Film Sound: 'The Equalizer'
Issue: October 1, 2014

Film Sound: 'The Equalizer'

CULVER CITY, CA — Sound work for The Equalizer, the new action-thriller from director Antoine Fuqua and Columbia Pictures, and starring Denzell Washington, was completed at Sony Pictures Post Production Services ( on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City. Supervising sound editor Mandell Winter and sound designer David Esparza led the veteran sound editorial team. Re-recording mixers Daniel J. Leahy and Steve Pedersen mixed the soundtrack in Dolby 7.1 in the studio’s historic Cary Grant Theatre.

Each of the four sound artists has a history of working with Fuqua. Winter, Esparza and Leahy occupied the same roles on the director’s previous film, Olympus Has Fallen. Leahy and Pedersen mixed the 2001 hit Training Day as well as the 2003 film Tears of the Sun. As a result, all four came into this new project familiar with Fuqua’s expectations and taste for sound.

“Mandell, David, Daniel and Steve are core members of my team,” says Fuqua. “They are brilliant artists who understand the nuances of sound and how to use sound, sometimes in almost imperceptible ways, to add color to a character or make an environment come to life.”

“Antoine has an aesthetic that I would describe as ‘gritty realism,’” observes Esparza. “He likes to use sound to tell the story in a way that puts the audience ‘there.’ He wants a lush, full world with a lot of activity when we’re in the city, and he likes sound to describe the environment not just in the sense of place, but also in the sense of emotion. Whether it’s playing sirens to heighten an edgy danger, people arguing off screen, or squealing brakes—all those things play into the mindset of the characters.”

Winter says that his team enjoys working with Fuqua because his films are sound intensive and the director gives them plenty of room to exercise their creativity. “He knows what he wants and gives general direction, but he puts a lot of trust in his team,” he notes. “He encourages us to bring forth our own ideas.”

The Equalizer is set in Boston. One of the film’s principal locations is a large home improvement center where McCall (Washington) is employed. Early on in the sound editorial process, Esparza made several trips to a Los Angeles-area home improvement center to surreptitiously record ambient sounds and make mental notes about the store’s acoustics.

“Despite being an incredibly large space, the sound is deadened,” Esparza recalls. “They have music playing through speakers mounted to the ceiling, but when you walk ten feet away, the music disappears. It’s that dead.”

The sound team recreated the idiosyncratic sounds of Boston’s mass transit system, waterfront and barrio. Sounds of commuter rail trains recur frequently—they are McCall’s primary mode of travel—and are often used to enhance background tension. McCall’s working class apartment and an all-night diner are among other locations that received rich sound treatments.

Perhaps the most interesting “environment” in the film was not a physical location at all; it was inside McCall’s head. The character is obsessed with time and, when confronted with a dangerous situation, he quickly plots a course of action in his mind. Those moments of heightened mental calculation are rendered in stylized slow motion.

“The picture, sound design and music weave together to create this slow time,” explains Pedersen. “It’s very artistically done. McCall analyzes his opponents: ‘What does he have?’ ‘Where’s the gun?’ ‘That guy’s got a corkscrew.’ He registers all the potential weapons that could be used against him. This slowed time analysis goes on for 30 seconds of screen time.”

“The visuals that Antoine shot gave David and Mandell a great opportunity to put in sound design stuff. It’s all bent reality. That was a license to have fun.”

Esparza notes that the sound editorial team worked closely with composer Harry Gregson-Williams to arrive at the right balance of sound and music for such scenes. “All of the elements combined to make those moments punch,” Esparza says. “Throughout the film, Harry provided score elements to the cutting room. So, early on, the core melodies and motifs were included in the mock-ups. We worked against Harry’s music to make the sound design coexist and not clash.”

The sound team also had a lot of leeway in creating ambience for the film’s action scenes. One of the most violent moments involves a fight in a bar—a man is brutally beaten. Meanwhile, a baseball game plays through a radio. “We bring in the baseball game underneath this very aggressive fight,” recalls Winter. “And we let the action of the game rise with the tension of the scene.”

“You hear cheering, you hear the announcer as the fight escalates,” Esparza adds. 

At the same time, sound can be heard coming from outside the building. “There’s a cement factory out there,” Winter explains. “You hear the trucks and you hear the callouts from the construction workers. All of this activity is happening in the world as this guy is getting beat down. It really built the tension of the scene.”

Although an action film, The Equalizer differs from Fuqua’s earlier films in significant ways. Washington’s McCall, for example, is a very different character from Training Day's Alonzo Harris. “Alonzo was cavalier and outgoing,” recalls Leahy. “McCall is a very reserved, quiet guy, and so we had to do something different with the environments to keep him more introverted, more within himself.”

McCall’s insular character serves as a counterbalance for the film’s violence. “In comparison with Olympus Has Fallen, this film is light on action,” Pedersen points out. “It’s calculated, methodical, a slow boil.”

Collaboration between the sound editors, the picture editors and the mixers was enhanced by the fact that they were all located on the Sony Pictures lot. 

Leahy notes that Sony Pictures Post Production Services provided the sound editing team with 5.1 editing equipment that allowed them to prepare polished temp mixes. “That was great,” he says. “Dave was able to experiment with music and deliver a cohesive package to the stage that Steve and I could really get into and finesse.”

The sound team developed a similarly close rapport with the picture editors. “Having editorial just a block away allowed us to go in there when there were visual effects updates and look at the picture,” Winter adds. “We were able to very quickly come up with ideas and pass things back to editorial via a central server. It was almost instantaneous.”

Such operational efficiencies helped the sound team to do its best work. “We were really able to finesse it,” Winter says. “We had the time and we had the resources that we needed to make it as great as we could. We walked away feeling really good about the product we created for Antoine.” 

The sound and picture teams benefitted not only from being in close proximity to each other, but also from sharing a common infrastructure. Sound and picture files, along with associated metadata, were all stored on Production Backbone and accessible, virtually instantaneously, to anyone involved in the project.