Few directors this side of Joseph Mankiewicz are as attentive to the clear, crisp presentation of dialogue as Quentin Tarantino, giving the always important role of production sound mixer even more weight on his sets. Since Jackie Brown in 1997, Tarantino has relied on Academy Award winner (for Titanic) Mark Ulano to capture his production sound. The Hateful Eight represents some of Ulano’s finest work – which is saying something considering that he has over a hundred credits to his name, including The Master, Iron Man, and Inglourious Basterds (for which he was nominated for another Oscar). The ensemble Western layers one exquisitely recorded and mixed dialogue track on top of another to create a tapestry of badinage that’s distinct yet full of complexity and nuance – actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, and especially Walton Goggins turn in some of the best performances I’ve ever seen, and their work couldn’t be better served by Ulano’s aural presentation. The clarity and sonic texture is all the more impressive given the challenging conditions shooting a period Western in snow-smothered Telluride, Colorado. Back in 2015, on the eve of the film’s release, Ulano took the time to answer some of my questions about his work; I started by asking how early he comes on board a typical production.
Mark Ulano: It’s different each time, each production. When it’s a filmmaker like Quentin – well there are no other filmmakers like Quentin, but in Quentin’s case it’s very early on. With him there’s almost always five to eight months lead time: they have a target date for when they expect to begin, and someone air drops me a script wherever I am. But I’ve been brought on to a project as late as three days before. So the range is from no time at all to an enormous amount of time, and everything in between. Obviously for me the prep is a key piece, but that prep actually starts with the script. When I have the script I’ll read it three times. I’ll dive in to the journey by reading without interruption and not for technical, to try and experience it as an audience member or somebody reading it as literature. Essentially to immerse, to get inside the head of the project and the head of everybody else who’s prepping this, so now I’m in that special vocabulary of the movie based on what’s been put on the page. I’ll let that sit for a couple of days and then I’ll read it again, and analyze and find all the details that even glancingly indicate some interaction with the sound aspect of the project, logistically. Then I’ll go develop a Q&A for myself and others, and try to be politically correct about who I can talk to about what, when. Many things are raised as questions that are way beyond the as-yet undeveloped anticipation of everybody else working on it. There are some directors, if you ask them a core question too early on, they’re going to be upset because you’re asking them something they haven’t even gotten near. You know, they still haven’t cast their lead, they’re fighting over the script, the studio’s giving them hell over the budget and all that, and you’re asking them, “Are you doing this music live or playback?” You don’t even want to trigger that because you’re in the early stages of building trust. So I develop that, I talk to all the other parties that I can – department heads, production, whoever – and then I’ll have that private list of questions that are not yet ready to be asked but are still very obviously necessary to answer. Then that will lead up to the later stages of pre-production, including the production meeting where we get to explore that collectively as a group because there are a lot of things that are interactive. This affects me, but it also affects sets, lighting, camera, and wardrobe, this one question overlaps all those things. And so we’re all in a room at one time. There’ll likewise be a prep meeting with post-production where we’re either in workflow conversations or, more importantly to me, we’re in a creative conversation that’s not about sampling rates and time code and all the more yawning, boring, not-creative stuff, but what are we doing? How are we going to make this movie? What are we going to do about the design, how it sounds, what do people feel when they hear it?
Jim Hemphill: What kinds of conversations do you have with Tarantino after you read the script?
Ulano: One of the great things with Quentin is that he doesn’t even really get the pre-production roadshow going until he’s really got the script nailed down. He may spend anywhere between a year and longer, he might have a draft and then leave it alone and come back, but there’ll be a moment when you get this package in your mail that’s got his handwritten cover and that’s the starting point. Now I have a sense and I can start building my questions, and my next step from there is actually not to Quentin. I’ll touch base with him and express my emotional reaction and my feelings for the piece, and so far that’s always been a positive one, because his work is unique and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but it’s something I find fascinating. Nobody’s got his voice in movie making. I make my own films and I know it’s hard to have that dead-reckoning capacity to always have your own voice clear and central, and it’s his special gift. So there’s that, and then I will reach out to Wiley [Stateman, supervising sound editor] and Mike [Minkler, sound re-recording mixer], and have the creative sound conversation about, “what do you guys think? You know, this strikes me in this way, I’m thinking of going at it in that way, or do you have an idea/need/preference/suggestion,” and there’s no hierarchy in that conversation, that’s just partnering creatively. It’s sort of like storyboarding for sound. It’s a conversation that’s tied to the material.
And then after that, I’ll set that down and now I’m into the logistical. Okay, what’s really needed to do this – tools, nuts and bolts, issues indicated in that second reading; sets wardrobe, construction, special effects, editorial, transfer of the lab… you know all of the things that have countless variables, but you kind of have to nail each one down within a certain range because unknowns can turn into disasters without some sort of connection between parties who are responsible.
Hemphill: What does your gear consist of?
Ulano: I bring everything every day. It’s something I learned, and if it’s a Quentin movie I bring a third more. It’s like asking a cinematographer, “what’s your favorite lens?” 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 palette of tools, of microphones and mixers and acoustic treatment. A thirty-foot trailer is basically what comes with me. It’s filled with gear, and that’s always the second conversation when I’m doing a movie with Quentin, particularly overseas and the producer’s new with him. He’ll ask, “Do you really need all that stuff?” Have you worked with Quentin before? The answer is yes, because he will pull things out at the last second that require a creative response, not an “oh, I didn’t know you wanted that.” That’s not acceptable, “no” is not in the vocabulary. On Kill Bill, there was a scene where Uma was going to wear a helmet and have this electronic sound – well, he thought of that about 30 seconds 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 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.
Hemphill: What are your some of your specific go-to microphones or other essential pieces of equipment?
Ulano: The tools I use a lot – and microphones to me are like lenses, it’s not a perfect analogy but they have different characteristics that are specifically suitable to different kinds of voices or can emphasize or deemphasize certain things in people’s voices – Sanken, boom mic CS-3es, Danish DPA microphones, I also use German Schoeps microphones and Georg Neumann microphones. My mixing panels, there are a lot of different things, but as of late I’m using Yamaha. I remote a lot of capability – for example, in this movie I needed to be able to keep the main kart in an environmentally stable situation because of the hot and cold. That meant I needed to have it somewhat remote from the set and then I have a little cat5 cable that’s running to the set in another, smaller kart at the set that’s basically a two-way communication to that. I can put everything into that and send it up to me. The wireless is received in there, and it’s basically a way to remote the heavy gear from the physical set so it doesn’t clog up the set. On this set there was very little room to be anywhere because of the big 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 space, but everyone’s scrunched in behind the camera, like a clown car.
To achieve a minimal footprint on the set is the goal for me because I like to be relatively low profile. 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 bring it if it’s not meaningful. If you do that every day it’s sort of a ‘cry wolf’ thing. I don’t pester with the small stuff, I solve that myself or with my team or through networking with others. It only elevates up the food chain if it’s something that’s actually a conflict between elements, which does happen. This element’s really important for the shot, that element’s really important for the shot, and this element is making that element impossible and vice versa; at that point you’re in a director conversation about being Solomon, how do you want to cut the baby in half? Which priority do you have for this particular moment? You can’t assume one way or the other; you have to bring that as an option. You can never walk away silent about a vulnerability to the director, that’s an absolute breach of trust. Even if it’s a really terrible conversation that you really don’t want to have, the not having of it is inexcusable.
I know that’s not a very technical response but the reason is that the work we do is more about the filmmaking than it is about the hardware. Those are hammers and nails – what’s the music? I push on that a lot. I get a lot of phone calls from friends, saying they’re doing a small project and what’s the best microphone to buy? I always say, there are a lot of microphones, but 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 that 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. It doesn’t always sell, but that’s really the right answer.
Hemphill: How has your job changed as technology has evolved?
Ulano: The learning curve is much greater, and much more fluid, and much more frequent. My $30,000 mixing panel from 1987 had a 12-page instruction manual. My $5000 digital panel from 2010 has a 400-page manual. It’s a constant state of studenthood that’s impacted by the flow of changing technology that becomes available to us as tools. As far as the filmmaking, I’m still deeply invested in the issue of character and making a track that reflects the character as a person, or how we experience the emotional content of the character’s interactions with others. It’s really something I strive for, because the human voice is a musical instrument. What is communicated by how people speak and how we experience their speaking is very subtle and very complicated, and it’s one of the actor’s most resilient yet complicated tools. I am a devotee of trying to understand that and get what they’re doing, and have that happen for others later. For me that hasn’t changed at all.
