Interview: How Wri/Dir Darius Dawson Collaborated with MelodyGun to Nail the Tone of "A Rodeo Film"
Steven Fine: Welcome, we're here to discuss the power of sound design in storytelling, and how directors can best use sound as a weapon to enhance their films.
I'm your host, Steven Fine. I'm a post-production supervisor, as well as a writer/director. I'm here with MelodyGun's lead sound designer Thomas. Today we're covering a short film called A Rodeo Film, which was released on HBO Max after a great festival run, it won multiple awards, including one from the DGA.
Joining us we have Writer and Director Darius Dawson. Thanks for being here Darius.
Darius Dawson: Thank you! Thanks for having me.
Steven: So, first off, I want to congratulate you on the film. I thought it was excellent, I've watched it twice now: once at the sound studio at MelodyGun, and then once on HBO Max. And what I love, particularly with the opening, is how you're immediately in the subjective point of view of the character. You're in his footsteps, basically, walking to that first bull ride, and I'm curious, at what point in the process do you start thinking about the world, and how to build that world with sound?
Darius: Yeah. I'm notorious for my whiteboards, and on them I break down every scene, and I talk about the different tools that we have at our disposal for each scene. You know: we have lighting, you can do certain things with lighting; you could do different things with spacial relationships, which I think is one of the biggest things for directors, because in TV we can't control everything, but we can always control where the actors are spatially; and then, of course, sound, which is a huge one.
So, yeah, at the very beginning I was thinking of things. Some stuff stuck, and made it all the way through, some of the things changed as Briana [Chmielewski], our editor, she thought of certain things, and when we linked up with MelodyGun, and Thomas, a lot of other things that I didn't even think of came up, and a lot of stuff changed.
You were talking about how subjective it feels? That was always a part of the discussion, of sucking people into that kind of subjective space: getting into Averill's subjective space was the mission.
Steven: Mission accomplished, I thought that worked great. I felt like the language for the first minute at least, before he runs into his brother, is through sound effects: through his footsteps, through the beating of the chest, that's what really struck me at first. We were curious about how you came up with the tone of the film and how that influenced the sound design?
Darius: Throughout the whole thing, not just the sound, but visuals, a lot of stuff, I was heavily influenced by Nolan, Christopher Nolan, I don't know if that's kind of cliché.
Thomas Ouziel: He's pretty good!
Steven: I saw the one shot that was like an “Interstellar cut”, of him driving down that road.
Darius: Exactly, yes! It was. It's like we were just ripping him off, for sure. But one thing that I think he does well, honestly, when you're thinking about viewing a film in a theater... I feel like a part of the suspension of our disbelief is feeling like we're being pulled into [the scene] and can't get away, and I feel like Nolan is really good at grabbing us and not letting go. Interstellar was a big one with the sound.
And then, I was influenced by the country a little bit. We talked about the wind in certain parts. [We added] breaths and subtle things, because, at the end of the day, it's just like a love story. It's this grandiose thing, on this big stage, riding bulls, but it is also this intimate thing: there was a kind of duality in the sound of big, hitting, knocking and then there's a quietness too.
Steven: Very intimate, yeah. I did love those moments where it felt very big, and you enter a scene and it kind of gets quieter and quieter into that intimate moment. Even entering the bar, where it's got some music bumping and then you slowly get to that moment where there's stillness and he's just watching Frankie. And then, of course, that scene with him and his brother at the end: I felt like you could hear the background noises a lot in the opening and as it got closer and closer and more intimate, you're just focused on the voices – and that's the presence.
Thomas: When we started working with Darius, or any director, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out where the story comes from, what are the thematic elements that drive it. When someone works on a film it's got to be an all-consuming idea, because it takes so long! So, what're the things that really drive the story, and are really important, and the characters as well. We talked a lot about how alone he feels in this world where he has no real place to belong, yet there's all these intense relationships going on. He's kind of trapped, and so a lot of that imbued the kind of tone we're talking about.
You read the script, you get an idea of what it is, then you see the actual film brought to life through the vision of Darius and you get to reinterpret it and see how the edit actually creates the new flow. They did a great job bringing that to life, and from there was a lot of talking about what we wanted to feel as we're going through.
You talk about that opening, and how do we use these inter-cutting things and the great score that Kyle [Woods] did, and create these dynamic things for the audience to latch onto, and keep us in his perspective. We feel the quietness, the loneliness of it, and then he talks to his brother a little bit, and we get this little thing where he starts to tune out his brother and that really gives you a small indication of where his head is at and how those dynamics are working together.
