Welcome to our new series, Between Two Speakers, where we chat with editors who are breaking boundaries in trailer audio and redefining the rules of entertainment advertising. We’re bridging the gap between the artists who craft and compose audio and the editors who use their work to build award-winning, game-changing trailers.
Joel Salsburey, the trailer editor behind The Wolf of Wall Street and many other indie gems, joins us to talk about quick turns and how he keeps it fresh after 20 years in the business. Read his interview below or listen to it here.
Why do you think trailers, more so than film editing, leans towards marrying music with the picture?
You have to convey emotion quickly. I think that music is very important in doing that. You don't have time to build up a character over a half-hour and give people all that. You have to get people to lock into something and pay attention to something, and hearing a riff from a song that you already know gets your brain engaged quickly. As it builds, those builds have to happen quickly as well. You need people to not only lock in quickly, but stay with you through the ride. So we have to have something, and sometimes that’s interesting sound design, and being very minimal. But music is that driving thing where it's like, if there's a song that you really like, and it's attached to a trailer, you're in for the ride. You'll sit there and maybe just listen and pay attention just for the song. By the end of it, we’ve gotten to pitch you our movie. Personally, I have a hard time cutting without music. It really is a struggle for me. I helped a friend out with a short years ago, and I was trying to put scenes together. I was like, “Well, let me find the music for this scene.” I needed that emotion to help me figure out scenes as I went. That’s why I think the music is so important.
When you’re working on something that's more of a thriller or drama, how are you using music to get the audience invested?
They have to buy into that character and music is what can help us get there. I don't do a lot of horror myself. One of my all-time favorite trailers is the original Alien trailer. I don't know if you've ever seen it, but I think that trailer still holds up today. You could play that in a theater right now, and people would be interested. It’s a really interesting piece of sound design. I think sometimes even with thriller and horror marketing, less is more. With any kind of horror movie, like the early M. Knight Shyamalan stuff where you don't show people the bad guy, sometimes that's more effective. So, it's building tension, and especially in this short form, you can only do that through music. It's a rise of strings. It's a tensioned building sound. You can offset people's feelings with a really weird sound. One of my all-time favorite scores was for Cabin Fever and it’s all these weird strings. The composer went to a cabin with a whole bunch of weird stringed instruments and just started making weird sounds. It's very off-putting. It just takes you out of your comfort zone. That sort of thing can really put people into an intense space very quickly. If you go back again to that Alien reference, there definitely is that marriage of picture and music. There's so many interesting shots in that trailer where you're just like, “What in the world is going on?” It starts out and you're in a spaceship and you think, “Oh, it's that kind of a movie.” Then, all of a sudden, there are spinning shots and it’s clear there is definitely a bigger story to this movie, even though they haven’t told you a whole lot.
Is the most important thing as an editor today to create something that immediately sticks out, feels new and fresh, and defies your expectations?
There's a time and a place for that. If you're working on an animated movie, there's a little bit more marketing involved. Having said that, the Lightyear trailer that just came out is a great example of, again, music, and really just setting up a little bit more of an important kind of trendsetting thing with that marriage of music. So, is it always going to be that? Not necessarily. At the end of the day, we're trying to sell movie tickets. There is a balance. But I think if you're not trying to invent or do something different every time, then you're falling behind. I always tell the younger editors that when I'm working on a project, if I have the time, I'll try and find new sound design, new hits, new whooshes, and that's stuff that we use every single day. I’ll try to find four or five new ones that I've never used before. That's a very subtle thing to do, but then all my whooshes and hits don't sound the same as the last trailer. Especially when you're working with the same clients day in and day out. I think that can really help keep things fresh and interesting. It keeps your mind moving forward rather than just sticking with the same thing every single time.
You said that with animation there's a lot more marketing involved. Are you saying that there's more content that's coming out that can tell the story for you, or are you saying within that singular spot you have to craft a story that is more market-driven versus the character building and storytelling?
Yeah, I think with animation it's a little bit more calculated, and not just animation, we do that with lots of things. There are bigger blockbuster movies where we have to be more conscious of the marketplace. We talk a lot about a “four quad movie.” Younger females, younger males, older males, and older females are the four demographics you're always trying to look at. With a big, superhero summer blockbuster movie, you need all four of those demographics to be interested in your movie in order to have a $200 million opening. So I think when you get into those spaces, there's a need to pay attention to market testing, and see what you can do to bring up the numbers, and get more people in a certain demographic. Whereas with a smaller indie movie, standing out and doing something a little more off-the-grid can help you. People are like, “Whoa, what was that? I’m gonna send it to my friend, check out this crazy thing.” With a movie that you've never heard of, we have to drive that interest. So you need to stand out and be a little bit more unique and interesting.
You’ve worked on trailers for movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, Phantom Thread, and Inherent Vice. Can you talk about why you feel like you’ve made a name for yourself dealing with the more challenging aspect of getting an audience to buy into a movie, or even a trailer for 2.5 minutes where the IP is something that no one's ever heard of?
