Harry Cohen Special: Collaborating with Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino
It’s still Harry Cohen’s month here at Designing Sound and now is the time to dig into two of Harry’s most celebrated collaborations: his prolific work with Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone.
Harry has been an integral part of the Tarantino Sound Team since the first Kill Bill in 2003 and was the sound designer on Oliver Stone’s three latest films, World Trade Center, W. and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Harry’s partner-in-crime, supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman, has a long history with Stone, though, as they’ve worked together for more than 20 years.
How would you describe Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone as collaborators and filmmakers?
They are very different from each other. To a certain extent, both expect you to know what is appropriate, that is, what their intention is, by looking at the film. Both are very tuned in to every tiny detail of the sound and dialogue, with amazing memories for what they have heard during the edit and mix process. Quentin in particular is a great communicator. He will make reference to sounds from other movies and such. On Kill Bill, he gave me about 7 VCR tapes of old Hong Kong martial arts movies, and would say “I really like the blood spurt sound in this one”, and such. Oliver can be a bit trickier. He might listen to a reel playback and say “you are burying me with sound”, when what he really means is that he doesn’t want anything in the track to trump a certain sound moment that hasn’t happened yet. It can take a while to figure it out, but it always makes perfect sense in the end.
You’ve now collaborated on several feature filmswith both directors. Quite often, sound can be very tricky to talk about – how do you communicate about sound and how has your dialogue evolved throughout the years?
Someone famously said “talking about music (sound) is like dancing about architecture”. A great way to communicate is by referencing stuff in other movies, but I really don’t know if we are talking about the same thing until I do something and they react to it. Face to face meeting is essential: if I am not sure of what they want, then I can ask specific questions to make it clearer.
How early are you usually involved in their films?
Earlier and earlier. On Oliver’s films, there have been times when I have prepared a track that his production mixer will play back live on the set during shooting, to help create an atmosphere for the actors. Then we have our own material come back to us as production sound! At the very least, we prepare sounds or whole scenes for the Avid as early as they are available. We just had a meeting with the production mixer for Quentin’s next film, and packed him off with a 5 channel DPA mic that he is willing to record as much ambience and production sound as he can with, for the next Quentin film, “Django”. We also try to visit the sets and locations when we can, to gather stuff.
Both directors’ films are often extremely dependent on sound and/or music for their emotional impact. How much sound and music is written into their scripts?
With Quentin, he selects almost all the music very early on, largely from his personal library. When we get the edit, the music in the edit is almost always the music that will be there in the final. That’s a huge advantage for us in every way. Oliver will have temp music that is indicative of his intent, and some source stuff that will be the same in the final. Sometimes there is stuff written into the script, like a peculiar ring tone or computer beep.
Tarantino is famous for his use of music. Is the music integrated in his films so early that you shape your effects around the music? And how does Tarantino’s musical choices influence your sound design?
First, see above! And yes, having the music early is great in lots of ways: knowing when the track is going to favor music so we can stay out of the way, or having it to work against, to know how to get the important sounds to read through without competing with the music. Also, it helps us when we want to build something that works rhythmically with the music, or to avoid a harsh tonal conflict like when I want to tune a train whistle or church bell to not be a min 2nd away from the music (unless of course we want such dissonance, to be unsettling), but in either case we pay attention in that way.
The scene in the coffin in Kill Bill is almost like a wet dream for a sound designer: Near total darkness and sound tells the whole grizzly story of what’s happening. Could you talk about how you approached the sound in that sequence?
One of my favorites! We used to have a big wooden box (roughly coffin shaped) full of different speakers and mics that we used for futzes. Wylie Stateman, my partner in crime, had it built. We even called it ‘the coffin’. I wheeled that into my room and used it to record a bunch of interior sounding wood bangs and movement. We shot a lot of very cool foley, the kind of ‘hyper reality’ detail we get into for Quentin’s films. For some of the exterior sounds I automated a McDsp filter bank to get gradually darker as the coffin was buried. We timed out the likely action and then worked out its final shape on the mix stage.
Tarantino has an extraordinary ear for dialogue. How do you orchestrate your backgrounds and sound effects so that they’re supporting and not leading the attention away from the words being said?
Sometimes we establish bgs in those scenes and then gradually remove them, making the scene more and more focused on the dialogue. That’s when the hyper-reality detail of a spoon into sugar or the bite of a piece of strudel really brings us to a sense of closer proximity to the characters.
Moving on to the films of Oliver Stone, one of my recent favorite films for sound design is World Trade Center. It really utilized the sound in powerful ways to create the fall of the buildings and later the feeling of solitude when Nic Cage is buried in the ruins. Could you talk about your work in that film – it must have been quite a difficult task?
The most difficult part of that film was the research. I immersed myself in all the available videos and recordings of police calls and such. I had to listen to the sound of the jumpers landing in the debris around the towers; they had gained such speed and energy they sounded like small car crashes. It is a sound we re-created and put in, and you hear it clearly, but there is never a direct reference to it. It still haunts me. I watched lots of demolition videos, we had a concept of the tower coming down in a ‘pancake’ kind of way.
We contacted some demolition companies about doing new recordings, but there was a huge insurance issue we couldn’t overcome. I tried to give the explosions as real a sound as I could; that is , they are not embellished with animal sounds or such, and I wanted the pov feel of them to suggest the distance and size. Ann Scibelli and I both made lots of building creaking sounds for ‘the hole’, and she did wonderful work on the small debris spills and such. All of our elements were designed and imaged in 5.1 before the mix.
Oliver also wanted us to put in underground explosions before the towers came down. Again, there is no direct reference to it in the dialogue, but his research said that everyone there on the site heard them.
Another recent favorite Stone sound moment is Frank Langella’s death in the subway in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. How did you approach that scene? Is Stone very specific about the sound in sequences like that?
Very specific. I used Izotope spectral repair plug in to isolate some haunting distant rail screeches. I have lots of great subway and L-train sources. As the train gets very close, the rail clack sound turns into a giant-ized version of a stock ticker. Oliver wasn’t happy with the crowd reaction yell, so he lined up everyone who was on the mix stage, and conducted us through a few takes of horrified reaction.
You’re working on both Tarantino’s and Stone’s movies together with supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman. Could you talk about how the two of you collaborate and share the work?
I do most of my work with Wylie, our collaboration stretches back some twenty years or so. I work on specific problems for other supervisors on other movies, but with Wylie I am usually on the film from start to finish, and so those films are more likely to be closer to my original intentions for the sound. He has a very unique outlook on sound, and we do a lot of conceptualization together. Usually I will get a sequence somewhat in shape, then work through it with him. We discuss what new source we might need or want, and figure out ways to record it. He shoots the foley, which is always wonderful stuff, then gives it to me so I can pick through it and incorporate or process any stuff I want to work my fx against, so there are no rubs or doubling up. He will also record any wild stuff I request.
During the predubs I usually get a lot of say about the shape of the fx/foley/bg tracks, and then in the final mix I am there to help the mixer figure my stuff out, and to make final changes and adds. Since the mix is the first time all the final elements are together, and it is also the first time we have the director’s full attention on sound, there is always a lot of adjustment and adds. I would say that almost 30-40% of the sound on some of our films is re-done on the stage during the mix; I might find that something I did that worked great in the predubs clashes with the final music, or is too big or too small. (For Wall Street II there were no fx predubs, we bussed out my tracks on a bunch of auxes and sent those to the console). The good thing is that by the time we get to the final, I have built up a vocabulary of stuff specific to the show, and it’s all fresh in my mind (for a short time anyway!), so it’s not as huge of a panic as it might be, to make adds and changes. But we have found that it is an essential part of the process, as we are trying to give each movie as much of a hand-tailored, original sound job as we can.
Making the soundtrack is a real team effort, and it is important for everyone involved to be collaborative.