“The quieter it is, the more you hear!” – Chuck Michael on the sound for Stoker
Sound is the most invisible part of the film. That’s probably why it’s quite rare for the sound of a movie to be mentioned in the press. But it happens, fortunately, and the film Stoker is a great example – this latest work by acclaimed Korean director Park Chan-wook premiered at this year’s Sundance, and since then the prolific and powerful sound design has been getting a lot of attention.
In the world’s leading movie magazine, Empire, the recent Blu-ray and dvd release received these accolades: “Park’s approach to sound design is unique, used not as a bed of noise but as an extension of character.” Chan-wook always had a keen interest in sound – check out both his breakthrough film Oldboy (2003) and the amazing thriller, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), in which the main character is deaf-mute.
Stoker is Chan-wook’s first US production – it’s actually a US-British-co-production – and we got hold of the LA-based sound designer, supervising sound editor and sound re-recording mixer, Chuck Michael, to talk about the extraordinary soundtrack. Below, he discusses the creative process behind the work and also touches upon this month’s Designing Sound subject, Noise.
Designing Sound: How did you get to be part of Stoker?
Chuck Michael: John Morris, who co-supervised with me, knew some of Director Park’s associates in Korea. Plus, it was a Fox Searchlight film and both John and I have a very good relationship with Fox. So we were able to meet with Director Park and Producer Wonjo Jeong before they even started shooting. John was familiar with Director Park’s work, and I was immediately impressed with him and Wonjo. I knew this was going to be a very creative project. Needless to say, we both were very interested in being a part of it and were quite excited when we learned Director Park wanted to work with us as well.
DS: What kind of directions did Park Chan-wook give you for the sound? His Korean films have always had very interesting soundtracks.
CM: We didn’t really get an overall direction at the start, like take this approach or take that approach. I think he trusted us to use the visuals as a springboard for creating the soundtrack. I do recall that it became clear early on that Director Park didn’t want too many Hollywood conventions. For example, there’s a shot where the camera moves in quickly from a slide in the backyard to young Charlie looking through a window quite some distance away. We asked Director Park if we should come up with some sort of stylized whoosh sound for the camera move, but he indicated he wanted to stay more literal with the soundtrack. With that knowledge, and upon further discussions with the director, it didn’t take long for us to find our approach: We would make sure all of the sound comes from the real world around us, but we would play those sounds in very unique and unconventional ways.
DS: ”My ears hear what others cannot hear.” That’s the first line of the movie – quite a challenge!
CM: It’s interesting to me how many people respond to that line. It didn’t play as much of a role in our approach to the sound as one might think. We did have some debate as to whether we’d consider this as literal or more of a philosophical line. But the truth is we really focused more on how the sounds play with the story. For example, one sound that seems to stand out is when India rolls the egg on the table. We played this unusually loud, not because her ears “hear what others cannot hear” but because, at that point, India is using the sound of the egg to drown out the two women in the kitchen who are talking about her father’s death. It’s India’s way of changing her focus and, in the process, we change the viewer’s focus as well.
To me, a significant portion of the film is about discovery – peeling away the surface to discover the truth (and motives) underneath. A lot of the sound design came from peeling away the normal, surface sounds to reveal the quieter sounds you might not ordinarily hear. I suppose part of that sonic discovery can be attributed to the line of dialog you mention, but a bigger part, at least in my mind, was this idea of paying attention to elements that lie deeper than the surface.
DS: What were otherwise your main sound design challenges?
CM: One of the biggest challenges was keeping the sound very detailed and specific. While much of the production sound was quite good, there was a lot of work put into the dialog and ADR in order to make the sonic world as clean and specific as it ended up being. Jim Brookshire and Ben Beardwood did an amazing job of cleaning up the dialog tracks – removing dolly creaks and movement that come from having a crew in an old house with wooden floors.
Then we needed some very detailed and realistic foley, which Dan O’Connell and John Cucci provided. It was really excellent. One of my favorites is at the dinner scene after Eve leaves and India is playing with the wine bottle. Charlie sits, slides the glass over to her, she picks it up, takes a sip, etc. It’s all very detailed and has the perfect weight and quality. Add in some of India breathing into the glass and the scene really carries a tension that is surprising for the apparent simplicity of the sounds. But that’s the thing. As I’m sure you know, you can’t just throw in any glass slide from the library or any old bottle movement – especially in a film like Director Park’s where there’s importance to every subtle moment. Every little detail has to be carefully crafted because it will be heard. That’s the fun, the challenge and the reward.
DS: Was Chan-Wook very hands-on during the process?
