Johnny Marshall is an awarding-winning, Texas-based sound designer with a background in music, who has worked in the industry for over three decades. His work on Upstream Colour won him the Special Jury Award for Sound Design at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The latest film from the director, actor and composer Shane Carruth, Upstream Colour joins Berberian Sound Studio as an ambitiously cinematic exploration of sound and vision with sound taking on a role as both an on-screen character and off-screen protagonist. The sense of a noise drawing characters on, sounds both heard and unheard and a beautifully hypnotic – and never has hypnotic been more literally applied – score make Upstream Colour one of the richest cinema experiences you’re likely to see this year.
John Bleasdale spoke with Johnny Marshall about what it was like to audition for Shane Carruth, and the process behind the creation of the film’s unique and remarkable sound design.
John Bleasdale: How did you first get involved in the project?
Johnny Marshall: The process of being hired for Upstream Colour was unlike any other project I had ever been involved with. I received a call from producer Casey Gooden who told me about a film he was producing with Shane Carruth. Although Shane and I had never met, I did know him by reputation and was very interested in the possibility of working with him on his second film. Casey proceeded to tell me they were looking for a sound designer for the film as well as a place for Shane to do some ADR, and were considering a number of sound designers and facilities. The unusual part of the process was, for lack of a better term, ’auditioning’ for the role. Casey asked if I’d be willing to take one scene from the film and sound design it in whatever way I deemed appropriate, non gratis. The scene that was shot had no dialogue, so it was wide open for a complete sound design treatment, including atmospheres, full foley coverage, hard effects, etc., as well as some sonic texture beds to underscore the scene. In addition he asked if I’d be willing to let Shane come by and ADR one scene to get a feel for working with me in my facility. I agreed and was told that once they had compiled the scene treatments from all those being considered they would make a decision. A week or so later I received another call from Casey with the news that they wanted me to be the sound designer. The ’audition’ scene treatments for the sound design and the ADR ended up being the actual elements used in the final mix of the film.
Sound is a protagonist in the movie. Did it change your approach knowing that sound was going to be so foregrounded?
That’s a great question. When I began working on the film everyone involved was moving fast to complete a final picture lock, sound design, and temp mix for a Cannes submission. Since the final editing and the sound design were being done simultaneously at separate locations, I was receiving one reel at a time in sequence as each reel was locked. I never read a script and didn’t really know where the film was going when I first started working on it, but I knew there was something very special about Upstream Colour in that not only was the film very ’outside the box’, but also unlike any film I’d ever seen. Consequently I approached the sound design with that in mind. It was more like sound designing from an audience perspective, in that I would receive a reel and emotionally react to it with sound design, not knowing where the next reel would take me. I remember getting occasional calls from Casey saying a new reel was ready and words to the effect of ‘You won’t believe where this one goes!’ Perhaps it was one of those ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ but I don’t think I was ever really cognizant of the foregrounding of the sound until I sat in the Eccles Theatre and watched the film at the Sundance 2013 world premiere.
How did you work with the music? Was this something you had discussions about?
As a whole there were very few discussions about anything during the post audio process. As Shane was concentrating on the final edit and the score, I was left to my own devices to do my work. Although the score was ever evolving during post, I would always receive OMFs with Shane’s music cues, so I always had a sense of the sonic emotional content of each scene. I am very proud of Shane’s musical work on Upstream and think the score is not only phenomenal but proved to be very conducive to the style of sound design I brought to the table.
Did you use much live sound?
As far as location audio I’d say considerably less than in most films. There’s not a great deal of dialogue and a good amount of it was ADR. There were scenes in the hotel and on the trains that were just way too noisy to be cleaned up and used. From a sound design perspective we were able to utilize some great wild audio from the pig farm and the trains.
How did you deal with the dialogue? It seems to be intentionally behind the sound.
Although that’s more of a question for the re-recording mixer at Skywalker, Pete Horner, who did an incredible job on the mix, I know that the opening lines of dialogue in the film between the boys and the thief were intentionally pulled back in the mix as a creative decision. Shane didn’t feel that those lines needed to be as discernable as other dialogue in the film, and rather be just audible enough to give a sense of what is going on. Aside from that scene I never had a sense the dialogue was intentionally behind the sound per se. That said, I do feel there is a great deal of dynamic range being used in the film, which is one of the many elements of Pete Horner’s mix that I really love.
What was the nature of your collaboration with Shane Carruth?
Interesting that you would ask that, since overall there wasn’t a great deal of actual collaboration between Shane and me during the sound design process. I have a sense that after my ’audition’ scene Shane felt we were both on the same page as to the sonic direction of the film and subsequently left me to do my part unsupervised while he concentrated on his. He did, however, give me a bit of direction on one scene where the Sampler places speakers on the ground and plays a cassette tape to the worms. Shane asked me to create a low frequency, pulsating sound-design treatment that would be playing from the tape, through the speakers, and into the ground. With that I created something I thought worked for the scene, Shane approved it, and I moved on. In the final mix Pete added some reverb and delays into the surround channels which really brought that sound design element to life.
Could you say something about the character of the ‘Sampler’, who is in effect a sound designer? Was his practice informed by your own?
When I tell someone I was the sound designer for Upstream Colour I sometimes get this look like ’Wow, you look a lot taller and thinner on screen’ and I’m like ’No, wait, I’m the sound designer ‘on’ Upstream Colour, not the sound designer ‘in’ Upstream Colour!’
There are many days when what you see the Sampler doing is exactly what I do, that is, walk around with mics and a portable digital recorder to record sounds to use in the films I work on. It’s fun to think that somewhere down the road my grandkids could be watching Upstream Colour and during the scene where Kris (Amy Seimetz) returns to her home after her long ordeal, slowly pushes open the front door, it creaks, hits the wall and their mom or dad could say ’Hey kids, what you just heard was the creaky front door of the house we grew up in!
Interview by John Bleasdale