The power of silence in New Zealand thriller Coming Home in the Dark

Coming Home in the Dark - Courtesy of Stan Alley
Coming Home in the Dark - Courtesy of Stan Alley /

Sundance-select thriller Coming Home in the Dark just released in theaters and on VOD. This New Zealand thriller has taken audiences by storm with its unrelenting atmosphere and tense storytelling. But how do you make a film like this so taut and suspenseful? By minimizing sound and using it strategically. 1428 Elm had the opportunity to chat with the incredible sound design team behind Coming Home in the Dark and the impact that the power of silence has on a thriller like this one.

Coming Home in the Dark follows a family on a road trip whose members are abruptly taken by two ominous figures. The sound for this film was designed by New Zealand-based POW Studios led by John McKay and Matthew Lambourn. Unlike most horror films, there is almost no score or music used, allowing the sound design to shine through and keeping viewers on their toes by not guiding their expectations with the score.

The POW team has also been involved in the sound design for many notable projects, including Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

1428 ELM: How did you guys get involved with Coming Home in the Dark?

JOHN MCKAY: It was quite simple really, they approached us prior to getting funding. I read the script and was wowed, best script in 30 years. We actually supported their funding application at the New Zealand Film Commission, so we invested in the film as well.

MATTHEW LAMBOURN: I was working on something else at the time those deals were coming on, well I didn’t actually read the script before I started working on it, but as soon as I saw that first cut, the first assembly of it, I was hooked.

Coming Home in the Dark
Coming Home in the Dark – Courtesy of Stan Alley /

Coming Home in the Dark and its strategic use of minimal sound and foley

1428 ELM: A lot of what makes this movie so suspenseful and unrelentingly tense is the sound, or the lack of sound, which feels strategic. Can you guys talk about how you decide when to add a sound effect versus when you pull back and let the silence linger?

JOHN MCKAY: I think the key we unlocked in this movie was steering away from any genre tropes or scare tactics. Even when something brutal is going on, everything’s got equal weight. I always referred to the garage sequence when you hear the banal little bell of him exiting and entering the garage shop and with little ticks from a stand that gets knocked over.

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Everything is at the same weight, so you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen, and I think that was a key to putting people off-kilter. Atmospherically, it’s really strong, ambiance, Callum Scott did a marvelous job of providing texture. In the opening 20 minutes, it’s all roughly in the same place, but the wind does change, and it has a mood and tension within the story. It was a cumulative effect we were after, not a one-off dramatic moment.

Both Matt and I are really over, shall we say, the “reverse whoosh” sound school, the school of, “Look at me, look at me, I’m doing something important for the story as well.” And just leaving space. One of the eeriest things is a wide shot of the lake and the car in the distance, and there is just a bird cry, and it connects with the music, it’s part of the textural music. You get a sense of unease without quite putting your finger on it, and I think that was the key. It was a joy to do that.

MATTHEW LAMBOURN: One of the things for me, as well, James Ashcroft, the director, made an incredibly good decision to not overload the film with score. That’s one thing that can really ruin a movie, to me. If you’ve got the score it can be a life raft, it can guide you, but also it can be a bit overwhelming and be constantly telling you what to think.

This movie had a reduced, minimal score, and that was a joy to us because that leaves all that space for us to play with. And as John mentioned, Callum, our atmosphere/ambiance editor, did a marvelous job in portraying New Zealand as not just this place where people come on holiday hoping they’ll see a hobbit, that’s our tourism brand, is that it’s warm and friendly and full of natural beauty, which is true as well, but with his atmosphere editing, you get the sense that it is wondrous, but it’s dangerous as well.

You get the creeping wind that comes in that feels like it shouldn’t be part of the shot or a rumble of thunder in the distance, or there might be a creature that feels slightly out of place. It creates a creeping sense of unease, and that’s something you can only do with subtly. It was a credit to James that he did leave us that space by having such a minimal score.

The other thing is, as John said, putting the banal and mundane next to the horribly brutal and shocking. There are several moments throughout the film where you think, “Why am I hearing this banality and boringness of every day live why I’m witnessing something shocking and horrible?” Couldn’t it be overloaded with music and whizzes, and bangs? But, actually no.

Violence isn’t fun and exciting, it’s horrible and dark, and if you’re there, if you’ve ever had the misfortune to be in such a horrible situation as these characters are in, you would be feeling like, can’t I just get back to my normal boring everyday life?

Coming Home in the Dark
Coming Home in the Dark – Courtesy of Stan Alley /

JOHN MCKAY: I think Matt’s absolutely right. I hate violence. One of the things we worked on was the actual sound of the gun. I wanted that to be a primal, absolute bark that didn’t leave you in any doubt that someone has been shot. For a pacifist, I think I did quite a good job. Yong Le Chong, one of our sound effects editors as well, is the calmest nice guy, he can do the most incredible violence.

