The highly innovative and entertaining new American independent film The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, features off-beat art culture, toilet jokes, male pregnancy scares, cookie tasting trials, religious commentary, gnarly animation, war politics, and lots of water. The film is currently making the festival rounds and will be screening this Tuesday at St. Anthony Main as part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival.
Little Dizzle was shot entirely in Seattle, Washington but the film does have a Minnesota connection: Tom Hambleton of Undertone Music Studios in Minneapolis was the supervising sound designer and re-recording mixer for the film. Hambleton previously worked with director David Russo on one of Russo’s short films. He was first introduced to Russo through a Dutch filmmaker named Rosto, who contributes a key sequence in Dizzle: a mind-blowing shower scene.
I recently met Hambleton and Dizzle producer Parker Anderson-Greene (both of whom will be present at the MSPIFF screening) at Undertone. As we were walking around the building going from one studio to the next, Hambleton explained how he is connected to Russo and Rosto. “David has a few ties to Minnesota; we have a mutual friend in common whose name is also Tom [Schroeder], who met David before I did. Schroeder encouraged David to come here to work with me. David met Rosto in 2003 at the Telluride Film Festival. David was presenting his short film Pan with Us and Rosto was there with his short film, The Rise and Fall of the Legendary Anglobilly Feverson. This was shortly after I had met Rosto at the DigIT fest here at the Walker in Minneapolis, a festival that Craig Rice and Cis Bierinckx put together. Rosto then hired me to do sound for Jona/Tomberry, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, taking home the Canal+ Award for best short film. David wasn’t happy with the sound that he was getting from different sound people in Seattle, so both Rosto and Tom Schroeder recommended to David that he work with me. David was very impressed with the sound that I did on Rosto’s film and other films, which led to us working together with David on his 2006 short film, I Am (Not) Van Gogh. There are many sound stages in Seattle, but David was impressed with the work that I did for him on the short film and he wanted to work with me again for Dizzle.”
Originally from Shaker Heights, Ohio, Hambleton traveled to Europe for four months after college before moving to Chicago; after two years there, he moved up to Minneapolis to pursue a career in film music. Undertone Music Studios is also known for doing all the delicious and noisy sounds you hear on the popular Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives with Guy Fieri. “I started Undertone Music in 1991,” said Hambleton, “and in 1994 I quit my day job. I’ve done work with the Walker, the Weisman, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts doing music and sound for their interactive programs. You know when you walk into the museum and you put on headphones and someone is talking about the origins of this piece or that piece? That’s what I was doing for a while. Plus, there were a lot of work agencies, production companies, and other independent artists and filmmakers here in Minneapolis.”
Walking through the studios, Hambleton showed me what is known as the Iso Booth, where foley work is done. “Foley is recording sound in sync with the picture,” explained Hambleton. “A foley artist watches the film and manipulates things like shoes, clothing, glasses, and chairs to make the scene believable.”
The booth is no bigger than an average room in one’s home, but it is connected to a large control room packed to the gills with sound equipment. Down the hall is a storeroom with boxes, racks of wardrobe and costumes, and dozens of props.
We walked down the stairs to the room where Hambleton built his fifth and largest studio, a space known as a “dub stage.” The room is 35 feet from screen to the back wall, 22 feet wide, and 14 feet tall. Walking in, Tom started pressing buttons and flipped the switch to turn on the lights, revealing even more buttons on the soundboard. “This theater is tweaked for optimal performance,” he says, “for the best picture and best sound you can get. It’s full HD 1080p projection, and it’s 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound that has been tuned and approved by Dolby engineers. The beauty of it is that the mix for Dizzle left here and went to Sundance, where the same Dolby engineer set up the screening room at Sundance. The translation was perfect. This first dub stage in Minnesota tuned to Dolby-approved sound. We sent a rough cut to Sundance for its entry deadline in September that had some of my sound work in it, but I’d only had the film for a few days then. I had been seeing progressing cuts of the film throughout the summer and fall, so I knew what to expect. The final picture came to us at the beginning of December. Sundance needed the film by December 29th, so we only had about 3½ weeks among me and three others working on it: sound editor Dave Allen, foley artist Mike Nelson, and dialogue editor Justin Close. I was working 16 to 18 hours a day.”
