Costa Brava, Lebanon - film sound Asbjoern Andersen


Director Mounia Akl's debut feature film Costa Brava, Lebanon is set outside Beirut in a picturesque mountain range that is rezoned as a dump site for the city's refuse. The family living just feet from the landfill must deal with the destruction of their little utopia and the breakdown of their relationships.

Here, sound designer Rana Eid and re-recording mixer Peter Albrechtsen discuss their use of sound to help enhance the emotion of the family ties, to heighten the beauty of the landscape, and then help call attention to the decay of both.


Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of mk2 Films; Rana Eid; Peter Albrechtsen
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In Director Mounia Akl’s debut feature film Costa Brava, Lebanon – which had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival last year – a family that traded the toxic environment of Beirut from the idyllic mountain range outside the city limits find themselves once again inundated with urban refuse. Literally garbage. Stacked up and scattered about the hills below their home. It eventually makes its way into their yard, their water source, their swimming pool, and when the burning starts, into the air they breathe.

The family’s relationships deteriorate in tandem with their environment until conditions inside their home are just as bad as outside.

Here, Lebanese sound designer Rana Eid (co-owner of DB Studios – a Beirut-based audio post-production and music production facility) and re-recording mixer Peter Albrechtsen talk about how they used sound to heighten the emotion in the story, and to create a sense of dystopia infiltrating what seems like a peaceful, secluded refuge. Eid and Albrechtsen – who previously worked together on the Oscar-nominated documentary The Cave – collaborated closely with Lebanese director Akl to get the right tone for the film, from adding dimension and depth by building up ambient layers to focusing in on character-specific sounds, like the daughter’s whispered counting, to adding in abstract sounds that add tension and make the viewer feel uncomfortable.



Costa Brava, Lebanon | Trailer


Costa Brava, Lebanon | Trailer

In the opening scene, a statue is being loaded onto a truck in a shipping yard. Can you talk about your sound work on this scene? How did you want the audience to feel and how did you elicit that feeling through sound?

CostaBrava_sound-02

Re-recording mixer Peter Albrechtsen

Peter Albrechtsen (PA): The opening shot of the film is very special as this is actually the place where the 2020 Beirut Explosion happened – an incredibly scary disaster. In the film, the audience is not told that this is where this tragedy happened but for the Lebanese audience, this is a very grim and fateful place. So the opening really needed something special sonically and Rana had built up a lot of layers of atmospheric sounds.

Rana Eid (RE): The opening shot was a very difficult shot for me. The image of the destroyed port is still until now very traumatic. When I see the port, automatically I hear the traces of the city, abstract and uncomfortable sounds, metallic sounds that will give a feeling of bitterness and emptiness at the same time.

On-screen, we don’t know if this place is big or small, is crowded or not – as if its dimensions change by the second. We feel the atmosphere moving around us like a wave. This was my first inspiration, so I used very diffused sounds from the city, some specific (like ambulance sirens), and abstract metallic sounds. We used spatialization to feel the void as well.

PA: For me, the whole thing really had an apocalyptic feeling. Rana had put in a helicopter as one of the first sounds you hear, and I panned it around the surround speakers just like the helicopter in the opening of my favorite film for sound Apocalypse Now. But instead of being in the jungle, we’re in the city and the urban and industrial sounds surround us.

Rana has this very musical approach to ambiences where naturalistic sounds and abstract sounds often melt together, and this opening scene was a great example of this. Some sounds are easily defined as real sounds but there are also more tonal and textural elements that create a very layered sonic landscape.

 

CostaBrava_sound-03

What was your approach to sound for the home of Walid and Souraya before the statue (and the dump) came to their ‘backyard’?

CostaBrava_sound-04

Sound designer Rana Eid

RE: The whole concept of the sound design in this film was to work on the layers, the foreground and the background. So before the statue, the ambience is a normal village ambiance, nature, some birds, and small winds.

The twist was that we wanted it from the point of view of the little girl. It’s like she is capable of focusing on some sounds more than others. And we wanted to follow that. So sometimes it was like zooming into some sounds – for example in the beginning when she hears strange movements in the backyard and some voices. So here again, we had layers of normality, mixed with a lot of abstract sounds to have another layer of unease, making the viewer/listener feel a bit uncomfortable.

PA: From the beginning, we’re really enveloped by the ambiences. In the opening scenes, the nature sound is quite rich around the family and then throughout the film, the sonic environment becomes more and more polluted by noise. The cinematography in the film is very rich and layered and it was important that the sounds were the same.

At the same time, as Rana says, the subjective approach was incredibly important. Director Mounia Akl is really good at making us experience the different scenes through the eyes or ears of a specific character which always opens up for very creative use of sound.

