Posted on Tuesday, July 27th, 2021 by
Trevor Gates is no stranger to horror. The supervising sound editor previously worked on Jordan Peele’s Us, The Haunting of Hill House, and a little indie chiller called Honeymoon, the debut of Fear Street filmmaker Leigh Janiak. Gates and Janiak reunited for all three Fear Street films, and Gates created three different soundscapes full of subliminal notes audiences may not know, but hopefully feel. And then there’s the bodies breaking, people screaming, flesh-tearing, and so on.
We recently spoke to him about his work on Fear Street, including how bones and hands should sound when they break.
This post contains spoilers for the entire Fear Street trilogy.
Did any of the movies in the sizzle reel director Leigh Janiak cut together influence you?
It’s really interesting. Some of the influences don’t come so much from horror movies but filmmaking in general. So, I’ll give you one example. For 1994, in the cold opening, when Heather is in the bookstore and the phone rings, Leigh said, “Hey, you know what would be really cool? If the sound is like the phone in Scream.” I did some research and found a phone sound that was very reminiscent of that Scream sound. It’s not a direct lift, but it has that signature feel. I don’t know if anybody is going to notice it, but it’s very similar. That’s pretty fun.
For 1666, Leigh wanted to make sure we had specific and lush ambiances. She had me watch The New World. It’s a really fantastic exercise of subtlety and specificity. It’s almost like you don’t hear the same bird twice in that movie. As you’re traveling through it, there’s new sounds and wildlife. You feel the beauty of nature around you. We have beautiful, lush sounds with caves and with the montage moments, talking about the land, and that was directly influenced by The New World vibe. When everything goes bad, the mood shifts. Even the wildlife you hear changes. You may not know it, but you feel it.
Early on in the process, Leigh and I talked about some weird open spaces, particularly for 1978 in the woods. We wanted uncomfortable sounds. I wanted to find some crickets, cicadas, and insect life that felt unique, interesting, and maybe a little more uncomfortable. I essentially built a set of ambiances that were weird. They felt like they were regular crickets, but they were off sound, had an interesting pace, or played at a decent level. They’d make you uncomfortable without knowing why you feel uncomfortable.
The ambiances were built from libraries of interesting cicadas, night frogs, and nocturnal animals. I manipulated these sounds to have a certain spatial positioning and interesting pace, like I’d slow them down. We’d just find the perfect places for them in these different spots. In 1978, you hear them a lot when things go bad and travel to different parts of the campsite.
I think a lot about the Psycho score. I try to make crickets sound like the cool pace of that [iconic shower scene] track, again, to make people feel uncomfortable. We did a lot of that for 1978. We used those same appropriate sounds for appropriate places in 1994 and 1666 to create a soundscape.
In part three, the sound of the hand coming off, that’s brutal. What work goes into creating that piercing sound?
Through the work Leigh and I have done together, she’s offered me a few scenes that have been very difficult work on, just as a human with compassion [Laughs]. This scene was one of them. Because we’re talking about Leigh, I’d like to mention the first movie we did together, Honeymoon, where the husband is pulling an alien slug out of his wife’s vagina. The sound was just completely disgusting and made me feel so messed up. Leigh listens to it and simply says, “I’d like to be more sticky, less gooshey.” All right [Laughs]. So, six or seven years ago that set the tone.
With Fear Street, again, Leigh likes sticky gore, not gooshey gore. There are a couple of moments in ’78 and 1666, like when Alice’s ankle breaks or when Sarah Fears’ hand gets cut off, it’s just an exercise of articulation of sounds. It’s basically choosing the right sound and the right pacing. You can’t put too much sound on it, because it loses the characteristic. You can’t over-compose a sound like that. You have to be very minimalistic. If you add a bunch of blood and cracking sounds on top, you lose the visceral emotion of the bone-cracking or the hand being cut off.
You end up playing that scene 40 million times and going through different sticky and poppy sounds for Leigh. I have a barometer. When I’m working on it and working on it, the last time I hit play and go, “That’s disgusting,” that’s when I know I’m done.
[Laughs] Did you have that reaction to the bread slicer scene?
Oh my God, yes. That was a very complex set of sounds to articulate in the bread slicer. We started with some organic sounds. Then, we manufactured some gore and bone-popping as she goes in. It’s terrifying. From a story standpoint, the sound of the bread slicer itself and the cutting of Kate’s head, it’s horrifying, but what’s most horrifying about that is Kate’s scream.
First and foremost, the screaming from Kate was performed by her on the day. She crafted it. No ADR for that. She nailed it. It was terrifying from the beginning, so we embraced that. They did several takes of it on the set, so we had some variations of her screaming to be able to place in and out when we cut to the lobster tank. We did record some ADR for the moment, which we sprinkled in for the peripheral perspectives, but she nailed it on the day. It was harsh, grating, dirty, and visceral. We felt confident moving forward with it.
With the screams, there’s a mythical quest for the perfect horror screams. Obviously, there’s a scream on the title sequence. We talked about which different screams to place in various places across three films. A part of our loop group ADR focus was to get a couple of screamers that could really belt. We got a few really good pieces from those players, but a lot of the screams we felt from the cast, they did a good job. Teenagers and young adults have these fun, breaking voices. They really went for it on the set. It’s always hard to ask a voice actor or an actor to come to a studio and find the emotion. I mean, it is their job, but…
You could hurt a vocal cord.
Yeah, you could. We are sensitive to their instruments. Those screams are a special piece we’d ask for, but we’d only replaced what existed with library-recorded screams only a handful of times. You know, there’s a psychology of what makes something scary. I think it always comes down to context, when to go loud or quiet, giving space for people to feel feelings, but I think humanity is the bottom line. If you care and feel someone is in pain or really scared, that’s what is scary.
Right. That’s what makes the bread slicer sequence so effective.
Everyone was so mad because they loved Kate.
Where did you feel like you could really heighten certain sounds?
We knew we needed to hold onto realism through these three movies, so we can suspend disbelief. Of course, this is normal moviemaking stuff, but in 1994, we went for heightened reality. We did some things that broke the barrier. Like, a loading of a gun sound before the Cypress Hill song starts or turning up the phone ring to an 11, which would never be that loud. When Josh is pulling newspapers down to talk about the Sunnyside curse, there are these whooshes. It is a heightened reality. We can break those limits of reality for a moment, but then allow the viewer to settle back into feeling like they’re in the space.
You’ve worked on some very substantial horror over the years. With sound, say for Fear Street, do you think a lot about how to emphasize themes?
Yeah, a lot. Like in Jordan Peele’s Us, we talked a lot about duality and putting different sounds in different places, maybe you don’t know. So, there’s a whack-a-mole sound on the boardwalk. Later, we put that whack-a-mole sound when the boat of the engine was breaking down. Towards the end of the film, the whack-a-mole sound seamlessly turns into the sound of the escalator going up and down from the underbelly.
With Fear Street, we talked about the screams, the Psycho score-esque crickets. We talk about and think about themes all the time in the creation process. They’re not always overt. Subliminal, they always play a part. I’m very sensitive to whatever I’m doing supports the storytelling. I’m a fan of getting quiet and specific, allowing your mind to lock into a very subtle sound, so you can get scared.
In Mike Flanagan’s Ouija: Origin of Evil, there was the sound of this clock. It was, like, a grandfather’s clock. I wanted something that held the pace, so I slowed this clock down to just over one second between clicks. It makes you lean into it. I do things like that. With the ambient sounds in Fear Street, I hear these crickets, but what’s the pace of them? How are they going to make me feel? Are they slow enough for us to lean into it?
When Tommy Slater turns and comes out, there’s this whooshing, nocturnal animal scream sound. It kind of sounds like a bug, it kind of sounds like a bird, but not really sure what it is, but it’s pulsing in the background and feels really messed up.
In 1666, it was about The New World ambiances. When Sarah Fears walks out of the cabin, in the beginning, some of those same ambiances are at the very end when she meets Sam, when she’s Deena, out by the rock where they eat cheeseburgers. There are those subliminal signatures.
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