Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

An interview with Mark Ulano CAS AMPS


How many films have you done with Quentin Tarantino?
MARK ULANO: Well, it’s a little bit of a hybrid: the first film I did with him was Desperado, a film Robert Rodriguez directed. Quentin had an acting cameo and that’s where we met. The next thing we did together was 'Dusk Till Dawn, which he wrote, produced, and acted in. And, again, Robert was directing. And that’s where Quentin and I actually really bonded.

It’s a great collaboration.
It’s a cherished partnership. I feel very, very fortunate to have found a good conductor for the orchestra I love playing in, and we enjoy each other’s process, personality, content, and contributions.

How much prep did you have for 'Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood'?
I consider non-technical inclusion to be part of the prep; I was asked to participate fifteen months before filming began. I had intermittent prep for about two months and the physical, practical prep/tech scouts and all the rest of that, probably about three weeks, maybe four. There are meetings and that’s prep and then there’s actual interaction with all the other departments; Quentin expects his crew to be fully participating and informed about what he intends to create. This time, one aspect of the film was kept under wraps to everyone. It didn’t matter what your status was, head of the studio or an electrician, and that was the ending of the film. That was super, super secret.

That was a surprise to the audience as well.
That was the idea. He was very interested in keeping that unadulterated for people to see and experience the surprise at the end versus having that revealed and out there. Everyone respected that; it was a really nice thing.

In terms of the logistics of the movie, there’s a lot of moving parts and of course, a considerable amount of driving shots. What scenes were the most challenging?
Well, I’ll admit to a bias here: Quentin has an ethic to use the performance that happens on the day in front of the camera, recorded at that moment, in the movie. And he has an absolute devotion to that as a director. If that’s the take he chooses in post production, he has an unblemished history of not doing replacement dialog for reasons that may be intrusive to the scene.

That’s a foundational aspect of working with Quentin. You have to be prepared for that psychologically, that you’re not doing something that’s potentially replaceable or temporary; it just isn’t okay. But over the years, you understand that comes with the caveat that you’re in collaboration and you’re not a non-entity in participation of making the movie.

When there are things that are competing elements, say, in a scene or a shot, something we need for image and something we need for sound and something we need for wardrobe or something we need for sets or whatever and they bump up against each other—it’s not territorial on his set. We say, okay, let’s figure out what’s the best solution to have the most beneficial aspects of those elements survive the collision.

The stereotypical response of “screw sound” or some department being territorially dominant doesn’t apply here. It’s all about serving the project and realizing the director’s intent. So, when you have issues that invade the threshold of connection with the characters, there’s collaboration to work it out.

In this movie, the biggest challenge is the enormous amount of driving work, very often at high speeds on freeways with windows open and actors in unusual postures and positions. I would probably say that was the most technically challenging component of the film. And to always have this caveat in the back of your head, what we do here today; if it’s not good enough to be in the movie, we haven’t gotten it.

My threshold is: Has the audience been interrupted enough by some element that breaks the connection they have believing the character on screen? My guidelines are about connection with the character, the character’s arc within the film, the story arc. These are all driving elements for me. And when I’m engaged with Quentin, I’m in those kinds of conversations.
Everybody in that orchestra is a very accomplished, polished filmmaker; filmmaker is really the key word. We all think in a directorial context: not preemptively directorial but supportively directorial. To exist on Quentin’s set, everyone has to have that kind of intuitive sense of where we are and if there’s a problem, we discuss it: this is an issue, these are possible solutions, we can do this or that.

The solution is creating certain processes and protocols on the set and that was collaboration between my great colleagues, Michael Minkler and Wiley Stateman in post production and myself. We are a triangle producing the sound for Quentin’s movies.

OUATIH has challenges that are relatively contemporary. It’s set in the late ’60s, not present day, but you’re still dealing with twentieth-century elements in the environment. The solution was always having multiple options in play at any given time so that, on the day, the actors were not invaded by external issues. They have the freedom of the set being a period environment in which their characters have to exist. So that’s the idea and on this show the challenges were relatively contemporary.
How did you mike the many scenes where Brad Pitt drives the Cadillac?
The permutations of improv is the dominant factor when you’re dealing with performance. But there’s a finite roadmap that’s established by Quentin in his blocking process. He’s profoundly traditional in approach as far as making sure his department heads know the information they need to know how to achieve the scene. There’s a blocking rehearsal between Quentin and the actors. Then there’s a blocking rehearsal for everyone.

