Deep Fried Interview: The Sacrament sound designer Graham Reznick
Filmmakers Graham Reznick and Ti West spent their childhoods like the majority of movie-obsessed kids raised in the 1980’s. They loitered in video stores. They gorged themselves on VHS horror movie marathons during sleepovers. They drew their own comic books.
But what’s unusual about the pair of childhood friends – who’ve known each other since their days as grade school comrades raiding the video stores of Wilmington, Delaware – is they’re still making movies together decades later.
The Sacrament, a slow-burning horror thriller centered around a Jonestown-esque religious cult, marks the fifth feature film collaboration between West (as director) and Reznick (as sound designer), a resume that includes The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. Reznick talked to Deep Fried Movies about building The Sacrament’s soundscape, his aural approach to found footage and his early penchant for Mortal Kombat fan fiction.
The Plot: A pair of Vice Media correspondents (You’re Next co-stars AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg) follow their friend to South America to film his reunion with his troubled sister (Upstream Color’s Amy Seimetz), who now resides at an isolated communal utopia lorded over by a charismatic figure known simply as “Father” (played by Gene Jones).
What was your experience like growing up with Ti West in the prime of the video store era?
Being able to get your hands on a movie was still magic, unlike now where you can get on the Internet and find almost anything. We’d go to the video store and look at the amazing VHS cover art and even if you didn’t watch the movie your imagination would run wild about what might be in it. I remember the cover for Future-Kill – that movie is nothing like the cover, but when you see that cover when you’re a kid you’re like, “Holy shit! This has got to be the craziest thing that’s ever been made.” Ti and I grew up going to the same video stores. Video Frequency was one and there was another store near us called Vic’s Video, which had a ‘five movies for five dollars’ deal over the weekend and for years we would both rent five movies every single weekend.
(Above) The artwork that adorned the VHS cover of Future-Kill, designed by none other than the late H.R. Giger.
When you first started making movies together as kids, what types of things interested you?
The first stuff we made together in middle school came out of drawing comic books. We would both – along with a couple of other friends of ours – draw comic books based on Mortal Kombat. Basically Mortal Kombat fan fiction. (laughs) So that was kind of the first sequential storytelling, if you could even call it that – a lot of people being impaled and severed heads and spinal columns, that kind of thing. That evolved into blowing up GI Joes with VHS cameras. Then in high school we both made a lot of 15 to 20 minute films and we would act in each other’s films and shoot each other’s films and put them together with the old tried and true “two VHS deck” method. And then we both went to film school in New York – Ti was at the School of Visual Arts, I was at New York University – and we shared resources and that continues to this day.
How did you end up working in post-production sound?
In college at NYU everybody was competing with each other to work on (other students’) films. Everybody wants to be a cinematographer and everyone wants to be a director, but a lot less people want to be sound designer and since I had done a lot of very complex sound design on my own films people asked me to work on their projects. It was a chance to work with directors I respected who were also friends of mine. To this day I tend to only take sound design jobs where I know I’ll essentially be treated as an equal collaborator with the director because it’s only fulfilling for me that way. That’s why I like working with Ti, not only because we’ve known each other so long and we work well together, but because he has a lot of respect for the process and treats the sound designer like a real collaborator the way most directors treat (cinematographers). A lot of directors just aren’t trained to think of post-production sound that way.
(Above) Larry Fessenden, who also served as The Roost’s executive producer, runs afoul of one of the film’s winged creatures.
Your first feature film with Ti – the killer bat flick The Roost (2005) – came not long after you both finished film school. Tell me about that experience.
The Roost was definitely an homage to the kind of movies that we would rent from Vic’s Video and Video Frequency back in the 80s. We were both out of college for about a year and I had come to Delaware for a few months and Ti was editing the movie in the neighborhood next to mine at his dad’s office. So we just kind of messed around with it for almost a year, basically piecing it together very slowly and learning the whole post-production process on a level that we didn’t really learn in school.
I remember at the (film’s premiere screening at South by Southwest) Ti and I were standing in the aisle just super nervous and about halfway through two guys walked out passed us and said, ‘What the fuck is this shit?’ That’s been a fun thing to reference every time we see someone walk out of one of Ti’s movies. (laughs) The Roost was a labor of love. It was a very, very low budget thing, but it was a great opportunity for us and a lot of our collaborators to stumble through a first feature with a reasonable amount of funding and a producer who was incredibly open to the kind of thing that we wanted to do and let us have total freedom over it.
Before we get into The Sacrament, can you explain a bit about the role of the sound designer?
That’s a good question because I think people have different definitions of what a sound designer is – even sound designers. The way I tend to look at it is (similar to) the kind of work a director of photography does only for sound. It’s like being the director of audio, though that term doesn’t really exist in film. It does exist in video games. From my perspective my role coming in is overseeing how every element of the soundtrack, whether it’s dialogue, ambience, foley, music, soundscape or sound effects, all fit together. So everything passes through me at some point. Obviously it’s all being shaped by the director, but then below the director I’d be shaping it along the way like a director of photography would be shaping all the visuals.
The conceit in The Sacrament is that the audience is watching footage that has been shot by the movie’s characters and then edited into a documentary by the staffers at Vice Media. Therefore you as the sound designer also get to play a character in that you have to take into account the decisions a fictitious Vice Media editor might make.
That was a really interesting dilemma. The idea is that it isn’t found footage but that (the audience) is watching a movie that has ultimately been made by Vice Media. So one could then infer that all the score that’s in the movie, all of the sound design, any of the effects that were added were put in ostensibly by Vice. So we hammed it up when we thought (the imaginary Vice editors) might ham it up and we played it straight when we thought they might play it straight. There were certain times when we deviated from that, but for the most part that was the idea.
I went through the film and I added a digital mic noise (track) through the whole thing. I had a little Zoom recorder that was stereo and I recorded the sound of the mics rubbing up against fingers and clothes and things like that and I had that basically running the whole time very low so you don’t hear it. And when I was doing the first pre-mix pass of the film I had my finger on the fader and I would raise that (mic handling noise) up just a little bit when we would see Joe (Swanberg) spinning the camera around or there was interaction with the camera so you’d get a little bit of that realistic mic noise. It was good to always have it there and know if we needed to add a little bit more verite flavor we could easily do that.
Though set in South America, The Sacrament was shot near Savannah, Georgia. How did you use sound to help create that illusion?
Using the idea that Vice Media was putting this together afterwards, I thought, “How accurate should I get as a real sound designer with the ambiance? Should I get the real sounds of birds that might be (in that area) or should I go into my general sound effects library and find the sounds that the Vice guys putting this together in an office in Brooklyn might have access to?” Ultimately, it’s a blend. I did a little bit of research and got a couple of very specific sounds that were native to South America and then a lot was just stuff straight from the library because that’s what the editors of the “actual” documentary might be doing.
The Sacrament is less explicitly a horror film than some of Ti’s past efforts, but it does share a similar structure in that the first half gradually builds tension and the second half releases it. How did you help to differentiate those two distinct sections of the film?
More than any other film before, Ti spent a lot of time editing and re-editing this movie. He had a very strong idea of where he wanted it to end up, but because he shot it very documentary-style he had much more footage than he usually has. Usually his movies are shot to edit – they’re very tightly shotlisted and what he shoots is basically all he can edit. For this, his ratio was a lot higher. So he went through a number of iterations, but once he settled upon exactly where that break (in tone) happened, which I think you can pinpoint as being towards the end of Father’s (on-camera sit down) interview (with AJ Bowen), then it was a little easier to figure out how to structure it.
A lot of credit for the tone shift has to go to (composer) Tyler Bates (300, Rob Zombie’s Halloween, Guardians of the Galaxy). He really nailed the very pastoral, almost ethereal tone for when the characters first get to (the commune) Eden Parish that has a very subtle undercurrent of sinister tension. You just know that something is not quite right. As far as the sound design goes, similarly we tried to tease certain things in the first half – like the loudspeaker that Father uses – that we could then bring back in the second half in a much more menacing and abrasive way.
There are a few fleeting moments where The Sacrament’s score tips its cap to the synth scores of John Carpenter. That sound seems to be making a comeback lately.
I would love to say that’s one of the things that I brought to it, but Tyler obviously has a history of that as well having done (Rob Zombie’s) Halloween films. I’m not really a musician, but I do a lot of very basic composition. Ti’s films usually have maybe 5 to 10 percent music I contributed and on The Roost I had just been putting together these little Carpenter bass (riffs) that would carry certain moments along and that’s kind of persisted through all of Ti’s films. So yeah, I can’t stay away from it. It’s my favorite thing in the world. (laughs) There are a couple scenes (in The Sacrament) that are just straight up me playing around with the synthesizer. There’s a scene where Joe is first getting onto the truck to drive to (Eden Parish) where there’s some shamelessly Carpentery synth sounds that I contributed.
During the A.J. Bowen character’s interview with Father – which serves as the tonal shifting point of the film – almost the entire scene is played without score. Was that always the plan or do you try different options when putting a scene like that together?
That scene probably took up the most amount of time in the mix in terms of getting it right. On this film, more than a lot of previous films, we went into the mix with basically a finished product. We pre-mixed everything in my studio and then went into the final mix stage with everything kind of ready to go and be mastered except for that scene and a couple of other places where we weren’t quite sure how it would feel altogether. And that scene was really important for Ti to maintain not necessarily a single take, though we tried that at one point in the edit, but just a singular focal point, which was Father’s speech. The (movie’s) audience should be focused on Father and swept up in his charm in the same way (the people of Eden Parish are). We did try a long, very ethereal layered guitar thing that was semi-musical just barely on the edge of perception, greasing the wheels a little bit. But the scene didn’t need it. It didn’t need anything. It just needed Gene Jones being the kind of performer that he is.
My favorite sound cue of the film comes shortly after Father’s interview scene when a gospel choir performs for the congregation. The first song they sing is celebratory and uplifting. However, the group’s second song – which begins shortly after the audience is given a piece of information that changes its perception of Eden Parish – becomes menacing.
That was really fun for me. On set, a gospel singer group performed the songs so we had those recordings and we also had a loop group. For people who don’t know what a loop group is, a loop group is basically a group of performers that are hired to come in after a film is finished and basically fill in ambient talking, which is called walla. For example, if you’re in a cafe in Paris you need a Parisian cafe walla in the background of the scene so you get a bunch of actors to come in and talk to each other in French accents and you put mics around the room and you get a walla of the background audio.
We had the loop group perform the songs along with (playback of the movie) so that I had additional layers of audio to play with. So for the first song the emphasis is on being big and bright and really fun with lots of clapping and dancing and it’s very joyous. And then (the second song) – it’s a much spookier song for one so there’s half the battle right there – but the tone of the song is more somber, and then we used the additional audio (of the loop group) to create multiple layers that would swirl around you and create different effects in the surround sound.
A wearer of many production hats, Reznick also writes, directs and edits in addition to his work as a sound designer. His latest project – a segment of the horror anthology Chilling Visions: 5 States of Fear – premieres on Chiller TV this Friday (July 11th) at 9 p.m. Here’s the trailer: