The following is an article from the January 6, 2008 New York
Times by Dennis Lim about the sound design in "No Country
For Old Men".
Exploiting Sound, Exploring Silence
For all the raves and awards that have so far greeted Joel and
Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” there is one term of praise
that does not apply: It is not a popcorn movie. Which is to say,
it is especially ill-suited to the crunching of snacks or the crinkling
of wrappers or any of the usual forms of movie-theater noise pollution.
There is virtually no music on the soundtrack of this tense, methodical
thriller. Long passages are entirely wordless. In some of the most
gripping sequences what you hear mostly is a suffocating silence.
By compelling audiences to listen more closely, this unnervingly
quiet movie has had the effect of calling attention to an underappreciated
aspect of filmmaking: the use of sound. (Several critics, including
A. O. Scott of The New York Times, have singled out the sound design
for commendation.) “Even in a movie like this where people think
the sound is minimal,” Ethan Coen said in a recent interview, “it’s
actually maximal in terms of the effects and how they’re handled.”
What is unusual about “No Country for Old Men” is not simply the
level of audio detail but that it is a critical part of the storytelling.
Skip Lievsay, the sound editor who has worked with the Coen brothers
since their first feature, “Blood Simple” (1984), called “No Country”
“quite a remarkable experiment” from a sonic standpoint. “Suspense
thrillers in Hollywood are traditionally done almost entirely with
music,” he said. “The idea here was to remove the safety net that
lets the audience feel like they know what’s going to happen. I
think it makes the movie much more suspenseful. You’re not guided
by the score and so you lose that comfort zone.”
Joel Coen credits his brother with the idea of minimizing the
score. “I was skeptical at first,” he said, but when they watched
their first rough cut, “It pretty much told us that we didn’t need
That decision was made with the help of Carter Burwell, the Coens’
regular composer, who has also been part of their stable since
“Blood Simple.” (Mr. Lievsay introduced him to the Coens.) “My
first suggestion was that if there’s music, it should somehow emanate
from the landscape,” Mr. Burwell said. He tried a few “abstract
musical sounds, just the harmonics of a violin or some percussive
sounds,” but found that even these small touches “destroyed the
tension that came from the quiet.”
Like film editing, film sound remains a somewhat misunderstood
craft, partly because at its best it tends to be imperceptible.
“The better we do our job, the less people realize what’s going
on,” Mr. Lievsay said. “I think a lot of people think the sound
just comes out of the camera.”
What actually happens is a labor-intensive process of editing
and mixing that combines dialogue and sound recorded on location
with effects that are added during post-production. The on-set
sound is handled by the production sound mixer, in this case, another
Coen veteran, Peter Kurland, who started out as a boom operator
on “Blood Simple.”
The sound effects are created by the sound designer. On “No Country”
the Coens worked with Craig Berkey, new to the fold but a frequent
collaborator of Mr. Lievsay’s. In addition, there is the so-called
foley process during which foley artists add sound effects that
synchronize with the on-screen action, like footsteps or rustling
clothes. In the final stage, known as the re-recording mix, all
the aural components — dialogue, effects, music — are combined
and adjusted to produce a seamless soundtrack.
There are two Oscar categories for sound: best sound editing,
for which Mr. Lievsay would be eligible, and best sound mixing,
for which Mr. Lievsay, Mr. Berkey, Mr. Kurland and Greg Orloff,
who did the foley mixing, would be.
As on most films, the sound effects in “No Country” can be divided
roughly into emphatic (gunshots, the beeps of a tracking device
that connects hunter and hunted), and ambient noise (engine hums,
the whistling prairie wind).
Mr. Berkey had to create a range of sounds for the array of weapons
used in the film, which observes a cat-and-mouse triangle among
an average guy who has found a bag of money (Josh Brolin), the
hired killer on his trail (Javier Bardem) and a world-weary sheriff
(Tommy Lee Jones). For the air-tank cattle gun favored by Mr. Bardem’s
psychotic Chigurh, Mr. Berkey used a pneumatic nail gun. “I wasn’t
looking for authenticity, so I didn’t even research cattle guns,”
he said. “I just knew it had to be impactful, with that two-part
sound, like a ch-chung.”
The silencer-equipped shotgun, which features prominently in the
bloodiest scenes, was more complicated. To get an effect that was
at once muffled and explosive — it is described in the original
Cormac McCarthy novel as sounding “like someone coughing into a
barrel” — Mr. Berkey layered several disparate sounds together.
“There’s no actual gunshot that’s part of that sound,” he said.
Instead he paired “high-end spitting-type sounds, like pitched-up
female screams” with an accidental, bass-heavy thump that Mr. Lievsay
had detected on an on-set recording.
“The essence of sound design is you can’t record the sound,” Mr.
Lievsay said. “You have to take a lot of sounds and put them together.
You can’t just go somewhere with a shotgun and a silencer. It wouldn’t
be the sound that Joel and Ethan wanted anyway.”
The other big challenge for Mr. Lievsay and Mr. Berkey was getting
the right roar for the vehicle engines, reflecting the film’s roughly
1980 period. “We needed big-sounding, high-horse-powered trucks,”
Mr. Lievsay said. “The more gas mileage and the newer the vehicle,
the less distinctive the sound.”
The nocturnal driving scenes are occasions for the composer Mr.
Burwell’s near-subliminal drone to creep into the sound mix. “The
idea was to use the music to deepen the tension in some of these
transitional scenes, when there’s not much going on,” he said.
“The sounds are snuck in underneath the wind or the sound of a
car. When the wind or car goes away, the sound is left behind,
but you never hear it appear.”
Mr. Burwell found that most musical instruments didn’t fit with
the minimalist sound sculpture he had in mind, so he used singing
bowls, standing metal bells traditionally employed in Buddhist
meditation practice that produce a sustained tone when rubbed.
For one of the few interior scenes with score — Chigurh menacing
a service-station owner with a fateful coin flip — he tuned the
music’s swelling hum to the 60-hertz frequency of a refrigerator.
The sonic precision and cohesion of the Coens’ films have much
to do with the close collaboration between Mr. Lievsay and Mr.
Burwell. Extensive discussions between a film’s sound editor and
composer are rare, given typical post-production schedules. It’s
customary, Mr. Burwell said, for the two parties to meet only “at
the final mix where everyone will be arguing about what should
be the loudest.” But Mr. Burwell and Mr. Lievsay, having worked
on all 12 Coen films, have figured out a cooperative approach.
“We try to be complementary, or we stay out of each other’s way,”
Mr. Lievsay said. On some films, like “Barton Fink,” they have
gone so far as to divide up the sonic spectrum for individual scenes,
so that one of them tackles the high end and the other the low
Mr. Burwell said he was pleased that his sound-department colleagues
are getting the bulk of the attention this time. “If you ask film
composers — and I have — whether they feel there’s too much or
too little music in the average film, they will all say too much,”
he said. “I’m very happy this time to be on the other side of that
His work on “No Country for Old Men” is by some measure the most
self-effacing of his career. (“My self couldn’t be any more effaced,”
he said, laughing.) Including end credits, there are a mere 16
minutes of music in the film. But after learning that it meets
eligibility requirements (he initially assumed it didn’t), Mr.
Burwell has submitted it for Oscar consideration, partly at the
request of the distributor, Miramax, and partly, he joked, “to
stand up for all the minimal scores in the world.” (Mr. Burwell
also wrote the scores for two other 2007 releases, Sidney Lumet’s
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and Lasse Hallstrom’s “Hoax.”)
Talking about minimal film scores, he recalled his initial preparations
for “Blood Simple.” Because he had never written a score, he decided
to tape the Hitchcock classic “The Birds” off television. “At the
end of every intense scene I would slap myself and go, ‘Oh, I forgot
to listen to the music,’ ” he said. Rewatching the film, he realized
there was no music, just a blanket of electronic bird sounds. (Hitchcock’s
composer, the great Bernard Herrmann, supervised the sound design.)
“That was an interesting first score to pay attention to,” Mr.
There is at least one sequence in “No Country for Old Men” that
could be termed Hitchcockian in its virtuosic deployment of sound.
Holed up in a hotel room, Mr. Brolin’s character awaits the arrival
of his pursuer, Chigurh. He hears a distant noise (meant to be
the scrape of a chair, Mr. Berkey said). He calls the lobby. The
rings are audible through the handset and, faintly, from downstairs.
No one answers. Footsteps pad down the hall. The beeps of Chigurh’s
tracking device increase in frequency. Then there is a series of
soft squeaks — only when the sliver of light under the door vanishes
is it clear that a light bulb has been carefully unscrewed.
“That was an experiment in what we called the edge of perception,”
Mr. Lievsay said. “Ethan especially kept asking us to turn it lower
Ethan Coen said, “Josh’s character is straining to hear, and you
want to be in his point of view, likewise straining to hear.” The
effect can be lost, he conceded, “if it’s a louder crowd and the
room is lousy.”
Joel Coen interjected, “If it’s a loud crowd at that point, the
film isn’t working anyway.”