“Ma! Ma!” 12-year-old child-soldier Agu (played by Abraham Attah) cries as he wraps himself around the woman’s legs. “I found you! I was looking for you!” The woman repeats, “I’m not your mother!” as she clings desperately to her own young daughter who is being pulled away by another child-soldier. Agu looks into the woman’s face, shocked to find a stranger looking back. “You’re not my mother! Witch woman! You fooled me!” he yells. The other soldiers grab the woman to rape her as Agu exits to the hall where the woman’s daughter is being stomped to death. Director Cary Fukunaga’s African war drama Beasts of No Nation – the first Netflix original feature film, feels so real that it’s disturbing to watch.
“The connection we feel to this young man is unmistakable and if you allow yourself to get roped into it, as most of us do, then you can’t help but to have those feelings,” said the film’s sound mixer Geoffrey Patterson. “The story is told through Agu’s eyes and his intimate voiceovers let us know what he’s thinking. It’s also told through his ears, what he is hearing every step of the way. Creating that environment of what Agu was seeing and hearing was really important.”
That scene wasn’t just difficult to watch, it was also one of the most challenging for Patterson to capture since it was shot in one continuous three-minute long sequence using a Steadicam. The camera follows Agu, a child soldier among many in a rebel faction called NDF, as he and his battalion raid a building. “There is a lot of dialogue as Agu is interacting with his buddies, and they create all this mayhem. There is a lot of gunfire and horrific things that happen. Being a oner, and knowing we had this young cast, we had to make sure we got it all. The stakes were higher on that shot,” said Patterson.
And that’s saying something, considering the film was shot 100% in Ghana’s remote jungles and villages, where rain and terrain posed daily challenges. Additionally, Fukunaga’s cast consisted of 95% non-professional actors. Capturing every single line, every single day, as cleanly as possible was imperative because with a young, inexperienced cast, there were no second chances. “Cary [Fukunaga] did such a masterful job of selecting the young men he chose to cast, which was nothing short of brilliant. He created this environment where he enabled these young men to really deliver amazing performances. In the case of Agu, it was essential. If his performance wasn’t magic then you really had no movie. And of course, it was,” said Patterson.
Often, the NDF soldiers in Beasts of No Nation would sing in a call-and-answer style, and those moments would happen spontaneously, whether Fukunaga asked for it or not. “It’s something that culturally they do there a lot, and so Cary incorporated it into the movie,” noted Patterson. By hiding wireless mics under the actors’ headbands, Patterson was able to record very clean, clear iso tracks for the principle characters. Additionally, he used a wireless boom, operated by Scott Jacobs. For the singing in particular, Patterson was able to mix the iso tracks with the high and wide perspective of the group’s boom track on-the-fly, allowing him to balance clarity and depth for the singing while still delivering separate elements to the post sound team. “Every day I lived and breathed making sure that we didn’t leave anything there, that all the vocal performances were captured and preserved so that the director, and Glenfield Payne and Martin Czembor could mix it how they wanted, to create the feeling of the film later.”
Harbor Sound’s supervising sound editor Glenfield Payne joined the film late in postproduction. At that point, Fukunaga’s soundtrack wasn’t where he wanted it to be so he tapped Payne to help craft more specific gunfire sounds. What was initially spec’d out as a two-week sound design job ended up as a complete re-working of the entire soundtrack as Fukunaga delved deeper into the sound design. “What he wanted kept growing. It was like peeling an onion. Once we got through one layer, Cary would talk about something else that happens in the scene,” said Payne.
Fukunaga’s focus on authenticity – using sounds that would believably be part of a conflict in that part of the world at that time, is the cornerstone of the film’s unsettling realism. “It keeps you honest and it keeps the film honest,” said Payne. “It keeps it feeling real.”
Payne brought on sound effects editors Robert Hein and David Paterson at Harbor Sound to help get through the 10-week overhaul. An additional 40 hours of Foley was recorded with Jay Peck at Stepping Stone Foley, and there were additional remote ADR sessions with Ghana. “There was such a whirlwind trying to get through everything. The pressure of working on such a piece of art, and making sure that what I was bringing to the table matched the visuals and the writing and the acting, was the most stressful part,” revealed Payne.
On the dub stage with Czembor, in Harbor Sound’s Studio A, they shaped the sound to build tension in a realistic way. For example, when war comes to Agu’s village, members of his family and community seek shelter in a storage shed. The audience hears bullets riddling the building, and the sound of footsteps overhead. There are gunshots coming from the rebels above and return fire from the military in the road below. “We wanted to give the audience the feeling that these are innocent people truly caught in the middle of this war. You feel at that moment like you are really in the middle of the conflict,” said Payne.
Throughout the mix, their goal was to find ways to keep the audience involved in the scene. Sometimes that meant taking sounds out, like removing numerous bullet whiz-bys so the audience could determine the directionality of the selected few. “This way it’s more specific and focused. You can actually identify where things are coming from and what is actually happening instead of just having this barrage of sound,” said Patterson.