Director Christy Garland and sound designer Peter Albrechtsen talk about their collaboration for this issue’s DVD, The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song. The film is the tale of Mary, a drinking poet and her son the bird owner, Muscle, who tries to protect his mother by locking her up. But like the birds, Mary sings to her own tune.
Christy Garland: At screenings for Bastard, people have noted that it seems to have more in common with the use of sound in a fiction film – a heightening of the location sound that brings the audience as close as possible to the characters’ inner lives.
Peter Albrechtsen: That’s something I really loved to do for this film. It was an obvious choice because there were so many sounds surrounding our main characters. I like to use sounds in a musical way and for me, that approach came very natural with Bastard because from very early on we talked about sound and music as one. Tom Third, the composer, was part of our very first meeting so it was very natural to talk about everything at once.
I love when the music is pretty much there already when I start the sound edit because it means that I get very inspired by the texture of the music and the two melt together more naturally. It also means that I can add in rhythmical elements in the ambiences which fit together well with the music. There’s lots of that kind of stuff in Bastard as well, all the way from the timing of bird tweets to the sound of rattling cages.
Of course there was a lot of noise on the tracks but it’s quite remarkable what can be done with modern software tools and I’m not afraid of noise. Noise is everywhere in the world and it actually makes things come alive. Of course, it can be a problem if you can’t hear the dialogue but the dialogue editing really helped those issues. And the interplay between words, music and sound effects can help a lot, as well.
Christy Garland: We connected immediately with your approach, because as you describe sound design in musical terms, Tom very often approaches music as sound design, particularly in his use of instrumentation. Most important, from my perspective, was that you both shared an attitude of restraint, which is so rare in documentaries. Bastard packs a few heavy emotional wallops, so it was a delicate balance, I think, conveying the chaos of that place with the quiet of the main character Mary’s solitude and the depth of her loneliness, without stomping on it with “sad music” or putting too much tension in the ambiance.
The obvious example is when Mary drops the bomb about the babies, your rhythmic use of those crazy tree frogs, combined with a subtle, but unsettling, tympanic sound in Tom’s cue (I think he used a violin like a drum, bouncing chop sticks on the strings) – it underscores just enough of our own emotional reaction to Mary’s pain without telling us what to feel. Those are the moments, where the sound and music choices can intelligently anticipate (or undermine) an audience’s emotional reaction, and I felt you and Tom always stayed on the right side of that.
And that kind of sensitivity isn’t easy with the very limited time you both had.
Peter Albrechtsen: Our sound editing process was actually extremely compressed – sound effects editing and dialogue editing happening at once with great help from my terrific colleagues, Morten Groth Brandt and Nicolai Linck. But because you, Tom and I had such a good, specific talk before the sound work started, I felt that we were in sync all the time. We aimed to create an evocative, musical and very dynamic soundscape and I actually think we achieved that most of the time.
The thing about short-time processes is that you don’t really have time to get a distance to the things you’re working on – it can be difficult to feel how an audience will perceive everything. Here it helped that you and Tom had such a great fresh view on things when we were mixing. That was the toughest part about the process – the short schedule – but looking back I never felt we rushed anything.
I still haven’t seen the film with an audience, actually. I’d love to try that. I love when you sit in the theatre and people are quiet and alert in the right places. That’s when you know you’ve done a good job.