Photo Credit: Neal Preston

A Star is Born’s Sound Mixer on Capturing Brilliance Up-Close

Warner Bros.’ A Star is Born, the fourth version of the film and Bradley Cooper’s first time directing, has earned a hero’s welcome as the best iteration yet of the tale of love, talent, and the price of fame. Lady Gaga stars as Ally, a struggling musician with powerhouse pipes, and Cooper as Jackson Maine, the alcoholic rocker on the waning side of stardom who brings her into the spotlight. While the fixation on the female ingenue’s nose might be consistent from 1976’s Kris Kristofferson-Barbra Streisand-helmed remake, the music, as with each version before it, is all new. The unexpected and intense chemistry between Lady Gaga and Cooper is a joy; so are the songs written for the movie, a collaboration between the two leading actors and Lukas Nelson (son of Willie), whom Cooper also brought on as a musical consultant for the film.

The characters’ concerts are integral to the story, and as such, filming and recording A Star is Born was a unique task. We spoke with Steven Morrow, the production’s sound mixer, about doing shoots in between real sets at festivals, where capturing the feeling of a live crowd was imperative—but so was protecting the movie’s original music, which tells the story every bit as much as the script. Beyond getting the recordings right in a festival context, the crew experienced the added challenge of managing the expectations of an audience witnessing a seemingly silent Bradley Cooper, singing and strumming a guitar (by round two, they’d figured out a hack). Morrow, whose credits include La La Land and the upcoming Bad Times at the El Royale, filled us on in the technical complexities of filming A Star is Born, what it’s like to record Lady Gaga, and the vibes on set.

How did your role on A Star is Born differ from a more typical production?

On a normal set, it’s the production’s sound mixer’s responsibility to record dialogue while filming any kind of sound effects or ambiance that would be happening during the filming process. On this one, we would do all that, but we’d also record the band, live, and all the singing live, and make sure we captured all of that. Then we’d hand that off to editorial and post-production. The sound people in post would take all that information, mix it down, and that would be the film you hear today.

You filmed concert scenes at real performance spaces. Was that challenging?

We did it twice where we filmed at a real concert, in between acts. We went to Stagecoach, which is the music festival the week after Coachella, and that was the first time we filmed at a live concert. We went on right before Willie Nelson and his band, and we had about eight minutes to film. What we would do in those scenarios, which was different from when we were filming in a more controlled environment, is we’d kind of run on the stage with the equipment we needed, and I would take a feed from the monitor mixer—the guy who’s part of the festival—through the microphone that Bradley would be singing into, I would give him a feed of the music. A lot of the time, we’d do a playback of the instruments through the wedge, the small speaker performers stand in front of. We would put it through the speaker so that Bradley could hear it, but the crowd couldn’t because they’re far enough away from that speaker. We’d play it, Bradley would sing live, and we would record him. But we would also make sure his singing didn’t get amplified out to the crowd because the whole team and Warner Bros. didn’t want any of that music to get out before the movie came out. Imagine if we’d all been humming it for the past year, and when the movie comes out, it has less of an impact.

Any time we did that at a live festival, or even in front of a live crowd, we wouldn’t amplify any of the performances, and we would try to mute everything as much as we could. That was different than the way we would film in different locations that we controlled. When we used a stage like the Greek Theatre, we would put on a full-blown performance. We’d have time, we’d mike everything up, but in front of a live crowd where we only had five or ten minutes to film, it would be much leaner. In those scenarios we might record up to ten tracks. In front of a live audience, which would have a surround sound mike to [capture] the audience’s excitement, as well as the performance, [like] at the Greek Theater, we’d have 61 tracks of audio, because we’d be able to pull all the microphones in, all the instruments. It’d be more involved.

How was working with and getting to record Lady Gaga?

She was great. When it came down to the acting pieces, you just sat there and watched her act and transform into this person. Obviously, I had never worked with her before this, so seeing her play Ally, there was that kind of pleasure you get from watching two actors with chemistry on camera. When it came time to her singing, you know, the crew was really treated almost every other day to a free Ally concert. A lot of the time, you don’t get to hear your favorite singer or musician sing ten feet away from you. In our movie world, since we did protect the music so much, if I’m on set, I’m sitting behind the soundboard and I’m hearing the music full blast, her singing full blast, there’s this incredible concert in my ears—I take my headphones off and you just hear that a cappella performance from Lady Gaga on stage, or from Bradley. It’s not amplified and they’re just singing, and that’s how a lot of the crew experienced the filming. It was kind of an adventure every day just to come to work and be part of that experience. Because, how often can you say that you know?

Speaking of recording live performances, you also worked on La La Land. Did that experience influence you at all this time around?

I think as you go through your career, every film affects your next one in the way that you work. In La La Land, we did have a concert scene that helped us process an idea for A Star is Born. It always affects your work because you’re always trying to grow and be better. I think La La Land had its own challenges because some of the singing the [actors] did that was live was in the movie context, whereas in A Star is Born, anything they did singing live, which was everything, they were in front of microphones or sitting in front of a piano in their living room. It becomes a little bit of a different experience because you’re recording rock stars as opposed to people in their living room, or people on the street singing as well as dancing.