After this many years, I can say there’s a good percentage of reliability that that blocking is solid information. All the departments strategize around that, and I use something similar as in still photography—zone coverage. Where is the sphere of dialog going to occur?

I treat all of the sound that’s happening in the frame as each needing its own respect as an element and I’ll know that there’s a certain sort of peripheral range of head turns and head tilts. The harder issues are if you’re doing a combination of free run and tow and also if the actors are actually driving. If you’re going uphill with windows open on a tow vehicle in lowest gears, close and going slow or even speeding, suddenly you have these other potential competing elements of that invading the scene inside the car.

For me it’s a matter of ducking and mixing to the beats in the scene and riding the wave of the dialog’s flow. I don’t subscribe to the theory or the concept that actually what production sound people do now is just go out and collect discreet elements and let somebody else sort it out later. I do a mix. I do a mix on every shot every day for this director and any director, frankly. My mix is something I am creating as the way the performances are going to get to the audience.

The work that we’re creating is the architecture, or the blueprint of how we feel the scene should sound.
I call it the bed but the same idea; we’re laying the bed of this. Now I also know, particularly if I’m working with Quentin, I’m in a long-established, very involved collaboration with the supervising sound editor and the re-recording mixer about these issues. And I know they are going to look very, very strongly toward my mix on the set. I will capture other components and elements discreetly. I think that’s prudent and I think it also allows for creative adjustment after the fact. There’s a strong history of them trusting what we do on set and us trusting what they do in a way that really comes out on top for the director and for the movie project. So we’re really not under siege, you know, or a lonely department, we’re in collaboration with various and experienced filmmakers who love the sound to be as good as the lighting, be as good as the cinematography.

Everyone takes precious care or a position to respect, regard, and include the other elements to Quentin’s scene. Quentin is not someone who’s comfortable with singular departments taking a position that what they do is more important than what they’re integrating with. He wants the whole piece of cloth to come out of that. And every shot’s handmade when you are making it. You’ve got all these artisans doing their special part, like an orchestra—this guy plays oboe, I play drums, you know, but the point is that it’s a piece of music at the end of the day.

Unfortunately, it’s too rare a thing to have that kind of established environment by the director; the director sets the tone. If you don’t get it, you don’t belong there. I don’t mean that meanly, but you know, this is not something that there’s a lot of discussion about, by the way. There’s an enormous amount of evolved non-verbal communication about things. It’s like that. It’s like playing with other musicians. It really is. There’s no other way to describe it, and with a bandleader like Quentin—he gets it, too. Everyone gets it. That’s the miracle of it.

OK, how did you mike the car?
Let me preface with saying like in music, I don’t care if the drummer plays left-handed. I care if he knows, or she knows, what two and four is, how to swing the band and how to, how to make music. So musicians are often very focused on technique, they obsess, as do filmmakers. And long ago, I started to change my earlier philosophy of not being seduced by the fascination with technique and more seduced by the overall outcome. There are times I’m mixing something with many elements, you know, ten, fifteen, twenty elements and if you ask me what I did during the mix, I would have to come back and say, I’m in the flow, I’m in a fluent moment between all those elements, mixing; what makes sense like when playing an instrument.

If I have to stop and think about how I’m going to blend those microphones when I’m doing this scene, it’s too late. I’ve lost the timing connection with the scene. I have to be in flow the way the actors are and where the camera is. The outcome: okay, so in car situations, there’s a blend of different things. It depends on who the actors are and the tonal quality of their voices and their rhythms. Not just in terms of the actors specifically but the characters the actors are creating, because actors will do very different things with different characters. Early on, I try really hard to plug into the framework around the characters that the actors have built in terms of their performance, and mike to that.

In car planting situations, I lean more toward planting omnidirectional lavaliers in different places, sometimes on the character, sometimes overhead. And I started doing this a very long time ago with Sonotrims and Trams, which were revolutionary microphones because they were front-element mikes that allowed you to place them flatly and they also allowed you to get some sort of PZM capacity, giving them a kind of directionality. I use those depending on the acoustics of the vehicle and actors.

