Midge Costin, sound editor, professor and filmmaker, at her family’s home in Nahant. Photo by Paula Muller
By Bill Brotherton
NAHANT — Midge Costin has been keeping some pretty impressive company the past few months. Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, George Lucas, David Lynch, Ang Lee and Sofia Coppola for starters.
The Nahant native, who lives in Topanga Canyon, California, is directing “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound,” a documentary film that explores the history and emotional power of sound in movies and features interviews with visionary directors and sound designers.
“It’s a lifelong dream project for me, to make this documentary,” Costin said, getting to honor sound designers and others “below the line, those whose names are on the credits after everyone else’s.”
“I want everyone to appreciate their sense of sound, the importance sound plays in the success of a film,” added the 1974 Lynn English High graduate.
Most of us don’t pay much attention to sound when we go to the movies, unless it’s unbearably loud or frustratingly muffled. Costin has edited sound and dialogue on 24 films, according to the Internet Movie Database. Two of those films, “Crimson Tide” (1995) and “Armageddon” (1998), were nominated for an Academy Award in sound editing.
We are sitting in the front parlour of the 20-room Victorian on Nahant Road where Costin spent much of her formative years, moving here in the mid-1960s from a seven-room house on Parkland Avenue in Lynn with her parents, Tom and Rosemary, and five siblings. She is visiting to help her dad celebrate his 90th birthday. Her mom died of breast cancer in 1995. Midge, herself, beat an aggressive type of breast cancer and it had a profound impact on her life.
“The people I work with are my family out there. When I was going through cancer treatments, my sound editing friends were so supportive.” She figures the stress was making her sick. So, in the late ‘90s she was offered a tenured teaching position at the University of Southern California and decided to change careers.
“My friends said I was crazy. Here I was, on one of the best movie sound crews out there. But the stress…” She made the change and has not regretted it for a single second. “Now I can work on documentaries and films I love.” She is also an accomplished surf kayaker, which helps her unwind.
Costin is the Kay Rose Professor in the Art of Dialogue & Sound Editing department at USC. She is the first to hold this endowed chair, which was given by George Lucas in 2005, and has been head of sound at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts since 2000.
“People don’t understand sound … but the young generation knows sound is important. At first, my students think ‘Oh no. She’s going to talk about sound.’ But it doesn’t take long for them to be interested. To make movies they’re taught how to frame scenes, use color and shade …
They know nothing about sound, so they’re eager to learn more about it.
“I used to tell my students, jokingly, that I lowered myself and took a sound job,” she continued. “No one knows how much work is really done in sound editing. Sound affects your mood when you watch a movie. It sets the tone. It enhances the story.
“Today, people wear earbuds and watch movies on small screens. Sound is more important than ever,” she added.
The job had its perks, too. Working on “Imagine: John Lennon” gave her access to John and Yoko’s archives. And she met some of the world’s biggest actors.
“I was working on ‘Days of Thunder’ and this guy came into the office. I’m on the phone, and he smiled at me. He looked familiar, and then it hit me ‘Oh my God. It’s Tom Cruise.’ He was shorter than I am. But the camera loves him. He’s really handsome.”
The conversation turns to the documentary and Costin’s eager to talk about Streisand’s enthusiasm for the project. “She’s a perfectionist. She knows her stuff,” said Costin. “She demanded Dolby sound for ‘A Star is Born’ and ‘Prince of Tides,’ one of the first filmmakers to do so.” For “Making Waves,” Streisand had invited Costin and her team to her home studio; she answered the door herself. Costin said Streisand talked about the night her local TV station aired “Prince of Tides.” “She cares a lot about sound. The commercials were so loud, she feared that people would turn down the sound and miss some of her movie. So she called up the station and asked them to turn up the sound of ‘Prince of Tides.’ And they did.”
For the documentary, Redford shared a memory about visiting National Parks as a child. Costin recalled: “His ‘A River Runs Through It’ has such beautiful sound. He told us, as an 8-year-old he had a slight case of polio and his mom took him Yosemite, got him out in nature.” It began a lifelong love for the great outdoors for the founder of the Sundance Film Festival.
Costin said “Star Wars” auteur George Lucas spent nearly four hours talking about the use of sound in his films.
“There are 91 interviews in the film. Not all will make the finished film,” said Costin.
But she’s certain this story by Gary Rydstrom will make the cut. Rydstrom, a seven-time Oscar winner who is Steven Spielberg’s go-to sound designer and has worked with Redford (“A River Runs Through It”), John Lasseter (Pixar’s “Toy Story”) and other top directors, told her he was losing sleep over how to use sound in a crucial scene in James Cameron’s “Terminator 2.”
“The face-melting scene cost about 40 percent of the film’s budget (said to be $102 million) … He was feeding the family dog, and when he opened the can of food it made this slurping, whooshing sound. ‘That’s it,’ he shouted. A can of dog food saved the day,” said Costin with a chuckle.
“For a sound designer, sometimes the answer’s as easy as a 35-cent can of dog food.”
“Making Waves” is in the editing process. Costin hopes the film festival circuit will embrace it next year. PBS and the BBC have shown interest as well.