Features and Columns · TV

The Sound of Spit is as Crucial as the Monster’s Roar in ‘The Outsider’

In this edition of World Builders, we discuss the sound design of HBO’s crime drama The Outsider with Supervising Sound Editor Mandell Winter.
The Outsider
By  · Published on June 23rd, 2020

Welcome to World Builders, our new ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople in the industry.

Horror does not exist in the image. It rests in the imagination. And often all a film requires to sink its teeth into that mischievous muddy corner of your mind is to whisper a thought or rattle an echo into your ear. It’s the crunching of claws over a glass, the slow howl of the wind through naked, creaking branches. You can shut your eyes, but you cannot close your ears. Horror gets you in the sounds.

As a supervising sound editor, Mandell Winter has operated in every manner of movie and television series. He digs the bombast of action (The Magnificent Seven), the quiet retreat of the legal thriller (Defending Jacob), and the electric buzz of science fiction (The Oa), but it’s in the dark corners of horror where audiences tend to take notice of his art and craft.

HBO’s The Outsider was a particularly nasty bit of frightful television. A young boy dies at the hand of a monster, and from this singular tragedy, a whole group of people is tainted. When a police detective (Ben Mendelsohn) partners with a paranormal investigator (Cynthia Erivo), the crime cracks open the very concept of our reality.

Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, the ten-episode series demanded long stretches of silence to accentuate the tendrils of grief extending throughout its large cast of characters. Viewers sink into the quiet but are immediately, nightmarishly rewarded by cacophonous outbursts of terror and rage. The Outsider is the kind of entertainment that never permits you to settle. It keeps you awake, and for a long time after the credits roll.

“That show allowed us to play with dynamics,” says Winter. “It was so quiet at times that when we had big sound effects that would happen, it felt bigger than ever. An example of that would be Jack [played by Marc Menchaca] in the woods with that single gunshot into the air. It’s not terribly loud, but being surrounded by all that quiet made it feel so much louder.”

Another irresistible delight of The Outsider was the chance to create the soundscape for an entirely new kind of monster. El Cuco is a beast that feeds on children because their resulting loss from the community causes an extra dose of sorrow for it to consume. Winter had some idea what the fiend was when he started the project, but he would not have a firm grasp on El Cuco until they were done.

“When talking with Jason [Bateman],” continues Winter, “it was difficult to come up with the sound of El Cuco. What does this entity sound like? He goes from host to host; do we want a transformative sound? But when he’s in between hosts, he becomes very animalistic. It was very interesting being able to go down this road because we were receiving it one episode at a time. You weren’t sure where you were going to end up in the series. It was an evolution, constantly finding our way and figuring out what works.”

The further into the series Winter traveled, El Cuco became more and more of the monster. Creating the beast’s voice necessitated more play from him and his department. Winter didn’t find El Cuco until he found El Cuco. It’s the kind of thing you don’t see until you see it — or hear it.

“Trial and error is a big part of it,” he says. “We’ll start with the human element and try and perform it. Then, do we pitch-shift it? Do we add something to it? Is that enough? Is that working? For me, it always comes down to, do I buy it? Does it sell the story? If it doesn’t, how can we make it work better? Sometimes it’s, ‘Okay, well, let’s add a little bit of this animal. Nope, nope. Too far. Let’s try something else. Let’s go in the opposite direction.”

No spoilers, but, if we look at the last episode where Jack is perched on a rock, aiming his rifle at some hapless individuals below, you can recognize that there is a lot more going on there aurally than the more explosive elements. Adding gunfire is obvious and easy to achieve, but to extend the tension of the scene, a completely different set of sounds come into play. Here is where Winter finds his fun.

“You go from those loud gunshots to the slow-mo and then into the tiniest of details,” he explains. “You then add these different textures. We’re hearing Jack’s saliva as he’s up there, and there he is getting rid of the snake, and you hear the scraping of a fork on the rock. It’s all about those little textures.”

When discussing the sound design of The Outsider, it’s easy to latch onto El Cuco, but the beast is only one tiny ingredient of the massive soundscape upon which the series sits. Winter relishes discussing the creature at the center of the story, but he’s just as eager to delve into the invisible aspects of his gig, the sounds we all take for granted in our daily lives. These are the bits that truly make or break a show.

“It was a really tough show to work on,” says Winter. “You have very quiet dialogue scenes that you had to try and extract the voice. I was very concerned at first. You’re like, ‘Do we have to ADR all this?’ There is so much heart in the performances that I was nervous. Can we get that back with ADR? Our dialogue editor worked magic in pulling the richness of voice out of the track so that our mixers had something to work with.”

One of the most strenuous sequences for Winter to capture occurred in the second episode when Mendelsohn’s detective interrogates Bateman’s baseball coach regarding the inciting murder. The two actors are mere inches from each other, and their conversation barely registers above a murmur. Their exchange contains fantastic pain, but getting the emotion to register was challenging.

“I was concerned with that scene specifically,” says Winter. “Because the two angles had different reverbs on them and there was a bit of a slap off the metal table. The production sounded kind of funky, but by the time we edited everything and got it to the mix stage, we were able to EQ [equalize] and apply a reverb that worked for everything. Then we added the light buzzes and everything else, and it was like, ‘Okay, now it’s perfect. We don’t need any ADR. Leave it alone. Don’t touch it.”

Winter is not anti-ADR, but he doesn’t see the logic in spending the extra cash for a post-production session when the actors have already nailed the scene on the day. A large portion of his job is maintaining the gold provided by the shoot. It’s all right there, merely calling for a polish.

“We can fix a lot,” says Winter. “We can save a lot. I mean, with some of the tools now, we don’t have to shoot ADR too much. It starts with a good recording on set, or at least a decent recording that I can repair.”

Make room in your budgets for the sound guys. What you don’t get today will only cost you more tomorrow. There is no need for stress, heartbreak, and despair. Winter has your back if you let him.

“One of the biggest things a filmmaker can do to help themselves is to spend more money on your location sound guy,” he says. “We are probably one of the least expensive departments. If you look in VFX, it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars on a big feature. Millions! But you look at a sound budget, and it’s nothing in comparison. So, it’s setting aside enough money to make sure we can help you and make it the best it can be.”

The Outsider is currently available on HBO.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)