The virus has infected and impacted every business and worker in one way or another. Hollywood at large is caught in the conundrum of the demand for new content and still somehow adhering to the new rules for social distancing and contactless collaboration. Of course, in show business, the old motto – the show must go on – still holds. I had a chance, over these very unique times, to speak with one of Hollywood’s top supervising sound editors, Milly Iatrou, about her recent post workflow solutions on creating a soundtrack for her latest feature film project.
Milly is a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. Her many accolades include two Academy Award nominations for her work on La La Land and First Man along with an armful of other nominations and awards over the course of her stunning career. Her back story about coming up in the business is just as interesting as her story is today. We had a chance to talk a bit about that background as well.
Milly works at the top of Hollywood blockbuster pipeline, with some of the brightest talents ever to wander west to California. One recurring work colleague is Ai-Ling Lee who has shared supervising duties with her on a half dozen Hollywood hits or more. I wrote a piece on La La Land and their collaborations here.
Milly had just begun her most recent project, the feature film I’m Your Woman when the pandemic hit the US hard. But she and her team took the reins and devised a way to work safely and remotely to get the film finished under these difficult circumstances.
Woody Woodhall: Just as COVID-19 hit you had started work on a new film and the decision was made to find a way to continue the work to complete the soundtrack, can you speak about that experience?
Milly Iatrou: A couple of days before Governor Gavin Newsom issued his “shelter in place” order I started supervising a feature film for Amazon Studios, I’m Your Woman, directed by Julia Hart. I had walked into the Fox Studios sound editorial department as most of the sound editors were packing up and copying media in preparation to setting up workstations in their homes. My intention was to work at Fox since I didn’t have a Pro Tools system at home but our First Assistant, Galen Goodpaster informed me that the Pro Tools we had just rented from Digital Difference as a final mix rig for a mix we had just finished a couple of days earlier was available. I contacted the post supervisor to ask if I should grab that rig and she told me to go for it.
Amazon set me up with all the tools I needed to supervise from home including an Aspera account. We were a small crew: Douglas Jackson and I co-supervised. I cut the dialogue, ADR and Group, Doug did all the sound effects, sound design and edited the Foley. Galen kept it all running smoothly.
For most of the schedule it was quieter than during normal times. Our temp mixes were canceled and ADR was postponed until further notice pending access to stages. Galen periodically sent us turnovers with new picture, AAFs and guide tracks. As I edited the dialogue, I sent the picture editors, Tracey Wadmore- Smith and Shayar Bhansali, mixes of the dialogue. Since we didn’t have the usual opportunity to play tracks for the director and picture editors during temp mixes I thought it would be good to familiarize them with scenes where I used different mics, noise reduction and anything which would make the dialogue sound different from what they were used to hearing. When my mixes appeared in subsequent turnovers, I knew they were happy with what I had done.
Our final mix was scheduled to begin mid May. In anticipation of recording ADR, Galen and our post supervisor, Tamara Gagarin, did research regarding options during the almost world-wide shutdown. We had to get creative.
Luckily the film didn’t require a huge amount of ADR. One of our actors was in upstate New York and only had one off-screen line. Amazon sent him a Rode VideoMic Me-L so that he could record the line on his iPhone. It took a couple of tries to get it right, but we eventually got a recording which worked in our mix.
Two of our principal actors lived in New York City which was the epicenter of the Covid crisis. They wanted to record at home. We had already done our research so were aware that Soundtrack New York had built a recording rig designed to be foolproof for actors. They delivered it pre-assembled and sanitized to the actors’ homes. The kit consisted of a laptop, a MixPre-3, a lav mic, a boom mic, headphones and detailed instructions. All the actor had to do was turn everything on and press the record button on the recorder. Bill Higley at Soundtrack ran the session from his studio where he also recorded the ADR. The actor, the director and I (all in different locations) were connected to Bill with Source-Connect to hear the recording and see the picture and we used a Zoom session to communicate with each other. The recording on the MixPre-3 was a backup of one long take of the whole session which could be used if there were drop outs in Source-Connect and therefore in Bill’s recording. It worked amazingly well.
