Following his collaboration with Jordan Peele on the Oscar-winning Get Out, supervising sound editor Trevor Gates reteamed with the director on Us, an altogether different kind of horror film, centered on terrifying doppelgängers of Peele’s invention.
Following the Wilsons—a family whose vacation in Santa Cruz goes terribly awry, when their doppelgängers arrive to confront them—the pic introduced a mythology for those known as The Tethered, who are forced to live a life of misery underground, as their counterparts move about the world normally and happily, with no knowledge of their existence.
An incredibly inventive and cinematic horror film, centered around the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk—with its carnival games, screaming roller coaster riders and nearby ocean—Us was a dream project for any artist working in sound. With Peele’s second film, Gates brought into the fold two veteran re-recording mixers—Oscar winner Doug Hemphill and two-time nominee Ron Bartlett—who were every bit as excited as Gates about the sonic possibilities to be found with this project.
“Ron and Trevor and I have worked with a lot of filmmakers, and with Jordan, the thing that amazed me so much was, he had the courage, which he always does, to say, ‘With this film, what you’re going to walk away with is something inside you. I’m not going to tell you how to feel or what to think, but you’re going to walk away with something I brought out inside you,’” Hemphill shares. “And I felt the same way with us, as sound artists. He brought out things in us that were remarkable.”
When the mixers came aboard the film, “We all sat there and looked at each other like, ‘Oh my God, this has so many things to it, and creative avenues to explore,’” Bartlett recalls. “One of the best parts about working with Jordan is that he allows you to bring your creativity in on it, and expects you to bring your A-game and lift the film, in ways maybe he didn’t even think of.”
In comparison to Get Out, Us offered Gates the chance to work with a much more expansive sonic palette. The challenge, for the sound editor and his mixers, was to strike the right balance with the sonic palette they devised—getting under people’s skin, while remaining naturalistic and grounded, in the sounds they brought to the pic.
DEADLINE: Trevor, what was your reaction when you were approached with Us?
TREVOR GATES: I did Get Out with Jordan a couple of years prior, so this was what I call ‘a privileged callback.’ We had a really good time on Get Out. Jordan really enjoyed the time that we worked together, and the work that I did, so when he called Formosa [Group] to locate where I was, he reached out, and that was a very cool feeling, to be able to continue this relationship with Jordan. He’s such a great dude and such an awesome filmmaker, so I was very excited to be able to get back into the trenches with him, and part of the deal that we put together was me being able to hang out with Ron Barlett and Doug Hemphill on this one. That was also very exciting to me, because I’m kind of a new kid on the block, in the grand scheme of things, and I was going to have a really great opportunity to work with a couple of veterans who were also both very cool dudes, and just do fantastic work.
So, I initially watched the film and I was pretty affected by it, internally. It makes you want to think about all the things that you’ve just experienced, and I invited Ron and Doug to come view the movie with me over at Formosa on one of our mixing stages. We watched it together, and had an experience together.
DOUG HEMPHILL: One of the things about working with Jordan, as sound people who try to tell the story through sound is, we’re feel guys. It’s all about feeling it, and we don’t want to overtly let the audience know what we’re up to in the sound. We would rather the audience feel it as well, and Jordan is absolutely one of those people. We all spoke the same language. We would roll through entire scenes and mix stuff live for him, which is challenging, but so productive, because you’re literally all audience, when you’re rolling at 90 feet a minute through a scene, responding with your feelings. Jordan is absolutely at the pinnacle of that craft. He’s definitely a feel guy.
Because of Trevor’s work, and how Trevor had prepared tracks, when Ron and I would mix, we would try to create a vibe or a feeling that was appropriate within the story. Sometimes, we would hit it, or it would be in a direction that maybe Jordan wasn’t thinking of going. But it was all totally collaborative, the whole way through the mix. It was just such a pleasure, and such a provocative film, obviously. I think art is meant to provoke, and certainly this film, when I first saw it with Ron, I was so flabbergasted, I said, “I have to see it again. I have to listen to it again.” I couldn’t absorb it all.
