Immersed in Movies: Sound Designer Paul Ottosson Talks 'Zero Dark Thirty'

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Sound designer/re-recording mixer Paul Ottosson creates the year's most complex and disturbing soundscape with "Zero Dark Thirty," easily surpassing his work on "The Hurt Locker," which earned him two Oscars. Indeed, his strategy of maximizing audience identification with the obsessive CIA officer, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, brilliantly complements the narrative thrust of the acclaimed, if controversial, fact-based thriller about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Not only was Ottosson concerned with conveying authentically naturalistic sounds, but also ethereal ones as well that have more of a subliminal impact. Such was the case with the "enhanced interrogation" sequences involving waterboarding that have dominated and politicized the discussion of the movie.

"The waterboarding scenes are very naked and very sterile and it becomes harder to fill it up with lots of [sound] elements because you start thinking about the outside world," Ottosson contends. "It's more focused on what you see on the screen, which is horrifying."

As with "The Hurt Locker," Ottosson recorded sounds with the Erhu (a spike fiddle), courtesy of his wife, Karen Han, who is a virtuoso with the instrument. It's processed and distorted in a very unusual way yet plays organically. "There's a helicopter coming in before it starts," he adds. "The buildings rattle some and out of that I sneak in these other ethereal sounds that give us a natural in; then by the time the helicopter rattle dissipates, you don't know that it's already been introduced. There's only about an hour's worth of score [by Alexandre Desplat], so I use these ethereal sounds quite a bit. I needed ways of transitioning in and out without telling the audience that I was introducing something new and unreal. It's visceral and more of a dreadful feeling.

"I try to convey things from the person with the strongest point of view in the scene. And this is the first time that Maya witnesses the torture. She's disturbed by what she sees and so are we. But then she becomes so obsessed with the capture of bin Laden and even participates in the interrogation to obtain her goal. At that moment, I don't play these sounds anymore because, like us, she understands why we have to do this and it's not as appalling. I play up some of the outside sounds to show that she's in control and driving forward."

But Maya's journey is a volatile one. During the shocking bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan, in which Maya barely escapes with CIA colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), who's more Old School/Cold War-trained, Ottosson had plenty to play with. It turns out that Musharraf won the presidential election that night and was supposed to be at the hotel holding a party, so there's a celebratory mood at the outset. Then we have Maya and Jessica finally connecting on a more personal level and setting aside their rivalry when all of a sudden the blast goes off.

"As the scene starts, I start peeling off a little bit at a time," the sound designer explains. "The music gets duller, the laughter gets lower, and we get to the point where we want to hear what's going on in the conversation. It gets quieter, which really sets you up for the explosion. I've been in the military in Sweden and I know that explosions are insanely shocking. It is unfathomable if you've never been around one. They are much louder than we can play in a theater. But the most shocking part is the shock wave that you feel in your body, so I used a tremendous amount of compressed low end, which was very effective in seeing how audiences jerk back in their seats. It's just another part of putting you in Maya's position when she's hurled from her chair."

The most challenging sequence, however, was the tense pursuit of bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed (Tushaar Mehra), through the crowded marketplace. Ottosson says this was harder than any action movie he's ever worked on. To make it authentic, he recorded a lot of sounds of Pakistani voices, again without much music to help drive it." I was very aggressive in all the cuts and did a little bit of a pre-lap into the next cut just to drive, drive, drive forward, and then hard cuts on all the outs, so it becomes jarring."

While it is customary to cut in stereo, Ottosson found that it was too thick and not as detailed as he would've liked. He instead cut in mono to convey a sense of depth beyond the location. "What was on the block behind it? What was two blocks behind it? What was half a mile away? But then I placed them left, center, right, and surround. This allowed me to place a lot more sounds in the scene without making them muddy. It becomes a really deep soundscape."

Meanwhile, the climactic Navy SEAL invasion of the compound to find and kill bin Laden was a study in restraint. It's hard to get a fix on the location, given that it's so dark and everyone wears goggles. The filmmakers had to be deliberate about revealing where we were inside or outside the compound. "You might not know who you are with, but we helped tell you when you were with someone different," Ottosson adds. "I tried to build up the tension with the outside world, the domestic animals, the wild animals, the villagers, and then dialed it down until they pop bin Laden."

Thus, Ottosson's soundscape masterfully comes full circle: from the cacophony of horrifying screams during the bombing of the World Trade Center on 9/11to all hell breaking loose in the compound at the end of the mission a decade later.

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