By Mark London Williams
Skip Lievsay has been with the Coen brothers so long that he’s even remixed their first film twice. He talks of having “lovingly restored” their first visceral-yet-darkly humorous opus, Blood Simple, where he served as sound editor.
A whole career later, he now finds himself as the supervising sound editor (and re-recording mixer) on their most recent film, No Country For Old Men.
The story, from Cormac McCarthy’s relentlessly bleak novel, marks one of the few times the brothers C have worked with other people’s materials (they earlier remade the Brit flick, The Ladykillers), but regardless of whether the ideas are their own, Lievsay has been with them for every film.
One other of their crew members shares that distinction: Peter Kurland, who started as a boom operator on Simple. He was the production sound mixer for this tale of found drug money, rampant violence, and Tommy Lee Jones’ ruminations on the unchecked, deadly anomie around him (though his character would never use a fancy-pants word like anomie).
Still, regardless of what words he does use (the Coens write their own scripts), Kurland was there to capture it on set. It’s not surprising that in his estimation “boom operators have a huge influence on how movies sound.” In fact, he singles out his operator Randy Johnson, praising his “genius” in placing mics so that the Coens and crew “only have to do one or two takes.”
Kurland’s crew also included Joe Brennan on boom for a few weeks and Cole Gittinger as the utility sound technician.
For his part, Kurland is operating a Zaxcom Deva hard disk recorder to capture location sound. “My mix on set is what [the brothers] will cut with,” he notes. And then, the Coens – editing together as “Roderick Jaynes” – get to work refining those sounds with Lievsay.
“Peter can get a good recording of anything that happens,” Lievsay avers.
For his part, Kurland observes that there’s a “tendency to protect your work” with certain editors and postproduction mixers. But knowing Skip as well as he does, “I can feel comfortable providing things that can work really well for him. Skip and I had many conversations before production started.”
And then there’s the matter of the script: “The Coen scripts – they’re always very sound-specific in their writing.”
That’s usually where Lievsay comes in – reading the script, then perhaps “spending a few hours” with Ethan and Joel, perhaps over dinner, to “talk about schedules,” and whatever other questions he has.
But Lievsay then has to wait for the brothers to finish shooting, since, as editors, they aren’t free to “preassemble” any sequences during production. But things move swiftly – as does the pacing of their films – since “they have a very specific idea [of what they want for sound], with almost no exception. For them, it’s generally part of their approach – there’s no reason to interfere with that process.”
So for Lievsay, the process might be akin to Michelangelo’s process for sculpture, to which he announced that he simply chipped away everything from the rock that “wasn’t the sculpture.”
But while he might try to avoid doing anything not in the Coens’ original vision when it comes to the mix, it is the nature of postproduction sound that things are inevitably changed and added; there are additions from both the DigiDesign ProTools software and the foley stage.
The Coens, Kurland says, “know they can rely on Skip… if they want to create something” during post. That becomes part of what is more a symmetrical whole, rather than a give-and-take, between Kurland’s work and Lievsay’s.
For example, Kurland notes the brothers like to use “a tremendous amount of production [sounds] and ambiances – which worked really well for the film. We spent a lot of time on the set.” A scene he cites as exemplary is one where the character Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) walks down a motel hallway in his socks, the better to sneak up quietly on the men he is about to sheer in half with a shotgun.
So on the one hand, there are all the “ambiances” Kurland refers to – the night sounds of Texas, the small whooshes of sock on sidewalk – and then, what he describes as “part of Skip’s genius,” kicks in.
Chigurh carries a cattle-killing stun gun, attached to its own compressed air tank. In the story, he uses it to kill humans (whether McCarthy – and the Coens – are making a statement about bovine complacency in an age of grim tidings, I’ll leave to you), but more often, to blast out the locks of various doors.
After the lock is destroyed, he quietly sets the tank down. Kurland notes how the “thunk” sound of him placing it against the cement or floorboards acts as a kind of motif or refrain in the film. Along with the earlier “shhhh” added by Lievsay to signal that Chigurh is turning the air on, the sound serves a similar purpose to minor-inflected violin chords in a Bernard Herrmann score – you’re already tense because you know unavoidable mayhem is about to follow.
Indeed, Kurland and Lievsay served, in a sense, as the film’s composers, since the Coen’s actual composer, Carter Burwell, had much less to do for this movie than in his previous collaborations with the filmmaking duo. There are only a handful of minutes of music in the movie while the rest is all carried by those “ambiances.”
And there will be more ambiances in their futures, too. While Kurland recently worked on Walk the Line and the television series Pushing Daisies, and Lievsay supervised both The Painted Veil and Smokin’ Aces (among other recent offerings), both are involved with the next of the brothers’ offering, Burn After Reading. It’s a dark comedy with a CIA theme. Kurland’s work is finished – he’d just sent over more audio to Lievsay, whose work was beginning – the day we spoke.
However, Kurland has also discovered there are “several traditions in post—certain celebrations” the Coens have when they reach specific milestones. He was able to partake of all those, as well as the more “practical” milestones: As a trusted collaborator, he also goes to the final mix to hear Lievsay’s handiwork and find out “what things I did that worked and what didn’t.”
Knowledge that both he and Lievsay get to deploy in whatever next project the Coens are hatching.
Written by Mark London Williams