Sound mixers Skip Lievsay and Peter Kurland on bringing the sonic world of 'Inside Llewyn Davis' to life
Nearly three decades ago, two young Minnesotans named Joel and Ethan Coen went down to Texas to shoot a film called "Blood Simple." It was their first feature. And to use a cliché, "the rest is history." But they were not the only artists making their debuts on that film who would later go on to become staples in the American film industry. Actress Frances McDormand, sound designer Lee Orloff, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, composer Carter Burwell, sound editor Skip Lievsay and boom operator Peter Kurland also cut their teeth on "Blood Simple."
Lievsay, now sound re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor, and Kurland, now production sound mixer, have worked with the Coens on every feature film the siblings have made since then, the most recent of which, "Inside Llewyn Davis," is a sound showcase.
But as is often the case in this industry, both Lievsay and Kurland found their way to their careers in very unlikely ways. Kurland had just a small degree of sound and theatre experience in high school when he was hired as a production assistant on a production in Nashville where help was needed in the sound department.
"It wasn't my first choice," he admits. "My wife was also on that project. And she got hired to go down to Texas to work on 'Blood Simple,' and because I had a couple of weeks experience, that opened a door to at least look for that gap on the 'Blood Simple' crew."
That gap was in the position of boom operator, and three decades of sound work for the Coens has followed. "Virtually everyone I've worked with came from that first shoot down in Texas," he says.
Lievsay's journey began in a much different field. "I wanted to be an architect and I was working as a field engineer and a surveyor when I was young," he says. "The recession in the '70s made that a bad idea." The transition to movies came as Lievsay thought he could maybe build sets for commercials. "I understood that maybe they made some movies there but I didn't know about it," he says. "I met some nice people and one of those people I met early on introduced me to Joel and Ethan. And I could not have been more fortunate."
The family idea, Lievsay says, is very important to the Coens. It's very rewarding to be a part of a "gang" as production as they are, working at such a high level and with such high ambitions. "There is an idea we're really trying to do our best all the time and do something special whenever we can," he says. "And the comfort is that they know that and they're very grateful for the relationship and the contributions. It makes the whole thing fantastic and very rewarding."
Despite numerous players working consistently with the Coens in this period, Lievsay and Kurland have an especially close relationship. And even though the two sound artists do not work together on a day-to-day basis (due to their different roles), they remain two of the only people who have worked with the Coens on every single one of their feature films.
"Skip and I are friends and we talk on a frequent basis," Kurland says. "I'm not involved in the overall soundtrack, though I need to make sure I provide what he needs. We try to plan that out as much as possible."
Music is always important to a sound mixer's work, leading to Carter Burwell being an important player that both Kurland and Lievsay cite. While Burwell was not involved on "Inside Llewyn Davis," 15 years ago, a particularly important new player emerged on the sound team: T Bone Burnett. Involved as the musical archivist on "The Big Lebowski," Burnett's talent was on display for the world to see on "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" He has since also collaborated with the Coens on "The Ladykillers" and "Inside Llewyn Davis." Kurland, however, also worked with Burnett on James Mangold's "Walk the Line."
"'Inside Llewyn Davis' is, for me, kind of the culmination of that," Kurland says. "T Bone has ways he likes to work. I've gotten to understand him and he's gotten to trust me. It involves getting together with him in advance and figuring out how to go about certain things."