Will Ralston covers a multitude of different spectrums. Originally hailing Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, he now splits his time across the country working in multiple roles in various facets of the entertainment business with numerous credits in episodic television, feature films and a couple of video games. He has extensive experience in post production as a sound editor, Foley editor, dialog editor and supervising sound editor where his work includes supervising the entirety of HBO’s “The Wire”, “Treme” and most recently “The Deuce”. His work in features includes “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Boys Don’t Cry”, “The Big Lebowski”, “The Walk”, “Allied” and “Ferdinand”. Will also has experience as a writer working on “Treme” and “The Deuce” which got picked up for a second season and for which Will and his colleagues have been nominated for a 2018 Writers Guild award in the New Series category. In addition to all that, Will has also written and directed his own shorts and web series. Around this month’s theme of “Spectrum”, Will and I discussed how he navigates these various roles, geographhic locations and other spectrums that span both his professional and personal life, including his experience as someone who’s transgender in the industry.
Designing Sound: In what roles did you serve on season one of “The Deuce” and how did those opportunities come about?
Will Ralston: I was the supervising sound editor, ADR and LG supervisor for the entire season, and the co-writer of episode 5 (aka “What Kind of Bad?”).
I met David Simon in late 2001, when he was looking for a supervising sound editor for the pilot of THE WIRE. I’ve worked on every hour of television he’s made since then, mostly as the supervising sound editor/ADR and LG (loop group) supervisor.
The writing opportunity came about because, in the course of my sound duties, David got to know my ear for dialog and sensibilities in terms of using additional dialog to help tell his stories. I mentioned to him and co-EP Eric Overmyer one day during season one of TREME in New Orleans that I wanted to write. He said, “No you don’t.” I said, “I don’t?” and he said, “No. You want to be happy, don’t you?” At that point, David and I had been working together for about nine years so I said, “You know me. Am I happy now?” and he said, “Fair enough. I’ll read something you wrote. But don’t get your hopes up.”
Several months later, he read the spec script I gave him and he told me to keep writing and he would do what he could. I got a co-write in season three of TREME (episode 5 aka “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”).
DS: So you were both a writer and a supervising sound editor on a single show. How many times have you fulfilled two disparate roles like that at either end of production, in both pre and post? Were you at all hesitant to take it on?
Will Ralston: So this is the second time, after season three of TREME, that I’ve done this sort of double-duty. I had no hesitation at all. I saw it for what it was — a great opportunity to see a production all the way through the process. On our episode (my co-writer was Lolis Eric Ellie), we had a scene where a house in the Ninth Ward was bulldozed. That was a big deal for that show. It was a prop we couldn’t get more than one take out of, so there were several cameras getting it from different angles. I coordinated with the location sound recordist (Bruce Litecky) and placed a couple of additional handheld digital recorders around the event to make sure we would have as much of the real sound that we needed in post.
Also on TREME, while the rest of the sound crew was in New York, I stationed myself in New Orleans. That was partially to be available for the spotting, ADR and LG sessions (all of which happened down there), partially to avoid New York City winters, but also partially because New Orleans doesn’t sound like other cities and it was important to be there to collect the right backgrounds. Even street traffic is different, because the roads are so torn up and bumpy that you hardly ever hear smooth a car by.
I did less of that on the set of THE DEUCE, but it was good to have that connection with the location recordist (Timothia Sellers-Hogan) to touch base about what I thought was important to record and how for the post crew. That’s a thing that would always be useful but is rarely scheduled or allowed for in television production, I think.
DS: How have the two skillsets, working in sound and as a writer, informed each other?
Will Ralston: I think the number of years I’ve spent in post-production, sort of arm-chair quarterbacking while I edit, has been very helpful. I see bad scripts turn into good films and vice-versa. And over the course of weeks of really dissecting each scene to focus on the sound, I find myself thinking about what is and isn’t working in all facets of production. There aren’t too many practical ways that my writing interests and background make me a better sound editor, but I think my sound work definitely makes me a better writer. I listen to the way people talk for a living. And, when there is something awkward about their delivery, or accent, for example, I have a hand in trying to put it right. So sound editing has trained my ear to the rhythms of speech for many types of characters.
