In Netflix’s new movie “The Guilty,” Jake Gyllenhaal plays Joe, a street cop demoted to desk duty after an incident gone wrong. We meet him in the early hours of the morning when California is in the midst of another wildfire disaster and Joe is confined to answering 9-1-1 calls. When he receives a call from a kidnapped woman named Emily (Riley Keough), Joe leaps into action. With the film’s action being played out through Joe’s headset, the film’s sound design is placed front and center, acting as the driving force for the story.
Director Antoine Fuqua entrusted his longtime collaborators to build his sound team, including re-recording mixer and sound designer David Esparza and Mandell Winter to serve as supervising sound editors.
Winter explains, “It started with Jake and the cast on set, but all of the callers were remote. It was designed that way because of the pandemic. We came up with a conference call that was piped live into Jake’s headset so that he could hear and perform against the actors.”
With the likes of Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, Ethan Hawke, and Paul Dano providing voice work, sound designer David Esparza was tasked with building the sonic elements that surround the vocal performances so that the audience believes the calls are coming from the streets of Los Angeles rather than an actor’s home.
The pandemic meant with actors working from home, the production audio of being on a set was not able to be captured in a typical way. Esparza says with no audio track and just voices, everything had to be created from scratch. “The jostling movement of the phone, cradling the phone, moving it from one hand to the other, even those little subtle movements or somebody shifting in bed, everything down to those little details were all painted in to help create the illusion that these people existed in these environments. And that the movement was actually occurring on the other side of the phone.”
Achieving that familiar indistinguishable scratchy sound of an action being performed through a telephone required extensive trial and error, multiple passes and expert manipulation of sonic bandwidth.
“We had to walk between sounding realistic on the phone versus being visceral enough to actually tell that story on the other side of the phone in the detail that was necessary,” Esparza adds.
To create the film’s rich and textured sound design, each element present was given detailed consideration. Beyond the technical, from a storytelling perspective, the team tried to inject as much tension to give the idea of chaos, between the obvious things like sirens going off in the background and the presence of the wind. Those included the more subconscious things like the low rumble of the van giving that sense of dread, choosing the right engine to give that emotive quality of danger or the hypnotic nature of the windshield wipers, says Esparza.
A key part of the sound design was also exploring Joe’s emotional state through the sounds around him.
“Antoine wanted to give the impression that the city was sort of spiraling out of control a little bit. And that feeling sort of permeates the film in general with what’s happening with the characters that Joe’s talking to as well as Joe’s own psyche,” Winter said.
As the story progresses, Joe becomes more enthralled with his mysterious caller and determined to save her. The tension builds — what began as softer sounds become sharper, more visceral and more engrossing, designed by Winter to enhance the emotion in the performances.
“The sound gives us the opportunity to really get inside of Joe’s head. It’s representative of this enormous pressure that he’s under. We used devices like the ringing in the ears, or the absence of sound to give a subtle, subjective weight to the moment,” Esparza says.