The Oscar Contending sound team of The Killing of Two Lovers, Peter Albrechsten and David Barber worked tirelessly to create a soundscape that conveys the protagonist’s impulsive nature and his growing despair. There is no score and no soundtrack so the sound mix plays an even more instrumental role in elevating the emotions and story in the film. We spoke with Peter and David about their amazing sound work on the film.
PH: Hi Peter, Hi David! How are you both doing?
Peter Albrechsten: Hi Briana, I’m good, thanks. Nice to meet you.
David Barber: Hi Briana, doing pretty well. Thanks for asking!
PH: Can you both share a bit about your careers working in audio post-production?
Peter Albrechsten: I graduated from the Danish Film School in 2001 so I’ve been working with film sound professionally for 20 years now. It’s been an amazing ride and I still totally love it and find new ways of playing with sound for every project I do. I’m working on both fiction films and documentaries and I’ve been very privileged to always collaborate with directors who are really into sound and want to explore what sonic storytelling can do. I’m based in Copenhagen but I work on a lot of international projects and travel quite a lot, sometimes sound designing, sometimes mixing, sometimes both. Feels like an ongoing adventure.
David Barber: My love of film and film sound started early in life. Typical of my generation, it all started when that Star Destroyer flew over my head in 1977, and was reinforced when the music played by the spaceship in Close Encounters blew out the spotlights, then Raiders of the Lost Ark, Never Cry Wolf, Ennio Morricone’s score in the Untouchables, and on and on. But my life pursuits (music) led me elsewhere for my twenties and early thirties and it wasn’t until a friend suggested that a career in film sound might be a good fit for me that I dropped everything to pursue it as a career path.
PH: What have been some of your most notable projects and experiences to date and why?
Peter Albrechsten: I always find it hard to highlight some specific projects because I put so much of myself into them and it feels a little bit like if someone asked me which of my kids I love the most. But let me try. The Danish thriller The Idealist was one of the first Scandinavian movies mixed in Dolby Atmos and it got me a lot of international interest – it was screened at Skywalker Sound and afterwards I was invited to become a member of the Academy. And talking about the Oscars, it was a truly extraordinary experience to create the sound design for the documentary The Cave which was nominated for the Academy Awards last year – I was in LA for the Oscars, actually. The biggest project I’ve been part of was when I recorded some sound effects in Denmark for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Very proud to have my name in the credits on that film which won two Oscars for its sound – Nolan’s sound designer Richard King is an enormous inspiration for me and my work. I’ve worked in the US quite a few times now and meeting big heroes like Richard King or Gary Rydstrom at Skywalker have been unforgettable experiences.
David Barber: I recently finished the final season(s) of the Emmy nominated comedy “Pen15” for Hulu and I have to say, I’m sad to see that show end! Maya (Erskine) and Anna (Konkle) are lovely, creative people, and although it is branded a comedy, it was an incredibly creative and challenging show sonically. Each episode felt like 2 reels of a feature.
The comedy films “Black Dynamite” and “The Foot Fist Way” were a blast to work on as well. BD is still one of the funnest mix stage experiences I’ve ever had. And I love a good action film too! “Escape Plan: The Extractors” was a challenge and a half and I learned a lot from director John Herzfeld and of course it was an honor to work with Stallone.
By pure luck and good fortune, one of the first projects I was involved in at Juniper Post was “Last Mysteries of the Titanic” with James Cameron. I found myself sitting across the credenza from Mr. Cameron having an in depth discussion about his many dives to Titanic. That’s an experience I’ll remember for a lifetime. He’s an absolutely brilliant and fascinating individual.
PH: Let’s talk about your recent project, The Killing of Two Lovers. How did you learn about and become involved?
Peter Albrechsten: The Killing of Two Lovers is the third film I’ve done with director Robert Machoian. Robert really loves to use sound as an integral part of his storytelling and when he had just finished the script for The Killing of Two Lovers he wrote to me and said, “I really believe that you need to work on this film for it to be what I am imagining.” So Robert was thinking of sound already when writing the script and on the shoot, which is incredibly important. He shot the film in these elaborate long takes, and quite often with minimal dialogue, so he left a lot of room for the sound design to shine.
The film is a family drama told from the perspective of a man, David, who tries to work out the relationship with his wife and his kids. Robert didn’t want to use any score but wanted the sound to reflect David’s inner feelings and the emotional turmoil he’s going through. A very interesting and creative approach and I was really happy to be part of the process already at the script stage, a year before we were mixing, so there was plenty of time to collect sounds, develop ideas and share examples with Robert.
David Barber: At the time, I was working a lot with dialogue editor Ryan Cota. He had been hired by Peter to cut the dialogue on TKOTL and when it came time for them to find a mix stage and another mixer, Ryan steered Peter toward Juniper Post and me. Peter and I had a couple of virtual meetings and hit it off really well. We’d met in passing at the MPSE Golden Reel Awards in years past but this was our first chance to actually collaborate on a project together.
PH: Was it challenging working without a score or soundtrack? How so?