One of our actors was in London where we used a contactless studio at Goldcrest where the actor entered the sanitized room through a special entrance. Mixer Mark Appleby set 4 mics – a lav (which the actor put on himself) and three boom mics placed close, medium and far. Once again, the director and I were at home and we communicated to London and one another using Zoom.
Loop Group was more of a challenge. Even though I’m Your Woman was relatively light in terms of Group, there were a few big crowd scenes. I worked with R.A.W. Voice Casting which had created a workable system where each actor recorded their loops in their own closet. We were all linked together with Frankie, an app which allowed up to 10 people to view and hear the film. Again we used Zoom to communicate with one another. It took longer than a normal group day but I was able to get everything I needed for the film which seemed like a miracle to me.
Our final mix took place at Sony Studios while the city was still shut down. There could only be a handful of people on the Holden Stage due to social distancing so I opted to monitor the mix from home. Every morning Sony engineering sent me a link via Clearview, and I was able to follow the mix all day in sync to picture. When the director and producer showed up to give notes, they would call me using FaceTime so I could follow the discussion and work on mix fixes which I quickly sent to the mix using Aspera. The mixers, Julian Slater and Andy Hay were happy with the setup and felt it ran smoothly. It was almost like being there but without the donuts. Until the last day of the mix when director Julia Hart and producer Jordan Horowitz took pity on me and sent me a box of incredible donuts so I could join in the fun.
WW: Let’s step back from that and talk about your work as a dialogue editor where you spent a lot of time early in your career. Every supervising sound editor understands the essential value of a great dialog editor. Tell me about doing that work and what you enjoyed about it.
MI: My very first sound editing job was as a dialogue editor on a horror film called The Vagrant. This was in the early 1990s in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was initially hired as an assistant sound editor. Gwen Whittle was the only dialogue editor on the crew and needed help, so she offered to teach me how to edit dialogue and an editing credit if I was willing to cut two reels (the equivalent of one of today’s reels) while performing my assistant duties. We were still working on magnetic film back them. I immediately enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of the work and the attention to detail. After that I bounced back and forth between assisting and editing for a few years until my husband and I decided to move to Los Angeles where there seemed to be more union editing jobs. The first job I found in LA was as a dialogue editor on a Michael Cimino film, Sunchaser, a short gig working on film. That was my last film gig. From then on, all films were using digital audio workstations. In a very short period of time I had to teach myself how to edit dialogue on Pro Tools, Audiovision, Fostex, Waveframe, Fairlight. I found it much more interesting to work digitally and enjoyed having more options to manipulate the sound beyond using razor blades, sandpaper and sharpies.
WW: Can you describe the various differences in cutting dialog from one film to another?
MI: In the early years of my dialogue editing work (1990s) the expectations of how the tracks should be prepared was very consistent. The general style seemed to be very clean, pristine with most of the problematic, noisy scenes replaced with ADR. Our crews were bigger so we could really remove every imperfection from the tracks. There were usually at least two dialogue editors on a sound crew but usually three or even four. Schedules were longer, budgets were bigger. But now sound crews continue to shrink. We’ve gone from two dialogue editors to one then one person supervising dialogue and ADR. These days as a supervising sound editor I often am the sole dialogue and ADR supervisor too. Styles of filmmaking have changed a great deal since the 1990s and therefore styles of sound editing and design. Now when I supervise a film, I start by getting a handle on the feel and world of the film. Often lately, the director does not want a super clean dialogue track. This was the case on Damien Chazelle’s First Man. The scenes on Earth were shot in a documentary style using super 16mm film to convey a real, gritty feeling. The sound had to be analogous. Damien didn’t want it to sound too clean. The mission control scene during the Gemini 8 sequence was shot like a documentary. Production mixer Mary Ellis mic’d every one of the actors with a lav. I worked with Dialogue Supervisor Susan Dawes who edited the scene using the lavs to separate the dialogue from the shuffling and paper movement in the room. When Damien heard the sequence during the final mix he felt it was too clean. He liked the way he was used to hearing it using the mix channel with the dialogue tied to all that paper shuffling and movement. So, Susan and I quickly recut the sequence on the final stage using the mix channel and using the lavs sparingly to clarify the dialogue when needed. I find it’s becoming more common for directors not to want to dialogue sound too clean and artificial. Most directors I work with these days do not want to use ADR at all, usually only for story purposes.
