Jordan Peele’s Toolkit Interview: Making ‘Nope’ a Masterpiece of Sound

Toolkit Interview, Ep 162: Jordan Peele fleshed out every detail of the history and anatomy of his alien life form, but it was his work with “Under the Skin” sound designer Johnnie Burn that made it real.
Jordan Peele Toolkit Interview
Jordan Peele
Elizabeth Goodenough/Everett Collection

Jordan Peele’s mystery-in-the-sky UFO film “Nope” is destined — not unlike his previous two films, “Get Out” and “Us” — to breed questions, careful rewatches, and complex internet theories by avid fans trying to fill in the blanks of the writer/director’s latest supernatural universe. When Peele was recently on the “Filmmaker Toolkit” podcast, we asked him to what degree in writing “Nope” he felt compelled to fill in those blanks himself. Did he need to devise a complete history and fully understand the inner working of this alien life form to tell this story? The answer was a resounding was a resounding “Yes!”

“I feel strongly that you have to do a certain amount of work that the audience can feel even though you are not showing it. I think that way with character, history, I think that way with the UFO in question,” said Peele. “This is something I can feel in some of my favorite directors. Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, to name a couple, I think are people who feel like they are painting a small picture in a world that’s already painted, but also we see the success of this is Marvel and ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and everything that goes deeper than what you’re being shown.”

Another key factor Peele knew was vital to making his aliens feel credible to the audience was sound. “‘Close Encounters of the Third’ Kind was an obvious influence here in the way it captured the scope and the magic, and one of the sort of breakthrough elements of that film was the sound and the immersion. So I knew that with every aspect we had to be trying to break barriers,” said Peele.

Toward that goal, Peele took the unconventional step of starting to figure out the sound of the aliens early in the creative process, and brought aboard the sound designer behind one of his favorite sci-fi films, “Under the Skin”: supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Johnnie Burn.

“The early conversations were along the lines of ‘We want to be super realistic,’” said Burn, who appears on the second half of this week’s “Toolkit” podcast. “If you believe that it happened, then it actually did happen. And for that, we were kind of resisting the urge to hear anything from the monster too early on because we wanted it to be credible that this was a predator — and how could something so large be getting away with this?”

Later in the film, where the aliens are less stealth, and more present, Burn explained the goals was “an epic presentation of alien life, basically really original visually and — obviously for my part — sounding representation of what goes on in Jordan Peele’s head as what an alien is.”

It’s here that the big-screen moviegoing experience of a summer blockbuster was vital to the creation, as “Nope” takes full advantage of the ability of Dolby Atmos system to place sound with pinpoint accuracy in 360 degrees around the audience. “[With] the Dolby Atmos it was just fun to watch Johnny really masterfully put us in the middle and underneath the action,” explained Peele. “And that’s really the point. We talk about hearing things all around us, well this is a movie where we really need to hear and feel what’s above us in a big way. It’s a dome of sound and part of the artistry is as much about what you include in the design, but also what you choose to exclude. It’s not just dumping a wall of sound on people but sort of honoring the way we actually hear things.”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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