Striking the right tone

Rob Schroeder, Conor Stechschulte and Zak Engel on Ultrasound

by Jennie Kermode

Ultrasound
Ultrasound

One of the more unusual films at 2021’s Tribeca Film Festival, multi-layered mystery Ultrasound opens with a man who finds himself in an unusual situation after his cars goes off the road and proceeds to explore a series of bizarre and ethically suspicious experiments involving hypnotism. It’s a complex puzzle built around the work of an impressive ensemble cast, and it also has a fascinating soundtrack which is more than usually integral to one’s interpretation of the narrative. Shortly after it screened at the festival, I met with key members of its creative team to discuss it: director Rob Schroeder; screenwriter Conor Stechschulte, who adapted it from his own graphic novel series; and composer Zak Engel.

It was Rob, it emerges, who first decided that the graphic novels should become a film, having read the first one. “I reached out to Conor who wrote the book about developing it into a movie. In the book the story is told in four parts, so when book two came out, it was really cool. And that's when I saw Conor to see see if he wanted to develop it into a film. And he did, and thought that he could write the script. So he took that challenge on, and then the process began.”

It’s quite a challenge for a first screenplay, I suggest, because it has to keep people invested in the film while they watch it until they understand what's going on. Was that a concern at the time of writing?

“Yeah,” says Conor. “I feel like that was something we were really trying to watch the meter on, and make sure people were still invested in it. I think that that was something that maybe carried over from the structure of the graphic novel. Especially in the first couple of volumes – based on the rhythm of a book, you know, you have the two page spreads at a time that are what you see – I tried to end each of those two page spreads with a question to keep the readers kind of compelled to turn the page, and I think that kind of structure carried over to how I was trying to adapt the script, to end each scene with with a question to kind of, hopefully, carry the audience's interest into the next scene while still not getting all of the information away.”

There are questions about fantasy and reality in the story, and about how we tell the difference between them, so I was intrigued by his decision to begin with a scenario which is in many ways a classic fantasy, but look at how people respond to such situations in real life. Was that about generating contrast?

“Yeah, I think initially that idea, especially for that opening part, was to work all the way through this sort of classic fantasy structure and then kind of leave the camera on, so to speak, and see what the aftermath of that was. If there were actual humans put in those dynamics, what would be the fallout from that? And what would be the larger implications of that? And that was kind of what generated the story for me.”

I ask Rob how he approached working with the actors to get the balance right in that scene, and he says that the challenge in several scenes was handling the subjective aspects of the storytelling.

“I think it was just important for me and the actors to understand exactly what we were seeing or what the scene meant, as far as if it was based in reality or something else. So I think we did a good job of filling in each scene with a clear understanding of what what it was that was really happening and what we were saying.”

Ultrasound poster
Ultrasound poster

The reason for the uncertainty is, in large part, the way that hypnotism factors into the film. How did they go about researching that?

“One of the originating germs of the story was was an experience I had as a high schooler,” says Conor. “It was a scenario very similar to some that appear in the movie, like seeing a hypnotism show when I was in high school and seeing some of my friends get hypnotised. The sort of strangeness and discomfort of that was a real inspiring piece. And then, yeah, just like a little bit of a little bit of research here and there to find out some of the language around it.” He looks at Rob. “Wrapped up into it too was, you were looking at some of the Russian mind control programmes and stuff like that.”

Rob nods. “I was. And then it's funny also, once my friends knew that we were making a movie about hypnotism, I started getting introduced to hypnotists. Everybody has a friend who hypnotises people. That was interesting too, particularly there were a couple of guys who were stage performers, who would bring people on stage and perform it as entertainment. So yeah, I think over the year that we were developing this, we did a lot of research that goes into it.”

I say that I find it interesting that Conor mentioned those Russian programmes, because both the Russians and the Americans had programmes like that, and tried to control people through hypnotism. And – without wanting to give away too many spoilers – there's kind of a political dimension to this film. Does that reflect concerns about people's understanding of what's real and what isn't, in today's world?

“Yeah, absolutely,” says Conor. “I feel like that situation has only gotten more and more extreme as we worked on the project. You know, we started going back and forth about the script in 2016. And so yeah, I mean, events in the world began to resemble people living in their own subjective realities. You know, among which there in very little agreement. It’s become a much more present reality in our lives.”

I like the idea of auditory tones being used in hypnotism and ask if that’s something that comes from reality or something they invented.

“That comes from reality,” says Zak. “There's definitely sounds that can affect, you know, mood, and sounds that can suggest, and then even on a more basic level, there's sounds that can call to mind a reference. So one thing that we thought about when we were designing the score and the sound design was, you know, what sounds are we hearing in a scene that may or not be real in the film, towards the beginning? And then later, as you become more privy to the story and what's actually happening, you hear the same sounds calling back and you start to associate them with earlier scenes in the film. And then you can make a subconscious or conscious connection as a viewer.

“This was a breadcrumb. With memory in my own life, there are sounds that I can hear or, you know, any any of the senses that can call you back to a place or influence you to feel something or think something. So that read was something that Rob and I spoke about often when we were making music, and, you know, auditory breadcrumbs and the literal usage of frequencies and tones. Some can make you nauseous and some can make you peaceful. So how did we want to incorporate that into the script?”

I tell him that I like it because films do this kind of thing with the score all the time but this film is much more overt about it. Did that make it very different for him as a composer?

