In this exclusive interview, Wylie Stateman talks about collaborating with Tarantino, his creative process of ‘rapid prototyping’, the interplay of music and sound design, recording the film’s classic cars, creating that flamethrower sound, how they approached the sound of ‘making a film inside a film,’ and a lot more. He even gets a shout-out to A Sound Effect and the importance of indie SFX in there too - hooray!
Interview by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Sony Pictures. Note: May contain spoilers
Events don’t always work out the way we’d like, so we explore alternate outcomes in our mind. It’s called counterfactual thinking, and while most people do this mentally director Quentin Tarantino does this cinematically — like burning down a theater full of top Nazi official’s, or exploding the plantation mansion of a slave-owning family, or having a ‘family’ of murderers attack a different house where the murderers die instead.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing) isn’t squarely focused on the Manson murders. The central characters are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading Hollywood bad guy who ends up being a hero in ‘reality,’ and his underappreciated stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who really does do the heavy lifting in Dalton’s life. Rick happens to be neighbors with actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and so his house ends up being the Manson family’s target instead.
Tarantino brings the late ‘60s to life so fully that this alteration of history feels like an alternate reality — one in which Rick Dalton guest stars in the TV series F.B.I. instead of Burt Reynolds, and Rick Dalton plays the lead in The Great Escape instead of Steve McQueen, and Rick Dalton is the go-to guy for Italian director Sergio Corbucci.
As with all of Tarantino’s films, sound and music play a significant role. The soundtrack is an integral piece of the story and it’s included in Tarantino’s filmmaking process at an early stage, according to 247SND’s award-winning supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman (who’s also worked with Tarantino on Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Grindhouse, Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight).
Here, Stateman discusses his collaboration with Tarantino and talks about his creative process of ‘rapid prototyping,’ which allows sound editing to happen in conjunction with picture editing. He also talks about recording the film’s classic cars, creating the flamethrower sound, how they approached the sound of ‘making a film inside a film,’ and more!
This is obviously an era that writer/director Quentin Tarantino romanticizes. He revels in the big cars and the radio broadcasts and the advertising jingles. There’s so much thought put into the sound…
Wylie Stateman (WS): Sound is a big part of Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking process. On Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, Quentin thought about the role of sound early and often. He used numerous sound references as a storytelling tool in his writing of the script. His music choices influence every aspect of his filmmaking.
Sound for him is a trustworthy contributor for setting mood, time, and simply telling a story
Quentin has an encyclopedic knowledge of film. He references numerous works that have had an impact on him when he was growing up, or as he became a more-aware audience member. Sound for him is a trustworthy contributor for setting mood, time, and simply telling a story. It’s a way to jog memories. For example, WKHJ radio plays an important role in Quentin’s memory of 1969 Los Angeles. There were larger-than-life personalities who really influenced a generation on the radio in that period. Radio was the backdrop of that transitional period.
Did you re-create those radio broadcasts?
WS: 99% of the radio broadcasts were original. All of the radio and music selections were Quentin’s and he prides himself on taking the time and making the effort to get that right. He personally scoured archives and found the kinds of radio elements that he thought would piece together the period. We enhanced just a couple of station breaks and occasionally sonically touched up the broadcasts, so that it made more sense in terms of our timeline. The radio stations and advertisements of that era had jingles and those became as iconic as some of the hit songs of that day.
What about the sound of the old cars? Tarantino puts the audience in the backseat as a ride along with the characters in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. It’s part of the film experience, sonically and visually. Did you get to record these cars?
WS: The production had eight show cars that were driven by principle actors. The transportation department offered Zach Goheen (sound effects editor/additional sound recordist) and our recording team just one day to record cars on a back street of the Spahn Ranch set. We brought five recording setups and in one (rather long) day, we made libraries of Rick’s Cadillac Coup De Ville, Cliff’s Volkswagen Karmen Ghia, Jay Sebring’s Porsche 911, Roman Polanski’s MG TD, Charlie’s “Twinkie” delivery truck, and the Ford Galaxie “creepy crawler” car in which the Manson family drives up to Rick’s house on Cielo Drive.
My team did a total of eight car interiors, exteriors, maneuvers and accessories, in that one day!
My team did a total of eight car interiors, exteriors, maneuvers and accessories, in that one day! We got what we needed, such as multi-channel interiors, aggressive perspective exteriors, on-board maneuvers, exterior pull-ins, outs and pass-bys.
Each recorder was dedicated to a particular position and consistent point of view. As organized as we tried to be, it still took more than six weeks to master.
Did you do any enhancement to the car sounds? For example, the Manson family car feels very growly and evil…
WS: Absolutely! The “creepy crawler” car was a sound design challenge on center stage. Harry Cohen was the lead sound effects designer. He started out by first finding sounds of things that are mechanically distressed. It’s very much a sound design composition that has several sync points where it had to merge organically with music, dialogue and story. We had this moment where Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) is blending a margarita and, when he turns off the blender, you still hear the car going.
All three of our sound designers worked to prototype action with original sound design creations, mostly based around broken motor parts or interesting tones, vibrations, and the engine
We had maneuvers that we knew were going to be memorable to story and only expressed visually in the early stages. All three of our sound designers worked to prototype action with original sound design creations, mostly based around broken motor parts or interesting tones, vibrations, and the engine. Quite a bit of interpretive shaping of noise went into how that particular car appears and plays out its evil role.
Were you editing and layering these sounds in Pro Tools, or did you load them into a sampler (like the Kyma) and play it like an instrument?
WS: Harry Cohen and Sylvain Lasseur, were responsible for most of the tonal designs. They are both in their own right brilliant sound designers and advanced Pro Tools users. Both are very familiar with manipulating pitch, time frequency, and strategic placement. Harry uses a lot of analog saturation tools and low-end enhancement tools. Sylvain’s tool of choice is Symbolic Sound’s Kyma Pacarana. Together they both added some really interesting tonal shapes, textures, and musical design throughout the soundtrack. Both are musicians, efficient and focused on keeping the sound track from getting murky.
The ultimate goal is to build a good puzzle and have no extra pieces in the end. Basically, we aim to create acoustical space for the dialogue to sit front and center and everything else works around it. This acoustical space management is beautiful in its simplicity of design. Our sound design team understands how to make sounds that tell story, and when appropriate, read through the noise. Since we had most of the music ahead of time, we could feel where opportunities lay within the sonic space of the mix.
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I loved the interplay of music and sound design. There’s a scene in which Rick, who just flubbed all of his lines on-set, comes out of his trailer that he’s just destroyed. He’s feeling more confident. He’s walking tall and the music is playing and the effects punctuate the piece so perfectly….
WS: Quentin and I had a chuckle because we had once found sonic success with a scene for Kill Bill, Vol. 2 where Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah have a fight in a trailer. It’s a very confined space. It was interesting once again to have that space in this picture. Leonardo has his breakdown in a trailer and it’s a tight space for all departments. He’s throwing things and performing in a very emotional state. Soon after, Quentin has him walking tall and heading down the set. He had conquered his fear and now he was doing a hero’s walk. All of that was done with the understanding that sound effects were going to express this hero moment, a hero walk, with everything having to hit a beat and rhythm, whether that was the fence rails passing by or an off stage horse whinny in the background. All eventually syncopated to iconic “Western” street sounds. It’s the beginning of a very interesting scene.
Traditionally, early stage sound effects editing was just a place holder for the final mix. We didn’t want to do it that way. We wanted to remove the idea that this was simply a work track with temporary ideas that would be flushed out later
Again, it was all about rapid prototyping. We wanted to get those sounds to Fred so that he could work with Quentin on pacing and shaping the film editorially. It’s a wonderful gift to give to the director the ability to remove the proxy element. Traditionally, early stage sound effects editing was just a place holder for the final mix. We didn’t want to do it that way. We wanted to remove the idea that this was simply a work track with temporary ideas that would be flushed out later. We actively worked on getting the dramatic intention and near final elements standing up in the Avid mix. As a creative support, our goal was to work with Fred (Raskin, picture editor) and Quentin and make sure that the sound made its contribution known early. We moved throughout the remaining post-production schedule using this method as a tool.