WW: Due to your expertise as a dialog editor, how does that inform your work as an supervising sound editor?
MI: My work as a dialogue editor has made me hyper-aware of the importance of starting with great production sound. When I’m lucky enough to be chosen to supervise a film early on in the process I like to be able to weigh in on production mixer candidates. I always have a conversation or email exchange with the mixer before the start of production after having flagged scenes in the script, to ask for wild tracks or to arrange to send a sound effects recordist on set to record unique machines or crowd scenes.
These days I’m more hands on than ever. I just finished working on The High Note with my frequent co-supervisor Ai-Ling Lee who also was the sound designer and re-recording sound effects mixer. It was a very enjoyable project for many reasons including working with Ai-Ling as well as working with director Nisha Ganatra who was very inclusive and open to our suggestions. In addition to co-supervising the sound I supervised and edited the dialogue and ADR. I had a week of help from Laura Graham who edited most of the ADR and a week of help from Doug Jackson who edited the group ADR. I was a little nervous at the start of the project because I worried that I would need more than two weeks of help, but it all worked out. Luckily Lisa Piñero, the production mixer, did a fantastic job so we didn’t have to replace hardly any dialogue with ADR which helped keep the workload under control. On First Man, I worked with dialogue supervisor Susan Dawes so in addition to co-supervising the project with Ai-Ling, I edited some of the dialogue, supervised the ADR, and edited some of the ADR and group.
WW: You’ve worked on projects with many of the same people over the years, can you talk a bit about the community of sound professionals working in Hollywood?
MI: I love the sound community here in Los Angeles. In the more than twenty years since I’ve worked here, I’ve been lucky to work with terrific, supportive people. Things really came together for me once I started working at Fox Sound Editorial around the turn of the last century. John Larsen ran the department until last year when he retired. I first worked there on Sandy Berman’s crew as a dialogue editor. I liked the environment and the people so much I just kept bugging John Larsen for work, and he hired me. Susan Dawes who is a brilliant dialogue supervisor was a regular. She had been at Fox for five years when I first started working there. She liked my work and kept asking John to hire me. ADR supervisor Bob Kizer was also a regular and I learned a lot about ADR from him. He also has an encyclopedic knowledge about filmmaking and Hollywood history and it was always fun to get into the weeds with him. At one point the legendary Chuck Campbell, Spielberg’s supervising sound editor, did a series of films at Fox. Susan, Bob and I worked for Chuck on Catch Me If You Can. We worked as a team on many films but more recently crews are smaller, so I often end up doing the duties of SSE and Dialogue/ ADR Supervisor myself. A few years later, around 2007 Galen Goodpaster, First Assistant Sound Editor supreme, started working in the department. Now she’s a permanent member of my crew. Over the years she’s also worked as a supervising sound editor, ADR Supervisor and editor.
People loved working at Fox and John liked to hire people whose work he knew and trusted so most people, whoever came through the department, stayed. Recently I’ve been working with the great Dialogue Supervisor Teri Dorman. She’s another editor I’ve learned a great deal from. Ai-Ling Lee came to Fox in 2011 to work on We Bought a Zoo and has made Fox her base since then.
WW: There is always confusion about the role of supervising sound editor in the post process. The title is self- descriptive however it would be useful to discuss the team of sound editors that you are supervising and your role as the supervisor.
MI: I prefer to work with a co-supervisor, most often with Ai-Ling Lee but I also supervise on my own or with others. I focus on the dialogue, ADR and group while Ai-Ling supervises the Sound Design, SFX and Foley. Throughout the process we share information about our areas of concentration and play things for one another for feedback. Currently I’m working with Douglas Jackson, a veteran, skilled sound editor, in the same manner.
WW: Can you could discuss your partnership with Ai-Ling?
MI: I first worked with Ai-Ling in 2011 on the Cameron Crowe film, We Bought a Zoo. I didn’t know her very well at the time but immediately liked her and was blown away by the sensitivity and subtlety of her sound design. At the start of the project I was working with another co-supervisor who had to leave due to personal matters. So, I asked Ai-Ling if she was interested in sharing supervisor duties. Since then we have co-supervised on many films including Hitchcock, Wild, La La Land, Battle of the Sexes, The Mountain Between Us, First Man and most recently, The High Note. I love working with Ai-Ling for so many reasons, one of them being that she is all about the work and creating the best sounding track possible and never about ego. She can stay calm, focused and productive even under extreme pressure. She’s a delight to work with in so many ways!
WW: Let’s talk about the collaboration between yourself and the director or producer of the project. As SSE are you brought in for pre and production, or typically is it mostly at the postproduction stage?
MI: It varies from film to film when we actually start our collaboration with the director, picture editor and/or producer. Best case scenario, we are hired during preproduction, that way we can weigh in on the sound budget. I find that early on in the process the focus is on production costs and sound gets under budgeted. There have been times when my requests and recommendations have resulted in adding to the sound budget. Starting during preproduction helps us to prepare by scanning the script for scenes with crowds, or unique machines where we reach out to the production mixer with a list of wild track requests and flag scenes where we go to the set to record by ourselves or with a sound effects recordist like John Fasale. For example, on First Man, Ai-Ling had a head start recording rocket launches in the months before we actually started editing sound for First Man. Ai- Ling, John Fasale and I went to Universal Studios to record motion simulator rides for turbulence shakes in the space capsules. It helped me to read an early draft of the script to do research become familiar with the language of space and NASA to create scripts for the loop group. On We Bought a Zoo we went to the set to record Bart the Bear with recordist Rob Nokes. That was a bit terrifying as the bear was enormous and was separated from us by a little string which the trainer assured us the bear would never cross. He also advised us to not move and make sure there was not food in our pockets. On The High Note we started during production which enabled me to consult with one of my favorite production mixers, Lisa Pinero. We discussed problematic crowd scenes and one involving a blow dryer used during a rapid-fire dialogue scene. But sometimes decisions about sound aren’t made by the creatives until post production.
The process of collaboration with the director, picture editor and occasionally producer also varies from film to film. Some directors are more collaborative than others meaning it feels more like a two-way street. It’s a given that our job is to deliver a soundtrack which supports the film’s story and vision of the director. My favorite directors to collaborate with are the ones who are interested in what we sound editors think and rely on our taste and judgement, sometimes even deferring to our choices. Ai-Ling and I just had an invigorating experience working with Nisha Ganatra on The High Note. She really listened to our recommendations and trusted our choices for everything from sound design to ADR line choices. Damien Chazelle is also a lot of fun to work with. He has precise ideas of how he wants certain things to sound. On First Man we developed a rhythm of getting requests and notes about certain scenes, doing a pass, sending it back, getting more notes until we nailed it. For example, the historical first lines Neil Armstrong speaks when landing on the moon were sent to me along with Ryan Gosling’s performance of those lines. I was asked to edit the actor’s performance to exactly match Armstrong’s. Gosling had referenced the original, so the performance was very close. I used the original as a template to match timing and cadence. I used the audio glitches from the original and mixed them in along with the background static. Finally, I used Revoice Pro to pitch map a couple of words or syllables. When my final attempt showed up in the picture editor’s AAF, I knew I achieved what they wanted.
On every film I try to absorb the aesthetics of the film and director, kind of like entering a world, and make choices based on that aesthetic. I know I’ve gotten it right when the director trusts me to make choices.
WW: Describe your role as the picture cutting is taking place.
MI: I usually start sometime during the director’s cut which is the ten week period after film production ends. This is the director’s chance to present his or her version of the film to the studio and the world so usually some sound work is needed. On lower budget films we might spend a week or two working on key scenes and then come back on to prepare for the first public preview which usually involves a temp mix but not always. On First Man, Damien and Tom wanted to spend as much time as possible editing the picture so they did not want to have to stop cutting, turn over a preview edit and then take the time to temp. Instead, Ai-Ling and I worked on key scenes, sent our mixes to Tom who would place them in his Avid tracks. Shortly before the screening we would take their guide tracks, do a quick cleanup of clicks and snaps, and then Ai-Ling would adjust levels on the guide tracks. It worked surprisingly well and the filmmakers were happy to have the extra time. Usually though, we have at least two temp mixes which gives us another opportunity to present our tracks to the director and get feedback. Temps often end up being our preliminary spotting sessions. In the old days we would all start a project by screening the film with the director and picture editor and then have an early spotting session. For some reason there never seems to be time for that anymore.
WW: Everyone who works in filmmaking has had a unique path to get to their career. What interested you specifically in sound for film?
MI: My journey which led me to a career in motion picture sound started with an interest in post-production. I started making films in high school and then at film school. Shooting was fun but I found I preferred the control and quiet of the editing room. My early films were mostly done in 16mm. While I enjoyed preproduction and shooting, I was happiest once everything was in the can. Then the real fun began. Sound was always a big part of my films. My senior thesis film was about my family watching themselves in old home movies and being transported back in time. I worked on that film for a year, most of the time spent on the sound. I added sound effects and Foley to the silent home movies. I came up with the idea to record my footsteps on literally the same surfaces in the films (we still lived in the same house) and actually thought I had invented Foley! Our school had an arrangement with the great New York City sound facility, Sound One so my film was mixed there by a real mixer.
After graduating I kept making short films and tried to get a job in post production. It was hit and miss finding work until I moved to the Bay Area where I had better luck and worked for Coppola’s American Zoetrope, Skywalker and Saul Zaentz film center. I didn’t decide to work in sound. In San Francisco I bounced back and forth between working in sound and picture. For a while I was an additional picture editor at Pixar which involved a lot of sound work. When my husband and I left San Francisco after ten years I had been working in the Bay Area as a sound editor, documentary film editor, assistant picture and sound editor, and post production supervisor. It was the nature of the film business there at that time. One had to be versatile to stay busy.
As soon as I got to LA, I started getting work as a dialogue editor. At that point I was still trying to work as a picture editor, but I wasn’t having as much success. Eventually I had an epiphany where I realized it was silly to keep trying unsuccessfully to get union work as a film editor when I was doing just fine as a sound editor and really loved it. I decided to embrace the path I was on and that’s when things started to get interesting.
WW: What is your background, what college or schooling did you do, and what work/art/exploits did you pursue prior to Hollywood? Do you still pursue them today?
MI: My interest in filmmaking started during sophomore year at Hunter College High School in New York City, when I took a course in experimental films and decided, “This is what I want to do with my life.” I started to make short 16mm and super-8 films while at Hunter and went on to attend the David Picker Film Institute at CCNY where I made a series of 16mm experimental films and received a BFA. After graduating, I received grants from the NEA and NYSCA which enabled me to continue making films and videos. In 1982 I began collaborating with Ronald Morgan on The Very Reverend Deacon b. Peachy series which parodied televangelism for the artists television program, Communications Update (aka Cast Iron TV). Morgan and I married in the 1990’s and continue to collaborate to this day on a series of videos based on texts by 19th century and contemporary writers and other series. Our work has been shown at MOMA, The Whitney, American Museum of the Moving Image, The New Museum, The Mill Valley Film Festival, World Wide Video Festival and other international film and video festivals.
During the 1980’s, as grants became scarce, it became apparent that I would need to find a way to support my filmmaking. While at film school, I discovered my love for editing and postproduction. I knew there were opportunities in post for women and people like me with no relatives in the film business. I followed the leads given to me by my film teacher at City College, but none of them led to more than a few weeks work. In the mid 1980’s, Morgan and I moved to San Francisco. With his support I started to pursue free-lance assistant editing jobs in industrials and commercials. I had much better luck getting work in San Francisco where it seemed people were impressed with my meager New York City film resumé. I eventually landed a job as an assistant sound designer on Francis Ford Coppola’s, Gardens of Stone, where my career in feature film post production began.
I continued to work at Coppola’s American Zoetrope for the next ten years as an assistant sound and picture editor, a documentary editor and assistant to Mr. Coppola. During my time in the Bay Area, I also worked at George Lucas’, Skywalker Sound as well as The Saul Zaentz Film Center. The films I worked on in the Bay Area included; Coppola’s Dracula, The Godfather III, New York Stories, Tucker: The Man and His Dream and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, James and the Giant Peach, and Nightmare Before Christmas.
In 1991, a lack of jobs in the Bay Area led me to accept a union assistant sound editor job at Universal Studios. This job required me to join the union (Motion Pictures Editors Guild) and to pay dues and an entry fee, all well worth the expense because I received a salary increase, overtime pay and eventually health care and pension plan. The movie I worked on was a flop, but I enjoyed the experience so much that Morgan and I eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1996 so that I could pursue union editing work. When I first moved to Los Angeles I usually was hired to cut dialogue. After years of doing that I decided to branch out to being an ADR Supervisor and eventually a Supervising Sound Editor.
WW: What aspects of the work do you particularly enjoy?
MI: My favorite aspect of being a supervising sound editor is the collaboration – with the director, editor and especially the sound crew. I like to work with the same people and also meet new editors. The crews were a lot bigger and the job more social when I started working in the 1980s and we worked on film. The journey from film to digital has led to smaller crews, shorter schedules and a heavier work load but there are still plenty of opportunities to brainstorm, share information and share our work.
I also love a good challenge. For me the biggest challenge is creating the right sounds for a discerning director. In First Man we used a lot of archival comms and news reports. But there were a few for which we couldn’t get permission to use which I had to recreate. There’s a scene in the film when the astronauts first arrive at NASA and are watching a film about the innovative plan to get to the moon and back by using three ships with command module orbiting while the lunar module lands on the moon and then how the two ships would dock before returning to earth. We were allowed to use the images but not the soundtrack. I chose a group actor with the perfect voice who could recreate the cadence and vocal affectations of the early 1960s and then edited and manipulated his reading to fit the period. When I played the recreation for Damien at the final mix he was confused for a moment because he thought he was hearing the original track. When he realized I had recreated it he laughed and was delighted.
WW: You mention so many women who work with you. Can you describe your gender in Hollywood and how it has affected your career?
MI: When I started working in feature films in the 1980s there were very few women in sound. Most of the women were assistants and dialogue/ADR editors but we were a minority. Many times, over the years, I would be at a final mix and realize I was the only woman in a room of a dozen or more people. Things are a lot different now. Although women are still a minority in sound, our numbers are growing and there are more women mixing and doing sound design. Ai-Ling is exceptional because she’s an accomplished sound designer, sound supervisor and mixer. I think there are some women who are doing that in television and streaming but I can’t think of another woman who excels in those three disciplines in theatrical feature films. I recently taught sound editing for a semester at USC and was delighted to meet many young women who wanted to make a career in motion picture sound.
WW: Who are your mentors and inspirations?
MI: Gwen Whittle was an early mentor. She encouraged me to be an editor when I was an assistant, an ADR supervisor when I was a dialogue editor and then a sound supervisor when I was an ADR supervisor. Currently I get a lot of advice and encouragement from my frequent collaborators, Ai-Ling, Teri Dorman, Galen Goodpaster, Susan Dawes and Douglas Jackson. Ai-Ling has such high standards and is always challenging herself and she inspires me to do the same. Teri and I are close in age but she’s been a sound editor for much longer therefore is always a great source of advice. Galen is a great assistant and sound editor and helps me out with logistical conundrums. Susan is a brilliant dialogue editor who usually has the best advice and solutions to technical challenges. And Doug is a talented sound editor and supervisor who always has great ideas on how to make even the tightest budget work.
I feel so lucky to have worked with all these wonderful people doing something I love.
We are lucky too, to be able to enjoy all of the wonderful sounds that Milly has created so far in her career. We look forward to all of the great films and soundtracks to come.