“It was unique, for sure,” he says. “And, you know, Rob and I spoke early on about his desire to have an electronic forward score, which I thought was perfect, because, you know, I don't want to give too much of the plot away either, but some of that is happening in the film. So it felt like a very effective and literal through line. So the idea of the sound being such a literal character in the film is definitely unique. It was challenging in its way, but it was mostly exciting. It was a special thing. And I think the film being called Ultrasound, sounding such a character in the film, and then Rob having such a great set of references for what he wanted for the more traditional bits of music in the film that feel a little bit more like score, to beat. So it was just a lot of fun.”

Usually when putting a film together, one will leave little cues here and there so that people will reflect back and think of a scene that they've seen before and make those subconscious associations, but this, again, seem much more structured like that. For instance, there's something that we see in the very first scene that that shouldn't really be there, that we then see again later on, and little things like that. I ask Rob if it was a more conscious kind of direction that he was doing because you want the audience to notice that kind of thing more than it usually would. How did you get the balance?

“It's tricky,” he acknowledges. “The film is very different on a second viewing, because you do notice things you couldn't have noticed the first time or, if you did, you wouldn't have found them relevant. So we did keep that in mind and wanted to plant that stuff. My production designer, Alexis Rose, took a lot of care and was very deliberate about using props and locations advantageously to kind of set that up.”

Something that I think helps us stay with it the film as we're going through that is the way that the characters seem consistent, even when they don't understand themselves in that way, even when they're in different scenarios. I ask Conor if he consciously set out to create personalities that we could relate to even if we weren't sure what was going on with those characters.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “That was that was something that, in the writing of the script, Rob and I went back and forth about, just trying to make sure – because it's really tough when there are characters that are being manipulated or having their their actions, perhaps, controlled by someone else, or something like that, to be like, ‘Okay, well, what's the kernel underneath that?’ So that was a big challenge, trying to get that that balance correct, but I think ultimately the credit goes to the actors. All the performances just blew me totally away, like, how they were able to do such careful readings with the script and the story and know what they were supposed to do. That was just such an amazing thing to see.”

I ask Rob how they found the right people for those roles.

“It was a pretty tricky process, I think,” he says. “And not everyone came on early. A couple of people were right before we began filming. And we didn't have rehearsals, and there were a couple people sent in audition tapes but we didn't have a formal audition unit. So a lot of it, I think, just went on intuition. And we had a tremendous casting director. Mandy Sherman was very experienced and knew how to build an ensemble. So you know, a lot of it, I feel like it just went on looking at people's work and trying to get a sense of what it might be like to have them in those parts.”

What was it like for the three of them working together? Was Conor around to consult as the film was actually shot?

“Yeah, I got to see it. It was great,” says Conor. “Because, you know, there’s a lot of things that take place. I saw the facility setting and I got to come out to LA, and I was there for all of the shooting of that. So almost half of the movie I was I was there for, but I was only there for like, maybe five days. That was amazing. And getting to see it and offer feedback and getting to meet everybody involved was just like, yeah, totally incredible.”

“I came on board later in the process,” says Zak. “Brock Bodell, who is an editor of the film and a producer on the film, he and I have worked on projects together and he introduced Rob and I, and we just started talking about references and started talking about music. And actually, I had seen a little bit of the film through Brock and I had spoken with Rob at once and, you know, was inspired by the idea of the film. And so I wrote a couple pieces of music just to share with Rob, about like, ‘Hey, this is how I think some of the movie could sound.’ And I shared them with Rob, and he thought they were cool. And I don't know, Rob, if you sent those to Conor at that point. But that was my initial introduction with Rob and how I could contribute to the to the project. And from there it just sort of snowballed into a partnership and working on the rest of the film.”

How do they feel about the reactions it’s had at Tribeca?

“The reaction was tremendous,” says Rob. “Having an in person screening and being able to see the film with an audience was really phenomenal after a lot of screenings at home. It was also tremendous meeting a lot of the crew that I hadn't met before. Like Zak, because he was working remotely. So it was sort of a family reunion when we’d never met.”

“The movie wrapped on like March 19 [2020],” says Conor. “So there wasn't like a proper like cast party or any of that. So it was great to see the gang again, all together. It was really celebratory atmosphere. It was really wonderful.”

“ We finished filming days before the lockdown,” Rob explains. “So we had the film essentially in the can. There was only maybe a couple shots that we picked up later. But coordinating post was different and kind of liberating, because of the knowledge that even if everyone was in the same town, we would be working remotely. So it just kind of opened everything up, and we worked with people all over. So it was a good experience of being in the same room. It's nice.”

They’re going to Fantasia next, where there will be a different kind of audience.

“I'm excited about it,” says Rob. “It's funny. There's some some friends of mine who've seen the film and they've said that it feels like a genre film, and others, you know, see it more as a more mainstream movie, but I am excited for more genre audiences to see it. Because I think it checks a lot of the boxes for sci-fi, with maybe a little horror in there.”

Before we say goodbye, I ask them what new projects they’re working on now. Zak speaks up first.

“I'm scoring a new sort of psychedelic natural horror film,” he says. “It was another project that was conceived during the pandemic and filmed in the pandemic and most of post was done during the pandemic. And now we're scoring. And that, again, is a combination of electronic music and then really wild, like, woodwinds. I'm using a lot of recorders and saxophones in an interesting way. So it's cool project. And that should wrap sometime in July.”

“I got ahead of the books in writing the script, so I just finished the graphic novels that the movies are based on,” says Conor. “So I'm working on kind of wrangling all of them together for the collected edition, which will come out a year from now. And then I have a couple other graphic novel projects, and Rob and I have been talking about a bunch of new film ideas as well.”

“ I'm excited for it,” says Rob. “You know, it's it's such a process going from starting with the original material to developing and getting a movie set up. So I'm excited to go back to square one and learn from my mistakes, I guess!”

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