Nearly three decades ago, two young Minnesotans named Joel and Ethan Coen went down to Texas to shoot a film called “Blood Simple.” It was their first feature. And to use a cliché, “the rest is history.” But they were not the only artists making their debuts on that film who would later go on to become staples in the American film industry. Actress Frances McDormand, sound designer Lee Orloff, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, composer Carter Burwell, sound editor Skip Lievsay and boom operator Peter Kurland also cut their teeth on “Blood Simple.”
Lievsay, now sound re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor, and Kurland, now production sound mixer, have worked with the Coens on every feature film the siblings have made since then, the most recent of which, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is a sound showcase.
But as is often the case in this industry, both Lievsay and Kurland found their way to their careers in very unlikely ways. Kurland had just a small degree of sound and theatre experience in high school when he was hired as a production assistant on a production in Nashville where help was needed in the sound department.
“It wasn’t my first choice,” he admits. “My wife was also on that project. And she got hired to go down to Texas to work on ‘Blood Simple,’ and because I had a couple of weeks experience, that opened a door to at least look for that gap on the ‘Blood Simple’ crew.”
That gap was in the position of boom operator, and three decades of sound work for the Coens has followed. “Virtually everyone I’ve worked with came from that first shoot down in Texas,” he says.
Lievsay’s journey began in a much different field. “I wanted to be an architect and I was working as a field engineer and a surveyor when I was young,” he says. “The recession in the ’70s made that a bad idea.” The transition to movies came as Lievsay thought he could maybe build sets for commercials. “I understood that maybe they made some movies there but I didn’t know about it,” he says. “I met some nice people and one of those people I met early on introduced me to Joel and Ethan. And I could not have been more fortunate.”
The family idea, Lievsay says, is very important to the Coens. It’s very rewarding to be a part of a “gang” as production as they are, working at such a high level and with such high ambitions. “There is an idea we’re really trying to do our best all the time and do something special whenever we can,” he says. “And the comfort is that they know that and they’re very grateful for the relationship and the contributions. It makes the whole thing fantastic and very rewarding.”
Despite numerous players working consistently with the Coens in this period, Lievsay and Kurland have an especially close relationship. And even though the two sound artists do not work together on a day-to-day basis (due to their different roles), they remain two of the only people who have worked with the Coens on every single one of their feature films.
“Skip and I are friends and we talk on a frequent basis,” Kurland says. “I’m not involved in the overall soundtrack, though I need to make sure I provide what he needs. We try to plan that out as much as possible.”
Music is always important to a sound mixer’s work, leading to Carter Burwell being an important player that both Kurland and Lievsay cite. While Burwell was not involved on “Inside Llewyn Davis,” 15 years ago, a particularly important new player emerged on the sound team: T Bone Burnett. Involved as the musical archivist on “The Big Lebowski,” Burnett’s talent was on display for the world to see on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” He has since also collaborated with the Coens on “The Ladykillers” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Kurland, however, also worked with Burnett on James Mangold’s “Walk the Line.”
“‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is, for me, kind of the culmination of that,” Kurland says. “T Bone has ways he likes to work. I’ve gotten to understand him and he’s gotten to trust me. It involves getting together with him in advance and figuring out how to go about certain things.”
As production sound mixer, Kurland ends up being on the set virtually the whole time, which he admits is “the part of the process I really like.” On “Inside Llewyn Davis,” therefore, this presented a significant challenge in capturing the musical performances, which were filmed live. “The amazing talent and skills of Oscar Isaac in addition to the work that T Bone had done allowed us to capture his performance without forcing anything on it in the way of technology,” Kurland says, noting that the goal was to create as full and real a Llewyn Davis as possible. “I hope that helped his performance,” he says.
As sound re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor, Lievsay started working when shooting was done, and he’s obviously quite used to the Coens’ routine. “After shooting they take a little vacation and then Roderick starts cutting and [the sound crew] start behind them.” (Note: Lievsay refers to Roderick Jaynes, the pseudonym under which the Coens edit their films, as a real person.)
And like all the other collaborators, Lievsay was on the same page as it pertained to the best way to convey the music of the film. “Joel, Ethan, T Bone, Peter Kurland and I wanted to take a live take – people actually singing and playing their instruments in front of the camera,” he says. “The question was how best to get good recordings, live recordings. Everyone needed to make sure locations were quiet and serviceable for that purpose. In some cases, Oscar played the guitar and sang. In other cases, we tried to get the voices and muted the guitar sounds, and gave them a guitar recording so they could have pitch and tempo to sing against.”
One of the biggest challenges was taking multiple angles and takes and making them match well enough in pitch, tempo and phrasing, Kurland says. “We sat offscreen, T Bone with his stopwatchl and that all was really smooth,” he recalls. “There were a couple of other pieces – ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’ was one of them – that were a little more technologically complicated because there were three singers and each person was going to be live. Those required a bit more technical planning and I was very pleased with how well it ended up.”
Lievsay notes that on a very superficial level, the sound mixing of a musical is easier as “the focus is so obvious so all you need to do is organize some high-quality tracks. T Bone and his crew and all the very talented performers did a great job. It became a sort of mechanical effort to do a little trickery and make sure it all looked like it was happening simultaneously.”
Kurland adds that the biggest challenge for him was “to not panic about the live performances. It’s difficult to phrase this in a good way but it did feel a little bit like new territory. And that meant a lot of preparation. For The Gaslight, we had to make sure the place was quiet. Every set had to have some prep work done to it. So that was probably the big challenge. But there are always things I haven’t done. Every day is a whole new experiment. There were a couple of songs in ‘Walk the Line’ and ‘O Brother’ that we did live, but never to the extent that we did this. Whole spots of the movie were whole live recordings without any clipped tracks. Every movie presents its own situation.”
He also surmises that sound is a big part of the Coens’ writing process. When you read their scripts, “they’ve clearly thought through the sound element just as much as the visuals,” he says. “They have an idea of what’s beyond the page and how they want the sound to turn out.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is the third Coen brothers film in the past six years that is receiving awards talk for its sound work, after “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit.” Kurland has been nominated for both these films (as well as “Walk the Line”), while Lievsay has been nominated twice for each title. How does this awards attention feel after decades in the industry?
“They’re all movies I’m really proud of,” Kurland says. “To be recognized by both my peers and people I have tremendous respect for – the Academy and CAS and BAFTA voters – that’s very meaningful for me.”
To him, this represents a happy medium between stardom and recognition that he appreciates. He concedes his work is “relatively anonymous to the great movie-going public, but it’s not totally anonymous to those people who are aware of how movies are made. As much as I’m not looking to be rich and famous, I do appreciate the recognition from my peers. I enjoy watching other people’s movies that are excellent. There’s only ever one production sound mixer on a movie and then I get to hang around [in awards season] with the other mixers who’ve been nominated for other projects. That’s really been fun.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is now playing in theaters.