You’re obligated to know what the post-production team is able to do; you need to know their tools, to calibrate the kinds of choices you make. You might get over-focused on an irrational fear of damage in an area that is of no consequence and is easily solved, and the reverse is true. You may make an assumption that this is okay, no problem, when in fact you’ve just invested in a total disaster and told no one about it, and they’re going to be into a huge nightmare of trying to solve or replace a thing because you weren’t educated enough about your craft. So today on Pro Tools, or whatever workstation, things still begin and end somewhere. They still have a special and volume relation relationship with all the other things adjacent. They still need to be integrated in that storytelling in a way that we experience a character as a character, and that the story is untouched. That part really hasn’t changed much. I think the framework on which films are made and the creativity and new ways of how to make films is always changing, always growing…but that central piece of being committed to the storytelling whatever that is, and the characters whatever they are, I don’t see that having changed one bit over technology.
Hemphill: Tell me specifically how you see your role on set and how you work with the rest of Quentin’s team. Do you have a kind of overall philosophy about the filmmaking process?
Ulano: I refer repeatedly to my relationship to the project as a session player, as a musician. I have more than one role in a Quentin movie, as I see it. He has a trust team that he surrounds himself with; there’s a group of people that get it all, and then there’s a group of people that actually “do stuff”. I’m part of that second group. We do stuff. The cinematographer, the sound mixer, the script supervisor, the set dresser, the wardrobe… they physically transform innocuous and unnamed materials into finished results before your very eyes. It’s like magic. And it’s performance art. So my presence on set is first and foremost is to achieve that, but my philosophy is to do that with minimal fuss and self-promotion; to do it with grace and invisibility and integration with all the other things going on at the same time, and to make sure you’re there as a spiritual support for the process. We’re here, we’re doing this, it’s challenging, isn’t it great? That we’re doing it together and we’re doing it together again, how amazing is that? And “don’t we love making movies?” quoting Quentin. And that’s not a light thing, that’s a serious thing. Yes, we do. And these are our lives, we’ll do eighty, ninety-hour weeks in the movie business thousands of miles away from our families and people that we love. I see myself as part of that fabric of coherent 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 on their maximum extremity of effort and that is beautiful to behold, a privilege to participate in, and profoundly expensive to one’s physical and spiritual being. The payoff is that you bring respect to that and contribute. You can’t always be taking from that, you have to be there for others. Help anybody and everybody with whatever needs to be helped with on the set. Don’t have some, “that’s not my job, man” thing. If it means picking up a sandbag or seeing someone’s almost in a dangerous situation or suggesting something…. you have peripheral engagement in the process of filmmaking. When you do it for a lot of years, it’s all this intuition that happens because you’ve physically experienced events on set and you see the interconnectedness of things. You can’t be passive about that, you can’t live life on the sidelines. You have to get into the center of the river, not on the banks because this day comes but once and if you don’t enjoy that with all that you have you’re cheating yourself and everyone around you.
Hemphill: Did the fact that The Hateful Eight was shot in 70mm affect your work at all?
Ulano: Yes, it did. Coverage is very different. One of the unique realizations of dealing with such a wide frame is that certain kinds of coverage can be integrated into a single shot. Traditionally there’s a master, single-single, and all of the traditional coverage, but in a wide frame you have a lot of hybridized shots. With Quentin you’re single camera, really single camera, and that’s an economy, not an obstacle. It’s so ironic to me that people look at multiple cameras as somehow a kind of efficiency; in fact many times 30-40% of the time is spent compromising some shots so they’re not damaging some of the other shots. Or we’re doing a wide shot but this is also the lead actress’s close-up, and we’re not optimizing the light for her close-up because we want to get this shot at the same time. So we’ve blown off the actress so that we can get, you know, geography that might be in the front end of the scene for two seconds when this might be the meat of the shot. There are a lot of conventions that are now becoming part of the process. Quentin doesn’t want to have anything to do with that. He wants to do what’s right for the scene. So he comes with a sense of the scene and then shoots that. He comes with vision, and the good directors do. They don’t necessarily only limit to the vision that they started with; they can grow, they can discover, things can happen…but it’s having a sense of that as a craftsman. The widescreen is a different discipline than other formats. If I’m in a close-up, a medium shot, and a wide shot all at the same time, I need to think in terms of that sound-wise the way the cameraman needs to think of that lighting-wise, and the set dresser needs to think of that… everybody’s impacted by the details involved. In 70mm, the detail is enormous! When you see somebody on a big screen in the background, but fully in view, you can’t just have that person sort of, arbitrarily fixed as a prop; that person is interactive with the scene. What they say, what they do, even if it’s just the effects of motion or some comment, that all becomes part of how you’re doing this. So it changes your approach to be more aware. It’s not unlike a play, because now we see it in proscenium. That isn’t to say that there isn’t traditional coverage, because likewise with a widescreen the close-up has a whole different kind of impact because now you’re inside the spirit of that person. Samuel L. Jackson at this level on a giant screen is a whole lot of Samuel L. Jackson, right? But we are in complete connection with his character at that point. That emphasis that he’s doing with his body, and his speech, and his inflection, and his face are now most available to us as an audience, and so I’ve got to calibrate to that. I can’t have huge discrepancies of the sound between this and that wide shot; they have to dovetail so that when I see it I’m not jarred into a completely different sounding version of the same actor just one cut away from what I just saw. I have to feel it as one thing.
