PERIC PUTS THE ‘FLASH’ IN RICKI’S ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
by Rob Feld
portraits by John Clifford
stills courtesy of Sony Pictures
Suzana Peric grew up in Croatia, attended conservatory and was on track to be a concert pianist — until she suffered a block during a performance, which ended that career before it even began. She studied film in Chicago where she gravitated towards picture editing and got a PA job on Arthur Penn’s Four Friends (1981), which was shooting in town. She then joined the post-production of the film, which brought her to New York. There, she apprenticed, traveling from one film to the next in sound and picture until a music editor asked her to be his assistant.
“I had abandoned a music career and somehow finding music in film brought back my childhood,” Peric says with emotion. “It brought back something I was afraid of, and I decided that was the path for me. It was such a discovery that what I wanted to express creatively was encapsulated in this little profession.”
Since that discovery, Peric has been music editor for the likes of Mike Nichols, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Peter Jackson, Roman Polanski, Robert Benton, Wes Anderson and David Cronenberg, to name but a few, most of these with repeat collaborations. Her most recent work with Demme, known for his use of music and particularly its live performance in his films, is Ricki and the Flash, which opened August 7 through Sony Pictures Releasing.
Ricki tells the tale of an aging front woman for a bar band, Ricki (Meryl Streep), who lost her husband (Kevin Klein) and children to the pursuit of a failed rock ‘n’ roll career. Streep and her band — a super-group Demme compiled with Rick Springfield, George Bernard Worrell Jr. (of Parliament-Funkadelic and Demme’s Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, 1984), Joe Vitale (drummer for Crosby, Stills & Nash and countless others) and Rick Rosas (Neil Young’s bassist) — perform 30 minutes of live music for the film in front of audiences in a bar and at a wedding. There is a lot of dancing and shouting; an energy Demme was intent upon capturing.
The music had to feel authentic to capture the feeling of the characters and their journey (Streep even learned to play guitar for the role), so Peric’s mission was to cut a seemingly contiguous performance from various takes while preventing them from feeling polished and synthetic. To lose the rawness of performance would be to betray the choices Ricki made in her life and render them meaningless. The job required an intimate knowledge of the director’s tendencies and the deft hand of a musician and performer. So who better than Peric? CineMontage interviewed the music editor on the eve of the film’s release.
A scene from Ricki and the Flash.
CineMontage: Finding music editing for film seems to have been such a profound discovery for you. You apprenticed for music editor Thomas Drescher when you were starting out and I’m wondering what was his particular talent or skill that turn you on?
Suza Peric: His knowledge and love of music. We would spend time in our cutting room listening before starting, or referencing classical music against the understanding of what we were hearing at the moment. We spent time actually understanding music rather than sitting down and just editing. That's what I do now when I start a film. The first part of it is to listen. If it's a period film, I embrace that and learn about whatever I don't know, always expanding on my musical palette. I love to look for new composers and young voices in film to see what is being done in other cultures so that I always stay fresh.
CM: It sounds like you took something of a mode of working from him. With someone like Jonathan Demme, at what point do you start working?
SP: It's usually before he shoots. For example, on Rachel Getting Married , music became part of its intricate soundscape, which had to serve as an emotional guide; a through-line to who she is. We spent time talking about how to make music a part of the film and have it be alive, and yet also strategically placed so that it comments on the action, and becomes an accompaniment and not an observer.
CM: How was that process different when working with someone like Mike Nichols?
SP: Jonathan is much more adventurous with music. He's not afraid. Mike looked at music as more perfunctory. He wouldn’t go into an unplanned situation where you could have surprises. Mike would approach the music afterwards, not beforehand. He loved the spoken word, the written word; that was his main guideline. Everything else was subsidiary. Jonathan loves and has come out of the music world, so his voice and approach to films will embrace music as part of that spoken or written word before he creates the piece.
CM: Can you tell me about doing Something Wild (1986) with Demme? It was your first full music editor credit. All the music in the film is source music, and there's a live band performance during the high school reunion scene.
SP: Something Wild was a feast. I learned so much. Jonathan gave me my first break. I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t worked on a film like that as an apprentice, and I was given this wide palette and freedom to listen to all this music. All the music that's in there comes from Jonathan's interests. He introduced me to world music, to the avant-garde music of this country, to bands I didn't listen to or know about. He really helped me understand and learn about my own sensibilities and tastes; they were all built out of that film.
It was a very unusual approach because it was all source music. Then I was given complete freedom, but with the need to find a structure with it. So how do you choose the songs so that they actually become a glove to the film and not stand outside of it, especially when they're so varied from all different places? It was an incredible journey that subsequently gave me a tremendous amount of courage in my approach to film.
CM: Can you give me an anecdote of something you had to manage from that film?
SP: I remember the Feelies’ performance for the reunion. We had to cut the song because you couldn't have three minutes of a concert in the middle of a dramatically charged scene. This is where Ray Liotta shows up and the movie takes a turn. Cutting a song down was an unheard-of proposition for the Feelies. I had to call them into my editing room to get their approval. It was terribly scary but we were all learning; they were learning about music's role in a film where everything in the film is subservient to the dramatic arc of the story. If that's not served well then the music hasn't really done its job. That's where they become one. The band did give the permission and that was a big celebration.
CM: Was it hard to cut that song?
SP: Everything was hard! I was nervous. It was particularly hard to cut, but I remember every edit. For example, the scene in the diner; originally, Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side was supposed to be in that place — but we couldn't get the rights from him. So what ended up in there is the Motels. But to follow the scene in a way that would follow the dramatic action of the scene, I had to turn the song a little bit upside down so that the saxophone would come in when we see her on the video screen outside in the car, and we are inside in the diner. Then the refrain had to come in when the three of them are back in the car and they head off to the motel. It took me two days to cut that one song. I remember that. I would show Jonathan a version and he would say, “That's good, but how about this area? Challenge me more.” Jonathan's fantastic to work with because he will take you to the edge of the place where you can actually go, and allow you that. Then you feel like you've reached something that you didn't know you were able to.
CM: How free do you feel to remix a song? Do you feel you can do anything you want with it?
SP: I don't like to do that. I don't see a need for it unless it’s going to be used as score in the film. In that case, you might use an instrumental section to score a certain scene — maybe take one instrument out so that you can have a varied orchestration — because it's going to become the score to a film. That I have done. But I actually like to protect the integrity of the mix of the song because it's so much a part of the writing and the color of it. It’s all one.
A scene from Ricki and the Flash.
CM: So Demme comes to you and says, “We’re going to do Ricki and the Flash with a dozen live performance songs,” what was your job on the movie?
SP: I would get footage from LA of those performances so that I could stay in touch and see what songs they were choosing, how Meryl was performing them, and to get familiar. A lot of the songs were chosen by Meryl, and that was the most important. It was the character she was playing and she needed to feel like Ricki was performing those songs because Ricki wanted to perform those songs. There was a lot of preparation and a lot at stake.
This was the first time Meryl was going to be on stage as a rock performer, so the main objective was to let her reach that point so that when she's on that stage, you feel like she’s been on that stage forever. Therefore, I didn't intrude in that process. We had a pool of songs that she could e choose from, but that was the process. Then I would come to the rehearsals in New York so I would be familiar. When they were shooting, I went to those days but more as an observer, watching and working with producer Gary Goetzman's team of recordists, who were there to record the music on a multi-track. There were two sound teams making sure we had everything we needed, so we had a little flexibility afterward.
CM: How did this compare to working on Rachel Getting Married?
SP: In Rachel Getting Married, there was much more flexibility because the music was in the background. Even though music was playing while the scenes were being shot in Rachel Getting Married, a lot of times we could take out what was played via some filters so that I could then build a background track. Basically, I built a story behind the main story. That was my approach to it, which is why the opening is a rehearsal of the wedding march; let's have the band there working towards a certain moment in the film. I was also trying to pick songs that would accompany the scenes in the foreground. Then once you came to that wedding performance, it was also wild and unscripted because that’s what it needed to be.
