Writer-director Alex Noyer and star James Jagger discuss the creation, production, and filming of their SXSW Midnighter Sound of Violence.
I had the chance to sit down (digitally) with the writer-director of and one of the stars from the new horror thriller Sound of Violence, which premiered at SXSW 2021. Director Alex Noyer comes from a music documentarian background, and this marks his narrative feature film debut. James Jagger comes from a musical background and seems a natural fit for a music-driven horror film. Sound of Violence is a violent genre piece, but also the character study of an artist who finds satisfaction in the titular sounds of her victims’ demise. Noyer and Jagger were kind enough to discuss their inspirations, the film’s splendid genre concept, and the, ahem, gory details of filming murder scenes. It was an enlightening conversation about a fun horror film you should keep an eye out for when it’s released in the Spring.
Alex Noyer on the production of Sound of Violence
Alex, could you tell us about the concept? How did you come up with this particular idea and what sort of influences impacted your work?
AG: It’s a weird offspring of a music documentary I produced called 808, which is about the 808 drum machine, that came out at SXSW 2015 actually. Overall, it took five years of my life, drum machine obsessed. I got to talk to fascinating people – The Beastie Boys, Pharrell Williams, Questlove – which was incredible, and it was the big reason I moved to the States.
When I was done with that, I thought I needed to break from documentaries for a bit. My wife suggested I get into my beloved genre of horror. As I started to write, I received encouragement to try to move on from producer to director. As I was developing a project, I had a lightbulb moment of closure on my drum machine obsession, by the idea of killing somebody with a drum machine. That’s where the idea of the short [that led to the feature film] came about.
From there, things started to happen quite quickly! I met my producing partner, Hannu Aukia, who liked the idea. We put the short together and shot it in March 2018 and it toured a bunch of festivals. It did quite well. I was surprised, and it was very cathartic for me, but it was an out there concept! Music driven horror in that way was not really a thing. The feedback I was getting was about the character of Alexis. I was very obsessed with her, having written her into this very crazy horror dynamic. I thought there was something more to it, because she an artist and not just a killer. That’s why the name Conductor was very fit for the short.
With all this feedback, I started to realize there was so much more for her. I started to write her backstory as a second short, but I started to have ideas about her journey going forward and expanding on her universe. The script organically came out of me. I grew up surrounded by artists, so focusing on the artist’s journey was motivating me. It came together surprisingly fast. I did the first draft in January 2019, and by the time I was in Cannes in 2019, I had a third of the finance raised and a horror version of the script. It moved very quickly! I met Jasmine [Savoy Brown] and she answered all the parts of the character I had left open. I felt I had met my Alexis. Lili [Simmons] and James [Jagger] also came on board. I thought, “This is coming along too well!”. And premiering it here at SXSW, where I premiered 808, is a nice way to bring things full circle.
James Jagger on the project’s appeal
James, what drew you to the project? How did you become involved?
JJ: It was a couple of things. The script really interested me. I was kind of taken back by some of the scenes in the script – when I was flipping though it, I had to double back and read over some of the previous pages like “did I just read that correctly?” I’ve been a musician, so I was curious how he was going to bring these grizzly visions to life!
And also the opportunity to work with Jasmin, who I was a fan of, actually. I had seen her in The Leftovers. I love running and gunning and shooting films as quickly as possible. Screw nine months if you can get it done in two weeks, that’s my attitude.
The Role of Synesthesia in Noyer’s story
What sort of research went into the film’s depiction of “synesthesia” that informs how Alexis is able to experience the world?
AG: One of the key points in developing the script was to address her motivation and her creative high. In the short, we weren’t addressing that, because it’s only six minutes. It was meant to be impactful, not explain it. So, when we developed the character and the storyline, I remember having a discussion about Alexis’ motivation, and synesthesia came up. I went to do research and I found painters and musicians and all sorts of people with synesthetic abilities who experienced sounds or certain words in this extra dimension. I just found it fascinating, because it allowed us to create a [tangible] experience of the creative high Alexis goes through in her gruesome experiments. So, we pushed the envelope visually to try to develop that.
This is where Daphne [Qin Wu], our wonderful DP, was so important. She had great experience with lights and settings colors into scenes not just your expected spotlight, but coloring on the edges. I felt she was the right person to come in and experiment with the visual look. We had to show the synesthesia was not just a layer in front, but had depth. So, there was a layer on set we did with lighting and movement, and then we would overlay to create something that would really encompass Alexis and remove her from the world while she was experimenting. It was important to find this way to keep the audience with her, seeing visually her creative high. It’s a good reminder that she’s not a cold-blooded killer, but she’s an artist. The collateral damage of her work is not what she focuses on. She never really even looks at her victims.
James Jagger and Alex Noyer on finding humanity in horror performances
James, I’ve appreciated your work in Vinyl and The Outpost, but I was curious how you took on horror here. Did it change your approach as an actor?
JJ: It was definitely a different project from the last few I’ve done! My first film that I ever did was a student horror, actually. And I worked on a BBC television production, a Tony Higgins production, who was a classic genre director! It’s not something that I think of as something separate, or that I have a different approach to. I don’t even like them to be called “genre movies.” I think it’s a movie in its own right and, anytime I approach any job, I have the same toolbox that I use to approach it. I don’t think, “Alright, this is action! I’m gonna hit the gym non-stop, getting juiced” or, “This is horror! I’m going to start reading Poe.”
I have the same toolbox, basically, which is to try get inside the character. Try to find some sympathies and similarities, some aspects of it that I can explore. For sure, I remember thinking, when I was reading this, that things are going to get rough. This shooting day is going to get a little ugly! I’m as squeamish as the next person, and there were some scenes we shot that were genuinely harrowing.
[Spoiler Warning for This Question and Answer]
James, I was going to ask you about your final scene in the film and what it was like to film that?
JJ: It was a really incredible experience, actually! It looks like a very violent, unchoreographed thing, but we’re in a very enclosed environment. The camera is right there, so you’re not free to express yourself fully as a raging human about to die, and you have some interesting constraints to act with. Alex did such a fantastic job making it about the moments – these really important moments within the struggle that really had to be highlighted. No spoiler alert, but he was very adamant that there were some specifics about the knife and how it went. It was fun! I tell you what, it was just fun. It’s definitely different from acting like a jarhead in an army movie. It was fun to express that level of violence. It’s like being a stuck pig when you’re in that kind of experience – it’s not something I’ve ever really gone though. You know your end is there, and you really let it rip!
It was fun to think, “What sound does my voice make when I’m about to die?” or “What does my body do?” It was kind of exploratory experience for me. Daphne, our DP, was fantastic at capturing it without braining anybody on the head with a huge camera.
AN: James was such a good sport. He says he’s a squeamish and a bit of a wuss, but that’s a lie. Those scenes really took everybody to come together. This is not directing as a “You do this, you do that” – we had to really coordinate his own experience. We had long discussions about moments where he can add so we can create something where we really are all in sync. This is what’s fun about working with somebody like James, and the rest of the cast, they really want to build a character together.
Everything from the sentences they spoke to those scenes was really calibrated to suit them. For example, something silly, I’m French-Finnish, so English is not my first language. It was important, in working with James, Jasmine, and Lili, to work with them to adapt their lines to be more natural, and to really sound like them. It wasn’t changing anything that was being said, but it improved the flow and I really appreciated the time and commitment from them. They were long days. We had 20 days to shoot this movie and there was a lot going on. They would message me or email me, they would work together at night, and we would all try to align our approach. That allowed a certain level of ownership in the performances that comes through in key scenes. I’m just thinking, for example, of the scene in the street between Lili and James as a great example of a scene that needed to really stay with the audience. It needed to remind them that Duke, James’ character, is an unwitting antagonist. He’s not there to stir [things] up, but, unbeknownst to him, he closes out that love triangle.
Designing musical murder machines
All of the murders are so creative visually, and also viscerally, like the DJ Kill early in the film. How did those scenes come together in editing and what was it like to physically build those contraptions out?
AN: The experience of the short helped a lot. We knew what to look for. Creating an edit that is slightly on-beat and slightly off-beat, and shifting from one to the other, is essential to keep the energy up. There’s a sense to me that if the audience can dance along to somebody being killed, I’ve done a good job. The best feeling in this movie is when the audience is going along with a scene, reacting to it, and then feeling bad about it. A sort of “oh shit! This is not good!” This is the conflict, so the edit was focused on that.
The edit was set on Jasmin’s performance and how she experiences. The same way she sometimes turns away from her victims and doesn’t pay attention to their suffering – she just wants to hear it – we want to make sure the editing stayed in that perception. Same thing with the sound editing, it had to guide the audience to be on Alexis’ side as much as possible to provide a certain level of empathy and understanding with the synesthesia as well, hopefully, adding to the enjoyment of those scenes. When I say “enjoyment” I don’t want to say there’s no lust for violence – and the movie very much denounces violence – it’s metaphorical more than anything. Any moment the energy goes down people take a moment to watch the violence with a different perception – it’s like we push them away.
Hannu, who produced, also edited the film. He has his own musical experience, which helped. We worked with the composers, Jaakko [Manninen], Alexander [Burke], and Omar [El-Deeb], and finally with Jussi Tegelman, who mixed the movie and also mixed the short. His experience working with Sam Raimi was very valuable coming into this project. This is where my job is in the middle of a team. This movie involved the effort of so many people. When we go back to cinematography, the experimentation with lights and color that we did on set with Daphne and her team was all done with an eye for how everything would be brought together. The other very valuable team member was Vertti Virkajarvi who edited on the day. Instead of dailies, we were literally editing as we were going because we knew we had to have a certain grasp of where we were due to the technical challenge of delivering some of the scenes.
What’s next for Alex, James, and Sound of Violence
What do the both of you have upcoming in the future?
JJ: For fans of horror, or claustrophobic theaters, I’m going to have a film coming out towards the end of the summer. It’s a French film called The Deep House, which I’m very excited to see a cut of myself.
AN: I just finished the first draft of a new movie. I have a few other scripts at different stages that I’m developing in different formats. I’m going to give myself the time to ensure that Sound of Violence tours and speaks to audience. We just announced we’re going to be at Fantaspoa in Brazil. There’s going to be a few other cool announcements as the world is reopened.
I’m working on something that really taps into my Nordic origins and I’m very excited about this new concept.
JJ: I’m excited as well!
I saw the film was just picked up by Gravitas – congratulations! Is there a release plan you can share?
It’s coming out on May 21st. We’re going to hopefully have theaters. This movie in a theater will be a completely different experience. I experienced it on the mixing stage with a state-of-the-art sound system: especially on a sound level, it’s incredible to hear. That’s May 21st, day and date in US theaters and on VOD. We also just got picked up by Dazzler Media in the UK, where it’s coming out on August 31st. We’re excited to have more coming and to release this movie wherever possible! It’s a very weird project, so having people who are passionate about it, like our sales team and the people at SXSW… What more could I want?
Sound of Violence is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Read our review of Sound of Violence and watch our interview with Alex Noyer and James Jagger on Youtube.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.