The Killing of Two Lovers focuses on a man, David, (played by Clayne Crawford) by desperately trying to keep his family of six together during a separation from his wife. The dramatic character piece has earned critical acclaim, due in part to its striking and unique use of sound.
We spoke with sound designer Peter Albrechtsen and sound mixer David Barber about the collaborative process working on the film with writer/director Robert Machoian and how they used sound design as a tool to tell the story.
Can you tell me how this film came to be and how did you both become a part of it?
Peter Albrechtsen: I worked on director Robert Machoian’s previous feature, When She Runs, which was another indie film. I knew the producer and she recommended me to Robert. He directed that film together with his old partner in crime, Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck. They both came to Copenhagen, and we mixed for a couple of weeks. It was very short, but there were so many great ideas, and the creative collaboration was really great, even though the process was very short. Robert really decided after that trip that he wanted to really expand on that kind of creativity and how we use the sound. He wrote me a few months later and said that he was working on a new script and that he would only be able to do this film if I did the sound. So, he was very much writing his script for The Killing of Two Lovers with the sound in mind. Robert has always shot his films with long takes, but now he really wanted to explore how he could use that style method using sound to get on the inside of the character. The Killing of Two Lovers lends itself to it really well because of the emotional complexity of the story. it worked very well with a very subjective and very emotional soundscape.
When Robert wrote me the first time around, he said, “We’re not going to use any music. It’s just going to be sound.” So, the idea from the beginning was to work without music and really let the sound tell the interior story of the characters, the emotional story. Myself, Robert, and David all have music backgrounds, and it was incredibly important that this film felt very musical without any music. We really approached almost as if we were playing different instruments and were in a band together, where we could all kind of join in and improvise and do crazy things and be very creative together.
It seems like the soundscape was sort of planned from the inception of this idea.
David Barber: Yeah, not what it became, but the idea that something should be there.
I’m interested to know how specific the script was regarding what the ambiance should be or the feeling that it should invoke. Or was that more of something that came out of discussion?
Peter Albrechtsen: Robert isn’t the kind of director who says a lot about how something should be. He’s more trying to inspire us to kind of create something that has an emotion in it in a way. The one thing he was specific about was the environment, this small town. He loved the sound of it, so I got him to go out there and just record sound, the environments. Some of those recordings are actually in the film. It allows me to hear what this environment was like, with lots of cows mooing, and birds; the kind of place where everything is very open, and you can hear leaves rolling down the dirt 50 meters away. It’s that kind of quiet place. That was the part of the soundscape that was very important for him to capture. But then on the other hand, for the subjective part of the sound, we were talking more about emotions, and in a way, he was looking for our interpretation of his material.
It wasn’t Robert saying, “We should put in a lot of car horns, or we should put in the sound of screeching metal, that was something that came to me when I watched the rough cut of the film. There was so much of it that takes place in this car, so I felt that the car was very important. At the very beginning of the film, I made this sound collage of car horns and rattling metal, trying to kind of make the sound of David’s feelings, making that very ambient and reverberant, and trying to create rhythms and be more musical in the approach to the sounds.
So, David, was this difficult piece to put together, or did you find this to be as refreshing creatively as Peter?
David Barber: I was anxious about a lot of it because most of the mixes that I do are one-man mixes. Very rarely am I privileged to do two. When you go in with someone else, there’s a concern about how we’re going to interplay and how are our sensibilities going to mesh. We had conversations leading up to it that put the anxiousness at ease. “Okay, we speak the same language, and we approach things in a similar way.” When we got in the room together with Robert, it was kind of a theatrical mixing environment, as close to a jazz group that I’ve ever been a part of because everything was riffing. There was no riff that was shamed. The one thing that you thought was stupid and insane, might have inspired this entire next flow of how we approached the next scene. The collage that Peter created with the various sounds was really fun.
The opening has somewhat of a completed vision, but it’s all in pieces. As we move through the film, we get there’s a couple of metal groans that are right for the moment, then there’s a boom, and a grown right there, then we put in the answer to it. So, in the mix itself, we put that there, we put this here. We were just shaping things constantly throughout the mix. Normally, there are a lot of tropes and there is a lot of sound that you expect to hear when you go to a film, and the closer we got to those tropes and things that you’re supposed to expect to hear, the less Robert liked it. There was a scene on the porch where I worked really hard to clean up the dialogue. It’s the scene where David and Nikki are looking through the window of the truck after their date night, and they see the new boyfriend approaching and having an interaction with their daughter off in the distance. I really worked on getting that up to a level where it sounds like it’s that far, but you can still hear everything they’re saying. And Robert just said, “I can everything they’re saying. That’s bad. So, we worked hard to really make the audience lean into it, and just have the important parts of that conversation peek through. He really wanted to play things kind of the opposite of what you would expect from a “normal” film.
I’m very interested in the technical approach on the set too because there’s really quite a bit of not just long takes, but long takes that cover a lot of physical ground that move in and out of structures. I’m curious to know how much of those things were done traditionally, especially in the truck scene that you mentioned. Was everybody wired up, or did they have plant mics? How were the scenes approached sonically?
David Barber: I don’t know exactly what the mic setup on that was. I know the actors were laved up in the truck, and I think there might have been a plant, or might have just been a distant boom, I’d have to go back and look at the material. But some of the sound things that we pulled together in the mix weren’t shot with that intention. It was a very fast shoot, very run and gun and it was catch what we can in terms of the dialogue and the production sound. I like to call them happy accidents when things come together that were unintentional, but they end up working out brilliantly. I think some of those scenes weren’t necessarily mic’d up for that intention.