I really love the first sequence with the youngest daughter, Rim, waking up and walking around the house where we feel the sounds of nature and the sounds of the environment slowly enveloping us more and more and her whispering voice is introduced as well.

 

CostaBrava_sound-05

The statute is symbolic of the radical changes that are coming. There’s a lovely subjective moment when the statue is being set up at the new dump site. Can you talk about your sound work here?

RE: Here was the point of view of the little girl as well. She is our audio guide throughout the film. All the scenes with “construction” and the dump later are subjective as well. The idea was, “how can we hear the girl’s imagination? How would she hear that?”

The girl is always counting, so I thought about how I could create the sound of repetitions. That’s why we use a lot of old clock sounds, we used cello sounds, resonant wood boxes, old bells mixed with real sounds of construction, cranes, etc.

The girl is always counting, so I thought about how I could create the sound of repetitions.

Even for the cranes, we recorded a lot of layers in the foley room of rattling, squeaking, and creaking to add more monstrosity to the machines. We wanted it to sound almost like science fiction.

Also, the voices of the working men were very diffused, just to make them feel less human.

PA: Everything was incredibly layered. For me, as a mixer, it’s amazing to work with the material from Rana because there are so many different options and opportunities.

…we built rhythms from both Rana’s sound effects and Nathan’s music…

The interplay between music and sound was also very important here and we had a really terrific collaboration with the composer Nathan Larson. Already before shooting, we were exchanging ideas and sounds and his score kept on evolving throughout the process.

He actually came to Beirut for the mix and he composed the last part of his cues while we were mixing because the soundscape was constantly developing and there was such a close interplay between music and sound design.

For some of these sequences at the dump site, we built rhythms from both Rana’s sound effects and Nathan’s music, sometimes using sound effects as percussion and Nathan’s instrumental elements almost sounded like machines screaming.

 

CostaBrava_sound-06

Souraya is singing a song one night, and she has a memory of her younger days (there’s yelling, like the sound of fans and/or protesters) that gives her pause. What went into the sound of this moment?

RE: This is a moment where Mounia wanted to revive the feeling of the 2019 protests in Beirut. Here, we had a really wonderful discussion about what is left from this moment, and do we really think that this moment will come back? Did we really lose all hope? Do we have the strength to protest again?

…we ended up using all the sounds that we all recorded from the protests – from different sources – and composed a melodic composition with these sounds.

I think that these kinds of discussions are really very necessary while doing sound design because it is not only about technique but it’s about having a sound narration. So that’s why we ended up using all the sounds that we all recorded from the protests – from different sources – and composed a melodic composition with these sounds. We chose specific sounds from the city as well, ambiences that we like, radios, neighborhoods, etc.

We tried to accompany the song, so the music and sound can be in perfect harmony. This gave a nice feeling of nostalgia, melancholia, and happiness as well.

PA: This is one of my favorite sequences in the movie. The way that they constructed the set so that the actual room is moving with the actors in it and, at the same time, the way Souraya’s song and the camera movement work together, for me, that’s real movie magic.

…it (was) a hard scene to mix because we wanted to make sure that the audience got the feeling of moving through time…

As Rana is saying, there were a lot of sound elements for this scene and they all had to tell a very specific story which made it a hard scene to mix because we wanted to make sure that the audience got the feeling of moving through time but also really hearing every specific element in there.

To create the feeling of movement, I used a lot of panning and different reverbs and delays on each sound so that the entire soundscape was constantly shapeshifting. The film is mixed in classic 5.1 surround sound but that doesn’t mean we didn’t do a lot of panning. The sounds are doing a lot of movement around the listener, sometimes in a very obvious way, sometimes in a very subtle way. And then there’s a lot of profound silences as well. This song sequence has it all.

 

CostaBrava_sound-07

How did you highlight the escalation of the dump (its growing magnitude and the growing problems it’s causing) using sound? What were some key sound elements that help to tell that story?

RE: Yes, the dump started as the imaginary world of the little girl, and then it really became a monster. The idea was that the sound of that dump is taking all the space – invading visually and sonically as if it was masking all the other sounds and even sometimes the voices.

The idea was that the sound of that dump is taking all the space – invading visually and sonically…

We kept the old clock sounds, but we added, in every scene, more and more layers. It was all recorded by the Foley Artist and her assistant, Marita Sbeih and Patrick Chakar.

We used cellos, old ukulele, big metal sheets, old drums, and Tabla. And we recorded them with geophones and contact mics. We added some wild animals to it. And Peter mixed it in such a beautiful way that all these layers merged in a magical way.

 

CostaBrava_sound-08

What went into the sound of Walid’s truck?

