Interview by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Harbor Picture Company. May contain spoilers
Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults’s horror film It Comes at Night, in theaters now, isn’t quite the creature-feature the name seems to imply. It’s more of a human horror film, centered on two families trying to survive an apocalyptic plague together in the isolated wilderness. Not only do they fear contracting the illness, but they also face the threat of harm from outsiders. Despite precautions against both threats, fear takes its toll on their psychological state until the most eminent danger they face is each other.
At Harbor Picture Company in New York, NY, supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Damian Volpe and re-recording mixer Robert Fernandez created a soundtrack that helps set the audience on edge. Volpe says, “The characters are always on high alert because they are living in fear. They are always listening. We tried to make it so the audience would have the same experience.” Here, he and Fernandez explain exactly how they did that through sound.
How did you get involved with It Comes at Night?
Damian Volpe (DV): I got a call from the post production supervisor Keetin Mayakara. She’s an old friend. I talked to Rob [Fernandez] and asked if he wanted to do the film with me. We went over to meet with the team. It turned out that director Trey Edward Shults and I have a mutual friend, Robert Eggers, who was the director of The Witch. So Trey and I had a great conversation and it just went from there.
What was director Shults’s vision for the soundtrack? How did he plan to use sound to help further the story?
Robert Fernandez (RF): The main thing is that there were two very distinct landscapes. There was the interior of the house which was completely sheltered and free of any kind of wildlife. We tried to treat that like it was the interior of the lab. Anytime you exited the house that’s when all of the nature sounds came into play. We took a lot of time to make sure that those two environments were completely distinct.
There was a few other little signature sounds that Trey [Shults] wanted in the film, like the sounds of the fire played a big role and the dog Stanley played a big role.
DV: I think you put your finger right on it. It Comes at Night is what we call a submarine film — it’s a very isolated environment. What Rob was saying about the interior and exterior being important is that they tried to create a feeling of order and safety inside the home for the family because outside of the home there’s chaos and the unknown and danger. By keeping the interior extremely quiet, as though they are in a bunker, whenever that world was penetrated by a window being smashed or by the door being left open, then the sounds of the exterior would invade the home as well.
The characters are always on high alert because they are living in fear. They are always listening. We tried to make it so the audience would have the same experience.
The characters are always on high alert because they are living in fear. They are always listening. We tried to make it so the audience would have the same experience. The interior is very quiet so that you can hear everything that’s going on and you wonder, “What was that?” “What’s that sound?” “How far away was that?”
Did you use the 5.1 surrounds to help sell the placement of the sounds?
RF: Yes definitely. There was a lot of placement of sounds, to give us a sense of moving around the house. A big part of the film is that one of the main characters goes up into the attic where he can listen to all of the other rooms in the house. We played with how to place the dialogue and those sounds so that it really feels like he’s listening through the attic floor to the conversations of other people in the house.
DV: In addition to directing, Trey edited the film along with another picture editor Matt Hannam. They built that attic element into the story, and together we worked out a sound for the voice for where it was coming from. The breathing, the voices, the dog barking, sexual moans, the cries… those vocal elements were an integral element and would come from different places around you, below you, from outside in the distance. So that’s a very strong element of the soundtrack. That was largely Rob’s work, sculpting that landscape.
Was the vocal treatment done with processing? Or was it done more practically?
DV: It was a combination. They had a lot of great sound from the set. They recorded a lot of natural production sound that was really wonderful and that we could use. But a lot of the bigger set pieces needed more variation and so we did re-record quite a lot, like the breathing and a lot of the crying, and what not.
RF: The spatial recordings were really good and played really nicely. They needed very little placement. Most of the ADR was to enhance the story, either to add content or to add breathing in places where we needed it.
DV: Despite the horror movie elements, Trey was really adamant that this film is more like a drama. It’s about these human beings. Both he and Matt [Hannam] were very wary of artifice so we tried to stick with production sound when we could. We went to that house and recorded all of the Foley on-site. That was nice because then we were able to largely use sounds that were recorded in that space, in sync with the picture and with mics that were placed closer than you could get on-set.
Where was the house located?
DV: The house is located in an artist residency/colony in Woodstock, New York, called Byrdcliffe. It’s about 150 acres. The people there were very nice and helpful. We called them up and asked if we could come back to record some sounds, and they were very excited for us to come up there and record some Foley.
Who recorded the location Foley?
DV: I sent my Foley team up there, so that was Foley Artist Jay Peck from Stepping Stone Foley. We also had Foley Recordist Matt Haash, and my Foley editor William Sweeney. They used a portable Pro Tools rig and a whole battery of microphones.
The film has a small cast, which is great for exploring the complexity of group dynamics in a stressful situation. How were you able to use sound to help add tension to the social dynamics?
RF: One thing we tried to convey through the soundtrack was fear. There is always this element of fear. If the house is breached then everyone has to rush to put on their gas masks and grab their guns because they have no idea what is coming. So that was a very interesting part of the mix. The dialogue takes on an urgent quality whenever there is a breach and the characters’ breathing increases.
A lot of work was put into the breathing in the film. We convey that sense of fear when they have their masks on because you hear their breathing through the mask. It gives a sense of claustrophobia. Even the camera movements slow down as they move through the house. It’s very, very slow, very careful because they don’t know what they’re going to encounter on the other side of the door.
The breaths also play a crucial part in the more surreal parts of the film. The breaths really tie the film together nicely. They speed up. They slow down. The breaths come through the gas mask, which is something that we recorded in ADR. We had the actors wear the gas masks to give the sound a realistic feeling.
DV: The film actually opens with the grandfather’s breaths, and then the film ends with Travis’s breaths.
RF: Also, there are subtle ways that the score adds to the tension. That comes through in the writing of the score.
DV: I think silence plays a very big role in the film. There are these moments of quiet when the characters are alone or with each other and they are assessing each other, waiting to see if they can trust this person. They are looking intently at each other to read facial expressions and so the silence there is important as well.
RF: When there is a breach and they have to put their masks on, you have to enhance that sense of urgency. There is all of this fumbling around as they are reaching for their masks. It’s a messy process because they are in a hurry. They only have seconds to put their masks on because the air from the outside or something is coming in. I think that enhances the sense of danger that the film is always carrying.
DV: There are long moments of control followed by brief moments of total chaos. We intentionally set out to blur the lines between the score and the sound design. There are a lot of subtle sounds, like drones and harmonics. We created ambient textures from breaths to use for the house and for the world outside that hopefully work on the audience in subtle ways. We want them to share the emotions that the characters are feeling.
RF: Another thing that we had to keep in mind the whole time was that this isn’t a supernatural horror film. This is a story of an event that could happen tomorrow, so it has to feel very real. All of the sounds in the film have to sound natural. There is not some supernatural creature lurking outside.
DV: This was a very personal film for Trey. He had suffered a personal loss and the idea and the writing for the film came out of that. He wanted to make a film that people could relate to, especially if they have lost someone to an illness. That’s really the heart of it. Everything stems from there.
The film is set in a remote location in the woods. What was your approach to the exterior environment?
We wanted to start the whole thing with as blank of a canvas as possible so that when sounds were introduced they stood out as something that you are hearing in the silence.
DV: We wanted to start the whole thing with as blank of a canvas as possible so that when sounds were introduced they stood out as something that you are hearing in the silence. So for the exteriors, we wanted them to be alive, to feel the chaos of the world. It’s kind of an abandoned world. You don’t see any other people and you don’t see other animals. The only thing that you hear, besides the cast and the dog Stanley, is something that you don’t actually see. You don’t know what it is. So it was a matter of getting everything very quiet and then starting to add detail. Rather than having very lively bird ambience, you’ll just hear a bird. Instead of hearing crickets, I chose sounds that could also be a drone, a sound that was more musical. We’d have a bed of crickets or cicadas or wind at various frequencies on top of each other, and then we’d take that almost down to nothing. So overall, it feels like an abandoned world.
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What was your approach to the interior sounds?
The idea that the house is so boarded up that it’s like a bunker or submarine, so quiet that … [w]hen you hear movement it feels out of place.
DV: We really wanted to create a feeling like it’s a bunker. That was an idea that Trey, Matt, Rob, and I generated in our first meeting. The idea that the house is so boarded up that it’s like a bunker or submarine, so quiet that when you hear something you wonder what it is. When you hear movement it feels out of place. Rob was really instrumental in helping us to get the production sound —which was very clean and well recorded, to a place that was even more extreme, even quieter. There was some excellent dialogue editing.
One of the small miracles of this film was that we were able to put together my dream crew really quickly. Everyone was miraculously available on short notice. It all happened very last minute. I have a couple of crack dialogue editors, Mary Ellen Porto and Tony Martinez, and a great sound designer named Kris Fenske who has done a lot of work on different horror movies. He was able to do a lot of the subtle work on this film with me. There was Rob Hein and William Sweeney. There was Eric McAlister who was my assistant. We were able to pull this off in an amazing way and I have to give props to my team. They were what made this happen.
As the tension builds among the characters, were you manipulating the environmental sounds to reflect that change, or to sway the audiences’ feelings about the characters?
DV: I think any good sound designer will think about the nature of sound and how to use it to help the story, either to reflect what is happening or to stand in contrast to what is going on. There are a couple scenes where you are looking at something dreadful, like a guy tied to a tree, and we wanted to play something pretty just as a juxtaposition. Then there are other moments where we have cicada swells or wind moans to underscore what is going on.