My dominant planting mikes these days are: DPA 4061’s and 4071’s, as they have a great capacity for a natural sound, and Sonotrims. Occasionally, I will plant a Schoeps and Sanken hypercardiod, even Countryman mini-cardioids at times. There’s a wide palette of choices in my lavalier kit.

I’ll use the analogy of a lens kit: What’s the right lens for this shot? You could use a 25mm, 50mm, 100mm, or 300mm, and each will have the same frame scale, a waist-up single, but each one of them will be saying something different. I’m like that with microphones. A lot of it’s intuitive and I build from there. I try not to have some pre-set notion about how to approach the scene until I’ve gotten there on the day. You know, no call sheet nor script page is going to tell you what the shot is until you’re in the blocking and you’ve got the actual elements all together at one moment. The idea that we can predetermine often exactly where the lens is going to be, where the actors ... you know, it’s just not true. It happens occasionally, but it’s the rarity, not the fundamental way movies are made now.

It comes down to what’s the best solution for this particular moment? This shot, this scene, this character. Where are we in the story, you know? People look at sound and often just see the tools and assess us in a diminished way as “technicians,” just acknowledging the technical side. It implies a lesser creative engagement. My actual life experience is that we have a broad spectrum of inadvertent autonomy in our creativity as production mixers and production sound teams. I don’t mean to in any way exclude the incredible contributions in the department with our boom operators and utility people. I’ve been with Tom Hardig for twenty years; he’s my colleague, friend, and boom operator. My other really great partner for over forty years is Patrushkha Mierzwa, my other boom operator and utility person. These people are profoundly polished in this specialized work and I depend enormously on that.
To sum it up, I really try and understand what’s going on and there will be micro adjustments. I trained with the relentless pressure of decades of one-track, no redundancy on the set, that’s what’s going to dailies. But one of the enormous benefits that we have gained now with nonlinear, file-based multitrack tools in the field, is that we can be diverse in our approach. I can have more than one game plan working simultaneously.

Which is not exactly the same thing as just capturing discreet elements and solving it later. It’s having more than one approach happening simultaneously. That’s a different thing; it may be a subtle difference but I think it’s an important one. What it does for me is that it (figuratively) lets me float in between the raindrops during an actual take. I try not to paint myself into a corner, it’s partially defensive but it’s mostly aesthetic. I’m here to really get an audience to believe in this character at this moment in the story.

That’s my mission, to be supporting the story, to tell the story along with the other crafts in the movies. The magic of movies is that we get to believe in something that’s completely artificial in its fundamental creation, but transcends into something really substantive. Sometimes it can be something very significant socially, culturally, and emotionally. There’s magic to be done. For me, if you have the Chinese definition of luck (preparation and opportunity coming together), your percentages really go up in terms of succeeding with any particular shot or scene.
In any given scene, your mix is between an open boom mike, a radio mike on the actor, a plant, etcetera, to use those choices available to make that mix.
Correct. One of the more frequent questions I probably get asked is, “Is it a boom scene or is it a radio mike scene?” Well, it’s one or all of those elements as needed in the execution of the scene. I don’t want you to be able to tell. I’m not dedicated to the classical notion of perspective sound being the single and most significant approach. I had the incredibly good fortune early in my career to do a Robert Altman movie and that style (multitrack) certainly kicked my butt. It turns your head upside-down, but in such a good way because you’re free from some predetermined outcome and approach. For me, it’s about connection. I use those elements but it’s like paints: oils and watercolor, which makes the most sense? That’s the idea, what makes sense. People look at us as technicians, but, in reality, everyone on the movie is technical. Actors are maybe the most technical people on a movie. Day 2 of the movie, they have to do the final scene of the show, day 17, it’s the very first shot of the first scene of the movie. And then on wrap day, it’s the midpoint.

An actor’s got to calibrate the character arc so when the chronology of the movie is actually cut together, it works. I think that’s as technical as anything we have to do with our tools. Yes, our basic tools are plant mikes and hypercardioids and radio mikes and lavaliers and all those, but it’s like a box of lenses. It’s what you do with them that matters.
Let’s get into some of the tools. What do you record to?
I’ve been using Zaxcom for a long time, I know their people. I believe it’s important to be connected personally with all the people who make the specialized tools that we use. I just came back from a tour in Germany and France, visiting Cinela and Schoeps. Each tool that we use is excellent in some particular way but not necessarily in every way. For me, Schoeps is a primary key player in my miking. The Sanken CS3E shotgun mikes have been transformative for me as a boom tool. I journeyed from Schoeps to Neumanns, which I love and respect enormously, to the Sanken’s for the practicality that they afford us in the generally acoustically hostile environments that real movies are made in.