Peter Albrechsten: It sure was a big challenge but also a very unique creative opportunity. For me, it’s really like we’re treating the sound effects as musical instruments. I actually think that the more musical sounds are, the more they affect the audience. The sound collages we use in the film are in many ways almost musical pieces but built from real sounds. We made a sound collage built from sounds of the truck with the car door slam as a kind of rhythmic element and creaking metal and rattles as textures and drones circling around that. For me, it’s like musique concrete, a type of music composition invented in the 1940’s that utilizes recorded sounds as raw material. It was interesting how this approach influenced the rest of the sound design, as I really used the rhythm of these collages as a foundation for the rhythm of the ambiences as well, so the birds, trains, car passes and other background sounds were cut rhythmically as well and I also pitched a lot of sounds just slightly to make them feel tonally right. So we kept on developing these sound abstractions until the end of the mix and the whole process was super creative. We had a blast.
David Barber: It really was! And we were moving elements of the sound design around until that very last day, making sure we were achieving the ebb and flow of emotion through the end of the film. A musical score can serve to steer or enhance emotions in a film. Since TKOTL did not have that element, all of the other elements of the sound track (dialogue, sound effects, ambiences, foley) are left bare to fend for themselves so-to-speak. Now, every breath, every movement, every nuance of the “natural” environment speaks volumes to the viewer. Peter’s use of manipulated natural sounds serve as that emotive factor in the film. It speaks brilliantly to the conflict, both internal and external, of the main character, David, and envelopes the audience in his emotions.
PH: On the other side, what opportunities did it present? How could you leverage it?
Peter Albrechsten: I totally agree. I think the film is much more emotionally complex because of the sonic choices Robert made from the very beginning. It also makes the movie more unpredictable. You really don’t know what’s going to happen because there is no score to guide you. It makes the film kind of feel a bit like a thriller even though it is actually a family drama. Robert and I – and Dave as well during the mix – really structured the film very much like a very dynamic symphony of sounds – sometimes quiet and subtle and sometimes loud and intense and with a lot of dynamic shifts. I really like how the sound, on all levels, reflects and enhances the characters and the drama — the dialogue panning, the use of ambiences, and the subjective sound montages.
David Barber: Not having music there to tell the audience how to feel allowed us much more control of how, when, and where we wanted to direct them. The musique concrete sound design that Peter created is able to steer clear of some of the typical feelings that notes and chords exude – major: happy, minor: sad, diminished, tension, etc. TKOTL plays much more in the abstract.
PH: How do you create sound that conveys the protagonist’s impulsive nature and growing despair?
David Barber: I let Peter do it:)
Peter Albrechsten: Haha, well, Dave sure knows how to create subjective sounds as well. But yes, I always really try to imagine what the inner sounds of a character are. I’m usually part of my projects already from the script stage and when reading scripts I of course think about the environments and the feel of the sounds surrounding the characters in the story. But I also think more and more about which specific sounds could describe the inside of a character.
Sound connects with us on a deep emotional level and using it to portray the inside of a character can be really rewarding and inspiring. Is it a quiet character or is it a loud character? I recently stumbled upon this really beautiful Gary Oldman quote: “I enjoy playing characters where the silence is loud.” I think that’s such an interesting way of looking at characters in a story. Are they quiet? How do they listen to the world? And what kinds of sounds are inside of them? All these things say a lot about their sensitivity and emotional life. The better we are at listening to each other, the closer we get. This is also how I got the idea for the sound collage in The Killing of Two Lovers – I was imagining which sounds were in the main character’s head and because he spends so much time in his car I got the idea of using car doors, car alarms and metal screeches as the inner vocabulary of the character.
PH: As professionals, how are you consistently evolving professionally (and personally)?
David Barber: Every film is different. Every project shows me something new. It can be subtle or it can be huge! In terms of professional evolving, I try to listen a lot. Listen to the greats. Break down the soundtracks of favorite films. I’ll often watch a film in my studio with the center channel muted so I can focus on what was chosen to be put in the L-R and Surround channels. And vice-versa, muting everything except the center channel to hear what world is created there. Reading articles, getting involved in various forums, and communicating with other professionals to learn/listen to their approaches to various sonic situations. I’ve found the sound community to be very generous and welcoming.
Peter Albrechsten: I really feel the same. All the things Dave highlights are really things I love to do as well. And yes, the global sound community is simply amazing. So supportive and passionate. On a creative level, I often start out my projects by listening to a lot of sounds and then just putting them in ProTools. I might not even quite know what a specific sound is, but it suddenly makes sense when I play around with it together with a visual. I also just get inspired by listening to a lot of music and listening to the world. I always walk around with a small hard-drive recorder and record sounds. When I go to the supermarket, if there’s a fridge that has a weird sound, I’m standing there recording the fridge. My two kids are now experts at running away and trying to look like they don’t know their weird dad, haha. That’s how it is – I’m a sound nerd. I’m always exploring the world of sound, because there are so many great sounds out there.
PH: What things are you looking forward to in 2022?
David Barber: Hopefully more projects with Peter! But until that happens, I have two projects on my plate that I’m very excited about – “As Sick As They Made Us” is Mayim Bialik’s directorial debut starring Dustin Hoffman, Candice Bergen, Dianna Agron, and Simon Helberg. And Graham and Parker Phillips’ second film, “Rumble Through the Dark” starring Aaron Eckhart. Beyond that, I’m looking forward to whatever else 2022 brings!
Peter Albrechsten: I really enjoy working on international projects and in 2022 it looks like I will work on several exciting projects from around the world – I’ve got both an Indian feature and a Finnish feature lined up and I recently finished a crime series from the Faroe Islands which will come out next year. Right now, though, and for the next several months, I’m working on a big US project I’m not allowed to talk about. But it’s a lot of fun. The amazing thing is that after working with sound for so many years, I can still be surprised and overwhelmed by what sound can do for images.