Martin Chappell Interview

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Film Smash is proud to present an interview with Hong Kong sound recordist, technician and musician; Cheuk Biu Yi – that’s Martin Chappell to us.

In the last decade Martin has worked on over 40 Hong Kong films, collaborating with the likes of Ringo Lam, Johnnie To and Tsui Hark, including such seminal works as THE LONGEST NITE, THE MISSION, VICTIM, RUNNING ON KARMA, TIME AND TIDE and THE LEGEND OF ZU.

Recently, Martin has contributed to DOG BITE DOG, the ‘PTU’ TV series and, Yau Nai-Hoi’s directorial debut, EYE IN THE SKY.

[Daniel Thomas]: Hello Martin, thanks a lot for agreeing to this interview. First things first; how did you make the transition from being a roadie, in the UK, to working on some of the biggest films that have come out of Hong Kong in the last ten years?

[Martin Chappell]: It wasn’t a plan! There was a lot of serendipity; I guess I wasn’t really cut out for the speaker lugging brigade and, after a near miss with a truck at 4am (when I fell asleep driving back to Nottingham from Liverpool), I thought I’d take a year out and that got me as far as Australia. Hong Kong was supposed to be on the way home, but it’s been 12 years now and feels more like home to me, than any where.

[Daniel]: So, did coming from England to work in Hong Kong cause any problems? How’s your Cantonese?

[Martin]: I wouldn’t say so, after all it almost seems that all of Hong Kong speaks a little English. I’d I always had an interest in language, once I started travelling. I remember taking mini buses and ending up with a chicken in my lap, flicking through a phrase book; this was whilst I was going from East Timor to Bali, a journey of about a week hopping from island to island and winging it. The local people were friendly to us and delighted to while away the monotony helping us with our Baha-sa. After three weeks we could hold a basic conversation and it really helped us not to get ripped off so much!

Hong Kong and Cantonese was a little harder to crack, primarily as most Hong Kongers can speak English, so speaking thru a phrase book just doesn’t cut it…

It becomes difficult once you venture to work in the depths of Kowloon, I was on the edge of the known solar system as far as I was concerned, when I went to Milkyway. Most of the office is buzzing in Cantonese, so the basics begin to pop out: ‘Sek fan may-ah?’ – ‘Have you eaten yet?’ – you hear this one a lot!!! Or, ‘Wahhh!!! Ley fay jaw!!!! – ‘Wahhh!!! You’re fatter!!!’

I guess as a sound editor I have an advantage, in that I’m paid to listen to the movie a couple of hundred thousand times. I do memorize some of it and eventually the subtitles appear and I’m able to yell things like; ‘Don’t move!’, ‘Drop your gun!’, or ‘This is a stick up!’…

I’m not 100% fluent and the tonal quality on Cantonese doesn’t help. In EYE IN THE SKY I spent the whole time thinking to myself, that Simon Yam’s character was called ‘Old Head’, which is sort of respectable. I was surprised, when watching the A copy, to find out that he was called ‘Dog Head’. So, I still need to query things; I remember (Yau) Nai-Hoi laughing when I told him, it didn’t make too much difference, I still knew what was going on. Mostly!!!

It’s an easy mistake for a Westerner to make: ‘gau’ can mean ‘dog’, ‘nine’, ‘do’ (verb), ‘dick’ and ‘old’, there’s probably a couple more…

But my Cantonese, whilst flawed, is good enough for me to have one foot on each side of the Language gap. I did the mix with (Yau) Nai-Hoi in Cantonese and the whole of DOG BITE DOG was discussed in Cantonese; I guess me and Soi did a bit of onomatopoeic arm waving mouth swooshing. He was nice enough, when ATV did a documentary, to come on and relate to them how bad my Cantonese used to be! That was pretty well received and TVB rang up a few months later and asked me to do another one: that’s creativity for you!

I’m happy to report that my life seems a hell of lot better for learning Cantonese though, at least once a day a stranger will comment on how good my Cantonese is and tell me I should have learned Mandarin! I have a cheerful reply to this “I LIVE IN HONG KONG!!!!!!”

