Sound supervisor Mandell Winter discusses his 2020 projects including the HBO drama series The Outsider, The Apple TV+ limited series Defending Jacob, and Quibi‘s #FreeRayshawn.
2019 was a banner year for sound supervisor Mandall Winter with Winter earning his first two Emmy nominations for his work on True Detective and Deadwood. 2020 has proved to be an equally impressive year for Winter’s resume— putting him right back in the awards conversation.
He returned to HBO for an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsider, then went on to work on another adaptation, the Apple TV+ miniseries Defending Jacob. Winter also served as supervising sound editor on Quibi’s #FreeRayshawn.
Here Mandell Winter discusses his work on the three projects and using the nuances of sound work to explore elements of horror, tension, and grief. Read the interview below:
Awards Daily: You’ve done such a wide variety of projects. What attracts you to the projects that you choose?
Mandell Winter: I’m interested in working with great storytellers.
AD: Let’s jump into The Outsider because that’s such a fascinating project in terms of the sound. And particularly, the fact that in horror, the use of sound is essential in helping to build that tension.
MW: The Outsider was interesting because everything was rooted in real life. Everything had to sound as if our characters were experiencing it. Then we had to bridge the gap and go into the supernatural element for the entity. What does the entity sound like and how does he take on the host’s qualities? When we come face to face with him in later episodes there’s an animalistic quality that we played with. And also letting the music, which was phenomenal, really help us. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’s music really lent itself to the insidious nature of the show.
AD: Defending Jacob is more straightforward in the idea that someone has been murdered and we have a suspect, et cetera, but The Outsider, as you said, is playing with the supernatural and the villain is more abstract. How does that idea play into the sound and the work that you have to do?
MW: Defending Jacob was surprisingly complicated because it’s all in the subtlety. The performances were so good on that show that we didn’t want to take away from that. And we only wanted to help tell the story. So, the flashbacks that happen are very subtle. Oftentimes you can approach a flashback and it’s just big, bombastic sounds. Here, we stripped it back and went more impressionistic, cutting the attacks off of sounds and let them just trail off. It wasn’t heavy-handed. It was about letting it be the characters’ experience. And not necessarily just sound for the sake of sound.
AD: I did get a chance to speak to composer Atli Örvarsson about Defending Jacob
We discussed the noir feel to the show and how Scandinavian noir, in particular, was an influence for the show. Did you feel that in your work?
MW: Morten definitely wanted us to play with subtlety and pull stuff back. He wanted rich textures, but he didn’t want it to overtake everything else. It’s all in the subtlety and it lends itself to this family being torn apart by this experience. Everything is cold, you can hear the trees creaking. The whole world kind of drops out as this family is falling apart.
AD: Did having an iconic Stephen King novel or William Landay’s incredible work as source material guide you in any way? Or did you try to approach them as different entities?
MW: I approached them as different entities as I think Mark [Bomback, Defending Jacob] and, Richard [Price, The Outsider] also did, they created their own version. I went to the material that was in front of me and didn’t really look to the books because I didn’t want them to cloud my judgment. I wanted to work with these creative filmmakers, and lend my expertise to their vision.
AD: And are there particular sequences in The Outsider or Defending Jacob, that stand out to you in terms of something that was particularly challenging or unique in the scope of your career?
MW: Hmm…That’s a tough question. I was actually watching the last episode of The Outsider this morning just to refresh myself because it’s been so long since I’ve seen it, and in that episode, we really went all out. The edit lent itself to this hyper-realism. Moving from the loud gunshots to slomo to revealing the tiniest of details. Everything had its moment as we danced between the dialogue and the sound effects. It was one of those shows where you can work with the dynamics to create a fantastic sounding shape to the show. So that was probably one of the most challenging, just because of the scope.
I also find that in a lot of the shows that I’m attracted to right now, the performances become very soft. And in doing that, the dialogue becomes hard to hear. We’ve come up with a way where we’ve double cut so that we can get more voice. We’re using both the boom and the lav mics in order to gain that richness of voice that we’ll need to cut through while maintaining the whisper and maintaining these soft performances. And that happens in both The Outsider and Defending Jacob. The character of Jacob [played by Jaeden Martell] in Defending Jacob is a very soft talker. We did do a bunch of ADR for
him, but ultimately, we used quite a bit of production and were able to get that richness of voice out of the track. In the end, they were both challenging in their own right.
AD: You did an interview with Awards Daily last year and discussed your work
on Deadwood and True Detective. Do you think that there’s a theme or a through-line that ties together or informs your work as a sound supervisor?
MW: As a supervisor, I like to work with the creative team to help realize their ideas. It’s rare that we work with a filmmakers that comes to us and say, I know exactly what I want this to sound like. I work with them to help find that because I don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like at first either. I have to work with the material and see how it evolves. I’ll put something down and we’ll see how it works and then tweak it a little this way or that way, but it’s one of those things that is constantly evolving — It’s a conversation.
