I contacted Jeremy Peirson, the sound designer for Looper (2012), to talk about his role in the best received time travel movie in a very long time. What follows is a transcription of our phone conversation. Enjoy!
DS: For our theme on the site this month we’re talking about “time,” and I though it would be interesting to talk about Looper (2012) as a time travel movie and your work on that.
DS: When did you get involved in Looper? Were you asked early on, or was it just in post…?
JP: No. It was just in post, and it turns out that it was a lot later…I guess they had finished shooting about a year before I got started. Just because it was a low budget indie, and they were doing a lot of cutting. It turns out that it was a lot later than I expected.
DS: And what were you asked to bring to the project? Did they have any ideas that wanted to see you work on? Was there anything that you wanted to bring to the film?
JP: Well one of the things I talked to Rian [Johnson] about early on was this concept that I’ve been working with: things evolve within a scene. Just because you have a background track doesn’t mean that it stays the same for the entire time you’re in that scene. Things are constantly changing depending on either the mood of the scene, or the kind of texture that you’re trying to help out with. It’s a slightly musical idea and not necessarily obvious. In reading the script, there was a lot of opportunity for that, especially in all of the different types of locations we’re in…in the cities, or the farm area with all the bugs and different wind and tress…that kind of stuff. That’s one of the things I really wanted to bring to it.
Take, for instance, the Joe scene where Bruce Willis comes in from the future. That was one of those scenes where, originally, it was supposed to have music. That was one of the first scenes they gave me to work on. They said, “We don’t want to do music here. What can you do?” So, I went through and applied that theory…and was able to present it in a way that, in the final, there was no need for music.
DS: The film definitely has a unique feel to it. It’s set in the near future, but it has this melange of elements that are sort of anachronistic to one another. At times it feels like it’s referencing 1940’s or 50’s U.S.A., there are things that feel perfectly in place in our current society, and then there are others that seems decades away or completely fantastical in nature. What kind of challenges did that present?
JP: That was a HUGE challenge, because it meant that no matter where we were or what we were looking at…nothing was “stock” about it. Everything had to be built to be kind of futuristic, or built to be very retro. So, that was a big challenge.
DS: And how did those widely disparate elements influence the sound design?
JP: The biggest thing that they kept saying was, “Imagine it’s the future and all of the rich people have all of the cool stuff, but you’re set in Cuba.” So you have all of these old cars that have been retro-fitted. It’s this total mix of different technology and equipment. It made it kind of interesting, because anytime there was something futuristic sounding it made it seem MORE high tech…just by the contrast of the very retro, or modified retro, stuff that we had.
DS: That must have been a really useful concept. I mean, I’ve never thought of that connection, but it describes the setting of the film to a “T” there.
JP: [laughs] Yeah. It was a lot of fun, but a lot of work. You couldn’t just open up your library and start cutting. You had to make stuff, or fashion it in some way.
DS: So, the high tech stuff…everyone always sees that as the play-box, where you get to do wild and crazy things. What about on the other end of the spectrum, where you’re dealing with the “Cuba” aspect? What were some of the interesting things you got to experiment with there?
JP: There was a lot of old farm machinery-type stuff that was used…trying to figure out a concept for these cars that look like they’re from our time period, but have all of this recirculation equipment built into them. They’ve been retro-fitted with whatever technology was there. Trying to build car sounds that sound similar enough like a car, but have a feel to them that they have this new technology built in as well. There were processed trucks…like this dump truck I recorded out in the Angeles forest…and some sort of prop plane. It was fun in that respect, because you could do all kinds of crazy things to create these old funky looking vehicles.
DS: Sticking with the subject of “old and funky”…ticking clocks and watches play a big role in a couple of scenes, and they have that antique mechanical quality to them. You touched on one scene briefly already: older Joe’s appearance in the corn field. There’s a build up until he appears and we hear the gun shot. There are also Sid’s freak-outs. Those are two examples that come to mind.
DS: What, in your mind, were the significant uses of these ticking sounds in the film, and what direction did you find yourself heading in while playing with that particular sonic element?
JP: It’s interesting, because some of that was stuff that I’d done…and some of it was what the composer had done. Just because of the nature of how he was constructing the music. That played a character in his ball park.
DS: Was that something that you two communicated about at all during the process, or did you both end up implementing it separately?
JP: Not totally. I don’t remember there being too much interaction, because the time and schedule was such that there were a lot of things happening in a short period of time. In terms of when we would do temps and stuff, obviously those elements came into play. We just went with them. We tried to blend as best we could, so that we weren’t getting in the way of each other. I would say that the clock is the biggest motif in the film, just because of the time travel aspect to it. Every time we were either near the pocket watch or looking at it, we’re hearing it as a constant reminder of the “ticking clock.”
DS: To shift over to another element that is there throughout the movie…and I realize this was probably more under the responsibility of the foley team…but I really love the rattle of the blunderbusses. It felt like a reflection of the Loopers’ status and position within the organization. Were there other attempts to apply that kind of sonic representation of class hierarchy in the film?
JP: Well definitely the blunderbuss. You take the blunderbuss, you take the gat gun, and the distinction between those. You know, that gat gun, certain types of enforcers had that. In terms of other class type stuff, the cars and vehicles that people are using to get around is another distinction of the different classes…be it a slat bike, the vintage Miata, or these funky trucks with the recirculating systems.
DS: Yeah. Those are good examples. Did you try to emphasize the differences between those items through their sonic characteristics?
