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Jake Gyllenhaal is a one-man band in “The Guilty,” the airtight thriller in which the actor stars as an edgy LAPD cop doing a night shift at a 9-1-1 call center. The film’s cast also includes Riley Keough, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Dano. However, all of them are never seen, only heard only as voices on the phone calls that Gyllenhaal’s character receives.
Ordinarily, that whole supporting roster of voices would have been on the set with Gyllenhaal, off camera or in a different room, performing their role with the help of sophisticated audio equipment. But “The Guilty” (now streaming on Netflix) was filmed over 11 days in November of 2020, during California’s third wave of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Which meant that in order for Gyllenhaal to act the scenes in real time with his costars, the film’s sound design team needed to think outside the (speaker) box.
“Recording kits were built and sent out to 13 different actors,” supervising sound editor Mandell Winter explained to TheWrap. “A lot of the actors were in New York and Los Angeles, one person was even in Australia. They all got their kits from our production sound mixer Ed Novick, and then Ed and our sound utility team trained them up. A lot of them watched YouTube videos. And then right before each take, they’d say, ‘OK, now everybody at home, go ahead and press record.’”
In essence, the whole voice cast was on a high-tech conference call with Gyllenhaal during the shoot. “But we all were clear,” Winter said, “that we were not making a film on Zoom. No, everybody is going to be away from the set, yet we were going to use our limitations in a way that works creatively.”
He continued, “Every single word went live through Jake’s headset so he could act in the moment with the different callers,” Winter said. “There’s a voicemail in the film that was pre-recorded, but everything that’s live onscreen was recorded live. Then we’d get these really long audio files sent to us. Sometimes we’d get 25 to 30 minute long takes.”
And the audio files, though expertly recorded, were not always in the most ideal shape. “People were at home, so we were bound to hear things going on,” Winter said. “On one call, I could hear road construction outside of the actor’s house. There were random dog barks. The script called for a lot of sonic detail on the other side of the phone, but not always this or that kind of sonic detail.”
The task was then taken up by the film’s re-recording mixer David Esparza, who stripped out layers of background noise from the audio files, and then added sonic details to give a richness of place to each call. Or poverty, in the case of one caller.
“In one scene, the very slight sound of a floor creaking was used to suggest that the person on the phone was living in a dilapidated house,” Esparza told TheWrap. “And there was more crackle on the phone because it was a landline with a loose connection to the wall. [Director] Antoine Fuqua loves all those little tiny details. At one point, I got a note that he wanted to hear on the phone call the squeak of a police officer’s gunbelt as he entered a room. All those elements are used to craft the environment and the reality.”
Esparza took a hands-on approach to “world-izing” the offscreen events in the film. “There’s a scene where a cell phone is placed inside the glovebox of a van. So I just stuck my phone in a glovebox, put another phone on speaker with a microphone next to it, and recorded. When the vehicle was moving, there’s a very low-grade rumble in the connection, and you can actually kind of feel it, the vibration, on the phone line.”
The soundman said with a laugh that little yelps and squeaks from his own life can be heard in “The Guilty”: “My dog makes it into every film I work on, just about, including this one. My doors hinges do as well.” But he pointed out that there is also a huge advantage to the absence of sonic layers, known colloquially as “futz.”
“There were a couple times on this movie, especially as the story gains momentum, where we would remove the futz in order to generate more sympathy with a character. It’s fascinating, but when you can hear the full bandwidth of someone’s voice, you often care about them more.”
Winter added that it’s the non-showy role of sound designers that can give a film like “The Guilty” an extra sense of reality and power. “We’re invisible artists. We want our sound to glue so seamlessly with the image that people don’t perceive it as two separate things.”