RF: The score played a big part in the tension, although there are subtle sound design elements that add tension as the film progresses. The second scene around the dining table you can really feel the tension, and there are subtle elements in there to enhance that. The film needed to sound very natural and so we couldn’t be over-the-top with the sound design. Most of the tension is captured there by the performances.
DV: They were able to write something that makes you feel unsure about who can be trusted and what’s going on. It’s a subtle movement that happens through the story and goes back and forth in the film. We didn’t tamper with that too much because in the end there isn’t really a right answer that this person can be trusted and that person can’t be trusted. It’s a gray area.
Besides the location Foley, were there other field recordings you captured specifically for this film?
DV: I love to bring new recordings to every film that I work on. I like to get my hands dirty. I recorded some fire, digging, and outdoor footsteps. I recorded nature ambiences. Many of the doors in the film are from my mother’s old creaky house. I would say about half of the sounds were recorded specifically for this film, or recorded by me within the past year.
I use a simple recording setup of a Zoom H2 with built-in mics and XLR inputs in case I choose to use better mics, plus I had a contact mic this time around so I had some fun with that.
Creatively, what was the most challenging scene in terms of sound design?
RF: The most challenging and fun was the first time they venture out of the house. That was when you had all of the elements in there. The music grows to take us out of the house. We make a big transition to the exterior, and then we come down when they’re driving in the car but at the same time, there is this tension going on where the main character doesn’t know if he can trust the new guy that they just found. The main character is taking a big chance by driving with the new guy to go find his family. A lot of this is handled with the score but there is some sound design.
Up until this point in the film, there is just the one location. It’s completely protected and very orderly. They have a system for everything. Then the first time that they decide they are going to go out and bring in new people, it has to be a big moment in the film. And I feel like we did that.
The ending scene was also very challenging because sonically we are reaching a crescendo, the climax of the entire film. The content is raw and gritty. That was tough. No matter how many times you watch that scene, it still has the same impact. It’s was hard to keep mixing it over and over again.
DV: One challenge of the film was that we really wanted to make sure that we brought the sound up to the level of Director of Photography Drew Daniels’s work, and also up to the level of the acting, which I think is just tremendous across the board. We wanted to make sure that we did the story and the actors justice.
What single sound was the most challenging for you to create? How did you create it?
DV: I can tell you the most painful sound for me to work on. I always hate it when the dog gets it in the movie. Stanley’s sounds were challenging. We had some great recordings from the set and I needed to match those to make the dog do other things — to get angrier, or to be in pain, and that very difficult to find sounds that would make it seem like it was all coming from the same animal.
We also tried to make a textured ambient sound for the transitional room (the room that is the buffer between the outside and the inside). The room was covered in plastic and when you go in there you have to scrub off and take your clothes off and get your gas mask. I wanted to create a subtle feeling in there of uneasiness, and to maybe make it a little nauseating. We do a lot of work to create backgrounds that had disturbing sounds in them but overall the sounds are so compressed that you’d never register them consciously. It was a very subconscious texture.
We created that ambient texture using all organic sounds. I used breathing from the production sound from various characters and also a lot of animal sounds, like animal breathing and animal vocals, and other weird sounds that were organic. They were pretty heavily manipulated with time stretching, pitching, and compressing tools. I used a new reverb, zynaptiq’s ADAPTIVERB, which is a colorless reverb. I had some pretty successful moments in the film using that to create drones and backgrounds.
What are you most proud of in terms of sound for It Comes at Night?
The sound really tells the story of what it’s like inside the house where it’s this controlled environment in contrast to outside where there is life and nature.
RF: We always try to create a soundtrack that tells the story or enhances the story. In this case, the sound plays a crucial part of the plot. From the interior to the exteriors, and the element of fire which brings a sense of finality — when someone gets sick, the body is burned to cleanse the environment of this illness. So when it came to the M&E, I was there listening to the soundtrack without any dialogue, and the sound really did tell the story. I was really proud of that. The sound really tells the story of what it’s like inside the house where it’s this controlled environment in contrast to outside where there is life and nature. You could hear the sounds of danger far away inside the house and you have to go investigate what they are. There was that first driving sequence too. The sound was really consistent and it helped tell the story. It enhanced the plot of the film.
DV: This film is so amazing and director Trey Shults is this machine of constant invention. He was also really fun to hang out with and he has this amazing collaborative approach. There were a lot of people involved in this that were very instrumental in making the movie and making the mix. There were a couple of great producers, like Andrea Roa and Justin Chan, and post production supervisor Keetin Mayakara. The composer Brian McOmber was there for the whole mix, so that was a unique and fun aspect. There was so much collaborative work that got done.
A big thanks to Damian Volpe and Robert Fernandez for giving us a look at the tense, environmental sound of It Comes at Night – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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