L-R: Ethan and Joel Coen with Brad Pitt during the making of Burn After Reading
Photo: Focus Features
Earlier this year, highly regarded supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Skip Lievsay was honored with his first Academy Award nomination — along with re-recording mixers Craig Berkey and Greg Orloff, and production mixer Peter Kurland — for his work on the moody and violent Coen Brothers film No Country for Old Men. While the sound team didn’t pick up a trophy, the film won four Oscars (including Best Picture), and the illustrious foursome did win the coveted 2008 Cinema Audio Society mixing award.
“No Country was challenging to the establishment because it’s not the kind of movie that’s generally revered in the [awards] process. It’s a stunning example — and a rebuttal actually — to the idea that you have to have a huge sound to be recognized,” Lievsay explains. With that film, Lievsay notes, “There’s not that much dialog and we talked about the idea of not having very much music in the film and having a very stark, superreal track. The idea was to try to get to all the shock/scare things you might normally do with music and do it with sound instead.”
Lievsay has been on every step of Joel and Ethan Coens’ weird and wonderful filmmaking journey, from the noir-ish Blood Simple in 1984 to their just-released 13th feature, the fast-paced comedy caper Burn After Reading. In between is a passel of quirky and innovative works — some commercially successful, others not — including Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ladykillers.
When I mention to Lievsay that No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading seem like complete stylistic opposites, he comments, “That’s true, and I should note that Burn After Reading was green-lit and in pre-production while we were still mixing No Country. When we were mixing No Country, we believed it was going to be a little movie that no one was going to see. Big surprise there. Burn After Reading is one of their more commercial films — with big stars and all — but we didn’t really discuss it much in philosophical terms because we’ve done movies like this before, and Joel and Ethan [Coen] basically said, ‘If you don’t know what to do here, I’ll eat my hat.’
“You couldn’t have much more of a stark contrast,” he continues, “because on Burn After Reading, I had talking wall to wall and I had Carter Burwell’s music wall to wall, so that was a big challenge. There’s nothing very flashy in it [soundwise]. But there are a lot of subtle things going on.” Because it’s a comedy, he and sound designer Berkey could go a little broader with FX, “but the main thing is, you always want to hear the joke; you don’t want to step on the jokes with effects or music. You have to let the jokes play, let the audience laugh, give them pauses to laugh. There’s a certain style of doing comedies that we all try to adhere to.”
Because the commercial prospects for the Coens’ various films differ so much, “the budgets vary wildly,” Lievsay says. How does that affect what he does? “Well, for those of us who have long-term relationships [with the Coens], we all agree amongst ourselves to do a more modest, less-commercial project for less money, with the understanding that the next movie or the one after that will be a more commercial project and we’ll be able to make our [regular] rate and sort of break even on the operation.
“In terms of the actual production, everything is adjusted and is done in a more modest way. Everyone’s working on the movie for less time, less is being asked of you and it’s more modest in scope and goals. We’ll try to recycle whatever sound we can on a more modest movie and record fewer new sounds. We might do less than a day per reel of Foley, whereas on big action movie we might do two or three days per reel of Foley. You might not even do a temp on a less-commercial movie, while on a bigger movie you might do three or four. On Burn After Reading, which had a big budget, we did four temps. That costs a lot of money, though you save time and money on the final.”
Mixing Burn After Reading “was in the usual assortment of places,” Lievsay says. “I mixed the dialog mostly at Warner Bros., where I like to work. Craig mixes sound effects at home, and we did the [final] the same as No Country, with Greg Orloff over at Sony. Joel and Ethan were so pleased with No Country, they said, ‘This is the way we want to do it from now on.’ They liked the process, the time period and the fact they were only on the stage a couple of weeks.”
Lievsay does quality work with many other directors, too, but the Coens are clearly special to him. Next up from the brothers: another black comedy, The Serious Man. “I read through the script once and had no idea what was going on,” Lievsay says with a laugh. With the Coens, that’s usually a good sign.