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Female Gaze: Evelien van der Molen

The blonde bombshell, the femme fatale, sirens of the silver screen. For 125 years, we have seen women on the cinema screen, but they were seldom in control behind the scenes. Luckily, things are finally changing. In this series of interviews, inspiring female filmmakers talk about their own work on the basis of film excerpts from other women’s films. During the ninth interview in the Female Gaze series, Evelien van der Molen talks about her field, sound design, on the basis of the Oscar-winning The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, 2021) with sound effects editor and re-recording mixer Tara Webb.

By Gina Miroula11 July 2022

Female Gaze: Evelien van der Molen, portrait by Kiki Weerts
Portrait by Kiki Weerts (after a photograph by Diederick Bulstra)

“Do you know the door task?” Evelien enthusiastically asks, busily gesticulating. This is how she introduces new film students to her field. “Doors consist of various layers of sound. They are wooden, metal, open quietly or slam shut violently. The scene’s intentions are also important. Is someone angry or sad?”

Evelien van der Molen is from a family of bakers. “My mother worked behind the counter, my father baked croissants, bread and cakes. Manual labour: true workers.” Inspired by her father, she started playing guitar. “Many sound designers have an affinity with music, often also playing an instrument. The ear has been stimulated. It knows how to listen in layers.”

Evelien van der Molen in front of Eye Filmmuseum
Photo by Hani Saeidmoeini

Initially, Evelien wanted to be a camerawoman. For Floortje Dessing [Dutch celebrity with a travel programme]. Why? After secondary school, she travelled a lot so it seemed like a logical ambition to her mother. “At the Dutch Film Academy’s open day, staff recommended first completing the preparatory course at Open Studio. “During the lessons, whilst studying a battle scene, I discovered that sound is much more my thing. I entered my final project as my application film to the Filmacademie and was accepted.”

Since graduating in 2009, Evelien has been beavering away. She has worked on various feature films including Captain Nova and GOUD, series such as De regels van Floor and Zenith as well as the documentaries Maalstroom, Klassen and Schuldig.

You picked The Power of the Dog. What is it about this film that intrigues you?

“In this western come psychological drama, the sound design has been very intelligently utilised in combination with the soundtrack. The tension is strongly expressed by the sound. It’s the presence of the sound in the room versus the surroundings; the desert outside.”

The Power of the Dog is set in 1925 in rural Montana. It is the tale of two brothers: Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) who run the family cattle farm together. When George marries the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) a rivalry develops between the two men.

“In a key scene, the audience sees Rose at the piano in a period villa. The audience hears the icy wind in the cold house, the creaking doors and Phil’s footsteps that lend character to the hollow emptiness of Rose’s life. Everything is soaked in misery and loneliness. Both leads are embroiled in a nasty psychological game. The way Rose performs this nerve-wracking song is a strong indicator of her character: neurotic, unhappy, nervous. As Phil walks, his cowboy boots make this archetypal tinkling sound which is pretty intimidating.” The scene was clearly written into the script and, in Evelien’s opinion, gives the film added value.

still from The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, AU 2021)
still from The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, AU 2021)

“You can see that plenty of thought was given to how to typify a character using sound. How Phil walks, and how loud that sounds in comparison to Rose. He subsequently denigrates her by supposedly playing ‘better’ and louder than her piano with his banjo. The director has created great interplay between image and sound; it’s obvious this was a conscious decision. I hope to be able to do more in my own projects.”

What fascinates you about the profession of sound designer?

“I do well with directors’ ideas and it’s easy for me to engage with the latter. Tell me a plan and I am immediately on board. I love copying, pasting and playing. Sometimes I compare my profession to crafts class at primary school. Cobbling something together, constructing a world that hasn’t existed yet. Adding elements – sound in particular – enables you to make viewers feel something. Everyone on set is always focused on the camera, the monitor. What’s being shown is clear. Sound enters your ears, stimulates your senses. It truly affects your emotions.”

How do you tackle the sound design for a new project?

“I prefer to work with a team, never alone. My colleague focuses on the dialogue: the sync editing. I do the effects: the bomb exploding, the surging sea, a door slamming shut, a car driving by. Another works on the film’s atmospheres: birdsong, wind, crickets, a houseboat creaking or waves slapping against it.

“In a large warehouse with hundreds of accessories, a foley artist emulates every sound: each footstep, clothing movement, clapping, fingers snapping, the spoon in the teacup. This is then edited by the person syncing everything with the original material. The ADR recordist [Additional Dialogue Replacement] re-records the voices in the event of substantive errors on the film set i.e. when faulty transmitters cause technical issues or the background music was too loud. I then get all these tracks and this gives me almost endless opportunities. Sometimes I spend two days on three minutes of sound.”

Evelien trained to listen repetitively; to endlessly re-watch. “I often know every frame. The trick is to zoom out and look at the bigger picture: what is the story trying to say and how can sound help with that? The tendency is to zoom in on a single scene or minute. Because I bring my full focus to bear on my work, I regularly have to take a step back. Quite literally in fact: I sometimes have to get up and move away from the screen.”

Can you expand on a film you have recently done sound design for?

