Talking Sundance, Sarsgaard, and Sound with Writer/Director Michael Tyburski

Michael Tyburski is no newcomer. The Sound of Silence might be his first writing and directing credit on a narrative feature film, but he’s paid his dues to get there. Between 2011 and 2015, he wrote and directed three narrative shorts and directed one documentary short. He’s directed commercials for Google, Target, Verizon, Pantone, Purina, L’Oreal, and many other major companies. He worked as the director of photography on William and the Windmill, the documentary that collected the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW in 2013. He even scrounged up experience in an uncredited production assistant role on Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood in Marfa, TX, while studying film some seven hours north at the once-named College of Santa Fe. In short, Tyburski is the embodiment of perseverance in the field of filmmaking.

I met him for coffee at an Australian cafe at the foot of a snow-white Park City mountain on the second to last morning of Sundance 2019, flush up against the skiers and snowboarders who wish their home or vacation getaway wasn’t flooded with filmmakers and cinephiles. Fifty feet away, folks were heaving their gear-loaded selves onto ski lifts for a powdery afternoon on the slopes or dragging their tired bodies off of them after an early morning. The contrast between the puffy, bright-colored athletes and the sleek, dark-fashioned filmmaker was pronounced enough to garner some “Is he famous?” glances. It was packed, but good coffee and beautiful scenery goes a long way when making conversation.

We met to talk about his new film, which was an official selection of the US Dramatic Competition and one of my top 10 picks of the fest. It’s a peculiar, meditative, and dry-humored film about a “house tuner” named Peter Lucian played by none other than Peter Sarsgaard, master of subtle, thoughtful delivery. What is a house tuner, you ask? You know, the music theory expert who comes by to diagnose the unconsidered sounds of your home when the collective buzz of your appliances creates a droning, dissonant chord (and thus, dissonant daily routine), who then, for example, gets you a toaster that creates harmony in your home and, consequentially, your life? That guy.

Peter’s profession is personal. He cares about what he does. He spends his days meticulously researching the sounds of New York City, which he notes on every block and intersection on a massive map of Manhattan in his reclusive basement apartment. He enlists the assistance of a graduate student familiar with the academy’s formatting standards in order to compile his research for publication in legitimate academic journals. He wears noise-canceling earbuds so as to not pollute his aural senses. He is in control.

After offering a solution to and getting dissatisfactory feedback from Ellen Chasen (Rashida Jones), a woman who can’t fall asleep at night, Lucian is stumped. On top of that, his research isn’t getting the respect it deserves, a corporate conglomerate wants to turn his work into a streamlined, capitalistic product, and there is no room at the Inn. Lucian simply can’t catch a break. With his film having surely the most original concept at the festival, I had to sit down with him to pick his brain on the subject.

Where did this neuroscience via music theory concept come from?

Well, it started as a short film here in 2013 called Palimpsest. [Co-writer] Ben Nabors and I developed Peter’s character after thinking about living in New York. We’re very aware of how sound effects us. It’s inherent to living in the city. This character who specialized in thinking about sound evolved out of that. And even though it’s an invented profession, it didn’t feel so far from reality. I liked the idea of a plumber who wears a nice blazer coming to people’s homes, doing handiwork, and just happens to be an acoustic specialist. So, it just naturally evolved into this longer story and a bit of a love letter to New York through sound. Or, at least, a more unique way to access that sort of story.

So is there any truth to his research?

Well, there’s truth to some of the science. We talked with these two neuroscientists who were scientific advisors in the credits. They helped us think about the way the brain interprets sound and how emotion could be affected by that. But, it’s entirely subjective. We’re all affected by music, but it’s different for everybody. We wanted to look into why that happens. There is precedent in early Western music. There’s this anecdote that I like. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church banned certain chords from being played because they felt they were associated with evil. It didn’t seem so far-fetched that 500 years later we could be thinking about how sound affects our emotions. I suppose it’s pseudo-science, but that’s what I like about the Peter character. In the science world, when you have a theory or discovery, you have to prove that. His race in academia is to prove his wild concept. I like to subscribe to parts of it. Maybe Peter romanticizes it a bit too much, but I think it’s a very real thing. We’re in this coffee shop right now and we’re both feeling a certain way because of all the intrusion of noise around us. And, the tools we use are scientifically accurate to what someone in the field would use to measure sound.

Are you a music theorist like Lucian?

No. I’ve read a lot and done plenty of research. But Dolby was a big supporter of the film — they gave us a grant — so they connected us with the right people. There was this woman named Poppy Crum, the chief scientist at the Dolby Laboratory. She has absolute pitch, I believe. She told us that when she goes to hotels, she typically has to change rooms a few times because of the way the air conditioner might sound. So, she related a lot to our character by sheer coincidence. She described the way certain sounds get translated to her ears by overhearing as only picking up the high end of the sound. Essentially, everything becomes a wash and can be very irritating. With Peter, that felt right, too. His biggest talent is also his downfall: he overhears. We have a scene where he goes to an office and the cacophony of people on phones, using fax machines, at the water cooler all translate into this mess that comes through as a high-pitched ringing, which is accurate to someone who suffers from that hearing disorder. And it also becomes irritating for the audience. In a good way.

How did Peter get involved?

I wanted him from the beginning. I sent him a script, wrote him a love letter.

Beginning as in pre-short-film or when you were writing the feature?

When we made the short film, we didn’t know we wanted to make a feature. We wrote the feature, and once we were on track to make it — which took a while — I reached out to Peter. He’s a great actor. I describe him as a chameleon because he can do anything. He’s played so many complicated characters. I saw him in Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter in 2015 and it’s a much different film, but Peter plays a scientist of sorts and we were writing the script at the time, and there was something in that role that got him on my mind. I’m really obsessive when I get something on my mind like that. I try to will it into being. And Peter liked the script. He responded to it almost immediately. Which was very helpful for raising money when it comes to independent financing.

Early on, he and I sat down and recorded the whole script together. I played all other roles and he played his own, and I had this audio asset that allowed me to listen to the movie like a radio play. And over the course of six months of having this version of the movie, it became animatic in a way. I could start filling in the pieces and picturing and watching it by adding in sounds, music, and eventually images for a rough storyboard of what we were doing. When it came to making the movie a year later, I felt like I had naively figured out all the problems, but it was a helpful blueprint to fall back on, to have Peter’s voice in my head.

Is that something you do for every project?

Not necessarily. With some short form projects, I’ve done it. But you know, it takes so many people to make a movie. I try to work on as much as possible by myself when I can without going through the logistics of bringing everyone together. I think I would emulate that again on the next longform thing I do.

What’s it like to work with a concept for seven years before you see it come to fruition?

To get a feature made is a small miracle. To get a first feature made is also very challenging. To get a feature made that is, you know, for a specific audience was difficult when it came to finding the right people who believed in the movie. I mean, It’s not a slam dunk on the page for everybody, so I think it just takes a lot of tenacity to stick with it. I’ve always believed that if you stick with something long enough and can convince people, you’ll eventually get it made. Or, at least, that’s always worked for me. I did a lot in that period of time, but the movie was always the through line, the end game.

I picked up some institutional critique on corporations—or maybe capitalism in general—and academia. Are those intentional?

Well, with Peter, we wanted him to be an outsider of the science community. We like to think of him as an autodidactic scientist. I think that translates to a lot of different fields. We’re all outsiders until we can prove ourselves, and I liked that as a theme. You know, that sense of rejection you can get when you put your ideas to the test when being surrounded by skeptics relates a lot to my own process in making this film. You get a lot of noes before you get yeses. So, I saw a kindred spirit in his character. Also, just being obsessive over a singular vision on one thing — I could relate to that a lot. So some of it is just about convincing others.

In terms of a critique on a corporation — well, as a small aside: the corporation in the movie is based loosely on this company Muzak, which first formed in the ’60s to create heightened music on elevators, in shopping malls, retail stores. So, we base this idea of a company that thinks about all the senses on a real corporation that actually did this. It seems like anybody who has anything sort of unique or bespoke always has someone who wants to commercialize it and profit off it. And it was important to us to show that contrast with someone who really has pure intentions like Peter. I mean, he’s making ends meet house tuning. But his ultimate goal is to share what he believes is a principle that affects people.

Have you had similarly negative experiences working with huge companies on commercials? Or is it not really like that? Do you have any creative control?

Yeah, I suppose in the commercial world as a director you have creative input, but ultimately you’re working for a client. There is certainly some artistic integrity that gets challenged along the way and you have to bite your tongue a lot. I don’t know if I intentionally made that as a commentary, but I definitely see the connection you’re making there.

What about scammy expertise culture?

Well, I don’t know that I’d call it “scammy,” but there’s a lot of thinking about wellness, especially in a place like New York City. I think what you’re getting at, and what I like about this character, is that he can be perceived as a charlatan. But what I want to reveal is that he has pure intentions. He believes in what he’s doing. I wanted to get at what drives somebody who can be perceived as giving people a sugar pill, or the placebo effect. There’s a lot of people without pure intentions out there who might not be trained in a certain medicine but are practicing it anyways. Are people affected by it or are they just getting sucked up in the aura of it?

Do you think it matters if something is working if people think it is?

I think if it makes you feel better, that’s the result, right? Me personally, I like to understand the scientific method and the reasons behind the results, but if there’s a solution out there that actually helps me sleep, I’m all for it.

I noticed that Ellen Chasen’s problem goes from feeling restless when she leaves the house in the morning in the short to not being able to sleep in the feature. What’s the reason behind that?

We wanted to dig into her problem more in the feature. I don’t think it was an intentional separation between the two. Ellen’s always been a worn down character. She’s someone who has sleep deprivation, regardless of how it manifests. She’s introduced as someone who doesn’t have her own agency. To me, on her side, the movie is about her path to self-actualization, to figuring out that she doesn’t need someone to change her. Up until we meet her, everyone has given her answers to her own ailments to mixed results.

Who made that incredible map of New York City in Peter’s basement?

Oh yeah, no one has been asking me about that [laughs]. Early on, we took a trip to the New York Public Library, and we knew we wanted Peter to have an interesting map. But, we didn’t want it to be modern. He’s living in this older New York and everything in his life is dated. At the library, we found this company Sanborn that, every single year, puts out these maps called the “Fire Insurance Maps of New York City.” Every single street of every single borough catalogued in this giant, heavy book. We contacted Sanborn and found a guy in Connecticut who is responsible for the New York City maps. [Production designer] Nora Mendis took a trip up there, explained to him the project, he got very excited, as did she, because he showed her his collection of vintage maps and all the layers he goes through to create them. So he was able to lend us his maps and we dressed them for the film.

I’m curious about the title. How did y’all came to it and did y’all considered changing it because of the popularity of the Simon & Garfunkel song?

As much as I liked the idea of retaining the original title of my short film, Palimpsest — which was our working title for the feature — I knew it would be more challenging in a commercial sphere. The definition of that word works as a great metaphor about layers that relate to our story, but unfortunately no one inherently knows that, and moreover, it’s difficult to pronounce. So with a movie that is already a bit challenging to describe, it was working against it to have a title that is equally as difficult. I made the decision after locking picture to title it something easier, but something I loved just as much and thought rang true thematically to where the movie landed. I obviously owe poetic credit to Simon & Garfunkel for writing those four words together, even though the movie is entirely unrelated. Coincidentally, that song appeared on their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., which is a very New York album through and through — so for a New York movie like ours, I don’t mind that associated trivia at all.

Was there a version of this story that dug into the romance between Peter and Ellen or was their relationship always more about the harmony between manmade and natural things?

When I’ve used the term romance in describing the movie, I’ve used it with a capital ‘R.’ It’s Peter’s romance with the city in a way. That’s the real romance to me. You talked about the maps as harmonizing and Peter has that special vantage point that he goes to where he has an overview of Manhattan. I think he fancies himself as a conductor of a big symphony, the symphony being the streets and neighborhoods of New York City. Whether or not he’s trying to harmonize it, he feels, at least, if he can’t control it that he can understand it and perhaps even calibrate it on a larger scale. So much of his work is just documenting and creating the data that proves this. And you know, whenever you have a man and woman on screen in a movie, people wonder if there’s going to be a romance. I liked setting that up as a trope, but I was more interested in using that as misdirection. As the movie goes on, it’s about witnessing two people from opposite sides naturally coming together. I’m interested in two people who reset and come back to the middle, two people who are looking for connection and accidentally find it.

Is that based on your own personal experiences living in New York for 10 years?

Yeah, definitely. New York is a densely populated place but it can be very lonely. I think all the time how you have missed connections with people. You never know it and you might never find out, but you might pass someone on the street that two years later you’ll be a business partner with or have a relationship with. I think it’s interesting that when you have so many people moving around all the time, how you’re unaware of all the connections that could be right in front of you.

Who are your clearcut, most signficant directorial influences?

In my top 10 are: Stanley Kubrick, Elem Klimov, Larisa Shepitko, Michelangelo Antonioni, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, Woody Allen, Paul Thomas Anderson, Miranda July, and Jonathan Glazer.

Would you say you treasure silence (or maybe some sort of equilibrium/grounding effect achieved through silence) like Peter Lucian? Do you practice any kind of intentional meditation?

I love silence. But it’s near impossible to achieve in New York City, where I live. There’s a great anecdote that the composer John Cage talked about. He described his personal experience inside an anechoic chamber — a room designed to be devoid of noise — and he noted that he was able to still hear two sounds: the sound of his own nervous system and the sound of blood flowing through his veins. I think it’s accurate, that even in true silence, we can’t escape ourselves. In my preparations for this movie, I’ve tried sound baths and tuning fork therapy, but I honestly function best in just a quiet room. For this reason, I took a cue from Peter Lucian, and recently moved my current office to a subterranean space below my apartment. It’s pretty quiet down there.

Any plans for a next film?

I’ve been working on this one for so long and this is the beginning of the end. I want to get into theaters right now because I believe movies need to be seen in theaters. That’s important. Then I can let this go. But I’m prepared to have some separation anxiety next week. We’ve had our premiere and for the first time I won’t be working on this movie every single day in the ways I have been. So, I’m reading a lot of scripts right now and figuring out the next thing.

So you won’t be writing your own screenplay this time?

No, no, I want to. I need to make my writing more sustainable. I take my time. I’m working on a few long term projects that will take more time to develop, but at the same time I want to stay sharp and get back to directing right away. So I’m reading scripts by other screenwriters that I want to take a stab at.

Luke Hicks: @lou_kicks Luke bleeds film and music, got his master's in film & ethics at Duke, and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or basketball.