Flashback: Happiness



In 1997 Dig It had the pleasure to work on Todd Solondz's second feature film Happiness. They sent me the script to read before we talked further about the project. I remember very well diving into that script because I laughed so much I was crying before I finished the first five pages. The film was also blessed with an exceptional cast including Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, and Lara Flynn Boyle, and a great editor in Alan Oxman. 


Working with Todd was an interesting experience, as anyone who knows a bit about him might imagine. The sound team was comprised of myself as Supervising Sound Editor, and Damien Volpe and Jonah Lawrence as Sound Designers. In one of the early meetings we were talking with Todd about the ambience one might hear inside the homes in suburban NJ. The typical thing to do would be to edit in some light crickets, some car bys, maybe the distant dog barking kind of thing. But Todd was adamant about what he wanted. He said no outside ambience was to be heard in the interior scenes. "I want it to be like a vacuum" he said, "no life!". We were stumped with what are we going to do with these scenes. 


The dialog had been very well recorded. In many scenes it was actually double boomed. That means there were two boom mics being used to track two or more characters simultaneously. So not only was the dialog well recorded, but it was relatively close mic-ed too.  So the interior scenes had little to no room tone associated with them. When we took the ambience out we were left with next to nothing in terms of back ground tone.  


At some point it dawned on us that we had to embrace the silence and actually accentuate it. Since Todd would only allow the faintest of stereo room tones to be added to the interiors, we had to think of something that would bring the scenes alive. We soon realized that the answer was detailed and specific Foley coverage and breathing ADR. The concept was to use the Foley and breathing to bring the audience uncomfortably close to the characters. We wanted to bring the audience so close, in some scenes, that it violated the audience’s personal space and made them feel uneasy.   


I remember that we were concerned about the upcoming ADR session with Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He was coming in to redo a handful of dialog lines, but the majority of the ADR cues we had lined up were for detailed breathing sequences. It is sometimes difficult to get actors to be patient and focused for breathing cues. An actor might be thinking that it’s a waste of his or her time. They might not want to do them at all, or they may just want to blow through them quickly. When we explained to Phillip what we were trying to do, he was totally onboard. He was and is a truly gifted professional and took the time to make every cue as good as he could.


The result is a group of quiet scenes that suck the listener into a close personal space and makes them feel a little too close for comfort. As soon as we started to put the scenes together I realized the brilliant mind that Todd possesses. He was right in his intent.  The scenes had a strange vacuum affect and set the audience on edge, which is right where he wanted them.

Thomas Efinger