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“Don’t Breathe 2”: Sound Draws Audiences into the Twisted Mind of Norman Nordstrom

Sound plays a critical role in telling the story and creating its atmosphere of edge-of-your-seat terror in Screen Gems' "Don't Breathe 2".

The new horror thriller from Director Rodo Saygues features a Dolby Atmos soundtrack mixed at Sony Pictures Post Production Services. 

The Screen Gems and Stage 6 Films release, Don’t Breathe 2, is a sequel to the 2016 hit thriller centering on Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang), an anti-villain with a twisted sense of morality. Despite having lost his sight, Norman uses his heightened other senses and extraordinary combat skills to fend off three teenagers who invade his home. Set several years later, the new film, directed by Rodo Sayagues and written by Fede Alvarez and Sayagues, finds Nordstrom facing a new and bigger threat from a different and more skilled group of intruders…and this time have come for his 11-year-old daughter.

Sound plays a critical role in telling the story and creating its atmosphere of edge-of-your-seat terror. Working under Sayagues’ direction, the film’s veteran sound editorial team, led by Supervising Sound Editor/Sound Designer P.K. Hooker and Supervising Sound Editor Mandell Winter, was charged with drawing the audience into Norman Nordstrom’s perverse mind and unseen world. “This film is a rare case where we began thinking about sound from the script stage,” says Sayagues. “The nature of Norman’s character meant that the storytelling would rely heavily on sound design. Sound lets the audience know what Norman is about to do and how he understands the world around him.”

Sayagues brought Hooker and Winter into the process early. They started to create sounds as soon as production wrapped and worked closely with picture editor Jan Kovac in developing sequences. “Rodo had very specific ideas about how to use sound to create the sonic environment Norman lives in,” recalls Hooker. “Norman is hypersensitive to every creak and footstep; it’s how he keeps track of the people around him. Rodo wanted to show that by ensuring that every sound was very specific and precisely placed to move the story forward. That was our challenge.”

Much of the film appears unusually quiet. The intruders who enter Norman’s home, for example, do their best to avoid making noise to evade detection. But, Hooker points out, those “silences” are illusions. “They feel quiet, but, actually, they are filled with sound,” he explains. “As those scenes develop, we let the foreground sound drop out. What’s left are subtle, background sound, things you didn’t notice before…the hum of a refrigerator, a plane going by, a faraway kid screaming. Counterintuitively, those sounds make the silence more palpable and frightening.”

Similarly, the sound editors added tiny embellishments to punctuate dialogue. “The dialogue in this movie is terse,” explains Winter. “We added texture by blending in vocal utterances, pulled from the production tracks, and by sweetening the actors’ breathing. We kept the breath of the bad guys going as they searched the house to maintain their presence and heighten suspense.”

As an example of the unique way sound is used to create terror, Sayagues points to a six-minute traveling shot where the camera moves through Norman’s house, ascends a staircase and searches a bedroom and a bathroom. “A lot is happening in that scene and much of it occurs off camera,” he observes. “At one point, the camera creeps into Phoenix’s bedroom and rests on her face. She is reacting to something happening outside the room. The fact that you can hear it but can’t see it makes it terrifying. The sound is masterful.”

Every element of the film’s soundtrack is calibrated to feed the story’s relentless energy, not least Spanish composer Roque Baños’s exquisitely eerie original score, which blends seamlessly with the sound design. “The sound and music engage in an ongoing dance,” says Sayagues. “Sometimes sound dominates, sometimes it’s the music. They work together like different parts of a symphony. P.K., Mandell and Roque were in tune with the spirit of the film and took it to a new level.”

Final mixing was handled by Sony Pictures Post Production Services. Re-Recording Mixers Brandon Proctor and Nick Offord prepared the finished soundtrack in the 229-seat Kim Novak Theater on the Sony Pictures studio lot in Culver City. Offord and Proctor employed a 24-fader Avid S6 console and 832-channel Pro Tools HDX system to blend dialogue, production sound, sound effects and music into a fully dimensional soundtrack that punctuates every twist and turn of the movie’s plot.

“Brandon and Nick did a phenomenal job,” says Winter. “The Atmos environment provided new opportunities to add drama and accentuate scary moments. It was a very collaborative process between Rodo and Fede, the mixers, our team and picture editor Jan Kovacs. We kept challenging each other to ‘make it better’ and ‘do more.’”

“The immersive quality of the soundtrack adds another dimension to the story,” agrees Sayagues. “Audiences will love it. It’s going to blow their minds.”

Don’t Breathe 2 is now in theaters and on demand.