Written, Produced and Directed by Joel and Ethan
Book by Cormac McCarthy
Music Scoring Mixer: Mike Farrow
Composed by Carter Burwell
Performed by Carter Burwell, David Torn, John Pattitucci, Gordon Gottlieb, and Jamie Haddad
Contractor: Sandy Park
Recorded at Clinton Recording
Mixed at The Body Studio
Starring Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and Woody Harrelson.
U.S. Release November, 2007
The film is the quietest I've worked on. Often there is no sound but wind and boots on hard caliche or stocking feet on concrete. Then sporadically there are shootouts involving an unknown number of shooters with shotguns and automatic weapons. It was unclear for a while what kind of score could possibly accompany this film without intruding on this raw quiet. I spoke with the Coens about either an all-percussion score or a melange of sustained tones which would blend in with the sound effects - seemingly emanating from the landscape. We went with the tones.
The all-percussion score sounds like fun, and I look forward to doing it some day, but it is a cliche to have drums accompany "action" and this sound immediately pulled the film back into familiar territory. The sustained tones, however, kept the film unsettled. Skip Lievsay, the sound editor, and I spoke early about these approaches and he sent me some examples of processed sound effects just as I sent him examples of tone compositions, mostly sine and sawtooth waves and singing bowls. The effect is that the music comes out of and sinks back into the sound effects in a hopefully subliminal manner.
The end titles of the film raised an interesting question: the entire film takes place without songs or identifiable score, so what could play over five minutes of end titles that wouldn't be pretentiously self-conscious (like silence or wind) or intrusive (like a pop song)? I ended up writing a tune that features the only acoustic instruments in the score, but they take quite a while to appear. The first sounds are percussion masquerading as sound effects. The next sounds are the sustained tones which are featured in the rest of the score. Only after two minutes of this do truly familiar instruments arrive - guitar and bass - which then play to the end along with the percussion. Hopefully this somehow works with the rest of the film, at least for the few people who sit through end titles.
This score was never released commercially. Here are some excerpts.
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 any.”
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 end.
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 balance.”
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. Burwell said.
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 and 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.”
"....Deakins' stunning location work and precision framing is joined by Jess Gonchor's production design, the Coens' cutting under their usual pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes, Carter Burwell's discreet score and expert sound work to make No Country for Old Men a total visual and aural pleasure." - Todd McCarthy, Variety, May 18, 2007.
"...No Country for Old Men offers an embarrassment of riches. Jones, Bardem and Brolin all give award-caliber performances. Roger Deakins again proves himself a poet of light and shadow as director of photography. Carter Burwell's insinuating score finds a way to nail every nuance without underlining a single one of them." - Peter Travers, Rolling Stone, Nov. 1, 2007.
"...the Texas that looms up through the movie is no country for young men, either. There is barely any music, sensual or otherwise, and Carter Burwell’s score is little more than a fitful murmur. The story takes place in 1980, but cut out the cars and the drugs and we could be in 1880..." - Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, Nov. 12, 2007.
"...Sound editor Skip Lievsay and composer Carter Burwell fill the ear with suitable hush." - Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly, Nov. 7, 2007.
"...Carter Burwell's score is minimalist in the extreme; considering the surfeit of music he composed for another new offbeat crime story, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, it comes out about even." - Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 9, 2007.
"CARTER BURWELL TAKES A HOLIDAY" - Now Toronto, Cannes Report, May 22, 2007.
Written and directed by the Coen Brothers
Moving Gracefully Toward The Exit