By Beth Marchant
To director Quentin Tarantino, sound and music are primal forces in the creation of his idiosyncratic films. Often using his personal music collection to jumpstart his initial writing process and later to set a film’s tone in the opening credits, Tarantino always gives his images a deep, multi-sensory well to swim in. According to his music supervisor Mary Ramos, his bold use of music is as much a character as each film’s set of quirky protagonists.
Less showy than those memorable and often nostalgic set-piece songs, the sound design that holds them together is just as critically important to Tarantino’s aesthetic. In Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood it even replaces the traditional composed score. That’s one of many reasons why the film’s supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman, a long-time Tarantino collaborator, relished his latest Oscar-nominated project with the director (he previously received nominations for Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds and has a lifetime total of nine Oscar nominations).
Before joining team Tarantino, Stateman sound designed some of the most iconic films of the ‘80s and ‘90s, including Tron, Footloose, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (among 15 films he made with John Hughes), Born on the Fourth of July and Jerry Maguire. He also worked for many years with Oliver Stone, winning a BAFTA for his sound work on JFK. He went on to cofound the Topanga, California-based sound studio Twentyfourseven.
We talked to Stateman about how he interpreted Tarantino’s sound vision for his latest film — about a star having trouble evolving to new rolls in Hollywood and his stuntman — revealing just how closely the soundtrack is connected to every camera move and cut.
How does Tarantino’s style as a director influence the way you approach the sound design?
I believe that sound is a very important department within the process of making any film. And so, when I met Quentin many years ago, I was meeting him under the guise that he wanted help and he wanted somebody who could focus their time, experience and attention on this very specific department called sound.
I’ve been very fortunate, especially on Quentin’s films, to also have a great production sound mixer and great rerecording mixers. We have both sides of the process in really tremendously skilled hands and tremendously experienced hands. Mark Ulano, our production sound mixer, won an Oscar for Titanic. He knows how to deal with dialogue. He knows how to deal with a complex set, a set where there’s a lot of moving parts.
On the other side of that, we have Mike Minkler doing the final re-recording mixing. Mike, who I worked with on JFK, is tremendously skilled with multiple Oscars to his credit. He’s just an amazing creative in terms of re-recording mixing.
So the role that I like to play is, as supervising sound editor and designer, is how to speak to the filmmaker in terms of sound. For this film, we realized we could drive the soundtrack without a composer by using the chosen songs, and KHJ radio, and select these bits and pieces from the shows of infamous DJ “Humble Harve,” or from the clips of all the other DJs on KHJ radio who really defined 1969 in Los Angeles.
And as the film shows, most people heard them over the car radio in car-centric LA.
The DJs were powerful messengers of popular culture. They were powerful messengers of what was happening in the minds and in the streets and in popular culture of that time. That was Quentin’s idea. When he wrote the script, he had written into it all of the KHJ radio segments, and he listens a lot, and he’s a real student of the filmmaking process and a real master.
On the student side, he’s constantly learning and he’s constantly looking and he’s constantly listening. On the master side, he then applies that to the characters that he wants to develop and those situations that he’s looking to be at the base and basis of his story. So, basically, Quentin comes to me for a better understanding of his intention in terms of sound, and he has a tremendous understanding to begin with. That’s what makes it so exciting.
When talking to Quentin and his editor Fred Raskin, who are both really deeply knowledgeable filmmakers, it can be quite challenging to stay in front of them and/or to chase behind them. It’s usually a combination of the two. But Quentin is a very generous collaborator, meaning he knows what he wants, but then he’s able to stop, listen, and evaluate other ideas.
How did you find all of the clips we hear on the various radios?
Quentin went through hundreds of hours of archival material. And he has a tremendous working knowledge of music to begin with, and he’s also a real student of that period.
Can you talk about how you approached the other elements of specific, Tarantino-esque sound, like Cliff crunching on a celery stick in that bar scene?
Quentin’s movies are bold in the sense of some of the subject matter that he tackles, but they’re highly detailed and also very much inside his actors’ heads. So when you talk about crunching on a piece of celery, I interpret everything that Quentin imparts on his characters as having some kind of potential vocabulary in terms of sound. And that vocabulary… it applies to the camera. If the camera hides behind something and then comes out and reveals something or if the camera’s looking at a big, long shot — like Cliff Booth’s walk to George Spahn’s house down that open area in the Spahn ranch — every one of those moves has a potential sound component and every editorial cut could have a vocabulary of sound to accompany it.
We also use those [combinations] to alter time, whether it’s to jump forward or jump back or just crash in. He does a lot of very explosive editing moves and all of that has an audio vocabulary. It’s been quite interesting to work with a filmmaker that sees picture and sound as sort of a romance and a dance. And the sound could lead the picture, or it could lag the picture. The sound can establish a mood, or it can justify a mood or an action. So it’s this constant push-pull.
Robert Bresson, the father of the French New Wave, basically said, “When the ear leads the eye, the eye becomes impatient. When the eye leads the ear, the ear becomes impatient. Use those impatiences.” So what I’m saying is that sound and pictures are this wonderful choreographed dance. Stimulate peoples’ ears and their eye is looking for something, stimulate their eye and their ears are looking for something, and using those together is a really intimate and very powerful tool that Quentin, I think, is a master at.
How does the sound design help define the characters of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt)?
