Soundtrack: <I>The Killing of Two Lovers</I>
Issue: November/December 2021

Soundtrack: The Killing of Two Lovers

The Killing of Two Lovers is a drama about a man - David - who is trying to keep his family of six together while he and his wife go through a separation. As David struggles to come to terms with his wife’s new partner, his jealousy and desperation becomes too intense to handle. Directed by Robert Machoian, the film stars Clayne Crawford, Sepideh Moafi and Chris Coy. Peter Albrechsten and David Barber were part of the sound team that worked on the film and were responsible for creating a soundscape that helped convey to the audience David’s impulsive nature and growing despair. Here, they share insight into their work.

How did you get involved in The Killing of Two Lovers?

Peter Albrechsten: “The Killing of Two Lovers is actually the second feature film I’ve done with director Robert Machoian. Robert loves to use sound as an integral part of his storytelling and we really hit it off when we worked on his previous film, When She Runs, which he directed together with Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck back in 2018. When Robert had just finished the script for The Killing of Two Lovers, he wrote me and said, ‘I really believe that you need to work on this film for it to be what I am imagining.’ So Robert was thinking of sound already when writing the script and on the shoot, which is incredibly important. He shot the film in these elaborate long takes, and quite often with minimal dialogue, so he left a lot of room for the sound design to shine. The film is a family drama told from the perspective of a man, David (Clayne Crawford), who tries to overcome a lot of family issues and work out the relationship to his wife and kids, and Robert wanted the sound to reflect David’s inner feelings and the emotional turmoil he’s going through.”

David Barber: “I’d been working with dialogue editor Ryan Cota for some time and Peter had hired Ryan to cut the dialogue on The Killing of Two Lovers. When Robert and Peter were looking for a stage and re-recording mixer to work with in the LA area, Ryan recommended Juniper Post and me for the job. Peter and I had a few virtual meetings, and really hit it off. The vibe and energy were great, and we discussed the sonic vision for the film extensively. Peter reiterated several times to push the boundaries, think outside of the box, and don’t be afraid to try something new. Those were some ambitious, and at the outset, intimidating marching orders! As I was mixing dialogue, ADR and Foley, ‘outside the box’ with these elements is a no-no generally speaking. But we found some ways to do just that while still serving the story and not pulling the audience out of the experience.”

What were some specific needs from the film?

Albrechsten: “Robert picked this unique location, a very small town in Utah, which is surrounded by these beautiful mountains and wide-open landscapes. He really loved that place, so when we started talking about sound, there were two things we talked about. One was creating the inner voice of David, the abstractions, and the other was how to describe the environment in this small town through sound. 

“After the shooting ended, Robert went back there and recorded lots of ambiences on a Zoom recorder, and some of that stuff is actually in the film. And at the same time, those recordings also inspired me to create a sonic palette for the place. I’ve never done a movie with so many mooing cows! I’m in love with train sounds, so there are some of those as well, but very much in the distance. It’s generally a film filled with distant sounds. The interesting thing is that when the sources of sounds are very distant, it’s hard to hear what the sound actually is. Was that a screeching train? A rumbling truck? Or perhaps some weird, wounded animal? I love that kind of grey zone of sound, which I very much explored with the ambiences in the film. 

“I also worked a lot with rhythms, as there was no music, so I could really build a kind of dance between the words and lines and all the layered background elements — having a cow moo at a specific time in between dialogue lines, or a crow call, or all these different elements that were sonic characteristics of this small town. It was very much a way of creating a pulse throughout the scenes and underscoring the many ambiguous emotions in the main character.”

Barber: “The dialogue was in need of some cleanup work. Several of the scenes were shot really run and gun. And also there were several long, continuous shots, allowing many things to sonically creep up and mess with a take. In one scene, David is picking up his kids and taking them to the park. It is one, single, long shot. We start outside the vehicle, then all four passengers get into the cab of his pickup truck, drive for two-and-a-half minutes, and then stop at the park, where David hopes to enjoy a little family play time. They did two takes and the second one is in the film. The four characters talk constantly, with overlaps throughout the ride, and there is no ADR. There is no option but to make production sound work! So that’s what we did, working for clarity, while preserving the organic feel of the production sound itself.”

Since the film has no score, what was it like creating the sole sound of the film?

Peter Albrechsten: “From the very beginning, Robert also decided he didn’t want any score for the film — the sound design should be telling the inner story of the characters. That was quite a challenge, but it also opened up for using sound as a very expressive and powerful part of the film. There (are) a lot of emotions that aren’t explicit in the film, so sound gives you the rage and the frustration that is inside of the main character. 

“As David spends a lot of time in or around his car, I came up with the idea of using car sounds to describe his emotional turmoil. We then made a sound collage based on the car door, metal screeches, and different abstract tonal elements. This fit in perfectly with the film. We used different variations of this throughout and it really became a sonic motif in the film. It’s a quite unique approach to a family drama like this, which is usually underscored with strings or other classical instruments. It makes David a more unpredictable and complex character, and works very well together with Clayne’s amazingly nuanced performance. 

“It was very inspired by musique concrete, a type of music composition invented in the 1940s that utilizes recorded sounds as raw material. Robert actually shared some pieces with me by visionaries like Pierre Henry and Hildegard Westerkamp. In movies, subjective sounds are often quite reverberant, airy and kind of weightless, but Robert wanted to kind of avoid that and work with very rhythmic elements, and the car sound collage is often quite harsh and hard hitting.