DS: “The Deuce” is firmly rooted in 1970s New York. What’s your personal relationship to that city and period? Does working on a project with such a strong connection to a specific place and time (one that many viewers may have experienced directly) affect the writing or post production process?
Will Ralston: I was born in 1971 and first set foot in NYC during a 7th grade field trip to the natural history museum. I remember seeing sex workers on Dyer Avenue from the bus (that would have been 1984 I think? There were lots of Bruce Springsteen “Born in the USA” posters everywhere). I moved to New York to attend NYU in fall, 1989 and lived there for about 18 years. So I understood some things about the geography of the city, certainly, but I put in a few months of concerted research for the writing end of it. While I was co-writer on just one episode, my assignment was to help shepherd the gay story lines along through season one. I spent a lot of time at the NYPL Main Branch, in archives, creating maps of where all the bars and clubs were in 1971 and 1972, for example, just so I could understand the scope of what gay social/nightlife was like then — to understand what sort of options Paul (our main gay character) had when he wanted to go out dancing or to see a porn film.
My research primarily helped me with the writing on that project. The sound effects editor (Pat Cicero) had the more sound-oriented research to do. There were things to remember like, what did the first answering machines sound like? When did NYPD upgrade from a standard “wailer” siren to the more complex electronic siren patterns? That sort of thing.
It was more of a challenge for the sound work on TREME because it was about the city just a few months after Katrina and building forward from there. That was a catastrophic event that changed the way everything in the city functioned. In the first season, there were no insects (except for flies, signaling the discovery of a corpse). Instead of air conditioners or constant I-10 traffic, there were gas generators. None of the street lights worked for awhile, so every intersection was treated as a four-way stop. Many bird species were displaced. And on top of that, I was one of the final stop-gaps for accent issues, so not only did I have to interview a bunch of people to get an aural snapshot of what the city sounded like then, I had to learn the cadence of how the people who lived in different neighborhoods spoke. That hokey TV Cajun accent doesn’t bear much resemblance to the way anyone really talks there. And there are at least four different ways to pronounce “New Orleans,” depending on socio-economic backgrounds.
DS: “The Deuce” tells the story of the early days of pornographic film and has scenes depicting the filmmaking process. Did you give any special consideration to how these scenes were handled from the perspective of sound?
Will Ralston: In most cases, the action/content of a scene doesn’t change much in my approach to sound. Always, you look at the scene and ask “What is this about?” Is there a particular line of dialog that this is all about that we need to make sure is heard loud and clear? Is there some non-verbal cue happening that we can somehow use sound to bring the audience’s attention to?
There is a lot of sex happening on this show, and sometimes it’s the point but other times, it’s just a thing that’s happening (like any other day at the office). What the role of that action is in the scene will inform how much attention I want sound to pay to it.
DS: I understand “The Deuce” has been renewed for a second season for which you’ll be working as a story editor while handing off sound supervision responsibilities. How is the new position different from your role in season one, and what does that hand-off process look like? Do you provide the next supervising sound editor with any specific notes, suggestions, lessons learned from season one?
Will Ralston: I will be spending more time in the writing department and on set for season two. There is always a writer on set to be available for any writing-related questions that come up. Last minute line changes, sometimes discussions about why the writers chose to have a character say something a certain way and whether changing it helps or hurts the purpose, stuff like that.
Part of why I’m handing off the sound duties is because I’m covering the back half of the season, when post sound is starting, and it just wouldn’t work schedule-wise to do both. But that also means that I’m around during the start of post, so I’m available to the sound crew and in some ways, still able to perform some of those functions, at least until the new supervisor can get up to speed with our workflow.
DS: You’ve worked extensively on both sides of the United States. Do you notice a difference in approach to either writing or post production between the coasts?
Will Ralston: My writing experience is so far very limited but I do know every writers room is different so I can’t speak to that. For sound, I feel like the history that New York has of getting more independent and walking/talking or dialog-driven movies has influenced the budgets and schedules there. I find the quality of the projects higher overall in New York, but there is much more stress for me working in post there. The budgets are tighter, the schedules are shorter but the trade-off is, more often than not, it’s a movie I don’t mind watching over and over.
DS: If it wasn’t previously clear to everyone, the recent flurry of allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment have shown that the experience many women in (and outside of) the entertainment business is vastly different to that of most men. With no intention of being reductive or suggesting that one can speak for many, you do have a somewhat unique perspective of having worked in the industry and lived in broader society identifying both as a woman and now as a man. Can you share any experiences or offer any insights/observations as to how you are treated and feel differently? Do you have any practical steps everyone can take to make for a more compassionate and inclusive industry?
Will Ralston: I am treated differently, which in turn makes me feel different. It’s way too complicated to delve into in a little Q&A about the job. It’s just like, everything about how men are treated vs. women, how the genders treat each other, how those of us who fall between the cracks or bridge the gap are treated… I think we’re all having a moment of awareness that we do not have the same experiences. Some of us have been more acutely aware of that longer than others but we’re all a little more aware since October certainly, at least. As for what we can all do: respect our colleagues, no matter what their skin color, background, gender identity, religion, etc. Listen to them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions but remember the “respect” and “listen” parts when you do. And don’t be afraid to be an ally. It may be hard for some of us to relate to this experience, but when you do not feel like a part of the group for any reason and someone says something, even in jest, that highlights that disparity to you in some way, the first gut punch is the thing that’s said and the second gut punch is when no one else at the table seems to care but you.
For my own experiences, I can’t speak for all transpeople (which is why you should not be afraid to ask questions), but I will say for me that when people get the pronouns wrong I would prefer if they just say “sorry, I meant ‘he'” and move on, so I know they know. Otherwise, I’m no longer listening to what they’re saying because I’m thinking “is this the time to correct that? How exactly do I interrupt them without making them feel bad or embarrassing them? Was that on purpose?” I think it’s like that for a lot of people in many other situations — being expected to do the work for yourself all the time makes one feel unwanted or misunderstood. It can be draining and alienating if your options are to sit silently and stew because someone is disrespecting you (intentionally or not), or speak up and suffer the awkwardness, defensiveness, embarrassment, or hurt feelings of that someone who already made you feel bad. Very few of us are always gracious about criticism, even when it’s delivered gently. I always really appreciate it when something happens and someone who doesn’t have a personal stake in the situation takes the initiative. If you think something is out of alignment, even just saying “whoah, you didn’t mean it like that, right?” and giving someone a chance to back up from what they said is much easier for an ally to do than the person the comment may have personally affected.
On the topic of gender, it’s not possible for me to ignore the gender disparity in our industry and the prevalence of the term “sound guys.” It seems innocuous to some, but it leads down a path. It erases or absorbs everyone else under the presumed-male umbrella. I have overheard, for example, one supervisor talking to another supervisor about the problem of the ever-shrinking budgets in post. Two cis-males. One said a consequence is that he rarely hires an assistant anymore and the other said “how will the young guys ever learn the craft without that position” and my heart just sank. You don’t usually hear people use “guys” referring to a group in the third person that way and mean to include everyone. It’s not the same as entering a room and saying “Hey guys” instead of “hey everybody.” Even if by some quirk or turn-of-phrase, that’s what was meant in that case, it sends a wrong message. We are sound editors. Re-recording engineers. Sound designers. Even just “sound people” or “folks” — plenty of other options. There shouldn’t be a presumed gender to any of those roles.
A big thank you to Will for taking the time to answer our questions this month. He was recently featured in two episodes of Gimlet Media’s “Every Little Thing” podcast which you can check out here: