Few directors employ a bolder use of score and sound design in creating their cinematic universe than Darren Aronofsky. It’s for this reason the director’s fans were understandably excited by the news that on his new film “mother!” he would be collaborating for the first time with Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose innovative soundscape approach to Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” and “Sicario” seemed like a perfect fit for Aronofsky.
It’s a collaboration that, by all accounts, went remarkably well, but resulted in a creative exploration that revealed that eliminating Jóhannsson’s score and leaning on a more expressive sound design was best for the film.
In the film’s press notes Jóhannsson — who according to Paramount is credited as a music and sound consultant in the film — said this about the decision:
“‘mother! is a film where half measures have no place and after Darren and I had explored many different approaches, my instinct was to eliminate the score entirely. Erasure is a big part of the creative process and in this case, we knew we had to take this approach to its logical extreme.”
According to Aronofsky’s longtime sound designer Craig Henighan, the collaboration with the director on both music and sound design starts before production. In October and November of last year, Henighan and Jóhannsson were already starting to broadly sketch out the film’s soundscape and by January were starting to supply Aronofsky and his editor Andrew Weisblum with early versions they could experiment with as they cut.
“While I was creating sounds, Johann was writing, and as we got deeper and deeper into the film — without being too arty or too weird about it — the film started telling us, especially Darren and his editor Andy Weisblum, what it needed,” said Henighan in an interview with IndieWire. “We would use the term a lot: ‘The film pushed back.’ The more music and the more sound — like heavy-handed sound design — that we put in, it was telling the audience too much and it was taking away from people actually experiencing it with mother [Jennifer Lawrence’s character].”
This relationship of the audience to mother’s increasingly disturbed mental state was the key reason Aronofsky and his post-production team, including Jóhannsson, realized they shouldn’t use a traditional score. In the press notes, Aronofsky explains it this way:
“Where the film works is the audience doesn’t know where they are: They keep looking to Jen to see where they are, but Jen’s character doesn’t really know how to take certain things. She’s constantly flowing between different emotions, different thoughts. We wanted the audience to lean into that, to not give them any relief by allowing them to lean back on something that easily gives you emotion.”
In May the team shifted gears, with Jóhannsson moving into more of a sound- and music-consultant role and away from being the composer.
“The music that is there is really effective — it’s Johann’s music, but it’s more sound design than classic score,” said Henighan. “He records all these really interesting musicians and interesting instruments and we’d take those and manipulate them in different ways. When you go into the movie you aren’t going to hear a classic score by any stretch of the imagination.”
While Aronofsky tasked Henighan with finding ways to be “more expressive,” some of the same difficulties they were experiencing with Jóhannsson’s score applied to the sound design as well. According to Henighan, relying on traditional “horror stings” — scary sound effects or jarring pieces of music used to emphasize frightening moments for the audience — was the antithesis of what they were trying to accomplish on “mother!.”
“It is a horror movie, but it’s not your genre classic type of horror film,” said Henighan. “Restraint was a really big thing with this movie. It has a lot of other layers to it and the idea was to use anything we could make sonically feel like it was part of the world. If we were going to do the horror sound, or horror beat, or the horror scare we tried really hard to make that sound be born of something that was happening on screen.”
The film starts quietly. Henighan anchored his soundscape in the sound effects and ambiances that originated from mother’s house, which he then manipulated and built upon to create an increasingly layered and disturbing sound design as the film progresses.
“In ‘mother!’ the house is sort of alive on some level,” said Henighan. “The challenge is how do make it interesting and make it feel like the actual walls are breathing and talking without being corny or too pedestrian. We accomplished that by using a lot of creaks and sounds of pipes rattling and manipulating them in ways that eventually they would turn into baby cries, or morph into other things as we got deeper and deeper into the film.”
In all of his collaborations with Aronofsky, Henighan said there’s always a desire to build in the sounds of literal life — blood going through your veins, breathing, the beating of the heart. After his first time reading the “mother!” script, Henighan started to think about how to give the house itself a heartbeat. Working with sound effects editor Coll Anderson, they zeroed in on large mammals, and eventually whales.
“We’d listen and try to mimic [a whale’s heart] with process sounds that we made up,” said Henighan. “We’d mimic the timing and pulsing, or beating [of the whale’s heart] and Darren really gravitated toward that. These biology-type sounds is a thread in a lot of his movies — humans, bodies, essentially life itself.”
“mother!” will open in theaters on September 15th.