Revered sound designer Steve Fanagan took the time to chat recently with Martin Carr about his involvement with break out drama Normal People….
How did you first become involved with Normal People?
I am fortunate enough to be able to say that this is my fifth collaboration with Lenny Abrahamson in ten years, who directed six episodes and also executive produced the whole series. When Lenny was working on The Little Stranger, his production partners Element Pictures announced they had acquired the rights to adapt this novel. He was attached, and after his last film wrapped we just started talking about it. When you have a long term working relationship with a director, these things seem to happen quite organically. Of course you never assume involvement with that director’s next project, but you hold out hope.
Our first proper involvement from a sound point of view would have been in pre-production. We were reading scripts, meeting with producers and discussing schedule and budget thanks to Lenny including us. By being involved early on you know when things are shooting, which on this occasion meant I could visit set for several days and record. Our sound library for Normal People began from a whole collection of unique recordings done in places specific to the series, like Dublin’s Trinity College. I also visited the secondary school where Connell and Marianne first meet, and both house locations. You capture roomtones, doors closing or anything which sounds specific and useful to the show. You then take those sounds away to edit, catalogue, and create a library to share with picture editors and the rest of the sound crew. Given the series is set in Ireland and I’m Irish, it was nice to use the full palette of these and other Irish recordings that brought something true to the Dublin and the Sligo that I know.
Being very dialogue driven how did you go about underpinning both the drama and emotion?
One of the many strong and unique things about Normal People is the space between dialogue. There is as much information to take in from the pauses and body language of these characters as there is in what they are saying. There are all these non verbal cues in the actor’s brilliant performances. You try to figure out something to do with the sound that will underscore and underpin that. One of the ways to have audiences lean into the delicate moments is to pull away sound, but to do that effectively you have to have built a sound world that you can pull away from. For example, the first time Marianne and Connell kiss, you are only really hearing a neutral room tone, their breathing, maybe a little bit of movement in their clothing; it’s very still. However, we have already established this world where Connell visits Marianne’s house, which is set back from the road and surrounded by trees, wildlife and nature. So you build up that environment through sound elements like wind and bird song, before going into her house where the ceilings are high and their voices reverberate. As they come closer together we slowly remove the environmental sounds, make the reflections smaller and focus in on the tiny details. What you are always trying to do with the director and editor, in this case Nathan Nugent, is figure out a push and pull in the sound dynamic that will best suit the story. Hopefully this makes it evocative for the audience, and brings them into that space sound-wise with those characters in the same way that the photography, performance, production design etc are already doing.
How did the sound design influence tone and mood?
Sound design, especially on this show, is trying to figure out a way of establishing a point of view rather than just hearing what you can see. In the case of Normal People it is either through Marianne or Connell in any given context. Often it is also about finding a sound to express something that is not literal. For example, at the beginning of the shoot, Nathan Nugent contacted me and we talked about sounds which were tonal and harmonic but not musical (we don’t want to get in the way of the music and score). He wanted something we could use to just mark moments of intimacy. When you get a request like that, it is a dream come true for sound design, as you are being asked to figure out a way to express something which doesn’t really exist as a literal sound. However, if you can succeed in making a sound that works, then you hopefully create a feeling through that choice. For example, a lot of the time when the two characters come together and there is no music initially, we are using something in the sound design that is tonal and abstract in nature to express the energy between them.
I don’t think any of us have a common language for describing sound, which is part of the challenge in discussing and exploring the sound work. You are always trying to find a common language on a project to talk about what sound can achieve. In order to do that, you need to go away and work on something based on direction, then offer that up, so the creative team can see and hear it within the context of their picture. Only from their reaction will you have an indication of how something is working and how much further things need to evolve.
How did you enhance the naturalism and utilise silences in Normal People compared to say, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room?
With each project, you are trying to figure out the unique role sound can play. Although Room and Normal People would share some similar characteristics, myself and my co-supervising sound editor Niall Brady always feel duty bound to approach every project differently. Each project is unique and needs to be discovered as such! If you think about real life, even in silence there is still some sound, and often what we hear is our own subjective experience of a situation. If I am starting a pass on a scene and trying to establish the sound of Connell’s bedroom or the sound of Room on a given morning, you think about it literally to begin with. There might be some air conditioner sounds, some bird sounds, and a neutral room tone. Then, you try to shape and distill that down into something that is more about a subjective experience of that setting that underscores the story, feeling and emotion.
Each project has a very specific set of rules that you discover as you work on them. In the first half of Room you can’t hear anything from outside, purely because the minute you break that illusion you miss a trick in the idea that no one can hear Ma scream. Meanwhile, with Normal People you are trying to build up that ambient soundscape that suggests Sligo, or on a comparative level, the difference between the houses Marianne and Connell live in. Her house is set back from the road and spacious, while he lives on a housing estate in something smaller. Class differences are important to their story, and we tried to create an individual sound identity for their homes to underpin that. Hopefully, subconsciously, that helps inform the audience about the differences within each space. For example, the rooms in Connell’s house are smaller, so the reverberation of their voices is smaller and tighter than where Marianne lives. In his house you are more likely to hear the neighbours and the traffic outside. These subtleties are always achieved by focusing in on tiny details which differentiate a space, feed into story elements, and touch on frame of mind. It’s always a matter of exploring these things and showing them to your director as work in progress, to get feedback and develop ideas further with them.
As we get later in the series and Connell arrives in Dublin, his experiences are alien, harsher and louder than Marianne’s. In his sequences, we have gone for a rougher sound on traffic, and tried to make it more oppressive, purely because his initial experience of Dublin is one of isolation and not belonging, while Marianne has found herself and therefore her version is much more peaceful; she belongs. It’s a subtle difference, but feels appropriate, and hopefully serves the story. When you are working on material this strong, with direction and performances this good you hope the detail in the sound work brings something to compliment that. The editors are always thinking about sound when cutting picture. On a side note I can’t overemphasise the work of Nathan Nugent or Stephen O’Connell in the sound process, or their contributions to these choices.
To what extent would you say sound design straddles both the audio and visual as a medium?
I think the one way sound design works effectively is if it’s properly married to picture. It has to feel of the world of the picture it is working with. Every sound choice made in the sound editorial process has to feel like it belongs in the film or series it is for. This doesn’t mean the sound choices need to be literal to what you are seeing, but they do need to be true to the mood, feeling and reality of what you as a viewer are experiencing emotionally and dramatically. There is an incredible alchemy that happens when you put a sound in sync with picture. When it’s done well it just feels correct. Even when the sound is abstract or non literal, if it can work with the flow of the picture, it can feel inseparable from it. I think it opens the work to possibilities that are different to a sound only medium, which is really exciting to me in the work I do! I think good sound design is about going on a journey with the material, always being open to the curveballs it might throw at you, allowing yourself to experiment and explore the ideas it inspires in you. Working with a director that encourages this, who gives you space and time to do this, and gives you honest feedback and notes along the way is a real privilege. Ultimately, good sound design comes down to it feeling unique and authentic to the project, true to the director’s vision and hopefully of an integrity that the audience can’t imagine the scene or sequence sounding any other way.
What are the key considerations you weigh up going into each project?
So much of this work is about communication and people. Half of our job is talking about the work, whether with the director, producers and editors, or with other people in the sound crew. The people you get to work with on a project, make the work really attractive, and you want collaborators that want to go on the journey, or push you to places you haven’t been before. Ultimately you might be on a project for six to eight months, and you want to be with people who inspire you. Normal People is one of those dream jobs. The way everyone approached the material with openness and affection is really infectious for you as a creative person.
What projects are working on in isolation right now you can talk about?
I am still finishing a little bit of the international work on Normal People right now. We did have to finish the series in lockdown before it aired on BBC. A couple of weeks out from delivery we went into lockdown, so we had to figure out creative ways to finish the work remotely. Again, all credit to Element Pictures and Outer Limits, the post production house, for figuring out a way that could be done with us. Other than Normal People, I have a film called Radioactive, which is about the life and legacy of Marie Curie, and was directed by Marjane Satrapi who wrote and directed Persepolis. It’s not a biopic in the conventional sense, the story, based on a beautiful book by Lauren Redniss, looks at her life and her achievements, but also looks at her legacy and how her work has been adopted and used by future generations. Unfortunately its release has been held up by the current situation, but when it can, that will be my next piece of work to hit cinemas.
Can you describe your perfect Sunday afternoon?
If my wife and I get a Sunday where we can go somewhere nice with our two dogs either by the sea, up a mountain or in the forest somewhere outdoors it is always brilliant. However, a Sunday watching two films back to back in a movie theatre is something I also really love. So if I can do one or both of those things I am living my best life.
Many thanks to Steve Fanagan for taking the time for this interview.
Normal People is available to stream on BBC iPlayer and Hulu now.