Your process of rapid prototyping is really incredible because it brings sound and picture together in a more collaborative way. Post sound editing isn’t separate from picture editing; it’s happening altogether…
WS: I practice a workflow where sound editorial isn’t just a proxy for the final soundtrack anymore; it becomes the final soundtrack. The re-recording mixers are still responsible for the final mix. The final mix still ultimately fixes the levels in a permanent way. The final mix sets forever the balance between the dialogue, music, and sound effects. That being said, during editorial we are able to fix the timing of the dialogue, sound effects, and music in a very productive way, in very close to real time.
Sound post-production is often likened to building a puzzle. When you finish assembling a puzzle, you shouldn’t have extra pieces. If you do, then something went terribly wrong
So, as Fred and Quentin are working through scenes, they also have real sonic context to make decisions. Leo Marcil (sound effects designer/additional sound recordist/additional re-recording mixer) was largely responsible for shaping these things. We set our sights on getting creative with sound and getting those ideas out in front of Fred and Quentin in a very timely and efficient way. During the better part of the editor’s cut, Leo was embedded in the cutting room with Fred and the picture editorial crew. Sound post-production is often likened to building a puzzle. When you finish assembling a puzzle, you shouldn’t have extra pieces. If you do, then something went terribly wrong.
The sounds for the Westerns — all the horses and carriages and those elements — did you record anything new for this film?
WS: I’ve been recording horses and carriages for a very long time. In fact, the first film I did with re-recording mixer Mike Minkler was The Long Riders (1980). The sound track was prepared, mixed and released by Warner Brothers in Mono. That was the first time I worked with horses and western sounds. At that time, we had somehow inherited the Little Big Man (1970) sound effects show library.
There is now a wealth of high quality multi-channel recordings for Westerns being published by extremely talented and disciplined field recordists, not only from local sources, but from artists working with the latest audio technologies around the world.
We are living now in an age where people are doing extensive field recordings and mastering interesting material for use in all aspects of sound design. I take great pride in being part of that community. It is a community of artists and artisans producing truly amazing stuff
We are living now in an age where people are doing extensive field recordings and mastering interesting material for use in all aspects of sound design. I take great pride in being part of that community. It is a community of artists and artisans producing truly amazing stuff. I’ve probably purchased every “Western” sound effects library that has ever been published. I’ve purchased many wonderful and hard-to-find sounds through Asbjoern and A Sound Effect.
I loved the flamethrower! Can you tell me about that sound?
WS: The flamethrower for my team is a very familiar piece of sound design art. Harry was largely responsible for the flamethrower. Leo shaped it and got it in front of Fred for the Avid track and director’s cut.
The flamethrower is an exercise in both high-end and low-end management, clarity too. Harry developed something that fit nicely to the picture. We had the visuals to work with early on. It was a classic sound design/effects challenge. It had to fit around the dialogue and scale to the music. The flamethrower was introduced early in the story to demonstrate some heat and muscle. It’s pure Quentin Tarantino and for the audience, an unexpected badass moment.
I also loved the sound of all the different neon signs turning on in succession…
WS: All those sounds were different. It was collaborative work between Leo, Harry, and Sylvain. Some of it was classic design library material; some of it was Kyma-enhanced shapes. All of it was scaled to music and to the montage that Fred was developing with Quentin. We were able to work with music and produce something that punctuates, and fits like a rhythmic puzzle.
There was little need for the team to record new neon sounds. That’s one of the advantages of having a huge library of sounds. I’ve been a collector for decades. There are sounds in my library that date back more than 50 years. When you work on a project, as a sound designer, you save your work where possible — whether it’s saved in your mind as the experience of creating a certain sound or it’s saved as elements of that sound you loved in the mix.
As for Rick Dalton’s tape recorder, I had one very similar to that and I still do. And yet, I didn’t have to bring it to the Foley stage. I have all the pieces. I know what I expect to hear when I see a recorder. It’s the sound of ¼” tape scraping against a plastic take-up reel.