They allow us to have zero proximity. They allow us to have seventy percent to eighty percent control in terms of pattern. When someone’s walking on a noisy surface, you flatten out the mike; your boom operator is really painting with sound at that point. The off-axis is profoundly smooth, and the reach of the Sanken CS3E is also very significant, particularly with the proliferation of multiple-camera work over the last couple of decades becoming a dominant versus occasional form. You have a much greater potential with that microphone to be able to make the compromise between the two frames, or more frames than you would with some of the other microphones that are out there.

It’s really conditional to how the scene’s been blocked and what is in the frame. I’m old school. I don’t need to look through a monitor or a viewfinder to know what a 50-millimeter lens does at eight feet. I know what it looks like. I know where the key light is, I know where the fill light is. I know how it’s going to interact dynamically when the camera’s moving through those and I design the sound appropriately with my mix.

Were there a lot of stage sets or was it mostly locations?
There were over one hundred locations, over one hundred speaking parts in the film. The first weeks we were at Universal Studios Western streets of the back lot. It was rebuilt and we shot the ’60s period Western episodic TV stuff, Lancer. We shot the Bounty Law scenes at Melody Ranch. Spawn Ranch was at the Santa Susanna Park and was completely created by the Art Department. The martial arts scene, where Bruce Lee is duking it out with Cliff, looks like a studio lot, but was a high school parking lot in Compton. Many of the locations were the actual places when we could. They locked up Hollywood Boulevard for a week a few times. That was a fundamental component for Quentin’s environments for his actors. He wants to give them as much of the flavor of a place that they’re supposed to be in at the time. It’s old school and you know, they love it, the actors just love it.
DiCaprio’s trailer is where he was rehearsing his scene with his tape recorder. What kind of a set was that?
It was a trailer, no breakaway walls, no breakaway ceilings, nothing. It was small, difficult and crowded with everybody not on camera. You deal with it, you make it happen, you make it work. We know Leo’s rhythm. This is my third movie with Leo and Tom’s second movie with him. You know, you get a sense of who you’re working with and how they telegraph a little bit with very, very, very subtle aspects. What’s he going to do next and where is he going to do it?

Tom used a Schoeps on a GVC angle, so it’s a thumb’s width from the top of the frame and he worked closely with DOP Bob Richardson; we’ve been collaborating on movies since 2002, 2003. Everyone is struggling in a creative but challenging environment. Even though it’s so collaborative and inclusive, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy and you slide by on compromises that are damaging. No, it’s the opposite. If it’s hard, it’s hard. Everybody’s working through the hard together. There’s no blame-seeking missions and there’s no “Sorry, you can’t be there” stuff or “You’re being there creates a problem.”
In regards to that scene he rehearses with his tape recorder, how was that done? Was that all added in post?
No, not at all. We went to Leo’s trailer—Quentin, myself, and Leo—and recorded him both on my main gear for the show and on that recorder, that very recorder. Leo recorded that and he knew when to not speak and to leave the holes. That was all predetermined before we recorded. Then he would play that back on set. He was using it as a practical prop for himself, which is what Quentin needed him to be doing because he’s acting with himself in that moment.

Like the action with the tequila margaritas and all that stuff and he’s rehearsing. He really used the props. So, it was actually kind of great fun. Likewise, the dancing where he’s doing the Hullabaloo show: he’s singing live. We brought in Gary Raymond, the creme de la creme of on-set Pro Tools and playback and Gary did a fantastic job of creating a safe space for Leo to do something he doesn’t usually do, which is sing and dance on camera.

