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How The Man Behind The Trailers Sparks An Urge To See A Movie


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. There's no category at the Oscars for movie trailers, but our guest Mark Woollen has created trailers for many Oscar-nominated films. This year alone, he made the trailers for "Boyhood," "The Theory Of Everything" and "Birdman," which last night picked up the award for best picture.


MICHAEL KEATON: (As Riggan) How did we end up here? This place is horrible. It smells like [expletive]. We had it all.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You were a movie star, remember?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Who is this guy?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) He used to be Birdman.

KEATON: (As Riggan) I like that poster.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You wrote this adaptation?

KEATON: (As Riggan) I did, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) And you're directing and starring in your adaptation? That's ambitious.

DAVIES: Mark Woollen selects images, bits of dialogue, and music to create the trailers that, when shown months before a film's release, will plant the urge to see that film when it opens. He's been professionally editing film and video since he was in high school. In the past few years, he made the trailers for "12 Years A Slave," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Nebraska" and "Her." One of his first trailers was for the film "Schindler's List." Terry Gross spoke to him about his work, and how he crafts an audience first glimpse of a film.


(Laughter) Mark Woollen, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of the frustrations that I have when I'm in a movie theater watching trailers is that some trailers basically tell me the entire movie. They're showing me the last scene of the film. And I'm thinking, like, OK, I don't really like the story they're showing me plus I know the whole thing. Like, why would I even bother to go now? Why do they do that?

MARK WOOLLEN: I know, I know. I really hate when that happens, when I see, Terry, trailers do that. And it's something that we avoid in the films that we're working on. I mean, I think last year, certainly as an example, we worked on David Fincher's "Gone Girl." And that was a film where we were in the whole campaign really only working with the first hour of the movie because there was a lot for the audience to discover once they go to the film, and we didn't want to spoil that. So we were very careful through that campaign.

But yeah, I know what you mean. I do see examples of that happening in trailers, and that comes down to the business of it all. There is, you know, compelling data that the big studios often use that, point them in that direction - that the more audiences know, the more likely they are to go. I don't necessarily prescribe to that, and that's not something that we do in our work, but it does happen.

GROSS: You did a great trailer for a film I really love. It's the Coen brothers' movie "A Serious Man" which is about, you know, a guy who's - is he a college professor? - and he's just having this kind of crisis of faith along with a kind of midlife crisis and a crisis in his marriage and, you know, he doesn't know who to seek for help. Maybe a rabbi, but the rabbi's busy. It's not - you know, he's not getting the help he's looking for from the rabbi. And so you did the trailer for that. You want to tell the story behind the trailer?

WOOLLEN: Sure. I've made trailers for the Coen brothers for a number of their films over the years, going back to "The Big Lebowski," I'd say. And they're usually always wanting - you know, their films are so unique and the characters that they create always deserve something different.

And I remember with the "Serious Man," them saying, you know, we've made it kind of an unconventional film, you know, we want an unconventional trailer. And there was this moment in the film that's probably about - well, I think the shot is maybe about five or six seconds long of the main character's head being bashed against a chalkboard. And we kind of - it was always a moment that stuck with us. And we kind of wondered, you know, is there a way to - could you ever build a trailer around that moment, which is only, you know, a few seconds long?

And so we started playing with the concept of this character is - you know, he's in this kind of cycle of desperation and frustration that's happening. It felt like he was kind of - that hitting of the head was really kind of a perfect metaphor for that. So we used that basically to - you know, I talked about how trailers are a lot about rhythm and so that sound of this man's skull throbbing against a chalkboard really became kind of the baseline for the trailer and kind of set the trailer's rhythm. We also started looking for other interesting sounds.

You know, sound can play such an amazing - be an amazing tool for trailers. And so there was a moment where there was a secretary who was coughing up some phlegm. And so then, you know, it started first as kind of a boom, boom of the board and then it was a boom, ah (ph), boom, ah (ph). Then he crashes his car and that gets added into the mix. And we're again cycling and kind of remixing these sounds so it was a boom, ah, crash, and so - and so on. And that kind of built as he's telling his story. And it felt like the right fit.

GROSS: Very effective. Why don't we hear how that trailer sounds, and we'll hear how the head being hit against the chalkboard becomes the soundtrack for the trailer.


MICHAEL STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) Please, I need help. I've had marital problems.

SARI LENNICK: (As Judith Gopnik) Honey, I think it's time that we start talking about a divorce.

FRED MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) Mary, we're going to be fine.

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) Professional, you name it.

ARI HOPTMAN: (As Arlen Finkle) Larry, we've received a number of letters denigrating you and urging us not to grant you tenure.

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) I need help.

MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) We're going to be fine.


STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) I've tried to be a serious man.

ALAN MANDELL: (As Rabbi Marshak) Uh-huh.

MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) We're going to be fine.

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) I've tried to do right, be a member of the community.

MANDELL: (As Rabbi Marshak) Uh-huh.

MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) We're going to be fine.


STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) Please, just tell him I need help.

MANDELL: (As Rabbi Marshak) Uh-huh.

