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Interview: Robert Mackenzie and Dave Whitehead (and Surprise Guest Tara Webb!) Reflect on the Unsettling Sounds of ‘The Power of the Dog’

Netflix

“Wait a minute, you’re telling me that she (director Jane Campion) knew the difference between a 1912-model Dodge and a 1924 model just by listening to the engine noises?!” That is not a quote from Robert Mackenzie, the supervising sound editor on Jane Campion’s fascinating and unexpectedly brutal western The Power of the Dog, which is now available to stream on Netflix. Nor did it come from Dave Whitehead, the film’s sound designer. That was from me, blown away by an anecdote Dave relayed to me about his work in recording vintage cars to further the audience’s immersion into the 1925 setting of the film. According to him, the team was provided with all of the preserved period-specific machines and automobiles they requested. “We were very lucky that we had access to all of them,” says Dave, “I could actually escape Wellington and record the cars I needed.”

The vehicle that docile brother George Burbank drives in the film is a 1912 Dodge, which Dave described as “a beautiful vehicle.” That’s when he mentioned the amazing experience of how “we actually recorded a 1924 Dodge and Jane could tell it didn’t ‘sound right.’ The engine of those 1910’s vehicles had a very distinctive bub-bub-bub-bub-bub sound when they’re running, and she knew and could detect that. So we had to record the actual 1912 Dodge.” According to Robert, it was all worth it, saying “it was important to hear that sound; the sound of encroaching modernity is that car.” Dave took the contrasts of modernity clashing with the isolated old world the brutal Phil Burbank had established very seriously, explaining that “a modern-day film has all sorts of ambient noises, and we have to remove those whenever we do period pieces.” 

The team was more than happy to go the extra mile to meet her expectations since they were outspoken admirers of the Academy Award-winning filmmaker’s work. Robert was especially effusive; “The Piano is an incredible sound-designed film from Lee Smith [who went on to be Christopher Nolan’s film editor]. Bright Star possessed a level of detail in the foley, with the winds and the leaves and forest sounds that blew my mind and it was an honor to work with Campion on this film and see how she brought that same detail.” Robert was very cognizant of establishing a sense of place, reminding me that “we shot this in New Zealand [to stand in] for Montana, so we had to capture the sounds unique to Montana.” This was… harder than expected, according to Dave, for what I’m sure won’t be a surprising reason to any of us at this point: “When I was hired, we had just started the COVD lockdowns.” While they persevered, for Dave, “the challenge was in capturing the region-specific sounds of the animals and nature surrounding the drama.”

Robert continues, “Jane is very specific about steering the sound towards the drama.” Dave agreed with the rewarding experience of collaborating with her, and especially appreciated her understanding of how sound lends to the overall experience: “The drama is what sells the story. [My priority was] trying to find the sound effects specific to a character effect or an emotional beat, whether it’s Peter’s comb or Phil’s boots. It’s all in character and all story and worldbuilding [with these sounds].”

They also went out of their way to praise another collaborator who they both agreed had a profound effect on their approach to the sound: composer Jonny Greenwood, who has had quite a year scoring not only this movie, but also Licorice Pizza and Spencer. Robert describes his musical contributions: “Working with Johnny’s score was an important part of the process. It was very upfront and there. It was not a ‘background’ or ‘creeping in’ score.” While it seems counterintuitive, that kind of score can actually lend more creative opportunities for a sound team, as Robert noted that the score “opened a lot of room for Dave’s ambient sounds.”

Dave remembered “the scene where Phil and the cowboys arrive in town” that especially highlighted this combination of sound and musical immersion, “It’s a classic ‘once upon a time in the west’ vibe with all the classic creaking and crowd and bovine noises. But the music told a very different story that the sounds alone couldn’t.”

Longtime Oscar watchers are already aware that the Academy Award for Sound Mixing goes to the credited “sound re-recording mixers” and Best Sound Editing goes to the credited “sound designers” and “supervising sound editors;” a distinction which has been rendered semi-moot now that both categories have been consolidated into a single Best Sound category. But is there a significant difference in those job titles, especially with the advances and user-friendliness of sound capture technology? According to Robert, it depends: “Nowadays, with changing technologies … the titles are semi-arbitrary. Ultimately, Dave created the individual sounds in the ‘world’ of the film. My job was to sit down with Jane and bring together all of the inputs from the rest of the team to form the completed soundscape.”

Robert Mackenzie has received a number of accolades for his work as a supervising sound editor, including the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing for his work on Hacksaw Ridge, a very violent and loud war movie that would seem, at first glance, to be a complete 180° from the soundscape he had to form with The Power of the Dog, but according to him, “every bullet and every sound in that movie was just as carefully-placed as in The Power of the Dog.” The difference, to him, “is in just which characters and emotions you’re highlighting, but the techniques and principles remain the same.”

Dave Whitehead is also no stranger to loud movies, though, and on top of being a contender for his first Academy Award nomination for this movie, was also the sound designer for Dune. I’ve spoken before about how the sounds of that massive sci-fi epic felt almost physically overwhelming (in a good way!), and when I mentioned that to him, he reflected on the differences and similarities between those two projects: “We actually strived for silence quite a bit [in both films]. Creating a silent moment can bring out the emotions of a scene, even in a ‘louder’ movie like Dune. Establishing a specific ‘distance’ between Rose and Phil’s dueling instruments is just as intense an experience as a sandworm barreling down at Paul and Jessica.” 

Before closing out our conversation, I mentioned that I had a visceral reaction to a particular scene involving Phil and a bull (you’ll know which scene I’m referring to when you see it), and to my surprise, Tara Webb, credited in the film as a “sound effects editor” and as a “re-recording mixer” and the person in charge of creating the sound that made me audibly yelp in the theater, was in the room with Robert during the interview and she was kind enough to step in and talk about that scene: “When you do ‘flesh sounds,’ there are pre-recorded cutting and slicing and gory sounds we can integrate into the foley.”

She experimented with a number of different combinations and, with a laugh, “got the guys to listen in and when they shriveled up and had a really strong reaction, I thought ‘okay, that works!’”

Associate Writer at

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a U.S. Navy veteran and current Washington, D.C. bean-counter who spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a U.S. Navy veteran and current Washington, D.C. bean-counter who spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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