Johnnie Burn, sound designer for Jordan Peele’s Nope, boasts a history with creating unsettling sounds. His early work on Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin taught him new skills about the immense possibilities of sound design. Considering that background, it is no surprise that Nope’s most unsettling aspects come from the sound work and the delicate balance of where to place it through out the film. You would never know how creepy wind can be, not to mention the nightmarish sounds of people dying. Warning: much of the interview gets into spoiler territory in case you haven’t seen Nope.
Awards Daily: I wanted to start with something that jumped out at me right away watching the film. In creating the muffled screams inside the creature as it’s flying around, what was that actual process like?
Johnnie Burn: The first thing we did was me and my team went and stood around outside amusement parks to hear what people on roller coasters sound like far away. Then we went and found recordings we had of winds that sounded similar to those Oooooo and Aaaaaah sounds. Then we had a bunch of actors mimic those sounds, and directed them to do similar cadence sounds to add to the element of horror and fear into their interpretation. So I guess that was the process.
Awards Daily: I read that the use of wind was very important in creating the sound. Why was that?
Johnnie Burn- Because the monster in the film has three acts certainly in terms of its soundscape. Initially Jordan only wanted to hear the faintest bits of the environment. The monster is a predator so you’re not actually going to hear it making any unusual sounds that it doesn’t want to admit. Yet in the middle of the film Jean Jacket wants to be heard and is angry about being fed a fake horse, and so you hear the personification and almost a human toned vocalization. Then in the final act of the film the monster is very much look-at-me, and wants to make beautiful and/or strange noises and, anyway, doesn’t want to hide anymore. So we needed different modes for it to be in. The first one, which is actually the first half of the duration of the film, is where we are standing in natural environment soundscapes. Quite often with the absence of score. The only way we can tell that a monster is present is that there is an abnormality in the natural soundscape. Jordan asked me, “What would wrong winds sound like? How would it sound if we were hearing things unusually?”
Awards Daily: In trying to create an unsettling mood what isn’t heard is almost as important as what is heard. How is that balance achieved?
Johnnie Burn: It’s interesting. Your job as a sound designer is obviously to put sound in, and as a sound designer who’s like, wow, I’m on a dream job. The script has so much use of sound and it is narratively functional as opposed to just a crazy immersive environment. So you fill it up with sound. Then probably the last two months of the process we are deciding what to take out. Because even the moments of extreme silence, before Keke shouts, “It’s in the clouds!” originally had a score across the whole thing. Then Mike Abels came down and I played him a version that I’ve done of that scene where I’d cut a big hole in his score, then we heard cicadas stop and the wind come to a halt, then there was silence. And he was like, yeah, that’s pretty good. So for the score we were taking sections out and for sound and sound design we were thinking, what is the bit of sound that is actually doing the narrative work? Let’s get rid of everything else because it’s superfluous. Which is a hard one to do, as a sound designer you just want to fill it up with cool sound when in fact you want to be taking things out and focus on one good recording.
Awards Daily: For me the creepiest moment was on the audience stage with the monkey. There is no score and we’re just kind of hearing the noises on the set. Was that all taken from what was being filmed? Or were there other things that you were using to fill in that noise? Because it all sounded very natural.
Johnnie Burn: I am so sorry to tell you that 95% of it was recreated sound. My mother, God bless her, may she rest in peace, said to me, “What do you mean you do the sound on film? They sound alright to me.” That scene was the first two days of the shoot back in June. Jordan actually gave me an assembly on day three of the shoot and said, “Hey, I would love to hear some sound on this.” So it is all recreated. For the immersive space it’s the tension of believing that the existing house lights make a bit of a whine noise. Plus making a bit of a rumble by turning up the bass in an empty museum. The audience sign is flashing in the background and we imagined that would make a faint click. So that just gives it a bit of tension. But I think more of what you were asking about is the flesh eating sounds when Gordie the chimp attacks. That is a wonderful team of foley recorders, cobblestone foley they called them. We just discussed all the ways you could create sounds and how grotesque they would be. The best things that they had was crunching through lettuce or snapping carrots and all sorts of different vegetables is really the closest thing to the sound of eating flesh. Crucially it has to be so descriptive because obviously that scene was filmed with really tight camera blocking, because Jordan wanted the sound to be the thing that was provoking the imagination because he knew that you would always imagine something far more horrific than anything he could actually show you. So you are hearing and not really seeing it.