You know, we’re audience, the same as the audience who watched the film. We just happened to be able to mix the film, or cut sound for it. But ultimately, we’re always thinking about the audience. We, too, are audience members, and when we got to the fourth act, Jordan is such a powerful filmmaker, we switched up the end of the film dramatically, and remixed it in I’d say a couple of hours. And I’ve very, very happy with how it ended up. It has a delicacy to it that I think is beautiful.
DEADLINE: That’s interesting given that famously, Peele totally reworked his ending for Get Out, as well.
GATES: Yeah. As many filmmakers do, Jordan had a journey of exploration of this storytelling, and through the process of filmmaking, there’s decisions that need to be made, through understanding how people receive information, and how the story develops. So, he made some changes and reshot some things, and it definitely was a challenge in the 11th hour, changing the composition of how this film ends.
What’s really cool about working with Jordan is that he really empowers the creative talent around him. So, whether it was the opening of the film or the ending, Jordan’s like, “Hey, I want it to feel like this,” and Ron, Doug and I would look at each other, and follow our instincts. That was such an exciting time, to be able to go through all those changes, and even through the initial creation of the entire film, being able to really tell this story through feeling. Sometimes, it’s subtle. Sometimes, it’s not so apparent, but what we’re trying to do is kind of getting under the skin of people, sonically.
DEADLINE: When you first saw the film, what were some of the elements that you were most excited to tinker with, on a sonic level?
GATES: One of the toughest sonic landscapes that we crafted was in the beginning of the film. It had a metamorphosis, and it took not only me and my team building stuff, but also really embracing Ron and Doug’s vision on how to craft this experience that makes you feel really messed up inside, but you really just don’t know why. That was one of the challenges. I mean, there are lots of things. There’s many, many layers to this film, and we really tried to embrace the idea of duality throughout, because it was an important part of the characters, of the plot.
We really wanted to embrace that from a sonic standpoint, so we ended up melding sounds from different parts of the film into specific parts—like, Whac-A-Mole and breaking-down engines had similar sounds that were used, and escalators and Whac-A-Mole sounds would blend together at the end. Haunting crickets that sound like classic horror scores, but are just crickets…
HEMPHILL: …Like the Psycho shower cue crickets.
RON BARTLETT: The thing I loved that Jordan loves to bring is a subtlety with purpose. So, the whole beginning walk [on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk] has subtle, different shifts and changes throughout, but it has a real purpose of tone. Like, it’s bringing something to boil, but very slowly. It’s simmering, and it gets hotter and hotter throughout the film. In the beginning, it’s like, “Oh, it’s a carnival. It’s great. It’s a nice place to be.” Then, that slowly starts to shift, and you’re like, “There’s something wrong here.” You just don’t know what that is, and it’s unnerving. It’s in such a subtle way, but it has such a driving purpose throughout the film.
DEADLINE: Could you break down the layers we hear in the film’s opening on the boardwalk, with its carnival atmosphere, and the Vision Quest funhouse space a young Adelaide walks into, in a fateful moment?
HEMPHILL: I remember having a discussion briefly with Trevor about, “Screams at a carnival aren’t that different than screams when people are terrified,” and that was a little motif I liked. Because you expect to hear people screaming at a carnival. But at the same time, in this context, it can be a little unnerving.
BARTLETT: What I loved is that the rack focus that we used with sound will point to certain things that move you in a direction. You start to lose some of the dialogue between the mom and dad a little bit, and then you focused in on what the child is actually paying more attention to when she’s walking. Things like that really shift your sensibility.
GATES: When we started building some of these things, we tried a couple of different things, but what I really wanted to do was build a foundation of naturalistic sound that could potentially feel horrific, and it was all about specificity. It was all about being articulate in the moment, but giving a certain weight to the sounds you’re feeling—like, the roller coaster dropping, or the waves crashing—creating this full-frequency spectrum to sounds that really make you feel the feelings. Then also, the screams—we took screams from roller coaster rides, and then also screams of horror, and mixed them together and did a doppler thing, so they modulate.
Really, it was about being able to be specific and very rich at the same time, so that you really felt what we were going to experience. Then, handing it over to Ron and Doug and watching them weave the tapestry was really fantastic.
