Onnalee Blank interview: ‘The Underground Railroad’ sound supervisor
Onnalee Blank just received her ninth and 10th Emmy nominations in the Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing categories for her work as the sound supervisor and re-recording artist, respectively, on Amazon Prime’s 10-episode limited series “The Underground Railroad.” After accruing seven of her preceding eight bids for HBO’s concluded phenomenon “Game of Thrones,” Blank admits, “Something about getting recognized for my work that is not that show feels like, OK, yes, I broke through that barrier.” In our exclusive video interview (watch above), Blank elaborates on her determination to subvert the tropes of a traditional slave narrative on “The Underground Railroad,” on her two Emmy episode submissions for the series, and on merging different genres, themes and ambiences on it.
Based on Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name and directed in its entirety by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins, “The Underground Railroad” follows Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave who makes a bid for freedom from slaveholding Georgia in the 19th century and, in turn, takes possession of her personhood. The series does not mark the first collaboration between Blank and Jenkins. After mixing his 2011 short film “Chlorophyl,” Blank went on to work on his two feature films, “Moonlight” (2016) and “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018). Jenkins reassembled a great portion of his creative team from both films, including composer Nicholas Britell and editor Joi McMillon, on “The Underground Railroad.”
For Best Sound Mixing at the Emmys, Blank and her team submitted the series opener, “Chapter 1: Georgia,” which takes place almost exclusively on the central Randall plantation and was, as Blank divulges, actually one of the last installments she worked on. Pushing it down the track was, however, beneficial in the sense that it takes place several years after the events of the finale, “Chapter 10: Mabel,” which also takes place almost exclusively on the Randall plantation. In the premiere, “the plantation is obviously busier,” there are “more slaves,” “there’s more activity,” and it is “setting up the entire space of the show,” Blank explains. Both the first and final episodes feature scenes of intense violence, particularly in form of whippings and burnings, but Blank accentuates that the main intention was to make the corresponding sounds as realistic as possible. “The realer we made the whips, the more horrific they sounded,” Blank says in this regard. Ultimately, her main goal was to subvert the tropes of a typical slave narrative and have the audience grasp that the show is “actually like a horror movie” straight out of the gate.
Meanwhile, for the Best Sound Editing, Blank and her team submitted the ninth episode, “Chapter 9: Indiana Winter,” which features the horrific massacre of the Valentine community and the complete destruction of their farm. Having worked on numerous cinematic battle episodes on “Game of Thrones,” Blank wasn’t entering completely unfamiliar territory with the aforementioned large-scale sequence, but working on it was a completely new endeavor nevertheless. Her main intention was to make it as “real-sounding” as possible, which entailed giving the sounds of black power guns — which her colleagues Harry Cohen and Jay Jennings worked on — “a lot of bite” and having those blend into the yelling and screaming of the people. “You can’t discern what they [the people] are saying, which is excellent and exactly what I wanted,” Blank underscores in this respect.
As aforesaid, Blank received seven of her eight antecedent Emmy nominations for “Game of Thrones” (2012-2016, 2018-19) in the Best Comedy/Drama (One-Hour) Sound Mixing category, in which she parlayed five of her bids into victories, for the episodes “Blackwater” (2012), “Hardhome” (2015), “Battle of the Bastards” (2016), “Beyond the Wall” (2018) and “The Long Night” (2019). Her remaining citation is for the miniseries “Houdini,” for which she was shortlisted in the Best Limited Series/Anthology Series/TV Movie Sound Mixing category in 2015. She returns to that category for a second time this year with “The Underground Railroad,” which is also the first project for which she is Emmy-nominated as a sound supervisor/editor. The Amazon Prime miniseries nabbed five other noms, including Best Limited/Anthology Series and Best Directing for Jenkins.