‘The Lighthouse’ Sound Designer Damian Volpe Stokes Madness With Gritty, Immersive Sonic Palette
For sound designer Damian Volpe, The Lighthouse was impossible to resist. Centered on two 19th century lighthouse keepers driven to madness, while stranded on a remote Atlantic isle, the latest from Volpe’s frequent collaborator Robert Eggers was simply rife with sonic opportunity.
Working with a limited set of elements—including roaring winds, crashing waves, and chugging industrial machinery—Volpe’s goal was to refine a sonic palette for the psychological horror film that felt immersive, gritty and handmade. “[Eggers] really loves that,” Volpe says, “especially for something like this, [where] the conceit is a bit like, ‘Hey, we found this weird, old film on a shelf. What is this thing?’ So, I put as much analog goodness as I could get into the sound design, via lots of field recording, and then some trickery in the mix, as well.”
DEADLINE: Tell us about your first exposure to Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. What made this project exciting to you?
DAMIAN VOLPE: I had gone out to dinner with him and [editor] Lou Ford, and we were talking about some of the scripts that he was trying to get off the ground. He said, “I think we’re going to do this one. It’s going to be a black-and-white film, shot in this old format.” At that point, I actually didn’t even know the story, but that was the beginning of the conversation.
I think I’d already heard, in my head, the quality of the sound, and then I got the script and was like, “Oh, this is something that speaks to a lot of things that I like.” Some Melville—the saltier the better, right? Then, I heard the actors that they had, and started to see some of the stuff that Jarin [Blaschke, cinematographer] had shot, which was very exciting, and I put my whole life on hold for about four months to do that job. I was working probably 70 to 80 hours a week. It was very, very intense, and it had a very small budget, so it was a ‘love it or leave it’ situation.
DEADLINE: Could you flesh out a sense of your early conversations with Eggers about a sonic palette for the film?
VOLPE: Rob and Lou had presented me with a strong start from the picture edit, which was somewhat rudimentary, but in line with what I had been thinking. The long conversation at the head of the job, which really went on halfway through the edit, was whether or not we should make a nod to the format, to the black-and-white quality of it, the narrow quality of it. But those questions answered themselves as we went into it.
With the score, which was full frequency, and the necessity of clearing out the dialogue—which is difficult, even at the best of times, because of the language—to make space for that, we ended up experimenting with a very wide sound design, and it seemed to work beautifully in contrast, but also with the little black-and-white square in the center of the screen. I thought it was a very interesting psychological combination. It still felt to me dated somehow, even though it wasn’t.
DEADLINE: Your sound design certainly brings a palpable sense of time and place to the film. At the same time, sound and image come together to create a timeless feel. How do you think you managed to strike that balance?
VOLPE: There was some experimentation, and I had to lean on the mid-frequencies. Even though it was very full-range, with lots of low subharmonics, and lots of nice high-end in the wind and the tops of the waves, by working the mid-range, I think it was able to feel a little bit more stuck to the image.
DEADLINE: I understand that you visited a lighthouse in Cape Cod to get some of your field recordings for the film.
VOLPE: Yeah, my wife is my goodwill ambassador, and she was able to sweet-talk us into a Coast Guard museum. A young ensign there was very sweet, and spent a couple of hours of us, trudging up and down the stairs at various speeds to get some nice lighthouse footsteps.
DEADLINE: Reportedly, part of your process also involved placing tiny microphones inside conch shells.
VOLPE: Yeah. Well, I kept looking at the interior of the lighthouse, and I knew I wanted something special for that ambience. I think I probably could have used a million different things, but keep in mind, I was not sleeping, and my brain was pretty much full-time on the job. So, I just kept thinking that it was like the inside of a shell, and, “Oh, what the hell, why not? I’ll just stick a mic inside a shell and see what I get.”
The result was a kind of muted roar, which I thought worked pretty nice. You know, Rob really wants everything real, and he kept stressing, “Try to imagine how miserable this life must’ve been for these lighthouse keepers—and maybe, to some extent, still is—exposed to the elements.”
DEADLINE: The foghorn becomes a central sonic motif for this film. To get that sound right, you consulted with J.J. Jamieson, a craftsman in Shetland, Scotland who is something of an expert on foghorns…
VOLPE: I’m going to make J.J. famous, if I can [laughs].
DEADLINE: What kind of process did you go through to get the period foghorn sound you were looking for?
VOLPE: It was a real process. I actually spent about a month before we even started making any sound for the film just researching the history of foghorns, and probably far too much time, while I was finishing another job, trying to figure out where all the working steam-powered foghorns in the world are.
It turns out that there are not a lot, but there are some. In the end, we liked the sound very much of this beautiful diaphone. The big horns that you see in the film—giant, long, sometimes 12, 14 foot-long horns—those are diaphone foghorns. They produce extremely low-frequency sound that can be heard quite far out to sea, and I found one via this YouTube video that J.J. had made on Somberg Head, which is Northern Shetlands, stuck out right in the middle of the sea. It’s kind of amazing.
The foghorn itself in the film, the low frequencies were beautiful, but we were afraid that on less-than-perfect sound systems, or [for] people listening on TVs, it would get lost. So, there was another foghorn in Wales that’s actually thematically interesting; it’s called a siren, which has more of that mid-range kind of alarm sound, and it had a really cool attack. So, the foghorn is actually a combination of those two horns, plus some other variations that I gave it from different things as I went along.
It should be consistent, and it should be driving you mad, as it drives the characters mad. Then also, it had to be a note of warning, right from the beginning of the film. I mean, that’s the nature of a foghorn, right? And also, it functioned like my brass section. [laughs] I felt like I was writing this score. I had the winds as my woodwinds, and the brass, which is such a beautiful part of the score that Mark Korven did, I think really helped it to feel of the time, as did the lighthouse.
DEADLINE: The Lighthouse gave you the opportunity to play with a variety of sounds that are surreal, absurd or darkly comedic in their specificity—sounds like flatulence, screaming mermaids, a seagull being beaten to death and the digging of a grave. What was it like to work with such an idiosyncratic sonic canvas?
VOLPE: It’s a great challenge, and that’s why I was so excited to do the job. It doesn’t come along that often. All films have difficult challenges, and it’s really in the end just about telling the story, and finding what it is the director wants.
With The Lighthouse, clearly, the sound design was going to have to be a major element, and from the beginning, Rob said, “We want the beginning of the film to be almost pretentious, and you have to set the tone of dread right from the get-go.” That leads you up to the first time that Willem Dafoe’s character bends over and farts, and then suddenly you realize, Oh wait, there’s some humor. I’m actually allowed to laugh at this. I thought that was really fun. As much as the dread is consistent in the film, I also tried to [ensure] that there’s some lightheartedness, some comedic elements.
Probably the most fun thing for me that I had to create was actually the mermaid. I tried a million different things, and in the end, I did a recording session for about an hour with a friend at Harbor Sound—a very talented sound effects editor named Mariusz Glabinski. This is a little known fact, at this point, but the mermaid is actually my wife and I together, making sea creature sounds at each other.
DEADLINE: Dafoe’s echoing “Why’d you spill your beans?” refrain is such a memorable aspect of the film. How did you work with his voiceover to capture the feeling you were going for?
VOLPE: From the picture department, it was very clear that that was going to be the moment in the film where everything fell away—really the only time, I think, where you’re dead silent. I don’t think any of us knew until the mix that it was going to be as interesting as it was, because when they were editing, they didn’t really have the whole soundscape in there. So, we were working, working, working to create this environment, and then suddenly strip it away, strip away the score, and just have his voice.
It was cool. In my work, I like to use silence when I can, because it’s such a powerful tool. But in this one, the sound was meant to be relentless, so we didn’t have a lot of opportunities for that. There are places where the sound drops away but the score takes over, and that’s nice, too. But that was really that quiet moment at the heart of it that I felt gave you a gut drop.
Willem [Dafoe] and Rob Pattinson were both amazing to work with. We had a very difficult task, because they recorded so much of this stuff out on Cape Forchu, where the winds are just blasting away at 40, 50 knots every day. The sound mixer did a great job, but we still had to replace a fair amount of the dialogue, which is something that I don’t like to do if I don’t have to.
But the actors were both so strong, and then my lead mixer, Robert Fernandez, I’ve been working with for over 20 years. He’s just like a mad genius. Between him and William Sweeney, the dialogue supervisor, they just pulled it off, which I think is actually one of the most miraculous things in the film, how much ADR is in there that you don’t notice.
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