Kevin Hill, sound designer/engineer and director of PopMark Media’s audio post division, Studio Unknown
We don’t like to brag. It’s not our style. But sometimes, we land a project that is just too interesting not to talk about. The work that we completed on the latest Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project) film, Lovely Molly, is one such example. We’ll take a look behind the scenes at how the sound for this psychological thriller was created in our recently Dolby-approved facility and the highly significant role it played.
When filmmaker Eduardo Sanchez first met with our own Kevin Hill (sound designer/engineer and director of PopMark Media’s audio post division, Studio Unknown) to discuss the sound for his new, yet-to-be-shot (at that point) film, Lovely Molly, the original idea was to create a simplistic mix that sounded less like a typical film and more like a home video based in reality. However, as Sanchez admits, “The filmmaking process is always collaborative, very organic, always changing and typically results in either a slight or significant difference between what you first imagine and what you wind up with after shooting, editing and mixing.” In this case, the differences were significant. In the end, the sound not only drove the story, but became an invisible but very critical “character” in the film. In fact, the sound wound up playing a more significant role than in any other film with which Sanchez has been involved.
CREATING VISUAL IMAGERY WITH AUDIO ELEMENTS
Much like his ideas about the sound, Sanchez had a clear idea of what he wanted the film to look like, and he communicated his thoughts to his DP, John Rutland. It was Sanchez’s intention that Lovely Molly, a film centering on a troubled young woman and her supernatural nightmares of her deceased father, have a documentary look and sound. However, Rutland had a different viewpoint.
“John is very talented and brought more of a cinematic sensibility to the look of the movie,” says Sanchez. “I didn’t want to fight him on it because it wasn’t as if I didn’t not like what he was doing.” Sanchez gave Rutland the creative freedom to move forward with his vision, and says that was a wise choice, as the film came out looking a lot better than he ever thought it would. However, the new visual direction prompted a brand-new approach to the sound for the film. “It looks much more cinematic and polished than I had envisioned, which was great, but that meant that the whole idea to take the documentary sound-mix approach went out the window because the audio would no longer match the visuals.” As a result, Hill and his team—which included sound designer/engineer Matt Davies, sound designer/engineer Dave West and sound intern Zach Trees—now faced the task of creating a more comprehensive and cinematic-style sound mix.
To add to the challenge, the team was responsible for giving life to a character that didn’t have a visual depiction in the film: a demon horse creature that haunts and taunts Molly, the main character. “We knew we needed to give this demon a personality of its own, and in this case, it had to have a very menacing, heavy tone to it and really come across like it was stalking Molly,” explains Davies. “Because this demon is never really seen, the sound was going to be the only way to give it human characteristics, so we recognized its importance.”
One of the first steps to accomplishing this was through creative Foley. The team recorded everything from concrete, wood and brick impacts, to clanking hollow coconut shells, to stabbing and scraping a rusty drywall handsaw on a plastic fluorescent light ceiling cover that was covered in tiny bumps. The latter approach wound up being extremely effective, according to Davies, as it created various roars that changed in pitch depending on how much he flexed the cover. Each of the captured sounds was then placed into a database for the team to combine and manipulate until they arrived at the ones that had the right texture and depth to create the thick, ominous footsteps the character required.
What also aided the process was a trip the team took to an historic house in Hagerstown, Maryland, where scenes from the film had been shot. The original intention of their visit was to capture environmental sounds in the house itself, but they were pleasantly surprised to find an actual stable and several horses right on the premises. “This was a really great find because we had wanted to capture some genuine horse sounds because we realized you can’t easily mimic an 800-pound animal and the way it’s able to walk with both power and grace,” says Davies. In the process, the team collected all sorts of snorts, footsteps, grunts and whinnies. In addition, one added bonus was that the muzzles of the horses were covered in flies, and every time they snorted, the flies would fly away momentarily and then come back. What resulted was a dramatic buzz that would decrease and then increase in volume, and this sound wound up accentuating the idea of pestilence. “This became a perfect audio element for creating the idea of a plague or disease and for representing the main character’s disintegration into craziness,” says Davies.
SUPPORTING THE PSYCHOLOGY
As the process continued, it was clear that the sound was laying the groundwork for the film's psychological undertones. One important piece of this puzzle was the subtle, but powerful, atmospheric sounds, much of which were captured at the Hagerstown house. While there, the team not only performed location Foley, but also sound-stripping, a process by which they combed the location for all the sound to collect the personality of the environment. Some of these recordings included door hinges, creaky floors and squeaky beds, which actually appear in the film and happen to belong to the woman who owns the house.
