INTERVIEW: ‘The Favourite’ Sound Designer and Mixer Johnnie Burn Discusses Winds, Period Sound, and the Musicality

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The Favourite” quickly marked itself as one of the best films of the year as soon as it debuted. The absurdist comedy/period piece stands out in the race as an acting showcase. Yorgos Lanthimos certainly brought together an amazing team, not only in front of the camera but behind it as well. Johnnie Burn, a sound designer and sound mixer, is one of those incredible craftsmen. Burn first received rave notices for his work on “Under the Skin” from Jonathan Glazer. He has since collaborated with Yorgos Lanthimos on his last three films, including “The Lobster” in 2015. While many have believed “The Favourite” has one of the most impressive uses of music in a film this year, Burn and Yorgos the atmosphere of the film using period specific compositions. In many ways, it feels like the “Baby Driver” of 2018.

Additionally, Burn modulated winds and the crackling of a fireplace to insert a musicality to the world around the favorite. The comedic film shifts into a dark thriller as the movie progresses, and it is Burn’s subtle use of winds and soundscapes that helps that transition bubble below the surface. I sat down to discuss the impressive soundscape with Burn. In our talk, he explains how to build a period of a soundscape, what to do when your castle is too old, and how to perform the duties of a sound designer and sound mixer simultaneously.

Alan French/Awards Circuit: First of all, how did you begin working in sound design?

Johnnie Burn: I was actually at university working on a business degree, and I wasn’t geling with it. I thought “what am I doing here?” and I left to go get a job. A friend of mine was a film producer said there was a job open recording sound in London SoHo. He thought I’d love it because I was DJing at the time. It was luck that helped me fall into working as a runner in a recording studio. I worked my way up from that.

I have been very lucky my entire career, both by starting my own company twenty years ago and working with Jonathan Glazer. I’ve done most of his work, and he really likes the details. He especially like works through the details face-to-face, and it’s very difficult to not learn a lot when you’re sitting next to one of the world’s best directors and he’s telling you why a piece of sound works with a shot.

AF: When you were working with Glazer on “Under the Skin,” how did that affect your future work in the industry? That is still one of the best sound achievements of the decade in my opinion. 

JB: Well thank you, there was a lot of hard work that went into that. Jonathan Glazer’s vision is quite extraordinary and he really does understand the marriage of sound and image. A lot of it was really finding new techniques to hear a sound in a different way. It’s quite labor intensive, which might be the understatement of the century. You present to him different ideas in an almost realized state, and you desperately try to find different techniques in a crafted way that people wouldn’t have heard before. There’s a lot of things that you explore and that goes unused or in a minor way. I would say my work in “Under the Skin” has influenced my work in every way since that film. It was just an absolutely amazing process working in sound, and how that sound can alter a viewer’s interpretation of an image.

AF: Can you think of a specific takeaway from the film? 

JB: One specific way that we worked on that was with Mica Levi’s beautiful and wonderful score,  and we were wondering how we could make the tonality of all the atmosphere’s gel. We wanted it to feel cohesive and flowy, rather than tripping up. Particularly we did a lot of music in understanding not just music, but how sound effects have their own musicality to them. This helped us coax a rhythm and pitch out of something like waves on a beach or winds and those kinds of things. This has been enormously useful to me since then.

AF: You started working with Yorgos (Lanthimos) on “The Lobster” not long after “Under the Skin” released. How was that connection made? 

JB: Well Yorgos quite enjoyed “Under the Skin” to the point where we were filming “The Lobster” and he rented a bus to take us to a local cinema and watch it in a private screening. He was a real fan, and he looked me up to ask if we could have a cup of coffee. That’s when he asked if I would be interested working on “The Lobster” and of course I was enormously interested. I knew he was a fantastic filmmaker, and reading the script, it turned out to be a really amazing film.

AF: How early did you know that Yorgos would want to tackle a period piece project like “The Favourite?” 

JB: After “The Lobster” we spent a lot of time talking about what we would do together next. “The Favourite” was actually a script that I read before “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” because he’d been working on it for seven or eight years. I was lucky enough to be discussing that with “The Lobster” when we moved into production, and honestly “The Favourite” was supposed to go first. It was simply that “Deer” went first because it was easier to get green lit first. It was casting that held up “The Favourite,” not because of who it would be, but because of the availability of who Yorgos wanted.

AF: What is different about making the soundscape of a period versus Yorgos’ other work? 

JB: Well the interesting thing about a period piece is that you’re pretty constrained by knowing what people think things sounded like in those days. You’ve got a smaller palette of sound effects because you get rid of anything that sounds remotely electrical. It’s also different from sci-fi like “Under the Skin” so you can’t reimagine a sound world. Instead it all becomes more naturalistic sound. From that point-of-view it was about constructing more naturalistic reels but still make it impressively cinematic.

It was exciting to look at every shot of every scene and wonder about the sound and wonder what I can possibly do to enhance or subvert what the film is trying to say at this point. At the same time, you have to be careful with all the sound that is recorded on set. You have to make sure you don’t have any modern sounds anachronistically creeping into it. We had quite a few airplanes creeping around the Hatfield House area.

Also, the four-hundred-year-old palace had four-hundred-year-old floorboards, and they were awfully creaky. In my early discussions with Yorgos we thought it would be good, but then we realized we had to edit all those out so that the palace sounded more time appropriate. Michelle Fingleton, who was our dialogue editor, had to edit a lot of those sounds out. That was quite the challenge we gave to her to get the sounds out of the mix.

AF: One of the things I found interesting was how that sound still travelled in the context of the movie. There were a lot of weirdly shaped rooms, or long hallways. How did that work for you to record the sounds, and other than the floorboards, did that pose other challenges to the edit? 

JB: Well I’m glad you brought that up! One of the things about the palace was the atmosphere was different in many of the rooms. When the production wrapped and all the trucks had moved away, we went through every single shot and reenacted the scenes with microphones in order to get the point of source sound. The microphones were set up at different distances throughout each room. When we mixed, we had almost every single sound that set could make.

We also used a thing called an impact response. It allows us to make a loud bang noise and the microphone records the acoustic impression of that bang. You then feed it into a reverb machine and it can reproduce that same echoey sound. We can then reproduce the sound for footsteps or whatever you need it for when we needed it.

AF: That’s really cool. Another thing that is different about this film versus others in the industry is that you are the sound editor and the sound mixer. How did dual role help you approach the film? 

JB: Well that comes from the fact I have a good working relationship with Yorgos and he lets me get on with it. As I’ve heard from other departments, Yorgos doesn’t give you much of a brief until you’re doing it wrong. He really lets us run with it. My workflow is very much an all-in-one factory, where I’m working on the mix as I’m editing the sound together. This allows me to develop it as one thing and understand where I am going with it. Because of the fact that Yorgos is really happy with me presenting him ideas and he’ll tell me the ones he doesn’t like, I feel really empowered to push ahead and start making decisions at an early stage. I can start working towards the end goal.

AF: One of the cool things “The Favourite” does is use compositions from the era, as well as some seemingly new pieces as well. Can you tell me how you and Yorgos went about the process of using the music and choosing it for the film? 

JB: Well Yorgos has an encyclopedic knowledge of music. It is interesting actually, he didn’t use music in his films before “The Lobster” but once he did, he selected all of the music on “Deer” and on “Lobster” afterward. So part of the process in the picture edit is Yorgos trying different stuff on the cut. We come in as a sound department during the picture edit, and we’re on hand to help pick musics and see how they blend in. Ultimately it is up to Yorgos to pick the musics and by the time we get to cut block, we’ll be lucky enough to know how the score will work with the film. We then have to try to find music to fill in the gaps.

On “The Favourite,” we didn’t have a composer, so we had to find these pieces out of existing source material. Normally, we might be able to ask a composer to go on another 10 seconds longer. For this movie, a lot of the music was from the time and composed in the era. There was some great modern pieces by Anna Meredith, and we used some of her really fun strings compositions when Rachel gets poisoned. Then there’s a few pieces of simple tonal stuff that I created to fill the gaps where the film wasn’t registering enough of the sadness.

AF: Well the one you just pointed out, the one where Rachel Weisz gets poisoned, really sold the soundscape of the film to me. Rather than being a comedy like it pretends to be early in the movie, it begins to feel like a thriller. Tell me about how you used the soundscape to help build the tension. 

JB: Well that was something we really worked on in post. When Abigail (Emma Stone) is called in to bandage the Queen’s legs, we were using winds and fireplace rumbles to complement the music. We were injecting very precise frequencies, like 440 Hz which would be G-Sharp into a wind. This would make the wind rumble and give the wind a tonality to it. You see that in a few places in the film, and you wonder if you’re hearing wind or music there.

Then we came up with this idea for the very final scene. It was originally just the piano. Yorgos wanted something more to reflect the sadness of what was happening. He wanted us to redevelop the scene and rework it, and he called for more more more. It ended up becoming the pairing theme to end. It’s the winds and fireplace rumbles taken to the absolute extreme of acute focus. We then took that idea from the end, and began to work it into the rest of the film. We were finding other moments where the music and scene could be distorted with our sound. It felt musical, and it was on the brink of composition.

AF: The other scene that struck me was when Weisz walks through the passageway and comes upon Emma Stone in bed. You can feel her stalking through the darkness and it works so well visually and sonically. 

JB: I’m glad you liked it because we did some work there. Before that, the Queen’s having her legs massaged, and we almost comedically use the winds to accent the music. When you cut to Rachel, she’s geographically and philosophically distanced, and we cut in a very cold wind. It sets up a different atmosphere for her scenes, and that really helped. She then floats down the corridor and the wind becomes a pure note.

When you see Abigail in bed with the Queen, the outgoing music is in a minor chord. However, the next piece comes in on a major chord. There’s only a four second gap between the music. When the gap is that small but musical change is that big, you register it as a major piece of discordance. So we used modulated the wind from the corridor through changing the frequency, and it actually completes the key change. All the supporting atmospheres are working musically to support what you’re watching on the screen. It was a really fun bit to do. It is fun to alter the sound effects and design to help alter the interpretation of the image.

AF: How did you approach the big parliamentary scenes with the mix of all the nobles shouting? 

JB: We went to a boxing match and recorded people shouting. We had microphones about our persons during the fight and we got some good sounds that way. Of course Yorgos also commands the sets well, and the production sound from that set was very usable. One of the interesting things about the parliamentary scenes was building the geography of the scene through the sound. The Yeses and the Nays were coming from the correct location depending on where the camera was placed. There are quite a few scenes where the dialogue gets drowned out intentionally. You can’t really go wrong there because it about making them look pompous. The more we dialed up the silly noises, the more ridiculous the Parliamentarians looked.

AF: What is the sequence you’re most proud of having worked on in this film? 

JB: The one that you mentioned, about Rachel discovering the Queen and Abigail in bed at night. I also really enjoyed working on the pigeon dance, when Abigail and Anne have their dance around the bedroom. We wanted to make it come across as a musical thing. The problem was, all the pieces of found music didn’t really work. We had this idea of bringing the gunfire from the scene before into the scene a bit earlier. We were able to retool the scene as a “duel” of sorts. That dancing scene was something we’re really proud of.

What do you guys think of Johnnie Burn’s sound work in “The Favourite?” Where does “The Favourite” rank in your lineup? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!

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