Throughout the film we get more, specific things to play around with: the whole montage at the end, and a lot of quiet moments that you want to not get in the way of, but [want to] allow to breathe in the right way.
Steven: Speaking of the score that you just brought up. Darius, how do you manage to balance score with sound design in quiet moments? That score is so amazing, but I thought you did a perfect job of balancing the use of it: where you're not leading the audience too much with it, but you're setting tone with that score, and you're giving emotion, and yet it's the performance and the actors and the story that's leading the audience emotionally.
Darius: It's just working with great people. As Thomas was saying, Kyle was great: we met even before we shot the film, and we started going back and forth. One of our initial conversations I had with Kyle was how Barry Jenkins worked with his composer on Moonlight, and how they wanted pieces of themselves in it and how aggressive the score would be at times. I don't think I had ever worked with a composer in that kind of capacity before, so this was new territory for me. I felt like I was in good hands, because even Thomas had notes for Kyle, we would try some stuff, then go back, like, “hey can we take this out, add this in”.
Honestly, I think I got really lucky to work with some great guys, to help me figure it out. I know how things make me feel, but I can't necessarily do it – I'm not a composer. So these guys showed me the different things, and it was like “yes, that's it” or “maybe we need something more”, or “bigger”, or “smaller”. I was in good hands, honestly.
Steven: Sometimes they're like magicians, they pull magic out of what you've created.
Thomas: There's a lot of learning how to communicate with sound people. A lot of our job, as sound people and composers, is kind of abstract in how it comes to life, but the things that we really focus on are feelings, motivations, things that help ground our idea of what we're trying to accomplish, to really enhance the director's vision. That gives us a nice linchpin to work from and we have a lot of freedom after that, once we understand what the goal is. We have a lot of freedom because directors tend to not know exactly why something works, or not, they just know if it works, or not. And that's the most important thing: does it work? Well then, does it matter how we got there? Not really, they don't care. But it's the fun conversations of why it should work at all, you know? That's the stuff that is the fun puzzle to solve.
Steven: Speaking of the world that the story is set in: rodeo, cowboys... Did you have much experience, Darius, with this world? Did you know what it sounded like to be at a rodeo? What was your research like?
Darius: Yeah. So, I got interested in doing a story set in this world about 8-ish years ago. It all started with pictures. I'm from North Carolina, and from the country, my uncles would have horses, but they weren't like “cowboys'' living that Western lifestyle. So, I saw these pictures from the Bill Pickett Invitational; they took us under their wing, their logo is in the credits, they really helped us out a lot, and are helping us out now even still. For the last eight years I've been spending time in this world. We even shot a crowd scene at the actual Bill Pickett; we went and shot the crowd, we went around and recorded sounds and everything. We spent a lot of time in the bullpen, of course, because we were watching the bull riders. Yeah, tons. Tons of research, so much rodeo, and I'm kind of obsessed with the lifestyle now. I want my own horse, I want my own piece of land. Yeah, complete immersion.
Steven: You brought a level of cool to it, and level of epicness.
The next thing I wanna ask: I wanna get to Thomas, and ask about when you [Darius] handed over picture lock, and how that collaboration started and where you guys found surprises that you didn't see before?
Thomas: What's great about getting a script earlier on is you can start to picture the world, based on what you've read, and it starts to sit on the surface and you start thinking about it a lot. So, by the time we got to the spotting, I had my own ideas, but we always have a deep spotting session to go through the entire film.
We talked about the entire process, where the film started. We talked about those core ideas that just hang through the whole process: what are the things that remained, what are the things that left. Even if it was gone, by the time they shot it. Like, “Oh, we had this idea, but it didn't pan out.” Just hearing what that idea was, can sometimes spark a feeling that we want to convey, that wasn't there in the picture any more, but we can still do a little to bring that back to life.
One of the things I'm always proud of is the quiet stuff. We talked about those middle scenes. Obviously the montage, and the beginning, had a lot of fun sound design and were super important to execute well, but when you're able to take these smaller moments and you're choosing just the right five room tones, to figure out what that is, which one of those is going to dip? What are the different elements? And all those things. We talk about not the elements, but what the goal is for feeling, and it gives me a lot of leeway to go figure it out, and try a bunch of stuff and see what's working and what's not.
I don't know if it was much different than a lot of projects, but every project is its own thing. You have your structure of how you're gonna work, and then you've got to figure out, and be flexible, for the actual schedule and all those different things that show up.
Steven: And Darius? How did you come upon MelodyGun? And how was it working with them? Were there any moments where you were surprised, moments in the edit where the moment wasn't hitting as hard as you thought it was going to hit and all of a sudden MelodyGun brought it to life?