Suzana Peric, third from right, and the sound crew for Rachel Getting Married.
But once we were in Ricki, we were dealing with a different character. This is a portrayal of a woman dealing with and getting back her relationship with her family; that was her sacrifice for something she believed in. It was incredibly important to have Meryl take charge of that stage. I think that my biggest contribution to the film was to find a way to treat and extract her voice without any filters, without any EQs or reverbs, to be able to extract the actual voice on the day of the recording and make it as present as possible.
CM: How did you do that?
SP: I realized quickly that you just couldn’t extract the bleed from the instruments from her microphone. Meryl was standing next to the drum, the organ. Maybe you could minimize that a little bit, but you couldn’t really do that much without making the sacrifice of adding a processed sound to her voice — which we didn’t want. So I took the opposite route and enhanced everything in her microphone to give the real sound of the room and of her voice, and she liked that. I was reading about the approaches to vocal treatment and learned about this processor that was very popular in the 1960s. There is a version of it remade for today that I used and tried. That became her voice.
CM: So are the Ricki songs recorded in one take or are they edited?
SP: There are many takes, many cuts. I think “American Girl” is one take, and then sometimes we would go and look for a better vowel or consonant, or better end or something like that. Sometimes there are different takes in a song according to the cuts in the picture. The edit of the songs were really done by Wyatt Smith, the editor of the film. I basically followed his cuts after he and Jonathan got them to dramatically make sense in the puzzle of the story.
A scene from Ricki and the Flash.
CM: So then your job was to smooth those cuts out, make them work? Technology has changed dramatically from the time you did Something Wild. Would you say it's an unmitigated “plus” to your work, or are there trade-offs?
SP: They have improved my work tremendously and given me an allowance to try a multitude of approaches in a quick manner. And that has enriched my work. Something Wild was cut on an upright Moviola! You certainly took your time before you made that splice with the razor blade. I try to understand the song. If I'm working with the score of the film, I always use the written score when I make edits so that I can understand the music. It's not cutting just anywhere because you can undo.
Sometimes I have talks with producers who think you can do things much faster in the last 20 years because you have the technology in your hands. But nothing can replace the process of thinking and learning. You about a picture cut and how it will affect the story; it’s the same process for the music. And that's what I teach interns. It also makes the process much more interesting. Only when you get to know something can you really understand what you're doing — just like in life. We are afraid of unknowns, but once we know something we can be pretty adventurous because we understand the heart of it.
A scene from Ricki and the Flash.
CM: Is there another filmmaker you worked with using another process you particularly enjoyed?
SP: Roman Polanski. He is like Jonathan, completely fearless. He doesn't have the musical background that Jonathan does, but he approaches everything with tremendous passion so he's able to take the leap. When we did The Ghost Writer , composer Alexandre Desplat used Bernard Herrmann as an inspiration. When Roman heard the first piece, he understood because he's not afraid. He gets excited about every step of filmmaking and what's amazing about him is that he wants you involved. He doesn't want you just sitting there doing your little edits. He wants to know what you think about the film. When we were in the process, he would call me when he made a picture cut: “Let's look at it together; will it fit? How should we deal with it?”
When we were on The Pianist , we spent maybe half a day positioning the clarinet in the scene where you see the ruins of Warsaw when Szpilman escapes, before he finds the villa. It was frame by frame. I remember we ended up 17 frames later then it was originally placed. Roman is the one who will understand that the frame makes the difference. It's incredibly exciting. I learned so much because he lets you in.
CM: What are you working on now that you are finding exciting?
SP: I'm now working on Derek Cianfrance’s beautiful film called The Light Between Oceans. Wonderful. Another passionate director who is not afraid to go the route he hasn't gone yet, and to ask questions. Another director I really, really admire is J.C. Chandor. What a voice in this culture! He takes chances and has a voice.
Rob Feld is a regular contributor to the
DGA Quarterly and
Written By and a contributing editor of Newmarket Press’
Shooting Script book series, and teaches screenwriting and directing at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org