Soundtrack: <I>Coming Home in the Dark</I>
Issue: November/December 2021

Soundtrack: Coming Home in the Dark

The team at POW Studios in New Zealand created the sound design for the new thriller Coming Home in the Dark. Directed by James Ashcroft, the film follows a family on a road trip, whose members are abruptly taken by two ominous figures.

Contrary to most horror films, the feature has almost no music. This allows the sound design to shine through, while also keeping viewers on their toes by not guiding their expectations with the musical score. The POW team - led by John McKay and Matthew Lambourn - was able to focus on sounds such as the whistle of the wind and strategic silence to help immerse the viewer.

Coming Home in the Dark premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and was released widely on October 1st. Here, McKay and Lambourn discuss their work on the project.

For those who haven’t seen it yet, what is Coming Home in the Dark about?

John McKay: “A seemingly innocent day trip turns into a parent’s worst nightmare and there are dire consequences for inaction.”

Matthew Lambourn: “A dark reminder that our past actions, or lack of, can have horrific consequences, which force us to examine our inner demons. A family picnic takes a dark turn with a sinister arrival.”

Photo: John McKay
Can you talk a little bit about how the sound aids the story?

McKay: “Many reviewers have commented on the taut tension in the film, which I believe emanates from the sound. The sense of something out of place, the slow, deliberate pace, all enhanced with the menacing ordinary sounds of minutia - a car door creaking in the wind, a coat flap, a gun rattle - all added up to a sense of something out of place. I was determined that this track would have a cumulative effect of fear and dread, and not let the viewer off the hook emotionally. I think it worked.”

Lambourn: “POW Studios' own Oscar-nominated Jason Canovas as dialogue supervisor eeked the brilliance out of the main character Mandrake. Much of the on-set recording was done under challenging conditions in the harsh wind and in the foreboding landscape. Adding to that was the two antagonists’ often frighteningly soft and gentle delivery, which added to the noise floor. Jason was able to make both those characters shine, hardly resorting to any ADR, which is a rare thing today. 

“Also our team approach in making the soundtrack uncomfortable, in director James Ashcroft’s words, ‘off-kilter’. Without seeming out of place, much of the ambience work seemed a little colder than you might expect, or a little exposed in terms of where your attention was directed. It gave a sense of being alone, almost trapped in the scene. The absence of too much overloading with score let these little elements breathe. Being able to hear and comment on each others’ work, and collectively understand the film’s direction was vital.”

Photo: Matthew Lambourn
How does sound help contribute to the horror aspect of the film? Can you talk about strategic moments of silence?

McKay: “The horror in this film comes from someone doing something absolutely morally repugnant, without warning. Silence in this film, or what I prefer to call the moments of reflection, are never truly silent. You hear the rustle of the reeds, the cry of a distant bird, the bark of an alert dog, the passing sound of a fence. Our intention was to give these moments equal weight so your sense of the usual was kicked to the sideline and your expectations rearranged.”

Lambourn: “Horror is a genre where you have huge scope to portray the characters’ emotional states through the soundtrack. During the car journey, there is a feeling of claustrophobia, but also of jeopardy as the car hurtles through the dark. Shifts in the road surfaces indicate the direction of the car deeper into the unknown landscape: tarseal becomes gravel, becomes potholes, becomes bare earth. This mirrors the depths of the soul-searching characters are forced to do. At the same time, the exterior ambience leaks in, as they yearn to be free of their situation. These are moments that the audience hopefully feels, more than notices consciously, that add to the overall creeping dread.”

What was the most challenging part of this project?

McKay: “I have always said that good films tell you what to do. I never felt it was a challenge, rather a gift. Really good films don’t come along that many times in a career. The challenge was not to use the cliche or usual, to have faith in a collection of sounds creating the overall impact. Not to get in the way of the story, rather to enhance and illuminate.”

Lambourn: “Definitely the dialogue repair. Once this was achieved, James Ashcroft realized he was able to craft an even better cut from his material, which is again testament to Jason’s experience and skill. Also keeping the mix on course with James Ashcroft’s insistence of placing the mundane next to the horrific. Since we did not have the budget to include the mix team throughout the whole design process, their initial instinct was to downplay the annoying car door chime or gas station entry alert. They rightfully trained the sonic focus on the action at hand, minimizing anything they assumed would be distracting. Once James explained that that sense of slight confusion and stark reality was what he wanted, they were able to heighten and maintain it well.”

What gear/equipment did you use for this?

McKay: “The usual Pro Tools systems that are basically sprocket holes and standard. I think a little time to synthesize all the great work of the POW team was the greatest tool for this film. I had five weeks to premix the film before a very quick six days at Park Road for the final mix. Knowing your track inside out and sharing that with the director gives you the greatest chance of getting a great result.”

Lambourn: “I’ve found the DPA lavaliers to be great vehicle recording mics. Not for the engine and tailpipe, but for the areas where you need a bit more high-end detail, such as tires on surfaces and the subtle interior rattles. And Cargo Cult’s software is indispensable. Conformalizer/Matchbox got us through many recuts and conforms, essential on this timeframe. Izotope RX, and the skills to use it effectively, deserve a hat-tip. Being able to mix and replay for the director in our full mix suite made a smoother journey for delivery to the big rooms at Park Road Post Production.”

Tell us a little bit about POW Studios. How did it get started and what’s in store for the near future?

McKay: “Well, that is a short story. Jason, Matthew and I were a little sick of the lone, siloed freelancer approach, and felt a combined collaborative approach would yield better results creatively and financially. Creatively, this has been an exhilarating period, with a wide range of creative projects and to see young people grow into sound editors has been highly rewarding. We have lots of animation projects on the horizon, but we at POW are always up for a dark thriller like Coming Home in the Dark.”

Lambourn: “We all came from the world of independent contractors. Little separate businesses competing against each other, crowding the pool. We decided that if we worked together, shared resources and expertise, traded knowledge and fostered upcoming talent, that we’d be able to focus on everyone’s strengths. This meant that we could eliminate double-handling, take on several projects at once, and create soundtracks where everyone’s efforts were used. For this reason, our tracks are a team-job; editors know that their work will be heard and, because of the guidance of the senior crew, our high standards are maintained.”