By Jennifer Walden
Brent Kiser, an Emmy award-winning supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer
at LA’s Unbridled Sound, is no stranger to the Sundance Film Festival. His resume includes such Sundance premieres as Wild Wild Country, Swiss Army Man and An Evening with Beverly Luff Lin.
He’s the only sound supervisor to work on two films that earned Dolby fellowships: Swiss Army Man back in 2016 and this year’s Honey Boy, which premiered in the US Dramatic Competition. Honey Boy is a biopic of actor Shia LaBeouf’s damaging Hollywood upbringing.
Also showing this year, in the Next category, was The Death of Dick Long. Kiser and his sound team once again collaborated with director Daniel Scheinert. For this dark comedy, the filmmakers used sound to help build tension as a group of friends tries to hide the truth of how their buddy Dick Long died.
We reached out to Kiser to find out more.
Honey Boy was part of the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program, which is supported by several foundations including the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family Fund. You mentioned that this film earned a grant from Dolby. How did that grant impact your approach to the soundtrack?
For Honey Boy, Dolby gave us the funds to finish in Atmos. It allowed us to bring MPSE award-winning re-recording mixer Will Files on to mix the effects while I mixed the dialogue and music. We mixed at Sony Pictures Post Production on the Kim Novak stage. We got time and money to be on a big stage for 11 days — a five-day pre-dub and six-day final mix.
That was huge because the film opens up with these massive-robot action/sci-fi sound sequences and it throws the audience off the idea of this being a character study. That’s the juxtaposition, especially in the first 15 to 20 minutes. It’s blurring the reality between the film world and real life for Shia because the film is about Shia’s upbringing. Shia LaBeouf wrote the film and plays his father. The story focuses on the relationship of young actor Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges) and his alcoholic father James.
The story goes through Shia’s time on Disney Channel’s Even Stevens series and then on Transformers, and looks at how this lifestyle had an effect on him. His father was an ex-junkie, sex-offender, ex-rodeo clown and would just push his son. By age 12, Shia was drinking, smoking weed and smoking cigarettes — all supplied to him by his dad. Shia is isolated and doesn’t have too many friends. He’s not around his mother that much.
This year is the first year that Shia has been sober since age 12. So this film is one big therapeutic movie for him. The director Alma Har’el comes from an alcoholic family, so she’s able to understand where Shia is coming from. Working with Alma is great. She wants to be in every part of the process — pick each sound and go over every bit to make sure it’s exactly what she wants.
What were director Alma Har’el’s initial ideas for the role of sound in Honey Boy?
They were editing this film for six months or more, and I came on board around mid-edit. I saw three different edits of the film, and they were all very different.
Finally, they settled on a cut that felt really nice. We had spotting sessions before they locked and we were working on creating the environment of the motel where Otis and James were staying. We were also working on creating the sound of Otis being on-set. It had to feel like we were watching a film and when someone screams, “Cut!” it had to feel like we go back into reality. Being able to play with those juxtapositions in a sonic way really helped out. We would give it a cinematic sound and then pulled back into a cinéma vérité-type sound. That was the big sound motif in the movie.
We worked really close with the composer Alex Somers. He developed this little crank sound that helped to signify Otis’ dreams and the turning of events. It makes it feel like Otis is a puppet with all his acting jobs.
There’s also a harness motif. In the very beginning you see adult Otis (Lucas Hedges) standing in front of a plane that has crashed and then you hear things coming up behind him. They are shooting missiles at him and they blow up and he gets yanked back from the explosions. You hear someone say, “Cut!” and he’s just dangling in a body harness about 20 feet up in the air. They reset, pull him down and walk him back. We go through a montage of his career, the drunkenness and how crazy he was, and then him going to therapy.
In the session, he’s told he has PTSD caused by his upbringing and he says, “No, I don’t.” It kicks to the title and then we see young Otis (Noah Jupe) sitting there waiting, and he gets hit by a pie. He then gets yanked back by that same harness, and he dangles for a little while before they bring him down. That is how the harness motif works.
There’s also a chicken motif. Growing up, Otis has a chicken named Henrietta La Fowl, and during the dream sequences the chicken leads Otis to his father. So we had to make a voice for the chicken. We had to give the chicken a dreamy feel. And we used the old-school Yellow Sky wind to give it a Western-feel and add a dreaminess to it.
