As part of their current ‘Gothic’ season and regular Sonic Cinema strand, the BFI presented a night of Gothic-inspired sounds and images on 13 December 2013, curated by the artist and composer Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner. The evening opened with Chris Turner’s fashion film G(O)OD+(D)EVIL, which slickly plays with horror imagery, and features a dark ambient score by Scanner. This was followed by an astonishing musical show by Gazelle Twin, introduced by a disquieting short film featuring the performers in a supermarket. Wearing a wig and a blue hoodie, her face disguised by tights, Gazelle Twin was accompanied by two musicians in red hoodies providing the sounds and beats on laptops. They looked like strange faceless creatures in the semi-darkness, not unlike the demonic East End figures of Philip Ridley’s Heartless (2009); the creepy, haunting vocals, ghostly melodies, doom-laden bass lines and mesmeric, intricate beats created an intensely immersive, obsessive soundscape. After such a powerful performance, Anna and Maria von Hausswolff’s Trace the Spark was a bit of an anti-climax. A by-the-numbers experimental short film consisting of split-screen abstract imagery that repeated and mutated to a drony soundtrack, it was fairly unsurprising, and failed to make truly inventive or interesting connections between the sounds and the images.
Giving the event its name, Scanner then performed his take on Lachrimae, exploring the musical variations on the theme of tears, developed by 17th-century English musician John Dowland. The work is a collaboration between Scanner and Chris Turner, who provided the visuals: a black and white short film showing an attractive woman moving in slow motion. The film was as glossy and empty as an advert, but the music was captivating and hypnotic, and loosely in sync with the images. Starting with a beautiful melody punctuated by menacing bass lines and cascading percussive noises, it turned into lone piano notes contrasted with explosive sounds, underpinned by a quieter repetitive sequence full of whispers, before growing into higher-pitched sounds that evoked wrecked spaceships drifting through dark skies.
The final act, and the undeniable highlight of the night, was Carter Tutti (former Throbbing Gristle members Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti), who performed their score to an extract of F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926). Murnau’s images remain dazzlingly magical, and Carter Tutti’s score matched them with remarkable precision and imagination, making it the finest instance of visual and sonic concordance of the night. The ominous drone and industrial noises incorporated sounds of explosions, a crowd, wind blowing, a heartbeat, all of which directly matched specific visual events, while evocative whispers and flowing water, weeping violins and dissonant cellos underscored the mood of the scenes. The seamless way in which one piece of music segued into the next was particularly impressive. It was a mighty, dense performance that uniquely brought out the brilliance of the film and left the audience staggering out into the light, stunned and amazed by the dark wonders they had just witnessed.
Shane Carruth’s first feature Primer, a mind-bendingly complex time travel drama, which he wrote, directed, produced, edited, scored and also starred in as one of the two principal roles, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. But while time-travel movies usually have the protagonists pitching up somewhere – and sometime – more thrilling or more glamorous than where they started, in Primer, they stay right where they are, in a suburban wasteland of strip malls and storage units, hushed conversations, ambiguities and loose ends.
Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are tie-clad engineers by day and hobbyist project types by night, trying to develop a big idea they can sell to a venture capitalist. One of these is a refrigeration system that does strange things inside a metal box, appearing to change the mass of an object. Then a watch left inside the box starts to run backwards. Yes, they have invented a time machine. Almost any other movie would mark this moment with deathless dialogue, and perhaps some lightning flashes. Here, they appear stunned, nervous and perturbed. Soon they are making well-organised six-hour forays into the future, taking care to avoid their doubles, and making a killing on the stock market. They remain in denial about the reality of their discovery, as if they don’t want to admit it to each other, leading to the best gag of the movie: ‘Are you hungry?’ to which the reply is ‘I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.’
Soon a mix of greed, paranoia and fear starts to disrupt the sequence of events, and the narrative begins to fracture. Doubles of Abe and Aaron start piling up. The storyline veers into a strange subplot involving someone pulling a gun on a girl at a party, which the duo revisit again and again, changing the timeline each time. Unfortunately, by this point (or was it before that?) Abe and Aaron have stopped trusting each other, and each of them try to change things back to the idyllic, pre time-travel state – which by this stage is the one thing the audience is sure is not going to work.
