When Jacob Ribicoff was 11, he and a friend became mildly obsessed with Super 8 movies, not only the ones they could shoot themselves, but the ones they could order from mail order companies. Silent comedies were of particular interest, and after Ribicoff got his hands on a copy of Charlie Chaplin’s two-reeler “The Immigrant,” he thought it would be fun to see what would happen if he turned the sound down and added his own soundtrack.
“My parents had Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata Sonata’ and one day I just put that on and wondered, what would this be like?” Ribicoff recalls. “And things were happening in the movie in direct relation to what was happening in the music and it was amazing. Seeing when you put music or other sounds to images, all of a sudden, you’d get something else. You can actually get this emotion that’s something greater than music and greater than the image by themselves.”
Ribicoff’s experimentation has continued, only these days he gets paid for it as a sound designer for film. With a refined ear and perhaps even more refined tastes in filmmakers, he has worked in every position in the sound department over a nearly 30-year career, lending his skills to such films as Tom Noonan’s “What Happened Was…” Margaret Brown’s “The Order of Myths” and Richard Linklater’s “School of Rock” as a sound editor, a foley editor on Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator” and a rerecording mixer on Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited” and Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” But these days, he’s likely to wear a number of hats as he does on Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea,” where his meticulous work as a supervising sound editor, re-recording mixer and sound designer results in being placed squarely on the docks of the fishing village in Massachusetts, capturing the ferocious headwinds off the Atlantic that continually churn as the death of Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) leaves his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) unexpectedly in the custody of his brother Lee (Casey Affleck), who is ill-equipped to return to the place of past tragedy for him.
For reasons that remain elusive to him, Ribicoff keeps being connected to the water, having contributing to the sensory overload of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s breathtaking experiential documentary on commercial fishing “Leviathan,” the Texas swamp-set doc “Uncertain” and Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans,” but it is in the more seemingly quiet moments on land in “Manchester” where the richness of his work really stands out, often underlining the crispness of every line of Lonergan’s dialogue, when not deemphasizing it for dramatic effect, and gradually letting audiences feel the weight of the outside world in layering in sounds as subtle as the air outside Lee and Patrick’s house to the clattering of dishes and conversation at Joe’s wake. Now with the film hitting theaters after a triumphant premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, Ribicoff spoke about his ongoing collaboration with Lonergan, which began with the writer/director’s second film “Margaret,” as well as how he went up to locations after the production to capture their ambiance to filter through the film and the amount of detail that went into getting the sound of a hockey practice just right.
Do you seek out films on or near the water or do they find you? “Uncertain,” “Leviathan,” “Light Between Oceans” and now this is an incredible streak.
Yes, there’s a pattern. [laughs] First, I’m a Pisces, if you believe in that, so maybe that has something to do with it. And when I was a kid, my grandfather had a house on the Long Island Sound in New London, Connecticut, and I spent summers there and there was something about the cry of a seagull. A seagull is an amazingly poignant sound. It’s got melancholy, it’s very emotional, and when I was a kid, before my voice changed, I was actually able to imitate a seagull, doing that cracking thing and I used to go out on the beach and just imitate seagulls and as soon as my voice changed, it was gone. So I guess there is this connection, but I didn’t plan this.
These movies have, in some cosmic way, have found me. “Leviathan” was an incredible project. I loved working with the two filmmakers on that and that was all about total immersion in the sea – on a fishing boat, being underwater, being above the boat – and it was very raw. Actually, Derek Cianfrance on “The Light Between Oceans” had seen “Leviathan” and in hiring me, said, “I want that. I want that same raw, almost spiritual [feeling]…almost like there’s some greater force out there.” So when I did the storm scene in “The Light Between Oceans,” it was trying to channel as much of that as you can get out of the water [with] all the tools that you can use in a movie. I’m lucky that I’ve had this string of ocean/sea-related movies to be a part of, but all of them are very different.
Since your relationship goes back to “Margaret,” how did you and Kenneth Lonergan first come to collaborate?
On “Margaret,” it was because I had a relationship with [producer] Scott Rudin and still do, working on his movies. But I met Kenny, and we’re roughly the same age and I grew up in New York City where he did. Having seen “Margaret,” it was a real Upper West Side, New York City movie and even though I grew up on the Upper East Side, we always felt we were really Upper West Siders – my family, more on the arts side, so there was already a connection there. That’s how I really met Kenny and then there was the process of working on “Margaret,” which we all know was long and arduous process.
There was all kind of legal wrangling and basically in the middle of the sound editing process, he was off the movie. We wound up with this two-and-a-half hour version of the movie that really was not his. It seemed like at the time it was just plucked out of the Avid randomly by the studio and they said, “Okay, you guys, prep your sound to this movie.” Luckily, there was a spotting session [earlier with Kenny for half the movie], so I had some guidelines to go on and I tried to follow in the spirit of what Kenny had told me he wanted, but when we mixed the movie, he wasn’t there. There was a guy from the bond company as our authority figure at the mix. That was really awkward and weird, like if you were in a band playing to an empty house. So we mixed the whole movie that way and then the movie sat on the shelf for four years.
Finally, Fox Searchlight released it and it grabbed all this attention, so that’s when Fox Searchlight gave Kenny a chance to do his own cut of the film and we mixed again for his cut, which came out on DVD. That was a great process because Kenny was in the room every day and we were able to mix that sound exactly the way he wanted it to sound, which was what had been missing from the theatrical version.
What did you first talk about when discussing “Manchester By the Sea”?
The first thing that Kenny said to me when I saw him after a screening, and before I started working on the project, after giving me one of his great bear hugs, was “You’ve got to go up and record in the areas where we shot the film.” So we put together a little trip [where] I went up to Gloucester, Manchester By the Sea, Beverly Mass and areas around there – Cape Ann – where the film was shot and went out on a boat, similar to the one in the movie and recorded the engine sounds, and recorded the ambience when the boat is just floating in the water. I also went to Pratty’s, the fisherman’s bar that’s in the movie where Casey gets into the fight and recorded guys just hanging out, laughing and joking there, and the hospital and the high school, and the hockey rink – all these places where you hear voices and they have that distinctive New England accent in their voices. I also went by the water and recorded lapping water, wind at night, and just the air outside each one of the houses that are in the movie – we did all of that.
One of the most intriguing moments in the film to me sonically is when Lee and Patrick are discussing funeral arrangements for Joe near the dock and the sound of bells in the background heighten the anxiety ever so slightly. What’s it like to create that feeling with organic sounds?
I want to emphasize how the sound design on “Manchester By the Sea” really is a collaboration between Kenny, Jen Lame, the picture editor, and then me, because a lot of it was shaped in the editing room as I was coming on to the project as they were cutting the film. Many of the choices come out of natural sound — the church bells, for example, are things they pulled before I came on to the project, but these transitions – how you get in and out of these sounds is so important on any movie and we all spend a lot of time really massaging and putting energy into making them work. And we go back and forth. When do we want to hear those bells? Do we want to hear the bells in the previous shot? Or do we want them to slowly come in or do we want to hit the bell hard on the cut? These are things that we always agonize over. Eventually, the flow of the entire movie makes that decision for us because we could sit back, watch the movie and know immediately when we watch the movie in a run, oh wait a second, that bell shouldn’t crash in there. It should come in softly. Sometimes, it’s a matter of what feels right and you do that.
Lonergan is always so careful in constructing conversations – what’s emphasized and what’s not and what’s overheard if it’s not necessarily in the foreground. How do you work on that together?
It’s great working with Kenny because he knows exactly what he wants. For the hospital scene early in the movie, Kenny said, “Let’s take a “Margaret”-like approach to this scene, [meaning] let’s hear snippets of conversation going on around them as they’re standing and talking about [Joe’s] death where Casey’s character Lee is talking to the doctor and the nurse and the friend, so we tried having these voices [around them] and we had other sounds too, like heart monitors and typing off in the corner. We really filled it up, then we watched the scene and this is when we were mixing and we watched the scene and immediately Kenny said, “No, that’s not the way to go. It’s taking me out of what’s being said and let’s really quiet the place down.” So that’s what we did and that was how we’d discuss a lot of what happens with sound.
It’s very difficult for people to discuss sound in advance as a theoretical concept. We always have a spotting session where we try and get as much from the director in terms of getting adjectives to describe what they want, but often times, it’s hard for them to know themselves what they want until you design a scene and play it for them in the mix. They listen to it and say “ehhh, there may be too much going on there” or “I don’t want to hear so much wind or water” and now you’ve started a dialogue that you only have because you actually put some sounds out there. It was great with Kenny because there’s no ego and we can have these discussions about what works and what doesn’t work and he didn’t mind at all when I would load up a scene with all kinds of sound and then he might come around and say, “No, no, there’s too much going on. Let’s cut this back.”
It’s always good to start big and be able to cut back. And “Manchester By the Sea” is a movie of great subtlety with the sound. One subtlety that really is a subtlety is when you’re inside the rooms in [Patrick’s] house, especially up on the second floor in the bedrooms [where] there’s a lot of intimate scenes that go on, whether it’s Patrick and his girlfriends or Lee and Patrick talking. Kenny said, “I really want to make these rooms feel cold and get a sense of the wind outside the house.” So I put stuff in there, including one track they had gotten on location where during one of the scenes, you could hear the wind. We actually took some of that and were able to create a longer track out of it, but [Lonergan] kept having me back that off because he was always hearing too much of it. I was afraid when we were mixing that we had backed off of it so much that it was gone, but when I went back and watched the movie last night at the premiere at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater [in Los Angeles] — it was a beautiful sounding room — and it was all there. It was subtle, but it was there and I was thrilled to hear it.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is at the hockey rink where Patrick learns his father’s fate where you’re observing the hockey practice on one side, but when Patrick skates to the other to hear the bad news, aurally, you stay where you are. How do you figure out where the emphasis should be?
That’s such a dynamic scene with probably the loudest parts of the movie bookending it, so you come into that scene and I guess Patrick is checking someone [as he’s playing hockey] or he’s getting checked into the boards on the side – it’s really loud, in your face and someone skates right there in front of you and it funnels down to this really quiet moment where Lee is delivering this news to Patrick from across the ice and you’re hearing them talk in these very hushed tones. We took a lot of time, Kenny and I, while we were mixing at just how much you should hear or not hear of their dialogue. That was all recorded in full, but Kenny wanted to ride this line of being able to hear the tones of their voice without really being able to discern the words that were being said. Maybe you’d catch a word here and there. And it took trial and error to arrive at exactly the right amount.
But there was a lot that went into that scene. We recorded Foley of all of the skating and I had an editor who was actually the ADR editor, Dan Edelstein, who in his childhood had done a lot of skating, so he happened to walk in one day on the mix and heard the skate sounds and said, “No, those sound too high-pitched. It has to be lower.” And I said, “Why don’t you take all of this Foley, go off with it, pitch it down and cut it in a way that makes sense to you because you’re a skater and I’m not?” So he pitched it all down and brought it back. Suddenly, it was full-bodied, lower and real. Then at the end [of the scene] when [the hockey players] resumed their practice and they’re skating past the camera and it gets very loud again, that was a combination of Foley and we also went to the hockey rink and recorded ambiance. I used some reverb on the voices to give it that feeling that you’re in this big arena. There was a lot of sonic work that went into that scene to bring it into concert with what Kenny wanted in terms of this dynamic of having an aggressive, testosterone-driven environment to then place this character, Lee, who’s been emasculated in a way and operating on this very emotionally constrained level where he has a hard time emoting or even talking.
“Manchester By the Sea” is now in theaters.