Christopher Nolan Speaks Up on Sound Mix Issues in 'Interstellar'

November 17, 2014
Source: THR

Christopher Nolan

Now that Interstellar has been in theaters for over a week, the film is getting talked about more openly. But before it even started screening for the public, there were more than a few complaints about the sound mix that was reportedly meticulously overseen by Christopher Nolan. This wouldn't be the first time Nolan had problems with sound as we all remember how difficult it was to understand Tom Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises teaser scene that played before Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, but there have been various issues surrounding the presentation of sound in the film, and Nolan has just responded.

SlashFilm rounded up some of the more common complaints and sound issues some had at their screenings, and many of them were from the 35mm and 70mm showings, from sync issues to overpowering score and sound effects making dialogue hard to hear. However, Nolan reveals that all of this was done on purpose. Speaking with THR, Nolan explained:

“We made carefully considered creative decisions. There are particular moments in this film where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is. It’s not that nobody has ever done these things before, but it's a little unconventional for a Hollywood movie.

The idea is to experience the journey the character is going on. [For instance] the experience of being in the cockpit is you hear the creaking [of the spacecraft]; it’s a very scary sound. We wanted to be true to the experience of space travel. We wanted to emphasize those intimate elements.”

Christopher Nolan

That's fine, but what about (and if you haven't seen the movie, don't read any further for fear of spoilers), the scene where Jessica Chastain is bedside with Michael Caine as he's dying? There have been some complaints about Caine's final words, which are pretty important, being hard to hear. Nolan has an explanation for that too, which lines up with his previous sound decisions:

“The creative intent there is to be truthful to the situation…an elderly man dying and saying something somewhat unexpected. We are following the emotional state of Jessica’s character as she starts to understand what he’s been saying. Information is communicated in various different ways over the next few scenes. That’s the way I like to work; I don't like to hang everything on one particular line. I like to follow the experience of the character.”

That's fine if the decision was made consciously, but it can also be frustrating for audiences, especially since Caine's character delivers a pretty pivotal, game-changing piece of dialogue as he dies. And for a film where dialogue is important, especially with all the exposition throughout, hearing every single word probably feels important to everyone in the theater.

Personally, my experience in theaters was a little different, but still contained sound issues. I've seen the film twice on a digital IMAX screen (the real big one), and there were two separate moments where the sound mix was an issue, though it could just be a problem at the theater. There's an underlying bass line that surges throughout the opening of the film, and it was so loud and overpowering that it made dialogue hard to hear from Matthew McConaughey. The same thing happened during the scene when McConaughey is having the emotional conversation with his daughter as he prepares to leave for the mission.

Neither of these issues fall under Nolan's blanket of creating a realistic sound mix, but again, this might be something caused by a mistake at the theater. I'm hoping to catch the film at least one more time, maybe in a different format, to see if any of these issues carry over or if new ones are made apparent. Either way, there seems to be a disconnect between the way Nolan wants audiences to experience the film (he checked out several different theaters in LA and NY to see how it plays), and the threshold for which audiences can handle not being able to hear parts of the movie. Did you have problems with the sound mix?

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What did Caine say as he was dying? I still dont know.

Jon Odishaw on Nov 17, 2014


Probably just reciting the Dylan Thomas poem for the 5th time.

Movie Bear on Nov 17, 2014


Haha,l loved it but they did use it a few too many times.

Jon Odishaw on Nov 17, 2014


The worst sound mix I've ever heard.

Glorious_Cause on Nov 17, 2014


Nolan is getting a lot of flack for this, but in my opinion I felt the sound mixing was on point. I felt the loud crescendos in the score definitely added to my emotional experience, and made it that much more memorable

Megaweaksauce on Nov 17, 2014



OfficialJab on Nov 17, 2014


I saw it twice, I never had a problem hearing anything that seemed important. During a loud flight scene, I don't need to hear the specifics of them yelling things like 'Oh my God!' and 'Here we go!' or 'What is that?' or whatever. But apparently there are some people that did miss lines that might have been important. I don't know how to address that because I heard everything fine. Sucks to be them, I guess. I simply can't speak to a problem I didn't experience. I heard Caine's final lines just fine, but then again, I was paying close attention and nobody in my group was chatting. You wonder how much of this is the natural mix of the film and how much it might be an imbalanced theater sound set-up? We hear all of these stories about theaters screwing around and cutting corners when it comes to how brightly they project their films, so for all we know, the sound systems/balance might not be set up to an A-Grade level. Maybe certain theaters like revving up the bass to get that 'rumble' going in the theater that immerses the audience? Maybe that comes at the cost of hearing a certain line or two?

Chris Groves on Nov 17, 2014


Agreed. I didnt even know there were people having sound issues with this movie before reading this article. Every piece of dialogue was crystal clear and the music was emotionally overwhelming.

Rauncor on Nov 17, 2014


Ditto. 70mm IMAX - clear as a bell. My experience did not mirror the folks making this an issue. Re: theaters sound... had decided not to frequent a certain cineplex not so long ago due to the entire left stereo channel of one of the theaters not working for (at least,) a six month stretch. It just happened to roll around in my theater / movie rotation twice in that time. I, of course, walked straight to the manager and demanded a refund both times within a few minutes of the start of the movie. But, that it was broken for 6 months, and that that was completely acceptable somehow to management of that cineplex, tells me that sound is apparently not of paramount importance to some (at least in some theaters). I also believe I am one of few patrons who even noticed - or the only one to get up that early and walk out anyway.

avconsumer2 on Nov 17, 2014


I mostly approved of the mixing choices in the cockpit and whatnot, though I'll enjoy watching it with subtitles once it's out on Blu ray. (I often had a hard time understanding the robot.) I don't know if it was just my theater (Regal's RPX aka fake IMAXv2) or because we were sitting in the back, but I noticed the dialogue in general was rather low.

serke on Nov 17, 2014


The characters in the cockpit were having discussions and sharing jokes (apparently), so they could hear each other. I didn't feel as though I was on the same "journey" as these characters because I couldn't hear sh#t! Not a bad movie, but 'okay' probably wasn't what they were aiming for

Richie G on Nov 17, 2014


I saw this in 70mm IMAX and the sound/visuals were flawless.

Jorrell Mcdaniel on Nov 17, 2014


I really did not mind the sound on this one. No gripes from me.

DAVIDPD on Nov 17, 2014


Don't explain yourself Christopher. It's a turn off.

ragethorn on Nov 17, 2014


I had difficulty hearing Caine's deathbed confession line. So much so it took me out of the movie because I knew I had missed something important. If that's a conscious decision on the director's part, it's a poor one.

97point6 on Nov 17, 2014


Sometimes it happens. Bane had a similar problem so maybe it's to Nolan what lens flares are to Abrams. Either way, it was annoying that I missed some stuff but it just makes me anticipate watching with subtitles that much more.

Jonathan on Nov 17, 2014


So Chris,.....what did he say?

TrentsStillWaiting on Feb 12, 2015


Chris Nolan: I have some very important ground breaking news for you: Gasdk, gurb, bu,, tru,derr, joo huuuder,,, Don't mind trying to understand this, it's better for you just to feel it out instead. I work that way...LOL

Jay Alvarez on Mar 25, 2016

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