The Sound of Simon Killer
In early March, I took a trip back home to visit my family and some friends. My buddy, and featured sound designer here on the site, Coll Anderson happens to live pretty close to that area. He and director Antonio Campos were in the process of finishing up the mix for the upcoming release, Simon Killer. We got together to talk about the process and the concepts behind the sound design for the film. Naturally, I recorded our conversation so that it could be transcribed for the site. We had a great time talking shop…and an unexpected moment or two (that will be at the bottom of the post).
Designing Sound: So, you guys are working on Simon Killer…you’re wrapping it up today.
Antonio Campos: Yep.
Coll Anderson: Yeah. This is our last day.
DS: It’s going to print.
CA: Yeah. As soon as everyone leaves, I’ll probably re-bus…we have one line of dialog to see if we can get. It’s always a little game of inches at this point. All of the changes that we’re making are very, very, minor…just changes that sort of hyper focus the mood and flow. So, we have one line that we’re trying to get another inch or two out of, and then that’s it. Re-bus the console and hit record.
DS: So, how long have you been working on this film now, Antonio?
AC: We shot the film in the end of November/December in 2010, and then edited throughout the year. We submitted to Sundance in the fall and got in. So, we picture locked after about 11 months of editing. Coll and I started working in the…spring of that year?
CA: Yeah. You didn’t have an assembly when I started sending you stuff but scenes were starting to happen.
AC: Yes. Well, there are a lot of long takes in the film; a lot of scenes that are just one or two shots. So, we could go back and forth on full scenes.
DS: You were working on edits while Coll was doing sound?
AC: Yeah, we were only a few months into editing. There was a lot of back and forth. Coll designed a lot of the tones in the film. Coll started doing his thing, which I really like, taking a piece of dialog or word and creating a specific tone out of it. You don’t recognize the word, because it becomes a drone. I got a whole batch of those and started playing with them.
DS: That sounds kind of similar to some of the stuff you did on Martha. [ed. Martha Marcy May Marlene]
CA: Yeah, very much so. It was that stage in editorial, too early for music, but needing something emotional…some sort of connection to the actors that’s more than just talking.
DS: Something a little more abstract?
CA: Atmospheric and…
AC: It’s felt, more than I think it’s heard. I think a lot of people don’t recognize the tones right away. They just sort of blend into the mix of the film.
DS: Could you…and obviously I won’t ask you to go into too much detail since the movie isn’t out yet…but could you give a little description of what the story is about?
AC: Simon just graduated college and has just gotten out of a relationship that he’s been in for five years. He goes to Paris to start this sort of Euro-backpack trip but ends up bumming around Paris too long and meets a prostitute and falls in love. That’s where this journey starts. Once they get together, that’s where the story really takes off. That’s all I can say without giving away too much of what the film is about.
DS: And how would you say the sound connects into the story, besides what we’ve already discussed?
AC: Theres’ a few things going on. One is that there’s a lot of long takes in the film, some of them wide, and the sound will allow us to push the audience’s eye one way or another. It’s amazing when you’re working in a very minimal soundscape how much you can get out of the details…how effective the details can be. Even the clinking of a glass contributes to setting the mood in a scene. The other thing going on is that we do go from very quiet to very loud in this film. One of the devices, or motifs, in the film is that we hear what he’s listening to on his iPod. He’s listening to a lot of indie-pop sounding music, electronic music, and we really played with how long we’re in silence to go to this loud explosion of music…and back to silence. [To Coll] What else would you say?
CA: I was thinking a little bit less about music and more about sound. In the case of Simon, and the film, there’s a sort of establishing geography that functions with the protagonist. How he feels grounded or doesn’t in places. We use sound as a tool to establish this vibe with him. In places where we want to settle him down, it’s really easy to create a location, a space… that’s very understandable to us audibly. It helps us create a link between the watcher or the viewer and Simon… Then, as his character evolves, we can subtly manipulate not just the backgrounds, but EFX, music even perceived spaces, so that we take him from being a grounded individual, to one who is less so, and thus mess with that subconscious attachment between the audience and Simon. He becomes no longer that grounded of a character. Our connection to him is now unsettled, because of how disconnected he becomes to the geography around him. And because it is so subtle, the audience still stays un-comfortably attached to him and they don’t know why. It’s really fun to create a space where we like him, because we understand the spaces that he’s in and then mess with that connection.
CA: We hear things we recognize; it’s a very comfortable environment to us. We shift it up a little bit…dynamic cuts in music, faster cuts so that the shifts are very obvious, traveling through the city…and as he becomes disconnected with the world, we shift the connection point in what we hear. We subtly manipulate those things that are so normal to us, those teacups and other small literal effects, become less and less literal as he becomes…I don’t want to say unhinged…but as our understanding of him changes. So, you don’t really notice that something is happening, but it is. It all happens between the use of backgrounds and designed sounds, and then using specifics to take your eye around the frame and look at what’s going on. As he changes, so does our world. That subtlety is something we can do with sound, it’s sublime.
