The Hateful Eight: A Sound Mixer’s Philosophy of Filmmaking
by Mark Ulano CAS AMPS
The work we do is more about the filmmaking than it is about the hardware. The tools are hammers and nails—what’s the music we’re trying to perform? I push on that a lot. People will often call me, explaining they’re doing a small project and what’s the best microphone or recorder to buy? I always suggest that if you care about getting sound that works for your movie, get a skilled, passionate practitioner who is dedicated to nothing less than getting you every bit of sound you need for every shot, every day. Because the brain that’s doing that for you, like your DP, has got a singular and focused mission to protect your project, to be its best. It’s not about a piece of gear that’s inexpensive or smart or can do a lot of things; it’s about the filmmaking. It’s about knowing what you need to get out of it with the best you can. This answer doesn’t always satisfy, but that’s really the right answer.
Quentin is a master of expressing his voice and, for me; it’s a delight to read his scripts. I’ll read it several times: The first time is to experience the story as an audience member or somebody reading it as literature, going on the journey …
I become immersed in the special vocabulary of the movie and work to develop a sense of things. I’ll let the story percolate for a couple of days, and then I’ll go back and read it again, analyzing, finding detail, all the things that even glancingly indicate some interaction with the sound aspect of the project.
Diving into the logistical stage, I’ll start writing extensive notes, asking myself what’s really needed to do this? Exploring issues that are indicated by the script; camera, sets, wardrobe, construction, special effects, editorial, workflow, you know, all of the countless variables. I work at defining a scope or range of possibilities because without touching on those things, certain unknowns can turn into disasters. This is the stage that requires some sort of dialog with the other filmmakers. I begin to develop a Q&A with department heads, production, whomever. At the same time, I’m building that private list of questions that are not yet ready to be answered, but are very necessary to explore. Sometimes the production meeting is where we get to examine these interactive things, sometimes not …
I’ll schedule a pre-production meeting with my colleagues in post production. We’ll briefly discuss workflow, metadata, sampling rates and so on, but more importantly, we’ll be in a creative conversation that’s tied to the material. What we’re going to do about the design, how it sounds, what do people feel when they hear it? How will they experience these characters, their environment and their journey? There’s no hierarchy in this conversation, we are all partnering creatively. It’s storyboarding for sound.
Soon the team prep and the essential location scout are scheduled and along with discovering geography and logistics, we witness the emerging collaboration between the Director and the HODs; the triangle of the Director, DP and First AD or Producer.
The learning curve anxieties of the project’s special demands begin to reveal through these conversations and debates. I want in on these exchanges because more than dry schedules and professed planning, the dynamic of what the humans will probably do instead of what they say they’ll do begins to pop up.
As I see it, I have more than one role on Quentin’s movies. He has a trust team; there’s a group of people who understand, and then there’s a group of people that actually “do stuff.” I’m part of both groups.
We create. I think of my relationship to the project as a session player, as a musician. The cinematographer, the sound mixer, the production designer, the wardrobe and the rest of the orchestra—we physically transform raw materials into finished results before your very eyes and ears. It’s like magic … and its performance art.
So our sound presence on the set is, first and foremost, to achieve that, and my philosophy is to do that with minimal fuss and self-promotion; to muster grace, invisibility and integration with all the other things going on at the same time, and to make sure I’m there as a spiritual support for the process.
We’re here, we’re doing this, it’s challenging, isn’t it great? “Don’t we love making movies?” quoting Quentin. It’s his mantra and he literally calls for the crew to shout it out loud with him almost every day.
And, yes, we do. And that’s a serious belief: These are the days of our lives. Crew people will work dangerously long hours in this movie business, thousands of miles away from people that we love, spending ourselves in the name of our passion/obsession, voluntarily putting ourselves through the challenge because we love what we do.
I see myself as part of that fabric of community. I think when you’re in a film crew and on a film set, you have a personal responsibility to support that spirit of community because everyone is giving their maximum effort and that is beautiful to behold, a privilege to participate in, and profoundly demanding of one’s physical and spiritual being. The payoff is that you bring respect to that and contribute—you’re engaged in the process of filmmaking.
When you do it for a lot of years, you develop an intuitive sense. You see the interconnectedness of things.
Filmmaking is an immersive experience; you can’t be passive if you’re to succeed. You have to get into the deep center of the river, not on the banks, because this day comes but once. If you don’t engage with all that you have, you’re cheating yourself and everyone around you.
The beauty of working with a confident director is that you’re supported and encouraged to bring your “A” game. Excellence starts from the top down and it’s the Holy Grail.
Tools I bring everything every day and if it’s a Quentin movie, I bring a third more because as much as I know and as much as I plan, the truth reveals itself on the day.
It’s like asking a cinematographer, “What lens are you going to use?” Well, what’s the shot? What are we doing? He’s going to bring an entire complement of lenses because they all have specific attributes for a particular solution.
I’m the same, I bring a broad palate of tools, of microphones and mixers and acoustic treatment. I bring a thirty-foot trailer. It’s filled with gear, and gack, and that’s always the second conversation when I’m doing a movie with Quentin, particularly when we’re overseas and the producer’s new with him. He’ll ask, “Do you really need all that stuff?” I’ll respond with, “Yes,” WE need the tools because he will discover an inventive approach at the last second that requires a creative response, not an “oh, I didn’t know you wanted that.” That’s not acceptable, “no” is not in the vocabulary. For instance, on Kill Bill, the Julie Dreyfus scene, Uma was going to wear a helmet and have this electronic sound— well, he expressed that idea about five minutes before we were going to roll, and next thing you know, we’re pulling through the piles to create some kind of voice-affecting electronic sound because wow, this is an opportunity to create something. Not to say no, but to find an answer. If it’s not perfect, so what? We’re riffing. We’re in this, and we didn’t go negative. Going negative is so blinding, it freezes you and locks you out from better solutions.
For The Hateful Eight, I needed to keep the main sound cart in a relatively stable environment because of the extremities of temperature. That meant having the ability to be away from the set and simultaneously have a presence at the set. An Aviom digital snake was the solution. It’s basically a way to remote the heavy gear so it doesn’t clog up the set. On this set there was very little room to be anywhere because of the extremely wide frames and also the need to put everything in those little spaces whether it’s lights or people or whatever. It may look like a big, spacious area but when you’re looking big, everyone’s scrunched in behind the camera, like a clown car.
To achieve a minimal footprint on the set is also a psychological goal for me because I like to be relatively low profile in the process. The more I can do that, the more weight is attached when I need to bring a subject into the conversation because it’s clear that it’s meaningful. I don’t pester with the small stuff, I solve that myself or with my team or through networking with others. It only migrates up the food chain if it’s something that’s actually a conflict between elements, which, of course, does happen. At that point, you’re in a director conversation about being Solomon. How do you want to split the baby? Which priority do you have for this particular moment? You can never walk away silent about a vulnerability to the director, that’s an absolute breach of trust. Especially if it’s a really terrible conversation that you really don’t want to have, the not-having it is inexcusable.
The most important part of my process is the partnering that goes on within my department. On The Hateful Eight, my longtime and much beloved friend and boom operator Tom Hartig, achieved the first half of the film, until a family emergency lead to my wonderful and resolute Second Boom Op and Utility Sound Technician, Mitchell Gebhard, recommending ace Boom Op/Novelist Patrick Martens to complete the second half and demonstrate his prodigious filmmaking sensibilities and skills. And last but not least, our film student from Greenwich University in London, a native Telluridian, Kyra Westman, who got the film schooling of her life, as close quarters study in the land of Tarantino gave her the opportunity to bear witness about what really happens on his movie sets. Great souls all.
The Stagecoach From the very beginning, I was in a collaborative conversation with Ben Edelberg, the Assistant Art Director and the maestro of stagecoach design and construction, about the construction of the stagecoaches. This was mission critical, as they were being designed to be as authentic as possible, vehicles born of the 1870s. The first third of the movie was nonstop dialog to be performed in real motion, at high altitudes in sub-zero temperatures while outrunning an oncoming blizzard. Further, the coaches would either be pulled by a team of six horses or mounted on a trailer and towed by a very specialized vehicle. Bless Ben, as he was absolutely committed to the dual mission of creating coaches that functioned visually, as an environment for the performers and would not damage the capturing of their performances for a director that doesn’t replace any dialog. There were multiple issues to overcome to achieve these goals but the primary one was to be meticulous about all wood-joining technique and special attention to all the wood-to-metal contact that would create the most potential for intrusive sounds when traveling ungraded road and paths in the real wilderness. We experimented with different insulating materials, at different densities, taking into account the additional impact very low temperatures would have on the insulation at all the contact points. Others bearing this same responsibility could easily have made this a secondary concern; Ben embraced the challenge with joy and commitment. I made a huge difference.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow … Snow production for The Hateful Eight was a full-time obsession for all departments but the variables required to produce it shot by shot fell to our visual efx department, headed by Bruno Van Zeebroeck. All the ways of producing visual snow known were eventually employed, from gloved handfuls subtly dusting just out of frame to gas-engined giant ritters for epic-scale windstorms and everything in between.
Blowers were remoted to greater distances, blowtube diameters were increased, old style noisier DC-powered wind ritters originally planned for were exchanged for the newer, quieter types and most importantly, months of very tricky negotiations with the Telluride power companies to run power to the shooting locations to avoid generators for the main set were finally successful.
Many details about approach were discussed in pre-production, but the giant wild card that played out once we were on location in Telluride was the weather refused to cooperate by delivering natural snow in a dependable way. It was a particularly dry winter until production brought on an Indian medicine woman to perform a snow ritual. Within a few days, we had a two-week period of heavy snow. Causal? Not sure but …
So Very Cold … Extended production in the super-cold environments creates a host of challenges but detailed prep and team cooperation is the ultimate solution. Would the cameras be too noisy in the Ultra Panavision 70mm format? After all, snowy wilderness remote locations were exceptionally quiet places, almost anechoic at times. Gregor Tavenner, our illustrious First AC, spent months at Panavision overseeing the dismantling and reassembling of the camera bodies to maximize their reliability and being at full specification in every way. This included remanufacturing gears for these 36-year-old cameras and trading out lubricants to higher viscosity to adapt to the extreme cold. Custom 2000-foot magazines were built for halving the reload times required and these had to have meticulous engineering and careful attention paid to the loads placed on the torque motors to avoid creating noise problems.
Very important was keeping the sound gear at consistent temperatures. The main sound cart was in the back of a stake bed truck with a “Conestoga”-style tarp overall, no insulation. This meant keeping power running to the trucks 24/7 to keep space heaters running all night long so the gear would not freeze overnight, or be subject to internal condensation every day if we had to warm it up every morning. Likewise, my bag rig had to stay within an acceptable range of temperature to keep hard drives happy but not produce internal “raindrops.”