By Jennifer Walden
Quentin Tarantino’s go-to supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman, of Twenty Four Seven Sound, reveals the secret sauce of the director’s cinematic style: “He is truly an aural enthusiast and very much a sculptor of his cinema through the use of sound and music.”
That applies to dialogue as well, as Tarantino likes to cast actors with interesting voices. “Sound is a major contributor to Quentin’s films and often the secret sauce that makes the meal just gel and come together as a coherent recognizable work,” says the veteran audio pro, who has seven Oscar noms under his belt, including two for Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) and Inglourious Basterds (2008).
Stateman, who’s been working with Tarantino since Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), feels it’s been a privilege having the opportunity to explore his vision as a filmmaker since his love for sound and music is such an integral part of his process. “Audio is very different from the other filmmaking aspects,” he explains. “You design a costume and you can hold it up, feel the material and see how it reacts to light. It’s real. Audio is very mysterious — a force that is just truly present in the moment. It’s just a vibration in the room. It’s something that the audience experiences but can’t see and can’t touch. It’s a different kind of art form, and as an audio artist I love working for Quentin because he is so particular and he values the contribution that sound makes to the experience of watching his film.”
In Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, distributed by The Weinstein Company, eight ruthless killers become holed up in Minnie’s Haberdashery one fateful Wyoming winter’s day. Bounty hunter John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russel) arrives there with his captured outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two other travelers — union soldier turned bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the supposedly new sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who are trying to escape the encroaching blizzard. Instead of Minnie, they find in the Haberdashery a much shadier cast of characters. As the storm rages outside, the situation inside becomes equally intense.
The seeds for Tarantino’s western were sown during the final phase of post on Django Unchained. After the initial leaked script fiasco, a new shooting script for The Hateful Eight came together the summer of 2014, and around Christmas time that year Tarantino rounded up his troop of main department heads — costume, production design, photography and sound — and headed to Telluride, Colorado, to get geared up for the production process.
“I was there for Christmas and New Year’s, mainly to participate in the celebration that Quentin creates around the production side of the process. He celebrates the tools, the process and the people,” Stateman says. Minnie’s Haberdashery was being built in the mountains above Telluride, and the finishing touches were being added to the sets.
“It’s an important part of his filming process. Lots of creative decisions are taking shape during those final weeks of pre-production,” says Stateman, who likens the process to the construction of the Rose Bowl parade floats. “People show up the month before the parade to participate in building the floats, and then there are the people who come out on New Year’s Day to watch. I enjoy the float building process.”
Challenges of Location Sound
In addition to shooting in Colorado where weather was often a challenge, Tarantino filmed interior shots at Red Studios in California, in a giant freezer to mimic the cold conditions. That environment added compressor hum to the production track. Also, considering the characters were wearing heavy clothing that obstructed the lav mics, Stateman says they did a substantial amount of work to make the dialogue tracks sound consistent.
“Quentin likes the performances that he works to acquire during production and he wants to use those in the final mix. He doesn’t like to replace the dialogue and so despite all the challenges that the production sound team faces, the post sound team has a mission and a mandate to basically work with and around any of the production issues.”
All that dialogue cleaning and EQing didn’t just smooth things out. It resulted in pulling the life out of the track as well. Stateman used Foley to add it back in, spending roughly 200 hours recording Foley at Sony Studios with Foley artist Gary Hecker and his Foley mixer Nerses Gezalyan. “We want to really emphasize the micro details that Quentin goes after with his film editing style and his photography style,” explains Stateman. “In a Quentin Tarantino movie, when somebody flexes a muscle or puts a hand on a weapon, there’s a hyper-reality to the sound and that is acquired by having a really beautifully performed and recorded Foley track.”
From the characters’ unique clothing and boots to their hats, holsters and guns, everything was represented in Foley. Stateman and his team acquired Foley props from far and wide, like hand-forged bits of old metal, old creaky wood, and cast iron pots and metal for the stove. “I’m a very committed Foley enthusiast. I really like to spend time and effort to produce sounds that blend entirely into the film. When Foley is done well, it’s invisible. It just adds this third dimension to the dialogue track. It adds depth and texture. We really beat up the dialogue track to get rid of all the noise and make each line match the line before and after. The Foley brought that three-dimensional feel back to the production dialogue.”
Pristine Foley allowed Stateman to go hyper-real with the soundtrack at any time without bringing in unwanted noise. He could add fine detail, like a sound to highlight an eye blink, without obstructing the dialogue. “And Quentin’s films really benefit from having the ability to just go hyper-real.”
Seeing as how Tarantino likes to cast characters with interesting voices it’s only fitting that the ninth adversary in the film, the blizzard, should have an interesting voice too. Stateman and co-supervising sound editor Harry Cohen called on sound designer Sylvain Lasseur to help craft the storm sounds. “The wind and weather are a very important part of the background texture of the film. Weather plays a very important role, but it’s not always a role that you want to call attention to. It has a progression and it puts pressure on the actors because they can’t leave the Haberdashery,” explains Stateman.
Lasseur brought along his Kyma by Symbolic Sound, an independent sound design workstation that uses its own dedicated processor called a Pacarana. Using a continuum fingerboard to control the Kyma, Lasseur was able to manipulate and morph layers of wind sounds. “We created the weather literally one wind gust, wind whistle and wind wisp at a time. We built the wind to flatter the dialogue and the film edit in a very unique way with the Kyma sampler,” explains Stateman, who explains that the beauty of the Kyma is that it creates interesting instruments out of sound samples.
First they created a guide track around the dialogue, using the pitch and velocity features in Kyma. Then they could model other sounds in and around the guide track. “So let’s say we have a base sound of a blizzard, we could then, very selectively, model wind wisps or rumbles or anything else against it. The Kyma would shape the other samples in time relative to the control track. Once we have them all modeled against each other we can start to pull them apart a little bit so that each element can have its own dynamic moment. It becomes more like a parade and you hear the low, the mid and the high — not on top of each other but offset from each other. The artistry comes in turning samples into instruments.”
Lasseur spent four months creating wind instruments in Kyma and another four months hand shaping the wind around the dialogue and visual action. “We pushed really hard to crack this one particular problem of wind for the film.”
Stateman and his team worked out of the Twenty Four Seven Sound studio located in Topanga Canyon, California, which features a full Dolby Atmos design studio. The Hateful Eight’s 70mm version, known as “the roadshow version” was their primary focus, as that is how Tarantino intended audiences to experience the film.
“The multiplex version is a somewhat downscaled version of the film,” explains Stateman. The final 5.1 mix was handled at Sony Pictures Post in Culver City by re-recording mixers Mike Minkler and Christian Minkler in the Cary Grant Theater.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer.