Lawrence Everson’s studio in downtown Los Angeles has been dubbed “The Spaceship,” in part because it resembles a futuristic cockpit, but also because of a very certain mindset it inspires in people. “It seems to exist outside of space and time,” “Shirkers” director Sandi Tan told IndieWire. “It’s very freeing for him to imagine moving around in space and time.”
In the last five years, Everson has become one of the most in-demand artisans working in documentaries, a space he’s not apt to leave for bigger Hollywood world-building, in part because he loves being transported to places like ’80s-era Singapore, which Tan captured in “Shirkers.” “I do think my love of documentary films ties very closely to my love of traveling and experiencing new things,” said Everson. “I feel like my heart really gets emotionally attached to real stories of real people in real places that exist out there. This world is a fascinating place.”
That experiential aspect is key to understanding Everson’s mastery. And just because his work hinges on how we experience something that is “real,” the storytelling tools are largely the same. “My approach to fiction and nonfiction are very similar in terms of the sound design,” said Everson. “I always think, What’s the story that’s being told? How should audiences emotionally be reacting to that story? And how can we use sound effects, sound design, sound mixing to create the right emotional cues for audiences.”
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In that sense, Everson is only bound by the same thing that is guiding him: The story the director is trying to tell.
“’Shirkers,’ for example, we’re not really beholden to much of reality, we’re not really talking about the real Singapore,” said Everson. “We’re talking about Sandi’s memory of Singapore. What does her nostalgia sound like?”
Tan’s look back at her teenage years and the strange circumstances surrounding the disappearance of a film she made with her friends is constructed visually through the fractured prism of a now-middle-aged Tan, who narrates the film as she’s attempting to solve a mystery that’s rooted in emotional memory.
Watch how Everson created the haunting presence of Georges Cardona in “Shirkers” in the video below.
“He understands metaphors, his openness to experiment is great,” said Tan. “I had all these ideas and I just needed to work with people who were going to be willing to go there with me.”
While no documentary has the money to bring Everson on early, he is so sought-after that he has the luxury of starting conversations with a director six months to even a year before he starts work in earnest on a project. That opportunity to noodle, to have the big conversations, and ask questions like, “What does Sandi’s nostalgia sound like?” is rare.
Recently, the directors behind the Pepe the Frog documentary “Feels Good Man,” who were editing in the same building as Everson, were able to lure the sound designer onto their project with a similar conundrum. “They were like, ‘Okay, we want to make this movie, it’s about memes and the internet, none of these things make sounds, how do we encapsulate this?’” Everson recalled. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, but that is a fascinating thing to think about.’”
Watch how Everson captured the sound of Rick Rubin’s creativity in “Shangri-La” and the feeling of going online in “Feels Good Man” in the video below.
After the grind of editing, the playful exploration is a tonic for many nonfiction filmmakers. The New Orleans-based Ross brothers, Bill and Turner, who have worked on all five of their feature films with Everson, said the few days they spend in his Los Angeles studio is their favorite part of the two-year process of making their films.
“Being in Lawrence’s office, with him behind the controls of the Millennium Falcon and just dreaming up what the possibilities are, you feel like you’re in high school art class again,” said Bill Ross.
It was collaborating with the Ross brothers on their early films that Everson said he had the career-changing experiences that shaped his artistic journey. For “Tchoupitoulas,” the Ross’ 2012 film that follows three brothers as they discover the scenes of late-night New Orleans, the brothers flew Everson out to spend a week recording a custom sound library.
What it really became was a tour of New Orleans like only Bill and Turner could give. “I was experiencing this city, at night, that was very new to me,” recalled Everson. “We recorded sunset to sunrise, drinking in the middle, sleep all day. It was this incredible blur.”
Oscilloscope Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
What stayed with Everson was the experience. He now understood what the feeling was that Bill and Turner wanted. “When we’re trying to capture that feeling of these kids seeing the sunrise after not sleeping all night,” he said. “Yeah, I know what that feeling is like in the city, in that park where they’re watching the birds fly. It just makes it easier to sort of channel that into the film.”
Everson doesn’t get to visit every location for every film to record a custom library — although his “American Factory” recordings are the secret weapon of that Oscar-winner, and he welcomes the opportunity — but that wasn’t the lesson. It was more the decisions he made on “Tchoupitoulas” were shaped trying to capture what it felt like. “If I could capture what it felt like to me, I knew I’d be successful,” he said.
He could imagine a different, more dutiful, more technically accurate path if he didn’t have that experience. At one point near the mix stage of “Tchoupitoulas,” Everson started obsessing about removing the sound of the wind hitting the production mic as the boys climbed on an abandoned ship. At first he was impressed with how he eliminated the unwanted sound with a software tool, but the scene never played right again. When he put the wind back, the feeling of danger returned.
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“Audiences will accept imperfect sound,” Everson said. “Distracting sound is the enemy, it pulls you right out.” Having faced his fair share of Sundance deadlines, he has concluded way too much time is spent trying to fix bad sound, rather than sound design and getting the right sound to start.
But the real lesson he’s tried to impart on filmmakers is simple: nothing beats well-recorded production sound. “When something’s really well recorded, just even with the dialogue, it just creates that emotional bridge where it’s so much easier for audiences to connect to the people on screen,” he said. Everson points to the recordings co-director Julia Reichert made of her intimate, off-camera interviews with the subjects of “American Factory” as a prime example. “The intimacy in those conversations is what drew you in, it was almost better there wasn’t picture,” he said.
Everson believes that because we learn to communicate and process visually, more consciously than audio, that it impacts the different ways we process image and sound up onscreen. “I’ve always felt that the visuals of a film provide the information, audio of film is what provides the emotion,” said Everson. “So much of the emotional connection comes through sound.”
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According to director Robert Greene, who has worked with Everson on his last two films, “Bisbee ’17” and “Procession,” there are two important things to keep in mind if you want to understand the sound designer’s place in the modern documentary landscape.
The first is that beyond being a talented artist, Everson is a theoretician of documentary sound. It becomes clear in talking to Everson how his mind naturally pivots to thinking big picture about the nature of how sound works on the viewer and the unlimited ways it can be used in nonfiction.
But it’s also interesting to consider how Everson’s mind works in the context of Greene’s second point: “The way we think of sound is so limited in documentary.” Asked, for example of this myopic thinking that’s become so prevalent, Greene said, “Well, for starters, the nature of truth is not limited to our shitty microphones.”
Everson isn’t against reality, but rather the very limited way we think about it when it comes to documentaries. “Even with the best equipment and the best intentions, it’s really hard to capture reality, as it is, in an immersive way,” explained Everson. Put another way, “I don’t think a microphone attached to a camera on a street corner is capturing the world authentically.”
It’s illustrative to take a moment to understand how Everson thinks about the sound on that street corner, and how he draws from reality in his work. Walter Murch, the godfather of modern movie sound design, has theorized that the human brain can only focus on a maximum of two-and-half sounds at any given time. Everson has taken this principal and created an exercise he calls the “audio onion.”
“I just like to stand on a street corner and listen, chart what’s the first sound that I’m hearing. Okay, now what’s the sound behind that?,” said Everson, describing his favorite exercise. “You start to peel away these layers and you realize how detailed the world is, how many sounds are happening simultaneously. But the order in which you notice them tells you something really important about how your brain is subconsciously telling you what’s important, focus on this, now this, and so on. When we mix films, we’re basically replicating what the brain’s doing. And if we do our job really well, it’ll feel so seamless.”
In other words, you need to manipulate sound to effectively capture reality as we human beings actually experience it. And to Greene and Everson’s point, even a good mic, objectively capturing the various layers of sound on a street corner, is often limited in capturing how we experience standing there. “Yes, we are a lot of times constructing a fabricated reality,” Everson said. “But that constructed reality actually feels more immersive and feels more like you’re actually there.”
One audio onion exercise Everson recently did was to examine the difference between train and airport terminals. To listen to him describe his findings is transportive. He noted the way that slower-paced rail travelers’ footsteps echo on the marble floor of a grand, old stone train station and how that evokes the romanticism of train travel. But as he breaks down the onion layers of the chaotic movement inside our squat, carpeted, modern airports, it’s impossible not to feel the inherent stress of airplane travel alongside him.
It’s from these layers of reality that a master like Everson can not only capture mood, color, texture, and a sense of place, but also experiences, emotions, and even memories. If there were more sound artists like him working in nonfiction, the palette of our documentaries would do only one thing: expand immeasurably. —Chris O’Falt