At just 53 minutes long, “euphonia” is a bit of a misfit amidst the many shorts and features that play SXSW this week [and can be seen at the bottom of this article], not entirely unlike its main character (Will Madden), a teenager whose purchase of a digital recorder radically changes the way he experiences the world. Following the sound collector from the native territory of his high school to the big box retailer where he is inundated with a maximum of modern cacophony at minimum wage through to the nearby forest where he can take solace in nature, the film surveys the soundscapes that are so often reduced to background din and celebrates them as if every pop and hiss an entry point into another world. Yet the further the young man wades into his auditory adventure, the more distance he places between himself and reality.
The film is a standout, not only because of its unusual length, but because of its uncommon perspective, an experience that grows deeper with the level of concentration you’re willing to give over to it since the soundtrack holds just as many revelations for the audience as it does for the characters. Director Danny Madden is no stranger to SXSW, having scored a prize for Best Animated Short last year for his hybrid “(notes) on biology,” and in making his first narrative feature along with friends from his alma mater Emerson College where he founded the filmmaking collective Ornana, he’s found another way to elude convention. Shortly before “euphonia” made its debut in Austin, Madden discussed the origins of the movie and his interest in making them generally, as well as the crafty solutions involved in filming in his hometown.
Before I ask about the movie, how did your production collective Ornana first start?
It kind of started as just me, my brother and my buddy Jonathan in high school, just going around making movies after school. We didn’t want to put just our names in front of everything, so we came up with this name Ornana. We thought it’d be a nice little tilt on the ego if we decided to have a band name instead of “Danny this, Danny that,” and it helped with forming this little group. All through college, it’s been a fluctuating roster. Only in the last year or so has it started to sort of form more tightly with Jim [Cummings] as a producer and Ben Wiessner.
Was it coincidental that there was a progression from going to animation to a mix of half-animation/half-live-action to something that was fully live-action?
I’ve always done live action stuff, Growing up, that’s something I knew how to do and would practice and did in film school for the most part. Then there was a bunch of time in between making movies where everyone needed to relax and live their lives and I [would get a] movie itch I needed to scratch. I’ve always been a doodler, so then it became hey, I might as well learn how to animate and I could make movies any time I want.
How did this film come about?
My brother Will and I were working on a film, written and directed by Jim, who actually turned out to be the producer of this one. But we were working on this thing down in New Orleans a few years ago and we’d work on this thing all day and have all these creative juices flowing. We would just have sessions at night before we went to sleep where we’d just sit down and pound out who this character was and what kind of story we wanted to tell with it, so it turned into a short, then we filmed it from a 20-page script that I wrote and then it became a little bit of a feature film by accident.
How did evolve from a short to a feature?
I’m not much for words. [laughs] So I put a script together and the whole minute per page rule doesn’t really apply to the way I write, so we just filmed it over the course of a summer. We started compiling all the footage and I had to put it on the back burner for a while to move to New York where I got a job. Eventually, I got around to cutting “euphonia” with just a whole new idea of what it was. We started cutting it together and I was halfway through the script and the cut was 30 minutes long. I was like oops, I think this is going to be longer than 20 minutes.
While filming, did you let the sound lead you visually?
Yeah, that’s something I do often actually. Inspired by a song or a poem…a lot of the time I’m matching visuals to things that I’ve heard. For this, it was like let’s create both those things simultaneously. It was just incredibly convenient to have our lead actor also be our main sound guy on set, so it opened up all kinds of things to form fit the technique to what the story needed to be.
The recorder that’s onscreen actually captured the sound that you used in the final mix?
Most of the film is straight from the source. You’re seeing it being recorded, like every little bump and microphone peek that you hear, it’s just raw – that’s what’s coming in from the microphone.
There’s a growing disconnect from actual experience that happens to Will once the recorder becomes a mediator between him and the rest of the world. Is that a concern of yours?
I don’t really want to say frustration, but for lack of a better term, [I do have] frustration with people’s disconnect. They’re checking themselves out of the present and to me, your audible environment is so important for dictating how you feel emotionally. Every time I walk into one of those super marts — a K-Mart, a Wal-Mart — you [wonder], why do I feel tense or [want to] buy a bunch of popcorn? Audio has a lot to do with it. Also, especially in cinema, [you hear all the time] wow, the cinematography was great, but have you ever heard the movie was okay, but the sound design was incredible? It’s rare and I’d like to just highlight that a little bit and show how important that is in cinematic storytelling.
Is that why there’s a sequence in the film that plays like a catalog of all the great cinematic sounds from films such as “Star Wars” and “Back to the Future”?
It’s very much a nod to just appreciate sound design. That’s something that I took for granted until I started making film and you just realize that’s what give these things character. I feel like I gave myself away with the films I selected in there, just to show I was obviously born in the late ’80s and these are the films that influenced me. But those are the films that felt truthful to these moments and it was a cool way to pull them back and see what kind of effect they can have when you overdo them.
I’ve heard you shot this in your hometown and even used your mom’s middle school to film the scenes where Will is in class.
Yeah, it was. It was shot there in Peachtree City, the town where myself and my brothers grew up, and [the shoot] was a real run-and-gun kind of thing, just showing up places. That was important for us environmentally. You could really feel the drone of the soundtrack there or you could take the time and notice what’s actually beautiful and euphonious around these parts.
The geography certainly favors it because there’s both a forest you can shoot in and the more modern stripmalls that you can feel a tension between. Was this actually something you thought about growing up?
Not really, actually, or not consciously. I would find myself finding that sanctuary, hanging out near the airstrip [that’s in the film]. It was always like a real peaceful, beautiful place for me and with this project, you just put your mind there and you start thinking like what is it about these places? Initially, the idea started out as more of a complaint, more of like “Oh, doesn’t this suck we have to hear all these terrible noises all the time?” I’d hear cars start with a squeaky belt and you’ve got to listen to that the whole time you’re driving. The more I really started to [notice] that and walk around like this character, I just started picking up all these beautiful sounds and it was like you know what? This is not such a bad place after all.
How did you get interested in film in the first place?
Probably just from growing up, having a film buff for a dad and a mom who always had her nose in a book. You learn to respect storytelling. Then you hang out with your brothers, you grab a camera and it just starts making sense to tell stories that way. I started to get serious about it in high school, then film school happens and you learn all kinds of stuff.
I was given instructions on how to watch “Euphonia.” Do you hope people experience the film in a certain way at SXSW?
Hopefully, within the first couple minutes, an audience will pick up on how this movie unfolds. I’m always interested in films that sort of teach you how to watch it, setting the tone for what you’re about to sit through. I think it might take a certain kind of patient audience, but I think film festivals are the perfect place for that. It’s a lot of open-minded people who want to see something different and are willing to give the benefit of the doubt sometimes.