‘The Hateful Eight’ sound mixer Mark Ulano on meeting challenges of Quentin Tarantino production

Mark Ulano has served as the production sound mixer on all of Quentin Tarantino’s films since “Jackie Brown.” Each film presented its own unique obstacles including “The Hateful Eight,” a blood-soaked, post-Civil War western set during a violent snow storm. “The big challenge really was the environment.”

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As he explains, due to the harsh weather conditions of the Colorado mountains, “the equipment was stretched to its maximum capabilities but at the end of the day, that was a real asset, because it’s a kind of pressure that you had every day that brought you into a regular rhythm, so that by the time we were into it a little bit you weren’t thinking about that." He continues, "You were just into the filmmaking. But its pressure was always there. That was true of everybody in front of the camera as well as behind the camera, and that’s a strong motivation for us to be in these actual locations rather than inventing them or creating them artificially.”

With the wind raging in the background, recording Tarantino’s signature dialogue must have been a nightmare. Not so, says Ulano. “We never replaced a single word of dialogue that we recorded on production. He’s committed to using the work that happens on the set: the performances that happen there are essential for the way he wants people to experience his films. In my world, that’s a dream scenario.”

It’s also an anomaly in the world of sound mixing. As he explains, “there’s a constant barrage of challenges created by the environment in which we operate.” The solution had to do with two things, the first being extensive preparation.

“Every little detail about where we were going to be and what kind of circumstance was going to be present when we were recording had to be worked out in advance,” he says. And that included meeting with the stagecoach construction crew, “to get the correct insulation from metal-to-wood contact, so that when the stagecoach was in motion, it would not have a destructive effect on the dialogue,” as well as consulting with the snow effects crew, “so that the fans were special made with considerations for quieter wind flow.”

The other key to a pristine production track was, quite simply, “cooperation and collaboration. Everyone else knows that, and Quentin’s entourage, the teammates, are all sort of like jazz musicians: everyone is passionate about their particular instrument, but knows that the music only happens when you come together and play. Quentin is one of the unique directors who encourages that, and the actors are part of that too.”

He adds, “If you have a thing that needs to be worked out, you’re not in isolation. You draw on the camaraderie of the team to say, ‘this is the impact of this decision. What can we do to orchestrate around that so that it doesn’t do damage, but only supports the character arc?’ That’s our mission.”

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Of course, there are always surprises, particularly in the many live musical moments Tarantino will throw into a film. “Each are right there, they’re real. They’re not playback, they’re part of the performances, and you never know what’s going to happen.” He refers to one scene in particular when Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character — a convicted killer chained to Kurt Russells bounty hunter — is playing guitar in the otherwise quiet room. “That guitar was a loner from Martin Guitar, their museum. It was made in 1879. I think it was a $15,000 or $20,000 museum piece. We’re working that day, we’re rehearsing, and nobody tells Kurt he’s supposed to stop. So he grabs the guitar from Jennifer and shatters it to smithereens on the post. You see Jennifer’s reaction. It’s a real-time destruction of an antique, irreplaceable musical piece right in front of you.”

“Now, you would think, ‘Oh my God, this is a terrible moment.’ But at the end of the day, it really supported the character, supported Jennifer’s performance, and the irony was, Martin Guitar, as I understand it, later asked, ‘Do you need another one, and can we have the pieces so we can put them in our museum to tell the story about our guitar and your movie?’”

When asked about the specifics of his work, Ulano isn’t one for shop talk: you won’t hear much in the way of which microphones were used for which scene. “The technical aspect is important,” he concedes, “but the real key is the filmmaking. It’s the context of what the director’s doing that drives the decisions I make. I’m trying to capture a performance that makes sense about how this character is going to be experienced in the theater later.”

“Every shot is handmade,” he continues. “It never happened before, it’ll never happen again, and when you’re trying to build a soundscape around that character arc, you have to sort of make choices that work at that in a specific way. It’s like music: people will practice an instrument, and get very technically physical with their instrument, but at the end of the day when you experience it we shouldn’t hear any of that.”

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Ulano won an Oscar for mixing “Titanic” and was nominated for “Inglourious Basterds.” “In retrospect,” he says, “I would have to say they had impact on others perceptions, and they opened doors for me at certain times for films to be available to work on.” Yet while he finds awards to be, “terrific acknowledgements from your peers,” he ultimately believes, “you can’t bring those into the next project with you. You have to be in the moment, on the day, to do this work presently. You don’t live on that, and you don’t learn on it. The day I come in to the set and think I’m a master of this is the day I should quit, because I have stopped learning at that point.”

"The Hateful Eight" cast. Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

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