At some point in this sensibly brief movie, you are going to have trouble understanding exactly what is going on. Some people make it past the hour, some people get confused after 45 minutes. The timelines become so fractured and tortuous that even with the help of a (possibly unreliable) narrator you are left scratching your head – the linear medium of film struggles to hold the ideas presented. Some people have unpicked it all for you here, but even on my second viewing I found it difficult to follow. One of the greatest strengths of Primer is that it assumes the audience’s intelligence and willingness to watch it again, to puzzle it over, even as it deliberately distances you with complexity – it is a genuinely 21st-century movie, aware it will be rewound and scrubbed through for answers. This doesn’t mean that a one-sitting experience isn’t worthwhile. The rapid fire techno-patter is completely free of ‘As you know, Bob…’ countersinking. It trusts you to work it out.
Primer was reportedly produced for just $7000, shot in borrowed spaces and mostly starring the director’s family and friends – although the pacing, shots and sound design punch way above the budget’s weight. Many of the choices made – the dreary locations, the flat lighting, the complete lack of special effects – are part of this constraint, but the filters and high-temperature 16mm stock work beautifully to give the film an otherworldly, Instagrammy glow. The sound design in Primer complements the visual aesthetics; minimal, disorienting and ambiguous. It ignores the tropes of Hollywood sc-fi sound design where the usual objective is to dazzle the audience with fantastical, previously unheard gleams of sound to complement the fantastical elements on screen.
Whether for budgetary or aesthetic reasons, the film eschews 5.1 surround and uses a straight two channel mix. The dialogue is live and apparently unlooped – you can hear the acoustic spaces. Washes of static come and go. Whirrs. Hums. Refridgeration units. The sounds of the everyday suburban landscape, amplified and brought closer in a manner that reminds me of paranoid 1970s’ thrillers like The Conversation. The sound of the first time machine operating was made, according to Carruth, by layering the sound of an angle grinder with a car. The later time machines are dry and mechanical. Not magical. Actual machines.
The music is sparse and tonal, mostly simple piano motifs over deep synthesizer pads, alternating with simpler tones and the occasional crescendo of noise, while there are nice little touches such as a musical motif reversing itself. The density of music and effects increases as the film goes on and the narrative fractures further. All these elements combine to give an overall effect of unsettling disorientation which complements the overall narrative.
Carruth – a former software engineer – has made much of how he wanted to present exciting scientific ideas in the manner in which they are usually discovered; undramatically and methodically, but this belies that it’s quite a sensuous experience to watch. It’s a film for geeks and cineastes alike, and a joy to revisit.
I distinctly recall the melody of that legendary folk ditty filtering through my head as I first staggered out of a cinema that had been showing Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s debut feature film Carré blanc, a chilling, dystopian science-fiction thriller unveiled in the Vanguard series during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. It seemed, at the time, and now even in retrospect, a perfectly reasonable piece of music to dance across my cerebellum – on loop, no less.
The classic song, first written in 1955 and slightly rewritten about 10 years later to include additional lyrics to comment specifically on the Vietnam War, is a piece imbued with both sentiment and the sadness of longing. It laments the loss of flowers; young girls, young boys, soldiers and graveyards – with the latter, of course, giving way to the flowers that appeared to have gone missing in the first place.
With apologies to Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson, the writers of the much-covered/adapted folk song, I recall my own added verse that asked the following question:
‘Where have all the people gone?’
It seemed something worth lamenting after seeing Léonetti’s film, which conjures up a world as bereft of people in a literal sense, as in the figurative, since ‘the people’ are either being interrogated or desperately going about their business in the fervent hope that they will not be interrogated.
Such is the world of Carré blanc, the tale of Philippe (Sami Bouajila) and Marie (Julie Gayet), a couple who grew up together in a state orphanage and who eventually married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Muzak constantly lulls the masses and is only punctuated by announcements occasionally calling for state-controlled procreation and, most curiously, promoting the game of croquet – the one and only state-sanctioned sport.
Philippe is a most valued lackey of the state. He is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator and he’s very good at his job. In fact, with each passing day, he is getting better and better at it. Marie, on the other hand, is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Philippe transforms into indifference. In this world, hatred, sadness or any manner of bitterness are luxuries. They’re tangible feelings that the rulers would never tolerate, and are punished with death.
