HBO’s Divorce, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church, focuses on a long-married couple who just can’t do it anymore. It follows them from divorce through their efforts to move on with their lives, and what that looks like. The show deftly tackles a very difficult subject with a heavy dose of humor mixed in with the pain and angst. The story takes place in various Manhattan locations and a nearby suburb. And as you can imagine the sounds of the neighborhoods vary.
Eric Hirsch David Briggs
Sound post production for the third season of HBO’s comedy Divorce was completed at Goldcrest Post in New York City. Supervising sound editor David Briggs and re-recording mixer Eric Hirsch worked together to capture the ambiances of upscale Manhattan neighborhoods that serve as the backdrop for the story of the tempestuous breakup between Frances and Robert.
As is often the case with comedy series, the imperative for Divorce’s sound team was to support the narrative by ensuring that the dialogue is crisp and clear, and jokes are properly timed. However, Briggs and Hirsch go far beyond that in developing richly textured soundscapes to achieve a sense of realism often lacking in shows of the genre.
“We use sound to suggest life is happening outside the immediate environment, especially for scenes that are shot on sets,” explains Hirsch. “We work to achieve the right balance, so that the scene doesn’t feel empty but without letting the sound become so prominent that it’s a distraction. It’s meant to work subliminally so that viewers feel that things are happening in suburban New York, while not actually thinking about it.”
Season three of the show introduces several new locations and sound plays a crucial role in capturing their ambience. Parker’s Frances, for example, has moved to Inwood, a hip enclave on the northern tip of Manhattan, and background sound effects help to distinguish it from the woodsy village of Hastings-on-Hudson, where Haden Church’s Robert continues to live. “The challenge was to create separation between those two worlds, so that viewers immediately understand where we are,” explains series producer Mick Aniceto. “Eric and David hit it. They came up with sounds that made sense for each part of the city, from the types of cars you hear on the streets to the conversations and languages that play in the background.”
Meanwhile, Frances’ friend, Diane, (Molly Shannon) has taken up residence in a Manhattan high-rise and it, too, required a specific sonic treatment. “The sounds that filter into a high-rise apartment are much different from those in a street-level structure,” Aniceto notes. “The hum of traffic is more distant, while you hear things like the whirl of helicopters. We had a lot of fun exploring the different sonic environments. To capture the flavor of Hudson-on-Hastings, our executive producer and showrunner came up the idea of adding distant construction sounds to some scenes.”
A few scenes from the new season are set inside a prison. Aniceto says the sound team was able to help breathe life into that environment through the judicious application of very specific sound design. “David Briggs had just come off of Escape at Dannemora, so he was very familiar with the sounds of a prison,” he recalls. “He knew the kind of sounds that you hear in communal areas, not only physical sounds like buzzers and bells, but distant chats among guards and visitors. He helped us come up with amusing bits of background dialogue for the loop group.”
Most of the dialogue came directly from the production tracks, but the sound team hosted several ADR sessions at Goldcrest for crowd scenes. Hirsch points to an episode from the new season that involves a girls basketball team. ADR mixer Krissopher Chevannes recorded groups of voice actors (provided by Dann Fink and Bruce Winant of Loopers Unlimited) to create background dialogue for a scene on a team bus and another that happens during a game.
“During the scene on the bus, the girls are talking normally, but then the action shifts to slo-mo. At that point the sound design goes away and the music drives it,” Hirsch recalls. “When it snaps back to reality, we bring the loop-group crowd back in.”
The emotional depth of Divorce marks it as different from most television comedies, it also creates more interesting opportunities for sound. “The sound portion of the show helps take it over the line and make it real for the audience,” says Aniceto. “Sound is a big priority for Divorce. I get excited by the process and the opportunities it affords to bring scenes to life. So, I surround myself by smart and talented people like Eric and David, who understand how to do that and give the show the perfect feel.”
All three seasons of Divorce are available on HBO Go and HBO Now.