The Power of Silence in Upcoming Thriller ‘Coming Home in the Dark’

Sundance selected thriller from New Zealand, Coming Home in the Dark follows a family on a road trip whose members are abruptly taken by two ominous figures. The film initially premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and was just released on October 1. 

The sound for this film was designed by New Zealand-based POW Studios led by John McKay and Matthew Lambourn. The film, contrary to most horror films, has almost no music. This allows the sound design to shine through, and keeps viewers on their toes by not guiding their expectations with the score. The team was able to focus on sounds such as the whistle of the wind and strategic silence to tell the story of the film.

The POW team have also been involved in the sound design for many notable projects including Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

John and Matthew recently discussed their work on the film, as well as their backgrounds, and what’s in store for the future of POW Studios. 

PH: How are you? How has work been the past year or so? 

John: Varied and very interesting as we have grown our business into some different post production areas like Picture Post and VFX. 

Matt: We were enjoying a period of normality for several months in New Zealand, and managed to get through quite a few projects. When Delta arrived, it put a new perspective on things. Although our collaborative working environment was disrupted, we managed to continue with a hybrid of work-from-home and in-studio situations. Basically anything that could be done at home (admin, management) was, and with jobs that needed studio space (mixing, design) we were able to remain within the rules. As a result, POW proved quite resilient and we’ve been able to continue to operate and deliver to our usual high standard. 

PH: How did you get involved with Coming Home in the Dark? What drew you to the project? 

John: We were in on the project from an early stage and supported the project’s application for New Zealand Film Commission funding and eventually invested in the project to enable this funding to come to fruition. The film was made on an incredibly tight budget, but it turned out incredible. The script was the best I have read in the past 20 years. It was an absolute page turner and the film lived up to the promise of the script which is not always the case.

Matt: As much as I love the fantasy aspect of NZ that we like to promote overseas, I’m also acutely aware of the neglect and horror suffered by some of our own people over the last century or so. You don’t hear about it, but our child welfare statistics are horrendous. Likewise, our historical treatment of indiginous and disadvantaged people is a shameful stain of such an outwardly positive nation. Add to that the rapid disparity in wealth, and it feels like NZ is well in need of some soul-searching. Every few decades a powerful film comes along, such as Once Were Warriors in the 90s, Boy and Dark Horse in the 2000s, that shines a light on our dark history. They make for uncomfortable viewing, but to me they are a necessary reality check, a counterpoint to the scenic idealism we are perhaps most famous for. 

PH: Can you share some of your previous experience? How did you get into the industry? 

John: I started directly from school into television in 1974 as a cadet in the Government Broadcasting Service. TV was still in Black & white and we only had one channel. Quite primitive days. There was not a film industry in the country at that point. I was lucky that the industry developed from the late 70’s with a wonderful flowering of films in the 80’s. Initially, I worked on the picture editing side but moved to sound editorial and design in 1984 when I did my first feature film, and I have been involved in post sound ever since.

Matt: My background is in music composition and sonic arts. I’ve done quite comprehensive study into how sound works, how it affects emotions and how it influences the other senses. I also love storytelling, so using sound in this narrative and expressive way is a most rewarding profession. I was flatting with now-renowned Dialogue Editor Polly McKinnon in the 90s, while I was completing a music degree. She suggested I come and have a look at her place of work, where she was an effects and dialogue editor. I didn’t know about those roles in those days, but I was studying sonic arts, called electroacoustic music in those days, essentially composing musical pieces by recording various sounds from out in the world and manipulating them in the studio. I realised that sound effects editing was very similar, in that it involves trying to instill character and meaning into inanimate objects – and you could get paid for it! So I got a job at Polly’s workplace under the guidance of Tim Prebble, one of NZ’s foremost sound designers. That was around the time Lord of the Rings was ramping up, and I was fortunate enough to be involved with some of Peter Jackson’s work, while keeping one foot in the world of independent film. 

PH: Let’s talk about creating eerie tones for a horror effect in film. How does lack of music help? 

John: Space and not sign posting the film. The very first film I did was a horror called Death Warmed Up and we used unsettling tones to put the audience in a tense state. Quite crude and nowhere as sophisticated as we can achieve now. Music can sometimes over lead and you know exactly what is going to happen because of the conventions that have been created overtime in films. I am a fan of judicious use of music because it has so much power that used wisely it can have great impact. A lot of modern films use music almost as filler – you see this a lot in television shows as well. I think it can lessen the impact of music by overuse. 

Matt: Music composition for film is a very specialised skill, as it has to guide thoughts and emotions almost exclusively from outside the fourth wall. Not only this, but it has to keep up with the current conventions of the day in terms of what is ‘scary’ or ‘comedic’, so as to be able to guide the audience when needed without saturating them. The balance between maintaining and subverting these conventions is one that is continually evolving in filmmaking. 

The music for Coming Home in the Dark is definitely on the ‘subvert’ side of the balance. It is extremely sparse, a rare treat in horror. This gives all the other aspects of the soundtrack a chance to breathe and express subtlety. The tremendous ambience work done by Callum Scott is especially effective – the slightly unsettling wind that feels colder than the picture looks, or the haunting cry of the lake birds at what is supposed to be a relaxed family picnic. Likewise the foley performance by Carrie MacLaughlin is impeccable in its ability to draw you close to the characters, whether you empathise with them or feel like you want to get away from them. And without the life raft of a constant score to cling to, the audience is seldom given the chance to take that emotional breath that would ease the tension and anxiety they feel as the story gets darker. 

PH: What are the benefits of strategically placed silence and how do you create it? 

John: One of my favourite quotes is from the great sound effects editor, Frank Warner, “one of the best things I can do is sometimes nothing.” Filling every available moment with sound overloads a track and allows nothing to breathe. That said, nothing is really silent. For instance in Coming Home in the Dark we always have something happening, a dog barking, a distant bird cry, a flap of a coat. I think it’s also about dynamics. I have seen it in many tracks where the sound team plays everything to prove how good they are and a track can lose focus. Guiding an audience to look at the right part of the frame and underline story and character is our job, not making cool sounds. It’s like the old adage that if a shot stands out for being beautiful, cut it out as it unbalances the overall impact. The same applies to the sound track. It’s the full 90 minutes that you are constructing, not the one off moment. 

Matt: My feeling is that absolute silence can only be used sparingly, and briefly. Too much of it and it feels like there’s something wrong with the theatre or playback system. I’ve seen it used to great effect in films where something uncomfortable or horrific has just occurred, and the effect is to make you aware of the other audience members, and feel something of a shared sense of discomfort. Sometimes it can be effective just before a momentous event, such as an imperial destroyer blowing up or to enhance a massive shockwave. I’ve also seen silence completely ruin a scene, when you become aware of the weather outside, or the exit sign buzz or people slurping their drinks. Even worse, it can risk making the film so boring you feel like checking your phone or leaving. To be safe, for any extended length of time, I would always use something in place of silence to represent it like a low ambience or ominous tone, or of course music. 

PH: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned working in production? 

John: You are part of a team. We are all making the film. Knowing what is best for the film is something that is acquired with experience. Never stop learning and watching. I started as an avid reader of books and mad crazy cinema goer and thankfully that has never changed. Don’t lose the passion for film or it will become a job and luckily for me it has never felt like a job.

Matt: The value of collaboration. While it is true that there must be a supervisor of each area, someone to oversee the big picture, there is priceless value in good communication within and between departments. When the dialogue department knows the intentions of the effects department and they both know what the music is going to do and the whole sound department is in liaison with the picture department, the result can be something much more than the sum of its parts. People should have a chance to bring their ideas to the table – I’ve learnt plenty from the younger effects editors I’ve trained, and the techniques I’ve learned through grim trial and error, I’ve gladly shared with them to help elevate their skill base. And inviting Director James Ashcroft along at all stages meant he could gauge our progress in the soundtrack, and that could help inform future cuts and edits. 

PH: What’s in store for the future of POW Studios? 

John: More exciting projects, growing our wonderful team, creating a sustainable future for the company and everyone working with us.

Matt: We are now at the point where we’ve gained solid trust and reputation for being able to deliver a complete film soundtrack, on spec, on time and on budget. We’re also involved in VFX production, maintaining that philosophy of keeping the standard extremely high. A strong supporter of the arts, we’ve worked with NZ Ballet, creative sculptural projects, and we’re even exploring this new wave of future tech-based AR with various partners. Sound to me is a living universe; I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of possibility. 

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