The ‘Don’t Breathe 2’ Sound Team on Using the Intensity of Silence

In “Don’t Breathe 2,” now playing in theaters, Stephen Lang returns as the blind man and former Navy SEAL Norman Nordstrom, who is harboring a terrible secret about his wicked ways. He uses his other senses to enhance his abilities, fighting off those who challenge him.

Separated from the home invasion incident that fueled the plot of 2016’s “Don’t Breathe,” this sequel finds Norman once again relying on what he hears to guide him through a night of terror against new criminals looking to take away the young orphaned girl he’s been raising.

As with the first film, as intense as the situation can get, much of the film relies on silence, which can be very difficult to achieve on film, according to supervising sound editor Mandell Winter. “You want to strip out the unwanted noise from production, and a lot of times, it means using ADR [Automated Dialogue Replacement] to help sell that.”

Keeping in mind vocal utterances or breaths, as Winter explains, “It comes down to understanding how to keep a character present in a scene to tell audiences they’re afraid, angry, or whatever emotion they’re having.”

With that said, a film that walks the line between horror and revenge thriller means getting to play a bit. As explained by supervising sound editor and sound designer P.K. Hooker, “Horror can be a joyful headspace as much as it’s about pain and suffering. I’ve found horror filmmakers to be full of joy and glee.”

There’s also the consideration of the rating. Fortunately, with an R-rated film such as this, as Hooker explains, while he’s had to pull back on gunshots or fighting sounds in wider-rated movies, that wasn’t the case here. “The design is fully wet and hard-hitting. It’s just as gross as everything gross, and everything that hurts really hurts.”

“I think any director wants to be unhindered and just make the movie they want to make,” Hooker adds, keeping in mind how “Don’t Breathe 2” features multiple moments of extreme violence coming as a payoff to how Norman uses the quiet of a room to his advantage.

Indeed, finding ways to make the sounds of a hammer slamming down on a violent intruder means getting creative. That’s part of the fun of working on a horror movie. “Jump scares are cotton candy – cheap scares unless they’re earned,” Hooker notes. “However, if you set a context and build tension to a jump scare, it can be great.”

It also helps to have a design in place. Mentioning the film’s editor, Jan Kovac, Winter explains how he “started building the wheel, and we took the wheel and made it more sophisticated.”

For example, a scene that finds Norman in a shallow pool of water requires an understanding of this reverberant space, with feet splashing through the area. The question then becomes, “How do you know what tools to get that play bigger and more distracting than it would be for someone who could see,” Hooker explains, referencing inventive techniques for the film.

Even tiny elements have their role. A small bell is used as a way for Norman to guide himself. In finding ways to adjust appropriately for the scene, as Hooker notes, “One of the tools relies on understanding how to add delay and reverb to get such a simple sound to play effectively.”

All of this especially works because of the amount of collaboration. As Hooker states, “It’s actually really awesome to have [director and writer Rodo Sayagues] and [producer and co-writer Fede Álvarez] constantly weighing in on what you’re doing, without it feeling like they’re meddling.”

Hooker continues, “By the end of the process, we’re in the final mix, and all we’re doing is just making the movie sound cool. We don’t have to re-invent everything because we’re all on the same page together.”

 

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