“No Country for Old Men” – Exclusive Interview with Sound Designer/Re-recording Mixer Craig Berkey
“No Country for Old Men” found its way into theaters November 9th. Sound supervisor and re-recording mixer Skip Lievsay handled editorial, dialog, and music mixing on the Coen Bros film. A Coen mainstay, Lievsay was one of the first sound craftsmen I ever saw with an opening title credit on a movie as a supervisor. He is currently helping Will Smith figure out how to cope with being the last human on earth in “I Am Legend”. Sound designer and re-recording mixer Craig Berkey conjured up the effects on the show. Having worked with Skip on films from “Sleepy Hallow” to “The New World”, this marked Berkey’s first Coen Bros. film. The film finaled on the Burt Landcaster theater on the sony lot and rounding out the Mix crew was re-recording mixer Greg Orloff. Orloff who dubbed the foley on the “No Country”, is currently finishing work on “The Great Debaters”. Production sound on “No Country” was wrangled by Peter F. Kurland. Another Coen cohort, Kurland is currently shooting sound on their next film, “Burn After Reading”. Score was in Carter Burwell’s jurisdiction, tracked at Clinton recording studio in NYC. Finishing off the list of loyal Coen collaborators, Burwell also composed for Sidney Lumet’s current release, “Before the Devil Know Your Dead”. Burwell recently reflected upon the score in “No Country” on his BLOG.
“In one scene a man sits in a dark hotel room as his pursuer walks down the corridor outside. You hear the creak of floorboards and the beeping of a transponder, and see the shadows of the hunter’s feet in the sliver of light under the door. The footsteps move away, and the next sound is the faint squeak of the light bulb in the hall being unscrewed. The silence and the slowness awaken your senses and quiet your breathing, as by the simplest cinematic means — Look! Listen! Hush! — your attention is completely and ecstatically absorbed. You won’t believe what happens next, even though you know it’s coming.”-A.O. Scott: NY Times
“…the leading character in this reverberating movie is silence, save for the sights and sounds of air and breath…
…Silence accompanies the mournful sheriff as he drives his Texas highways, and silence is what hangs in the air after Chigurh raises his grotesque, sound-muffling weapon to snuff out one life and then another, cold as hell.”-Lisa Schwarzbaum: Entertainment Weekly
Attention like this from critics is a great validation of sound’s influence in storytelling. Do yourself a favor and go the film when it releases in your town! I wanted to thank Sound Designer/Re-recording Mixer Craig Berkey for taking some time to do this Q and A!
DS: One of the first movie sound myths busted for me was the sound of a silenced gun, that almost musical “pewwwww”. With my laymen knowledge of how suppressed weapons actually sound, how did you guys approach design for the report from the antagonist’s silenced shotgun?
CB: We were not looking to create something realistic-It needed to be menacing. I believe in the novel, the silencer is described as “homemade.”
“Chigurh shot him three times so fast it sounded like one long gunshot and left most of the upper part of him spread across the headboard and the wall behind it. The shotgun made a strange deep chugging sound. Like someone coughing into a barrel.”-No Country For Old Men: Cormac McCarthy
We were interested in what other sounds the gun created in its environment. For example, when the gun is shot in the motel room in Del Rio, there are resonating metal ringing sounds that occur. We also wanted the gun to have a very low thump sound to it. When Skip was listening to some production tracks he came across a playback take of the TV show that is playing in one of the scenes. At the beginning of the take, before the program material started, were these strange “thwump-pop” type sounds. I took those and effected them and that became a good low-end base for the sound. I then experimented with several elements to work with the base sound that were short and rose in tone like a pitched up reversed female scream or a pitched up servo. I made several versions of the sound and sent them to the Coen brothers for their feedback. They picked the one you hear in the film and they also picked a different version for the silenced handgun that Chigurh uses to shoot at the crow and also uses at the Eagle hotel.
DS: There are very few music cues in the film. Was there an emphasis early on that the film would play without music? If so, did that change the way you approached the work?
