Sound designer Paul Davies discusses crafting a subjective mix that sounds like the inside of a PTSD-stricken head. Davies discusses his ongoing collaboration with Director Lynne Davies and how they created a disorienting soundscape in You Were Never Really Here. This is an excerpt from the ebook You Were Never Really Here: A Special Issue. Get your copy now here.
Sound design is often subtle or forgotten, used as little more than ambience — but in You Were Never Really Here, it’s everything. The film even starts with sound: a heady, disorienting soundscape that instantly pulls you into the claustrophobic mind of protagonist Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a hitman tasked with rescuing a young girl, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), from sex traffickers. Paul Davies’ sound design is our primary window into Joe’s headspace, which is warped and uncomfortable, a product of his PTSD and the constant presence of violence in his life. The overwhelming noise is at once enveloping and subconsciously disturbing.
I talked to sound designer Paul Davies about how he pulled off an immersive, subjective mix that sounds like the inside of Joe’s “head full of broken glass”.
Seventh Row (7R): Did you work on developing the sound with Lynne before shooting started?
Paul Davies (PD): We did discuss it a lot. I’ve worked with her for 20 years, since Ratcatcher, so I knew that she was doing this. She told me she was considering doing an adaptation of the novella [You Were Never Really Here] some time ago. I read that, and I read all drafts of the script, as well.
Seventh Row: The sound mix is really subjective, immersing you in Joe’s disoriented headspace. How did you approach creating that subjective soundscape?
Paul Davies: While [Lynne] was shooting, I saw an exhibition at the Tate Modern, in the new wing. It was by American artist Charles Atlas: an installation of several video screens, placed not all in a line, but in layers. In front of them were four speakers. Out of each of the four speakers was a different sound of New York City. I thought that was an interesting effect; a basis of an idea, about having different sounds coming out of different speakers. Not completely different sounds, but of the same family. What effect would that have?
I experimented with that, and it seemed to create a feeling of dislocation — a rupture — which, for me, is the theme of the film: someone who’s dislocated, who feels separated from the rest of the world because of trauma.
Underpinning those is regular atmospheres. What that means is there aren’t different sounds coming out of each speaker. To combine them seemed to produce a strange effect. A sort of unease. You didn’t quite know why. You didn’t quite know how it was done. Or what had been done.
I think the atmosphere is very heightened in the film. The sound cuts are abrupt. There’s a dislocation of sound just after that hotel scene we’re talking about, where [Joe] kills a cop, runs out, and goes down the metal fire escape. There’s a sort of glitching sound. That’s actually a piece of Jonny Greenwood’s music. I think Lynne described it as the film breaking down. That’s a transition point. [Joe’s] plan has suddenly gone wrong. What had seemed like a relatively simple mission suddenly all breaks down.
I worked alongside the picture edit. And that was quite some time. I was working with them on and off.
There is a scene on a train, [towards the end of the film], with all the flashbacks. The production location’s sound — the real sound of the train — was very, very good, and a very good basis to work with. Within that, there was, at some point, a strange, harmonic sound which was quite eerie. Lynne really liked that, so I isolated that sound and used it as a basis elsewhere, to create unease: it features in the [soundscape] right at the beginning, over the logos. That introduces the idea of the train: we see several shots with trains [throughout the film], and then we see the train journey itself, which is a turning point.
The rest of the article is available in the ebook You Were Never Really Here: A Special Issue which can be purchased here.