Sounding Off On "The Power of the Dog" and "The Lost Daughter"
Leslie Shatz
Audio artisans Robert Mackenzie and Leslie Shatz reflect on working, respectively, with directors Jane Campion and Maggie Gyllenhaal

Robert Mackenzie knows a thing or two about the creation of soundscapes to advance storytelling in film. In 2017 he garnered a Best Sound Mixing Oscar, the Motion Picture Sound Editors Guild Award and the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Award (AACTA) for his work on Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. That same year Mackenzie won another AACTA, for sound design--as well as scoring a BAFTA nomination--for Garth Davis’ internationally acclaimed film, Lion.

Mackenzie has a track record of bonding with directors, exploring and developing sound to help realize their creative vision. And he feels fortunate to have made such a connection with Jane Campion--first in TV and now in the feature arena. Their initial collaboration came on the BBC series Top of the Lake. “That was my introduction to entering her world,” recalled Mackenzie. “She’s really interested in sound and people. She’s wonderful to work with, and had a keen interest in my working methods--and the working methods of my team.”

A favorable experience on Top of the Lake led to writer-director Campion thinking of Mackenzie for her film adaptation of the Tom Savage novel “The Power of the Dog.” Her Netflix movie of the same title centers on two brothers in 1920s’ Montana--Phil and George Burbank portrayed, respectively, by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons. While they share a bloodline, the two are profoundly different. George is polite, sensitive and considerate while Phil is seemingly none of the above. Both are intelligent and somehow share a brotherly bond--but their worlds move closer to colliding when George falls in love with and marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who runs a desolate hotel. She then moves to the brothers’ ranch to begin life with her new husband. Phil’s disdain for her is evident--but perhaps even more so for her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a sweet dreamer of a kid whose sensitivity rankles Phil. The complexities of these characters heighten when they are brought together as ultimately Phil and Peter form what appears to be an unlikely friendship, raising questions as to where true masculinity resides--in the hard-as-nails seemingly unfeeling rancher or the lad who harbors aspirations of becoming a doctor, all the while doted over by his mother.

Mackenzie served as supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer on The Power of the Dog, which recently was named one of the Top Ten films of the year by the AFI. Sound is integral to the story--particularly the nature of the story which is epic as a Western spanning the wide expanses of Montana (actually shot primarily in New Zealand) yet also intimate with a focus on personal relationships. Sound is used to express both the macro and micro aspects of life, meshing them seamlessly at times--a prime example being a scene where George and Rose dance on a hilltop, affording us a feel of the wide all encompassing backdrop of nature while audio also brings us the intimacy of their footsteps. There’s also the theme of being on an expansive ranch--yet by contrast the characters seem confined, almost imprisoned in some instances, on that ranch--again somehow marrying wide open environs with cut-off, at times almost suffocating personal space.

Mackenzie described Campion as “very subtle in the way she would steer” him and his team. “She claims ignorance, not being very good with sound,” said Mackenzie, “but the opposite is true.” And it’s “a true collaboration” where she doesn’t tell you what to do but trusts you to work things out the best way. And towards that end, she encourages a focus on character and story above all else. “In the sound world we can get distracted with a windmill creaking in the background,” related Mackenzie. Campion makes sure the focus is first and foremost on the details of the character. The sound springs from the characters and the narrative. Mackenzie said that Campion doesn’t rely on tropes. “Everything you’re bringing to Jane’s film is unique and focused on her world, her story.”

Campion’s approach to working with sound artisans is akin to how she collaborates with actors, observed Mackenzie. “She’s interested in the psychology, what makes people tick, what makes them happy, sad.” Directors, he continued, work with emotions to inspire actor performances. Campion taps into sound and the creation of it as part of “an emotional process.”

Among Mackenzie’s takeaways from the experience on The Power of the Dog was an affirmation of “the power of human beings, the power of the collective group--whether that’s the collective group creating the soundtrack or the group watching the film together in a theater. I was incredibly moved watching the film with an audience. You can feel everyone’s reaction.” 

That coming together took on a greater significance given the real-life context of a pandemic which isolated so many of us for an extended period.

Mackenzie also gained a deep appreciation for Campion’s “unique take on humanity and people,” underscoring the age-old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” The Power of the Dog is inhabited by very complex characters. “In the modern age, we’re quick to judge people, to jump to conclusions,” related Mackenzie as reflected in “anonymous comments on Instagram. People are very judgmental. Jane challenges that notion both when you’re in the room with her and for her audience.” She explores the human condition, revealing complexities and that things aren’t always what they seem.

Lelie Shatz teams with director Maggie Gyllenhaal
Sound designer and mixer Leslie Shatz has enjoyed a collaborative relationship with director Todd Haynes, spanning such features as Carol, Dark Waters and Haynes’ first documentary, The Velvet Underground, as well as the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. These projects also brought Shatz together with editor Affonso Gonçalves who cuts most of Haynes’ work. So when Goncalves took on actor Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directorial debut, The Lost Daughter (Netflix), the editor brought Shatz into the mix for Gyllenhaal to consider, leading to his ultimately getting the assignment.

Gyllenhaal also wrote the screenplay for The Lost Daughter, adapted from the novel of the same title by Elena Ferrante. The film’s cast includes Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Dominczyk and Alba Rohrwacher. 

Colman stars as a vacationing professor, Leda, at a seaside Greek resort. She becomes consumed with a young mother (Nina, portrayed by Johnson) and daughter as she watches them on the beach. They trigger memories in Leda of choices she made as a young mother and their consequences. At a recent AFI Fest actors’ panel discussion, Johnson described working on The Lost Daughter as a privilege in that it enabled her to express “complicated feelings about motherhood and womanhood” that aren’t often depicted or much less addressed in other films or for that matter society at large. Nina is grappling with these emotions, akin to what had been--and continues to be--experienced by Leda. Johnson described Nina as being “trapped in this life,” not being seen by her husband and others as a human with a life and a heart. The Lost Daughter delves into truths about being a woman that aren’t said out loud. Gyllenhaal, said Johnson, bravely gives voice to those feelings.

The Lost Daughter has gained momentum early on in this awards season, most notably topping the Gotham Awards with four wins--Best Feature, Breakthrough Director and Best Screenplay for Gyllenhaal, and Colman sharing the award for Best Lead Performance (with Frankie Faison for The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain).

Shatz found Gyllenhaal to be a progressive collaborator, “very sophisticated and precise in her expectations” relative to sound as it supports character and story. In the case of The Lost Daughter, the soundscape had to reflect the subtleties and complexities of these characters while bouncing back and forth between time periods as Leda’s present-day experiences alone on vacation cause her to hearken back to past decisions that continue to shape her life. Still, noted Shatz, Gyllenhaal didn’t want the different time periods to be delineated too clearly. Again the sound played an understated yet important role in all that.

Helping immeasurably, said Shatz, were his Foley artist colleagues from Alchemy Post Sound, Leslie Bloome and Joanna Fang. Foley is an art underrated by many, continued Shatz, but those who do it at a high level are filmmakers who manage to figure out why characters are doing what they’re doing--and creating sound accordingly, taking into account “little things that underscore what the director was trying to do that might not be completely obvious.”

Reflecting on the sound for The Lost Daughter, Shatz shared that making a soundtrack “out of small moments, out of feelings, is so hard. When you look back on it, you think, ‘how did we do that?’ I don’t fully know but we managed to. People are responding to the sound of the movie where we created an atmosphere out of all these little moments--church bells, kids playing, the Greek seaside, the sound of fish frying--all put together in a subtle and seamless way that lets you get caught up in the reverie and the story.”

The Lost Daughter adds to an extensive filmography for Shatz who was part of an Oscar-nominated sound team on The Mummy, and is a three-time Emmy nominee--for an episode of Making a Murderer, the telefilm Game Change, and the aforementioned Mildred Pierce. Shatz also received a special prize as a technical artist at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for Biutiful. He is additionally known for his work on Johnny Mnemonic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and 12 Years a Slave.

This is the third installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 94th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. The 94th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 27, 2022.

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