CB: There are about six music cues in the film, including the song the Mariachi band plays. When we did our first pass, there wasn’t any music yet cut into the guide tracks so Skip and I did what we thought was best to help make the film work. We did a Temp early on that contained only the Mariachi cue. I kept waiting for someone to walk in the door with the music and say, “Back to reel one, let’s put in the music”! That didn’t happen, so we knew early on that there wouldn’t be much music in the film. I would have to say that not having much music didn’t change how we approached the work; we started out that way, as we do most films, and would have had to change what we were doing if there was a traditional score in the film.
DS: The minimalist score helped add a level of dynamics to the Mix; the aural subtleties encouraged the audience to listen intently and as a result, pulled us further into the film. Were there any specific spots in the film where you guys played with the fact that the audience would be in the opportune state to cause startle, alarm, or anxiety?
CG: There are many spots in the film like that. When Chigurh is approaching Moss’s motel room in Del Rio we underplayed everything: BG’s, footsteps, etc., to help create tension. We all know a loud startling confrontation is imminent but are still shocked by it. My favorite spot is at the Eagle hotel when Chigurgh is approaching Moss from down the hall. There are several things that happen off screen early in the sequence that force you to focus on the smallest of sounds. A silenced gunshot with a chair scrape, an unanswered phone ring, a strange sound like putting your ear up to a seashell from under the door; these all lead up to Chigurh’s footsteps and floor creaks and the receiver beeping as he approaches Moss’ room. Again, we know what is going to happen but are still alarmed by it when it does. The car crash is another spot that the audience is in the opportune state to startle. We helped out by slowly, (hopefully imperceptibly) lowering the onboard car sounds throughout the scene, trying to focus the attention on Chigurh as he is driving. This one didn’t need a lot of help to startle.
DS: I loved the background changes in route to Moss’s “discovery” early in the film; I can only describe them almost like sound jump cuts. Were those concepts that were established in picture editorial?
CB: That was one of the sections that I started on early as I knew it would take a while to do. It was pretty much an empty canvas to start with. I was trying to make each area sound different but also realistic. I sure listened to a whole hockey sock full of winds! I learned a thing or two about working with winds while doing “The New World”. It’s not enough just to find the right wind and cut it in from the beginning to the end of a scene. For some scenes everything in the background changes from the start to the end, such as when Moss first approaches the crime scene and other different winds come and go but the overall remains the same. This was a great spot to use multi-channel recordings of winds as there was nothing else to dilute their effect. After I had found the winds I wanted for a section, I would go back and put them on some faders and mix them. This is where I
would really work them throughout and maybe cause some “jump cuts” as I would push them near the end of a section and start a different set of winds lower for the next section. To me the winds were the score throughout this part of the film. The only sound “jump cut” that picture editorial established is when Moss is sitting and looking at his watch. We needed this to show time passing as Moss waits.
DS: You’ve worked with sound soup Skip Lievsay for some time now, but by my count this was your first Coen Bros. film. What were Ethan and Joel like to work with? Is their long history and trust in Skip change the post-sound process?
CB: Yes, this is my first Coen Brothers film. I love working with Skip and want to thank him for getting me involved in this film. For me, working with Ethan and Joel was like a sound person’s dream. They understand what we do and they trust Skip enough to let us do our thing. I’ve had many conversations with sound people about “wouldn’t it be great if we could do a sound job like this…”. Well, this was one of those. We did a fairly full Temp early on and kept improving it and sending it to Joel and Ethan for their input. When we got to the Final we had already been mixing for three or four months. It was a living breathing mix that everyone was familiar with and made the Final go very smoothly.
DS: What was your first gig like?
CB: My first post production gig was on a TV show called “Mom P.I.” I was working as a recording engineer at a studio in Vancouver and we got this series to do. Actually, Paul Sharpe and Jacqueline Cristianini had the show and as they were just building a studio in Vancouver they needed a place to do the show until their studio was finished. I knew how to use the N.E.D. Synclavier but no idea about post production. As this was a time when computers were just entering our business, Jacqueline didn’t know how to use the gear. We sat together and she would say, “We need to build a fill here to bridge these two lines” and I would go, “Okay, just select this tool, highlight and copy this section then paste it over here”. I was fortunate that I had someone helping me who had a lot of experience as that is something that is hard to get from reading a manual.