The ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Sound Team on Capturing Daniel Kaluuya’s Electric Speeches
Supervising Sound Editor Rich Bologna and Re-Recording Mixer Skip Lievsay discuss their sound work on Judas and the Black Messiah. The Shaka King directed drama stars LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya as civil rights leader Fred Hampton.
From the moment you see that scene in the Judas and the Black Messiah trailer, you knew it was going to be something special. The sequence proves even more magnetic in the context of the film. Why? Because you feel as though you are in the room looking on as Fred Hampton [Daniel Kaluuya], the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, delivers this galvanizing speech to his members. Director Shaka King builds tension beautifully—you’re nervous that Hampton may be injured or that Bill O’Neal [LaKeith Stanfield]’s cover may be blown. You want to look away, but Kaluuya is riveting—the sound of his voice booming from the microphone mixed with the crowd’s reaction is enthralling and all-encompassing.
‘I am a revolutionary’ is one of the best scenes in 2021’s cinematic landscape. And one of many in Judas and the Black Messiah that uses sound in unique and interesting ways. Sound designers Rich Bologna (Supervising Sound Editor) and Skip Lievsay (Re-Recording Mixer) joined Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki for a Zoom video session from the Warner Brothers’ studio where the two were busy working on a yet-to-be-announced project. During the conversation, the two collaborators detailed their experience working with Shaka King and talked through some of Judas and the Black Messiah’s key moments.
Read the full transcript of our interview with Rich Bologna and Skip Lievsay below:
Awards Daily: There’s archival footage throughout Judas and the Black Messiah. What does that mean in terms of your work as sound designers?
Skip Lievsay: Well, luckily, audiences know what old, grainy footage should sound like. Of course, the sound that comes with that footage is usually pretty bad. I think the audience understands news footage and what it means and it completely transports the scene back to the period in a really elegant way. Ultimately, you just try to get it to sound like people. And all you’re really trying to do is make a sound that goes with the image.
Having been alive during that period, it made me remember and recall what I was doing on that day. That’s just about being old. It’s not a technology thing. [Laughs].
Rich Bologna: Story-wise, I love how it starts with LaKeith’s character, Bill [O’Neal]. And then he gets interrupted, and you go into the movie, and then it ends right at the point where he gets interrupted by the real Bill. I thought that was a clever little editorial twist that they threw in there, which buttons it up really nice. That wasn’t always the case; it happened in later versions.
I also selfishly like that I’m the first person that you hear in the movie. Skip was like, ‘We should do the thing where the mic is moving and the crew’s setting up.’ I think we just threw that in at the last minute. [Director] Shaka King, me, and the editor Kristan Sprague were in the room and, and we just yelled stuff out. And then I told Skip, ‘Touch the mic and move it.’ So that’s our little inside baseball thing.
AD: The movie has a lot of dialogue. And there’s a lot of conversations happening in muffled tones and in secret spaces. Tell me about that.
SL: I don’t want to make my job seem simple and easy. But, intellectually, it is a simple idea—make it sound like people and make it believable in this scenario, in the scene. And while that seems like an oversimplification, it’s actually a good way to approach the work. I often feel like if I can just get rid of the stuff that doesn’t sound like people, then we have a baseline.
And Rich has to do the opposite, which is, now that I’ve taken away all that stuff, what can I backfill and make this feel more realistic. It becomes a two-person sound design idea because we need to have the track to be real-sounding and believable.
We need to not break the plane. So that the audience doesn’t feel like, ‘Well, what just happened? That seems weird.’ Because then you lose the audience for some time. They don’t hear a few key phrases. And then, next thing you know, it’s confusing.
We have to hunker down and make sure that we don’t bump the audience off their train. And that becomes a slightly mechanical path, but not in a bad way.
AD: So, what are some of those sound elements that you have to go back and add in?
RB: I mean, just the button-up, what Skip said. I mean, it’s easier said than done because a lot of the scenes came to us in fairly good shape. But Skip did a great job making them clear and putting them in the right spaces.
There are some fun scenes, like in big, old churches. It was exciting to see those scenes mixed. And I guess for me, I knew that the dialogue was such a crucial part, so I never really wanted to get in the way of it. The order of the day was just trying to make things as naturalistic as possible and to support these characters’ stories. I definitely took the more subtle approach to many scenes, but there’s a lot of texture to them. It’s just more subliminal.
For Shaka, the vernacular of the day was very important to him. He was very true to the time and place.
AD: Fred’s speeches are so rich, and it really does sound like we’re there in the room with him. I think that’s what’s so impressive about this sound design—it allows Daniel’s performance to come across. When dealing with those scenes in particular, what did you do to add that richness to the sound?
SL: Well, for instance, ‘I am a revolutionary,’ that big sequence, it’s a centerpiece of the movie, emotionally and soundtrack wise. And we had a lot of great material from the location and the way it was shot and recorded, which was helpful for us.
We had really good audience reactions, and I had many different perspectives of Daniel’s speech. I knew what the sound of the room was and really my mission was to have a complete version of that sound for the whole speech.
All of the audio for Daniel was pretty consistent. And I just had to add reverb and some other tracks to make it all seem like one complete document of that speech in that space. We also had crowd reactions and music being played. And those things have glue to them, which is hard to reproduce.
It is fun to knit together all the various parts. Especially when they all come from the same place, it wasn’t easy to achieve, but we had a lot of excellent components.
RB: I think they tried to shoot that scene without the crowd sound. And the energy really wasn’t at the level that they wanted it. So, at the suggestion of Marlowe Taylor, the production sound designer, they did a take with the crowd reacting and chanting which really made it all come to life. It totally brought Daniel’s performance to another level.
AD: And the last sequence that I wanted to ask you about was the shootout. Obviously, you had to add in a lot of elements in post-production to enhance those sounds. Can you tell me about that?
RB: Yeah. I mean, I met with Shaka while they were cutting the movie. And I was just asking them how it’s feeling, how you’re doing. There are a couple of shootouts, but the one where they actually blow up the Panther headquarters, he was just kind of not feeling it as much—mostly because there weren’t any sound effects work or music. So, I started early on that and it definitely had Shaka turn the corner. I think it really fell into place for him just because It felt more real even though it was all pretty much done in post. A lot of time was spent on those guns, and I hope they feel scary and intense. I mean, it’s funny for me because there are three guns scenes and I think they all add their own emotional component to the film. The scariest for me is the final one because there isn’t any music. It’s very stark and terrifying where you’re just hearing every bullet whiz by.
At first, I believe there was music in the cut. And then there’s that final really powerful shot of Deborah[Dominique Fishback] just right up in the camera; there was also music for that for a period and they took it out. I think it was the right move because it’s just debilitatingly hard to watch that scene. And that’s the intent. So, I think they all kind of have their place, but that final one for me— I think was the most powerful, even though it’s loud. After a while, you get kind of sick of listening to guns blare out of the speakers, but it’s fun that it all came together.
AD:You know, I’ve interviewed a number of sound designers. And I think sound design is so interesting because it’s not like the costumes or production design. You’re not supposed to notice it.
AD: So, tell me about that from your perspective. Obviously, there are challenges to that, but then, do you ever feel kind of frustrated because you’re like, ‘I did all this work, and people don’t notice.’ Do you know what I mean?
RB: I mean, the most exciting thing for me— what keeps me doing this and happy is when you can get into the room with the director, they’re so used to either hearing [the movie] without our work or on little computer speakers. And they get really jazzed because they start seeing this thing as a movie. I mean, it takes us a lot of work just to make it feel normal and real, which is kind of the beauty of it because if it didn’t have all our work, people would just be like, ‘This seems so bad and wrong.’
I love working on people’s beta waves and putting a lot of work into things that are pretty invisible, you know? Skip probably has many things to say about that. I don’t want to take up all the air on this.
SL: I’ve always felt like we’re part of a team, and we’re trying to help someone achieve a goal and a vision. We have expertise. When [directors] explain how they want things to sound and what they’re looking for, it’s sometimes very abstract and hard to explain. We have experience working on other movies. So, we have some idea, like ‘Oh, yeah, I think this would probably be a good idea. Let’s try that.’
And then we have this process, which is pretty great, where we can review stuff, we can sort ideas, and they can say, ‘Well, that’s not what I imagined. What if we do this or that.’ But all of that stuff is really about making a stew where we’re taking all these parts and putting them together, helping the filmmaker, get to their promised land.
And it’s sort of crucial to be as big and bold and sometimes abstract or non-linear as you can be to help the filmmaker explore the possibilities. I think that the most important part of sound design is coming up with something that makes the filmmakers truly happy and feel like they’ve achieved something that fits in their movie. I know that sounds like a lot of things, but it’s really only about making a filmmaker happy.
RB: Yeah. Shaka has really good instincts with sound and I can tell he likes that part of the process. I think he has a music background, so he’s naturally very attuned to what we do. He was a joy to work with because, for the most part, he wasn’t controlling about his movie at all. We synced up really early in terms of the aesthetic.
I mean, there are versions of the movie that are much longer and there was much more of this internal struggle with LaKeith’s character. And to Skip’s point, it felt like I was very much a part of the filmmaking crew because I saw the movie change and provided input where Shaka needed it.
But there were times where we were doing much more conceptual sound design-y things and I think it naturally fell away, in a good way, because I don’t think that was right for the movie. You know, I’ll try it because it’s fun to do weird stuff, but there was a natural resistance. Like I knew it wasn’t the right thing, and Shaka would always be like, ‘Let’s not do that.’ You know? There was a really nice natural progression to how the sound design came together in an overarching way. I think we were all kind of on the same page and I think we arrived at a really good place at the end.
AD: Tell me about the working relationship between the two of you. I mean, it sounds like you guys get along. Are you going to break out into an argument when this camera turns off?
RB: We’ll do some mud wrestling.
SL: We’re just fighting all the time.
AD: You’re just radiating tension. [Laughs] No, actually, you seem like very warm and loving friends. So, what’s it like working with each other?
SL: Well, that scene, ‘I am a revolutionary’— I worked on mainly the dialogue, with some of the crowd reactions in one room. Rich worked on the crowd reactions and the other components separately in another room. Eventually, we came together in this room, played through it a little bit, and made adjustments without having to discuss it. We could tell what things needed to be tucked back. We sort of got it, moved on, and played it back for Shaka. And he just said, ‘Wow.’ He had no notes. We did make some changes in it later, but it just seemed like something that grew out of a really big seed and blossomed into something special. And I even think maybe we were a little reluctant to fool with it because it was pleasing.
RB: Yeah. Everybody got along on this, which was fun. There was one time where we kind of let loose and had some drinks after work. And it was like, ‘We could do this a lot more.’ I think that was the takeaway. Like, we could probably do this like three nights in a row—if there wasn’t a quarantine.
AD: if only! As we close out, do you guys have anything else you want to discuss?
RB: I’m thrilled that we got to work on a movie with a burgeoning filmmaker that is coming from a very unique perspective and I’m glad that Warner Brothers gave him a forum to put it out there because I think this is a super important movie. It was a very strange process working on this movie because we started in the week that quarantine started, which was weird, but then it all seemed very urgent during the summer [Black Lives Matter] protests. It felt to me like, ‘Wow, everything that’s happening right now, outside my window, is happening on my screen just 30 or 40 years beforehand.
And it’s all remarkably prescient to what the world is going through at this moment. So, you know, not to get too highfalutin, but I think it is a really important movie that needs to be seen and I’m proud that we got to work on it. And hopefully, it sounds okay.
SL: Well said.
AD: Wow! I wasn’t aware of the timing.
RB: It was surreal.I mean, [the BLM protests] were literally rolling down my street in Brooklyn. I was like, ‘This sounds exactly like what I’m working on.’ It was a very strange mirror, but it gave me a lot of fire, where I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to make this as best as I can because I think it’s worth it.’ You know?
SL: Yeah. I would just add that it was a pleasure to work with a young filmmaker who has got a really interesting point of view. And someone who is also a kind and generous person.
RB: For sure.
AD: Thank you both so much. It’s always fun talking to sound designers because you provide such a fascinating perspective. I want to go back and rewatch the movie so I can pick on all these different sequences. I’m always so glad I get to highlight your work.