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‘Homecoming’ Sound Designers Redefine The Term “Original Score” With Sam Esmail’s Retro Paranoid Thriller

By Matt Grobar, June 12, 2019 9:42am

With his Amazon series Homecoming, Sam Esmail strived to create a paranoid thriller in the vein of those from decades past, turning to his sound team to ratchet up the dread through experimental means. Three of the series’ key creatives, Kevin W. Buchholz (Supervising Sound Editor), Ben Zales (Music Editor) and John W. Cook II (Re-recording Mixer) did so, while coming to redefine the term “Original Score.”

Based on a fictional podcast by co-creators Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, the Golden Globe-nominated series is set at Homecoming, a facility claiming to help soldiers transition back to civilian life. Cutting back and forth between two time periods, the story centers on Heidi (Julia Roberts), a social worker at the facility who eventually comes to recognize its much more sinister agenda.

Drawing inspiration from films like The Conversation, Homecoming was using “a very specific set of paints” to tell a very specific story, Buchholz says. In need of music that could amplify the show’s tone while paying homage to a filmic canon of the past, Esmail made the fairly unorthodox choice to go without a composer. Instead, he looked to Zales, providing him with over 100 priceless cues, which would be cut together and repurposed, melding together to create one cohesive sound.

Drawing pieces of music from such films as Vertigo, Klute, Marathon Man and All the President’s Men, Zales had in his hands the work of such storied composers as Pino Donaggio, Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone and Clint Mansell, striving to live up to the legacy of the art and artists in the mix. Ultimately, the task at hand was one no craftsman could handle alone. Working in concert with Buccholz and Cook, Zales also relied on music supervisor Maggie Phillips and Homecoming’s picture editors to bring an original score like none other to life on screen.

What excited you about the prospect of working on Homecoming?

Kevin Buchholz: For me, the scripts were really exciting, but I was a huge fan of the podcast, similar to Sam, and Ben and John as well. I binged the podcast back-to-back—I listened to it twice—and as a sound nerd, a story being told orally like that was intriguing. Then, when we were tasked to bring it to the small screen, I wanted to make sure that we honored the podcast, and made sure that sonically, we really represented the story. As I was reading the scripts, I couldn’t help but read it through the lens of the podcast, and what was so exciting was when it actually came to the screen, the way Sam put it in this time period changed the whole way of looking at it, with this 1:1 ratio versus the full-screen ratio, and the nods to ‘70s cinema, and Hitchcock and whatnot.

It started going in a completely different direction, but I had an idea of what it was going to sound like. We were really going to be reliant on these sonic markers to pull us in and out of things, [and] there was this whole maturation process that took place, in a way I’d never had before on a show, because there was never a frame of reference, and nothing as unique as the podcast. So, I think the most exciting thing was just trusting what Sam was going to bring to the screen, and then making sure we supported the vision.

John W. Cook II: We all were very interested to see how Sam was going to translate, or take it to another place, or take it to the next level from the podcast. Kevin and Ben were the ones that carried Sam’s vision forward for the most part. I was there with Bill [Freesh] at the end, just to help with making it all smooth out.

Ben Zales: I was a big fan of the podcast, and actually when I finally got the first script, I was surprised at how similar it was to the podcast. I knew it was all going to rely on the visuals and the music, as well, not knowing what the music was going to be. I knew it was going to be very interesting, and when I heard that there was not going to be a composer writing original music for the show, and that he wanted to try to keep it in the ‘70s cinema, paranoid kind of realm, that’s when I started to get really excited/nervous, to be honest.

Working with Sam is intensive, so I knew it was going to be quite a task, and the end result is kind of the perfect marriage of what he did visually with Tod [Campbell], the DP, and me and the editors, who were helping pick out the score that ended up in the show. Maybe there have been other television shows that have taken this approach—but maybe not this scale. I feel like the show just had a lot of uniqueness to it, in terms of it being a 30-minute drama for Amazon, with the music budget that it had, and the type of music that was honed in on.

What kind of sonic contrast did you set out to create between the two time periods we see on screen, in different aspect ratios?

Buccholz: In the 1:1 aspect ratio, most of the sounds that you hear are much narrower and thinner, and claustrophobic, and then when we were in 2018, in full screen, we felt compelled to play it wide and lush, in a lot more detail, to give you a more full-frame sonic landscape. With the 1:1 we really leaned into the soundtracks of that ‘70s era, like The Conversation, that Sam was nodding to, as well. We tried to have things like that to help the viewer know where they were in the story.

Homecoming is highly effective at stoking anxiety. The split-screen phone conversations between Heidi and Colin seem to comprise two unique sonic textures—one for each side of the call—and are particularly jarring. Was the idea to use sound as a psychological weapon?

Buchholz: That was completely intentional. I had seen these split screens early on, looking at dailies, and I emailed Sam saying, “What if we really lean into this thing?” as a nod to films like The Conversation, and Walter Murch, and what they had done [with] this surveillance-style, voyeuristic type of approach. The POV was that of the audience listening in on a conversation between two people, almost as if this was being recorded, and it did exactly what you suggested—at least, I hope it did. So, to futz both sides of the conversation was very intentional. It was something that Sam was really excited about, and as somebody who really loves to manipulate dialogue when I can to lend that kind of suspenseful, paranoid vibe, it was pretty awesome, when we actually got a chance to do it.

Cook: We experimented with ring modulation. It almost sounds like cell interference, a little bit of the breaking up of the sound. For the first mix, my instincts were telling me that I should play the different characters and the different perspectives a little more traditionally, and make certain sides of the conversation pop a little bit more, to support what you were seeing on camera. But true to Kevin’s instincts, Sam was like, “No, no. I want it to play at equal volume, rather than emphasizing what we’re seeing on screen.”

Zales: Also, the way Sam decided to shoot a lot of the series was a very high bird’s-eye view. He often said, “It’s kind of like the viewer is a scientist, looking in on an experiment.” So, everything you’re seeing and hearing is creating that feeling, where we’re watching this as it happens, listening in on privileged information.

Buccholz: What John had done in some of those bird’s-eye views is give a little bit of distance—get a little reverb, and actually play perspective pretty aggressively, as if the listener is in the camera position, as opposed to playing it full-range, like you would in more of a traditional style. There’s a shot in particular where there’s a hyper close-up on the recorder that Heidi has, and if you listen closely, we’re inside the recorder. We’re listening to the playback—listening to the recording—yet we’re in the world with them. All those types of choices were intentional, to lend to this kind of paranoia. It’s little touches like that that are probably lost on most people, but the type of things that make working with Sam so special, because there really are no rules. In fact, breaking the rules is kind of encouraged, at least in my experience.

On Homecoming, you used bits and pieces from over 100 vintage cues, stitching them together to create a signature sound for the show. Ultimately, it feels as though you filled the position of a composer, creating the illusion of one overarching score, when there really wasn’t one. What inspired the series’ unusual approach to music?

Zales: I think it all came from Sam—his approach to the entire season, in terms of the paranoid feeling, and the way he shot everything. In the beginning, there was talk of getting a composer, and maybe having him rip off the vibe of ’70s scores, but in the end, he was like, “Why do that?” The other option that was thrown out was having an orchestra recreate those scores, so we’d have stems, and a high fidelity recording of whatever cues we ended up wanting to use, but in the end, that was nixed as well. Because it was all in a feeling. Having the old recordings with the hiss, with those huge orchestras, all of that was a part of how Sam wanted this to feel.

Some of these cues are 40 or 50 years old, and have a lot of hiss and noise in them. We brought Sam in early, even before our first mix, and said, “Take a listen to this, and let us know if you are bumping on having so much hiss and so much noise.” We played it for him, and he goes, “Yeah, no. I love it. Let’s keep it all in there.”