I’ve worked with Paul Thomas Anderson on some of his movies, and he’s the perfect example of a director that wants to do that himself with his own movies. He wants to challenge and do interesting things. So if the director is looking to do that, you have a little more freedom because that's what they also want from their trailers. The Wolf of Wall Street with Scorsese is the same thing. I've done stuff with Zack Snyder too, and Zach is very much involved in the marketing. So those spaces where directors open the door to let you do more interesting things, I think that that's a big part of it. Everyone in the industry wants to be wildly creative. We always want to do the big, interesting thing but sometimes it’s just not the right thing to do for the movie. I've been lucky enough to be in front of somebody and be on some of those projects with people who are willing to take some chances. At the same time, it’s like we talked about earlier, itt’s trying to be conscious of trying to do something new and a little different, and taking chances with a few moments here and there in your trailer. You never know what someone's going to latch onto and be okay with. I always joke that I'm the homerun hitter, but I strike out way more than I get a hit—but when I get a hit, I get it pretty far.
I was working with you when you cut the teaser for The Wolf of Wall Street, and I remember that project was very much about the music and the cue. Can you talk about that story?
Yeah, that's actually a funny story. We were on a really fast turnaround on that project and we had to work the weekend to get something to the studio by Monday. We started down a path and I had a cut that had a much darker musical tone. We got some feedback from Eric Counter over the weekend where he was like, “No! Not dark like this!” They wanted it to be a lot more fun. My colleague, Michelle, happened to record Saturday Night Live and was watching it Sunday morning, Kanye performed Black Skinhead and she was like, “That's the song for this trailer.” So, she sent it to Eric and he was like, “Oh, yeah. This will be great.” So, we pivoted halfway through the weekend. I had a structure in place, but didn’t have the right music. We put that music in, and Eric showed it around, and everybody went crazy for it. They got it in front of Scorsese pretty early, and he was onboard with it as well. That's a really good example of how much of a shift you can do with just music. Black Skinhead wasn’t actually released yet, so we cut the first version with a screen grab from the performance on Hulu. Then we had to wait for Kanye to finish the song and thankfully, it all lined up pretty well when we got the actual song. When you're in this industry, you just have to constantly be aware of and pay attention to music, wherever it presents itself.
One of the great things about a weekend turnaround is there’s no time to tinker around, you just go for it. Do you feel like you have a little more artistic license in those situations?
Maybe, I don’t think anyone does it in a vacuum. I don't think it ever comes solely from me. For example with The Wolf of Wall Street, Michelle found the music and I did the edit. I think one of the best parts of that trailer is the McConaughey moment, and Eric really drove us consistently to just keep stretching that out. It's a team effort that goes into it. So, yeah, when you're on those short deadlines, I think the bonus of those is you don't overthink things. You go into automatic mode and you do what's right. You don't have time to second guess yourself. So I think there's some benefit to that. Ultimately, I would much rather have more time to show things and get feedback or even just work things out on my own. When you’re given time on certain projects, you start going down paths and then you're like, “Oh no, this is not the right path.” If you explore things. I think you'll end up with a better project in the end. That’s the value of having more time, where we can test things and get feedback from focus groups. We can tweak things. We can try different story angles. You can see which characters are resonating with people more than others. Things like that are really valuable to have the time and the space to do. As far as a short turnaround, it is sometimes nice to get out of your own head and just cut.
Do you find that in different beats of the campaign you’re provided different lengths of time to finish that particular spot? Do you have more time in the first phase with the teaser versus the second trailer versus TV spots?
It all varies and there are different circumstances for everything. If the first trailer goes over really well I think that can afford a studio more time to do the second trailer. It might also inform you on how to handle the second trailer. With The Wolf of Wall Street, we went pretty minimal with the story on that first piece. So the second trailer that came out tried to do a little bit more heavy lifting with the story, just to give people a bigger sense of what the actual story was. Those things all dictate how much time you're going to need and how much time you're going to spend on things. It always varies. Sometimes filmmakers are resistant to give you the first pass at the movie. So your deadline for when you want to get the first trailer out gets shorter. There’s a lot of factors.
Is there a genre that you prefer to work on?
I don't know if it's a particular genre. I like projects that are stronger with an actual song, rather than just a piece of orchestral music. I like to really dig into the lyrics of songs and try and get additional value from the lyrics. With the Suicide Squad trailer with Bohemian Rhapsody, there's a ton of added value from that song and the lyrics pairing with the movie in a really great way. Anytime that I can do that, I'm a happy little camper. As far as genre goes, I definitely like action/comedy and that’s where I feel I’m a little bit stronger. Having fun with things, along with the song stuff, is more my strong suit. But I really do like working on dramas as well. We worked on Black Mass and several Paul Thomas Anderson movies and I really dig those. I come at this whole thing from an emotional standpoint. How can we get that emotion out of people? I think with dramas you have that framework to work off of and really evoke an emotion out of people. So I dig that stuff too, anything with a little bit of meat on the bones is fun to work on.
When you're looking for lyrics, what's your process?
