Oscar winner Robert Mackenzie (Hacksaw Ridge) returns to a collaborative partnership with director Jane Campion in Netflix’s The Power of the Dog. After working with Campion on his acclaimed television series Top of the Lake, Mackenzie returns as supervising sound editor for the critically acclaimed western starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemons. Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, he dives into the intense detail of how the film really lives through its quieter moments, helping to accentuate the story and its characters. He also shares his joy at the number of people who responded to the sound of the film as well as the joy of the repeated collaboration with the directors and the strong bond between sound editors around the world.
Awards Daily: What was it like working with Jane Campion again? Was it different working with her on Top of the Lake?
Robert Mackenzie: Not really, I got the call quite late to work with Jane on Top of the Lake towards the end of the process to complete the final mix and have this wonderful experience of being in Jane’s world. I think what’s remarkable about working with Jane is her endless curiosity. Even though she’s done so many great movies, she’s going into her new project like she’s never done it before, so she has a lot of questions. On Top of the Lake, it was what are you bringing to the table Robert and how does it work? It’s a process of discovery for her and then also a process of discovery for me because I rethink what I do and why I do it. So the two projects were really similar in that way, because Jane went into The Power of the Dog with the same sensitivity, that same curiosity about what sound is going to bring to the film, and I think when the director approaches the process with this mindset makes everyone on the sound team wonder why we’re doing this and how what we’re doing contributes to the end of the film’s story.
AD: One of the most memorable sounds is Benedict Cumberbatch’s hiss. What went into creating this and using it in the movie?
Robert Mackenzie: This is something that Jane and Ben worked on long before I got involved, it was a script-level element. Ben did a lot of preparation for the role. He learned to whistle, to ride a horse, to do all sorts of ranching stuff, and to play the banjo. I don’t think Ben was a natural whistler, but he learned to do it.
AD: Mentioning the banjo, there’s a lot of live music in the film: Benedict playing the banjo, Kirsten Dunst playing the piano, and I saw that you were also a music composer. Did it help you in this process and in recording this?
Robert Mackenzie: Absolutely! Benedict learned to play the banjo but the songs Phil plays are really quite advanced and nothing he can learn to play. We have a professional banjo player who comes into the studio and works with Jane, Peter Sciberras and myself to layer all the banjo parts. It was an amazing process, Jane went into great detail with the banjo player to achieve this performance. I don’t think you’d be able to tell from watching the movie, but it’s all banjo parts that have flowed, kind of like ADR replacing the dialogue.
AD: A lot of the film plays with the quiet moments as well as the loud moments of ranch life. What discussions have taken place to find this balance?
Robert Mackenzie: This process of discovery, a lot of our discussions and early work with Jane was about the outside world of Montana, creating this depth and breadth in the landscape. So we did a lot of work on the winds, the perspective of the winds, the different sounds of the winds whistling around the sides of the house, through the door, and the sound of the wind inside the ranch. Then stretching to the distant horizon with the wind. So that’s where we started and then as we worked more and more on the movie Jane really focused on the closest details and that became a real signature sound of the movie I think . The way we could amplify the subtle detail of Peter’s jeans, the fingers in a comb, the braiding of the rope or the polishing of the saddle. Focusing on those macro sounds also gives you insight into the character. Amplifying these details tells you a lot about Phil and Peter. The delicate sound of Peter doing the flowers and also the surgical detail with a scalpel, and Phil with the sound of his boots. All of these sounds give you a different perspective on the character and bring you closer to the character.
AD: I saw that you did the last Mortal Kombat movie and I’m curious if you’re a fan of video games?
Robert Mackenzie: You know what, I’ve never played the game, but we did a lot of research on the sound of the game because we really wanted to reference it. Our mission on this movie was to honor the legacy of games and make sure we honored the sound of gaming. Thank goodness for YouTube. There are many images on the internet of the different iterations of the game and how the different character sounds have evolved over time. The different sounds of Sub Zero or Scorpion, and it’s really important that we understand the lineage of that. I’m sure there are a lot of people on the internet who would disagree, but from the comments I’ve read, it seems like we’ve fairly represented the fans.
AD: Throughout your filmography, you have made short films, documentaries, feature films, television. What interests you in a project?
Robert Mackenzie: The Power of the Dog is a very good example. It’s the process. The more I do this, the more I do for the process. The end result is fantastic. We’re still working in that direction, but working with the director, working with the editor, working with the sound team. It’s really what finally makes me come back, and what interests me in a project. Working again with the same director is a very big thing for me, I’m lucky to have very good relations with the directors. I do a lot with Wong Kar-wai, I’ve worked with him since the early 2000s. I think with all the directors I’ve worked with, I like to repeat experiences because the more you do, the better it gets is and you get better results. You understand their sensitivities so much better, they understand you so much better, and you can dive much deeper once you’ve had repeated experiences. Joan is a prime example. After doing Top of the Lake, we could dive much deeper into The Power of the Dog much sooner. If we are lucky enough to have a next time it will be even better.
AD: How much time do you spend on set compared to the studio?
Robert Mackenzie: The movie was shot in New Zealand, I’m based in Sydney so I didn’t go on set at all. I very rarely go on set. I’ve been there maybe a handful of times in my entire career. They are two very different worlds. A big part of what we do is build the world. In the case of The Power of the Dog, we’re creating the Montana sound for a movie that was shot in New Zealand, so being on set isn’t really relevant because all we’re going to capture are the New Zealand sounds. So it’s much better for us to spend our time researching the sounds of Montana and getting into the world building. Everyone on set is very busy with what they’re doing. The few times I’ve been there I’ve really been a fly on the wall. They really are two different worlds.
AD: You mentioned the Montana research. What kind of research did you do?
Robert Mackenzie: Initially it was the different sounds of the seasons and I was really interested in wildlife. Due to COVID we weren’t able to travel, but in the world of sound there are a lot of fantastic sound recorders based in Montana. Some of our favorite sound recorders live there and spend a lot of time capturing the seasons, the winds, the wildlife, so there’s a huge amount of resources to tap into there. Likewise, we are based in Sydney and there are so many unique sounds here that we can share with our sound friends halfway around the world.
AD: Is there anything you would like to leave for our readers?
Robert Mackenzie: Of course they’re going to see The Power of the Dog, and I’m just grateful that people notice the sound. It’s not a great action movie that the sound would traditionally be known for. But for some reason people are listening and I’m so grateful for that. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to talk to people like you who have listened to the film and somehow connected more deeply with the characters and the story through the soundtrack.
The Power of the Dog streams exclusively on Netflix.