CM: Director Park, as everyone calls him, gave us the perfect combination of freedom and direction. He and picture editor Nick De Toth would talk with us during spotting sessions in terms of emotion and story, and often about what the characters were thinking or feeling. Then we had some time to put some sounds together and try things out. It was during our temp mixes where Director Park would be more hands-on and was quite creative in suggesting ways to play some of the sounds we provided. Here’s another example that sticks out in my mind. After the incident in the forest with Whip, India looks at Uncle Charlie and the image fades out. We have these interesting bugs playing as a background and, initially, we faded them out as the image faded. Director Park asked, whether it’d be more interesting if we raised the insects instead, then cut them out on the hard cut-in on the next shot. The bug sounds we used had specific swells in them, so to heighten Director Park’s idea, we recut it so the swell would end just before the cut on after the black. Finally, to push it further, I decided that since we just came out of an intense scene and a loud moment, let’s play everything super quietly in the next sequence. I think this turned out to be one of the more elegant areas of the film. The contrast in the audio track matches perfectly with the contrast of India’s emotions and, thus, brings the audience from one emotional state to the next with her.
DS: I really enjoyed the way you used both birds and insects in the background, it was very musical and evocative. Could you talk about your approach to this part of the soundtrack?
CM: We were simply trying to create an interesting environment that played with the emotion of the scene. The isolated location where most of the film takes place lends itself to bringing out more detail and specifics in the soundtrack. I have this sort of Yogi Berra-ish saying, “The quieter it is, the more you hear.” And what I mean by that is, as you take away the “normal” noise we hear everyday – the traffic, the leaf blowers, televisions, horns, jets, etc. – you start to hear things that have always been there but have been masked. It’s like looking up in the night sky when you’re downtown in a big city vs. when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. The less light “noise,” the more stars you see. Because of the relatively quiet setting of the film, we were able to essentially make a much “starrier” sky in the soundtrack. The birds and insects were all chosen for how they impacted the scene on an emotional level. There’s a different feeling you get from a Woodpecker vs. a Shrike (one of John Morris’ very clever adds to the Whip/India confrontation scene). We worked from the emotion of the scene and the emotional character of the background sounds to try to augment those feelings.
DS: …which all goes well with this month’s Noise-theme here at Designing Sound. I also liked how the music and sound integrated. I especially loved the sequence where it seemed like both music and sounds distorted in a very musical way. Did you get to collaborate closely with Clint Mansell? Music seems to be a very integrated part of Chan-wook’s vision.
CM: The music was handled separately. I think Clint had access to what we’d done in the temps, but unfortunately we didn’t actually get the chance to sit down and talk. I’m sure Director Park communicated a lot of the same information to Clint that he did to us, which is partly why Clint was able to construct a great soundtrack which worked so well with the sound design. The music editor, Ted Caplan, comes from a background of sound effects as well as a music background. So he’s always very aware of how music and sound effects play together.
During the mix, we were able to make a few adjustments so that the music and design would play better together. When India is making a call on her cell phone, we moved the rings to be more in sync with the music – things like that.
I also remember the first time I heard the Emily Wells song at the end of the film. It was quite a departure in tone from how the scene had played without it. We were finishing up a temp mix when I first heard it and I remember having to just stop and think about how to play everything – not simply in terms of levels, but the effects and the music were saying different things. And what the music was saying was really strong. We restructured the design so that it supported this new tone. It turned out great and I think together music and sound help make the film’s ending very powerful. I also love the little droplet of blood sound that lands in a musically favorable spot.
DS: One of my favorite sequences was the metronome scene – you and the picture editor must have collaborated closely to create moments like that. What was your schedule like – and for how long did you work on the project?
CM: I have to give this one entirely to Nick De Toth and Director Park. The metronome was cut in the picture editor’s track with the sync already worked out (though we found some different mic angles on the actual metronome recorded during production). If I recall correctly, Ted Caplan went through the metronome one final time just to make sure each click worked perfectly with Clint’s score, which I’m sure was written with the metronome in mind. It’s a great idea, perfectly executed.
As for schedule, I don’t remember the actual amount of time we were on. I do know the time seemed to go quickly, though. The sound design was continually evolving, growing and improving. Our final mix went very smoothly since we’d been able to work out so much with Director Park in advance.
DS: Do you have a favorite scene?
CM: It’s hard to say. There are so many scenes where I think the soundtrack plays elegantly. It’s not often that a film like this comes along where sound is allowed to play such a significant character in the film. Of course, sound always has a huge impact on motion pictures, which is why I’m so fond of working in this area. It’s amazing to me how much it can change the movie-going experience. Sound’s always important but works in different ways with different goals for different pictures. This film was unique on so many levels. It was a real honor to be part of Director Park’s team.