'10 Cloverfield Lane': How the Soundtrack Amps Up the Terror

"Because most of the film is set in an underground bunker, we have moments where we could put sounds above us."
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

In 10 Cloverfield Lane, what the audience hears is often more terrifying than what it actually sees.

Critics have called the movie “unsettling,” “tense” and “suspenseful," and much of that sense of foreboding can be credited to the effects of Bear McCreary's score and the work of sound designer Will Files and the sound team. The film, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, is being released by Paramount Pictures this weekend.

The movie, which producer J.J. Abrams has described as a "spiritual successor" to 2008's monster movie Cloverfield, follows Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle, a woman who wakes after a car crash to find herself chained in an underground bunker. She's trapped with two men — Howard, played by John Goodman, and Emmett, played by John Gallagher Jr. — who claim they can't go outside because of a chemical attack.

"When we first go down to the bunker, we wanted to convey that she was terrified and had no idea where she was and was searching for clues  with her ears. She’d listen to the creaks of the pipes and the groans of the room, which are heightened," says Files, who also served as re-recording mixer. "Dan and J.J. are both aware that by withholding information, you create a richer experience. You are not revealing all the cards, so the audience can bring their own interpretation to the scene. What Dan did so well was dole out the information very slowly, bit by bit."

With the characters trapped in a bunker, the movie only hints, darkly, at what is happening in the outside world. Says Files, “Because it’s largely set in a confined space, we had to find ways to suggest things beyond the four walls to create a sense of place and dread that the visuals might not otherwise indicate. We tried to put sounds into these scenes that were evocative, so that they create feeling without being too specific about what was happening. For instance, we were looking for different ventilation tones  sounds that were plausible but had a lot of character."

One such sound was discovered and recorded at Abrams' production company, Bad Robot. "There's a locker with a shower, and it has a vent with a tubular sound. Robert Stambler [the supervising sound editor] stuck a microphone up that vent, and that became the sound of Howard’s room. It had this foreboding sound, which worked very well for being in his room," explains Files.

The film also received a sound mix for theaters that support Dolby Atmos, the 128-track sound system that Dolby introduced in 2012. Files is a big advocate of the Atmos system, which he used on Pixar's Brave, the first feature released in the format. And, he explains, he used the Atmos speaker configuration to put the audience in the 10 Cloverfield shelter. "Because most of the film is set in an underground bunker, we have moments where we could put sounds above us," says Files. "That's a great example of how we can use Atmos' ceiling speakers and show it serves the story better."

For Files, how sound is used in 10 Cloverfield Lane is similar to how he used it in Cloverfield, which also took its time in revealing the threat. “The original was a $100 million-scale film in terms of how big it was, but it was made for about a quarter of that, so they decided to only show the monster a tiny bit,” explains Files. “That not only made it more mysterious, but cheaper because we could suggest something happening off camera.”

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