If you’re going to portray it, I want to feel it. I hate violence in some films because it can be just a ride and they have their place because you know it’s not real. But in this, there is a whole concept to make it visceral and feel real and alive.

1428 ELM: Something that just occurred to me is that, as an American, seeing our crazy gun culture and then this movie, it’s just two guys, one villain with a gun and that one its own should be scary enough. Everything is very subdued but even more terrifying because it’s one guy with an overwhelming presence.

MATTHEW LAMBOURN: That’s right, and to us, that’s the reality of guns. I mean, I love shootouts in movies, but for a culture like ours, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gun, much less shot one, maybe in an army parade or something I saw one go past. But to me, a guy walking with a gun is a scary thing, and in my opinion, it should be for everybody because they’re made for one purpose: to take the life out of someone else.

Read. Coming Home in the Dark is a gritty, unrelenting nail biter. light

To have someone with such a broken soul as the main character Mandrake has in this movie, in command of such an intense power, to me is really frightening. And for that reason, that should be reflected in the soundtrack and the emotion. As John said about that big gunshot, it doesn’t just convey the fact that someone’s pulled the trigger and combustion has gone off that’s released a bullet, it has to convey the whole emotion of the fact that he’s chosen to do something shocking against someone else.

Coming Home in the Dark: The impact of a gun and the film’s overall violence

JOHN MCKAY: Exactly, and we’re not a gun culture here. Guns are only used on farms by farmers or hunting. Our cops didn’t actually carry guns or have guns for a long time. Sadly, they do have guns in their cars now that they can access. But it’s not a gun culture here at all, so for us, when he reveals the gun, it’s quite a shock, and you know the movie is going to take a turn. The cinematography there is wonderful because he’s backlit by the afternoon sun.

We actually put quite a bit of effort into the flap of his coat. It’s another textual thing, the foley track was really important in this picture. Carrie McLaughlin, and actually Callum Scott recorded the foley as well, did a wonderful job of portraying all those details. The reveal of the gun and the gun rattle is actually all off-screen. A lot of the action and a lot of the soundtrack are off-screen. Again, in the garage sequence, all of the violence is heard, not seen, which I think is way more powerful because the imagination that can get triggered by sound is worse than actually seeing the image.

The violence in the film, you just don’t know where it comes from and in the end, with Mandrake, you feel he is so broken he has no boundary, and after what happens at the beginning of the film, you know there is no boundary, you don’t know where this film is going to go. I think that’s one of its major strengths.

Coming Home in the Dark
Coming Home in the Dark – Courtesy of Stan Alley /

Coming Home in the Dark: What is foley? How to use it effectively

MATTHEW LAMBOURN: I want to pick up on what John said about foley. Foley is often the understated part of the film because it’s so natural, it’s all the human body movements, clothing rustles, things you can only hear when you’re really up there close to the characters.

So if you can hear the foley, you’re right there with them. And in a scary, thrilling, or downright psychotic movie like this in many places, there is no escape. If you can hear the people next to you rustling their seatbelts or the slow shift of their shirt rustling, then you’re in that car with them, or you’re in that scene with them.

That’s one credit to Carrie McLaughlin, our foley artist, as well, she really takes care to actually be the character, she’s inhabiting that character for the time she is performing that foley, and that means that, if she’s doing that, you’re in there as well as the audience.

1428 ELM: A lot of those sounds usually get edited out, so it’s interesting to hear them in this. Like you said, it brings you closer.

JOHN MCKAY: It’s a way to focus a film. Focus the tension to what you want to listen to, like in the garage scene at the end and you hear it rock, that’s all added. And the other tension thing in that whole scene is the actual car door going “bing, bing, bing,” all the way through it and it’s banal, like the bell of Hell really at the end, the chimes of midnight or whatever. It’s using naturalistic sounds to slightly heighten, or push them out of balance, and I think that was key to the whole film.

The other thing, I’m going to give my partner here a big up, is that 40 minutes of the film is in the car and some of it was just shot on a stage, nothing is actually moving. And Matt did all of the car effects and in the end, it never feels like it becomes boring because they keep shifting as the character moves in the car. The car itself actually is a character in the film, like when you cut out wide and hear the distant squeal of the tire as he’s starting to speed up and things like that.

We were worried because it was so static for so long and even down to the dialogue we did a lot of subtle panning to the side so it felt like we were coming into space and everything wasn’t just down the center and then we could also play shock moments like the car door opening. I still get shocked by some sequences because I forget the timing. I was at the premiere and jumped out of my skin myself and I’d seen it 100 times. That’s the skill and tension of sound.

The greatest thing for me is hardly anyone has mentioned the sound, which means we’ve done our job. Everyone goes, “it’s taut and tense,” and I go you just play it with dialogue only it will be taut and tense. Doing our job is just being textural, it’s bound into the DNA of the film, and that’s what I’m proudest of.