I know with Jason we were trying to find the voice of El Cuco and at first we weren’t quite sure. We kept trying different ideas and eventually we landed on something that everyone agreed upon. El Cuco takes on the traits of their hosts, so we modified the sound of our actor’s performances and layered it with animalistic sounds as the show progressed to create its voice.
In a similar fashion, as a supervisor, I like to respect the tracks that come from the picture editorial, they are working with the story and coming up with ideas and I don’t want to reinvent the wheel and scare them when they come to the mix with all new stuff they’ve never heard before. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I want to make a bigger, better wheel, and perhaps more sophisticated, if I’m lucky.
AD: Hearing you discuss the evolution of sound as the show continues, I’m curious, is most of your work in pre-production, post-production, or do you find yourself coming to set during filming?
MW: It depends on the show because I work in both features and television. I have done
a lot of work with Antoine Fuqua and I’m usually in conversations with him very early on.
We’ll be finishing one project and he’ll be talking about his next, so we’ll start the conversations for a future collaboration.
I don’t start on the film or a TV show until much later, but we’re having conversations
while they’re on set. I’m in touch with the production sound mixer finding out what’s happening on set. What do I need to look out for? Is there something you want me to listen to ahead of time so that I can help mitigate that problem, so it doesn’t continue throughout the shoot? Is there a generator on the roof or something like that that we can get turned off to prevent all these problems that are going to arise?
A lot of times something’s shot already and then you’re brought in. But I think being on early enough helps lend itself to the process. I’ll read the script and find ideas. How can we use sound to help tell the story in this way or that way. Occasionally, I’ll work with filmmakers that want our input early on and discuss ideas that may help influence how they shoot something.
AD: Do you have a preference as to when you become involved?
MW: Oh, I love to be involved early on in the process. If it’s a show that has, let’s say, a specific vehicle or something that we may not have in our libraries we can arrange with transport and figure out a way to record that vehicle. On Magnificent 7 [Fuqua’s 2016 film] we talked to the armor to figure out what guns we needed to record. There’s a lot of different ways that we can help early on and also figure out what’s an important part of the story.
On #FreeRayshawn, we knew that the crowds were going to be a huge part of that project. The whole show has a neighborhood coming together and sharing their emotional journey through this tragic experience, as it’s being live-tweeted. The crowds were a character in and of itself. I knew that’s where I needed to put my energy and focus my attention. Making sure we had the resources to make that crowd as real as possible.
AD: I’m fascinated by Quibi and this idea of doing really, really short episodes. Did that impact your approach to #FreeRayshawn?
MW: I treated it like a film. If I just went episode by episode there was a lot of room for inconsistency. Even though some episodes were six, seven, nine minutes long, I wanted to make sure that we were consistent across the board. I had a sound effects editor dedicated to the big set pieces and another focused on everything else to make sure that it sounded the same through all 15 episodes. My dialogue editors, I had two, tossed episodes back and forth between them. So again, there’s consistency across the board.
For the crowds, we recorded loop group for the whole show. A lot of the crowds shot on set either had them saying nothing or the production track ended up being washy sounding, you couldn’t really make anything out. We used all of it but we went in and built the front row, then the second row, person by person and created the layers to make sure the crowd came alive.
AD: Is there anything that you wanted to discuss that I didn’t ask you about?
MW: I think, ultimately, it’s always a team effort in sound. I rely on my mixers, sound editors and would be lost without my assistant. They are all fantastic people and at the top of their game. They make me look good.
AD: I love speaking with sound designers in particular because the perspective they provide is so interesting. I want to go back and watch The Outsider again so I can pick up on those little things that you mentioned.
MW: The Outsider and Defending Jacob are both tragic stories that deal with grief. And sometimes, at certain points of your life, you get to work on shows like that to help you work through wherever you are in life. I found them both to be fantastic projects that really let me explore, sonically, how to deal with that.
AD: I hadn’t considered that before, the idea of exploring grief with sound. That’s such a fascinating perspective. Can you share any insights?
MW: It’s hard to put it into words. I think, looking at the stories through the characters’ eyes and how they’re experiencing it, like Ralph [Ben Mendelsohn] in The Outsider with the loss of his son, or the loss of innocence with Jacob in Defending Jacob. As a parent just to imagine your child being accused of such a horrible crime; there’s a grieving process in that. And how can we as sound artists help the audience experience that grief? Sometimes it’s pealing stuff back and making it very raw. There are a lot of closeups of Ralph in The Outsider where he just stops and he’s communicating everything through his eyes. It’s incredibly powerful to let these moments exist. Sometimes it’s figuring out where not to put sound. Silence can be quite powerful.
The Outsider is available now on all HBO platforms. Defending Jacob is available to stream on Apple TV+. #FreeRayshawn is available on Quibi.
ICYMI: Awards Daily has interviews with the cast and crew of Defending Jacob including Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, Writer/Creator Mark Bomback, and Composer Atli Örvarsson. You can also read an interview with The Outsider’s Cynthia Erivo.