Like I said earlier, it's always a team effort and having a good music staff is huge. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of really great music supervisors over the years who have given me really great tracks. When I was at Ant Farm, we worked on a movie called The Words with Bradley Cooper in It, and we were trying to figure out the music for that. Patrick Buchanan, who was the music supervisor at the time, had been sent an EP from an unknown band. He came in, and he was like, “Guys, I was in the car this morning. I heard this song, and it’s a great song for this movie.” It was Imagine Dragons and the song Demons. No one had ever heard of them and that finished in that trailer. It’s always a marriage of those two things. Personally, my Spotify playlists are endless. I'm constantly listening to stuff and sorting stuff so that you have your own selection of stuff that you like ready to go. It’s a process, sometimes you may not have the right song. But being able to go to the music supervisor and say, “Hey, this is the tone that I'm looking for for this movie,” can help them. You start out and it's like the possibilities are endless. But as you go, it’s like, “This is the tone that I'm looking for, I like this song.” Anything that you can give them will help the process go faster, smoother. I think you have to work back and forth with your whole team. And sometimes it's a producer like Michelle who finds the song. Sometimes it's the music supervisor finding the song. So, it can come from anywhere but I think the biggest thing is that you really just have to constantly be looking and digging and listening. You never know where it's going to come from. I'm constantly listening to music for trailers. If I’m listening to the radio or listening to a playlist, it's always like, “Ok, can I use that in a trailer?” Sometimes, you put it in a playlist, and save it and six years later is when you finally get to use the song. So, you just have to be mindful of those things.
Do you feel like editing trailers now in the age of streaming is different?
To a certain extent, yes, because your primary reach 20 years ago was people at the theater. To that end, it was a whole lot easier to do a misdirect, where the first time the majority of people were seeing things was in the theater. If it's a horror movie and you're making it look like it’s about this sweet little teenager and then all of a sudden it turns into a horror movie, it's way easier to do those misdirects if people are just sitting in a theater and being given things. Now, when the majority of your audience comes from somebody clicking on a link, or seeing a link on social media, they already know what the movie is. So I think in that regard, there's definitely a shift with that. Also, there are just shorter attention spans. There's so much more media and content, not just trailers, but in general with TikTok, Instagram and Facebook and all those sorts of things. The way that you are trying to engage viewers and people to get them to stick with your marketing, is completely different. When I first started out, every single trailer started with a wide shot. Ease me into the trailer and ease me into the storytelling. Well, now it's like when people are just flipping through TikTok or Instagram and there’s a lot of noise in the space, we have to grab your attention. We’ve got five to ten seconds to get somebody to engage in it. So easing somebody into the story doesn't work. We need something very grabby. You need a star’s face very early, something to get people to go, “Let me keep watching this.” In that regard, how you present it to the audience and what the format is, I think that's definitely shifted.
Do you think it’s specifically changed the way you think about music and use music in your trailers?
I don't know if that affects the music of it all. I think the music in a trailer is still relatively the same as before, depending on what you're trying to do and who you're trying to sell it to. There is definitely value to somebody hearing a Taylor Swift song and sticking around because they like Taylor Swift. It might be that you hear a Taylor Swift song and you see an actress’s face that you like, and now you're engaged. Let me keep watching and see where this goes. There definitely is something to that of what we can do with music that helps you latch people in quickly. Ultimately, I don't think there's a big shift, especially as the trailer goes on. You're still trying to find the best piece of music, and that hasn't changed. I've been doing it for 20 years now, and we're always looking for the new song, the new band, the thing that people haven't heard before, or the new version of an old song.
Throughout the years, is there a musical trend within theatrical advertising that you like the best or dislike?
Well we had our dubstep phase. We all went through that as a whole and we've moved on and grown and learned from that. It’s not about what I like or dislike, you have to be pushing forward. We can't keep doing the same things. I think to that end that's one of the reasons why dubstep stood out, especially in marketing, is that we hadn't heard that kind of thing before. So for an action movie to have that big, distorting dance style to it, it stood out in a big way and made stuff feel new and interesting and fresh. You're always pushing for the new thing and thankfully the music industry is as well. So it goes hand in hand—what they're doing and what we're doing, and what people are vibing with at the time.
What do you think is the single greatest needle drop in the history of movie trailers?
The Social Network trailer, just what a great find. So memorable and just a perfect piece of unexpected music. Again, I think the greatest trailers are the ones that evoke an emotional response. That trailer did that. That's literally the first one that popped in my head.
About The Speaker
Trailer Editor & Producer
Based in LA, Joel has worked in theatrical advertising for a little over 20 years. In college, he did a program called LAFSC and through that got an internship in the industry. He knew he wanted to work with movies, but wasn’t 100% sure what form that would take. At first he considered special effects and trailers. By the luck of the draw, he got an internship at Kaleidoscope, which was one of the premier trailer shops at the time. He was instantly drawn to trailers because of the marriage of music and footage. Since his start, he’s made a name for himself with trailers for movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, Suicide Squad, and Inherent Vice.