POZNAN, Poland— Last night, I had the great good fortune to sit at a concert with three-time Oscar winning sound mixer David MacMillan at a concert here at the Transatlantyk Festival, a film and music festival put on by Oscar-winning composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Kaczmarek grew up in Poland and adopted Poznan as his hometown after attending college here. MacMillan, who won his gold statues for “The Right Stuff,” “Speed” and “Apollo 13," is here teaching a master class. His other credits include "Twilight," "The 40-Year Old Virgin," "Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom," and "Hairspray." At 71, MacMillan has just retired. His last film, “Paranoia,” starring Harrison Ford and Liam Hemsworth, opens Aug. 16.
I sat down with the affable MacMillan today to recount some of his more memorable moments in a career filled with them. We only hit the tip of the iceberg.
MOST HARROWING SHOOT: “‘Natural Born Killers’ (1994) We shot for 18 days inside Interstate Prison [in Illinois]. Interstate has one of the last circular cellblocks. Cellblock B is the biggest single cellblock in the country with 1,500 on one side and 1,500 on the other. One of the scenes is an 8-minute walk-and-talk with the warden [played by] Tommy Lee Jones and Tom Sizemore. They go through the restaurant, the cafeteria, we’re using real prisoners as actors, and they then they walk into Cellblock B. Well, Cellblock B is so loud because all these guys have got radios and are yelling back and forth to each other and it’s all metal, so it’s very hard for radio mics to work within it. I said [to director Oliver Stone], ‘If you want to get a track here that you can use, you’re going to have to quiet the prisoners down.’ There’s three gangs in the prison system: the El Rukn, the black gang; there’s the Latin Kings, and there’s the White Aryan Nation. [El Rukn’s] Big Load is the head guy. He has a cell on the bottom floor with two empty cells on either side so nobody can [come] around the corner at him. He’s got bodyguards the size of mountains who watch out for him. He’s 6’5” and weighs about 370. He’s a big, big guy. We went up to Big Load and said ‘Can you make it quiet in here?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, not a problem. Get me a bottle of Black Label and it’s yours.’ He basically runs the prison. We had to go to the warden. He said, ‘Yeah, get him the bottle.’ We had set the shot up. [Big Load’s] body guards shout at the top of their lungs: ‘Big Load wants you to shut the f**k up’ and the level comes down. Then, ‘Turn off your f**king radios and TVs,’ and they all turned off. I had set up on a little dolly because I couldn’t carry the radio mic the whole way. I had to be real close because there was so much metal around, it sucks up all the radio waves in a way, so soon as we got it quiet, we dolly all the way back 300 yards. We got our shot in one take and he got his Black Label."
MOST INNOVATIVE SHOOT: “‘Falling Down’ (1993). There’s a scene where Michael [Douglas] is running through MacArthur Park and some guy is hitting on him for money. They were redoing the park and there’s jackhammers, which they couldn’t control, so it was pretty impossible to do it and it meant that some of that scene had to be looped. I suggested to Joel [Shumacher] that we do it in a studio where Mike can be running. We put him in a studio with headphones and a receiver and I have a boom and I’m booming him like we would a normal shot. I had him running and getting the same energy going and so it gave him energy and it opened up the dialogue to what it would be like if you were recording the actual scene instead of sitting in a room with headphones on and looking at a screen and sitting with the microphone three inches from his face that has to be EQ’d and never really sounds right anyway. The body language also helps the actors. There’s a tension that builds and just the motion itself. Michael was great. He loved the idea.”
MOST CRAMPED SHOOT (AND GOOD SANDRA BULLOCK INFO): “‘Speed’ (1994). What happens on that bus, there’s a real driver on the roof of the bus. We have a popemobile, basically, the whole front of the bus is glass and there’s three or four cameras on there. There’s no place for me to go. I’m not going on the roof of the bus because I can’t get to the actors if I have to change their radio mics. So the only place for me to go— I’m sitting in the middle exit door with a little four-channel mixer, hiding, and I’m mixing four radio mics on the actors as the bus is moving. There’s a scene where Joe Morton tries to come up and take the bus driver off the bus and the wheels are banging up against the side of the doors that I’m on and it’s hard to keep your focus. A lot of times I’ll take the microphones and put them right out in the open and make them look like part of a costume. With a SWAT team, that’s no problem with all. I was able to get good dialogue on the back of that bus with an open truck. Keanu [Reeves], I had to put it in the seam of his t-shirt and he was never really in the wind. With Sandra [Bullock], she has great skin. One thing about a good actor, they don’t sweat. They’re totally cool and know their lines. Even when it’s 90 degrees, they stay cool inside and you can put a mic on their skin and cover it with a softie, a felt thing so it doesn’t [record] clothing rustle and it will stay there. We have this stuff they use for burn victims, Tagaderm, and we put it on there and it will stay there all day long. She doesn’t sweat."
MOST DREADFUL MOVIE: “‘Leonard Part 6’ (1987), the one that Bill Cosby did. I felt really bad for Paul Weiland because it was his first feature film. He’s a really nice man, mainly a commercial director, that whole school of British directors with Ridley [Scott] and Tony [Scott] and Al[an] Parker and Adrian Lyne and it was his chance for his shot at Hollywood. It was an awful script and it turned out to be a terrible film. Mr. Cosby came out against it. He didn’t want anything to do with it. That was the end of David Puttnam and his reign at Coca Cola. He took a hike and went off and ran the British Film Society. But I had a great time on the film."
MOST DIFFICULT MOVIE SHOOT: “‘The Right Stuff’ (1983) was really difficult. [Producers] Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler had ordered a projection system and it wasn’t ready in time for the film [so] we were watching the dailies in the American Can Company on 3rd St. in San Francisco. It was this cement building with cement floors and cement ceiling. We put a screening room in and [it] had these old 1935 Acme projectors with 35 watt A500 speaker and it sounded terrible. I couldn’t believe how badly it sounded and I was getting kind of worried. I thought I was going to be fired. Caleb [Deschanel] came up to me, he was having problems as well. He was the cameraman. So he was angry. I was angry. So one day, Caleb and I got into it. We’ve been good friends ever since, but, mind you, he was sort of complaining about the sound... f course, we never did get a projection system. So they took all my stuff and ran it through a Finley Hill box and they decided by listening to it that all the stuff they thought was happening wasn’t. It sounded great and everything was fine. It was the concrete. I won an Oscar and Caleb didn’t (laughs)."
MOST LIFE ALTERING SHOOT: “'Black Widow’ (1987) because I met my wife."