The goal of the Brave New World that Léonetti presents appears to be little more than indifference, and as such it’s especially important to make note of the astounding score by Evgueni Galperine – one that has none of the sentiment of songs like the aforementioned Seeger folk song, nor is it like the horrendously bombastic ‘action’ scores so prevalent in contemporary science fiction films, with Michael Giacchino’s pounding notes in the J. J. Abrams reboots of Star Trek, or the wham-bam-in-your-face styling of Ryan Amon’s Elysium score and, lest we forget, any of John Williams’s sweeping orchestral noodlings in George Lucas’s Star Wars space operas.
Watch the trailer for Carré blanc:
If anything, Galperine successfully roots his music in a spare blend of electronic soundscape, eerie source music and very light orchestral background. In fact, it’s sometimes impossible to distinguish between score and sound design – something that was so integral to dystopian science fiction films of the 1970s, most notably, the creepy crawly work of Denny Zeitlin in Philip Kaufman’s immortal remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Both the Galperine score and the movie itself hark back to great 1970s’ science-fiction film classics, like The Terminal Man (Mike Hodges), Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent), A Boy and His Dog (L. Q. Jones) and THX 1138 (George Lucas), in addition to Kaufman’s terrific picture – when the genre was thankfully bereft of light sabres, Wookies and Jabba the Hut – when it was actually about something.
Galperine’s score, however, does not – in any way, shape or form – contribute to a retro quality. If anything, the film feels rooted firmly in a future not all that removed from our current existence. Every so often, Galperine will hit in an extended synth note, which will subtly blend into another and yet another and symbiotically blend with both the narrative and visuals to etch the emotional lives of the characters. This use of music to reflect emotion on screen rather than as a tool to yank emotion from the audience is completely and wholly modern. If there’s a connection between the scores of yore and Galperine’s work, it’s that it creates under- and overtones that are as universal as the 70s pictures.
The aforementioned Hodges, Sargent, Jones, Lucas and Kaufman pictures have not actually dated – certainly not in terms of the sophistication of the filmmaking and the fact that any single one of them feels as ‘modern’ as Carré blanc. In that sense, Léonetti’s film could easily have been made – as is – in the 1970s. Carré blanc shares a specific approach with past work to a genre that can, perhaps more than any other, effect true analysis and possibly even change, though there is nothing at all retro about the picture – no obvious post-modernist nods here. It is completely unto itself. Carré blanc is fresh, hip, vibrant and vital – certainly as much as the pictures noted above were and most importantly are.
A great deal of the picture’s success is, I think, owing to Galperine’s score. The electronic score proper, the pieces of music that feel like soundscape and, most evocatively, the horrendously, sickeningly and mind alteringly vapid Muzak that is constantly piped in through loudspeakers (reminiscent of the very thing that keeps A Boy and His Dog so universal) contribute to the all-important timeless quality of great science fiction in the cinema. I’m reminded of how Stanley Kubrick and Norman Jewison kept 2001 and Rollerball universal by using classical music. They used an aural underscore from the past to create timelessness. Galperine and the various composers of the 1970s sci-fi classics create electronic beds that are as contemporary as they are ‘futuristic’.
Galperine creates two important and subtle beds of music that recur throughout the film. One is a two-note hit (one low, one high – and occasionally, one high and one low) which, amid the other sounds and music layered underneath (or on top), creates a portent that reflects the emotional states of the characters. Even more evocative is the use of three notes signalling a lullaby either cut short or gone wrong, to reflect a long-lost childhood innocence, which, most importantly reflects long-lost innocence – period.
It’s this subtle and intelligent use of music that goes so far in assisting Léonetti in making what is easily the finest dystopian vision of the future to be etched upon celluloid since the 1970s. I’d go so far as to suggest that one could programme a film series entitled ‘Science Fiction of the 70s’ and just slip in Carré blanc, or, for that matter, a series entitled ‘Science Fiction: Contemporary Visions of Dystopia’ with the 1970s titles slipped in with Carré blanc, and audiences (most of them, frankly, and perhaps even sadly) would swallow it hook, line and sinker.
Thematically and/or emotionally, the thing that ties all of these films together is the notion of love being threatened by the state and/or a New World Order. God knows, in the case of Carré blanc, there can be little doubt that a romantic mood would indeed be at peril from the Muzak, along with monotone appeals from an announcer reminding the couples of the world that procreation is a privilege, not a right, but that some have indeed earned the right to procreate and as such, have a duty to do so.