Andrew Twite was my sound designer. He was also with me on Swiss Army Man. He was able to make some rich and lush backgrounds for that. We did a lot of recording in our neighborhood of Highland Park, which is much like Echo Park where Shia grew up and where the film is based. So it’s Latin-heavy communities with taco trucks and that fun stuff. We gave it that gritty sound to show that, even though Otis is making $8,000 a week, they’re still living on the other side of the tracks.
When Otis is in therapy, it feels like Malibu. It’s nicer, quieter, and not as stressful versus the motel when Otis was younger, which is more pumped up.
My dialogue editor was Elliot Thompson, and he always does a great job for me. The production sound mixer Oscar Grau did a phenomenal job of capturing everything at all moments. There was no MOS (picture without sound). He recorded everything and he gave us a lot of great production effects. The production dialogue was tricky because in many of the scenes young Otis isn’t wearing a shirt and there are no lav mics on him. Oscar used plant mics and booms and captured it all.
What was the most challenging scene for sound design on Honey Boy?
The opening, the intro and the montage right up front were the most challenging. We recut the sound for Alma several different ways. She was great and always had moments of inspiration. We’d try different approaches and the sound would always get better, but we were on a time crunch and it was difficult to get all of those elements in place in the way she was looking for.
In the opening, you hear the sound of this mega-massive robot (an homage to a certain film franchise that Shia has been part of in the past, wink, wink). You hear those sounds coming up over the production cards on a black screen. Then it cuts to adult Otis standing there as we hear this giant laser gun charging up. Otis goes, “No, no, no, no, no…” in that quintessential Shia LaBeouf way.
Then, there’s a montage over Missy Elliott’s “My Struggles,” and the footage goes through his career. It’s a music video montage with sound effects, and you see Otis on set and off set. He’s getting sick, and then he’s stuck in a harness, getting arrested in the movie and then getting arrested in real life. The whole thing shows how his life is a blur of film and reality.
What was the biggest challenge in regards to the mix?
The most challenging aspect of the mix, on Will [Files]’s side of the board, was getting those monsters in the pocket. Will had just come off of Venom and Halloween so he can mix these big, huge, polished sounds. He can make these big sound effects scenes sound awesome. But for this film, we had to find that balance between making it sound polished and “Hollywood” while also keeping it in the realm of indie film.
There was a lot of back and forth to dial-in the effects, to make it sound polished but still with an indie storytelling feel. Reel one took us two days on stage to get through. We even spent some time on it on the last mix day as well. That was the biggest challenge to mix.
The rest of the film is more straightforward. The challenge on dialogue was to keep it sounding dynamic instead of smoothed out. A lot of Shia’s performance plays in the realm of vocal dynamics. We didn’t want to make the dialogue lifeless. We wanted to have the dynamics in there, to keep the performance alive.
We mixed in Atmos and panned sounds into the ceiling. I took a lot of the composer’s stems and remixed those in Atmos, spreading all the cues out in a pleasant way and using reverb to help glue it together in the environment.
The Death of Dick Long
Let’s look at another Sundance film you’ve worked on this year. The Death of Dick Long is part of the Next category. What were director Daniel Scheinert’s initial ideas for the role of sound on this film?
Daniel Scheinert always shows up with a lot of sound ideas, and most of those were already in place because of picture editor Paul Rogers from Parallax Post (which is right down the hall from our studio Unbridled Sound). Paul and all the editors at Parallax are sound designers in their own right. They’ll give me an AAF of their Adobe Premiere session and it’ll be 80 tracks deep. They’re constantly running down to our studio like, “Hey, I don’t have this sound. Can you design something for me?” So, we feed them a lot of sounds.
We played with the bug sounds the most. They shot in Alabama, where both Paul and Daniel are from, so there were a lot of cicadas and bugs. It was important to make the distinction of what the bugs sounded like in the daytime versus what they sounded like in the afternoon and at night. Paul did a lot of work to make sure that the balance was right, so we didn’t want to mess with that too much. We just wanted to support it. The backgrounds in this film are rich and full.
This film is crazy. It opens up with a Creed song and ends with a Nickleback song, as a sort of a joke. They wanted to show a group of guys that never really made much of themselves. These guys are in a band called Pink Freud, and they have band practice.
The film starts with them doing dumb stuff, like setting off fireworks and catching each other on fire — just messing around. Then it cuts to Dick (Daniel Scheinert) in the back of a vehicle and he’s bleeding out. His friends just dump him at the hospital and leave. The whole mystery of how Dick dies unfolds throughout the course of the film. The two main guys are Earl (Andre Hyland) and Zeke (Michael Abbott, Jr.).