Darius: I'm gonna answer that part first. Literally all the time. Even when we were doing ADR, that's when I got really surprised. Thomas was suggesting things like “Let's get Jermelle [Simon]”, the guy who plays Averill, “to take a little breath here.” like he breaths it in, in that situation, or “Let's get an exhale here.” Those are the moments I love the most, all that intimate stuff, that's my jam. It was him suggesting those things.
For me, until this point, I've been a set guy. I'm like “I'm gonna get in on set”, “I'm gonna get these moments on set”, and directing isn't just what you do on set, it's the post process too, it's all of it. It's kind of like directing after we've shot it. It was a cool, new experience for me. I'd done some ADR, but it's always been “let me fix these lines”, not “let me really accentuate this moment”.
We did that with the older brother as well: let's get little grunts here, or little sounds here. There's subtext in all those little sounds. That was dope.
And then all the aggressive stuff, like hearing chains and thumps and thuds. I always saw those things, but Thomas would pick thuds or sounds with a different tone, not exactly what I was thinking, but I was like “Oh man, that works really great”. We always get a ton of compliments on our sound. A couple of other people I know of come to you guys because of they love the sound
Steven: You spoke of the effects of breaths, and adding that in ADR, and it's really amazing to see how much it makes those characters feel even more tangible when you're watching. You brought up the chains, and you can see the chains and those elements, but you feel it when that sound is added. Bringing those two together is just essential.
Thomas: You know, you have a lot of power. If someone is breathing and then they stop, you feel the inhale, and you kind of hold your own breath all of a sudden. It's just kind of a natural thing, that's all subconscious, but that sound is constantly doing, to tailor to that moment and hopefully maximize it in the best way.
Steven: Amazing. And, to finish this off, I wanted to talk about one way you honored your influence of Nolan: that final montage. If you're talking about honoring that influence, it was an amazing piece of editing, film and sound design, all brought together, music as well. I want to go into details about building that sequence.
Darius: That sequence was one of the first things I saw when I was putting this movie together, because I just love how he moves us across time and space. What I said to Thomas was: we're not seeing him walk to the car, we're not seeing him get here, but we're moving across it, because at this point he is a proxy for his brother, he's a vessel to be used, so it's almost like this is just smashed together... but I wanted it to be beautiful too! Beautiful, but kind of tragic.
I knew that we wanted a lot of the diegetic sounds in there, like the gates, and I always knew I wanted the sound to go out at some point and we'd hear the wind whipping, almost aggressive... I came up with all these pieces of what I wanted to see, and him and Brie were really great at crafting it into this thing that was better than I could have done on my own. With all the pieces, I knew what I wanted to hear and see, and everyone else built it for me and then I get the credit!
Thomas: You guys did such a great job in the edit, the pacing of it is so good. As soon as the door slams you're thrown into the sequence. What we talked a lot about a lot was the arc. There's always an arc in art, especially film making over time: so what is the experience leading up to the gate drop? It's a crescendo of inner turmoil that's been building and building and building. And we have all these nice slow-mo shots that let us get into this deep tone. When he's using the rope and hitting stuff – it's not just regular stuff, you're using the cinematic language very well to help us tell the story better.
Then it was a matter of trying to figure out where are we using breaths from the bull? Where are we using the hooves? Where are we using all these different elements that we have, to heighten that. Then there's all these rope things happening, all building into this – and then he lets go. That's the sequence, he lets it go in a way that's a little abstract. It builds into this great moment that feels like the culmination of this entire piece. Just a really great sequence.
And, after he hits the ground, we tried a lot of different things to kind of feel what the right version of that ending was. We ended up going with the wind stuff, but for a while it was more score, and we went back and forth trying different things: it's the end of the film and it has to hit in the right way.
Steven: The actual ride was unbelievable. I've never really experienced a bull ride like that in movies. I've seen bull rides in movies, but to be in that perspective, and having the sound kind of whipping in and out, and that shift to where you have the regular lights and then, I think, they were like blue and red lights that switch on? It was unreal. It was very original.
Thomas: Yeah, it was beautiful.
Darius: Thank you.
Thomas: When we get great material, it makes it easy.
Steven: Well, Darius, thanks for being here with us today. We appreciate your insight into the thought process. Congratulations on the film.
The post sound process can often feel a bit like a mystery from the director's P.O.V and hopefully we can change that through these conversations – help demystify the process.
So, everyone listening, catch A Rodeo Film on HBO Max if you haven't, and we'll see you on the next one!
Images courtesy of arodeofilmmovie.com & @arodeofilm on Instagram.