Where, oh where, have all the flowers gone, indeed. Or, in the words of another timeless folk song from Zager and Evans: ‘In the year 2525, if Man is still alive…’
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) is director Panos Cosmatos’s first feature: a psychedelic, sci-fi reverse vision of the future set in 1983 in the sinister Arboria complex, where inmates/customers are promised ‘a better happier you’. The film plays out as a dystopian set of power struggles between New-Age neuropsychologist Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), his Frankenstein’s monster: Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) and mute daughter Elena (Eva Bourne). Cosmatos says he wanted to create a ‘poisoned nostalgia’ that revelled in all the pleasure of a ‘Reagan-era fever dream inspired by hazy childhood memories of midnight movies and Saturday morning cartoons’. The film is an undeniable example of what music critic Simon Reynolds calls ‘retromania’, where producers of popular culture seem to have stopped in their tracks at 2000, and now make work that frantically cites and recycles music and films made between the 1960s and the 1990s. Beyond the Black Rainbow is seamless in its aesthetic rendition of a film produced in the 1980s.
A familiar cult film trope used by Cosmatos is an investment in sparse dialogue, where symbolic slack is taken up by set, art direction, sound design and score – think of any of Dario Argento’s work, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and AndreiTarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), just to scratch the surface. Here, I’d suggest, lies cult cinema’s ties with the language of experimental and poetic filmmaking. The Black Rainbow script would seem unassuming on the page, such are the restrained, polite exchanges between the characters. Yet, the sound and sets expose these as patter floating on the surface of a brooding and repressed animosity felt by the characters. As such, in Black Rainbow, the audience is invited to sense through sound, a form of sonar navigation.
Black Rainbow is a fan’s film and this is reflected in, to quote Reynolds, the ‘new old’ score. Composer Jeremy Schmidt, alias Sinoia Caves, uses original 1980s synths, such as the infamous Mellotron, used heavily in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a mesmerising instrument that allows the musician to use a keyboard to play sound samples recorded onto magnetic tape, with choruses, strings and flutes being among the most classic examples used to great effect by Brian Eno and Goblin keyboard player and horror film composer Claudio Simonetti. Schmidt admits to ‘setting’ his music in the period Cosmatos wanted to recreate, and his score is remindful of a spectrum of sources, from New Age electronica styles to Tangerine Dream’s demonic, bassy film soundtracks for Sorcerer (1977) and The Keep (1983), for example. Then it would be churlish not to mention the huge creative homage to John Carpenter’s malevolent minimal synths, as well as some of Wendy Carlos’s psychotic synth-string pieces for The Shining – Carlos being the under-credited or cited synth genius who also produced music for Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and the original Tron. Notably, her ‘Clockwork (Bloody Elevators)’, used for The Shining’s 1980 trailer, was described in her own words: ‘The sounds are Rachel’s (Elkind) versatile vocals with percussive and brassy synthesizer lines, all quite melodramatic.’ I’m not sure why Schmidt’s extraordinary soundtrack for Black Rainbow has not been released yet, but it should be.
A theme of submersion extends throughout the film. In a flashback to 1966, Barry Nyle is reborn after sinking beneath black, primordial goo in an impressive psychedelic scene where Yves Klein meets Altered States. After this baptism he begins to transform, and takes medication to sublimate his symptoms. Mecurio Arboria retreats from reality and numbs the pain of the past and the future with narcotics. Elena’s psi/chotic abilities are subdued by Nyle’s manipulation of an unnamed, psychic power source: a glowing pyramid situated in the geometric psychological boiler room for the Arboria institute. All the characters are repressing something. So, sound is used to give insight into what is left unsaid and kept hidden. The pyramid energy is given a sensorium: a low frequency, migraine pulsing, oscillating synth. This sonic ident exists in both the symbolic reality of the film – in that it merges with the musical score and the ‘story’ of the film, and it appears to be a real sound when we see Nyle turning the control dial to vary the strength of these ‘energy sculpting’ emissions. It’s this permeability between diegetic and non-diegetic sound in the film, and a well-crafted score, which enable a symbolic reading of the sounds as the unspoken inner life of the alien/ated selves of the characters.
The most poignant example of this, I think, is ‘Solace’ (as it is unofficially listed on YouTube), the stunning piece of music dubbed over some of the scenes featuring Elena. Here, choral layers, detuned reverberating synths and chords, which mainline melancholia, have their own charge – beyond the weight of references to Jean Michel Jarre, Harold Budd and Brian Eno. Notably, the theme of submersion creeps in on this track with a repeated note, remindful of the sonar ‘ping’ used for underwater sensing and measuring. With this sound, Schmidt samples an ubiquitous motif in sci-fi sound design and also suggests searching the void. The track as a whole echoes Elena’s sense of sadness for her familial loss and for her own deprivation, speaking for her while remaining ultimately unfathomable.
With the placing of a small silver pellet into what looks like a small lava lamp, a softly modulating drone strikes up. A high-pitched swoop joins, introducing the opening riff of a bassline like bubbles bursting. Shimmering echoes float into space. ‘That recording,’ Dr. Morbius sternly informs us, ‘was made by Krell musicians a half a million years ago.’ Xenomusicology.
The story goes that producers of Forbidden Planet tried to get Harry Partch to compose the Krell music (Partch denies it) and you can understand why. Partch, perhaps more than almost any other composer of the 20th century, seemed to have tried to establish an entirely fresh basis for music. Not just bye bye diatonic harmony; bye bye the twelve-note octave, bye bye the instruments of the orchestra and hello a whole newly-invented band of ‘cloud chamber bowls’, ‘eucal blossoms’ and a ‘chromelodeon’.
But even Partch might not have come with anything quite as genuinely alien sounding, quite as pregnant with the future, as did Louis and Bebe Barron. In any other film, this short burst of alien sonics would have stuck out as thrillingly weird and exotic, but the whole film sounds like this. Everything whirls, and gurgles, and bubbles with the strange ‘electronic tonalities’ the Barrons devised with their home-made circuits.
The Barrons were among the first people in America to own a tape recorder, a wedding gift from a German friend who had imported it himself at the end of the second world war; the very same model used by Adolf Hitler to record his speeches. They immediately realised, however, that their new machine offered far more possibilities than the faithful reproduction of the human voice. Their early experiments in slowing tapes down and speeding them up, creating loops and adding echo, resulted in their first substantial composition, already implying a kind of artificial life by its title, Heavenly Menagerie.
It was around this time, at the beginning of the 1950s, that the couple first met John Cage at an artists’ club in Greenwich Village, and they soon agreed to collaborate on a series of works for tape, which would include Cage’s Williams Mix, as well as their own For an Electronic Nervous System. Louis’s recent discovery of Norbert Wiener’s writing had encouraged the pair to view their circuits by analogy with organic life or the neural pathways in the brain. They copied cybernetic circuits from Wiener’s books and adapted them for sound production, with complex feedback routes and unpredictable, ‘capricious’ natures, prone to self-destruction. ‘Those circuits were really alive,’ Bebe claimed, ‘they would shriek and coo and have little life spans of their own.’
The Barrons’ brief career as Hollywood film composers began when they accosted MGM president Dore Schary at the opening of a gallery exhibition of his wife’s paintings. Before long, the couple had persuaded him of the novelty of their ideas about electronically produced music, and Schary agreed to give them a chance to create some sounds for his new production, Forbidden Planet. From the start, MGM had only anticipated that the Barrons would contribute a small amount of special sound effects to accompany a standard orchestral score by an established composer, but having persuaded Schary to give them access to a print of the film, the Barrons came back six weeks later with a complete electronic soundtrack.
They created quasi-Wagnerian leitmotivs for the alien creatures that beset the astronauts on the planet of Altair IV by building different circuits based on the cybernetic principles outlined in Wiener’s book, Cybernetics. Their idea was to create electronic circuits that would act as though they were alive, like ‘organic’ entities, based on the feedback principles of self-organising cybernetic systems. In the original draft of Forbidden Planet’s screenplay, the idea had been that the aliens – ‘monsters from the id’ as they are called – would never be seen, so in a very real sense, the Barrons’ ‘organic’ circuits were the alien monsters; their only phenomenal manifestation. But what the Barrons found was that these circuits were actually enormously unstable and tended to breakdown in rather dramatic fashion – and it was these sounds, what Bebe Barron would later describe as the sound of a machine having a ‘nervous breakdown’, that formed most of the soundtrack to the film.
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
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews