The Sound Lounge
Coolness is a hard thing to categorize. Being genuinely cool is by definition, a rare thing. It might be easier to define it with comparisons. Paul Newman vs. Steve McQueen? Newman was the better actor. McQueen was cooler. Quentin Tarantino is a great director, but by no means should anyone call him cool. John Cassavetes, now he was cool. Part of coolness is being too hip for the room, but still willing to associate with anyone, as if the cool one is so self-assured that everyone else’s level of status is irrelevant. If you are cool, there’s never a need for you to say so. I have never been cool, but I’m experienced enough to recognize it, having seen it often enough. There was one guy on the set of Number One With a Bullet, and everyone knew he was cool. He was the Production Sound Mixer, Russell Williams II.
Russell’s name is cool. “Jr.” wasn’t cool enough. He’s Williams II. The director, Jack Smight, knew Russell was cool so he would ask him to play music while the crews set and lighted a scene. He knew how to select both what Jack liked, and what would create a good mood for the crews, but he would still be ready for the shot before the rest. It was all laid out in his head. He and his assistant worked quickly, and then Russell could kick back at the cart, which seemed somewhat like an aluminum wet bar. I thought there was a cool club vibe around the cart, so I referred to it as “the sound lounge”. You just felt more relaxed if you were around it.
Production sound mixers have a hard job. You can see where the light is coming from. You can tell what lens is being used. You don’t ever want to be able to tell where the microphones are hiding. They are held on a pole out of frame, or hidden in the costumes, or taped under tables or in flower pots. Many of them have to transmit wirelessly. Those using cables have to have the cables hidden. Yet you want to be able to hear every line of dialogue with appropriate clarity, at all times. A good mixer like Russell would have mics hidden all over the place, ready to pick up sound when the actors were in proximity. He had to know where they all were, so that as a scene was shot he could ride the gain levels on his console back at the cart.
Every sound mixer has a cart. They configure them individually. It expresses their personalities. Russell’s cart held not only his mixing console and mics but also a CD player and speakers. He could stand and work if needed, but it usually wasn’t needed. He could concentrate on listening intently during a take, but as soon as it was done out came the smile and the lounge was open again. Let’s look at a few mixers and their carts. This will be a good chance to show who is cooler. These guys are all good mixers. We’re only looking for “cool”, ok?
Russell wore a hat similar to this, otherwise Fred would not have made this lineup. Denim on denim is NOT cool.
Over the weeks of shooting, I read the script and I spotted something I might be able to help with. One scene required Billy Dee Williams’ (no relation) character to be listening to a hypnosis tape to ease his fear of flying. I worked up a tape with soothing synth music playing over my pitch-lowered voice speaking the lines. If they liked it and used it in the movie, I would be eligible for a SAG card. Russell was the key to the whole scheme. I knew that if Russell presented it, Jack would listen to the tape. I was trading on his coolness. They liked the tape and used it during shooting. Because of other technical issues it was replaced during post-production, but I was still SAG-eligible AND because I had a piece of incidental music used during shooting, I also became a BMI music publisher. I named the BMI company (what else) Sound Lounge.
What happened to Russell Williams II? He went on to work on bigger films including Field of Dreams, Jungle Fever and Training Day. He won two prime-time Emmys and then became the only African-American to win two Oscars. He won them back-to-back, for production sound on Glory and Dances With Wolves. Pretty cool. Then he became an independent producer.
Professor Williams now teaches film production courses at his old alma mater, American University in Washington D.C.