"The Irishman" Continues Tom Fleischman's Remarkable Creative Journey With Martin Scorsese
Tom Fleischman, CAS (photo by Jeff Thompson)
Sound mixer reflects on the challenge of retaining quiet intimacy in Netflix’s epic crime saga

Oscar-winning sound mixer Tom Fleischman already has an eventful awards season in store. The Cinema Audio Society recently announced that Fleischman will receive its highest honor, the CAS Career Achievement Award, to be presented at the 56th CAS Awards on January 25, 2020 in Los Angeles. He is being recognized for assorted accomplishments such as five Academy Award nominations, including a win for Hugo, four Emmy Awards culled from multiple nominations, and seven CAS Awards from a total of 13 nominations thus far.

However, contrary to the time-honored quip that a lifetime achievement honor signals the end of a career, Fleischman continues his artistry at the highest levels--his latest Emmy win came this year for the documentary Free Solo directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and the veteran mixer is now once again in the Oscar conversation, this time on the strength of his work for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (Netflix).

Fleischman has enjoyed a longstanding collaborative relationship with Scorsese that dates back to his doing temp dubs for the director and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker on Raging Bull and then joining Dick Vorisek on the mixing of King of Comedy. Three of Fleischman’s five Oscar nominations have come for Scorsese Pictures--Gangs of New York in 2003, The Aviator in 2005, and the Academy Award win for Hugo in 2012. Fleischman’s first two Oscar nods came for Reds in 1982 and The Silence of the Lambs in ‘92. 

On the Emmy score, two of Fleischman’s Emmy wins and four of his eight nominations were for his work with Scorsese--wins in 2006 for No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and in 2013 for Boardwalk Empire, and nods in 2011 for the Boardwalk Empire pilot and in 2012 for George Harrison: Living in the Material World.  Fleischman’s other Emmy noms came for Death of a Salesman in 1986, Fahrenheit 451 last year and Emmy wins for History of the Eagles in 2013 and the aforementioned Free Solo.

As re-recording mixer on The Irishman, Fleischman said he felt a prime responsibility ”to really hold onto the quietness and intimacy of the scenes, particularly the dialogue scenes between Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, to keep things focused on the performances, their eyes, the way they spoke to each other, without any distraction. There are very few sound effects, the music is very restrained, low in the background.”

While there are scenes in which the music plays big, ultimately The Irishman is a character study--with dramatic and wryly humorous elements. One one hand it’s an epic saga about organized crime in America, taking us from post World War II through the Kennedy administration and beyond. But through its protagonists, The Irishman shows us not just a life lived in and around the mafia but the toll that life takes on a person now that he has time to reflect on it in his old age--and in particular the melancholy he feels over the lack of a relationship with his daughter. It’s a tour de force performance by De Niro as Frank Sheeran, the Teamster and mafia figure who claimed before his death that he had killed Jimmy Hoffa (portrayed by Al Pacino). Also at the core of the film playing a masterful role in Sheeran’s life is crime boss Russell Bufalino (played by Joe Pesci), whose persona alternates between sinister and sympathetic.

For Fleischman, The Irishman struck a personal chord. “It’s a powerful story. At my age, in my 60s, to see the ending of the film is so meaningful. You look back on your own life. This reached me on a deep emotional level.”

In terms of doing justice to the story and that emotion, Fleischman and his sound cohorts had to have a nuanced approach. “Always the hardest scene to mix is a quiet dialogue scene between two people in an empty room. By contrast, big action sequences mix themselves. But in a small dialogue scene, the set is never quiet, locations are never quiet. They (De Niro and Pesci) speak softly to one another, with a lot communicated through their facial expressions.”

This was particularly evident, recalled Fleischman, in the scene where Bufalino and Sheeran have an early morning breakfast at a Howard Johnson’s. Bufalino tells Sheeran that he’s got to kill Hoffa. Sheeran is conflicted but sees the reality of the situation. “The set was quite noisy, there was interference in the track but we had to keep it as quiet and intimate as possible without losing the quality of the voices,” said Fleischman.

Attaining that seemingly constant, delicate balance where less can be more becomes more doable, observed Fleischman, when you have collaborators who know one another well. “We go back a long way. We almost finish each other’s sentences. I have a sense of Marty and Thelma’s style,” said Fleischman, adding that many of the crew on The Irishman have a history dating back a minimum of 15 to 20 years together. On his end, Fleischman cited such long-time compatriots as re-recording mixer/supervising sound editor Eugene Gearty, supervising sound editor Phil Stockton, and Jennifer Dunnington, a music editor who worked on all of Scorsese’s films since Gangs of New York.

Filmmaking DNA
Fleischman was born and raised in NYC, the son of legendary film editor Dede Allen (The Hustler, Bonnie & Clyde, Dog Day Afternoon) and TV documentary writer/producer/director Stephen Fleischman. Tom Fleischman began his career as an apprentice film editor but became keenly interested in sound when he went to work for Image Sound Studios in 1971. He began there by cataloging and creating a sound effects library and recording sound effects and foley. In ‘73 he joined Trans/Audio Inc. where he worked in the transfer department and was afforded the opportunity to begin mixing under the tutelage of respected NY re-recording mixer Vorisek. In 1979, Fleischman mixed his first commercial feature film, Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard, and in ‘82 he and Vorisek were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound for their work on Warren Beatty’s Reds. It was at Trans/Audio where Fleischman also first came together with Scorsese.

In ‘85 Fleischman moved to Sound One where he continued to develop long-term working relationships with other notable directors, including Demme (Philadelphia, an Oscar nod for Silence of the Lambs), Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, Summer of Sam, BlacKkKlansman), Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers, Any Given Sunday) and Ron Howard (Cinderella Man, Angels & Demons).

Fleischman’s commitment to The Irishman cut short his work on Uncut Gems (A24) before he could finish the film, which too has generated Oscar buzz. Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems is a dark comedy crime feature starring Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a jewelry store owner and gambler who must pay off his debts before it’s too late. 

Fleischman observed that Uncut Gems resides on the opposite end of the audio spectrum from The Irishman. He described Uncut Gems as having “non-stop action” constantly overlapping dialogue and wall-to-wall music. Having debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in August, Uncut Gems is scheduled for theatrical release next month.

This is the fourth of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, January 13, 2020. The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network.  The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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