By: Cesar Fishman
“When my kids were little, their teacher asked them, ‘What does your father do?,’ Jeremy Grody says. Their answer was, ‘He listens to the same sound over and over again.’”
And that’s exactly what he does! Grody’s renowned for his work as a sound supervisor and re-recording mixer on films like the innovative Sundance hit Tangerine, groundbreaking documentaries like Kirby Dick’s Academy Award®-nominated The Invisible War, and two features with maverick auteur Rod Lurie.
A sound supervisor’s primary job is to oversee the entire technical sound team through the final steps of a film’s post-production process. However, at times Grody is the team. Under that nomenclature, Grody often prefers to take on various responsibilities that are traditionally broken out. Typically, a film has separate editors for dialogue, effects, and music cues – but Grody can cover most of those roles if required. He also frequently handles sound design – meticulously collecting and creating every nuance of a film’s soundscape – and almost always does the final sound mixing – creating balance and dynamism with sophisticated sound processing technology. An accomplished composer, Grody’s also scored a number of television and movie productions.
“I wear more hats than most people,” Grody admits. “But if I’m touching everything anyway, it’s usually just easier for me to do it.” He’s able to be so hands on because he has his own studio, Sound Logic Post – the professional mixing facility Grody’s covertly built out in the back of his family’s home on a leafy residential street in Van Nuys, California. Despite its domestic setting, Sound Logic features state-of-the-art studio technology. “Here, I have everything necessary to get any movie to sound great inside a theater,” Grody says.
Grody clearly rules the roost inside Sound Logic’s intimate 19’ x 17’ space. Surrounded by banks of mixing boards, keyboards, guitars, Beatles memorabilia, and a framed poster for Wendy Wasserstein’s first run of her Off-Broadway hit The Sisters Rosensweig (a memento from Grody’s early New York theater career), Grody methodically rewinds a documentary he’s working on, The S Word, over and over to massage a sound cue.
“I’d worked for years for other people – why not for myself, where I can be home to watch my kids grow up?” Grody notes. “I’ve made my own lane, but it wasn’t some grand plan. It’s only because that’s where I’m most comfortable.’”
CreativeFuture: Not everyone has such varied talents. How did you acquire yours?
Jeremy Grody: I have a very creative family – my mother was a dancer, my father was an actor, and I was obsessed with music. I grew up in New Rochelle, New York. My hometown’s claims to fame are E.L. Doctorow’s from there, and it’s where Rob and Laura lived on The Dick Van Dyke Show. I’m a Type A personality, so I got into the honors program at Hunter College, which I attended in the late ‘80s. Being in that environment really kicked things off.
CF: New York was in such a creative moment then.
JG: It was fabulous – I loved living in the city at that time. In college, I played in a band called Tourist Trap at clubs like CBGBs. We were… okay: not the best band, not the worst, but we had youthful energy. I knew nothing about sound. This was before computers – there was no Garageband! We’d save up $2,000 to record demos in professional studios.
CF: Back then, studio engineers didn’t let musicians in on the recording process.
JG: No, they didn’t! It was a sacred art; I clearly didn’t have the secret password. After graduation, I went around to studios trying to get a job. They all said, ‘What have you produced?’ I realized I had to get something on tape if I wanted to be employable. So, I decided to study recording arts in a new graduate program at NYU called “Music Technology.” I got my master’s in 1992 – the program’s first graduating class.
CF: Did that program give you the training and networking you needed?
JG: It really set everything into motion for me. My parents went through significant financial struggles through my teenage years, and money concerns were real. However, I’d gotten a generous work-study scholarship and took out a small loan to attend, so I maximized my time in the recording studio. I couldn’t get enough. Learning about signal flow, how to patch things in – I loved it all, and soaked everything up.
CF: This was a key moment in audio’s transition from analog to digital.
JG: During this time, everyone started using MIDI and computers. So, with every bit of money I’d saved from work-study, I bought a Mac Classic, this sequencing software called ‘Performer,’ and a couple keyboards. I still have one of them, a Korg M1 Music Workstation. It’s amazing that it still works! This was huge for me because I could start recording projects at home.
CF: How did you go from grad school to doing professional sound?
JG: As a struggling student at NYU, I always needed extra work. One day, I noticed a “Help Wanted” sign on this community board in the recording area: “Sound person needed at the WPA Theater, 23rd and 10th.” I got hired and started running sound operations there at night – mostly for Off Broadway plays.
CF: When people seek career advice, they’re always told, “Find a mentor.” Did you have one?
JG: The sound designer I worked with there – who gave me my first shot – was Guy Sherman. He’d done many famous Broadway and Off-Broadway shows like The Sisters Rosensweig. Up in a booth, next to the lighting person and the stage manager, Guy taught me theater sound. Everything now is digitized and automated, but back then I was manually running a soundboard and a reel-to-reel tape deck simultaneously.
CF: That sounds stressful.
JG: It was! The stage manager would say, “Sound cue ‘A’ – go!” I’d hit play, fade out nice and smooth, and then cue up the next sound. It required aptitudes for technology, concentration, and multitasking, which I had. Soon, I started getting hired to do sound design myself – all done with reel-to-reel tape and a splicing block.
CF: Wow! That’s true old-school analog. When did you discover you wanted to work in film?
JG: During a class at NYU. A visiting professor showed us two completely opposite ways to score a short film by one of his students. I was blown away by how different music choices could completely change the feel and impact of a scene.
CF: How did you finally transition from New York theater into Hollywood filmmaking?
JG: I was just a young kid, working with these amazing theater artists – Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Austin Pendleton, playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, directors like Nicholas Martin and Michael Greif. Michael went on to success with Rent, and actually directed my father in the musical Grey Gardens! I didn’t want to throw those connections away. But after several months long periods of joblessness, I decided I should get more into film. I was tired of New York winters, anyway. I didn’t know anybody in Los Angeles, though. I was clueless.
CF: What was your first break in L.A.?
JG: I cut my teeth doing film sound at a B-movie company called PM Entertainment. They specialized in action movies featuring the likes of Gary Busey doing ten-minute car chases. I’d been there a couple months when the guy who’d hired me got fired for embezzling. It was this huge mess! He was out – and suddenly I was in charge.
CF: You were thrown into the deep end!
JG: I’d only mixed a couple short films at that point! Flying by the seat of my pants, I managed to pull it together – along with some invaluable training from a great sound editor Mark Allen, who’s since gone on to work on shows like Westworld and The Leftovers. Mixing a number of movies like that, I was forced to solve any problem that came up. I got inventive – learning so much about cramming a lot into just a couple audio channels without blowing the signal and killing my ears, Basically, I got to learn everything about mixing as long as I kept delivering films that passed quality control to get sold at Cannes and other international markets. In the early 2000s, PM Entertainment’s business started dwindling, so I went freelance.
CF: What did you learn from that experience?
JG: People skills are really important. I have degrees in psychology and music, and probably use knowledge from both equally! [laughs] During sound mixes, you really need to read the room. There’s pressure from all around. They say “sound is half your film” – but sound and music are the last things done on a production. People come to the sound mix already financially and emotionally invested. They’re nervous: for the first time, everyone’s seeing and hearing what they’ve been creating come together – where it finally sounds like a real movie. They sit on that couch and look at me to push the production they’ve put millions into over the finish line. If you key into that, it tempers you in a useful way.
CF: What happens if you don’t?
JG: When the mixer doesn’t read the room properly, it creates a whole bunch of personality problems, among other issues. Each client is different. Some directors want to control everything – others are much more hands off, wanting to hear what I think. You have to be prepared to work with all types.
CF: So the sound mixer must simultaneously be a general, mom, coach, and shrink?
JG: [laughs] That’s very accurate. And if you’re going to be a good mixer, you’ve got to hear well, know your stuff inside and out, and have Pro Tools and all the technology down. You have to have both.
CF: You’ve said there’s no title for what you do on a film.
Jeremy Grody: I usually serve as the sound supervisor. But if I agree to work on a project, I commit to taking care of everything sound-wise that’s integral to the storytelling and the filmmaker’s vision. That means I make sure all jobs get done. If no one is taking care of a job, I do it. That’s part of being in my own independent world here.
CF: How does having your own studio help?
JG: It’s about flexibility. I can decide for each project what is the best way for my studio to be used for that particular film. Mostly, this translates to more time on the mixing stage compared to a traditional sound house, which means more opportunity for the director and I to fully explore his/her vision in terms of sound. It’s also great to have the flexibility of a quiet recording location, so if we need some last-minute ADR, or different footsteps, we can simply do it on site as opposed to having to call a separate department or sound editor.
CF: People rarely go beyond their specific niche in the filmmaking hierarchy.
JG: It isn’t typical, but it suits my personality. A well-established Hollywood composer once offered me some poor career advice: “If you want to compose, don’t let people know you do sound, because they’ll immediately put you in that box.” I shouldn’t have listened. I discovered the exact thing that makes me me is that I do sound and I also do music. Ironically, the minute I let go of actively trying to get music work, I started getting more music work!
CF: Life is strange.
JG: There’s no rhyme or reason. If there’s any life-lesson takeaway here, it’s probably that you should stick with what makes you unique.
CF: How does your musical background inform sound decisions, and vice versa?
JG: It really helps. A film is made up of beats and moments – different emotional ebbs and flows. When mixing a movie, the dialogue is the lead vocal, and the other elements move around that. If you find the rhythm that a picture editor has set up, it instructs you where to go with sound and music.
CF: How do you go about finding that rhythm?