All of the driving sequences have an enormous amount of background radio playing throughout, which is so emblematic of that era. How was that done?
Every movie I’ve done with Quentin, I’ve had the joy and privilege of getting a brown manila envelope packet with his hand-written script. It means—OK, this is the movie that’s coming up in a couple of months, so get ready. This time, because of their intense interest in keeping it under wraps, I received a jump drive with fifty hours of log tapes from LA radio station KHJ.
All music and commercials, all true, live tapes. What does that mean in your knowledge of background stuff? Well, it was a whole separate creative endeavor on the part of Jim Schulz. He had to prepare for Mike Minkler five levels of all of the music that would be in the show; the level that would be what you’d hear over a two-inch cheesy speaker in a 1969 car with the windows open, all the way leveling up to direct remasters, the kind that you’d hear in your head; the psychology of third-person or first-person in that music. Multiple layers of that depending on what was going to be needed in the scene. All of that music was prepared by Jim so that at a moment’s notice in the mix they could draw from that library for what was really the right thing for a particular shot in the scene. Complicated.
Did you have to play back any of those tracks in the driving scenes?
I always had the music with me in some form if needed, always. You can do a lot with a Bluetooth speaker and iPod, you know, an iPhone or iPad to do playback from the backseat or from the tow vehicle. We would do things that were more atmospheric. Like Cliff driving back to his trailer from Rick’s house, that type of thing.

I would play music, particularly the Jose Feliciano song, for emotional purposes for the actors. Which goes back to the silent era, you know. There were never really silent movies, all those films had some kind of sound—dialog or music—in some form. The idea that music on the set is a tool for actors, plugging into their characters emotionally, is a very common element on Quentin’s set. I’m charged with a lot of sourcing for music when needed … both for crew morale and for scenes with actors.
In the car-to-car shooting, how difficult was that?
Occasionally in those cases where I was using a primary wireless transmission but felt that there was potential risk for damaging a scene, I’d put hard recorders inside the vehicle as well, that would take the same sources and capturing, and I had some recording transmitters as well. Or a special situation for times when somebody is coming from very far to near, like Tex charging back to the ranch from a horse lesson; we put a normal radio mike on Austin and a recording transmitter. I have a range of possibilities and it becomes more focused as we get to the reality of the shot. That’s a better way to describe it.

I have a fairly good remembrance of approach to the scene, what I don’t intellectualize is the minutiae of the performance itself, the timing in the moment. I will remember the architecture of the scene in terms of our approach. That’s really what matters to me because I’m giving an expression of my approach to something and someone else is going to get value out of it. Stay a student of the tools always. Go to seminars about Isotope to learn what is a viable answer when someone asks you on set, “Is that okay? Did we get it? God, there was a giant truck or airplane, that can’t be good!” and you can come back with an educated assessment. It’s your best defense for challenging situations on a film set. Trust your team, surround yourself with people who know more than you, are smarter than you, and better at it than you are so that they can help you support that director and those actors.
Anything else you want to add?
Yes. I’ll say this about Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood and it’s one of the reasons I have great admiration and affection for this film: it’s a significant expression about gratitude, acceptance, and love. People don’t necessarily associate those three things when they’re talking about Quentin Tarantino films, but if you dig deeper, you’ll see that they’re actually very deeply woven into all of his films. You know, kabuki violence aside and all the rest of that, a lot of that is humor and his deep, responsible obligation to himself to entertain. He really thinks that if you’re not entertaining, you’re not serving the audience, you’ve blown it.

The idea in this film about the love affair between the two men, the idea of the decline in their personal and professional status as a backdrop to revealing who they are as people … it’s very three-dimensional and not everybody gets that. But for me, this one’s really his love poem and all of our love poems to the making of movies. It’s his Day for Night, if you will. It’s a deep exploration of the love of making movies that infused everything, every day, every shot; we were all very explicitly aware that we’re doing something we love to do. We’re doing it with each other because we love to do it with each other. And we’re doing it for the love of it.

If he got a print and that was it, that’s a great one, he would say, “We’re gonna do another and, and why are we going to do one more?” And the entire crew in unison would come back, “because we love making movies.” It’s really the truth, it’s not an easy thing to find in our work; to be in a place where the director’s comfortable in his own skin, where the content is emotionally significant for many who are engaged in its creation and connects with people at the other end, and the audience got it.

What I admire and appreciate enormously was behind the scenes, without press or paparazzi around, the purity of the process. He achieves an autonomy that’s rare for directors. The studio was supportive and hands-off in a very respectful way. We had what we needed to do the thing we were doing, and we enjoyed doing that every day of that production.
Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood doesn’t fulfill your expectation of a “Quentin Tarantino movie” and yet it is ultimately the epitome of a Quentin Tarantino movie because of that very aspect.

All photos by Andrew Cooper. Courtesy of Sony Pictures