The Foley on this film — provided by Foley artist John Sievert of JRS Productions — plays a big role. Often, Foley is used to help us get in and out of the scene. For instance, the police are constantly showing up to ask more questions and you hear them sneaking in from another room to listen to what’s being said. There’s a conversation between Zeke and his wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb) and he’s asking her to help him keep information from the police. They’re in another room but you hear their conversation as the police are questioning Dick Long’s wife, Jane (Jess Weixler).
We used sound effects to help increase the tension when needed. For example, there’s a scene where Zeke is doing the laundry and his wife calls saying she’s scared because there are murderers out there, and he has to come and pick her up. He knows it’s him but he’s trying to play it off. As he is talking to her, Earl is in the background telling Zeke what to say to his wife. As they’re having this conversation, the washing machine out in the garage keeps getting louder and it makes that scene feel more intense.
“The Dans” — Scheinert and Daniel Kwan — are known for Swiss Army Man. That film used sound in a really funny way, but it was also relevant to the plot. Did Scheinert have the same open mind about sound on The Death of Dick Long? Also, were there any interesting recording sessions you’d like to talk about?
There were no farts this time, and it was a little more straightforward. Manchester Orchestra did the score on this one too, but it’s also more laid back.
For this film, we really wanted to depict a rural Alabama small-town feel. We did have some fun with a few PA announcements, but you don’t hear those clearly. They’re washed out. Earl lives in a trailer park, so there are trailer park fights happening in the background to make it feel more like Jerry Springer. We had a lot of fun doing that stuff. Sound effects editor Danielle Price cut that scene, and she did a really great job.
What was the most challenging aspect of the sound design on The Death of Dick Long?
I’d say the biggest things were the backgrounds, engulfing the audience in this area and making sure the bugs feel right. We wanted to make sure there was off-screen movement in the police station and other locations to give them all a sense of life.
The whole movie was about creating a sense of intensity. I remember showing it to my wife during one of our initial sound passes, and she pulled the blanket over her face while she was watching it. By the end, only her eyes were showing. These guys keep messing up and it’s stressful. You think they’re going to get caught. So the suspense that the director builds in — not being serious but still coming across in a serious manner — is amazing. We were helping them to build that tension through backgrounds, music and dropouts, and pushing certain everyday elements (like the washing machine) to create tension in scenes.
What scene in this film best represents the use of sound?
I’d say the laundry scene. Also, in the opening scene you hear the band playing in the garage and the perspective slowly gets closer and closer.
During the film’s climax, when you find out how Dick dies, we’re pulling down the backgrounds that we created. For instance, when you’re in the bedroom you hear their crappy fan. When you’re in the kitchen, you hear the crappy compressor on the refrigerator. It’s all about playing up these “bad” sounds to communicate the hopelessness of the situation they are living in.
I want to shout out all of my sound editors for their exceptional work on The Death of Dick Long. There was Jacob “Young Thor” Flack and Elliot Thompson, and Danielle Price who did amazing backgrounds. Also, a shout out to Ian Chase for help on the mix. I want to make sure they share the credit.
I think there needs to be more recognition of the contribution of sound and the sound departments on a film. It’s a subject that needs to be discussed, particularly in these somber days following the death of Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Gregg Rudloff. He was the nicest guy ever. I remember being an intern on the sound stage and he always took the time to talk to us and give us advice. He was one of the good ones.
When post sound gets a credit after the caterers’ on-set, it doesn’t do us justice. On Swiss Army Man, initially I had my own title card because The Dans wanted to give me a title card that said, “Supervising Sound Editor Brent Kiser,” but the Directors Guild took it away. They said it wasn’t appropriate. Their reasoning is that if they give it to one person then they’ll have to give it to everybody. I get it — the visual effects department is new on the block. They wrote their contract knowing what was going on, so they get a title card. But try watching a film on mute and then talk to me about the importance of sound. That needs to start changing, for the sheer fact of burnout and legacy.
At the end of the day, you worked so hard to get these projects done. You’re taking care of someone else’s baby and helping it to grow up to be this great thing, but then we’re only seen as the hired help. Or, we never even get a mention. There is so much pressure and stress on the sound department, and I feel we deserve more recognition for what we give to a film.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney