The Sound of Evil
Fresh off his Oscar nomination, The Zone of Interest sound designer Johnnie Burn speaks about building a movie through audio.
Johnnie Burn recalls when Jordan Peele called him “the king of subjectivity.”
The sound designer had received a call from Peele, who was a fan of his work on director Jonathan Glazer’s surreal 2013 sci-fi film Under the Skin and wanted him to do the sound design for his latest film, Nope.
“He understood how I use sound,” Burn tells Inverse. “I’m always trying to find a protagonist and have it from their point of view.”
It’s why Burn is so effective at creating soundscapes that sear themselves into your brain. He’s responsible for the most upsetting scene in Nope, the ranch attack where audience members of the Star Lasso Experience are swallowed up by the alien Jean Jacket, screaming in pain and terror as they’re digested. It’s a scene you hear more than see; the camera is trapped with the other victims inside Jean Jacket’s esophagus, their screams echoing dimly around you. “We had many actors who were screaming like they were enjoying themselves, and then screaming like they’re in pain. And then there were the internal sounds, like rubbing a microphone, giving you claustrophobia,” Burn says.
“It’s all about creating a perspective, a point of view from which you are hearing it that makes you, the viewer, feel most akin to the people you are with.”
It’s the kind of startling immersive sound design that made Peele praise Burn. And it’s the kind of design Burn would bring to his next collaboration with Glazer, the chilling Oscar-nominated Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest. Peele’s alien invasion blockbuster doesn’t seem like it would have much in common with the eerily restrained film, which follows Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) as he and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), build a life for their family in their luxurious home next to the concentration camp. But Burn acknowledges there might be “a relationship between the two.”
“Jordan came to one of the screenings we did in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, he was laughingly saying, ‘Did you use any of the sounds of Nope that you had left over in the Zone of Interest?’” No, but the comment made Burn think of how the two shared a similar approach to sound design, “but with such different ends.”
“It’s all about creating a perspective, a point of view from which you are hearing it that makes you, the viewer, feel most akin to the people you are with,” Burn says.
Fresh off Burn’s Oscar nomination for Best Sound for The Zone of Interest (which he shares with Tarn Willers), Inverse spoke with the sound designer about making a movie through sound and reclaiming immersive cinema for an arthouse drama.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Can you talk about working with Jonathan Glazer and whether he had a specific vision he wanted to fulfill?
I’ve worked with Jonathan Glazer for 25 years, and he knows what we can do with sound. And he’s very much the sort of director who understands that sound is a powerful tool and doesn’t have to do the same thing as the pictures. He said to me a couple of years before filming, “I’m working on this script, and it’s going to use sound as the main narrative tool.” And then I read the script; it didn’t say “at this point we will hear this thing,” but it did say, at the beginning, “throughout this film, we will hear the sound of the camp.” And that was pretty much it. And then he said to me, “You have to find out what that sound is.” His vision was very much “we are going to use the images that people already have in their head and we are going to draw pictures with that through sound.” And you have a great responsibility in getting that sound right.
“We described it as Film 1 and Film 2, the film you see and the film you hear.”
What I found most striking about Zone of Interest is how much of the movie was in the sound design. Did you find that you had more authority to shape the final product than on previous projects?
It is an extraordinary film, isn’t it? There’s such a juxtaposition, and [Glazer] always said, “We will use sound narratively here, to the point that quite possibly the sound will be more the film you’re watching than the film.” We described it as Film 1 and Film 2, the film you see and the film you hear. And in that, we actually went through the whole process of making the film you see, and we got to the end and did a sound mix sort of temporarily and completed that before putting any of the sound of horror on, because we felt that Film 2 shouldn’t inform Film 1. So we made that film, and then we spent another six months putting the other sound on.
Was there more authority? I think it was just extraordinary that we always knew the sound was going to create the juxtaposition, and our first drafts had the constant sound of the rumble that we hear; that is the crematorium. We had it in one scene, and we felt that it worked very well. But throughout the rest of the film, there were sporadic incidents of sound. So placing that sound continuously across the film was an enormous step in how the film worked and having the constant juxtaposition narrative going. That was an enormous, I suppose, power move on the sound department.
Can you tell me about Film 1 and Film 2? How different were they, and how did you approach the two of them within the final product?
Film 1 was the family drama. There were 10 hidden cameras, so the actors would perform not knowing what camera they were performing to. There were no crew members on set, and the house was not a flimsy set build. The floors really were stone, and the walls were solid. And Jon wanted the actors, particularly the young ones, to really feel like they were in 1943. There would often be scenes filmed at the same time, and there were 20 microphones hidden around the house that would pick up not so much just the dialogue, but the sounds of the people in the house and their footsteps and the teacup rattling.
