When it comes to talking about their work with the press, Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t the most forthcoming. Close reading of their work can only get us so far — which is where conversations with key members of the Coens’ crew, such as composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay, can fill in certain gaps by sharing some of their experiences working with the legendary sibling directing duo.
Earlier this week as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, Burwell and Lievsay participated in a conversation with Glenn Kiser, the Director of the Dolby Institute. The discussion incorporated screenings of clips from Coen Brothers films that both Burwell and Lievsay had worked on, but the overall arc of the conversation, which we outline below, provided a unique perspective on how sound design plays into the greatness that is a Coen Brothers film.
Even during the script stage, the Coens have always been very conscious about the role that sound and music play.
Before the discussion with Burwell and Lievsay began, Kiser screened the famous chase scene from “Raising Arizona” where H.I. (Nicolas Cage) steals a pack of Huggies from a quickie mart and a mad comedy of errors ensues. As the scene progresses, it increases in complexity, adding more and more characters — cops, a thunderous pack of neighborhood dogs, a grocery store clerk with a shotgun, but it never lets up on the pace.
The most impressive aspect of the scene, however, goes entirely unseen; namely, the fact that the Coens’ meticulously map out the visual and aural choreography of each and every scene in their films, including this one. “They write knowing the importance of the sound and the music,” Burwell said early on in the conversation. “They put space in their films for that, and a lot of people don’t, but they actually feel free to have a few minutes where there might not be any dialogue.”
Burwell and Lievsay collaborate to build each film’s sonic landscape and therefore, compromise plays a major role in the process.
When there is poor communication between the sound and music departments, it’s obvious, according to Burwell. “When sound went digital,” he said, “everyone was very excited that you could just have all the faders up. It was technically possible to do that.” The result, Burwell continued, is “a lot of very noisy mixes where basically someone has decided not to decide what should be featured.”
According to Burwell, sound and music must be allotted their own “moments,” so that even when they overlap (as they often do) they are still working with one another, rather than against. One such technique that Burwell finds useful in facilitating these kinds of “moments” is to divide up frequencies between himself and Lievsay: “Skip and I will do things where I’ll give him the high frequencies and I’ll take the low frequencies.”
Sometimes the best sound is the absence of sound.
Silence is the twisted sister of sound because, as sound professionals like Burwell and Lievsay know far too well, within the absence of sound exist certain imperceptible sounds. The example that Lievsay used to illustrate this notion for the audience was the creaking of the trees heard throughout “Miller’s Crossing.”
Said Lievsay: “A lot of times when you’re going to emphasize that it’s really, really quiet, then you add something that is not very loud that you can clearly hear and that makes you think, wow, I can hear the trees creaking, geez it must be really quiet.” Similarly, in the case of “No Country for Old Men,” where a score seems almost entirely absent from the film, Burwell explained to the audience how instead of composing a traditional score, he and the Coens opted to use steady state sounds after they realized that anything resembling traditional music would decrease the tension in the film.
“Obviously, there are traditions in which music can increase tension,” said Burwell, “but the film, in its silent mode, the tension meter was at the max.” And that is how steady-state sound emerged as the solution. Said Burwell: “they don’t have any beginning and they don’t have an end. Things like sine waves, Tibetan singing bowls and I would just fade them in, typically under wind or a car sound and we would pitch the wind or car sound together so that you were not aware that something was there. The only reason that we did it at all really was because Joel and Ethan would flag scenes where [they felt], we need a little something there.”
For the Coens, nothing can beat capturing high-quality production sound that you can eventually use in the final mix.
“They have this mantra of getting a good recording of every line in the script before they finish shooting and they are pretty good at that,” noted Lievsay. On “No Country for Old Men,” for example, the Coens managed to come away from set with great recordings for every piece of dialogue, save for two instances: one of which involved one of the lines uttered by Tommy Lee Jones as he was loading a horse into a trailer and the other came about because actor Javier Bardem had an issue with pronunciation. In the case of the former, Lievsay said, the Coens decided that they liked the overlap with Jones’ line and the sound of the horses’ hooves, which made the latter exception the only time in the film where Lievsay had to incorporate ADR rather than original production sound.
You can listen to the entire panel below courtesy of WNYC: