Director, producer and writer Rolf de Heer has been called “one of Australia’s few genuine film stylists” (1) and “a director who continues to provoke and challenge” (2). One of the less talked about strengths in de Heer’s films is his attention to sound design. He is one of the few Australian filmmakers to embrace sound in creative and constructive ways, allowing it to become an integral and even directive element in his filmmaking. It is the way de Heer uses sound design as a whole, rather than any particular musical compositions that feature in his films, that is interesting and peculiar to his style. As de Heer himself says, “sound is 60 percent of the emotional content of a film” (3) and as film sound enthusiast Philip Brophy is fond of saying, “cinema is an audio-visual medium!” (4)
Since sound was first added onto commercial celluloid in 1926 (5), it has achieved varying degrees of success in its integration within the media. Sound in cinema is of course much more than a collection of songs or variations on a theme in a score; it is the way we hear dialogue, if we hear the sounds in the background or not, how loud they are, where they sit in the mix and when and where music comes. It also encompasses sound technologies such as the various types of Dolby, Cinemascope, SDDS, surround sound and 5.1 (6). All this influences the way we interpret images and action on the screen, how they affect us, and how we respond to them.
De Heer is well aware of the potential strength of sound and in the 10 films he has made since 1984 there is strong evidence of his willingness to use sound as a defining creative tool, more so in each film he makes. He is very involved in the post-production sound process, and claims that working on a low budget facilitates this as his crew is more compact. In fact, de Heer has claimed he would love to make an even smaller-scale film where he could do all the sound himself (7).
As a writer-director, de Heer has bravely tackled some serious sonic challenges that originate in the scripting stage. Incident at Raven’s Gate (1988) features a policeman with a hearing aid and the sonic effects of the supernatural. Dingo (1991) stars one of the all-time great jazz legends, Miles Davis, in his only film role. The audience is constantly exposed to the breathing of a woman with severe cerebral palsy throughout Dance Me To My Song (1998), as they are to the sounds of the jungle throughout The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2001). In The Tracker (2002), songs enhance the tale, and in The Quiet Room (1996) the story is told by a child who refuses to speak. Alexandra’s Project (2003) has a large proportion of the sound coming from the speaker of a television set. Each film offers a different sonic inventiveness evident in both the scripting and production stages.
In Bad Boy Bubby (1994) sound plays a role that is almost directive. In this film, music rarely appears without it serving a clearly defined purpose in the script. The metallic industrial background sounds that drone through the first 30 minutes of the film act as a bed for the sporadic, contorted dialogue, an effect similar to that achieved for the duration of Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1978). Once he is freed from the dark box which has been his home for over 30 years, there is a wonderful series of defining meetings with sound and music for Bubby (Nicholas Hope), from his initial encounter with a Salvation Army choir to his ultimate lead-singer role in a pub band, where his crazy sounds and repeating of lines from the film turn him into a wacky pop star (8). This is the perfect culmination of his habit of repeating what is said to him verbatim – his very problem becomes the thing that attracts the audience (inside and outside the film). In this film there is very little “background music”: almost all the music featured is tied to a character or moment (the church organ, pipe band, singing Salvation Army devotee, violinist or the rock band). The fact that there is no music until Bubby gets out of his home adds to the weight of these snippets, as if de Heer defines the real world through them.
Sound designer James Currie developed a binaural headset for Bad Boy Bubby, worn by Hope throughout the film. This device allows the stereo focus of the sound to change according to the movements of the actor’s head, and for his own voice and breathing to be recorded in the most intimate way. Small details often offer the best results – my favourite of these is when Bubby enters the pizza shop and a strip from the fly curtain streams over his head, the buzzing sound featuring prominently – that is really how it feels to enter a pizza shop. Combined with a microphone on the camera, this system gives the post-production sound team many exciting options to use in the final sound edit; these are fully exploited in the film, as a viewing with headphones on a stereo VHS will demonstrate most clearly. The system allowed the sound team to create a rich tapestry of sound that would have cost thousands of dollars in post-production studio time to create otherwise.
A similar binaural recording device was used on Dance Me To My Song to record the breathing of Julia (Heather Rose) which provides a disturbing sound bed to this film. In addition, a second “foam head” binaural recorder was used on the camera, creating further possibilities of sound direction and perspective. De Heer claims he did not use this device in Alexandra’s Project because the emotional engagement produced by the device would favour the perspective of Steve (Gary Sweet) (9) – something de Heer worked hard to avoid in the film as a whole – as Alexandra (Helen Buday) speaks from the television set for the majority of the film making the binaural effect redundant.
In The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, de Heer’s troubled foray into the larger-budget international film world, the ongoing sounds of the jungle maintain an intensity and tension throughout the film that has a more powerful effect on the viewer than Graham Tardif’s rather over-dramatic orchestral score. Sound designer James Currie also gives special attention to different locations in the film – the ambient sounds define spaces such as the riverside, a large hall, a small hut or the open jungle at night, enhancing the way viewers differentiate between these places – and to the colour and texture in the voice of the Old Man (Richard Dreyfuss) as he reads his trashy love novels, reinforcing this film’s emphasis on the pleasure in the simple things of life.
Like David Cronenberg with Howard Shore, Joel and Ethan Coen with Carter Burwell or Fellini with Nino Rota, de Heer has used the same composer, Graham Tardif, for the majority of his films (one notable exception being a film about music: Dingo). It is interesting to follow the development of the de Heer/ Tardif relationship, leading to extraordinarily powerful results in their most recent collaboration, Alexandra’s Project. In conjunction with no less than three sound designers (James Currie, Andrew Plain and Nada Mikas), Tardif’s minimal electronic score in Alexandra’s Project implies the undercurrent of invisible electro-magnetic signals in an urban landscape, making an ordinary street seem like a harbinger of impending doom. This creates a tension that sets the scene for the entire film, echoing the atmosphere of other suburban thrillers such as Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1996). The score is electronic, a minimal collection of colours and depths; it leaves room for ambient sounds to play a significant part, as often occurs in de Heer’s other films – such as the wonderful moment in Dingo on a traffic island in the middle of Paris, where the trumpet solo of John “Dingo” Anderson (Colin Friels) mingles with night-time traffic and he searches for a sound he hears in a subway labyrinth. All atmospheric sounds in Alexandra’s Project are exaggerated: the keys turning in locks, steps in the carpet and mechanised blinds leading to the ultimate household appliance, the vibrator. A similar emphasis is present in the mise en scène, with close-ups of household objects such as the toaster and light switches. The powerful, central role of video in this film significantly changes the way the viewer hears the audio – like Steve, we are listening to Alexandra pre-recorded on video, allowing the film to be understood as “a critique on the way we watch so-called erotic entertainment” (10). The presence of the television screen is conveyed beautifully with actual boxy television sound, and the sequences were filmed with the video running on the television, allowing Steve to respond to it in real time and creating a complex sonic situation. Steve’s interaction with the television set allows him control over the pace of the film up until Alexandra’s broadcast becomes “live”, giving her the control she so lacked in their relationship. At one stage, Steve takes refuge from the television screen behind an overturned couch, but continues his discussion with Alexandra and is drawn out again by her vocalised threats. Until then he was able to stop and start the video, crunching the buttons on the remote control. The eerie vocal loop “cheers dad” accompanying the last remaining images of Steve’s children on tape is a piece of sound art in itself. Again breathing features in the soundscape – especially in the piercing scene where Alexandra’s tense breathing is the only audio provided, making us complicit with her actions; as she nears the camera and the volume increases we feel more and more uncomfortable.
The most meaningful collaboration of de Heer and Tardif is perhaps in The Tracker, with Tardif as composer and de Heer as lyricist for songs performed by indigenous performer Archie Roach. This not only adds an extra layer of narrative to the film, but also personalises the de Heer/Tardif working relationship and gives it a new voice. After much experimentation, de Heer claimed the songs needed to be performed by an indigenous performer in order to “attach” themselves to the film (11). The songs comment on the action, putting a sympathetic white man’s words into a black man’s mouth for a tale of revenge, and thus emphasising the most potent themes in the film whilst retaining the concept that this is a tale of a group of individuals. Again the silences carry the greatest emotional tension in this film, allowing the outback to speak for itself, similar to the way Jon “Dingo” Anderson’s trumpet speaks for the outback in Dingo. This, in addition to the use of paintings by Peter Coad, makes this film an important combination of artistic media – perhaps a direct result of the film being an arts festival commission (by the 2002 Adelaide Festival of the Arts under the artistic direction of Peter Sellars). Roach later performed the songs live with the film in Melbourne and Adelaide, almost in the spirit of the silent movies – demonstrating how much narrative and emotional power the songs themselves hold.
In The Quiet Room, the atmosphere is more that of a radio play, where a narrative is used to create a world and direct our attention to different parts of it. Here the binaural set is used again, this time to record the narration of the child protagonist (Chloe Ferguson) and differentiate it from her onscreen speaking voice. As the images move slowly around the screen, the child’s narration is always up front and close, and her parents (Celine O’Leary and Paul Blackwell) can be heard arguing in different parts of the house, creating a strange “eavesdropping” effect – a technique mastered in The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974). The speechless child is filmed alone in her room for the majority of the movie – not unlike the suffering PS (Nicholas Gledhill) in an earlier Australian film, Careful, He Might Hear You (Carl Schultz, 1983) – giving the audience a second experience of overhearing (12). In The Quiet Room, the volume of voices changes dramatically – as in Dingo where the arrival of the aircraft bearing Billy Cross (Miles Davis) is almost deafening in comparison to dialogue later in the film. The arguments of the parents in The Quiet Room vary from anguished discussion to aggressive yelling, the latter contrasting beautifully with their dulcet tones when speaking to their daughter. These volume adjustments create a canvas which sound designer Peter Smith uses to shape the moods of the different scenes. And as in most of de Heer’s films, it is what is left out, more than what is included, that holds the power. Taking on a subject such as withdrawal from producing audible communication indicates de Heer’s attention to the importance of sound in our daily lives and how vital it can be to the understanding and malfunctioning of our relationships.
Incident at Raven’s Gate also has a special aural focus: the policeman Taylor (Max Cullen) has a hearing aid and listens to sounds as he searches a house, and makes good use of it for a bit of his own eavesdropping. But when it is taken away from him, he swims in a silent world. Sound is used as the first sign that something is “wrong” in this film – when the car cassette tape players start to play up we know something weird is going on. As in Bad Boy Bubby, music is also used to define the characters, as when the opera the murderous policeman Felix (Vincent Gill) loves so much – and sings alone in the most tragic of moments – is contrasted with the ’80s rock of the main character, Eddie (Steve Vidler). As in the films to follow, sound pushes the action forward and is used to accentuate events and manipulate our reactions to them.
The fact that de Heer prefers to shoot in sequence could be an important factor in the way his films are put together sonically. Whenever possible he gets his actors to act “with the music” – as Colin Friels does when he is cleaning his trumpet to the music in Dingo, or as Gary Sweet must perform in front of the video running on the television in Alexandra’s Project. His preference for using the same crew may also aid the smooth realisation of his sonic concepts; de Heer cites the collaboration with a composer as the most challenging of all required in the making of a film, and acknowledges that ongoing collaborations create a trust between the artists which allows for a free exchange of ideas.
Ideas for the sound begin in the writing of the script, de Heer claims, whether they be explicitly written in or take the form of instinctive imaginings of a certain performer or mood for the soundtrack. De Heer has commented that “instinct is education you are unaware of” (13) and recounts many times that it has led him forward. For the first test screenings of Incident at Raven’s Gate, he had an instinct that sound would pull the rough unfinished movie together. When it was shown again later to the same executive producers, they refused to believe that no frames had been changed, so crucial was the imprint the sound left on the movie (14). The album notes provided with the soundtrack for Dingo similarly demonstrate the intensity with which de Heer relates music to narrative.
De Heer’s films seem to reflect a need to understand the minority, whether it is a disabled person, an indigenous Australian, an alien or a child. Perhaps sound can be seen as the marginalised but essential ingredient in our visual culture. De Heer’s use of sound design to manipulate our sentiments and impressions in his stories testifies to the power of the medium. Maybe, as Jake Wilson suggests, de Heer has a “habit of using a struggle over spoken language as a central plot device” (15) but the power of sound in his films does not stop there. This article has just skimmed the surface: each of de Heer’s films merits a detailed treatise on the way they feature innovative sound ideas in the scripting and production stages, resulting in some of the most challenging and exciting cinema made in Australia today.
The author would like to thank Andrew Ewing for his generous assistance with the early drafts of this article.
Images provided courtesy of Vertigo Productions.
- Jake Wilson, “The Lady Vanishes: Alexandra’s Project and Rolf de Heer”, Senses of Cinema, May–June 2003.
- Fincina Hopgood, “Shooting to Thrill – an Interview with Rolf de Heer”, Metro no. 137, 2003, p 36.
- Interview with the author, February 2004.
- Raffaele Caputo, “Very Sound – A Philip Brophy Interview”, Metro no. 136, 2003, p 112.
- Mark Ulano, “Moving Pictures that Talk – the Early History of Film Sound”, accessed February 2, 2004.
- These are just some of the dozens of sound technologies applicable to filmmaking in the 1970s.
- Interview with the author, 2004.
- Hope was actually a singer in Adelaide band The Accountants.
- Interview with the author, 2004.
- Dave Hoskin, “Entering Thriller Country – Rolf de Heer’s Alexandra’s Project” Metro no. 136, 2003, p. 22.
- Interview with the author, 2004.
- Elizabeth Weis “Eavesdropping: An Aural Analogue of Voyeurism?” in Cinesonic: The World of Sound in Film, ed. Philip Brophy, AFTRS, 1999, p. 89.
- Interview with the author, 2004.
- Interview with the author, 2004.
- Wilson, 2003.