Emmy-Nominated sound mixer Phil McGowan spoke to Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki about working with composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans on Ozark‘s darkest season yet and discusses his upcoming, highly-anticipated film projects.
The climax of Ozark‘s third season comes in the final moments of the penultimate episode as spoiler alert — Wendy Byrde [Laura Linney] drives away having given the cartel the go-ahead to murder her brother, Ben [Tom Pelphrey]. The finale, aptly-titled ‘All in’ begins with Wendy in the clutches of grief, having paid the ultimate price for her family assent into the Navarro drug cartel’s inner circle. These final episodes of Ozark‘s third season are the best the show has given us with Laura Linney giving the greatest performance of her already much-decorated and lauded career. While Tom Pelphrey’s Emmy snub is one of the most egregious in recent memory, Ozark‘s 18-nomination haul is richly-deserved.
Composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans earned their first nomination for Ozark’s luscious score as did their long-time collaborator, sound mixer Phil McGowan who was tasked with the tricky task of creating a mix that highlighted Danny and Saunder’s rich composition while not overwhelming the scene. It’s a fine balance, one McGowan stricks beautifully, Danny and Saunder’s underscores each scene perfectly, the piano theme accentuating the tension and high-stakes.
Awards Daily: Let me just start by saying congratulations on your first Emmy nomination.
Phil McGowan: Thank you, it’s very exciting!
AD: One thing that I’m always really interested in, speaking with someone who’s been involved in three seasons of a show, is how your work has evolved during that time? And what was your brief for season three? Did you get any new notes for the season coming in?
PM: Not a ton of specifics from Danny & Saunder, the composers, my clients. There was a lot that carried over. We built a sound for the show and kind of a vibe with the score that sets in. So a lot of that carried over. It was really not until the end of the season that we really had some new themes come in. There’s a whole story with Wendy and her brother Ben. There’s an emotional piano theme in episode 10, the one that got nominated
That’s one of the only times in the whole show that they’d ever used piano, that way and that kind of an emotional piano. Most of the show is very energetic, trying to score how the Byrdes are always in trouble and trying to get themselves out, always trying to make ends meet.
This is a rare time where you could actually dig into some sort of sadness and familial emotion with Wendy and her brother.
AD: Can you talk me through some of the more technical aspects of your work?
PM: Yeah. Danny & Saunder and myself, we work in Pro Tools, which is an audio software that a lot of people use. Basically, for each queue in the show, for each piece of music, they hand over their Pro Tools sessions to me that has all of their edits and all of the elements that they put together and all of the processing that they do on things.
So, I’m able to take that and I have full control if I need to, and I can tweak everything that they’ve done. They only work in stereo so part of what I do is I mix it up to surround sound, to 5.1, before it gets sent off to the next set of mixers who do the final mix of the show. I’m really able to just refine and enhance everything that they’ve done, give it a little bit clarity without taking away the character that they’ve given each piece of music. That’s my overall job is just to take the music and enhance it and bring it to that final 10% of quality. And making sure that things are balanced and things aren’t overtaking dialogue too much without eliminating the character that [Danny and Saunder] developed because they’ve had a long process with the producers and sometimes the director of the episode and going over how the music sounds and how it interacts with the scene. So, I also have to be careful not to go too far and be too heavy-handed trying to undo some of the things that had been done. It’s a fine balance between those two things.
AD: And in episodes nine and 10, as you’re saying, we’re getting into the tragic climax of Laura Linney and Tom Pelphrey’s relationship. The score in those episodes is very omnipresent, But, as you’re saying, there really is the perfect balance of not overwhelming any of the performances. Can you tell me a little bit more about working on those later episodes?
PM: Yeah. I mean, a fair amount of the score in those two episodes were things that were brought back from the first two seasons, a lot of the themes and sounds. Sometimes we want to rebalance them, maybe process things differently with slightly different reverbs and make them a little bit new. But again, we don’t want to stray too far from the language of the show. Because there are elements, that whether people recognize it or not, they’re familiar with, from earlier parts of the season.
With the Wendy and Ben theme, the piano theme— it definitely has a warmth, because Wendy and Ben are very close as brother and sister. But, it still is surrounded by some of the elements that Danny & Saunder used earlier in the show.
There are some pads they’ve made from rubbing wineglasses together and getting tones out of those that are still in that queue. There are some synthesized elements in there as well that really add a lot of weight to things. That’s something you can notice at the very beginning of all in episode 10, there’s this big sip base that underscores everything underneath the very warm piano.
But, we didn’t stray too terribly far for the last episodes, as far as the approach that we took because, by now with season three, it’s an established language as far as how the music is playing in the show and certainly the tone of the music. We’re always trying to keep it in a similar light in that sense.
AD: Are there any other sequences that were significant for you?
PM: I think the main one from episode 10 is what I mentioned earlier. The very beginning of the episode brings back the Wendy and Ben theme that started, I think it started episode nine, It might’ve come up in episode eight, but it really came in full force in episode nine. And then that’s how they start episode 10— the typical Ozark sound, which is a little bit more subtle. It’s just an undertone of unease. Danny and Saunder do use a lot of really interesting percussion that they have recorded themselves and heavily processed, this metallic clanky sound, which relates to the Lake of the Ozarks area. It’s a very blue-collar area, a lot of farmers and a lot of people working with machinery and things like that, so that a lot of those sounds come back later in the episode.
AD: How did you get started working with Danny and Saunder?
PM: Actually, it’s funny that the project that I met Danny and Saunder on is the same project where they met Jason Bateman, which was The Gift back in 2015. And that was the first time I worked with them. I’ve since done 37 projects with them over the last five years. So, just about everything they do, they hire us. We definitely have a shorthand.
AD: How would you say that your working relationship has changed over the course of those 37 projects?
PM: Mostly, I think it has just gotten easier and funny enough, there’s probably less communication now because we just know what needs to be done in most projects. When we start a new project, we’ll have a conversation about the general direction of the tone and sound and things like that, but I sort of know the way that they work now. I have a decent sense of what they want when we start working together, there’s not a lot of notes coming back and forth at this point because we are already so familiar with each other.
AD: I know you have Promising Young Woman that’s coming out soon.
AD: What are you working on now?
PM: Promising Young Woman was with a composer named Anthony Willis, another client of mine. Anthony’s work on Promising Young Woman had a really unique tone. We recorded a small orchestra in Vienna for that one, I didn’t get to go to Vienna, though. That was all done remotely, but it had a smaller string section sound with some other processed elements that he wrote around that.
That was a really fun project because it’s directed by Emerald Fennell. It’s her directorial debut. I’m not entirely certain on when that’s being released, but it screened at Sundance and has been reviewed. It was supposed to be released in April but was pushed back [due to COVID].
I also mixed Antebellum with Janelle Monáe. [Antebellum will premiere on premium on-demand platforms on September 18]. The music was done by Roman GianArthur and Nate Wonder. It was really fun to work with them, they were new clients on that project. Danny and Saunder just finished The Devil All The Time which is coming out on Netflix in a couple of weeks [Sept. 16].
AD: What an incredible trifecta of projects, three of the most anticipated movies of the year. You have your own sound studio, McGowan Soundworks, what do you look for in the clients that you work with?
PM: I would say I look for someone who has a unique sound and unique voice. Danny and Saunder, especially, have been recognized for being different from a lot of other TV and film composers. They definitely have a distinct voice—most people have been introduced to them through Ozark, but [their work] always sounds like them, especially because Danny does all the string parts, so he’ll layer up violin, violas, cellos, bases—and he definitely has a unique tone to his plane.
But yeah, I’m looking for someone with a unique voice, I think is the main thing. Something that’s going to stand out and not be just another typical film and TV composer.
AD: Phil, thank you so much for your time! And good luck with the Emmys and the amazing projects you have in the pipeline.
PM: Thank you!
Phil McGowan is Emmy-nominated in the Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Comedy or Drama Series (One Hour) category. Ozark is available to stream on Netflix.