One of the things that we did a lot with the dialogue, because of the long shots and the very staged organization of the scenes, was starting to pan it and starting to move to characters where they were on the scene. It certainly wasn’t recorded with that intention, so there were some little technical hoops we jumped through to make that happen. The one shot that I think you’re talking about is when the kids come out of the house and they all pile into the truck. Then it’s a two-minute scene where they drive around the neighborhood and then they get out at the park to go shoot off the rocket. That is a bit that’s a single take obviously, I believe it’s just two plant mics, so it was just you had what you had. We didn’t use any ADR in there. They did two takes of it in total. and the second take is what’s in the film.
Films like this really make me appreciate the wonders of modern technology, because I don’t think a lot of this would have been possible 30 years ago. If so, a lot of it would have had been very, very pre-planned and probably very expensive. But the fact that you all can create this much of an environment after the fact and use all these tools is really remarkable. It has me wondering what your take on that is as far as using technology to create your art.
Peter Albrechtsen: I completely agree, I really think this mix is something that couldn’t have been done just 15 years ago because of the cleanup tools that we have available now, and the way that they work with the dialogue. This way of panning dialogue had such a big effect on the psychological aspects of the storytelling because you really felt how far apart the family was. Those things you just couldn’t have done 15 years ago. At the same time, the film has this very organic feel that was incredibly important to really build up this warmth. All of the sound collages and abstractions are really built from organic sounds, recording a lot of different ambiances. In a way, it’s kind of old-fashioned, but at the same time, it’s very modern in the way that we use technology to make it possible to do all these wonders with the panning and cleaning some of the effects.
David Barber: It’s funny because when I hear technology and using modern technology in the crafting of the design, I immediately always think synthesized or electronic or something, but there’s absolutely none of that in the film at that at all. The modern technology was used to manipulate or augment the organic elements. It’s a very earthy soundtrack, yet the technological tools that we used were necessary to get it to where it is. I also think that in terms of its development, from script to shooting, to editing, to final sound, if it were crafted to be what the final mix ended up being, it probably wouldn’t have gotten there. Because if you went if you went into an intention of a scene of, “Okay, we’re going to be panning all this dialogue, so let’s make sure that you hit your mark here and you hit your mark there,” then it’s almost like too much brain would enter the creative process, whereas we were just given something after the fact. We were then enabled by technology to take what we were given and do something extra with it. If was sculpted that way, it wouldn’t have the human quality to it.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Another thing I think that really stands out in this film, besides the unique use of sound, is a really unique use of lack of sound and dialogue. There are so many scenes that just breathe and are quiet, which adds to the tension and the suspense. Then you get these breaks of violent noise. Was that another thing that was a jazz orchestrated composure?
David Barber: Yes, absolutely. We were feeling that there was something missing in certain aspects of it, and we really wanted to do exactly what you’re talking about, with drawing the human side and getting people to be more connected to the main character. Clayne Crawford, the lead actor, came by the stage on day two or three and we had him do a breath pass for several scenes, and just and this was during the mix. The opening sequence, for example, was all added in on day two or three of the mix. The stuff inside of the truck, as he’s first spying on the new boyfriend coming out of his wife’s house, and almost everything in the truck, we had him do a pass, and we ended up mixing and matching it with production sound. That was absolutely part of the improvisation of just going, “Wait, why am I not feeling this as much as I should be? Oh, because we don’t have the human breathing. We’re not connected to him.” So just getting that extra little layer of breathing in there gave us that connection.
In regard to the dialogue there, there were a lot of interesting choices. Where we made the decision not to hear certain characters and to hear other characters. I think one of my favorite things that happened in the mix was in the opening scene when he’s speaking with his dad, and he goes upstairs. Then we’re locating the dad, and we’re locating David in the house, and then he comes back downstairs, and he’s doing some laundry. There was some transitional element exchange between the dad and David that just wasn’t working. We had this illusion going of where everybody was and it was sounding good, but then there was this one line that just killed it every time. Son Robert, said, “Mute it.” He was willing to, on the spot, just lose dialogue. I have never had that happen. He was willing to lose dialogue, to achieve the sound illusion that we were creating. That was something that I had never heard ever experienced.
Peter Albrechtsen: Robert is very much into saying what you can say without saying anything. The great thing about getting Clayne to do breathing that late is also that he could react to the sound design that we’d been working on. Clayne told us that he didn’t have to show as much emotion because the sounds were telling his emotional story. Instead of his breathing being very theatrical, it was much more subdued, and it was actually much stronger because of that. The whole interplay between the different elements was really amazing and inspiring.
I agree. It was a really great film to watch and listen to. Do you have any collaborations planned in the future?
Peter Albrechtsen: We’ve actually done two films with Robert since this one. We did a feature film called The Integrity of Joseph Chambers, which is probably premiering next year, and we just finished a documentary about the band The Killers, which is just a half-hour short documentary. Every time Robert does a movie now, he just wants to work with us, so there’s a constant ongoing creative collaboration, which is really inspiring. When Robert is finishing one project, he’s already started talking about the new one and trying out new things. He has this adventurous approach to sound and it’s very inspiring to be part of.
Tom Curley is an Academy Award, BAFTA, AMPS Award, and Satellite Award award-winning sound mixer with more than two decades’ experience in the film and television industry. He is a contributor to Awards Radar’s sister website ScreenRadar.com, and a co-host of the podcast, “Screen Radar Presents: Film Dorks.”