“There would often be scenes filmed at the same time, and there were 20 microphones hidden around the house.”
The making of Film 1 was all about the immersion of the real, the mundanity of everyday sound. The footsteps of Rudolph locking up the house, and the sound of the boy banging the drum upstairs, and the baby walking around the house, while the conversation was going on with industrialists talking about how to make a better crematorium. And so all those sounds were mixed together, along with recordings that we made of period-specific motorbikes that would pass on the road outside, or horses and carts, or planes overhead. So Film 1 was all about creating a world that was so alive with everydayness, and then Film 2 was about throwing stuff at that and saying “Yeah, but what about this?” and doing that to the point of an obvious juxtaposition, but not sensationalizing.
How did you walk that line of not sensationalizing it? Zone of Interest creeps up on you in the way sounds are slowly fed in. Was that something you had an initial mix for, and you said, “OK, that’s too much, we have to pull that back”?
The main thing is to credit your audience with intelligence. Sometimes people assume that something has to work for everyone. But also, I think there were two other things at play. The overture of Mica Levi’s extraordinary score at the beginning, which we only came to in the final few months because Mica had written 30 minutes of music that scored the whole beginning. And then we realized we had to take that off because it basically said “this is a reproduction, a dramatization that didn’t really happen.” So we created an overture. The message was: Sit down and relax; put down your phone. This is going to be an experience, let’s take you back in time.
“The main thing is to credit your audience with intelligence.”
The initial passes we did of the film only had the constant rumble, for the one scene where the boy is in the bunker, and Rudolph is in the garden smoking a cigar. And we screened it to a few heads of department. And Chris Oddy, a production designer, said to me, “It doesn’t sound industrial enough.” And I took that conversation back to Jon, and Jon said, “Well, why don’t we just put that sound across the whole film, and let’s see what happens with that.” And then that, with all the other sound we had in, was a version that was way too much. So then it was about reducing it.
What was your biggest challenge in working with a movie so reliant on its sound design?
Not sensationalizing. I think the biggest challenge was to approach the subject matter respectfully and to understand that this is an area where ethical concerns are high, and we had to get that right. And that as soon as a point was made with the film we should move on and not have anything salacious dwelled on.
You spoke about how this movie uses or expands upon what people already know of Auschwitz. Did you put a lot of research into creating the sounds, or was this something you kind of inherently knew?
It definitely is a film that draws upon people’s knowledge. I do wonder how a 14-year-old would view it. But the minute I got the script, I realized that research was going to be vital and that Jon and I would need to know everything about the sounds of Auschwitz in 1943 and the physicality of how they were heard in that space. And so my first year was researching, reading witness testimony. And we had access to the archives of the Auschwitz Museum. I documented that and built a sound library where I had approximated scenarios and built those into little narrative soundscapes so we could then place those in the film.
“We would script and recreate by repurposing real sounds of people in pain.”
The film takes an unexpected approach to immersive sound design, because immersion is something people generally associate with blockbuster spectacle. Did you go into this film aware of that? Did you want to take that immersive sound design in a different direction?
The previous film I was working on was Nope, which could not be more of an immersive sound spectacle if it tried. And I invited Jon to the London premiere, and afterward, he was like, “Good, have you got that out of your system?” So we knew it would be different because it needed to be. I think the primary thing Jon and I found working on Under the Skin was that immersive sound in cinema is more about credibility in the sound you are playing than it is about having sound flying around your head or big bassy rumbles and all that stuff. So for us, it was about the authenticity of how you capture the sound that you’re using. That’s immersive cinema, I think. But cinema has so many different things. There is absolutely a time and a place for Marvel Universe movies, big bangs and whistles. It’s a different sort of discipline that’s very enjoyable to work on.
Sound design is such an invisible process. Is there anything you did on Zone of Interest you want to highlight to people who aren’t aware of the process?
The film in its entirety delivers an enormous juxtaposition of sound. It’s almost like the sound is the film you’re watching, and I think it’s really unusual. And I can’t even think of another film that does it so extraordinarily comprehensively in that way.
I think what I really enjoyed was that there were many times where we would write a kind of sound script, off-camera events that we would script and recreate by repurposing real sounds of people in pain. We would record football matches where people play without spectators. And we would recreate scenarios outside a bedroom window or over the side of the wall. And these things would have a great impact on the narrative in terms of plot and the emotion of the viewer watching it. So I’d like to highlight the careful attention to precisely how sound was used.
The Zone of Interest is playing in select theaters. It expands on Jan. 26.
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