RE: To focus on Walid’s anxiety, we tried to calm all the ambiences and faded in the dump sounds, and the sounds of the truck itself – rattles and some squeaks. We tried to isolate him more from his surroundings and also from his family.

One of the amazing qualities of Rana’s sound design is how incredibly musical it is.

The main process in this film was to really play with the layers – how do we use them; how sometimes we mute them and leave few sounds. That’s why in this film the sound design really finished with the mix. The mix added to the sound narration a lot!

PA: I loved how the sound of the truck evolved throughout the film. At certain times it was really squeaky and noisy but towards the end, it gets almost ethereal. It’s interesting how a foundation of a few key sounds can make a thing feel the same throughout a movie even though you’re actually constantly changing the overall feel of it.

We were also trying to reflect the inner feelings of Walid throughout the movie. For a long time, he has had a lot of frustration and aggression but slowly it changes. It’s really like having a musical theme that develops through a film. One of the amazing qualities of Rana’s sound design is how incredibly musical it is.
 

CostaBrava_sound-09

There’s a lovely scene with Rim, Tala, and Souraya swimming. For a moment, the dump goes away and it’s just fun. Can you talk about your approach to the sound work on that scene?

RE: It’s a family, happy moment between Souraya and her kids. We needed a moment to breathe, to feel that everything will be alright, but in fact, nothing is. It’s a very symbolic scene of our lives in Lebanon, we have a few moments of happiness, but these moments slowly fade away.

It’s a very symbolic scene of our lives in Lebanon, we have a few moments of happiness, but these moments slowly fade away.

So with Mounia, we decided to bring the sound to normal, the water splashing, music, nature sound, etc. It’s like a small moment of silence, and then boom, everything gets crazy and claustrophobic again. It is a very important approach for me: how can sound narrate life? How can we have sometimes a “point of hearing” and not only a point of view?

These moments for me are magic, and it gives dynamic to the soundtrack; it is really like composing music.

PA: I really went all the way with the mix in this scene, being very subjective and really playing around with the music as a texture in itself. I like to process the music with several effects – mostly using The Cargo Cult’s Slapper – and having at least a handful of different textures split out on different tracks which I then mix between.

Having these split out on different faders makes it possible for me to follow the movement of the camera, the movement of the characters, and the movement of the music in a very intuitive way.

Having these split out on different faders makes it possible for me to follow the movement of the camera, the movement of the characters, and the movement of the music in a very intuitive way. I just move my fingers on the mixing board and the different musical textures constantly evolve.

And on top of all the musical elements, we had a lot of different water sounds, both natural and underwater elements. Sometimes I even used the wonderful plugin Envy (also from The Cargo Cult) to make the music and water sounds melt together acoustically – shaping the music so that it fit with the water elements. The whole thing took a lot of work but was a lot of fun.

 


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CostaBrava_sound-10

Tala is reading one of Souraya’s songbooks and gets a peek into her mother’s psyche. Can you talk about your approach to sound in this scene?

…the process was to remove layer after layer and go to more abstract sounds, water, and small wind. It was the sound of melancholia.

RE: In this film, there are a lot of subjective moments like this, from different points of view. Here it’s Souraya’s world, her fear, her pregnancy, the fact that she is becoming a mother in a difficult environment.

Here also, the process was to remove layer after layer and go to more abstract sounds, water, and small wind. It was the sound of melancholia.

And the way Peter mixed Souraya’s voice gave another texture for this melancholia and nostalgia. It was also very important to combine through sound the two worlds of Souraya and her daughter.

It was really about slow, subtle movements of sound, gently moving from reality to poetry.

PA: I loved the poetic approach of a scene like this. This movie has a lot of really dynamic shifts, going from intense loudness to fragile silence, but this scene was the opposite. It was really about slow, subtle movements of sound, gently moving from reality to poetry.

It’s the kind of sequence that sounds very natural and simple when it’s done right but very easily can feel forced or clumsy. It took quite some time to make the balance perfect.

 

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From L to R: Sound designer Rana Eid, composer Nathan Larson, director Mounia Akl, mixer Peter Albrechtsen and dialogue premixer Lama Sawaya.

Protesters show up at the dump site. What were some challenges in creating the sound for this scene?

RE: We were very lucky because we had an amazing sound mixer on set – Rawad Hobeika. He recorded the protesters on set. He had an M/S set up, 2 stereo pairs, and several mics planted all over the dump. This helped us a lot to work on the layers and be able to do the panning.

The most challenging thing is to know the right density of the protesters…

The most challenging thing is to know the right density of the protesters, being there without being annoyingly loud and noisy. That’s why the direct sound helped us a lot because we could choose between the different mics.

