Sam Green on the Personal Reverberations of “32 Sounds”

Ever since Sam Green made the 2012 film “Fog City” about the clouds that gather over San Francisco, he’s had a voice ringing inside his head of one of the subjects he spoke to.

“I interviewed this old writer who talked about the foghorns in a way that really stuck with me,” said Green, who couldn’t help but consider reverberations in more ways than one when making his latest film “32 Sounds.” “I’ve thought about it ever since and I made this film ’32 Sounds’] completely during the pandemic, so I looted some of my archive, and [when] I’ve been making films for 25 years and had moments in films that are sonic moments, this was a good way to go through some of my film history.”

In fact, it seems as if Green’s entire career has been leading to “32 Sounds,” even if he couldn’t have known it even before he started piecing it together, intrigued by everything he had learned from his last project, “A Thousand Thoughts,” that enabled the Kronos Quartet to truly tell the story through the music they play when the intricate sound design urged viewers to lean in to understand how the notes reflected the depth of feeling and experience that went into playing them. In the years since earning an Oscar nod for “The Weather Underground” (with co-director Bill Siegel), Green has played around with form more and more, as likely to stand in front of a concert hall as a conductor-like figure with live cinema events as in the back of a movie theater where a completed film would be projected, and “32 Sounds” was designed to play as both, incorporating scenes with a blank screen that can either exist as private moments of reverie for a viewer at home as one is allowed to concentrate only on the music that plays or invites audiences to stand up and dance.

However, as much as the one-of-a-kind experience is driven by sound, Green allows it to become a profound interrogation of the senses, as well as the filmmaker’s body of work as a whole when he reaches into his own experience to understand how it’s been shaped by what he’s heard throughout the years. Knowing how a film is made, Green deconstructs the process from visits with foley artists to sound engineers to understand how integral sound is to how we make sense of the world, but he also observes how sound recordings, once thought to bring people back from the dead when it was the first medium to let people hear their voice after they passed away, continue to hold an emotional resonance that often goes unremarked upon when it’s so subtle and subconscious, watching, for instance, Nehanda Abiodun, a longtime friend now living in exile in Cuba being taken back to her days as a Black revolutionary in New York in the ‘70s simply by putting on a pair of headphones and calling up a random song.

A consideration of echoes both in a sensational and psychological sense makes “32 Sounds” into an unusually rich trip into a darkened room no matter how it’s experienced and after Green has been traveling around the world with a live version, it is beginning a theatrical run this week making it accessible to those who haven’t been able to get out to one of its one-night-only engagements. As Green said recently, locking picture hardly means the end of the process when not only will the director continue to tour with the film, but “32 Sounds” leaves so much room as a living organism to take their own meaning from it, which in turn has led the filmmaker to reconsider it and in advance of its march into theaters across the country, he spoke about how the project evolved over the years, transcending traditional formats and the collaborations with other artists in the sound space that make the film so resonant.

This seems like an abstract idea, so rather than ask how did this start, when did this start taking shape?

The organizing principle was a hard thing to figure out because it’s a movie without a main character, a plot, a chronology, a conflict — all the things that help you make a movie, it doesn’t have. I came across Annea Lockwood and just was completely intrigued. This was early in the pandemic, so everyone was at home and we started talking on Skype. I really was taken with her and started thinking a lot about sound, but I didn’t know how to make a movie about sound. One of my favorite movies of all time is “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould,” so in a way, the 32 was a nod to that. And that takes a complex person — Glenn Gould was a complex person, and instead of making a traditional biopic that flattens it into a three-act structure with a plot, it makes a portrait of a life in bits and pieces, which to my mind is very sophisticated, so I wanted to do something similar with sound.

It seems like you created a particularly daunting challenge for yourself when this works in two environments – as a private viewing experience and as a live public performance. What was it like to think about engaging audiences of both kinds?

It’s so interesting. Film has become much more multi-iterative, if that’s a word, [whereas] in the old days it was like, “Well, it’s going to be in a movie theater, maybe on TV,” and those are the two forms that cinema takes. There’s so many different ways now somebody can engage with the movie, and I find it a great creative challenge to think of what can work in multiple iterations. During the first Sundance of the pandemic, I made a kind of sketch of “32 Sounds” called “Seven Sounds,” and it was a film you could watch on your phone, but it was only video for about the first minute and then the next 20 minutes, you didn’t have to look at your phone, so the idea was you could just go outside and sit on your front step and listen to it. And I liked that it scrambled the normal dynamic of somebody watching something, which I like to do in general. Somebody I respect a lot said to me recently, “Oh, I’m watching all movies now on my phone,” and I thought, “Oh, that just kills me. That’s exactly what I don’t want to hear.” And he said, “No, no, no. I use headphones and I lie in bed and put the phone right here, so [the screen is] huge. It’s like an iMac screen.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s actually pretty cool. That’s a very focused way of watching and hearing.” So there’s a million ways.

When you knew that the concentration was gonna be so much on sound, did that influence how you would actually shoot this and bring that sensation of sound into the visuals?

Making a film about sound is a huge challenge because as somebody said to me, you can only really focus on one sense at a time and if you’re really paying attention with your eyes, the experience is shaped by what you hear, but your ears are kind of secondary. I’m not happy about that, but I think that’s the reality, so how to flip that is a great creative challenge. At some points, we have very little on the screen, which in traditional cinemas is like death. On broadcast TV or probably on the streamers, you cannot have more than 20 frames of black, but we have long stretches where there’s nothing, which is great because you can really listen. And the film has some slight participatory elements, very gentle and doesn’t ask much, but closing your eyes is part of it, [another way] to scramble the normal ways in which we engage with cinema, which is so visually centric and focused. I think generally people are tickled to have their ears activated and in general, the spirit of the film is generous and I hope that people receive it that way.

Was there anything where this took a direction that you could get particularly excited about that you might not have anticipated at the start?

I ended up connecting with the sound designer named Mark Mangini, who’s a great Hollywood sound guy who won an Oscar for “Dune” and he did “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Somebody introduced us, and I just started asking him questions about sound because he’s really smart and thoughtful about sound, and I’m still learning, so he was very game and he gets asked about the sound of an explosion, but I don’t think people often ask him, “What is the sound of the wind?” We had a long ongoing conversation because the wind doesn’t make any sound. It’s the sound of the trees in the wind that make [the noise], so it’s this interesting conceptual thing and he loves talking about that, so we chatted for a year before I said, “Hey, would you work on this movie with me?” We talked so much, he said, “Sure” and that just opened huge doors to what we could do and how I could think about sound. He was an incredible collaborator and the film is so much richer because of his work and his input.

You also have a great collaboration with JD Samson, the composer – what’s it like to think about music in relation to a project like this?

I’ve been a fan of JD’s music before we even met. And I was just, JD and I did a project before this — a live cinema piece [“Don’t Call Me Gay Zelig”] about a guy named Jim Fouratt for the Whitney Biennial, and JD’s music is beautiful and and hits all these emotional notes that are things that I feel I need music to work with. And it’s got to be the right tone. If it’s the right tone, the music communicates something to me and in my words, I can communicate that to whoever’s listening. So it’s this funny experience where the music really shapes the film, but because this is a movie about sound, you need to give the sounds a lot of room, so it’s much less music than any normal movie and probably less than JD would have wanted. This is probably more restrained than I think JD would have hoped for, but I think JD understands that it’s a very delicate balance to get the sounds, give them enough space, but use the music to infuse things with a feeling to transport people. It’s all a super delicate construction and it wouldn’t be a movie without JD’s music.

It’s been a long journey of getting this out into the world. What’s it been like from the virtual Sundance to now playing concert halls?

Our premiere was supposed to be at the Egyptian Theater on Main Street, he opening night film of Sundance and we’d made this live cinema piece and two weeks before [the festival] was canceled, so we had to scramble. We made this virtual version, which I think worked, but you couldn’t tell because everybody’s at home alone. I watched the premiere in this studio [where I’m sitting now]. I got a bottle of wine and I was an avatar in a theater for my own premiere and when it was done, I closed my computer, I put the empty bottle of wine in the garbage and walked home and said to myself, “I wonder if that actually happened.” It’s such a different experience from being in a room with people. But I was happy it happened, and if you haven’t learned one thing from COVID, that’s to roll with the punches by now, you have not learned anything, so we roll with the punches, it’s been fun doing the live shows and we’re booking [them] in 2024, so that’ll go on for a long time, and it’s a real pleasure to have this be in movie theaters because to be able to agile and be able to make work that is in many forms seems important to me.

When you have this unusual experience of doing the live cinema and have the ongoing experience of seeing how a audience reacts to it, does it change your ideas about the movie that you made?

Oh yeah, there’s a thing with stand-up comedians where they hone an act — the timing and [everything] — and [someone said] you can sit and write out a bunch of jokes, but until you do it in front of an audience and understand how they work, it’s just words on a piece of paper. So in a lot of ways, I think of film the same way. The usual way of making a film is you edit, you work on it, and you’re done, and then you put it out in the world. But doing a live cinema piece, you really realize, “Wow, people laughed at John Cage ending [his public performance of] “4’33″” and people applauding. I never knew that was funny. But that’s the most consistent laugh line in the whole movie. So you learn so much by seeing an audience and feeling an audience experience something. One of the things I like about live cinema is I change. It’s more like a stand-up routine in that I fine-tune things based on that and that’s great feedback. The piece gets tighter and tighter as it goes, so I really appreciate and use that and the film that we are putting out in the world that’s going to be at Film Forum is the result of doing 40 shows and understanding exactly how the film works.

“32 Sounds” opens on April 28th in New York at Film Forum. A full list of screenings and cities is here.

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