It’s a wonderful thing to work with a director that appreciates an elevated level of detail. He let us go to town
It’s a wonderful thing to work with a director that appreciates an elevated level of detail. He let us go to town. And we rapidly prototyped scenes with sound and got them in front of him as quickly as possible so that he understood where we were going and what our collective intentions were. Again, it’s not a proxy for something to be developed; it is the sound, presented in the Avid track. Once approved, we move on and deal with the next challenge. Like a lot of problem-solving chains, it’s always “what can you do, and then what do you do next?”
Quentin’s films are often constructed and destructed using time, so you have to move through the sound design challenges in a very conscious, strategic, and productive way.
In Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, there are movies and TV shows inside the movie. And all these films are worthy of treatment. There’s the Italian car chase film Operazione Dyn-o-mite! and reconstructed scenes from The Great Escape and the F.B.I. TV show…
WS: Quick story about the F.B.I. show — Eric Hoehn was given the challenge to take one line of dialogue and integrate it back into the end title section of F.B.I.. We were given the task to make that iconic announcer voice say “Rick Dalton” instead of “Burt Reynolds.” Burt was actually in that episode. We were working with a fixed-in-time music track married to the wrong dialogue.
We had to rebuild the name “Rick Dalton” to replace “Burt Reynolds” in that mixed track. Eric spent three days on two words in order to get it to the point where everybody had no idea how we achieved it, or that it was even done.
We had to rebuild the name “Rick Dalton” to replace “Burt Reynolds” in that mixed track. Eric spent three days on two words in order to get it to the point where everybody had no idea how we achieved it, or that it was even done. That’s the other side of the sound editing/sound design coin.
This was one of the early scenes where Quentin was just experimenting with the possibility of pulling this off. I think that was a reassuring moment for Quentin that this could be done. That gave us all a real confidence boost in terms of dealing with historical footage and modeling things to be able to be inserted into existing tracks.
Another interesting sound design challenge was the idea that when you’re filming within the film, how do you handle truth in the behind-the-scene filmmaking process? We decided that while they’re filming the scene, we would have all of these sound effects and backgrounds playing. For example, during the scene being filmed of Rick in the saloon when the guys come walking in, you hear the wind in the eaves of the building and the spurs. All of these sounds you wouldn’t hear during production because the production sound mixer would have put felt on the bottom of the shoes and the spurs would’ve been plastic or tied off, and nothing would have made noise so the dialogue could be recorded as cleanly as possible. We quickly felt that it would be much more interesting to make the filming part sound really rich and then, when the script supervisor calls in the line, it’s devoid of sound. It’s opposite truth, but it’s much more effective as a means of allowing the audience to become emotionally involved in how difficult it is to make a movie.
One fictitious film that’s referenced often is The 14 Fists of McCluskey. So they made clips for this fictitious film and made it look and sound really old?
WS: It’s very Quentin to insert an idea within an idea, and then ripple time. That story structure seems to flow organically from his creative mind in terms of how he sees and editorially deals with flashbacks. For us when creating sound design transitions, the biggest challenge is to always try for something new.
It was important for us to rapidly experiment and then build a library of sounds that could be used in the picture editorial process, to support Quentin’s process. If you’re going to truncate a scene, like the scene in the boat with Cliff (Brad Pitt) and his wife, we do it with a piece of sound design and scene transition that speaks to the idea, to help leave doubt in the audience’s mind that Cliff dispatched his wife.
Any other thoughts you’d like to share about the sound of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood?
WS: I think the craft of sound design and editing is in transition. People that are skilled in mixing make some of the best sound editors and sound editors seem to transition nicely into performing as great mixers. That’s the spirit of where my mind is, in terms of the craft.
In terms of the material that we use, I owe a great debt of gratitude to the people who take field recording really seriously. They go out and spend the time recording and cataloging inspiring works of sounds. Amazingly enough, they then make the effort to share the fruits of their labor and passion with others. We are a wonderful, growing community of sound artists.
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