Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Writer-Director Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT is a full sensory experience. He’s brought the event movie back into the limelight with his latest cinematic feast for the senses. It might be an oxymoron to explain its aesthetic as intimate and expansive, but here we are. The auteur once again has surrounded himself with a gaggle of his best behind-the-scene players in the film’s creation – one of them being his longtime collaborator/ production sound genius Mark Ulano.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, we sat down with the Academy Award winning production sound mixer to talk about everything from the film’s logistical challenges, to how Tarantino works, to how Ulano created a symphony within the film’s quiet spaces.
FreshFiction.tv: You have the blizzard as a guideline, but where did you begin your approach?
I’ve had the privilege of working with Quentin for 22 years. We’ve never replaced a single word of dialogue on any film we’ve done together in post-production which is an unusual thing – very unusual. The environments and the envelope around where all the dialogue lives in a cocoon is a post-production creative partnering with Wylie Stateman, Mike Minkler and Chris Minkler. It’s a collaboration with the principle performances. My meat, my passion, is capturing those original performances in a way that will inform the characters in the way the director wants the audience to experience the film. This director is my dream scenario; his intent is the performance that happens there on that day that’s what’s in the movie – not something he catches that he’ll modify after the fact. He doesn’t use video assist – there’s no video village. He’s in a room with the camera, with the actors, old school. He’s the most schooled director I’ve ever had the fortune of working with in terms of a student of film of music.
The design component of what are we gonna do comes from, you come with a clean slate. You come with an ideology to the project but what this is, is what this is. We have to find that. If I come with a preset notion at the beginning of a project, or think I have this down, is the day I have to quit because it means I haven’t opened myself up to the information I need to get now. This is a very different film for Quentin. It is a set piece – a play. Not only are there actors, but this blizzard is a character in this too. We knew that from the outset. How that was going to happen was a thing that could only reveal itself as we were going through the process. What we were doing is not something that’s been done, which is above 10,000 feet, in sub-zero weather, every single day. All these environments, were physical environments. A lot of those locations are snow mobile to a drop-off point and hike in a quarter of a mile or more with guide ropes. It was remote, but that’s where you see these vistas. You can’t do a second take with the coach through pristine snow. You’ve gotta do it on one and be ready.
Logistics were a major component of how to make it work. We’re in the shortest days of the year. Snow was a problem – there was not enough snow. Until there was a way lot of snow. That was after bringing in a woman, a double-doctorate, medicine woman for the Lakota. She did this private ritual and two days later, we had snow dump on us like nobody’s business for two weeks. It’s an actual anecdote we all lived through.
Designing a soundtrack for film, from my perspective, is not about the hammers and nails – the microphones and the tools. It’s character-driven. Each character has a certain presence and each has an arc. It’s story-driven. As the environment, or the canvas on which the characters are happening evolves, we incorporate that into what we were doing.
FreshFiction.tv: Were there a lot of takes where you could modify what you were doing along with the actors?
Quentin isn’t a hundred-take kind of guy. He’s a three-twelve take kind of thing. That’s because the characters are built. He does weeks of ‘prehersal’ with these guys. They built Minnie’s [Haberdashery] as a physical place to work in Los Angeles that was never going to be a set that would be photographed but it was a physical rehearsal space so that when we got to the real one, they had a sense of the physical space they operated in. The wardrobe was a huge issue – complex and beautiful but layers of skins and leather and wools, all effecting sound work. Likewise make-up – the blood.
The upside is many of us are part of this repertoire company that have come together repeatedly to work with Quentin. So there’s this sense of non-verbal musician-like interaction between all of us. We talk and collaborate.
FreshFiction.tv: What’s the most innocuous thing audiences may not get from the hard work you put your soul into with this film?
My job is to work in close quarters with all the actors about capturing their performance in a way that does reveal their character that is the director’s intent and the script’s intent. I have this threshold. As long as whatever I’m doing keeps the audience in a relationship believing this is character is on this journey and it’s a real story and real place – as fictional as it is – but as long as that belief is there on the part of the audience, then I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I keep the connection alive between the characters and the audience. That’s where I’m coming from. It’s music. There happens to be words but…
FreshFiction.tv: … even in the silences there’s still a lot going on.
Do you play an instrument?
FreshFiction.tv: I used to play piano a long time ago.
So you know the rests are just as, if not more important, than the notes. That’s one of the things Quentin knows that a lot of filmmakers seem to miss. He knows about silence. He knows about waiting. He knows about the beats. He knows about patience because the dynamic of that pause is what’s really going to sell the big moment. This is why we connect so much. Quentin is a student always. He’s constantly studying film. He’s always got some kind of homage or reference, maybe a hundred of them, throughout a movie, but none of them imitate. They’re always to a point, or a purpose, in that moment. His process is very respectful of filmmaking and very old school.
Jennifer [Jason Leigh]’s character was incredibly complex and not clear until we started getting into it even with all that rehearsal. Once it happened, this is a very special kind of crazy. This is something that came out of all that support and respect. You don’t get that unless you give them that protection or that comfort. That they can be unsafe and know that they’re going to come out the other side. And we’re all part of that.
We’re here to contribute – not to compete.
FreshFiction.tv: Have you noticed a progression from the Quentin you knew from INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, until now?
I met Quentin on DESPERADO when he day played – so we go back to FROM DUSK TIL DAWN and JACKIE BROWN. The big transition was KILL BILL actually. Now, I feel like he’s moved into a higher level – not only operatic but novelistic kid of work. There are notes and resonances that reveal themselves in the work on second and third viewings. I’ve seen this four times now and my favorite screening was the third time. I don’t have any answers to why that’s the case. There’s something about his films that grow over time.
For example, JACKIE BROWN will be a really important film in fifty years because of its unique thing. That was right after PULP. A love story between two has-been people on the fringes?! This is not gonna sell tickets…and yet… it’s a great film.
FreshFiction.tv: That’s the movie I constantly return to and it grows.
Me too. I think this [THE HATEFUL EIGHT] will be the same way. I’m not sure how the world will love it, but at least they will be talking about it. The underlying structure is so strong. It requires not just seeing the surface, which is very rare.
THE HATEFUL EIGHT opens on December 25 in limited release and wide on December 31.