There are plenty of things that can sully the experience of watching movies in theaters, from noisy audience members to technical problems with the screening. Christopher Nolan's Interstellar was a particular challenge for projectionists, since many of the screenings used film reels instead of digital copies of the movie - something that a lot of theaters have now phased out.
When complaints started coming in from all corners of the world that the film's sound mix was poor, with dialogue frequently drowned out by the overwhelming score and sound effects, there was some speculation that this was simply a technical issue. Don't go expecting a "fixed" version of the movie any time soon, however, as Nolan has now broken his silence on this issue and explained that it actually took a lot of work to get the film sounding like that. Yes, it was deliberate.
Speaking to THR, Nolan admitted that the "impressionistic" sound was an "unusual approach" for a mainstream blockbuster, but insisted that it was the right choice for an "experiential film" like Interstellar. He described the sound mix as "adventurous" and "creative," and said that being able to hear what characters are saying is overrated.
"I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue. Clarity of story, clarity of emotions - I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal - picture and sound... Broadly speaking, there is no question when you mix a film in an unconventional way as this, you’re bound to catch some people off guard, but hopefully people can appreciate the experience for what it’s intended to be."
This isn't the first time that Nolan has come under fire for muddy dialogue in his films. Tom Hardy's performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises had to be redubbed because a lot of people couldn't make out what the villain was saying through his mask. There'll be no redubbed version of Interstellar, though, as Nolan says that there are certain scenes where the dialogue is supposed to be very difficult to make out.
"There are particular moments in this film where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is. It’s not that nobody has ever done these things before, but it's a little unconventional for a Hollywood movie."
Interstellar's sound mix definitely wasn't the result of laziness, as Nolan estimates that it took about six months of mixing to get it to its final state and that it was a "continuous, organic process." He dismissed the idea that dialogue is crucial for communicating information about what is going on (particularly in a sci-fi film), saying that, "That’s the way I like to work; I don't like to hang everything on one particular line."
It's possible that Nolan was simply too close to the sound mix for too long, and didn't fully appreciate that his experience as a director who knew the script and the story inside out would be very, very different from that of an audience member encountering the film for the first time and naturally trying to work out what was going on. The "experience" of a lot of people who went to see Interstellar was one of furrowed brows, straining ears and occasional whispers of "what did she say?"
Nolan probably deserves some credit for at least attempt to break out of the trappings of blockbuster film, but of all the Hollywood tropes that he could have liberated Interstellar from, audible dialogue probably wasn't the best choice and Interstellar was the wrong movie to decide that hearing characters explain the situation was of secondary importance. In any case, mixing the dialogue too low to be heard isn't exactly a game-changing choice; it's something that amateur filmmakers have been doing for years.
It doesn't look like there are any plans to remix the sound for the home video release, but at least DVDs have subtitles.
Interstellar is in theaters now.