The Exorcist unseen
Sound designer Steve Boeddeker and mixer Mike Minkler talk about the horror classic's theatrical re-release with a remastered soundtrack and previously-cut footage. Richard Buskin visits The Exorcist
'ON THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS,' commenced a 1974 Newsweek cover story, 'a film called The Exorcist opened in 22 cities across America. Since then, all hell has broken loose.' It was only a slight overstatement. The film version of William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel about a priest's attempts to confront the devil within a 12-year-old girl provoked widespread controversy when it was first released in late 1973. Starring Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow and Lee J Cobb, and directed by William Friedkin, the movie was heavily censured in certain quarters for its disturbing subject matter and diabolical images, yet it was also a commercial and critical smash, grossing upwards of $150 in the US alone during its first run and garnering 10 Oscar nominations. Blatty scooped the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, while the picture also won the Golden Globe for Best Film (Drama), giving rise to a pair of sub-standard sequels and a host of imitations.
Now, more than a quarter of a century later, the granddaddy of all demonic horror movies has been resurrected in a highly embellished guise, both sonically and visually. The Exorcist--The Version You've Never Seen boasts a digitally remastered and remixed soundtrack that has been transformed from mono to 6-track surround, complete with additional effects and some new music. Furthermore, and in line with the aforementioned suffix to the title, this new version also incorporates more than a reel of footage that was excised prior to the film's 1973 release. As such, it conforms to the author's original vision, for as director William Friedkin recently admitted, 'This is the version Bill Blatty always believed in, and it's taken me 26 years to see why and finally agree with him.'
Blatty first saw the newly restored version when Friedkin screened it for him in a Manhattan office building at 666 Fifth Avenue. Nevertheless, in spite of the fiendish connotations, all went smoothly on this project.
'Probably the scariest experience for me was screening the film with Billy Friedkin, Bill Blatty, Buzz Newton--who was the original sound mixer--and the current team all present,' says Lucas Digital sound designer Steve Boeddeker, who was also involved with the Friedkin-directed Rules of Engagement while working on The Exorcist. 'I've never been so nervous in my life. The thing I was most nervous about was stepping on the original version, but they liked it. Afterwards we were sitting there quietly and Buzz said, "There's an awful lot of surround", but that was it. I myself was worried about the content, not how much was in the surrounds.
'My job was to figure out what Billy Friedkin meant when he said "all-new", because, although it was all-new, we didn't want to mess up what was already one of the most experimental soundtracks ever in terms of dynamics and its blurring of the line between sound effects and music. So, during the mix my job was to make sure that, when we were experimenting, we didn't stray from the original idea. I would try to make the big things bigger and let the small things be smaller, while keeping the documentary-type elements as they were. You know, one of the things that I thought was so terrifying about the original movie was that it did have this documentary-type feel to it, so we wanted to maintain as much of that as we could.'
Another challenge for Boeddeker presented itself in the form of the additional music that William Friedkin requested, with the intention that said new elements would enhance the film while providing it with a slightly more contemporary feel. 'That required a lot of thought and effort,' Boeddeker says, 'augmenting the original musical pieces without distracting from them. I delivered my music from a Pro Tools system that I have at home, with all of the separate pieces unmixed, so that when we got to the stage we could decide how much we wanted to put in the surrounds, while adding parts, removing parts and layering things.
'All of the editorial work was done in Pro Tools. We loaded all of the original stems into Pro Tools and did as much cleaning up and editing as possible. We also edited new effects in Pro Tools sessions that went along with that stuff. The whole idea with Billy is to maintain as much flexibility as possible and at any moment be prepared to completely turn around what he's said before and try something entirely new. If you're prepared for that then it's the most fun ever, whereas if you're not prepared it can just be a nightmare.'
All that the sound team had to work with from the original movie were the mono stems. Much of the music was ultimately replaced with re-cut, re-synced stereo versions, yet the demon vocals--also mono, and married to the effects instead of the dialogue--were largely retained, as was the production dialogue.
'When I first started working on the music, I realised that the things I could add which wouldn't stick out--and that was my biggest concern--were low-end and high-frequency elements in the use of the surrounds,' Boeddeker explains. 'I therefore did some pretty atmospheric stuff with a sort of pulsating low-end that could sit in there and work well with the original music.
'There again, I didn't want to screw with the signature-type things, such as the demon vocals and the dogfight. Those were the things that I remembered from the first time I ever saw the movie and we couldn't mess with them, whereas with other things such as the exteriors it was a case of making them as full as we possibly could and then, when we got to the mix, deciding how big we wanted them to be.
'With Billy the approach was to put things in the surrounds and then let him say if he just wanted them in the front. He almost always wanted everything in the surrounds. In fact, so much stuff was in the surrounds that, for the stereo version on the DVD, they had to kind of remix some of the surround material into the front. I mean, there were music cues that virtually didn't exist at all in the front. That helped us a lot as far as keeping the action in the front clear, retaining the stripped-down, documentary feel, because so much stuff was in the surrounds it was all around you. A lot of the new material is really removed from the screen. It is emotionally driving rather than tied to what you see, and I think that's fun.'
