If the words “based on a true story” humbly appeared on the screen of director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario you wouldn’t think twice about its integrity after watching it unfold. What makes it so believable is its standout narrative that’s anchored to the cold realities of the U.S.-Mexico drug war. The imagery from cinematographer Roger Deakins is impressive without being domineering. The sound track defines honesty and is dynamically laced to a complimentary score that keeps you wondering if what you’re listening to is music or sound effects. The picture and sound tie together so well it’s probably the reason why the film is recognized with Oscar noms in those three categories – cinematography from Roger Deakins, original score by Jóhann Jóhannsson and the sound editing of Alan Robert Murray.
At the center of this engaging story is FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) who’s asked to join a special task force led by CIA operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and another man, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Together they look to restore a balance of power to the region.
“Denis has such a wonderful structure to his films,” said Murray. “The way the sound played out on Sicario was we started with a very quiet, unthreatening atmosphere and then slowly moved through scenes feeding different textures via subliminal low-end bass or sound design tones to make the viewer feel that something isn’t right. Then as the anxiety builds, it suddenly stops to give the audience a second to recover. Then it all hits you over the head with the crescendo of the scene. It’s calculated but very cool to watch Denis be fully immersed into the entire sound structure of the film.”
While scene acoustics had their own storytelling strategies, each character had their own palette of sounds to shape the narrative as well. “Kate’s very new to all of this. She’s very innocent and all these crazy things are happening around her. We wanted to keep her scenes isolated so you kind of feel her loneliness,” explained Murray. As the story advances it gradually moves from Kate’s point of view to Alejandro’s “When you first meet Alejandro you really don’t know anything about him. He has this kind of lingering mystery. When he starts to take over, we built more undertones into his scenes in order to play to the uncertainty of his characters.”
Another aspect sound focused a unique interpretation on were the gunshots. “One of the first things Tom Ozanich [sound designer/rerecording mixer] and I discussed was that every gunshot had to match the personality and the character of the shooter,” Murray explained. “Alejandro had this over-the-top silencer pistol which had to be in the silencer family of sounds, but it had to be concussive and visceral enough so the first time you hear it, it scares the crap out of you.”
To record the gunshots the sound department went to various locations to find the best acoustics for the visuals. In the sequence when the caravan of black trucks drives through Mexico, gunshots were developed so they would carry the sounds of the city. They had to be realistic enough so they weren’t too close, but still sound hostile at the same time. “It was really a lot of background studying and finding the right place to record,” said Murray.
For one of the more intense sequences where we find our heroes shooting their way through an underground tunnel, sound needed the gunshots to be in the correct reverberant space. “The guns had to sound threatening in the tunnel which can be difficult because a space like that tends to wash out the sound dynamics. So when you have a scene where a shooter is off camera and then moves into view, each gunshot gets more concussive and more elements are added to the gunshot so by the time you’re close to the shooter the gun has totally changed, but you don’t perceive it as a totally different gunshot. It’s something I call ‘dynamic realism’,” explained Murray.
The sound editor admitted there was plenty of work but it was a group effort. “We had a lot of work to do in order to make sure the sound design, the low pounding pulses interweaved and combined with Jóhannsson’s score seamlessly. With Denis, there’s a purpose for everything. You’re not just making a muddy track and I find that exceptional. It’s exciting to see a director come into a project so well thought out and have every element in the film mean something and the end result be so seamless. You don’t get to work with a lot people who have vision like that so it’s rewarding and exciting. He walked out of the final mix feeling on top of the world which is always a great feeling knowing that everything clicked and everything worked out together in harmony.”