JP: Just by the very nature of the individuality of each of those elements. It gave it its own contrast…take the Miata. That’s the only gasoline powered car that we hear in the film. The slat bike is obviously the only jet powered vehicle, and there are a couple of cars and the pickup truck that are based on that recirculation technology. The TYPE of tech gave its own distinct character sonically.
DS: There were these quiet moments that were used for effect in several scenes, but the film was allowed to be quiet even when there was no overt purpose…when that approach wasn’t being used to comment on the story or the visuals. If there wasn’t any major action going on, it still had this measured and deliberate feel to it. Even the city felt closed in and shuttered most of the time. That really gave it a distinct quality. Would you talk about that approach a little?
JP: How I like to approach backgrounds, and elements like that, they need to support what’s there in the literal sense of where we are…location-wise…but I think it also has to help emotionally. Sometimes, in certain scenes, it makes sense to just back off a little bit and let the music, or even just the sense of isolation, let that be part of it. Going back to the farm, it’s easy enough to have crickets all of the time or cicadas…but sometimes it’s nice, depending on what the character is going through, to see it from their perspective and let that all go away.
DS: And you had the opportunity to control that, because you were both sound designer and a re-recording mixer as well. Correct?
JP: Yeah. But the way I approach backgrounds…a lot of that gets built into the design point; strictly because of this ever-changing and evolving approach that I take. It takes a little more work, but I think, ultimately, it’s a much stronger effect.
DS: So, editing for the goal of the mix, as opposed to just throwing in the kitchen sink and then mixing by removal…
JP: Absolutely. As I’m designing stuff, I’m always thinking about how it’s going to sound, final-wise. So I am mixing as I go and trying to figure out if this is working for me, rather than just prepping the element and getting it ready. I want to see it in context and be able to experience it that way…and deliver it that way too. That way, when we show stuff, it’s doing what it already needs to do. That was actually part of the process. I would work on a reel, and I would show it to Rian before shipping it off to be put into the Avid. That way he could hear it, experience it in the way that it was meant to be used, and be able to comment on it. He could see where I was trying to go. Then we’d discuss, and he’s say, “Hey, let’s go here,” or “I like that, but I don’t like this.” It gives a unique opportunity to the film-maker to build the track, or to hear how it’s going to work early on in the process.
DS: And to follow up on this idea of quiet…Was there ever any discussion or debate over the idea of trying to apply a sound to the telekinesis. That’s a trope of the science fiction as a genre…
JP: You know, I’ve got to say, that was Rian early on. That was his thing. He definitely didn’t want it to be over the top, he didn’t want it to fit into any cliché. The sound that’s in there is a pretty subtle one. It’s a high pitched whine, and we use it a couple of times when other people are using telekinesis. We use it at such a level that it’s just barely there. And that was the point. It needed to feel natural, as opposed to some sort of weird magic.
DS: And it is very hard to notice anything going on that is really tied to that ability. I think that helped it sit there as…it’s just part of the culture, part of everyday life. So, for me, it did work that way, quite well.
JP: Cool! Thank you.
DS: You’re giving me a nice sequé into the next question that I had. That was a high-pitched drone as a kind of hard effect, but there are a lot of tonal drones and stingers in the film. They help to put everything on hold at several key moments…just slow everything down and hold it at one point. Were those sound design, the composer, or both of you?
JP: That’s really a combination of both of us. It was really interesting to see. There are places where it was sound design, and then there are places where it’s music. You don’t always know, and you don’t have to know. It’s just part of the fabric of the movie.
DS: As long as it’s helping the story…
JP: Exactly! There are times where I may have been doing something that was kind of the same thing the music was doing. We just make choices. Rather than having a bucket too full of sound, we would go with what really worked. It was cool how…there were places where I was doing things based on what the music was doing, and there are other things where the music was based on what I was doing. It was an interesting process in that respect.
DS: Was that something where the two of you were going back and forth, or did it just happen that way?
JP: No, it kind of just evolved that way. There are places where…when I was building the temp track, I unknowingly had the demos in there. I would hear things that I would want to do, but I would make it fit around the music. Then after the temp, they would have my sound effects that they could figure out how to weave into and out of. It was more of a…
DS: So you had some cross-pollination going on; to react to on both ends.
JP: Yeah, but it wasn’t necessarily like we sat and said, “OK, well I’m going to do this.” It just kind of evolved naturally, and it just kind of worked. It’s pretty rare that it works out that way.
DS: I was going to say…
DS: I’m glad it did, because it sounds fantastic!
JP: Thank you. I mean, I’ve got to say, Nathan’s [Johnson] score…when he told me what he was up to, I was a little concerned that we would be doing all of the same kind of things. That it would all be very tonal and dronal and not very melodic. At the end of the day, what he brought to the table was just quite fascinating. Really interesting, really helped the movie. It gives the movie a unique flavor, but it’s musical too.
DS: It’s ambient where it needs to be, and it carries where it needs to as well.
DS: Looking back on the film, now that you’ve had some time to separate from it and move on to other projects, how do you feel about the time you spent on it and your efforts there?
JP: I look back on those extremely fondly. I mean, it was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun to do. It was definitely a unique experience, because it was one of those films where, as soon as I read the script, I told Rian, “I want to do this, and I want to start tomorrow!” I wasn’t available, but it was one of those films that I just REALLY wanted to work on…and it was a joy to work on it. I’d go out recording, just to get some new material for the movie. I would hear something, and I would put out my mics at midnight…because I heard something that would be good for the movie. So, it was definitely a good experience.