Among the signature elements that required handling with care were the sounds of the rats in the attic, the hospital equipment, the demon's voice, the girl's bed bouncing around and her head going into its 360° routine.
'We definitely played with that kind of stuff a little bit,' says Boeddeker. 'You know, "How can we accentuate this and make it bigger?". In those particular cases we'd definitely be taking away from the documentary feel by having things go all around you, and so we stripped right back to what was on the screen, whereas in other sequences there's an entire world around you. In fact, there's so much stuff going on that, as it's an EX mix, we'd joke that you could pretty much flip the front and the back and not notice the difference.
'As mixes go, this is probably one of the most dynamic that I've ever heard in terms of having tons of stuff in the surrounds and then nothing in the surrounds. The music and effects will be really, really loud and crazy, and then there'll be dead quiet. In the desert it goes dead quiet. When the priest is walking around the jeep there's no music, no wind, nothing but Foley, and that's incredibly exciting... which might be surprising for a sound person to say, but it's a great setup for what is to come.'
Mike Minkler mixed the dialogue at Todd West and, according to Boeddeker, 'he did an amazing job, digging some bottom end out of this thing. It had the Academy filter on it and it was pretty brutal, but Mike did really well getting it to sound good on its own.'
'All I had to work with was the mono dialogue master, as well as the two additional scenes for which I had the original material,' adds Minkler, who utilised an Otari Premier and Harrison Series 12 console on Todd West's Stage One, together with Pro Tools and MMRs. 'That required a lot of work, because technology was so different 27 years ago. They were using Dolby noise reduction for the first time back then, and overall the sound had a distinct quality. Technically, by today's standards, the movie is not very good, whereas artistically it was phenomenal then and it's phenomenal now. There was a lot of unwanted noise that was tolerated then but can't be tolerated now; little hums, buzzes and snaps that were induced in production and during the mix, and so that had to be cleaned up. Then I added a massive amount of EQ to the voices just to warm them up and help things sound like a modern-day track.
'In terms of the effects, some signature sounds were enhanced in certain scenes and not in others where Billy Friedkin wanted to retain the original quality. For instance, we just had a work track of Linda Blair screaming together with a lot of natural bed sounds. Well, in the first scene where she's thrashing about he liked the quality of that and didn't want it enhanced, whereas later on he did want it enhanced. The bed really starts rocking, she's throwing things around and they're flying all over the room. There again, the Iraqi scene at the beginning was completely enhanced; all of the traffic sounds had to be stripped out so that there were clean cars, clean Foley, but they also had to have a seventies quality. They couldn't sound too good because they wouldn't fit the image. The picture has a dated look and feel, so it wouldn't work if we went out to Wilshire Boulevard, recorded the traffic and stuck it into the movie. Instead, we used good recordings that were made in, say, 1985 on SR mag.
'If you hear something like a door closing it has to fit the quality of the dialogue, and so the dialogue track dictates the quality of the sound effects that it accompanies. This is especially true in the girl's house and in the doctor's office. You can't have a beautiful, pristine sound effect that goes with a 27-year-old dialogue recording that's been processed.'
Nevertheless, many additional elements were new, and as such they required meticulous mixing and matching.
'In one sequence at the beginning of the movie, the cheering and yelling of the students was married to the dialogue stem, and we had to really, really work it,' asserts Steve Boeddeker. 'Not only did it sound pretty harsh, but we also had to tweak the new crowds that we were adding so that they matched and blended in and out, enabling the central dialogue to cut through. Then, another tough thing was one of the mixes for the bed bouncing around. We were adding a bunch of big, new, exciting elements, and we couldn't get it to feel real and documentary-like in the way we wanted. Then we realised that the sounds that were in there were the real production sounds; the bed smashing around on the floor. When we stripped everything out it was, "That's it!". It was all there. That was the recording on the set--the poor girl just getting slammed around on the bed--and we couldn't do any better than that. So, we just fattened it up with EQ and that was it.'
Not so the vomiting of devilish bile, however, which is now laid thick upon the audience... in the metaphoric sense, at least. After all, actress Mercedes McCambridge gave a fine performance the first time around, providing the vocal effects that emanated from Linda Blair's mouth when Lucifer was having his say. Such effects now required more elements in order for the surround speakers to enter the fray, and so, without actually sticking a finger down his throat, Steve Boeddeker turned performer and came up with the goods.
'I made myself hoarse trying to make as many vomit sounds as possible,' he confesses, 'and then I pitched them and tweaked them and added them to her originals. The original vomit sounds are now on the front, while the new ones are coming out of the sides and a little bit into the surrounds. This is one of those cases where the whole thing is building and building...'
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'...and it needs to be larger than life. Putting the same sound all around you wouldn't have nearly the same effect as having different sounds all around, kind of like in music where you double up a guitar to get a bigger effect. So, it's predominantly [McCambridge's] stuff up in front, along with these additional sounds that have some lower elements and disgusting, visceral qualities to them.'