Saltburn’s sound supervisor spills all the slurpy, squelchy secrets behind the movie’s most outrageous scenes.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Saltburn throughout.
Earlier this month, during a Q&A in London, the director Emerald Fennell got down to the guts of what her newest film, Saltburn, is really about. “It’s about desire,” she said. “Real, sticky, awkward, mortifying, intense, dangerous desire, which requires a certain amount of exposure from everyone,” adding, “I’m only interested in things that make me shudder.”
If watched in the cinema, which is where Saltburn is probably best enjoyed, it’ll likely have been accompanied by outbreaks of gasps, guffaws and teeth-sucking as the crowd physically recoils from the antics of the obsessed outsider, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), and his eventful summer at his aristocratic university-mate’s family home.
That would be in large part thanks to the film’s sound design — all that enhanced oozing, squelching, and sucking that makes each disturbingly hideous scene so vibrantly intimate. This ear for the esoteric can be credited to the film’s supervising sound editor, the Oscar-winning (for Bohemian Rhapsody’s sound design) Nina Hartstone.
Hartstone, from Cinphonic, worked with Fennell and the editor Victoria Boydell in the edit suite to create the story’s sonic backdrop, starting by creating a unique library of sounds with the Foley team — sound effects created to heighten the audio of a film. “Unless you have the right sound,” Hartstone tells Vulture, “You’re never going to make it work with the images, or make it do what you want to do. It’s not like you can just pull regular library sounds for some of the scenes in this!”
With that in mind, Hartstone breaks down some of the most controversial scenes in the film and the sounds of unexpected household items — and the occasional cephalopod — used to elicit such often violent reactions during the film.
The actual octopus Hartstone’s team used.
In one of Saltburn’s creepiest scenes, Oliver has been stalking the object of his affection, the lovable toff Felix (Jacob Elordi), while he jacks off in the bath. But when the deed is done, and Felix leaves the bathroom, Oliver slithers in and puts his full face in the milky, viscous dregs of the bathtub, rims the plughole, and slurps up the watery bodily juices.
“The big hitter in that moment was Barry’s performance,” says Hartstone. “That slurp you hear, the sound he created, was from him. It was so visceral in the moment, it just came out of him and he put so much performance into that slurp. From the sound side of things, it was all leading up to that moment for him.”
There’s a layering of many sounds to pull the audience in, she adds, from Oliver approaching the plughole to how the water’s draining away, but “the gurgle brings you into the realms of disgust, but also obsession.” Another key ingredient in that collection of perfect, revolting sounds? An octopus.
“As so much of it is about texture, this is where things like the octopus came in,” explains Hartstone. “It was just one of the many unique ideas the Foley team came up with when they were experimenting with props to create sounds with. The octopus was raw, and it’s something that’s got very many textures to play with, and a cavity in its head. We didn’t shy away from experimenting with creating as many sticky sounds as we could using oil and the octopus. You have to do an awful lot of recording to find the absolute right sounds.”
Foley artist Oliver Ferris, fooling around with a grapefruit (“for squishiness”).
Photo: Adam Méndez
The teenagers and 20-somethings of Saltburn find sex useful for both pleasure and power plays. Whether that’s Felix rutting his way through a procession of Oxford Uni gals or Oliver’s vampiric session with Venetia (Alison Oliver) and his compromising hand job with Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), not to mention Felix repeatedly pleasuring himself in his and Oliver’s shared bathroom, the sound team had their work cut out for them.
The sounds of all those sexual scenes needed extra tackiness, says Hartstone. “Sex is messy and passionate, the reality is it’s sticky.” Yet, sound effects for these scenes “had to be subtle. So yes, we used the octopus again, and then we played around with all sorts of different fruits; we had grapefruit for squishiness and watermelon because it’s got that slightly grainier texture.”
Much like Oliver Quick seducing a menstruating Venetia, “our Foley team was very hands on with it!” Hartstone explains. “They were using their hands with the fruit to make the squelches, running things up and down the textures of fruits and vegetables, and pushing microphones into them to try to re-create the sound of the inside of a body. With those scenes of Felix masturbating in the bath, we added the element of splashing, of cloth, and we used baby oil and Vaseline on vegetables like zucchini and cucumbers.”
From boozy uni sessions to the mornings after wild, drug-filled parties at the Saltburn estate and even — as Lady Catton tactlessly commented of her daughter Venetia’s eating disorder — “fingers for pudding,” there’s a fair amount of upchuck spewing across the screen in Saltburn.
“Vomit is always such an evocative sound,” says Hartstone. “The splat is one thing, so we experimented with lots of soup splatting on the ground; lentil soup with some extra-chunky cooked vegetables turned out to be the secret ingredient for an authentic sound. But retching is that thing of it coming from a cavity of your body where your body is trying to turn itself inside out, so it’s really trying to get the sense of the sound. Vomiting is such a sensory thing — it’s not just the visual, it’s the sound and the smell.” The team was aiming for a nostalgic effect, she says, hoping that between the Foley effects, the film’s mid-aughts soundtrack, and the brightly colored visuals, “we’re tapping back into those memories that you hold from that age and at that time in your life; they’re the memories that you hold with you for a long time afterward.”
Everyone is distraught after Felix’s mysterious death in his family’s hedge maze the night of a raucous birthday party. After his funeral, once all the family have returned home, Oliver throws himself down on the soil of the fresh grave, sobbing. In the passion of the moment, he takes off his shirt … and then, unexpectedly, pulls down his pants and starts having sex with the grave, before stopping to break down once again.
This was another point in production where much of the emphasis was on Keoghan, as the team recorded sounds during the take. “For the grave scene, while providing such rich opportunities for visceral sound, this is actually all about the audience experiencing Oliver’s raw emotion,” Hartstone explains. “So, here, the soundwork started on set, with production sound mixer Nina Rice using plant mics,” or hidden microphones, “to record Barry’s incredible performance. Then the layers of sound were built up to create the journey of the scene through the pass,” that is, playing through the scene and changing how loud or quiet the separate sounds are. “First, the soaking-wet clothing pass, then the mud pass, and finally a passion pass, which adds in the key points of what you also see onscreen: a squelch or a wet slap or a firm hand.”
Near the end of Oliver’s conquest, the final Catton he needs to be rid of is Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), then he’s free to wear Felix’s life like his own skin. He “bumps into” the now-childless widow at a café, where she warmly invites him back to Saltburn. Soon after signing over her estate to him, she falls sick; presumably, Oliver has poisoned her. Suddenly, we cut to her deathbed at home where, mid-monologue, Oliver gruesomely yanks the breathing tube out of her esophagus, leaving her to gasp and choke to death.
“The pulling of that tube was another one where we had discussions with Emerald — you really needed to feel it,” says Hartstone. “We sliced through the skin of a pineapple with a pruning handsaw to capture the raw violence and aggression, and simulate the rugged tube scraping against the throat and the windpipe. We wanted you to literally feel the ridges of that tube as it hits the inside of her body as it comes out. This choice was to create an authentic and impactful sensory experience, emphasizing the brutality of the moment.”
Then, there was even more veggie-bothering. “To further intensify the scene, we recorded the forceful extraction of a tube from a ripe pumpkin using internal and external microphones, says Hartstone. “The guttural sounds from the hollow cavity aim to make the audience feel the effect of the sound, enhancing the overall impact of the moment. Oh, the octopus came in handy again for that sucking sound as well.”