In Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis’s quiet, meticulous dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock falls hard for a young, mysterious woman named Alma (Vicky Krieps). As with any fall, what results is bruising and chaotic — and a significant amount of noise. Reynolds is graceful and exacting. Alma is clumsy and clamorous. He works quietly; she walks heavily, trips, drop things. He insists on eating breakfast in total silence. She chews so loudly even the audience starts to grimace. It’s through these small, bothersome sounds — Alma scraping butter across her toast at breakfast and slowly pouring tea, or Reynolds aggressively cutting his asparagus — that the movie unnerves you, traps you inside the couple’s shared psychosis. The sound is as much a part of the story as the couture, or the characters themselves.
In order to learn the secrets behind Phantom Thread’s evocative sound design — and figure out how they made that toast so damn annoying — Vulture spoke with sound designer and rerecording mixer Christopher Scarabosio. Scarabosio, who’s worked with director Paul Thomas Anderson ever since Punch-Drunk Love and earned an Oscar nomination for There Will Be Blood, developed a plan for Phantom Thread’s specific sound design after watching the complex relationship between the characters play out in an early cut of the film. “I thought, I’m going to base my sound design on the these characters, and way they’re building tension,” he explained.
Scarabosio has previously worked on blockbuster films like The Force Awakens and Rogue One, and noted that a film like Phantom Thread requires a different sort of approach to sound. “Nothing can take you out of the film,” he said. “With a blockbuster, we know we’re going into an action sequence, or a mind-altering sequence, and it’s all about creating exciting and cool sound-design-y moments.” In a film like Phantom Thread, however, with a director like Anderson, the goal is to stay within the story — and match the director’s aesthetic.
Scarabosio began by using rerecorded sounds, or matches, and integrating them into the film with the production sound, i.e., what was recorded on set. That initial sound “was a little rough to start,” Scarabosio said, and since Anderson prefers not to use a lot of additional dialogue recording or Foley effects to reproduce sounds, a lot of Scarabosio’s work involves finding sounds that feel real, like they were recorded in the moment. Because he’d worked with Anderson before, he also knew that the director preferred a “messy” and “not overly polished or produced sound to things,” as he did in Punch-Drunk Love or There Will Be Blood. In essence, the directive was to bring on the irritation, with one caveat — “the fabrics, those have to sound really beautiful.”
The noise created by moving fabric can seem like indistinct white noise — fuzzy, without a lot of definition. In order to capture the textures of Reynolds’s dresses with exactitude, the sound department composed a collection of “satins and silks and cottons and linens and fabrics with textures and some that were smoother.” “Everything that Reynolds is making has to be of the highest quality, and we started building a library of different textures for various fabrics,” Scarabosio said. The team had to be exact; the way that silk might sounds as it moves or is cut, for example, is different from the way cotton or linen might sound. The same conscientiousness is necessary when scoring different types of sewing machines, differentiating between the sound of machine and hand sewing, and even contrasting various types of needles and threads. Each gets its own place in the library. “We’re trying to make it as distinctive as possible,” Scarabosio said.
Scarabosio was also charged with establishing character and tone through sound. In scenes where Alma finally stops pushing up against Reynolds’s strict lifestyle and conforms to his expectations, she becomes nearly silent, and the noises she produces — opening or closing a door, for instance — are far softer. “This is her way of saying, ‘You’re going to have your time and I’m going to have my time,’ ”explained Scarabosio. Reynolds’s officious sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), in contrast, is “disruptive and deliberate.” “Earlier in the film, every time that she enters, she breaks the moment,” Scarabosio said. “She’ll come in with loud footsteps or she’ll slam a door or she’ll start talking, and all those moments break the initial spell.”
Many of the film’s most crucial scenes take place while Reynolds and Alma are eating around a table, where the familiar noises of chewing, cutting, and scraping soon become overwhelming. In one scene — which Scarabosio said was one of the most difficult to get right — Alma eats breakfast across from Reynolds and his sister Cyril, and in a key moment, scrapes butter across her toast in a way that’s especially grating, both to Reynolds and viewers.
“That was one of those moments where we really had to intensify what was happening in the scene,” Scarabosio said. He and his team tried cutting out all production sound and focusing recorded effects, but instead settled on “a combination of reality and enhanced reality,” which meant finding and recording the right noises to match what was happening in the scene. “We recorded a bunch of various things — plates clacking and silverware dropping and toast being buttered — as did the Foley [artists].” Then, in the studio, the team combined and exaggerated these noises, so they might be as irksome as possible to Reynolds.
And as for how he made that toast-buttering so unbelievably loud? Scarabosio did his diligent carb research. “We buttered a lot of different toasts,” he said. “We did bagels. We did rye. We did sourdough. We tried them all.” The bread that worked best: “Plain white toast,” he said. “When you toast it and get it to that nice dark brown — that and some good sourdough, with a really thick crust.”