’32 Sounds’ Documentary Could End a Long Oscar Drought

No documentaries have been nominated for a best sound Oscar since Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock” more than half a century ago — even potential contenders such as Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” did not make the cut. Sam Green hopes that his doc “32 Sounds” will break that dry spell and become the second documentary nominated in the category.

Green’s film, which premiered at Sundance last year, explores the phenomenon of sound through 32 specific sonic experiences. When he began the project three years ago, he didn’t know much about sound, but his interest in it grew after directing “A Thousand Thoughts,” a 2018 docu about classical-music group the Kronos Quartet.

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“I started reading all these books about sound, and in one of them there was a reference to Annea Lockwood, who recorded the sound of rivers for 50 years,” says Green. “I was like, ‘Wow. Who is this person?’”

Green not only features Lockwood in “32 Sounds,” he also made a short about her titled “Annea Lockwood/A Film About Listening.”

The filmmaker knew that he needed someone in his corner who was an expert on sound before starting the feature. So, he contacted Mark Mangini — a two-time Oscar-winner for his work on “Dune” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” — and “would call him all the time and write him questions because there was so much technical stuff I didn’t know.”

Eventually, Mangini signed on to be the doc’s sound designer.

“Sam would pitch an idea to me of a scene he wanted to shoot for the movie,” says Mangini. “Then we would talk about how sound worked [there], and did it follow the narrative thread Sam wanted to follow? We would talk about it more like storytellers, like co-writers.

“And sometimes that would mean yes. That’s a scene he wanted to shoot. And sometimes it meant, nope. This isn’t going where I wanted it to go,” Mangini says. “That for me was extraordinarily fulfilling because I felt that rare feeling where a filmmaker feels as though I’m part of their core creative team. That was really rewarding.”

Mangini mixed three versions of “32 Sounds” for distribution: A headphone-only mix for streaming and online consumption, a headphone-only mix for live theaters, and a 7.1 theatrical mix.

The fun part for Mangini: that the first main mix was a headphone version. “That is something I had never done before,” he says. “I’ve been in narrative cinema for 48 years, and all I’ve ever mixed on are speakers for movie theaters.”

He adds: “I was learning on the job as I mixed this film.”

After Abramorama released “32 Sounds” theatrically in April, Green approached Mangini about submitting the film for best sound Oscar consideration.

“I asked him to just get a sense of whether or not it was an insane idea,” says Green. “Mark said, ‘Well, the sound branch generally believes the more sound the better.’”

That’s when the filmmaker learned that “Woodstock,” a 1970 release, was the last doc to receive a nod in the category.

“It didn’t make sense to me,” says Green. “There are so many great documentaries in terms of sound. How could that possibly be? So that really got me riled up. I was offended on behalf of all documentaries.”

“32 Sounds” may not have explosions, nuclear bomb detonations or “all the trappings of what we think are big sound movies,” Mangini says. “But I felt that my constituency, my sound community, had gotten maybe beyond that and was ready to consider a film that considered sound at its most fundamental level.”

He adds: “With this film, sound was not a veneer that was laid on top of something at the end of the filmmaking process. It was a foundational element of the creation of the movie, and I think that makes this movie for me — and hopefully my community — really interesting.”

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