Most of us know that sound design is the secret weapon of filmmaking. It can make or break a production by sounding too cheap, too fake, or too quiet.

We love to highlight the heroes of sound in film and TV here at No Film School, so when we got the opportunity to speak with Nathan Ruyle about the Sundance darling, Thelma, we jumped on it.

The film follows a nonagenarian, played by the brilliant June Squibb, who falls prey to one of those nefarious phone scammers. She loses thousands. But unlike real life, which often sees these horrible scammers vanish into obscurity, in this action-comedy Thelma gets to track down the scammers, get her money back, and find herself along the way.

Ruyle and his team were tasked with honing the realism of this world while also highlighting the nonsense of Thelma's adventure. We spoke to him via Zoom about striking the right tone, finding the right balance of silence, and the indepedent company he runs in Burbank.

Make sure your hearing aids are in, and enjoy.

Editor's note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: Sound, and the absence of sound, plays a big part in this movie. What got you excited about working on Thelma?

Nathan Ruyle: Well, first of all, when I met Josh [Margolin] and Zoe [Worth] and Chris [Kaye], I don't know if you've had a chance to meet them in person, but they're just the best. And they had such a great energy, which is in the movie, and I felt that in the script and in the movie immediately, when I first got ahold of it.

And the pitch of being like, oh, it's an action movie, but with two elderly characters, I was like, "Oh, that's interesting." And then, when I saw what we were going to be doing, I was so excited, because I think in terms of production, it was so well executed. And June and Richard are just such incredible actors, and honestly, the whole cast is awesome. So then, I was super excited.

And then, also, there's some really great challenges in the movie. And on some level, the sound as a whole is a challenge of the movie because it's a kind of a hybrid style of movie. It's sort of this family comedy and this action movie put together, and on some level, the sound and the music have the role of bringing the action, to some degree. Not that there isn't action, but it's like the difference between a mobility scooter and a Mustang racing through the streets, but we're trying to push it towards that direction. So it was clear immediately, I was like, oh, sound is going to be a huge part of this, as well as music. So anything that's a challenge like that, and where the sound is sort of integrated, is really exciting. And also, there's moments, which I'm sure we'll talk about, where sound is written into the script, because June, as a person who, in her older years, is starting to lose her hearing, that becomes a kind of repeating element within the film that we come back to.

So all those factors, I was just super excited to work on it. And also, I will say that this is something that's important for folks who are just getting into feature filmmaking, they budgeted appropriately to accomplish what they needed to do so that we had a nice budget to work with, which gave us a lot of editorial and design time, and gave us a lot of mixed time. And also, actually, even once we had settled on a budget, the producers came back and said, we think we would like to actually do a Dolby Atmos mix for this, which is also kind of leaning into the action side of things. And so, that was also awesome.

And my company, This is Sound Design, we're in Burbank, I actually own one of the few owner operated, sound designer owned and operated, theatrical Atmos stages in the world. So we actually could do all the Atmos work in-house, which also helps, because it makes it more accessible, more inexpensive than, say, if we were going to Paramount or Warner Brothers or Sony, or somewhere like that. So all those factors were just like, all systems go, so exciting, and we got into it.

NFS: You touched on what I was going to ask about next, which was the challenges of working in comedic sound, but also this being an actioner. How do you lean into both the comedy and the action of it all?

Ruyle: Well, it's funny because they sort of come full circle, because on some level, we're trying to make something that's kind of funny and intimate and a kind of normal kind of comedy, and so, there's little moments like that. But a lot of the comedy in the movie is coming from June, this 93-year-old woman kind of doing these capers and getting in a chase on a scooter, so those things are inherently funny. I mean, the thing about comedy, which is often said, is that, when you're trying to be funny, it isn't necessarily funny, it's always about finding the realism of the moment or committing to the bit in a way that then, it sort of feels real, and then, the comedy comes out of that.

And I think that's actually a really critical piece to Thelma, is that, when we're doing something, so we talk about one of the set piece moments, sonically, and in general, in the movie, is this scooter chase where June tries to steal her friend's scooter so that she can go off and do her heist, or go off and ... The premise of the movie is that she's trying to get some money back that was stolen from her in a scam, so she goes to steal her friend's scooter. And that could be played a lot of different ways, I mean, if we just were to throw a bunch of car sounds on top of it, or really crazy sounds that sort of sound more like a car chase and not like a scooter, it wouldn't necessarily work because it would feel more cartoonish, and it would be like, oh, it's sort of funny, but it doesn't hit you as like, oh, this is actually happening.

So the trick was to find sounds that evoke the feeling and the energy of a car chase, but that are actually like, oh, but I think that those tire squeals could come from that scooter if you really made it go fast, or maybe we ... Most scooters have really kind of a one hum as they go, so we gave that a little bit more of a revving quality that a car would have, but it's still a sound of a scooter.

And so, in doing that, not only does the audience kind of believe it's happening, but actually, it becomes a lot funnier, because we're kind of committing to the bit in the world of realism. So that's a big factor, and I think that's probably how we thought of it throughout, is, how can we sit in a place of hyperrealism and let the audience be a part of this ride, but to always feel like they're in the world, and so, therefore ... I think that's when the comedy pops, actually.

NFS: The opposite of that would be when she takes her hearing aids out, or they're communicating via the hearing aids, so I would love to know your process there and how you arrived at those sounds.

Ruyle: Yeah, that was one we talked about, both in design and on the stage, and trying to figure out exactly the way that would feel. I think in the original edit, it was just silence, so she would take the hearing aids out, and then everything would be silent. And I thought ... Again, it's actually in this world a little bit of realism, it's like, well, I think some people completely can't hear anything without the hearing aids, but I actually think it would be something more where we're hearing little bits of things, but things are more muffled and things are more contained. And so, we did some trial and error, and tried different approaches to it, and landed on one where it's very, very subtle, but you do hear the background sounds, but they're very muted, so you just barely pick them up. Which, actually, one of the things about sound is that sometimes, the sound that is present but very, very quiet can feel more quiet and more isolating than actually if it just goes to total silence.

And then, the other thought that I had was that, and I do this a lot in my movies, we do a lot of breath work with our actors in ADR. And ironically, this is very common in action movies. You may have seen videos of Tom Cruise in the ADR booth, and he's running and huffing and emoting. There's some cool videos that have been around forever of that stuff, and it's just funny to watch someone watching themselves running.

And so, we did some of that with June, but the other thing we did is, we had her do some breathing in those very silent moments. So in fact, the idea is that she still hears her own breath inside.

Again, it's muted and very subtle, but again, what that does is, not only does it create a feeling of isolation, but it also kind of personifies her, and it pulls the audience into that moment, so they, then ... And this is something that breath often tends to do, is that, when the audience perceives the breath, they have this empathic response to the character.

So essentially, what our subconscious tells us is, oh, I'm with them. I am them, I'm feeling what they're feeling. And our own breath is one of these most intimate things that we experience, and so, there's a kind of resonance that happens with the audience, so the audience suddenly gets pulled into that moment. Much more than saying like, oh, I'm watching someone feel isolated, instead, they're now feeling someone be isolated. And I think that worked really well, and so, we go back to that a few times in the movie. So that was the approach.

June Squibb and Fred Hechinger June Squibb and Fred Hechinger appear in Thelma by Josh Margolin, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by David Bole

NFS: You may have touched on it already, what scene are you most proud of, sound-wise, in the film?

Ruyle: I think that the scooter chase, in terms of the action side, I'm really thrilled with how that came out. I think it works so well, you really get drawn in. And I also say, in part because the music is so wonderful, and the composer, he worked off of Lalo Schifrin, was kind of the inspiration, which is who made the Mission Impossible theme. And so, that feeling and energy, and he did such an amazing job of bringing in the kind of rhythms and the dynamics of those. So it's so great because, this movie, I'm the sound designer, and I manage ... Or, I don't manage, I'm the sound designer and supervising sound editor, I have a team. At my facility, we do everything in-house; I have a whole team of sound designers and editors I work with.

But I'm the kind of sound designer in the sense of production designer, costume designer, it's my kind of creative guidance. And then, I also mix the film, so I kind of carry it through the whole process. And as a mixer, it's so awesome when you have an incredible score that's dynamic and really working, and also is creating space for sound to come in, and so, there's a beautiful kind of handoff between the two. So that was also why I love that sequence so much, because there's great stuff where we're getting the kind of energy of the scooter, we're hearing little reactions from Richard, and little reactions from June, and then, we're also getting this music just kind of really carrying us through. So all those things. And I also just think it's such a beautifully shot and constructed sequence. I think Josh did such a brilliant job, and the DP did such a brilliant job of conceiving of something that I think could've ... could've not worked at all, but all those elements were working in tandem, so yeah, that's a favorite scene.

There's a scene at the end where June, she basically is off by herself. There's been a big, dark night of the soul, and she ends up kind of in this vacant lot in North Hollywood, and she pulls her hearing aids out. And the way that we built up the world in that way, and you're hearing these power lines, and you're hearing planes and these things, and then, when it all goes silent and we just hear the breath, I think that's such an effective moment. And it's about thinking about those dynamics, kind of building up a world, and then pulling it away, that I think it's such a great moment of that kind of going into isolation through sound that I think I really love. And then, again, how we come out of that, how the music plays, so those are my favorites.

NFS: I also love the sequence where she goes to the lighting store the first time, and we have all the little tinkling lights and the fear of sound.

Ruyle: Yeah, yeah, that's a big Dolby Atmos moment, because you can hear the lights kind of moving on the ceiling, and yeah, we did a lot of really detailed foley. I think it brings a little of that kind of Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 1, in the computer terminal, that kind of a feeling, where she's sneaking through. It's so great.

And June is just so incredible, I just think that moment where she's cleaning the glass is so funny. She's just so great.

NFS: You have mentioned This is Sound Design, but I'd just love to know a little bit more about your company and how it got started.

Ruyle: It's my company which I founded, and I'm the sole owner and operator and stakeholder in. I got out of CalArts about 15 years ago or so and dabbled in working at some of the bigger studios. And ultimately, because I had really started to work in a very collaborative way at CalArts, which, CalArts is the school Walt Disney started in LA, and it's kind of known as a really super creative, collaborative design school. And I really studied design from the ground up with other designers, production designers, and costume designers, so that was where I came up working on my MFA.

And then, I came out to LA to transition into film, I was involved in theater before that, and sound in theater. And so, I had really hit the ground running, working with directors in graduate school, and then, coming out of graduate school, and had a couple really cool movies. I did a movie called It Felt Like Love, with Eliza Hittman, it was a Sundance movie, my first feature at Sundance. And so, I just really love this collaborative, more design-centric approach to sound [and] post, and what I experienced in the industry was, it was a much more of a service-based kind of approach, and the teams were much bigger, and there wasn't as much designer-driven, creative ownership of the work. So I made the decision, it was at the time when the kind of technology was had just starting to get powerful enough that you could do this, that I was like, oh, I'm just going to try to start my own thing and work on small indie features.

And that's where it started, it started in a garage studio in North Hollywood, and I worked out of that for a few years, and then, I was able to transition to a medium-sized studio that I shared with another company in Universal City. And then, about three or four years ago, we were doing several festival films a year, starting to do a little bit of bigger stuff, as well, bigger theatrical stuff, and made the decision that we were outgrowing our space, and I built where we are now in Burbank, which is a total turnkey, 4,000 square foot facility. We have two mixed stages, we do ADR, we have in-house Foley, kind of the whole soundpost process there, and including, we have a big theatrical Atmos stage.

And we're starting to do some bigger theatrical projects, and we had some big festival movies, we did Searching many years ago. We've had a lot of movies that have transitioned out into the marketplace. And so, through all that, I've been building a team and kind of growing and getting more experience. And now, we're starting to do some bigger budget projects completely in-house, starting to even compete with some of the big studios. So we actually have a big wide release movie called Cabrini, coming out March 8th. It's big budget, big sound design, we worked on it for more than half a year.

So yeah, and I mean, I think our ethos ... It's called "This is Sound Design" because I think, in my mind, I believe that really, soundpost has kind of lagged behind some of the other disciplines. I think a lot of the other disciplines, if you look back, they were inside of the big studios, and then, ultimately, they became more driven by the actual creative people, and it became more about the director and editor, director and DP, those relationships, and that collaboration that would happen over many, many projects. And that's really what my vision was, is that, just like a production designer is ... Obviously, there's lots of services involved in doing production design, and all those elements of the visual production of the film, but ultimately, it's a creative relationship, and it's a design relationship with the director to kind of realize that vision.

And that's how I see sound design, is that, that's my role, and then, all these things that we do, the Foley, the ADR, the mixing, those are all the parts of that one big conversation and collaboration of what the movie sounds like. And so, that's how we approach it, and I built my approach to the work and our facilities to make that possible. So that's more or less it, and I think the other benefit is that, especially now that we're starting to do some bigger budget work, also, rather than saying like, oh, I'm not going to do smaller movies anymore, it actually allows us to do more smaller movies, and to be able to work with more directors, and to start more collaborative relationships.

And from the smaller budgets all the way up to big, is what we're doing, and so, a mid-budget movie like Thelma, where really, we can do something for that movie that it probably wouldn't be within their budget to go up to one of the larger corporate studios to be able to do. They would get less time, less mix time, and ultimately, just not as good of a film. So that was kind of the vision, and it's taken 15 years, and the business has been kind of funny. And my heroes were that whole last class of Sundance directors, the Aronofskys and the PT Andersons. And a lot of those directors have worked with the same people their whole career. We hit this funny dip with digital and streaming, where, in a lot of instances, we would do a movie, have a Sundance movie be a big success, and then, a bigger producer would swoop in, grab the director, and a lot of the team, including the creative producers, are kind of out in the cold. Which I think was unfortunate, but it was a common thing over the last decade.

And I think we're starting to see that shift a little bit. And also, I'm starting to get directors who did that first movie at Toronto or Sundance, had a splash, that second movie, a big producer swooped in, they were at one of the big corporate studios. They had a really bad experience because it was a really different experience than what they had done, and now, on their third or fourth feature, they're coming to us because we can do this kind of thing where we can be super creative, we can have that collaborative, personal relationship with them, but we also have the facilities and the setup to be able to function even on a big scale.

NFS: Is there anything that you want to discuss that I didn't ask?

Ruyle: I think I'll just say, this past year, and I think for many years, This Is Sound Design, we've really been focused on movies. And I always have loved movies, because one is that, just like the movie Thelma, when you see that movie in [inaudible 00:20:45] with the big Atmos sound design in the big sound system, with all that work and time that we put into it, I just love people to go for 90 minutes or two hours and just completely become immersed and completely, empathically connect with something, which I think is so special. And it's so different from television, even though I love Prestige TV, and I love some of these things that ... I'm a huge fan of so many television projects, as a watcher. But I think that movie experience is so great, and I think people love it so much.

And I think for many years, we were getting told like, oh, people just don't want to go to the movies, and we had COVID. And I think this last year, we've seen this huge resurgence in people wanting to go to the theater, and I'm super excited about that, because I actually think that this next few years is going to be a big renaissance of the idea of how great movies are. And so, I'm super excited about that, and I'm very committed to that, and we're really going for it. And so, I hope that heartens a lot of the filmmakers that are out there, because I think that for a few years, it felt like maybe the cinema was going to be something that ... We were being told it was something that wasn't vital or exciting. And I think that's been proven wrong, and so, I think that's super encouraging, and I hope that people feel that and know that, and I hope they also get out and see movies, because that's the best way.

That's really like, Barbenheimer, some other movies this past year. We had a big movie called Sound of Freedom that was controversial, but actually was a humongous, humongous box office hit, the same director, and we're doing this movie Cabrini that comes out.

So I'm really excited for that, and I hope people come out. And speaking of, I have Cabrini coming out March 8, it's the biggest, most rich sound design we've ever done. I'm so proud of the sound work we did. And it's going to be in, I don't know, several thousand theaters, so it's going to be everywhere, so I hope people can come out and see that.

And yeah, I'm just really excited. And I also really appreciate you guys, because you guys are always holding the torch for just getting out there and making movies, which, so much of it is just getting out there and doing it and making it and believing in it, so I really champion that, and I appreciate you guys doing that.

No Film School's coverage of Sundance 2024 is brought to you by Canon.