Hambleton works through a computer that is connected to the soundboard. “The Virtual VTR is a high-end video program that I put movies into that responds to the time code sent by Pro Tools and plays through my high-end Aja Kona HD video card on a separate computer. This takes the load of the video off of the audio computer—the beauty of it is that then I can do more tracks. There are many technical and physical reasons why you mix sound in a larger room. Mostly because you can’t estimate the reverb time or panning width accurately in a small room, and low frequency is also impossible to judge in a smaller room. You need to know how those will translate to a larger theatrical-sized room. The JBL Cinema series speakers I use on the Dub stage are made for theatrical playback. In the end though, as good as I get it to sound in here, the mixer’s job is to translate to other venues as well as possible.”
I asked Hambleton what theaters in town have the best sound—not including the IMAX. He mentioned the Heights and the old Cooper Theatre in St. Louis Park, which has been closed since 1991.
Watching the final product on his HD screen and 5.1 Surround Sound was spectacular. The scene where a fish magically swims off a painting on a bar wall is alone worth the price of admission.
Later, Russo spoke with me by phone from Seattle. “We really limped into Sundance with our last breath,” he chuckled. “We had a couple of rough screenings. No film had fewer screenings then we did. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the press to pay attention to it. It was out of competition, and it’s a non-genre film.”
When Russo called Dizzle a “non-genre film,” I asked whether he considered it to be an experimental film. “The odd thing is that despite its non-genreness, I’m really amazed by watching it in a theater. I still see some flaws, but darn it, it really kicks ass. It brings in a wide range of aesthetics that you don’t need to be an experimental weirdo to get. It operates on many levels, and as a filmmaker and that’s all I’ve ever been interested in doing is making things that very diverse audiences can come to appreciate on very different levels. Even if it’s just as dumb as something like ‘Man, how did he do that?’ As a filmmaker I just try to be as generous as I can.
“There is a huge demographic out there,” he continued, “that responds to it strongly—older women in particular. People who are done with the childbirth process who do want a little adventure in a movie and really get the spirit of what pregnancy must be like and the changes you undergo while one’s pregnant. I also think that many different kinds of religious interest groups, could appreciate it. I think we do run the gamut and we don’t try to trump one religion over another, but I think we approach the subject with some respect. One of the things that makes Dizzle so different is that its message is so subtle and so human. There is this myth that the individual matters that it’s been so important to our American culture, and I’ve been watching it slowly perish for two decades. So just go be an individual and see how far you get. So I tried to react to against that kind of Erin Brockovich ending where the victimize get retribution in the end, because that isn’t the era that we live in. I think The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle is a film about hope that takes life in the very literal sense and not some mythical sense. It celebrates life.”
When asked how much of himself he put into lead character Dory, Russo replied that “I’m in all of those characters, not just Dory. I wish I was the kind of writer who didn’t have to base every frickin’ word on my own experience and my own thoughts and my own personality, but I don’t want to be a screenwriter. I just had this movie inside of me that seemed interesting to me. I just had to divide the parts up and let different sides of myself talk to each other. The end result is, hopefully, a humane ensemble with no character who is truly evil.
“It is not meant for one viewing,” he said. “It’s just how I’ve always made films—including my short films. One viewing and out isn’t the kind of movies I can make. But people will pick up on nuances that they may not notice upon first viewing. Film is not a medium of the present; it is a medium of the memory. I would have never made the film if I was satisfied with the state of independent film. Even by the time the opening credits were over, I wanted viewers to have had an experience that is fun and full of energy.”
Russo is already planning his next project: an IMAX film that will also feature Hambleton and the Undertone team. Hambleton’s take on what’s to come? “Nothing but bigger and louder, baby!”
Jim Brunzell III (email@example.com) writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk.