If Beale Street could talk, alumnus Michael Benavente would probably know what it sounds like.
Benavente, the film’s dialogue editor worked with the Formosa Group, a postproduction sound company, to remove any extraneous background noise and ensure the characters’ voices were audible. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is nominated for best original music score and best adapted screenplay, and follows Fonny Hunt and Tish Rivers, whose relationship is tested after Fonny’s wrongful imprisonment. While working on the film, Benavente said he was responsible for providing the sound mixer with clean, smooth versions of the soundtrack. He also worked with Onnalee Blank, the supervising sound editor who drew inspiration from the novel on which the film is based to create background sounds and edit the voiceover.
The Daily Bruin’s Breanna Andrews spoke with Benavente and Blank, who discussed their creative processes and collaboration with director Barry Jenkins.
Daily Bruin: In what ways was sound used to tell the story?
Onnalee Blank: This is Harlem 1973 – we wanted some gritty tracks. We researched that in Harlem at that time, everybody was outside wheeling and dealing. There’s playing music and drums, people playing the trumpet. And so if you listen in the background, in almost every scene, there’s someone playing music, whether you can hear it or not.
Michael Benavente: You feel like you’re in a city as opposed to some rural place, just because I assume that was the vibe that (Jenkins) wanted and that’s where the film takes place.
DB: Did you refer to the book by James Baldwin to get inspiration for sound?
OB: I did in the beginning. The book is really visual. It talks about the street sound, it talks about how violent the whole area of Harlem was at the time, and so it kind of creates a picture of what it might sound like. And then trying to use that with the footage, which sometimes matched. But sometimes it didn’t match. The film is way more tame than the book for sure. The book is a lot more violent if you’ve read it.
DB: Which part of the film stood out most to you?
OB: One of my favorite scenes is with Daniel and Fonny. Daniel’s the guy that (Fonny) runs into in Harlem when he just got out of prison, and they go back to his apartment, and they have this long talk about how he was in prison. It’s a long (scene). But I just love it. I mean, we took these train sounds and morph them into like, almost like cello music. And it works great with them. The underscore and the jazz piece. And it goes into that Nina Simone song and it knocks you out, right? It’s a really beautiful scene.
MB: And it’s funny, because when I was actually cutting that scene, I didn’t like it the scene following it. I’ll be honest, I thought it was just too long. And I didn’t know where it was going. And I saw in the actual film at the Academy and it just blew me away, how powerful it was. And I think sometimes, we get so into these little new nuts and bolts of sound editing that we don’t always look at the big picture and the genius in the front of the whole film … And I know critics, they always mentioned that scene in the reviews how much they love it.
DB: What do you enjoy most about sound editing?
OB: The people that you’re working with. And if you have a good team of people, if you have a good director, that makes it fun. I thought this movie was pretty fun to work on. (Jenkins) is just wonderful. He lets you just explore; he’s open to any idea.
MB: It’s really important that the director and producers support you and understand what you do isn’t the most glamorous part of entertainment. But sound is so important to a project and it’s really nice when the filmmakers get what you do and appreciate what you do. It just makes everybody do better work when you’re getting some kudos and they say “Hey, you’re doing a great job.” I really appreciate it. No matter how many films you book or worked on, just having people appreciate what you do and understanding what to do – it’s the best feeling.
OB: Sometimes all you want is a thank you.
[RELATED: Movie Review: ‘Moonlight’]
DB: Was the sound editing more of a collaborative effort or did (Jenkins) have an idea of what sounds he wanted?
OB: No. I mean, when he started his spotting session he didn’t even really want to talk about it. He said “I don’t want to tell you what to do. I just want you to make it weird. If you think it’s weird, make it weirder. … I just want you to think of every scene as something that is surreal.” And he’s like, “Okay, are we done here?”
MB: It’s great when the filmmakers try that. They’re not going to love everything you do. They’re gonna love some of the stuff you do. And it’s just taking a chance and trying something, whether it’s weird or different or not what they were expecting. … You have the freedom to try stuff and possibly fail. I think it’s good to get that kind of support and encouragement.