JG: A good way to think about mixing is to ask yourself, “What’s driving the story here?” That’s critical. If you stick to serving the story, then the mix and score fall into place. There could be a battle scene on screen, but if we have just left a close up of a wife fearing for her husband in battle, you might instead go with music rather than war sounds. Every situation demands that you answer, “What’s the point of this scene? Why am I adding or not adding sound, and does it serve the story at this very moment?” On my headstone it will read, “He served the story.” [laughs]
CF: You’ve worked on documentaries and scripted features. What’s different between them?
JG: On a documentary, you’ve got a dialogue editor, sound effects editor, and mixer. A narrative feature requires a larger amount of sound work. Basically, every event that occurs onscreen needs to be covered with sound. The team I supervise on a feature typically consists of five to six people. You’ll need a Foley artist, Foley recordist, a Foley studio… there can also be sound effects editors, and a couple dialogue editors, ADR supervision, ADR recording, and the creation of a M&E for international release. A M&E is the film’s music and effects track, but minus the dialogue. It preps the soundtrack for foreign language dubbing.
CF: Who does what?
JG: A lot of the time, I’ll do the dialogue editing and dialogue mixing all in the first pass. Or sometimes, if I’m working with a dialogue editor, I might create and mix sound effects in the first pass. That’s not the usual approach – most people separate out these jobs. I’m sitting here, though, and I own my own studio. I can edit this piece of dialogue and set the levels in one pass. That’s something you typically can’t do at a traditional studio, because mix rooms are booked at much higher rates than sound edit suites. Also, when I do need help, I only work with a handpicked group of super-talented sound FX and dialog editors and premixers – a go-to team of sorts that I can count on.
CF: From your experience, what should a filmmaker spend money on when it comes to sound?
JG: The number one thing to consider is who’s the person you are putting in charge, and who’s behind the controls. More than anything, that will determine the quality of your mix. If you are working on a major release – especially a sound-effects-heavy movie), – go hear the mix in a larger space if budget allows. Very often, if I’m working on a show that we’re certain is going to have a major theatrical release, I recommend moving to a theater stage for at least the last day or two of the final mix.
CF: Why is that?
JG: There’s science involving the physical size of the room that enables you to make better judgments. In a small room, there are certain low frequencies that simply don’t have the space to fully expand. If you really want to know what your movie sounds like in a theater, I can get you 98% of the way there here at Sound Logic – but for that last two percent, a stage is crucial.
That’s something we didn’t have money for on Tangerine. We couldn’t afford it – we also didn’t know if it was going to be released, as it hadn’t been bought yet. But after seeing Tangerine in the theater, I thought it sounded great! I always work with filmmakers, regardless of the budget. They want bells and whistles and only have X amount of dollars… I’ll still give them way more than any normal mixing situation would. Even though we had minimal time and money on Tangerine, I left no stone unturned. I worked long hours to make sure my team and I completed everything I wanted to do in that mix.
CF: How bare bones can it get?
JG: Something low budget can get down to three people. With Tangerine, there were three of us, and it was really hard work. We didn’t even worry about the M&E until after the movie was sold. From start to finish, we had twelve days to get that mix done – which is crazy! That’s about a third of what I’d usually need. But the film was going to Sundance, and it needed to be done. So [sound editor] Trevor Jolly kept feeding me edited dialogue tracks as we worked through Christmas to finish it in time.
CF: How did a small film like Tangerine get on your radar in the first place? Did you have to take a leap of faith with a film like that – one that pushes technical limits as part of its style and storytelling, yet is shot on a shoestring?
JG: The film was referred to me by a picture posthouse I work with often – DXD in West L.A. When I spoke to Tangerine’s director Sean Baker for the first time and he told me he shot a movie on an iPhone, my first thought was, “What are you talking about? You shot a movie on an iPhone? You’re nuts!” Then he mentioned Tangerine had gotten into Sundance, and my ears perked up.
CF: That always helps.
JG: I figured there had to be something to it. When I finally saw it, I couldn’t believe the widescreen cinematic quality they got from filming just with iPhones! I’ve never seen a movie that so perfectly captures what L.A. looks like at five in the afternoon. Therefore, I had to make it really sound like the streets in Los Angeles do. It had to be intense!
CF: How did you achieve that feeling through sound?
JG: When I was playing back scenes for Sean, he’d get excited because I’d maxed out the surround sounds and it would feel like cars were whizzing by us. There’s a scene where [the character] Alexandra is going to perform at a club. It’s the moment where she finally gets to be on stage – to do what she aspires to do. I basically took her vocal and the music track and completely maxed out the 5.1 feel. It wasn’t necessarily realistic for the physical space, but it put us inside Alexandra’s head – this is what it sounds like for her subjectively, at this turning point for her character.
CF: Other than story, what else leads your creative choices?
JG: Play me a bunch of unmixed tracks, and I just immediately start problem solving: “I know what to do! I’m going to take this sound and put it into the surrounds, shaded slightly to the front…” At this point, I know what needs to happen to make my vision of a film’s sound come to life.
CF: Well, you’re passionate about it.
JG: I am. If I take a story on, I’m going to find a way to do it, and do it properly.