 

 

[Daniel]: Where you a fan of Hong Kong cinema before you began working with some of it’s leading lights? If so, what were your favourite films and who were your favourite Hong Kong directors? Were you already aware of the films of Johnnie To, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam?

[Martin]: Not really, I think I’d seen HARD BOILED and knew who Chow Yun Fat was, but I can hardly be called an aficionado!!!

[Daniel]: So, what exactly does a Sound Editor / Sound Recordist do? How much of your time is spent hanging round recording sound on location or locked away in the depths of a studio?

[Martin]: Lots of time in front of the computer for me…

I hadn’t been out on location for years but, this year, I went out as camera man on an impendent film I’m working on, called 3 CITIES. Both involve lots of hanging around; out on a set, at least you have people to talk to, but the elements can be harsh. The first movie I remember doing, I was freezing my nads off in Macau for WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES!!!
I’m more of an undercover microphone user now; I’m often sneaking around recording in the streets. Not snooping, but trying to catch life which I can inject into film.

[Daniel]: So, when you watch films, do you find yourself analysing the sound design more than the narrative intricacies? What was the last film you watched that had really great sound?

[Martin]: Hopefully if they’ve done a good job I won’t really notice it! Not on the first watch anyway! But, I suppose subconsciously, I do…

I enjoy real sound, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was actually the last movie I watched, but I just re-watched MOMENTUM and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. They have pretty good snappy sound.

[Daniel]: You’ve worked on a pretty wide spectrum of films, from drama and action, through to fantasy, comedy and animation; is there any particular genre that you prefer to work on? Are some genre easier, more challenging or more fun?

[Martin]: I was a goth, so any dark moody stuff comes easily for me. I enjoy playing with the ambience the most; I’m working on TRIANGLE right now, and it has all my favourite elements in it. And it has three of Hong Kong’s most well known directing, the poster I saw said “Three Masters”; more like ‘Three Monsters!!!’

Quiet movies are the toughest, as there’s nothing to hide behind; you need to know the tricks, to get a sound recorded indoors to sound like it’s in the middle of a field. I spend untold hours trying to find the best wind sound; combining the right rustle and distant dog, just to get it to seem natural. I guess nature is constantly shifting and that’s what I aim to do when doing the sound.

Doing PTU, I had just read Walter Murch’s “The Conversation” and it was a great inspiration: at certain points in PTU, I was asking myself ‘how does Lam Suet feel? I mean he’s just had a nasty bump on the head, I guess things might have sounded pretty trippy to him. It was all about perspective and hyper realism.

Also, in the arcade, we took liberties with the sounds: there was no music and yet a really powerful scene was unravelling, then I realised that we could twist the cacophony of arcade machines to accentuate the violence. The swoosh of bombs as Simon Yam’s arm swiped back again and again as he explosively slapped the face…

I did have fun slipping all that in; it was sort of a watershed moment for me. The opening titles were done in around 20 minutes, when I realised there was no opening music! The whole thing was inspired by, but nowhere near as ground breaking as, APOCALYPSE NOW. Overall, the movie is okay, just some missing foley (FS – That’s location sound effects to you and I), I think, in the restaurant before Chi Sin gets stabbed…

 

 

[Daniel]: Sound is obviously a huge part of cinema, especially in Hong Kong, so much so that, when I tell people that I’m a big fan of films from this region, they often begin to mimic the howls of Bruce Lee, the exaggerated sounds of fists cutting through the air or the sound of a sword being pulled from its sheath. Do you wish you’d had the chance to get your teeth into designing the sound for an old school kung-fu flick?

[Martin]: Yeah that would be great! Some of those Bruce Lee flicks had some pretty trippy sound on them. It’d be a blast! I think I got the goods!!!

[Daniel]: You’ve worked on a host of Milkyway Image productions, with Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, as well as with Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam; do all of these directors have different ways of collaborating with you? Who has been your favourite director to work with and are there any directors, in Hong Kong, who you’d love to work with?
[Martin]: This is a tough question! I learnt so much from Ringo Lam about sound; it’s weird I sometimes still hear him talking to me when I’m working. He knows what he wants and has great tenacity in waiting to get it right…

I learnt a great deal about mixing from Johnnie To; he sat with me for a few nights whist mixing RUNNING OUT OF TIME and that really helped my understanding of film mixing

I guess I would love to work with Fruit Chan or maybe Andrew Lau; I think I could have added something to that.

I really wish I had worked on some Kung Fu, I would’ve had a blast!!! I started off doing cartoons and to work on the action would’ve really appealed to me. I liked SHAOLIN SOCCER and I did a demo for Wilson Yip’s DRAGON TIGER GATE: they said they liked my work but, as is often the case, the sound deal is packaged with the editing and it never came through…

[Daniel]: Having done a little bit of sound design for projects, that friends of mine have produced, I’m all too familiar with just how soul destroying the repeated viewings of some material can be. Can you ever just sit down and watch a film that you’ve worked on, without being distracted by memories of your contribution?

[Martin]: Memories fade, but the scars still linger!

I guess that’s the rub: it’s very hard to divorce those feelings, especially when there are some weak points you wished there was more time or the computer hadn’t crashed…

Actually I can’t watch PTU without thinking of the temp mix we did for the Berlin Film Festival submission: – Mr To had found a Doors track (Riders on the Storm); it was for the scene where they walk up the staircase, and he asked me for some other suggestions. The movie actually opened with Led Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ (coming in, right where they got off the truck) and also had a lot of Electric Ladyland (Jimi Hendrix) in it…

It was a good vibe for the film and pretty much contained all my all time favourite rock tracks chosen by Mr To!!!!

[Daniel]: Which films that you have worked on, do you still enjoy watching? And, on the flip-side, have any driven you to a point where you feel as if you can never watch them again? I’m too polite to ask what the worst work you’ve done is, but I will ask what film are you most proud of?

[Martin]: Some of the best and worst are the same movie!!! PTU has some really great moments, but I’m still kicking myself for some of it, same for RUNNING ON KARMA. EYE IN THE SKY, which I just completed, isn’t bad. I think it would have to be TURN LEFT, TERN RIGHT; it had some sublime sounds in it.

Probably, my biggest regret is THE LONGEST NITE. It was the first movie I worked on the sound for, but I was just an assistant. We had a quiet period a few years later and I actually redid the whole thing as an exercise; I wished people could see that version, but it’s probably never going to happen.

[Daniel]: So, you’ve just finished working on the ‘PTU’ TV series and, Yau Nai-Hoi’s directorial debut, ‘Eye in the Sky’; what else have you got coming up?

[Martin]: Well aside from THE IRON TRIANGLE, I’m also simultaneously finishing off BLOOD BROTHERS (John Woo production) with Daniel Wu and Shu Qi.

Mr To has a couple of projects; not really sure how much I can say at this point..

I hope to be working with Cheung Bo Soi (DOG BITE DOG) later in the year. August, I think…

I’m also trying to get my editorial debut off the ground: 3 CITIES, a roughly, fictionalised story of the inception of the annual Rockit festival, held in Victoria Park…

There’s an animated version of STORM RIDERS coming at the end of the year…

Another personal project is “Black Hole”; we are working on an album of ‘orphans’ (the unwanted snippets from my movie work), it’s tentatively titled bastard sounds…

My company has just been sucked into the Milkyway building, again. At it’s heart, we had to build a new room; it’s been christened the “Black Hole” and we’ve already finished a few tracks off there as a private project. You can check them out at – myspace.com/bastardsounds – they are based on live recordings and samples taken in Hong Kong. I hope to develop this further this in the coming months; we have some cheeky ideas in the pipeline and I should have more time next month!!!

[Daniel]: Well that’s almost it from me, it just remains for me to say ‘Thank You’ once again and don’t forget to keep us informed of what’s in the Fork Media pipeline…

[Martin]: Thanks Dan…

Interview conducted by Daniel Thomas, originally for Kung Fu Cult Cinema, June 2007

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