He Knows Noise: Life of an NJ Foley Artist

Foley artist Marko Costanzo uses found objects to produce the effects that make movies sound real—or surreal.

What's That Sound?: Marko Costanzo crams his Northvale studio with an array of household discards, any of which could turn up on the audio track of your favorite movie.
Photo by Matt Rainey

Not everyone can make a living from the sounds of bones breaking and skulls smashing on pavement. In fact, few would want to.

But it’s all in a day’s work for Marko Costanzo, whose unique sound-effects skills have added to the appeal of such Oscar-nominated films as The Wolf of Wall Street and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Costanzo is a Foley artist, an audio professional who uses everyday objects to create the ambient sounds in a film, whether footsteps, slamming doors or clashing swords.

“You want the sound to be audible and pronounced, and for the audience to react to those sounds,” says the 54-year-old Costanzo, who has been working in the field for more than 30 years. “We try to make it the exact sound.”

The name of Costanzo’s trade comes from Jack Foley, a sound engineer who started enhancing film audio in the 1920s. In Foley’s era, microphones were too weak to pick up many of the sounds actors made on the set. Even with modern audio technology, those ambient sounds need enhancement—and that’s when Hollywood calls on Costanzo and his fellow Foley artists.

Costanzo’s effects can be subtle, such as the swish of a leather pocketbook, or loud and forceful, such as a character being punched and kicked. To produce these sounds, Costanzo, a resident of Fort Lee, has gathered an array of often unlikely props. Many of these he finds by prowling curbs on bulky-waste days.
When Costanzo worked on Life of Pi, director Ang Lee needed the sound of water lapping against the sides of a lifeboat. Costanzo took from his collection a large tub normally used to mix cement, filled it with water and sloshed it around to make the required noise. He hammered 2-inch nails through pieces of wood and scraped them against a tarp to replicate the sound of the tiger’s claws scraping the tarp on the boat.

Some of the most chilling effects are achieved in almost laughable ways. For horror or action films, a frozen head of iceberg lettuce thrown to the ground simulates the sound of a head being crushed. Hammering a piece of celery can equate sonically with fingers being fractured. For The Silence of the Lambs, Costanzo broke pieces of broccoli to mimic knuckles cracking.

Such moments can get a bit too bizarre—even for Costanzo.

“We have to make these gory sounds sometimes, and they just play in your head late at night,” he says. “We’re starting work on a hospital series this year, and we have to do a lot of amputating and dropping-organs-on-the-floor sounds. My imagination can get carried away.”

Costanzo and his business partner, George A. Lara, a sound mixer, work in a cavernous studio in a Northvale business park—the largest sound stage on the East Coast. Much of the 1,800-square-foot space brims with props in all shapes and sizes, stored by a logic clear only to Costanzo. “All my car doors are lined together so I can access whichever one I see appropriate for the scene,” he says. “Likewise, the silverware, dishes and cardboard boxes are pretty much in a bin somewhere.”

Recent projects, have included films by the Coen brothers and Martin Scorsese. Costanzo’s filmography on the IMDB website lists more than 450 credits. He and Lara were part of the team that won an Academy Award for sound editing for their work on Scorsese’s 2011 film, Hugo. Other major credits include Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, for which Costanzo and his sound-editing team won two prime-time Emmy Awards.

A native of Ridgefield Park, Costanzo attended Ridgefield Park High School and Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he caught the film bug after taking some production courses. He helped pay for college by doing magic shows, working his way up to the New York comedy club Dangerfield’s. He credits the skills of deception he learned doing sleight of hand with helping him become a successful Foley artist.

On a recent weekday, Costanzo was working on a film called St. Vincent De Van Nuys, starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts. Costanzo, dressed in grey sweatpants and a plain white T-shirt, stood in front of a large-screen TV, props in hand. As the film played, he watched for moments that required his sonic touch.

In the film, Murray plays a man down on his luck. He goes to a bank teller to make a withdrawal and finds he has a negative balance. Despondent, he bangs his head on the glass partition. On screen, the original sound is a light tap.

“Ready?” says Lara from the soundproof control booth to Costanzo’s left.

Lara plays the scene again. This time, Costanzo bangs his fist on a thick piece of glass he holds against his thigh, making a loud thwack as Murray’s head hits the partition. It works. The scene has taken on a new dimension.

“Before, it was a boring sound,” Costanzo says. “But in a comedy, you really want to hear a bong as his head hits the glass. It makes a fuller, warmer sound. With comedies, we try to find a slip-on-a-banana sound when we can.”

Costanzo’s work has won the respect of his peers. “He has a great sense of the sounds that are needed, and the imagination to come up with the right props,” says veteran sound editor William Sweeney.

In New Jersey, Costanzo can afford a larger space than he could in Manhattan, where many Foley studios are located. His soundproof space has double-thick walls with a foot of air between layers. The size of the room allows him to fill it with every possible prop he could ever need.

On one wall, there hangs an array of rakes, brooms and swords. In a corner, Costanzo piles shoes and boots. Coats hang on a rack, and boxes fill shelves. Off to the side is a pile of rocks, leaves, some branches and a small potted tree.

Costanzo’s favorite project to date is Life of Pi. “It presented many unique challenges that I have never encountered,” he says. “A 30-foot lifeboat with a tiger and an orangutan, a hyena and a zebra all stomping around in one form or another. A flying-fish attack, a floating island with roots for soil and with meercats as the lifeblood. Pretty wild stuff!”

A feature film can take Costanzo and Lara 10 to 15 days to complete; lower-budget films require five days or less, he says.

Which isn’t to say Costanzo always gets it right the first time. For a scene in Hugo, he recreated the sound of children dragging a large wooden box out of a closet. The sound editor wasn’t convinced. “She said the box doesn’t want to come out. It’s comfortable in there and the kids should have to fight to get it out,” he recalls. The third time he used a heftier box. It worked.

Other challenges: the sound of a pelican’s throat flapping for a National Geographic film, and ash floating down from a burning building for Scorsese’s 2010 thriller, Shutter Island. For the pelican, Costanzo came up with thick rubber gloves; for the floating ash, he bought coconut flakes and popcorn at a supermarket and sprinkled them close to a microphone. Voilà! The sound of ash falling.

“It’s a fun job,” he says. “I get to work on the latest films coming out, and I feel like I’m contributing to art.”

Jacqueline Mroz frequently covers film for New Jersey Monthly.

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