This is essentially a buddy movie. Rick Dalton is the insecure actor who’s watching a certain period — where they had great success and comfort — transition into a new period. You’re going from the John Wayne/True Grit way of making movies to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Easy Rider, and Rick is not really that comfortable making this transition. His character is full of that kind of anxiety.
The Cliff Booth character is a very internally disturbed character. He’s an unsuccessful crafts/below-the-line person who’s got personal issues and is kind of typical of a character that’s pretty well-known in the filmmaking process. Rick Dalton’s anxious world is about heightened senses. But when he forgets his line during the bar scene in the Lancer set, the world doesn’t become noisy. The world becomes quiet. We go to silence because that’s what’s inside his head. He can’t remember the line and it’s completely silent. But you could play that same scene 180 degrees in the opposite direction and make him confused in a world of noise.
The year 1969 was very important in the history of filmmaking, and that’s another key to Rick’s and Cliff’s characters. If you look at 1969, it was the turning point in Hollywood when indie filmmaking was introduced. It was also the end of a great era of traditional studio fair and traditional acting, and was more defined by the looser, run-and-gun style of Easy Rider. In a way, the Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper dynamic of Hopper’s film is somewhat similar to that of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.
I saw Easy Rider again recently and the ending hit me like a ton of bricks. The cultural panic, and the violence it invokes, is so palpable because you realize that clash of cultures never really went away; it’s still with us all these years later. Tarantino definitely taps into that tension in this film.
It’s funny that you say that because my wife and I went to the Cannes Film Festival with the team, and they were playing Easy Rider on the beach on a giant screen with a thousand seats in the sand. We walked up on it and we stood there for literally an hour and a half transfixed, just watching it. I hadn’t seen it in years.
What a great use of music and location photography! And then, of course, the story and the ending, it’s like, wow. It’s such a huge departure from True Grit and that generation that made that film. That’s what I love about Quentin, because he plays off the tension between those generations in so many ways in the film. We start out with Al Pacino and they’re drinking whiskey sours and then we go all the way through the gambit of what 1969 really felt like to the counterculture.
Was there anything unusual that you did in the edit to manipulate sound to make a scene work?
Sound design a real design-level responsibility. We invent sound. We go to the libraries and we go to great lengths to record things in nature or wherever we can find it. In this case, we recorded all the cars. We apply a very methodical approach to sound.
Sound design, for me, is the art of shaping noise to suit the picture and to enhance the story and great sound lives somewhere between the science of audio and the subjectivity of storytelling. The science part is really well-known, and it’s been perfected over many, many years with lots of talented artists and artisans. But the story part is what excites me and it’s what excites Quentin. So it becomes what we don’t do that’s so interesting, like using silence instead of noise, or creating a soundtrack without a composer. I don’t think you miss having score music. When we couldn’t figure out a song, we made sound design elements. So, yeah, we would make tension sounds.
Shaping noise is not something I could explain to you with an “an eye of newt plus a tail of yak” secret recipe. It’s a feeling. It’s just working with audio, shaping sound effects and noise to become imperceptibly conjoined with music. You can’t tell where the sound design is beginning and ending and where it transfers into more traditional song or music. That is the beauty of Quentin’s films. In terms of sound, the audio has shapes that are very musical.
His deep cut versions of songs are so interesting, too. Using “California Dreaming” by the Mamas and Papas would have been way too obvious, so he uses a José Feliciano cover of it and puts the actual Mamas and Papas into the film as walk-on characters.
Yeah. I love his choice of music. From Sharon and Roman listening to “Hush” by Deep Purple in the convertible, their hair flying, to going straight into “Son of a Lovin’ Man” after they arrive at the Playboy Mansion. Talk about 1969 and setting it off! It’s not from the San Francisco catalog, it’s just this lovely way that Quentin imagines time and can relate to it as sound and music. The world as it relates to sound is very different than the world of imagery. And the type of director that Quentin is, he’s a writer, he’s a director, and he’s a producer, so he really understands the coalescing of these disciplines.
You haven’t done a lot of interviews in the past. Why not?
I don’t do what I do to call attention to either myself or my work. Over the first 35 years of my career, there’s very little record of any conversation that I had outside of my team and directly with my filmmakers. But at this point in life, when we’re at the cusp of this huge streaming technology shift and everything is becoming more politically sensitive, with deep fakes in both image and audio, I think it’s time sound should have somebody step up and point out, “Hey, we are invisible. We are transitory.” Meaning, when you stop the electricity going to the speakers, the sound disappears, which is kind of an amazing thing. You can pause the picture and you can study it. Sound only exists in real time. It’s just the vibration in the air.
And to be clear, I don’t see motion picture sound as an art form. I see it, rather, as a form of art and it takes a long time to become a sculptor in sound who can work in a very simple style. After all, it’s the simplest lines that just blow your mind!
What blew your mind about this film, either while you worked on it or when you saw the finished product?
I really love the whole look of the film. I love the costumes, and I have great respect for the team that Quentin consistently pulls together. When I work on Quentin’s films, I never turn around and find somebody that doesn’t have a great idea or deep experience in their craft. Everywhere you turn, you bump into extraordinary talent.
Dakota Fanning’s scene at the Spahn Ranch, I mean, wow! Knocks my socks off. That’s really great stuff. It’s a remarkable thing to work with a director that has that kind of love for filmmaking and that allows for really talented people to also get in the sandbox and play.
Beth Marchant is a veteran journalist focused on the production and post community and contributes to “The Envelope” section of the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter @bethmarchant.