So singing aside, the technical aspects are quite different.

Yes, the technical side is a bit different. On La La Land, I think we got up to about 31 channels of audio, which is a lot. On a normal film, you might get up to eight or nine. On A Star is Born, we got up to 61 channels of audio. It was a behemoth difference, a giant jump to be able to get that. On the technical side, the hardest movie I’ve ever done was A Star is Born. Every day was a giant technical challenge, which we had planned for. [For example], Lady Gaga and Bradley wanted everything to be live sung, and they also wanted it to feel like you were at a live concert. We couldn’t just show up on day one and go “okay, who’s singing?” You had to show up with a plan for how to capture that spirit and feeling for the movie’s audience, but do it in a way that protects the music and the artist. We needed to make sure to succeed every day so that when you watch the movie, you go, “oh yeah, they’re singing.”

(L-R) BRADLEY COOPER as Jackson Maine and LADY GAGA as Ally in the drama "A STAR IS BORN,” from Warner Bros. Pictures, in association with Live Nation Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Neal Preston
(L-R) BRADLEY COOPER as Jackson Maine and LADY GAGA as Ally in the drama “A STAR IS BORN,” from Warner Bros. Pictures, in association with Live Nation Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Neal Preston

Was protecting the music ultimately successful? No leaks?

There was one paparazzi that was hiding in the bushes up in the Greek Theatre. The Greek butts up right against Griffith Park. The one time we amplified it was when Sam Elliott’s character was walking to the stage with and Bradley was singing into the microphone, with his band playing. That was the one ten-second bit that was leaked but nobody picked up on it and it kind of disappeared, anyway. A lot of the time the reports out of Glastonbury and Stagecoach were “Sound Problem When Bradley Cooper Got On Stage, His Microphone Was Turned Off.” When we read that we thought, good, we succeeded, they thought it was a mistake.

Given that they couldn’t hear anything, what was the live audience reaction to these shoots?

Each time we went in front of a live audience, Bradley would get up on stage and say [something like] “Hey guys, I’m Bradley Cooper, thanks for hanging out—Willie Nelson will be on stage in four minutes! Just give me a second here to film a scene for a movie that we’re doing. Thanks! You probably won’t hear me, but that’s okay.” The first time he gets up there in front of a microphone, the audience is excited and we think, okay, this is going to be great. [The band] starts singing and they don’t hear anything, the excitement kind of dwindles, and they go hm, what’s going on? It gets a little confusing.

At the Glastonbury festival, we decided to liven that up, because there are 110,000 people watching. Bradley does the same thing. He introduces himself, goes up, and the first thing he does is a slow song, from the opening shot of the trailer. The next song is Black Eyes, the opening song of the movie, with a heavy guitar riff. We decided with that, let’s play the guitar riff out because, without any of the other music, it’s just a guitar riff. So we amplified that to the crowd, and that’s when we got a big reaction. They were super excited to see Bradley Cooper jamming out on his guitar. We gave a little piece, but not enough where they could understand what the song was.

Were you familiar with the prior versions of the film?

I had an interview with Bradley to get the job, just like any of us. Before the interview, I was like, okay, A Star is Born, it’s a remake of a remake. Let me see what I can find. Oh, there’s three of them—I didn’t realize there were three of them. Well, let me start from the beginning and work my way backward. There was an early one called What’s The Cost, and I didn’t see that one, but I watched the 30s, 50s, and 70s versions, and thought each one had its own unique voice, but the carry-through was the same—how fame can distort a relationship. Honestly, you could make the movie with a different title and I don’t think anybody would compare it to the originals. It’s its own movie, and I don’t think it [takes] away from any of the others, because they all had their moments, in their time. It was surprising to [see], hey, these guys aren’t rock stars. Well, of course they aren’t, because, in the 30s and 50s, there weren’t rock stars. They’re actors who can sing and dance. In the Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand one, he’s a rock star. You see there that we’ve transitioned from actors to a rock star, and that makes sense.

Thanks so much. Is there anything else about time on set you’d like to add?

I think the one thing I would add is just the warmth we had on set that made the movie possible. I think it’s hard to make a film that’s like this, without everyone being involved and everybody caring. And that’s the movie it was. Every department—camera, props, sound—cared so much about the end product, and that was because Bradley really made it feel like you were part of a family of filmmakers. I think that was what really elevated everybody and their craft. You only want to work as hard as the next guy, right? We were killing ourselves every day on that movie and it was a pleasure to do it, because we cared, and because Bradley cared and Lady Gaga cared.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susannah Edelbaum

Susannah Edelbaum's work has appeared on NPR Berlin, Fast Company, Motherboard, and the Cut, among others. She lives in Berlin, Germany.