Serious Sounds: Skip Lievsay on Sound Design

Scott Macaulay chats with Skip Lievsay, A Serious Man's sound designer, about his work on the movie and his 25 years collaborating with the Coen brothers.

For a while it was hard to actually hear good sound design. In the ‘80s, ‘90s and into the ‘00s, too many people’s idea of creative mixing and sound effects editing had to do with roars, growls, and explosions echoing artfully across the speakers of a Dolby Digital Surround theater. But while the visceral aural jolts of the Hollywood blockbuster are indeed part of the sound designer’s job description, so too are poetic, engaging and sometimes downright quirky sonic backdrops to dramatic scenes. And it is in the creation of these soundscapes that sound designer and supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay has long excelled. He has collaborated with such directors as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, John Sayles and, most continually, the Coen brothers, working on all of their films up through their most recent, A Serious Man. Other films on which he’s been a Re-recording Mixer, Supervising Sound Editor, and/or Sound Designer include I Am Legend, The New World, The Silence of the Lambs and Goodfellas. One of the leading sound designers in the industry, Lievsay received Academy Award nominations for Best Achievement in Sound and Best Achievement in Sound Editing for No Country for Old Men.

I caught up with Lievsay by phone to discuss his long collaboration with the Coens, changes in the field of sound design, and A Serious Man, on which he collaborated with sound designer and re-recording mixer Craig Berkey.

FilmInFocus: What do you attribute your ability to sync up with the Coens when it comes to sound design?

Lievsay: Well, we have been working together for over 25 years, and we have the luxury of 13 movies to refer to. We have a really sophisticated, complete and complex relationship. Sadly, not many [sound designers] get that opportunity even a few times, let alone year after year.

FilmInFocus: How would you describe their approach to directing the sound design, especially as compared to other types of directors?

Lievsay: For many filmmakers making movies is like making filmed plays, and that’s a big hang-up in terms of creating a more abstract sound design. So not only the filmmakers but their films won’t allow it. A filmmaker like David Mamet, for example, is completely focused on the words. He is not interested in an abstract soundtrack. But the Coens are precise — they have very specific ideas and they are very articulate in their scripts about the sound.  And they shoot their films in a way that lends itself to a more abstract sound [design].

FilmInFocus: What are some examples from A Serious Man?  One that leapt out at me is the great scene on the roof in which Larry is trying to fix his television antennae and we hear that mish-mash of TV noise.

Lievsay: There are a lot of set pieces in the movie. That scene is one where the sound design could not convey Larry’s confused emotional state of mind and the music could not convey the physical joke of him tuning the antennae for his son while his marriage is falling apart. It was a complex challenge to tie all these things together in an elegant way.  We came up with the TV sounds and made a mix that musically and rhythmically worked. That’s a good example of how [sound and music] can work independently but still create something that’s all of one piece. We had a similar collaboration with [the music department] in the scene with Mrs. Samsky, the neighbor next door. She and Larry are smoking pot and the Jefferson Airplane song turns into a record skipping and then the police come. I think the Bar Mitzvah section, where Larry’s son is stoned and has to go up and read from the Torah, that was also a brilliant collaboration — we had the luxury of wonderfully abstract images so we could make stoned-out, reverb-y sounds. Really abstract, supernatural-type stuff. We even processed the voice of the rabbi.

FilmInFocus: What do you consider some of the high points of your collaboration with the Coen brothers across their career?

Lievsay: I would say Barton Fink is a crowning achievement in terms of sound design and effects. On that movie we were able to help progress the story and help get what they wanted in terms of an abstract and non-linear sound. And The Man who Wasn’t There, I’m very proud of that. The whole track – the voiceover, music and sound – was a very good and successful collaboration from all of us. I think No Country for Old Men is a very good collaboration in minimalism. It was almost like sound design haiku, a minimum number of sounds that could be made to tell the story. Craig Berkey and I made a concentrated effort to create simple and elegant sounds that helped progress the story. In most cases, that is seemingly easy to do, but since there was no music [in the film], we also had to be dramatic, and, as it turned out, there’s kind of a structure to that. The simplified version is that you have to be quiet before you are loud. But there are other more complicated [strategies], like having the sound be ragged, or having things build up and then pop in, or changing the balances between background and foley, like having footsteps be much louder than they normally would be. Those are the trial-and-error things we’d just try. Craig cut the entire soundtrack by himself, and we just added some foley.

FilmInFocus: Are new technologies changing the sound design field?

Lievsay: I would say that as far as technology goes, we’ve been using computers for editing and sound design since the ’80s. They are becoming more and more accessible, and cheaper equipment is becoming more powerful. [Sound editing equipment] is no longer exclusive to a group of people in well-funded, high-end editing shops. So, because everyone has the same tools, sound design is more talent driven than it ever was before.  Skill comes from trial and error. Anyone who says he knows how to do it better is full of crap — skill is a well-defined adventure these days, and it’s up to you to figure out how to get the skills.

FilmInFocus: How about in terms of its creative development, then?

Lievsay: There was an explosion of creativity in the ‘70s. There was a perception then that sound was important, and during that period we explored all the basic ideas in films like Apocalypse Now, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Back to the Future. I don’t think much has been learned about the basic ideas after that — it’s all been about the applications. But more recently, a wonderful thing happened. We discovered that just because it’s loud it’s not necessarily good. For me, the progress made over the last 15 years has been learning how to use these tools to make a better sounding movie. And that’s great. No Country for Old Men is the opposite from the Star Wars, Transformers style. It operates on a totally different planet. I know how to do those films, and we use none of those techniques. We do the opposite. In previous days, [this quieter] sort of film would never have been recognized, and it is one of the great signs of progress in sound design that such films can be recognized and embraced. I’ve had ordinary people say, “[No Country for Old Men] should win Best Sound. If it doesn’t, it’s a travesty.” So I’m glad I haven’t had to explain why we won the Academy Award.