. In reality, when you focus intensely on someone or something, the background seems to disappear. This was difficult to accomplish on a mono-recorded scene with no ADR, but dramatically it was terrific. 'California Split' was recorded on 8-track so that Bob could have separations – separations by place (different rooms) or area (background or foreground) or various combinations. For example, one sequence had seven mikes set up in various rooms so that the actors could walk around and talk and never go off mike. This was to be the prototype for 'Nashville' . Jim Webb was the production mixer – he had recorded rock concerts like Joe Cocker and others so he was familiar with multi-track set-ups. Jack Cashin was the engineer and equipment designer. The Moviolas were set up to play fullcoat channels separately or together. Jim provided a complex sound report – every channel was described separately. He tried to keep each actor on his own track but since almost everything was ad libbed that didn’t always work.
As a dialogue editor you’re not usually presented with exotic things.
Well, I was never a dialogue editor only. I was either the supervisor or the only sound editor on a film. It depended either on the content of the film or its time schedule. I was very fortunate because I started as a picture assistant and as such was on a picture from its beginning. On one small independent film early in my career, the producer/director decided that I could cut the sound, since assistants always replaced all the optical work tracks with new clean prints. But I had never done sound effects – I had no library – all I had was what they made while shooting. Some of my work on that film was a disaster. There was a ten-truck convoy starting and pulling out and I cut ten tracks with the same truck pulling out ten times! After we got to the third one, the mixers couldn’t contain themselves – they laughed and laughed.
So what do you think of the title of "sound designer?" Do you think it’s just a new name for something that –
It took the early group of sound editors such a long time to get recognized by the Academy for their work. In the beginning, each studio’s sound department had a sound director who ran it and was the only one credited on its films. In 1939 a new category was established called the Special Effects Award, which was made up of Sound Effects bunched together with Visual Effects and called Photographic and Sound. The awards for these were given to the studio department heads. By 1957 the titles changed – now the awards were to be given to the Audible Effects Department supervisor and/or the Visual Effects Department supervisor. Each studio could enter its selections to be considered for one or both of the categories and each film excerpt was run for the nominating committee, which was made up of the Visual Effects department heads and the Audible Effects department heads. In 1961 I did a picture called 'The Pit and the Pendulum' for American International Pictures. Linwood Dunn (visual effects) had seen the film at an Academy screening for Special Effects. He liked the sound job, so he nominated it. When the Academy sent its notification to AIP, the company said, "What department head?" because they had no sound or visual effects departments. But I was there working on another film so they sent me. And so it was – the special effects committee that year had all the top sound men in the business – and all the top visual effects supervisors – and me! I didn’t win but it was thrilling.
So did you consider what you were doing creative?
Oh sure. I loved it whenever I could put unrelated sounds together and make something out of them. My sparse library was not adequate for the 'Pit and the Pendulum' torture chamber so I went to Universal to see about renting their foley stage which, it turned out, was too expensive for AIP’s modest budget. Waldo Watson, Universal’s Sound Department head, said, "You don’t need foley – just use Universal’s library." So I did – and made it all up as I went along. You see, working on those kinds of low budget, mostly independent pictures caused me to be more creative out of necessity.
Do you think the soundtracks are better now than they were?
I liked yours. ['The Mummy']
I appreciate that. Your daughter [Victoria Sampson] told me you didn’t have to put in earplugs for it at the bake-off! [A special committee screening for Academy Award consideration in Sound Editing].
It really is a problem – the indiscriminate loudness of today’s sound tracks are hardest on mixers’ ears. They’re being exposed to it on a daily basis. In the past they could count on the Academy roll-off curve – you could only raise the dub so far. When the level passed the curve it distorted on optical. It was eardrum protection for the mixers as well. [The Academy Curve was an equalization format used in conjunction with traditional, non-Dolby analog optical tracks to maximize speech clarity and minimize noise.]
Every director, as you must know, wants to raise the sound and as the day goes on, the dub gets louder and louder. I had only one director who would say "Let’s play back in the morning when my ears are fresh." He was Mark Rydell, who directed 'The Rose', 'On Golden Pond', 'The River' and 'For the Boys', among other films.
Did you find it difficult to advance in this field as a woman?
What about when you would go into a mixing theater and it was all men at the console and all men in the back room?
I was taught by men. Like on my first effects job where I cut the ten trucks. One of the mixers, Bob Glass, Sr. had me come back every day at lunchtime for a couple of weeks and he and the dialogue mixer, Mac Dalgleish taught me how to lay out dubbing sheets for mixers – in essence, how to cut dialogue and sound effects.
How did you get started?
I started as a film apprentice at the Signal Corps Photographic Center Editorial Department during WWII in Astoria, Long Island. The pay was very low, the hours very long, but most of the picture editors were from Hollywood. I was eager and I learned a lot. Then I came to California with letters
(Article continues below the photo.)
(Article continues below the photo.)
Kay Rose an Oscar in 1985 for Special Achievement in Sound Effects Editing for THE RIVER (1984). Photo courtesy AMPAS (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)
Kay Rose’s long career as a sound editor included such films as 'The Rose', 'Ordinary People', 'On Golden Pond', 'The Prince of Tides', 'The Way We Were', 'Paper Moon', 'California Split' and
'Medium Cool'. She won an Oscar for 'The River', and in 1994 was honored with the Motion Picture Sound Editors’ Lifetime Achievement Award. In this continuation of last month’s conversation with Leslie Shatz, Kay talks about the relationships between mixers and sound editors, her role as an independent and the power of sound to create drama and shape story.
The mixers early in your career –
At majors, had everything to say.
They were like kings.
There was a protocol at majors. They had a different hierarchy from independents. There were departments and heads of departments and worker bees, which included directors, staff producers and writers, all of whom were basically assigned to projects by the executives. Majors ruled distribution – they owned the theaters. Independents were mostly out in the cold, but some majors contracted small companies to make B movies for them because it was cheaper. Drive-ins, when they were popular, also consumed many B movies. I was working on a United Artists film and we were dubbing at Goldwyn (subsequently Warner Hollywood, now The Lot) with an unfamiliar lead mixer – he had come from the majors. One scene had a woman running away from someone in a warehouse. You never saw their faces. You only saw their feet. She’d run and hear his footsteps behind her, then she’d stop and he’d take a couple more steps and stop. She didn’t know where the stalker was coming from. It even was written in the script that way. The mixer just kept playing the music up and the footsteps down. I finally said to him "The whole point of this is the feet" and so he turned the sound of the footsteps up full blast then called in the producer. He played it for him and said, "That’s the way your sound editor wants it."
He turned your footsteps up?
Oh yeah, it sounded like an elephant. I was pregnant at the time but I spent the rest of the mix sitting on the step outside the dubbing stage. I refused to go back in.
So now it’s all changed, the mixers are nicer to sound editors?
It changed a while back.
What do you think made it change?
Business, you know. The anti-trust decree against major studios’ ownership and control of theaters allowed non-major companies to release their films throughout the country. The days of majors monopolizing all U.S. circuit theatres were over. But it took a number of years for the majors to amend their in-house control and pecking order. With the advent of television, many outside companies were formed in competition with the majors. At the same time, independent sound studios were appearing – Glen Glenn, Producers Sound, Ryder Sound among many others, adding to the original off-lot RCA and Western Electric facilities. CBS took over the stages at Republic Studios for their own shows and serviced Four Star TV as well. It was becoming a different ball game for sound departments. Goldwyn Studios had dubbed United Artists and Goldwyn pictures, and when there were no more Goldwyn films, they had to compete with outside facilities for business, which they never would have gotten if they employed mixers like the one I told you about earlier. Thankfully the head of that sound department was a wonderful, astute man, Gordon Sawyer, whose talent made Goldwyn one of the top independent sound departments in town.
So you were freelance throughout your career, is that right? Was that unique or were there other people like you?
Well, when I started in the independent world, there weren’t very many – majors ruled. We were employed by film companies I’m sure you’ve never heard of. The editorial crew consisted of one editor, one assistant, one effects editor and one music editor. That was the ideal – rarely met. Depending on the budget, the assistant also cut both music and effects – on a good job, you assisted and did one or the other, but not both – even if you didn’t know how. If you were the assistant and sound editor on a film, you’d give the music editing to a friend and if he was the assistant and music editor on another film, he’d give the sound effects to you – that’s how you worked it. These films were very small movies, like 'I was a Teenage Frankenstein'.
I’m sure it was big in France.
You had to make up things. They had little money, so when the monster breaks out of the lab and is escaping on the street, the crew ran by with lights pretending to be cars, and I had to add motors, revs and skids.
I’m sure the studios offered you a full time position. Weren’t you ever tempted?
No, because at majors you were a name on a time card. Directors who were gaining more clout wanted their own people, not a studio department. I often worked on films at the studio involved, but operated as a separate entity with my own crew and answered only to the director/producer.
Did you encourage your daughter to get into the film business?
Yes, she had always been interested in drama – she had been writing short stories and plays since she was a child, and editorial for me had been a good drama teacher. I was working at Fox on 'Cinderella Liberty' with Mark Rydell, and I needed an apprentice. It was a very busy time – everyone was working. I didn’t think there was a chance of her getting on, especially at a major studio. The head of editorial, to my surprise, okayed hiring her if no one else was on the available list. There was just one name left on it. Donn Cambern was the lead picture editor on the film – he didn’t recognize the name but the second editor, Patrick Kennedy, did. He had worked with him and it had been a very bad experience. Patrick said, "If you hire him, I quit." So on came Victoria.
Later, on 'New York, New York', we needed an ADR editor and none was available – the entire union was working and I was already teaching two assistants to cut dialogue. Vickie had recently had a baby and was nursing her, but Irwin Winkler, the producer, who knew Vickie from a previous film we had done, said, "We’ll set up a cutting room with a crib and I’ll pay for a nurse while Vickie works and you teach her." We didn’t have to go that far – Vickie’s husband brought the baby over twice a day to be fed.
Do you have something else you would like to add?
The important part of the job is how you feel about what you’re doing – the challenges of each picture. I did a show at AIP, a Mario Bava film called 'Black Sabbath', which was shot in Italy. It was based on three short stories by Tolstoy and was delivered to me with no soundtrack and no script. There were no production tracks at all and the ADR was very sparse. Not enough to give you a clue and three stories to guess at. I loved the challenge but I hated the very short schedule and the very small budget that went with it. I was given one day to foley the entire movie – all the footsteps, props and movement. I had two friends who improvised every reel with no preparation whatsoever. Just put up the reel and go! You can imagine how bad the sync was! But all the hard effects came from my library – the sound in the first two stories was supposed to drive the lead characters mad. I must have been successful – the mixers reacted with gasps and yells the first time through.
In most dramatic films, effects are complementary, adding sounds that should have been recorded in production if one could have recorded everything completely. You can influence those films by your taste and selection of material. Occasionally there is one in which you can influence the drama itself by your choices and, much like a director, paint your own images. 'On Golden Pond', a simple film effects-wise, gave me a chance to create an environment – the place where two people spent their summers for fifty years – the place that was part of their characters.
Later in my career, I went on location several times to shoot effects and then I was able to take all those sounds and create something with them that complemented the drama in less obvious ways.
Sounds like you were the sound designer of your day. You conceived the soundtrack the way you wanted it.
Well, ninety percent of the time it was to the satisfaction of the director.
Didn’t they always want to play up the music?
Take for instance, 'The River'. The picture opens over a long shot of mountains in a rural area in the south. The main title starts, as does the music, quietly. The camera pulls back to a boy fishing in a river and the rain starts gently over the stream and the leaves and slowly intensifies. The boy runs home as the rain gets stronger and stronger and the music stops. The rain becomes torrential as the farmer struggles to barricade his farm against flooding using his tractor. We now hear just the rain intensifying and the man and his machine fighting to save his farm. No music plays until the farmer loses his battle. I had known John Williams, the composer, for a long time. We had discussed the drama of the sequence and these were conclusions we came to.
Was that rare – to be able to discuss this kind of thing with the composer?
Yes and no. Some composers write a score for music’s sake and not for story’s sake. When a score dominates and leaves no room for story points, that bothers me. To me, story rules. Finding a balance between music and effects that supports the story in the best way possible has always been my focus. It was all a lot of fun. And I miss it.
It’s still fun?
It’s never been drudgery. It is to a lot of people, but I’ve never found it so.
How long was your career?
And it was never drudgery?
No, I loved every minute.
There aren’t many people who could say that.
Leslie Shatz is a sound designer and mixer.
His credits include 'Dracula', 'Ghost', 'Good Will Hunting'
and 'The Mummy'. He can be reached via email
(Posted April 3, 2018)