In “Memoria,” out now in theaters, Tilda Swinton, hearing a loud “bang” at daybreak, begins experiencing a mysterious sensory syndrome while navigating her way through the jungles of Colombia. The film causes one to ponder why sound design is often only mentioned in connection with superhero movies laden with explosions, crazy, loud music and effects which immediately permeate our consciousness.
But director Apichatpong Weerasethakul challenges cinephiles with minimal dialogue, making audiences evaluate just how crucial sound can become to the human experience of navigating through life. For more than two and a half minutes, there is total silence with only shadows in the foreground, a screeching chair, carefully placed footsteps, and that loud thumping bang, making the viewer curious as to what type of cinematic roller-coaster ride they are embarking upon.
Weerasethakul’s fantasy sci-fi film won a Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize earlier this year.
It’s an approach that hearkens back to films like 1957 Cannes short film winner “The Red Balloon,” the nearly dialogue-free tale of a balloon that follows a little boy through the streets of Paris, using urban street sounds to help tell the story.
Why would one make a film so reliant on dialogue and action? Sound editor Javier Umpierrez says, “The director was trying to explore the ways sound influences us and in all Apichatpong films, sound is very, very important. The ambient sounds that are sometimes in narrative films can be very invasive. I love that he was exploring that kind of sensation and feeling sound can give you now and again. Sound can change and influence how you feel. It can be very stressful or very calming.”
Both Umpierrez and sound designer Akitcharlerm Kalayanamitr agree on how the majority of sound cues came from directly the script, except for that crucial final moment focusing solely on Jessica (Tilda Swinton). There was nothing. So how do you collaborate to create something that’s going to resonate for that final beat? “That was the most difficult sequence I’ve ever done in my entire career, “says Kalayanamitr, “I think I had maybe more than 20 versions and that sequence probably took me under two months. there’s one scene that wasn’t scripted for sure. Other than Tilda touching the hand and that walk toward the window to no sound.”
Most of the scene sounds like a documentary. Umpierrez concurs. “That final thing for me was I discovered approaching that sequence as if I were like a normal person going to the cinema. He wanted to experiment.”