“Something unexpected underneath the surface”: Sound Designer Gary Rydstrom on “The Elephant Man” [Audio]

On October 10, 2019 Block Cinema joined with Northwestern’s MA in Sound Arts and Industries to welcome Academy-Award-Winning Sound Designer Gary Rydstrom for a discussion of David ‘s Lynch’s 1980 classic The Elephant Man. Although noted for its evocative black and white cinematography and for John Hurt’s sensitive and powerful performance as Merrick, the film’s emotional landscape derives, as in all of Lynch’s works, from its rich, atmospheric use of sound.  Speaking as part of The Block’s Perspectives on Horror Series, Rydstrom addressed the weird and wondrous audio of the film, that emerged as part of an unconventional partnership between Lynch and and his designer Alan Splet.

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From the Interview

Elephant Man is a not a horror movie, but it’s about seeing something unexpected underneath the surface. And sort of finding something beautiful underneath something that can possibly be considered ugly.

Sound Designer Alan Splet met David Lynch. And David Lynch describes him as wearing this perfect suit, and being kind of straight laced and old fashioned. He didn’t connect with him in any way at all. But together they forged a very unique style of doing sound for movies. The sound half the time has no business being there. There’s no reason for the sounds you hear sometimes. And in this movie you’ll hear that.

I’m going hopefully not ruin the movie for you, or ruin any Alan Splet /David Lynch movie. But if you stop and say, “Okay, what’s happening in the soundtrack?” A lot of times you’re going, “Why? Why am I hearing that?” And it’s really meant to make you feel something, set a mood. And that’s just part of this thing that the two of them did together that was really, really powerful.

Its that combination, that’s what makes movies great, I think. We have this auteur theory that I’ve disliked for many years. The auteur theory says it’s all about one person. And it’s never. I’ve worked in the film business long enough to know that it’s not. You can have genius people, but it’s about that combination of who you work with. And once you find that and they can be as different from you as possible. But that combination can spark something really amazing. And this film is full of weird combinations of people doing something great.

About Gary Rydstrom

Gary Rydstrom is a film director and sound designer.  For Pixar Animation Studios, he directed two shorts: the Oscar-nominated Lifted, and Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation.  For Disney and Studio Ghibli, he directed the English-language versions of The Secret World of ArriettyFrom Up on Poppy Hill, and The Wind Rises.  At Skywalker Sound, he has designed and mixed many films, including Terminator 2Jurassic ParkA River Runs Through ItToy StoryQuiz ShowTitanicSaving Private RyanStar Wars: Episode IPunch-Drunk Love, Finding NemoWar Horse, and Bridge of Spies.  He also wrote and directed the feature film, Strange Magic. He has won seven Academy Awards for Sound and Sound Editing, and Career Achievement Awards from both the Cinema Audio Society and Motion Picture Sound Editors. Gary is a native of Elmhurst, Illinois, and a graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema.

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