Steve Fanagan served as the supervising sound editor, re-recording mixer, and sound designer for Normal People. In an in-depth interview with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, Fanagan discussed his work on the acclaimed Hulu series, the nuances of sound design — and his ever-evolving love of sound.
I’ll speak for myself, but I suspect this is the case for many of us — sound work is the aspect of film-making we take most for granted. After all, you are not supposed to notice sound, not in the same way a stunning dress catches your eye or a perfectly framed shot draws you in. Sound works on a subconscious level, the best sound work sounds natural.
When it came time for me to interview Steve Fanagan, I was stumped. Unlike his Emmy-nominated work on Game of Thrones, Normal People didn’t give Fanagan dragons to work with—Normal People gave Fanagan a story about two people falling in love—Marianne and Connell (Daisy-Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal). The sounds we hear—the whispered confessions, the kisses, the movement of sheets—are Normal.
But then Fanagan begins to walk me through his work process—the meticulousness of gathering room tones, the sounds of kisses, the sounds of his native Irelan —I am immediately struck by his thoughtfulness, his deliberation, the carefulness with which he has constructed Marianne and Connell’s most intimate moments. It becomes abundantly clear that I have made a colossal mistake in judgment: I took Steve Fanagan’s work for granted.
The reason why I was so completely drawn into Marianne and Connell’s love, the reason why everything sounded so ‘normal’ was precisely because Steve Fanagan is so very good at his job — because the very best sound work sounds natural.
I love interviewing craftspeople for Awards Daily because I always gain a deeper appreciation for that craft. Steve Fanagan has not only given me a deeper appreciation for sound design, but his insights have also fundamentally changed the way I think about sound. So, do me a favor, when you watch (or rewatch) Normal People—whether it be for awards consideration or because you’re simply in the mood for excellent television—listen closely.
Awards Daily: Tell me about your approach to the sound design in Normal People.
Steve Fanagan: From my own point of view and from the sound process perspective, my work is done very closely with Niall Brady who [was] my dialogue supervisor on the show. We’ve both worked with Lenny Abrahamson quite a lot over the years. I’ve done Lenny’s last five projects with him, so we have a sort of long-term relationship. I suppose one of the brilliant things is that over the years we’ve learned a lot working with each other. I think everything learned on previous projects becomes our start point for the next—on Normal People, that was no different. You’re in that position where you’re working with someone you’ve worked with before—you don’t have to have a sort of awkward first date to get to know each other and figure out how you’re going to work on the show. We hit the ground running.
Lenny likes to get us involved quite early on so we were talking about the sound for Normal People in pre-production—the scripts had been shared with us, and we’re just beginning to think about it and talk about it—what the world might be for the show.
There’s obviously a rich piece of source material in Sally Rooney’s novel. I read that when it came out and was a huge fan, I inhaled it over a couple of days of reading. I suppose, one of the powers of having a piece of literature like that to look to is that you’ve already experienced that world as a reader. And part of that experience as a reader is that you imagine how it would sound—all of that is percolating as you begin on a job like this.
One of the other great things about being in touch with Lenny so early is that it meant I was able to make arrangements to go record. I spent four days while they were filming recording in various locations. I got access to all of the houses, to Trinity College in Dublin, the school in Sligo, so you start to build a library. I started to collect all this original material for the show that [I thought might] be important to it.
After those four days of [initial] recording, I probably spent another four or five, just working through that material, cataloging it, labeling it up so that I could then give it to the two editors who were working on the series, Nathan Nugent for the first six episodes and Stephen O’Connell for the second half. I included all of that original recording, and also a whole bunch of material from my own collection that I thought would be useful as they start[ed] to assemble scenes.
There’s a lovely thing that happens in that process for me—when I then get sent scenes or sequences initially— I’ll sort of begin to get a sense of things that maybe are taking their interests and things that they feel are supporting the scene. I’ll then have a really interesting place to start my work from.
With the first few episodes on this we were working with Lenny and Nathan, and rather than sitting down and formally spotting episodes, they tended to send us cuts, and we would have all these clues [based on] the rhythm and the flow of the sound work that they were already doing. We started to send them back material and go, “What do you think of this? Here’s my first instinct on this sequence.” And the conversation between us developed from there. So, it’s slightly different than it would be if you’re working with someone for the first time.
For the second block, it was our first time to work with [director] Hettie Macdonald and [editor] Stephen O’Connell, we did spot the episodes, but again, while they were cutting those, they were sending us sequences that they had question marks about or sequences we could begin working on. There’s a lovely collaboration that can happen when you’re sending work back and forth because it means that it’s no longer just talking about it, it means that you’re actively getting into the nuts and bolts of the work and getting to respond to how each other feels about it.
Sound is such a subjective thing, we don’t really have a great language to speak about sound. If someone is saying, “I’d love for this scene to be warm.” It’s pretty hard to really figure out what that means until you respond to it, make something for the scene, or build something for a scene, and all sit back and go, “Hey, you said you wanted this to feel warm. Here’s a go with that. What do you think?” Then you’ve got a bit of a back and forth about whether you need to dial up or dial down the sound based on your perception of what they’re saying. You can then begin to get a shorthand to work with and develop over time. I think ultimately that’s how the work begins.
And in the case of Normal People, one of the things that was really lovely to think about it and work with was the fact that it’s entirely in Ireland, which is where myself and Niall [are from]. We’re intimately connected to the sound of these spaces. Ultimately, you’re trying to figure out a way for the sound design to work for the show, and you’re hoping that you’re developing something that’s going to be consistent and interesting across the series. Something really reflects this raw intimacy that we have with the characters throughout and their sense of space and time.
AD: Normal People is such an intimate project, both in terms of what it’s depicting, but also in the way that it’s shot, and in the way that it’s constructed. What does that mean for you as the sound supervisor?
SF: I think really what you’re always doing with the work is you’re responding to what’s in front of you on screen. So, everyone’s work that’s come before, from the photography to the production design, the wardrobe is going to play a role—and obviously, a huge influence on the sound work is always going to be the editing—how it is paced and played. Nathan Nugent’s hand and the scripts in those first six episodes gave us a really brilliant way into the sound work.
When it comes to that sort of intimacy, what you’re trying to imagine is what the quietest moments are going to be and what sounds you can use to really amplify and tune into those moments.
The cinematographer on the first six episodes was a cinematographer called Suzie Lavelle. The cinematographer for the second six was Kate McCullough. It’s fair to say that the two blocks have a different style, but they both really get you in close. You almost feel like there isn’t a camera —there are just these characters and you as an audience—from a sound point of view, you’re trying to lean into that.
One of my favorite sequences in the series is their first kiss. The scenario is that Connell’s been thinking about Marianne, he calls to her house and they end up in this room together. From the action that’s happening on screen, you have a lovely instruction from the picture—we’re starting wide; we’re outside the house; it’s a relatively normal day; Marianne’s house is in the countryside; it’s set back from the road; her nearest neighbors are far away—it’s kind of this quiet, beautiful, idyllic setting. There are lots of natural, beautiful sounds that you can use to begin to paint that picture.
Then you go inside the house and you’re into space where some of that outside world is definitely going to drift in—you have room tone; you can imagine that in a house like hers there’d be a grandfather clock ticking—you start to just think about those details that offer you some information about the character and about where they’re from.
Ultimately by building that design into the scenes, you then get to slowly pull it away as the two characters, pull closer to one another so that you almost end up at a point where all you can hear is their breath and maybe a little bit of their clothing movement as they get closer and closer.
Hopefully, in doing that, you get to help the audience lean into those moments. Obviously all of this really depends on what Lenny’s direction is and what he’s hoping for from a scene. You’re trying to use all of that information that’s in the picture, in the drama, and in the storytelling on screen, try to figure out how to shape the sound.
You’re always trying to make sure that the sound is evolving through a scene. It’s sort of like: Here’s how the scene ends and here’s how we can develop the sound across the scene in a way that hopefully best supports, and interacts with the storytelling.
AD: You’ve done work on a lot of different sound projects, including Game of Thrones. In terms of what we discussed about your process and sound work in general, what are the elements that change between the larger projects and the more intimate ones? And what are those things that you think are just universal when it comes to working with sound?
SF: What’s interesting is that I suppose on the surface, the sound for a series like Normal People is not overt in the same way it may be for a fantasy-driven series like Game of Thrones but the truth of it is that it is equally considered, detailed, designed, and shaped. You might be playing with sound in subtler ways, but the same level of care and attention goes in. You don’t ever approach two projects with the same set of rules in mind. You don’t go in thinking, “I know what this project is.” You always go into a project trying to figure out what it is and allowing yourself to go on a journey with it and figure out, “What’s the most truthful version of the sound for this?” That journey is obviously a hugely collaborative process within the sound department, with the picture department, and with your director. It’s hopefully something that’s evolving and changing, all the way through sound editorial and design and all the way through to the mix.
I think the first thing that I’m doing after I’ve read the script, and whatever other source material there might be, is I’m just trying to figure out what the DNA of the show in front of me might be, and then ultimately, begin putting sound against picture. The first pass I do on a series or on a film is generally about trying to figure out what the atmosphere is, trying to figure out what the environment is, and in doing that pass, you sort of start to really think about the minutia of what’s unfolding on screen. And whether it’s an explosion or a really intimate conversation, it’s the same careful [deliberation] in figuring out what has to happen.
Ultimately on any of these shows, you’re trying to figure out something that’s true to the world; that’s true to the story; true to the experience of the characters. In something like Normal People, you’re not presenting [the activity] as a documentary piece, you’re presenting it as a point of view.
I suppose what you’re trying to do is go, “Okay, we’re here, we’re in this space, we are with these characters, and this is how they’re perceiving it.” And the exact same thing is true whether you’re doing a fight sequence, or an explosion, or a car chase—you’re trying to figure out what the point of view of the sound is and how the sound can be dynamic and constantly evolving to keep it interesting—but also to hopefully keep it just so true to the world that the audience never questioned it.
AD: You know, hearing you explain all of this to me, I’m just so struck by, as you were saying, the minutia and the nuances of the work that you do. I know this is a very cliché question to ask someone, but I’m just genuinely curious, what was it about sound work that initially attracted you? The average person doesn’t think about sound in the same critical way that you do, what was it about that process that made you want to make it your life’s work?
SF: Sure. It’s a really interesting question because I suppose, like a lot of people, my first real interaction with sound was through music. I’ve played music since my teens, and my initial work in sound was in radio. Then I moved into live sound for music recording, mixing, and mastering music, so my journey into film sound wasn’t a straight line.
I started this work about 12 years ago when I just turned 30. So, you know, I had a career in music and radio, with sound before this. And I had the really fortunate experience of meeting a foley artist called Caoimhe Doyle who was the foley artist on Normal People. I knew that this work existed, but I didn’t really understand what it was until she introduced me to it. And once I saw this alchemy of how sound and picture can work together, I suddenly just saw this thing and realized, “Wow, this is all of the things I love about sound”— rhythm, cadence, acoustics and, the feeling of sound—and figuring out how you could pair sound and image. How something could radically change in its feel or its meaning. That was really exciting to me. At that point, I just decided to really try to get some work doing it. I’ve had a couple of lucky breaks along the way and my career has continued from there.
AD: And how did you then go about developing your ear for these sounds and training your brain to think critically about how sound could be used?
SF: I think one of the things for anyone interested in this work, it’s really important to watch loads of films. And if you like a film, watch it a second time, watch it a third time, and try to figure out what it is about the sound work on that film that’s working for you.
I spend a lot of my time [at the cinema], I try to go twice a week, we watch things that I like, and I try to figure out what makes them work. There’s lots of information out there of other practitioners talking about their practice—you get inspiration in the strangest places. I think, ultimately, the work is about training your ear. When you start to think about a space, break down the sound, and try to figure out, “Well, what are the constituent elements of the environment I’m in right now? What are the sounds I’m hearing?” Suddenly you realize there are actually 10 or 15 things going on here, but if I’m not thinking hard about this, I’m only conscious of maybe one or two of them.
As I approach the scene, I’m sort of trying to think of what those 15 or 20 sounds might be and how I can feature them. You don’t want to play them all together, but you want to figure out an orchestration between them that allows you to create what hopefully feels like a real experience of that space on screen.
For me, I feel like I’m constantly learning, I’m constantly trying to develop my ear for it and one of the lovely things about this work is that no two projects ever allow you to do the same thing. They always are demanding something unique from you—you get to go on a journey. And when you work with collaborators at a level of like Lenny Abrahamson, Nathan Nugent, and my colleague Niall Brady, you’re working with people who inspire you and who you want to push yourself for—you want to do the work and make sure it’s the best that it can be.
My experience last year, working with Marjane Satrapi [Academy Award nominee for Persepolis in 2008] on Radioactive was exactly the same, it’s a very different process because it’s a different director, but their passion and their intrigue [is universal]. It’s a privilege then to get to try and help them finish it with the sound work. I think that for me, it’s that collaboration, communication, and that access to someone else’s creative work [that] is a real privilege.
AD: What films would you consider influential to your love of sound work and the craft? Is there a film that you would recommend for somebody who was interested in having a film to pick apart and study?
SF: Sure. There’s a brilliant documentary called Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound from last year about film sound; it’s a lovely place to start because it’s a conversation between some of the greatest practitioners ever of sound. People who basically changed the way film sound works. Their legacy is what continues to evolve. Their generosity in describing their work, I think, has educated a lot of people over the years.
For me, some seminal films were Apocalypse Now (1979), The Conversation (1974), Star Wars (1977), and modern examples are people like David Fincher. One of the films of the last couple of years that struck me the most was a film called Leave No Trace (2018) by Debra Granik.
AD: That’s one of my favorites, too! It’s just so beautiful.
SF: Isn’t it? For me, that is [the] sort of soundtrack I find incredibly inspiring because on one level, it’s a representation of the natural world, but it’s also one of those beautiful, subtle soundtracks that’s doing so much work psychologically and subconsciously for the viewer. It doesn’t show sound. It feels natural. And I think as a viewer, you don’t question it.
That’s a real inspiration. That’s what I’m always trying to seek out in the work: ‘How do we do this so it feels like “this could not be any other way?”’
And ultimately, I think if someone’s interested in an instructional, the best thing to do is look to films that you like, because I guarantee you, if there’s a film you like, there’s going to be great craftwork going on in that film. And it’s there for you to discover and dissect.
AD: One question that I know always comes up for people, myself included, and this comes up every award season, is the difference between sound editing, sound mixing, and sound supervision. [The Academy recently announced they will combine Sound Editing and Sound Mixing into a single category moving forward.]
AD: Can you give me a quick rundown of what the key differences are?
SF: Absolutely. This is something I’ve read and heard other people say, so I won’t take credit for it but there’s a really good analogy, for sound editing, in terms of other film work.
If you think about it, sound editing is very analogous to production design, costume design, makeup and hair in that you’re trying to gather all of the material that you think sound-wise is appropriate to work on the screen. You try to figure out what the truthful sounds for that world would be. And hopefully, in doing that, you’re giving yourself loads of options for how this world might sound and how a scene might play.
And the sound mixing analogy that I find very helpful is that mixing is about, “How do you focus with sound? What sounds do you choose to feature when and where?”
The analogy with cinematography and mixing is a good one because, with cinematography, there’s a decision made about where to point the camera: What’s potentially available in terms of performance, acting, costumes, set design—in terms of all of those visual elements—the camera is choosing to point the viewer in the direction of something specific.
With sound mixing, we’re trying to do that as well. When we lean into Connell and Marianne, and we’re just hearing their breath, or hearing them swallow, or their stomach gurgle, we want the audience to realize, “Oh my God, I’m that close to them in that intimate moment.”
Does that make sense?
AD: Yes! To wrap up our time together, is there anything you wanted to mention that we didn’t discuss?
SF: I think like that the only thing I would love to say is that it’s one of those dream jobs because it was a book that I was in love with, and with Lenny who is a director I admire greatly.
I think when you get to work on something like this, with performances like this, with the cast and crew working so hard and doing such great work—it was a pleasure to get to play off of that and try to do work that matches it.
It was a real dream job and I’m glad I get to talk about it in this context because I get to reflect on the work, and from my own point of view, I always want to make sure that it doesn’t sound like I’m taking credit for the sound work because it’s always a collaboration, you’re always working for the director and there’s always a whole bunch of decisions that have gone into it before you even start work.
One of the other magic things about a show like Normal People is you’ve got this incredible original score from Stephen Rennicks and you’ve also got these really brilliantly chosen needle drops and throughout the series. From a sound mixing point of view, getting to work with that music—and from a sound design point of view, figuring out the space in and around that music, for our dialogue, and our effects—was just such a grand challenge. I think what they’ve crafted is something very special. I just feel very lucky to have been involved in that.
AD: I loved the book as well, and to be honest, I was nervous watching Normal People because the book was so special to me. But the show came together beautifully, beyond anything I could have imagined.
SF: Absolutely. I know I would have been a huge fan of this, whether I worked on it or not.
AD: Our conversation has given me a deeper understanding, and a new level of appreciation for sound work. I so appreciate your taking the time to really reflect it with me. I really can’t thank you enough.
SF: Oh, it was an absolute pleasure! It’s so great to get to talk about this stuff because you also get to advocate for the craft as a craft. And, obviously, I hope to convey how important it is to me and how much I think it’s useful for the filmmaking process.
Your questions gave me an opportunity to reflect and give me an opportunity to try to figure out how to express what you’re feeling about these things. It’s such an instinctive thing, so it’s really lovely to get to talk it out with you.
Normal People is available to stream on Hulu.