Hemphill: I would think that on a Tarantino film a production sound mixer’s job is even more important than on an average movie, because it’s all about the dialogue.
Ulano: Yes, Quentin’s dialogue is sacrosanct, and we don’t walk away without having gotten it the way it’s going to be in the movie. The thing about working with Quentin is that you’re in partnership with a director that looks at sound the way he looks at every other element, as one of his playgrounds. He looks at the set, and the color, and the costume, and the image, and the lighting, and the sound, as all parts of his palette. A lot of filmmakers do not include the sound component, particularly during production, as part of their creative toolset. They look at it as a necessary evil, almost. Because film schools don’t really teach sound. They’re businesses. You’ll have a thousand undergraduate students, maybe 500 graduates, and of those 1500 students you might have twenty that are focusing on sound as careers, maybe 4-5 for production. And everyone else is going to be director, writer, DP, editor, or producer. That ratio doesn’t seem to survive into motion pictures, in the reality of that world. And it’s very odd because the compensation and creativity available in the sound world is immense – it’s not Robert Downey, Jr. compensation level, but it’s a real good living and it’s a real creative endeavor. And yet that’s invisible to a lot of people, they look at it somehow lesser, it’s… technical, and technical not in a good way, that’s not part of the creative element. Well, there’s a reason the Oscars have sound recognition, and it’s not because there’s some political thing that went down. It’s because it’s handmade work. Why are so many guys up there for sound, why don’t they put that in the tech awards? Because those guys just invented a thing out of thin air that doesn’t exist, and they did it from the pure creativity of their brains just the way everyone else up there has done. It’s a message that we as a sound community haven’t been good at expressing as well as we should, but it’s something that we need to remind the world about. Not more, not less, not out of ego, but out of an actual proportion of what it is that we bring to a movie. Turn the sound off in the movie and see what happens – people will leave, they don’t go out whistling the picture.
Hemphill: What would you estimate is the ratio between your production sound and ADR on The Hateful Eight?
Ulano: Zero. Quentin and I have done movies for twenty years, and our scorecard together is that we have not replaced a single word of dialogue in all the movies we’ve done together over the last twenty years. Zero. Check it. [laughs] It sounds bizarre when I hear it out loud, even from me, but it’s the truth.
Hemphill: What are some of the factors on set that make it difficult for you to record optimal sound?
Ulano: On this set? Snow, mechanical effects… first of all, they don’t have those kinds of sounds in 1871. We’re keeping all the vehicular and mechanical sounds out of the tracks and doing that with every tool that we have in our toolkit. Primarily dealing with the variables in terms of the visual environmental effects, because we didn’t do that with any kind of computer work, it was all there on the set in front of the camera all the time. The permutations of that were great and it just required intense collaboration with the effects and camera department and cooperation in part with the director. The pre-production phase consisted of having solutions available so that we didn’t just have to create that out of thin air, that we actually had tools and decisions in advance of the shooting days.
Hemphill: On the other hand, what can a director, crew, and actors do to facilitate the best possible sound recording?
Ulano: Include it in their mindset of the essential skills and department as part of the process. The director must insist that the production mixer is on the tech scouts with him, is there for the conversations between him and the DP and the first AD and the producer about those locations. Think in terms of the locations, choose environments in which your actors are free to perform without having to be challenged by intruding elements that impact their ability to stay concentrated on the work, on the scene. We did a film in Boston last year called The Judge where they chose a ten-day primary location right under a flight path for the most intimate scenes between Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. playing father and son. They’re supposed to be sitting quietly on rocking chairs on a porch, and you see the rocking chairs, you see the porch, you see the greenery, you don’t know why there’s a plane overhead every thirty seconds – and that’s before rush hour. Why choose a place, environmentally, that’s going to be intrinsically challenged? It can be great visually but it needs to be great environmentally for the performers. That’s one small aspect. The other is to think of sound the way you think of those other departments. Sound is not an evil to accommodate as an obstacle to the making of a movie. Sound is an integral component creatively to the result of the movie. If you think that way and you have your advocate there the way you do for production, for cinematography, for wardrobe, for production design… you will have a much better outcome every time. And if you are blind to that, you will have an alienated relationship with that tool for the rest of your filmmaking career, and what a shame. What a shame. You don’t want to be in a bad relationship by your own making.
Hemphill: What do you feel are the most misunderstood aspects of production sound mixing and/or what are commonly held beliefs or practices that you feel are wrong?
Ulano: There are grand assumptions on the part of people who’ve been making movies their whole lives about what sound is and what we do. No one would suddenly suggest to the DP, “Why use that 50? You should use a 25mm lens, it’ll save you a lot of grief.” But no one will hesitate to say, “Why are you using a boom on that, why aren’t you using a radio mic to solve that problem?” Well, you know, the reason I do or don’t is the reason you have me here. Did you hire me to be your advocate in this circumstance, or do you hire a resume with no sense of the contribution that advocacy implies? It’s a strange disconnect, and part of it I believe is the invisibility of the sound work. What we do is often unfathomable and invisible to our very good friends adjacent to us because they don’t see the physicality. Have you been on movie sets? Befriend the sound crew and ask them if you can listen to their private intercom, just for a day. It’s like looking through an X-ray; you will see a whole infrastructure of the movie-making process that is literally invisible to most people. And that’s because we are the information conduit. We know everything that’s going on. I listen to the walkie-talkies, I listen to private communications, I’m listening to all the scenes, and I’m hearing it privately or I’m sending it to my team. Why? Because we’re in the blood flow. Production’s changing up the shooting order? We know it before it’s distributed to the set. You get my point? There’s a whole invisible world that happens on a movie set that’s about information flow, about context, about being in the flow and at the same time being discreet with that. So the biggest problem is not taking responsibility at the directorial or producorial level to the actual application of the sound work on the set, and diminishing it to a necessary evil that’s just about capturing and collecting. That’s not what we do; we are there to do what I’ve been describing. When you know that as a filmmaker, as a director, your likelihood for positive outcomes and longstanding professional relationships with people who are committed to helping you do it are much higher.
Hemphill: What can filmmakers who may not have your and Tarantino’s resources do to insure the best possible sound on their productions?
Ulano: I’m going to respectfully say I don’t understand the question. What kind of unlimited resources? The resources we have are mutual respect and a deep, deep investment in the process of filmmaking. If I’m on a three-man documentary crew, and I’m directing and I have a cameraman, a sound man, and myself, I’m going to have the same amount of resources that Quentin and I have to do the work that we do. It has to do with prep, it has to do with being involved with having the same vision of work and having the same concerns applied with the same solutions, collectively. It’s not about resources, it’s about priorities. If the director makes it a priority that people are quiet on the set, that the location manager brings him locations that can work for his actors, that the cinematographer is a partner with the sound work that the director needs to capture those performances in ways that don’t have to be destructive to any part of the director’s film, whether it’s the sound or anybody else; it’s not territorial. Those are the resources that you need. They are professional resources of collaboration, they are not about money. Getting good sound has nothing to do with your budget; in fact the opposite. Getting good sound is an enormous cost-saving factor. Because if you do it, and you do it right, and you do it with respect to yourself, your own filmmaking, and the people who are there to be your advocates, you will not be in post-production with a nightmare. You will be in a situation where you’re focusing on making the scenes the best they can be, not fixing all the things that are broken because you didn’t work it out in the first place.