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) Please.

MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) We're going to be fine.


STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) I need help.

MANDELL: (As Rabbi Marshak) Uh-huh.

MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) We're going to be fine.


STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) (Sighs).


CLAUDIA WILKENS: (As Marshak's Secretary) The rabbi is busy.

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) He didn't look busy.

WILKENS: (As Marshak's Secretary) He's thinking.

GROSS: That's the trailer for the Coen brothers' film "A Serious Man," and the trailer was produced by my guest, Mark Woollen.

So we talked about giving away the whole story, and you explained you don't like that and you don't do that. And then, like, there's the action film trailer, and I know you mostly do, like, the Indian art-house stuff, but the action film trailer, there's usually like a lot of explosions and crashes and guns and then a percussion sound that seems to have replaced the whoosh that used to be in action movies. And now it's this kind of like percussion sound.

I was at a multiplex recently and saw four trailers in a row that had the same sound effect. And so I'm going to play one of the trailers, and this is a trailer for a forthcoming movie called "Chappie." And it seems to be about a robot that's able to think and feel like a human, but some people want this robot destroyed, afraid that he will actually turn against people and become really dangerous. So here's the trailer. And it starts with the voice of Anderson Cooper on TV. And listen for the opening sound effect which, is, like, repeated through the trailer.


ANDERSON COOPER: (As Anderson Cooper) The deployment of the planet's first robotic police units became the focus of the world in 2016.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (As character) Drop your weapons. You are under arrest.


COOPER: (As Anderson Cooper) Vincent Moore is a former soldier.

HUGH JACKMAN: (As Vincent Moore) The problem with artificial intelligence is it's way too unpredictable.

COOPER: (As Anderson Cooper) The scouts' creator, Deon Wilson, sees a rich future.

DEV PATEL: (As Deon Wilson) What interests me is a machine that can think and feel.


GROSS: Now I'm going to skip to the end of the trailer, so you hear, like, the climactic version of the whooshes and the percussion.


SHARLTO COPLEY: (As Chappie) I am consciousness. I am alive. I am Chappie.


GROSS: OK. Mark Woollen (laughter) can you explain why so many trailers use the same kind of sound?

WOOLLEN: I don't know. It's kind of difficult for me to speak about other...

GROSS: I thought you might feel that way.

WOOLLEN: ...Other people's work. It's playing like a morning zoo program for you and saying, you know, Terry, tell me why are they doing this?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WOOLLEN: I don't know. It's foreign to me.

GROSS: (Laughter) The closest you've come of the trailers that you did that I know of is in the film adaptation of "Sweeney Todd." There's a little bit of that sound, but it's because Sweeney, like, Sweeney's - he's like a demon barber and his razor is what he uses to kill people with, so I think you're trying to get like the razor sound but there's a little bit of that percussive, clangy (ph) thing going on in the trailer.

WOOLLEN: Yeah. I mean, I could say in general that trailers are really about rhythm and in the work that we're trying to do, it's about kind of establishing certainly a pace. Again I can't really speak to the specific choices behind some of that. It's maybe not necessarily something that's to my taste, so it's - I would've done it differently.

GROSS: In some ways, you are the wrong guy for me to interview on the radio about movie trailers because your trailers are usually so visually rich. And some of your trailers don't even have any dialogue on them. Like, for example, the first trailer you ever did was the trailer for "Schindler's List." And it was basically all images - all images of Jews being, like, put on trains and digging graves and having everything they owned confiscated, and it's just a really grim, beautifully shot and edited trailer. And the only language in it is you see - I don't know - a 12-year-old, maybe, waving to the Jews being, you know, taken off to camps and she's saying, bye-bye, Jews. And then at the end, someone says, the list is life. Can you talk about doing a trailer with, like, no dialogue?

WOOLLEN: With the trailer for "Schindler's List," it was one of the first pieces that I did that I was really proud of. I was working at Universal in their trailer department at the studio, and I was about 21 or so and had been editing trailers, I guess, for a couple of years at that point. But I had gone to one of the very first screenings of that film, I still remember distinctly, and the studio had just seen it for the first time, and then the next showing was for the marketing department. And there was about three to five of us or so in this screening.

And I remember the feeling of watching that film for the first time and the power and the emotion and coming out of it, and everyone was, you know, in different states of trying to cover up their tears, and it had such an emotional impact. And so when I was looking at the trailer, that's what I was drawn to. It was how to kind of create this feeling, give people a sense of what this emotional experience may be. So I started really looking at all the images and what were the images that really affected me and that kind of popped out and started to try to kind of see if I could tell a story just visually. And I had a piece of music that would really carry through. And that's something that I continue to do, you know? And a lot of the work over the years is really finding that perfect marriage between a piece of music and imagery, and that really can evoke more than words for me in a lot of places.

GROSS: Well, Mark Woollen, thanks so much for talking with us.

WOOLLEN: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Mark Woollen makes trailers for art-house films, including three of this year's best picture nominees. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "Mr. And Mrs. Disraeli," a biography of the first Jewish prime minister of England and his wife. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.