“I love genre films that let you go to town with the sound. Captain Nova (Maurice Trouwborst, 2021) was fun as far as that was concerned. The story is about a woman from the future tearing across the galaxy in a shuttle that crashes into a wormhole and ends up in our era.” The scenes were shot in a studio. The art department built a replica shuttle. “People pushed against it from the outside which made the interior vibrate. A great deal could be done with sound to get it to take off, fly and land. I know the props department made a plastic sci-fi weapon and visual effects provided the impact: the effect that makes the weapon look like it went off. But what does a weapon from the future actually sound like? Maurice and I had very fun conversations about this.

still from Captain Nova (Maurice Trouwborst, NL 2021)
still from Captain Nova (Maurice Trouwborst, NL 2021)
still from Captain Nova (Maurice Trouwborst, NL 2021)
still from Captain Nova (Maurice Trouwborst, NL 2021)

“We watched scenes from other films to prepare. The directorial memo read: the more lush, the better, but also: ‘There’s an acceleration in this shot, a take-off here, the shuttle ascends further here or is hit by an object in space’.”

“At the Filmacademie you learn to converse in trade terms, yet some directors communicate in colours. They say things like: ‘For me everything is entirely black now, or everything is bright yellow’. For sound designers, the trick is to get inside the director’s head. If that succeeds, you can add your own flourishes.”

How do you ensure the sound design and the score don’t clash?

“Mixing is making room for something else. The composer does the music on the basis of their concept. Ultimately the director and I are responsible for whether the music is on or off, is cuts out sooner or later.”

Evelien’s favourite thing about mixing is outlining an emotional arc, making choices. “Which sound layer will you use, which will you ignore? What does that do for a scene? In a busy restaurant scene it is important to know whether you want to hear people talking or whether the sound dissipates.” “Panning [spreading the mono signal into stereo sound or a multi-channel sound field, Editor’s note] is also important. Does the sound emerge from the front, rear or centre of the speakers?”

How do you work with silence?

“Technically, it’s almost never silent. Technical silence means no actual sound emerging from the speakers. There are many forms of silence including differences in dynamics. If you remove elements of sound from what can be seen on screen, you can play a silence where there originally wasn’t one. Subtle or focused sounds such as footsteps or rustling leaves can then be added to allow audiences to truly feel the silence. You can create silence wherever you like.

“Imagine being in a busy city. Someone comes walking along. All the traffic fades into the background. All you can hear are the footsteps and the breathing of the person walking towards you. This puts you pretty close to the character and their quietness. Silence is never truly silent, but a construct of sounds at a particular level, that you do or don’t play. There is always sound, even in a room with two silent people: room tone. The space’s static is a sound that defines silence.”

What are, in your opinion, the major differences between sound design for feature films and that for documentaries?

“This depends to a great extent on the project as well as the director. As far as sound is concerned, fiction is very challenging, particularly for genre films. This is why I worked on multiple young adult films last year: children’s worlds are much more imaginative. On the other hand, the documentary Maalstroom (Mischa Pekel) was based on archival footage which a lot of sound design was added to. So there are documentaries for which sound design is very important.”

For Klassen (Sarah Sylbing and Ester Gould) Evelien primarily worked with the sound recorded on set. “The challenge of working with the original sound recording is trying to strike the right balance between a lot of voiceovers, children’s voices and music. That’s pretty tricky for me because there is a specific standard for the loudness of TV mixes. You can’t just come up with something.”

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placeholder trailer Klassen (Sarah Sylbing & Ester Gould, NL 2020)
Trailer for Klassen (Sarah Sylbing & Ester Gould, NL 2020)

The ratio of males to females in your sub-field of Dutch cinema is pretty shocking. 94.9% men with a mere 5.1% women. What’s your take on this?

“After the first year at the Filmacademie I was the only woman left in my stream. Few women preceded me. Although there was Simone Galavazi, a film set sound recordist. As far as post-production is concerned there are now my colleagues Meghan van der Meer and Rosanne Blokker.”

Focusing on the question at hand, Evelien mentions being called by the producer for the short film Sevilla (Bram Schouw, 2012), who said: ‘We need another woman on set’. That was a bit weird. However, it became one of the best projects of my career.”

The same reasoning underlay the Filmacademie’s decision to ask Evelien to be a coach. “I thought: damn, does it still have to be about that? After conversations with a number of colleagues, I said: ‘Yes’. My new motto is: if I can contribute to change, I would like to do it.” Nevertheless, Evelien hopes it doesn’t matter. “Of course, I’d rather be asked because of my skill set, not because I’m a woman.”

“If I can contribute to change, I would like to do it.”

Evelien van der Molen

She explains that sound design is often viewed as a technical field. “New software updates and plug-ins: I’m not that interested. To me, such skills are a side note to the creativity and the narrative. As far as I’m concerned it’s a fabulous profession for both men and women. There is a very emotional layer to sound design. It is perceived as a technical field that supposedly mainly agrees with men. I don’t agree. On the one hand, because you can learn to use technology and, on the other, because it can also appeal to women.”

Which projects do you have lined up?

De droom van de jeugd, a family epic by Bram Schouw. Drama with a capital D. It is set in the present, but also in the 1970s and 1980s in the city. What did cities sound like then? Sonos speakers didn’t exist yet, people played records. Which kind of cars did people drive; which trams did they hear?”

For Netflix, Evelien will be cooperating with director Joosje Duk. “It will be an anti-romcom about a heterosexual couple; the wife always fakes her orgasms. Until she has sex with a woman of course and she keeps orgasming.”

“I used to say ‘Yes’ to everything,” says Evelien, staring out across the IJ River. Nowadays. I am a lot pickier: does the project contribute to the world? Is it interesting? And the most important criterium for me now: does it make me happy?”