“I also played around with other abstract elements and used animal roars when he turns on the engine and a lot of weirdly-processed rattles and whines, pitched so that they fit together or create weird dissonance when he’s driving — really turning the car into a living, breathing predator. It’s a beast. 

“The car is really an additional character in the film, and the sound gives it a distinct and unpredictable personality. It adds incredible tension to the film. It was such a bold decision by Robert to not use music but let the sound show the emotions of the film.”

Barber: “Yet after Peter was done with the design, it doesn’t ‘feel’ like there’s no score! The musique concréte textures Peter created include some tonal, metal groans that read as ‘musical’ without being an actual score, yet when they come in, you get a sense of the theme of the emotion of the film. Without a traditional score, we were able to use other sound elements in a more emotive way where the wind, the air, the leaves lightly rolling across a street, the grittiness of the dialogue, etc., are all orchestrated to envelop the viewer.”
What was your collaboration process like with each other?

Albrechsten: “David was recommended to me by the film’s dialogue editor, Ryan Cota, and when we met, it was a match made in heaven because Dave also has a musical background, and for me, that's really important. When I look for people to work with, I don't really look too much at their technical skills, I look way more at their musical approach to sound. I feel that the more musical a sound is, the more it touches the emotions of the audience and the better the movie gets. 

“David had the same musical approach, and when we were mixing at Juniper Post in LA, it often felt like we were in a band together, bouncing ideas back and forth and getting crazy creative constantly. Every experiment had to be tried out. And the way Dave mixed the dialogue was simply incredible. Experimental and emotional at the same time.”

Barber: “Yes, the musicality of Peter’s approach to the design and the mix was really a treat to be a part of. Oftentimes, when we were working through a scene, I would be thinking to myself, ‘It’d be great if x, y, z, were happening in the FX’, and by the time we hit stop, Peter had already done those things. After our first pass through the film, we did a playback and felt we hadn’t explored the dynamics as fully as we could, so we spent the next day and half orchestrating the mix even more, pushing the highs higher and the lows lower. Having the scenes play like movements and the film play like a symphony was the goal of how we wanted to build the energy and emotion throughout.”

What was your collaboration process like with director Robert Machoian?

Albrechsten: “My collaboration with Robert Machoian is quite extraordinary. He has a lot of faith in me and is really open to any idea or input that I bring to the movie. One of many great things about Robert is that he's actually asking a lot of questions instead of telling you exactly what to do. So he's talking about the emotions of the film, but he's not giving me descriptive directions. It's really about inspiring us on the sound team. And I really like that kind of communication. I think it's a very creative way of working together. 

“As I live in Copenhagen in Denmark and he lives in Utah, there are thousands of miles between us, but it doesn’t feel like that when we’re working and sending QuickTime sketches back and forth. During the three months when we did the film, Robert came over to Copenhagen for just a week and at the end, we met in the mix in LA, so we really weren’t together much, but we were totally in sync. Even when we meet, we sometimes don’t talk at all, but we can just feel by being in a room together, what works. It’s a very inspiring collaboration. Robert really wants to explore what sound can do beyond the image.”

Barber: “My experience with Robert was all on the dub stage and it was fantastic. He came as advertised, with a great desire for experimentation and exploration of what sound could bring to his story. One of the ‘outside the box’ things we did with the dialogue was extensive panning. Traditionally, dialogue will remain in the center channel, but with the way this film was directed, acted and edited, panning the dialogue in relation to a character’s position on screen became a technique we could use to augment the storytelling. 

“One of my favorite Robert stories has to do with the panning in the opening house scene between David and his father. Everything was working great, dialogue was panned, EQ’d and [reverbed] into its proper place, except one piece of dialogue from David’s father. It just wouldn’t fit sonically into the picture we’d painted. Robert recognized this and said, ‘Why don’t we just lose it?’ What writer/director permits you to lose a line of dialogue in order to preserve the illusion of sonic space that you’d created? In my experience, that is no one...except Robert Machoian.”

What gear did you rely one to execute the project?

Peter Albrechsten: “Even though it’s a low budget movie, it was a quite international setup: the dialogue edit was done by Ryan Cota in Sacramento; Michael Raphael recorded some really beautiful, desolate winds around the US; the Foley was done by Heikki Kossi in Finland; and I did the sound effects editing in my studio in Copenhagen, with help from two effects editors: Andreas Kongsgaard and Mikkel Nielsen. 

“We all use a lot of different gear, but first and foremost, all of us record a lot of sounds and play around with them. There are no synthesized sounds in The Killing of Two Lovers, but a lot of manipulated recordings of all kinds of stuff, like the sound collage is built from recordings of smashing up cars at a scrapyard. A plug-in, which was very integral to my sound design, was Slapper from Cargo Cult. There's a lot of places in the film where you have all these weird delays of words and dialogue and sound elements, and they were created with that amazing plug-in. I just love how it can do all kinds of weird, creative, crazy things that I could never make up. It’s really a playground for sound.”

Barber: “We mixed in the box using Pro Tools and on my side of the console, I went deep with iZotope RX in the rotation. In order to accomplish a lot of the dialogue panning, we decided to develop as a theme, some extensive extraction needed to happen to either eliminate elements from a character’s microphone or to literally create two audio files from one source file in order to be able to individually manipulate/pan those elements. There’s not another tool out there that could have made this mix possible with the elements we had to work with. FabFilter Pro-Q 3 and MB, Waves, Altiverb and Slapper were instrumental as well. I mean, why not create a surround cacophony of running footsteps with Slapper? Well, because when you’re mixing with Robert and Peter, that’s exactly what you do.”