AC: There’s also this other shift that happens in the film. In the beginning when you sense he’s still very much a tourist in the city, the sense of the city outside…even when he’s inside…you sense the weight of being in a foreign place. That gradually fades away, and it becomes so much more about him and whoever else is in the scene with him.
CA: Much more internal.
AC: It gets MUCH more internal. Another important character detail in the film, that is part of the sound design…he’s interested in peripheral vision. That’s what he studied; the eye and the brain. Visually, we played with that idea, and in terms of sound we play with that idea. There’s so much that’s happening in the periphery of the frame, that we’re not seeing, and the sound is doing all of that work. I really like when there’s off-screen action, because it inherently creates a sense of tension. The audience is now being given a certain amount of information that they can’t see, and their brains are working to put it together. There’s always something that could happen. There’s always a sense of tension in the film…that’s outside the frame.
DS: This is nice, because I just did a pair of articles on Designing Sound about deprivation and barriers, and leaving perceptual elements out in order to let people develop their own impression of the story. So this is going to tie in nicely with that. [laughs]
CA: The third eye is what makes…and when I say the third eye, I mean the implication that there is a necessary element “to” the film but that exists outside it… being the audience. The film itself, the characters and their interaction, is only one reality. The audience interaction with that is what completes this sort of film; how we as viewers project story… and Anotonio’s done a really great job in expanding that. What we see, and what happens outside of the frame, involves the audience filling in their own information; their own internal desire to complete story. It makes our involvement, with Simon in particular, unbelievably deep. It’s really fun. I don’t know how else to put it, other than the third eye involvement with the characters and what makes the film work so subconsciously.
DS: So, having myself only seen a handful of snippets of scenes a few moments ago, my familiarity with the film is poor at best. Were there any points where you were finding some good synergy between the visuals and the audio.
AC and CA: [Both laugh]
CA: Oh yeah! There’s a whole…
AC: I’m trying to think of just one.
CA: The flickers.
AC: Yeah, when we started…
CA: The Eiffel Tower, Paris…the whole scene.
AC: Right. That’s a good example. There’s this “light show,” we call it “light show,” that we did with flickering lights. The screen just becomes covered in this color scheme of red and blue…red will be, sort of like an orb, and the blue will be sort of flickering, and that will dissolve into an image of the city. Going in and out of those things…once we started taking those tones [ed. mentioned earlier in the interview] and making them really specific to just those sequences…all of a sudden, it gives immediate life to the thing. We had found the sound of something that had no sound. That’s exciting. When we shot the lights, it was shooting christmas lights with no lens on the camera. It was just the sensor responding to light in the room. It was all MOS. There was nothing to ground that in. The tones became the sound of those lights. And the way that they interact with the city, and the way those things bring us into his head, and out of his head, is part of the story. The tones and drones, in some way, could be considered a voice over.
CA: Yeah, they kind of are.
AC: For something going on in his head…
CA: There’s a visual that is just…it’s like the inside of Simon’s head. The sound occupies such a similar space that they just amplify each other. The connection of the two is unbelievably symbiotic. It’s kind of crazy. [laughs]
DS: I don’t want to eat up too much of your time with other questions, but if there’s anything you would like for people to have in mind when they go in to see this film…and this question goes to both of you…what would you like people to take away or go in prepared for?
CA: For me, sound in the film was a way to create a connection to a character that we were very comfortable with. So, we became attached to him…became a fan. We liked him. Once we cemented that sort of sympathetic relationship with the character… we shift who and what he is and the relationship the audience has with him. This calls into question our own feelings about him and more so, ourselves. “How could we like this guy?!” That’s what makes the film work for me, and that’s what makes the sound work. We are completely sympathetic to Simon. Then, all of a sudden, we realize how ugly we are in that connection. That’s what makes the character so deep.
AC: I like when people go into a film with an open mind. The thing to be prepared for is a very dark journey in a character that’s conflicted, and to accept your own conflicted feelings about the character for what they are. Don’t feel like you need to feel one way or another about him as a person. I think sometimes people want to feel one way about a character, and if they can’t accept that a character is conflicted or confused or unhinged…it won’t work. I like it anytime that people go into a movie with an open mind and take the journey that they’re going on for what it is; as opposed to expecting some sort of definitive answer. Even with Martha [ed. Martha Marcy May Marlene], we leave a lot of things up in the air. That’s the point. It’s not by accident. Everything that we do is very thought out. If a character is behaving in a way that makes you think, “I don’t like him,” at this point, and then behaving in a way where you go, “Oh, he’s kind of charming,” that’s what we set out to do.
The release date for Simon Killer is not yet set, though it is expected that it will be in theaters later this year. A special thank you to Antonio and Coll for taking time out of their mix schedule to sit down with me.
…and now, as promised, a little bit of hilarity… The interview went very smoothly, and we were having a lot of fun…even with one small interruption.
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