DEADLINE: The relationship between sound design, score and music supervision on this film is really unique. Early on, for example, the Luniz song “I Got 5 On It” plays in the film as is. The track then becomes something of a musical motif for Us, with its melody becoming a part of the film’s score. How did all of the film’s sonic elements end up coming into such tight alignment?
BARTLETT: That’s a real signature thing that Doug and I do, is blending sound design with music. You can never quite tell what’s what sometimes, and that’s the whole purpose: It’s so of one nature that you go through the film not distracted by one or the other. They’re blended in a way that takes you through the film like a breadcrumb trail, and they’re all woven together. I love doing that, and it’s a great feel because it’s very organic to the film, to the story.
There’s so many different elements and ways to get in and out of that, whether we’re using different reverbs or delays, and outboard gear, and all that kind of stuff. They’re all just tools to our palette, [which] we use like colors on a painting, so we try to blend those that are complementary and do really cool transitions. Transitions from scene to scene are a big deal, how you feel from one to the next, and like Doug said, we’re audience members. We do things that we think sound cool; that’s the bottom line.
With the deconstructed “5 On It,” that whole idea came from the trailer that they did. That had some of that idea in there, so then we took that idea and made it more elaborate. But it’s the same concept, where it’s partly score, part of the song, and it’s all cut up into little pieces. So, when I got that, it was all these short, cut pieces that I had to blend together to make into one solid concept, from beginning to end. Because it’s a fairly long sequence, where [Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide] goes down into the underground, until the end, and it was so much fun. I really went a little over the top, which I liked, because it was very dramatic at the end, when they’re fighting. It was a big sequence that we had tried a few different ways, and I think definitely the one we ended up with was far better than any of the others.
HEMPHILL: When we did the NWA song [“F*ck tha Police”] at Josh and Kitty’s house, again, we were going for a certain base of reality, and Ron stood up and did something so cool. I just love it, to this day.
BARTLETT: We were playing around with different reverbs and things, trying to make it sound like that house. We wanted to tie it into the whole house system, so I took those tracks home with me and played it through my stereo system, and then mic’ed my whole house. I had some right in the living room, some in the hallway, some down in the kitchen, so I could go between those different mics and create exactly that feel. Like, when they go upstairs, around the corner, you feel that shift, and it’s all real acoustics. It’s not just a reverb slapped on top.
DEADLINE: How did you find your way to sounds that felt right for Red, in terms of the spoken and unspoken ways in which she communicates?
GATES: Some of the intermittent communication between the mother and the family, on the [Tethered] side, the inception came from Jordan early on. That communication is very minimal, and Lupita gave a great performance on those sounds specifically, so from a creation standpoint, we really leaned into some of the sounds that were performed on the day. As far as Lupita’s voice [as Red], we tried a couple of different things. We really wanted to lean into a damaged vocal cord from being strangled, so we did some really interesting things on the creative side, prior to the mix.
I bought a contact stethoscope microphone, and recorded some sounds directly from the throat, and in the end, it was just a little too much. From a design standpoint, it didn’t seem organic, and one of the things that Jordan said is, “Look, as we’re going through the sound for this film, if you ever feel like you’re teetering on the side of sci-fi, you’ve gone one step too far.” We really wanted to keep it in the horror genre. So, the sound for Lupita, I’ll credit to two people—it’s both Lupita’s performance and Ron’s mixing. He did a lot of work to really bring out the textures of this performance, and really make it intelligible and focused. We tried a bunch of stuff, but in the end, the minimal and naturalistic approach was the winner, and it really wouldn’t have gotten there without Ron digging in as hard as he did on the mix.
BARTLETT: The first time we played it, it was like, Wow, what a performance that Lupita gave. I didn’t want to mess with it too much, or go too far with it, and Jordan didn’t want to go there either. But I really dug into details with every syllable. Some of the clicking and the raspy throat, I brought those elements out more, and I went syllable by syllable, making sure you could understand what she was saying, because it was a little difficult at first. She gave such a dynamic performance that you need to bring certain syllables and elements out, so that you can get it, as a storyline. It’s meticulous work, but it had such a great payoff.