Emmy Award winner Onnalee Blank (Game of Thrones) talks to Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan about harnessing the sounds of prison life in Just Mercy.
Based on a true story, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy follows a Harvard graduate (Michael B. Jordan) who decides he’s going to dedicate his services to helping Alabama inmates on death row, including that of wrongfully-imprisoned Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx).
The film is a gut punch, revealing how the criminal justice system fails poor people, specifically people of color, and in one particularly heartbreaking scene, the prison bears witness to an execution with a rallying cry.
I had a chance to chat with Onnalee Blank, the supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer on the film. Blank revealed what prison is actually like on execution days, the use of nature in the film, and what it was like working with Cretton and co-star Brie Larson again.
Awards Daily: You’ve worked on some of the most exciting projects of the year, including Booksmart, the final season of Game of Thrones, and Just Mercy. Did you know 2019 was going to be a big year for you back in January?
Onnalee Blank: Uhhh, no. Definitely not! (Laughs.)
AD: Just Mercy has one of the most memorable scenes of the year, with the execution of an inmate, which weaves in all of these different sounds. What was it like filming that scene? What was the process of developing it?
OB: What we did was we talked to execution specialists, and since we filmed in a real working prison, Death Row is really loud when they know someone is going to be executed. It changes the vibe, and people get really quiet, and then the whole entire jail starts to get extremely loud when it’s happening. A lot of research, a lot of process went into that scene.
AD: It also worked perfectly with the score. It works really well with the music. How did you weave in sound mixing with the score?
OB: With the music track, we wanted to have a lot of different perspective with what the set speakers sound like and then at the end, it doesn’t matter about the speaker, how does the song make you feel? So it warrants a lot of different vibes within one scene. We just really wanted to make the prison feel alive like the character wasn’t alone. Even though they’re in confinement, all those inmates are with him.
AD: It was such a beautiful scene. Something I noticed when it comes to the sound is the hollowness of prison, especially when Jamie Foxx tells Michael B. Jordan “We’re done here” during their first meeting. Does sound bounce a lot in those empty spaces? How do you control that?
OB: When we were building those scenes, they were really loud and at the end of the day it didn’t matter that they were in a prison. It just mattered what happened between those characters and how to create an emptiness, but not feeling empty. It was actually really hard to find the balance of that.
AD: I bet.
OB: I love that part with the desk. You’re kind of like, ‘Oh shit!’
AD: I also love how the film uses nature as representative of Walter’s (Jamie Foxx) freedom. How did you create the silence of nature versus the silence of prison?
OB: Nature feels alive even when it’s quiet. You hear wind, birds, and crickets and other things. The prison, we just wanted to make it feel cold. Cold and lonely and things have a lot of reverb and delays. So when you go to the outside scenes, it feels like, ‘Oh, I can breathe.’ More openness to it.
AD: The film also includes clips from 60 Minutes. Did you have to do anything to make TV sound differently, since this film takes place 30 years ago?
OB: We used the real 60 Minutes audio for Ed Bradley and the 60 Minutes clock, so we matched that with Jamie Foxx’s ADR. You just try to make it sound the same. It’s a lot of back and forth.
AD: It was really effective.
AD: What was it like working with Destin Daniel Cretton again? I know you worked with him on The Glass Castle and Short Term 12, both of which also starred Brie Larson. Did it feel like a family reunion?
OB: Even before Short Term 12, I worked with him on his first movie. We are like family. It’s really nice. Hanging out with your friends all day!
Just Mercy arrives in theaters this Christmas.