Awards Daily: You have touched on the monster itself, but what was the discussion on creating the creature’s noise? How did you decide on that distinct sound?
Johnnie Burn: The monster has a few distinct sounds. One of them is when we hear it moving around in the beginning of the film and I think it is more retrospectively you realize that the whistling winds that you were hearing were actually the presence of the monster with people trapped inside screaming. That kind of penny drops halfway through the film when the monster comes out of the house and you hear the screams of the people within, you are, like, oh my God. I’ve been hearing people die the whole way through the film. So we wanted to explore the ways you would miss hearing sound. For example, the scene where OJ is out in the gulch and he hears the horse screaming from up above, he doubts his hearing. Even in the beginning of the film when he hears the scream overhead, then seeing where his father dies, he knows that he hears someone screaming above him in the clouds. But it would be so absurd that that would actually happen that he starts to doubt his own senses. What we were trying to do was give sounds that were so contextually wrong that you yourself as a viewer experienced the same thing as the actor and question what you are actually hearing.
Then, in the later part of the film where the monster was quite happy to announce its presence, we just wanted to make key sounds that were visceral, big, and loud personified so that you could import emotion and mood. But still misdirecting and potentially sci-fi because we have all seen Close Encounters and that scene where the bass note shatters the glass on the box the guy is sitting on. So for the early part of Jean Jacket’s personification it gives the idea that it could still be a sci-fi ship. So it had to be all those things and comedic. Because in the last week of the mix we had up until this point a beautiful hard grumpy monster turning up at the Star Lasso Experience before it eats all the people. The last week Jordan asked if we could try throwing a kazoo in there as well because it’s a bit too serious. Comedy was the other layer that went in during the last week. Then in the final act of the movie the monster wants to be heard and looked at because this is the whole meta story going on, the obsession with spectacle. For that we looked at all the different ways nature provides spectacle and look-at-me actions in the plumage of birds and mating rituals, and it just turned out that if you turned a peacock’s mating ritual down seven octaves it becomes the most sci-fi monster kind of sound ever. So we used that.
Awards Daily: You are no newbie when it comes to unsettling noise. You said your work in Under the Skin and Birth was your film school. What did you learn from those?
Johnnie Burn: I learned an awful lot. I had spent a decade doing sound for TV commercials, so I was really good with making thirty seconds sound okay. But when you’re getting up to two hours it is just an enormous difference. Telling stories in long durations with sound. The main thing I learned on Under the Skin was because so much of it was documentary-style in shooting. Scarlett Johansson was in a van actually driving around Scotland with a very small crew hiding in the back of the van watching video cameras and listening on headphones to everything she was doing. But really it was all there and actually happened, so you couldn’t get rid of the engine noises of the van or the wind from the windows, none of it was a film set. I learned that it was really possible to make a documentary sound quite cinematic and filmmaker-effective in a way that I didn’t expect. I thought we were going to be sort of ADRing and replacing all the dialog but obviously the people she was picking up were not actors so that was out of the question because they weren’t going to be able to redo their voice six months later. So going with it warts and all was the only way forward. I learned that it was possible and maybe to the film’s benefit. Because all those noise-based sounds make it credible. In contrast, so many big Hollywood movies have very clinically perfect soundtracks. Removing that noise removes a lot of the credibility.
Awards Daily: From your conversation it sounds like working with Jordan Peele was quite a delight. Is there anything else in particular that you can say about that experience?
Johnnie Burn: He certainly was a delight. He is just amazingly knowledgeable about sound and knows how to use it. His notes are always brilliant to work with because they’re never minutiae. You play him a 20-minute reel of film and he won’t give you fifty notes; he’ll give you three notes that are broadly what he wanted the film to be a bit more like. He doesn’t do stuff for you; he just tells you what he would like to achieve out of it and then allows you to work towards that, which is massively rewarding because you put your thinking cap on to work with him. He is a smart guy.