By Melissa Keogh
Imagine the world of film with no sound.
The infamous shower scene in 1960 psychological horror film Psycho would be nowhere near as terrifying without that shrieking strings ensemble. Nor would a shark’s fin slicing through the water in Jaws be as daunting without that unnerving musical score.
Without sound, the emotion of films would simply not be.
To veteran South Australian sound designer, mixer, editor and location recordist James Currie, making and recording sounds for film, TV and documentaries has made up more than 40 years of his working life.
Throughout his career he’s helped bring the sounds of some of Australia’s all-time classics to our ears including The Tracker, Wolf Creek, Ten Canoes, Red Dog, and Charlie’s Country. James also worked on the soon-to-be released Hotel Mumbai, shot in Adelaide.
“Sound – in the case of horror movies – introduces the audience to a sense or foreboding or fear,” James says. “It’s the bottom end of the music, the high strings. It’s like the shower scene in the famous Hitchcock movie (Psycho). What drives that? The strings. It’s terrifying.”
Currently living in Carrickalinga with wife Olga, James is about to start working on a new film being shot in Adelaide this month featuring Australian actors Jacki Weaver and Jack Thompson, and Oscar-nominated US actor James Cromwell, mostly known for playing the farmer in Babe. The film, Never Too Late, is about four Vietnam veterans who once escaped from a POW camp but are now tasked with breaking out of their nursing home.
The comedy drama is the latest in James Currie’s line of work which has taken him to many corners of the world and has been celebrated at film festivals and awards nights internationally.
James was born in Whyalla in 1947, his father a fitter and turner who one day decided to move the Currie family to Adelaide. Upon leaving school, James thought about being a teacher, meeting with principal of Wattle Park Teacher’s College, beloved children’s author, Colin Thiele, who advised him that his creative and musical pursuits would suffer under the mountain of marking and other school obligations.
Teacher’s college was not to be, so in the late ‘60s James attended the Elder Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide, the flute being his principal instrument.
A few years in, he transferred to Flinders University’s film school where he completed a degree with first class honours.
With experience gained at the conservatorium, James knew how to operate tape recorders and had a natural talent and undeniable ear for sound.
The final examiners for his honours degree were department heads at the newly established South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC).
“They said, ‘we need you to come to the film corp to be our film mixer,’ but I knew nothing about it,” James says. “They said, ‘don’t worry, you’ll learn’. In those days you flew by the seat of your pants, and that was how I spent 11 years as a film mixer for the SAFC.”
During this time, James worked on documentaries and says documentary filmmaking gave him the skills needed to eventually transfer into feature film sound.
He progressed to working with prolific Dutch-Australian filmmakers Paul Cox and Rolf de Heer on films including Bad Boy Bubby (de Heer), The Tracker (de Heer), Ten Canoes (de Heer), Dr Plonk, which was interestingly a silent film (de Heer), Charlie’s Country (de Heer), and Force of Destiny (Cox).
“Rolf de Heer and Paul Cox, their expectations of a sound person were that you’re involved in the script and go right through to the festival,” James says. “With Rolf, I go off and fiddle with the sound, so it starts with the script right through to when the film is released at film festivals at Venice, Toronto, Cannes, wherever.”
While James has travelled to many corners of SA, the country, and the globe to capture dialogue and sounds on film sets, much of his work is also carried out in a Foley theatre. Foley is the reproduction of sound effects to enhance the vision in the film. Sounds can be as simple as the everyday clicking of high heels and clopping of horse hooves.
“When you shoot a horror movie, you’re getting the bits and pieces of effects and dialogue, all the other stuff is made up,” James says.
“One of the areas where you can make things up specifically and in separation is in a Foley theatre where you’re running a film and you make a sound to go with the picture – that’s part of the sound design.”
James says the oldest trick in the book is clapping coconut shells together to recreate the sound of horse hooves, while horror films such as Wolf Creek use chicken bones to recreate the sound of bones snapping, and knives slicing through melons for other violent motions.
Over the years James has won a swag of national and international film industry awards for his sound work and attended a number of renowned film festivals across the globe.
His most memorable project is film Ten Canoes followed by The Tracker, shot in Arkaroola in the northern Flinders Ranges.
“Ten Canoes was a character-building experience beyond anything I’d ever experienced before or since,” James says. “It was a foreign environment, psychically demanding, different language, diverse culture, intense tropical heat. Living in tents next to a crocodile infested idyllic looking river. At dawn and dusk every bug armed with primeval teeth rose in waves searching for food and feasted upon the slow-moving film crew.”
After building an established and continuing career, James says has a “general admiration” for what SA has to offer and admires the efforts of the SAFC to remain relevant in a forever evolving creative industry.
Industry in focus: Creative Industries
Throughout the month of March, the state’s creative industries will be explored as part of I Choose SA.
South Australia is home to a thriving ecosystem of creative businesses and specialists who are delivering world-class works VFX, TV and film production, app development and the VR space. Read more creative industries stories here.
Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.