In our latest interview, we got the opportunity to highlight the incredible sound team behind The Woman King, and speak specifically to Supervising Sound Editor, Becky Sullivan, who if nominated for an Oscar, will be the first solo-female to ever be nominated in the Sound category. She worked with Re-Recording Mixers, Kevin O’Connell and Tony Lamberti and Production Mixer, Derek Mansvel to create a ‘ballet of sounds’ that merged with the intricate choreography, emotional landscape and unique location to create a completely authentic environment for everyone.
PH: What have been some of the most impactful sound moments in film/series that stand out to you (in your opinion) and why?
Becky Sullivan: As to film in general, Apocalypse Now has a fantastic sound opening. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) was laying in bed with a raging hangover at the hotel. He looks up to the ceiling fan, and the “whoop/whoop” of the fan blades slowly blend into the same sound of the helicopter blades as we see the attacks on Viet Nam. It’s about the power of the transition — one sound taking us from one scene to another without having to explain it. Of course, many films have used this technique since then. But Acocalypse Now had a great sonic impact on me.
PH: How did you become involved with The Woman King?
Becky Sullivan: Sony had given my name and resume to Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of The Woman King. Gina and the film’s picture editor Terilyn A. Shropshire did a zoom interview with me. They were particularly wanting the influence of a woman on this film. We had a great talk for an hour — I hadn’t even read the script yet — but in discussing the complexities of the story I was intrigued. We talked about costumes, atmospheres, weapons, the way the dialogue was going to be recorded, and the organic sound of the film that they were looking for. I was excited to work with Gina and Teri because of their film “The Old Guard.” A year later they called me and I started The Woman King.
PH: What did the initial planning process look (and sound) like? Can you give a bit of insight into your planning and creative processes?
Becky Sullivan: It was rather daunting, because the schedule was tight. The studio moved the release date up by two months. The size and scope of the film is epic. After I saw it for the first time I knew we had to hit the ground running, we had five weeks until we had to do the first preview. We had challenges with the production dialog because of background noises like waterfalls, fans, bugs, water caves and battles. Plus, we had to design all the weaponry — for example machete’s are like thick, dark, heavy metal, vs. a ting-y sound of a sword. You have chains, ropes, hatchets, leather. Gina wanted us to focus on the battles, which of course are the hardest scenes to design. So initially I knew we had to focus on the dialog and the battles. And we went from there.
PH: Collaboration is such a critical part of the work you do. Can you share what that collaboration with the re-recording mixers was like when developing a ‘ballet of sounds’?
Becky Sullivan: The collaboration between Gina and Teri and myself, was one of the best I’ve experienced in my career. We seemed to always be on the same page. We all wanted it to sound very real and organic. This film let us meet an amazing group of women warriors and see their day to day life struggles, mixed with brutal action sequences. The mixers Kevin O’Connell and Tony Lamberti were so gracious and collaborative. We’ve worked together on probably 15 feature films, so it’s a very natural and supportive relationship. Kevin and Tony understood the vision from day one. And we all worked together to get the outcome we were all envisioning...an emotional sound scape — you’re following characters through all the feelings they experience, and the sound has to bring the audience into the land of the Dahomey.
PH: Can you share some of the challenges you faced (and how you achieved those)?
Becky Sullivan: The schedule was a challenge, but really the biggest challenge was finding the right tone for the battle scenes — which needed to communicate brutality without too much blood letting (due to our PG 13 rating.). The sound had to represent the ferocity of the battles and provide a visceral experience for the audience.
PH: Can you dive a little deeper into the intricate choreography, emotional landscape and unique locations that were utilized?
Becky Sullivan: Each of the four main locations (The Palace, The Agojie Courtyard, The Dahomey town, the port of Ouidah and the battlefields) had their own challenges. For example, in Ouidah we had people speaking Portugese, French and and Dutch. Ouidah was a busy port city with vendor call outs and buying and selling of slaves. Busy streets with carts and horses , a thriving port city.
The film set for Ouidah was in Cape Town, a big vibrant modern city, so cleaning out all the traffic sound and the various technical issues was demanding. Then building the sounds of the slave block and the barracoons. The barracoons were the small enclosed cages, that the prisoners were chained inside as they waited to go to the selling block. The sounds of the prisoners breathing and their chains were extremely important. The sound of fear and desperation.
The Agojie courtyard was full of trainees and warriors. Strong women working together to serve the King and their people. During the day they had machete training and hand to hand combat, and at night the peaceful sounds of women eating and laughing together.
The battlefields held the challenge of creating hundreds of impact sounds for machetes, swords, ropes, knives, spears and fists. Voices calling in the distant and up close vocal death reacts. Creating sonic brutality and realism.
And of course the sounds of Africa. I researched the birds, wild life and animals indigenous to the area. I wanted the audience to be enveloped in the sounds of Africa.
PH: Do you have a favorite sound sequence you'd like to share?
Becky Sullivan: I’d say my favorite sequence was more of a montage; it starts with the Agojie battle dance song, cutting to building the explosive termite mounds, then we cut to Nanisca’s speech to the warriors; ending with the Oyo battle. It was my most challenging sequence due to the circumstances under which it was filmed.
PH: What would it mean to you (and for the industry) to be the first solo-female to ever be nominated for an Oscar in the Sound category?
Becky Sullivan: Well of course it would mean a lot to me. It would mean possibly opening a path to other women coming after me. It’s a great honor to be nominated by my peers, regardless of the outcome. Honestly I just want to be thought of as the best person for the job.
PH: How do you see the future of the industry changing? In your opinion, how are you ensuring that work is continuing to be done in this area?
Becky Sullivan: I think it’s hard to say — I don’t get a lot of women contacting me and saying “how do I become a sound editor?” In 2014 I had someone come to me and say that, and even though she had very little experience I hired her and taught her. She has gone on to work on several feature films. But, that’s the last time I remember a woman really contacting me and asking how to be successful in Sound. As in many things, there is not always a clear path to success.