“It was during this phase that we really started delving into the psychology of the film," says Davies. "We were conscious of all of the things that would put the characters—and, as a result, the audience—on edge, and we knew that if incorporated properly, the creaking and the settling of the floors, scratches and bumps, and different tones could make a big impact."
Adds Hills, "There were sounds that we captured that would make an audience member wonder if it was mice they were hearing running behind the walls or if it was actually the demon lurking nearby and taunting the characters.”
In addition, sound was used to create a sense of place and capture how the creature would sound when it would move throughout the house, if it was visible. “In the majority of modern thriller-type films, the audience gets to see the creature full-length," says Davies. "There aren’t many films anymore that allow the audience to fill in the shadows with their own imagination, which can sometimes be scarier than what you can physically see."
Says Hill, “We wanted to play on that and on the idea that the audience would constantly be trying to figure out what this thing was, where it would pop up next and give them a perspective of how it would feel to be sitting in a room alongside a character and experience the ‘thing’ coming up the stairs and sneaking up on them."
A meeting with Sanchez and the film’s producer, Andy Jenkins, enabled the team to dig even deeper into the film’s psychology. It was during that meeting that the discussion turned to Molly’s deceased father, his back story behaviors and the fact that he was not such a great guy. This discovery gave the team information they needed to depict what the father would have done and sounded like in the house as a living human. They first determined if he would be humming, talking or whistling, and then worked toward combining this characteristic with an element within the house. Artifacts that the team uncovered while walking through the house revealed Irish roots, and they wanted to weave some element of this nationality into the father’s ghost. Hill began searching for music that could represent this finding and hit the jackpot.
“I found an old Celtic song called 'Molly, Lovely Molly,' and when I started listening to it, it gave me chills,” says Hill. “I really felt it could be a winning addition.” While the song tells the sweet story about falling in love with a girl named Molly, it took on an entirely different meaning when the “ghost” father character began singing it to Molly.
“When we first incorporated the tune, we buried it a bit and didn’t use all of the lyrics,” recalls Davies, “but as we kept working, we felt like there was something missing, and we decided that it would be more effective if the song was emphasized.” In the end, the incorporation of the song and the way the ghost of Molly’s father sings it to her helps create an impression that he is crazy. “The incorporation of the song became a really crucial sound element for us,” says Davies. “It wasn’t brought in until the 11th hour, but it made the whole thing come together and solidify it into a strong concept from start to finish.” In fact, the title of the movie was born from the last-minute incorporation.
CAPITALIZING ON COMMUNICATION
In the end, the sound of Lovely Molly was a result of the persistent communication between the sound-design team and Sanchez. Not only did Sanchez spend a good deal of time at the studio, but there was a lot of back and forth and sharing of different sounds via digital files.
“The process was based largely on trial and error,” says Sanchez. “They would send me little bits of room tones and ambient and background noises, and I would tell them if it was too high, too low, needed to be more sparse or more dense, and they were on it.”
Because there is no real technical language that enables a director and sound designer to communicate about desired sounds, the team really had to try to get into Sanchez’s head to figure out where he wanted to take the sound. “The project was like construction job,” says Hill. “We had to take each piece of the movie, try to get a good sense of what Ed was trying to accomplish, and construct sound frame by frame, making sure that each piece fit together perfectly.” The good news was that Sanchez was “a dream to work with. Not only did he know what he wanted, but he gave us the creative freedom to do what we needed to do to get the job done without feeling the need to stand over our shoulders every step of the way.”
The trust paid off. According to Sanchez, “The fact that several first sound passes are actually included in the final version of the film was a testament to how well Kevin and Matt listened to what I had asked for and took it to an even more successful level.” In addition, Sanchez attributes the success of Lovely Molly’s sound to the team’s willingness to be open and try new things that they may never have tried in other films before. “They were completely open to the idea of doing something unique, and that really served the film well.”
In fact, Sanchez says that Lovely Molly is the only movie he’s done in which some of the reviews specifically highlight the sound. “The sound really is an important piece of the puzzle," Sanchez says. "Because there are no specific visuals that connect what Molly is seeing in her own mind with what the audience sees, the sound was the link to what she is experiencing. In a big way, the sound defines the movie.”