The surround speakers here helped us to create the echoing of voices. We feel that they are a lot without getting suffocating. We didn’t want to feel that the protesters are annoying; on the contrary, they are creating a melody that gave Souraya a tear in her eyes.

PA: Rawad was really great, indeed. His work on this film was very impressive. There were a lot of difficult setups and complicated scenes. He actually visited the stage while I was mixing. A joy! He remembered his recordings and helped and guided me if necessary and at the same time, he heard my mix and then got inspired for his next job.

…he heard my mix and then got inspired for his next job.

I know it’s often impossible because of schedules but I wish this kind of collaboration happened more often. Just having Rawad come in one afternoon during the mix was really helpful and inspiring. We actually also talked before the shoot, which is also great but that’s more common, I think. I love the feeling of team spirit.

 

[tweet_box]Crafting the Stirring Sound and Mix of Director Mounia Akl’s film ‘Costa Brava, Lebanon'[/tweet_box]

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What were your biggest challenges in terms of dialogue?

RE: As I said, the direct sound was amazing, clear, bright, and crispy. Rawad managed to really isolate the actors from their surroundings, which helped us a lot. We could add layers of nature and ambiences without being concerned of covering some technical problems.

What was very interesting was that sometimes our dialogue editor Vanessa Kanaan changed some takes after hearing the sound editing and design. She felt there was a lot of musicality in the sound; she used that to change the takes to merge more into the other sounds and atmospheres.

I always enjoy mixing movies in languages…I start listening to the dialogue almost as music…

PA: I also really want to highlight the work of Lama Sawaya who did a terrific job with the dialogue premixing. Blending production recordings and ADR is never easy but Lama did a great job. And there was a lot of delicate subtleties in the reverbs, delays, and pannings which also enhanced the tactile feeling of the film.

…sometimes you’re too focused on intelligibility in dialogue and forget to focus on emotions.

For me, I always enjoy mixing movies in languages I don’t understand – and I don’t speak Arabic – as it means I start listening to the dialogue almost as music; I listen for tonalities, rhythms, and especially for emotional qualities of the voices.

There were moments in the film where a line didn’t feel right to me even though I didn’t understand the exact words and very often Rana and Lama agreed with me and we changed it to another take or another ADR line. I think sometimes you’re too focused on intelligibility in dialogue and forget to focus on emotions.

 

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Did you have a favorite scene for sound?

RE: The scenes of the dump and the excavations were my favorite because we did work on it separately from the other scenes of the film, one after the other, so we can feel the crescendo throughout the film. We were adding more and more layers, and seeing the foley team and the sound effects editor (Cherif Allam). Discussing and sharing thoughts was so rewarding. The mix between real sound and abstract sounds and composing it as a musical sound composition is my favorite part of the work.

… we did work on it separately from the other scenes of the film, one after the other, so we can feel the crescendo throughout the film.

PA: I love the scene with the singing which we already talked about.

I also love the sequence with the garbage bags in the landfill rising into the sky, which I ended up playing without any sounds and with a very minimal score by Nathan. That, to me, made the whole thing incredibly beautiful and emotional. Sometimes, less truly is more.

I also love the entire sequence with the grandmother’s death where we go from a multilayered soundscape into a very, very minimal moment, a poetic final breath of life. It was sad and beautiful at once.
 

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For you, what were some of the key aspects of sound that were most helpful in telling this story?

PA: I think there was an amazing collaborative spirit on this film. I actually met Mounia very early on, during a script workshop back in 2018 so we were all connected very early.

There was a feeling of mutual trust and respect which was incredibly important and inspiring.

Throughout we’ve all been in touch and have shared sounds and ideas. There was a feeling of mutual trust and respect which was incredibly important and inspiring. Everyone talked freely. Every idea was welcome. We worked on the film for such a long time but we kept on developing the creative language until the very end. Being together with the whole team at the end of the process in Beirut – this beautiful city that’s falling apart – is a memory I’ll never forget.

RE: Working on the script was very helpful and enriching; we had several meetings with Mounia and Peter, before and after the shooting. This process is very important to really understand and follow the vision of the director.

It was like sounding the memory of a whole country and its people.

Gathering sounds and sending them to the editorial team so we can all think about the rhythm and the tempo of the film gives the soundtrack a completely different density. It was not about being authentic to the space by adding realistic ambiences to create the identity of the film. It was more about creating the feeling of dystopia, the psychological aspect of the family individually but also as a group. We were working on the traces of the atmospheres of nature, traces of normality. Sound gave the story another dimension; it added another layer to the absurdity we live in, in Lebanon. It was like sounding the memory of a whole country and its people.
 

A big thanks to Rana Eid and Peter Albrechtsen for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of Costa Brava, Lebanon and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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