Making its world premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival is the tug-at-the-heartstrings drama, HOURS, a film which follows a father’s fight to keep his newborn baby alive during one of the worst disasters in New Orleans’ history. Written, directed and produced by Eric Heisserer (writer, FINAL DESTINATION 5, THE THING, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), HOURS stars Paul Walker (as Nolan) and Genesis Rodriguez (as his wife, Abigail) in powerful, career-defining performances.
Much to our delight, HOURS proved to be a truly rich canvas for sound design, and working on this film was a special opportunity for us Monkeylanders to explore and sculpt out an interesting, dynamic and poignant soundscape for our director.
Our initial meet-and-greet with Eric quickly morphed into an exciting brainstorming session, one that generated plenty of ideas with regard to developing sonic themes around the urgency of our lead character, Nolan. As implied by the film’s title, the battle against time is a major theme in this film, and Nolan finds himself doing just that (in addition to a variety of other enemies).
The Hospital and the Heartrending Hurricane
HOURS begins with Hurricane Katrina fiercely ravaging New Orleans. Eventually, the storm devolves at some point into a pounding rainstorm before finally dissipating completely. Besides a handful of flashbacks, much of this story takes place in a large, powerless and flooded hospital. Once a place of healing and recovery, the hospital ironically becomes a lonely mausoleum for Nolan, a place where he’s tormented by a barrage of sad recent events and burdened by the incredible responsibility of keeping his daughter alive on a minute-by-minute basis (more on this below). His mind is in a turbulent flux, directly paralleling the havoc being wreaked outside by Hurricane Katrina. With the audience experiencing this hurricane from Nolan’s point of view, I felt we could use sound to convey the magnitudes of both the literal hurricane and the more personal chaos distressing Nolan. Designing parallel storms, if you will.
With this in mind, we built the literal storm out pretty thickly, with heavy interior winds, muffled torrential rains, rumbles, booms, bumps and rattles, hammering away at the battered hospital. Katrina’s aftermath was equally as devastating as the initial attack, and as one may sadly recall, the broken levies caused massive amounts of flooding and loss. In HOURS, Nolan definitely gets a taste of the hurricane’s aftermath, and though we don’t really see the floodwaters rampaging into the hospital, we do feel them. We sense the approach. We hear them ripping through the first floor, as well as shifting everything around that isn’t nailed down. Things don’t quite back to normal for Nolan after that, as the unsettling shifting of off-screen desks, couches, shelves, cabinets (use your imaginations!) remind him regularly of the instability of his situation. He’s still in a pickle, and his battle against time continues to rage.
Nolan’s Fight Against Time
Several elements and devices found in HOURS allowed us to mark and explore the importance of the passing minutes. The most prominent of these elements is an archaic, crank-driven generator used to power the baby’s ventilator after the floodwaters knocked out what little power remained in the evacuated hospital. Nolan must manually crank this rustic generator (which is on its last limb and degrading quickly) every few minutes in order to send a feeble charge into the ventilator, thereby keeping the baby breathing for a bit longer. Our picture editor Sam Bauer provided us with a nice generator track that he recorded, and we used it as a starting point for designing Nolan’s heavy, ancient device. I’d say about ninety-five percent of the generator was built on our Foley stage, with Foley artist Jim Bailey providing a number of different servos, cranks, whirrs and clicks that became the signature defining sounds for the evolving generator.
After cutting the Foley and processing some of those elements, we sweetening it all with some modified sound effects from our library. During our first sound review, Eric was pleased to finally hear that rusty old piece of equipment come to corroded and glorious rundown life. It truly became its own character, one that we as an audience find ourselves rooting for!
Other timekeeping devices that set and mark the passage of time include Nolan’s digital wristwatch, and the series of reset beeps and warning blips from the baby’s ventilator. The picture cut on this film was truly effective in selling the moments where Nolan sets his watch (beep!), cranks the generator (crank, whirr!), resets the ventilator (beep-beep) and then charges off on a mission to find help, food, etc. There’s a nice rhythm built into the cuts, and the urgency of those moments comes through nicely in the final mix.
I believe that for a film’s sound design to truly hit its mark, the work must be able to play well with all other value-adding elements in a film. Fascinating cinematography, absorbing camera work, a persuasive picture cut and powerful performances are just a few of the things that we sound folks take our cues from, and I’m happy to say that HOURS provided more than enough fuel for us to do our job adequately.
On the client tip, one could not ask to work with anyone more personal or enthusiastic than our director, Eric Heisserer. I am happy that all of Eric’s dedication to HOURS is finally paying off, and I am sure that the film’s debut in Austin will be a memorable one.