Coming Home in the Dark
Coming Home in the Dark – Courtesy of Stan Alley /

1428 ELM: You guys have worked on such a broad range of projects, from smaller films to big-budget blockbusters. What have been some of your favorite projects to work on, and what do you have lined up next?

MATTHEW LAMBOURN: Well, we were talking about Wellington Paranormal before, and you were saying that the series is landing over [in America]. We’re right in the middle of the fourth series at the moment, and as I was saying, they just get crazier and crazier and funnier and funnier.

It’s a similar approach actually because it’s filmed documentary-style, all set mockumentary, so the sounds have to be interesting, but believable. That’s kind of my hierarchy of approach to sound design is drama, then truth, then necessity. It has to be drama, it has to be interesting, and you can sacrifice a little bit of truth for that dramatic feel but not too much. I mean, you can’t put the sound of a bulldozer on a car, or no one would believe it, but it doesn’t have to be exactly right if it’s going to break the drama or the fun of watching it.

The third thing, necessity, one of John’s favorite sayings is that sometimes the best thing you can do is shut up. [Laughs] It’s not about just blowing your trumpet the whole way through the film, leave some space for the gags to land or the jokes and the audience to breathe and be there with you rather than yelling at them the whole time.

Coming Home in the Dark
Wellington Paranormal — “Cop Circles” –Pictured (L-R): Mike Minogue as Officer Minoque, Extraterrestrial Flora, Karen O’Leary as Officer O’Leary — Photo: Stan Alley/New Zealand Documentary Board Ltd — © 2021 New Zealand Documentary Board Ltd., All Rights Reserved /

1428 ELM: I was saying for horror, how sound is so important, but I think that it’s the same for comedy because you don’t want to wreck a joke or wreck a scare with a weird sound effect.

MATTHEW LAMBOURN: Absolutely and because the writing is so top-notch in a show like Wellington Paranormal, the jokes have to be king and queen the whole time. But at the same time, you’ve got to sell the illusion that we’re living in this paranormal-ridden city.

I mean Wellington is a bit like that, there are weird creatures, weird shapes, weird people, and weird stories going around all the time. It’s got to be believable that we’re running around with ghosts, vampires, and sea monsters and so on, all the time. The other thing is it’s got to be fun and not too shocking or scary. I’ve got two kids and it’s their favorite, favorite show of all time.

JOHN MCKAY: At the moment we’re finishing up a Chinese film called I Am What I Am, and it’s our second film with a company in Guangzhou. We did a film for them three years ago where all the characters were actually food, called Kung Food, which was an absolute riot. This time we’re doing it all completely remotely. They have quite a lot of faith in us. yeah, culturally quite different but it’s actually our third Chinese feature film as well.

We have a wide range of stuff we do really here and we don’t really stick to one genre, which I love. I like the fact that everyone doesn’t necessarily do the same thing all the time, we mix it up a little bit even though our editors have specialties that they’re really good at. We have one who is really good at dialogue, George Palmer, Callum Scott, foley and ambiance is really his specialty and he just completed foley for a Netflix movie.

Yong Le Chong, who is, as I say is the calmest most beautiful guy who can do the most incredible violence. He did Dead Lands and what else, Matt? He has done quite a lot of violence for us actually. [Laughs]

MATTHEW LAMBOURN: He loves the violent stuff, [Laughs] he loves the goo and the gore. We should mention a couple of our editors, one of them is trapped in Mongolia at the moment, she hasn’t been able to get back since the pandemic and that’s Nahkia, she did some fantastic work on Coming Home in the Dark in terms of the car material.

My job was to make the car interesting, the road surfaces and the engine sounds and so on. She brought a whole new level of design to the project by really subtly conveying the passing scenery as it happened. The characters are trapped in the car, they’re in the dark, the roads are getting smaller and thinner and worse and deeper into the harsh New Zealand bush, and they’re watching the world go by as the movie progresses.

She brought in the swoops of the trees going past, the signage, that claustrophobic feel of the outside as it matched that claustrophobic feel of the inside. We’d really love her to be able to come back, hopefully, she will soon.

JOHN MCKAY: Matt’s right. One of the advantages of this film is that we actually had quite a big team. We had Shane Ragg who was assisting as well, Nahkia and we had a Chinese intern as well Yi Li. I love the younger people coming through, especially women, it’s been too much a white male preserve.

I always hate those photos at the end of mixes in Hollywood and I go, “Can you get anymore middle-aged gathered white men in the picture?” [Laughs] There aren’t enough women mixing. I know Lora Hirschberg she came out and mixed on Lord of the Rings when we were working on that. There need to be more women in post, I think, hopefully, we’re nurturing a little bit of that.

21 horror movies releasing in October 2021. dark. Next

Coming Home in the Dark is out now in select theaters and VOD.