Cook: I jumped in and was like, “Really?” [laughs]

Zales: Because so much of your job is cleaning out that dirty stuff.

Buccholz: Yeah, right—very similar to the phone conversations. Like, “Really?” The way Sam and Tod shot this thing makes the things we contributed to it possible; I can’t stress that enough.

If this show looked like a traditional, contemporary thriller, none of these things would’ve worked. It’s such a complete vision, if you ask me, and they opened the door for us, sonically. The hiss in the queues, you end up really welcoming it, and it ends up setting the stage. It’s all those imperfections that make for a signature tone for the series.

Ben, could you flesh out a sense of how you went about working with the series’ music?

Zales: In the beginning, when everyone was trying to figure out the way we were going to go about this, we experimented with per episode, trying to use maybe one score. So, the editor would be like, “Okay, this episode really lends itself to this particular soundtrack,” whether it be a Morricone, or a Clint Mansell, or a Donaggio score. They were like, “Let’s try to do that, because it creates a theme throughout the episode that makes it cohesive.”

Then, having to edit the scores together, and make it fit the theme, and make it hit the right things at the right time, I think that all [makes] the viewer feel like it was an original score for the episode, until you start getting down to more recognizable scoring. You hear the signature sound from [John] Carpenter and you’re like, “Well, that really sounds like Halloween,” or wherever we took it from.

How did the Homecoming team piece together so many disparate cues to create a sense of cohesion? I understand that certain cues came and went throughout the edit, if licensing them proved impossible.

Zales: Correct. That was a huge deal, locking something in and then finding out later that we couldn’t get a particular version of a cue. There were some pieces that Rosie [Tan] or Justin [Krohn] or Franklin [Peterson] cut into an episode, and when it came down to licensing, Maggie would come back to us and be like, “Here’s the version they have approved.” Sometimes, it would be in a different key and a different tempo, and I would have to then go in and keep the integrity of what everybody was already liking, taking this version that is the same cue, but completely different, and make it feel the same. That was a challenge for sure.

That happened throughout the season, and there were time where [the editors] put in cues as best as they possibly could, and I’d come in and tweak it, and put the finishing touches on it, for it to really feel like it was a part of what was on screen. Especially when you’re mixing composers and cues from different soundtracks, that was a big challenge. Going from a [John] Williams cue straight into a Carpenter cue, they’d sound completely different, and [were] in different keys, and I would try to adjust for that—and John would help me on the mix stage, in terms of EQing two cues together and making it feel as one.

To touch on one other challenge, we only had the stereo masters of these cues, so adjusting levels of anything within the cue was not possible. When you’re working with someone who’s as meticulous as Sam, you want to make them happy. So, [when] he’d say, “Oh man, I really wish that little drum hit wasn’t there at this particular time,” trying to find a way to cut around it, and find another piece of a cue that sounds exactly the same, and going in and out of it, just so you can’t hear that little drum piece where it landed, was one of the major challenges, as well—cutting around, and making these pieces not stick out in any way.

Because these pieces were scored to a completely different visual, the score’s going to do what it’s doing and not necessarily going to match what we’re looking at. So, the challenge involved, the way I could put it is, it’s like fitting a round peg into a square hole.

Homecoming features cues from a range of cinematic touchstones, directed by such titans as Alfred Hitchock, Alan Pakula, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter and Oliver Stone. It must have been nearly impossible to secure all of this music, even with a reasonable budget.

Zales: It was definitely a logistical nightmare. Our music supervisor, Maggie, was constantly on the mix stage with us, making sure the right stuff was getting in, going over spreadsheets with Sam and our producer, Gregg Tilson, making sure we didn’t go over budget, and making sure, logistically, that everything landed where it was supposed to be. This was Maggie’s first time working with Sam, and it was definitely not an easy path. But she attacked it head-on, and I relied on her a lot to make sure everything was in the right place.

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