How 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,' 'Ad Astra' Sound Mixer Bridged the Sounds of Groovy L.A. and Outer Space

Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures

Earning rare double Oscar nominations, Mark Ulano opens up about the art of recording in tight spots, from a car to a spacecraft, as the sound pros behind '1917,' 'Ford v Ferrari,' 'Joker' and 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' also open up about their process.

When this year's Oscar contenders were announced, Mark Ulano scored a rare double nomination in sound mixing for Fox/Disney's Ad Astra and Sony's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (which also garnered a sound editing nom). "I had no expectation because there are some very good films out there this year," admits the veteran sound mixer, who won an Oscar for James Cameron's historical drama Titanic and nabbed an additional nomination for Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. He's also the former president of the Cinema Audio Society, a nonprofit devoted to advancing the sound mixing community. "For this to happen was really amazing," he says of his two nominations, which, he emphasizes, he shares with his team — including his wife, sound pro Petrushka Mierzwa.

Ulano has a long history of collaboration with Tarantino (he has worked on all the director's films since 1997's Jackie Brown), while Ad Astra was Ulano's first time working with director James Gray. "James Gray's a really brilliant guy and has a great sense of humor," Ulano says. "Similar to Quentin, he's encyclopedic in his knowledge of films. He's also a mad Beatles fan."

Ulano says that when he met Gray, what he expected would be an initial 15-minute meeting with the director became a two-hour discussion. "Not so much about the film," he explains. "We started talking about [The Beatles'] Ringo [Starr] as the greatest drummer. And I'm a drummer, so it was a really good point of departure for our relationship, which I would call friendship at this point."

When it came to production sound, the sci-fi drama Ad Astra and 1969-set Once Upon a Time both involved notable logistics even though the stories are vastly different. As a space movie, Ad Astra required its actors to wear spacesuits with helmets equipped with interior fans, accompanied by wire work to simulate zero-gravity environments. "The complexity had to do with, how do you do sound in that environment and keep the sound so organic that the audience never loses connection with the characters?" he explains, noting that the team did plenty of testing for the suits and inside the spacecraft, where "you have the physical, organic aspect of human beings in artificial environments, breathing," as well as outside the spacecraft, to capture the isolation and silence of space. "We were building multiple microphones into the suit, into the helmet and into the spaceship, which are very cramped and difficult quarters to maneuver for camera, lighting and sound."

For Once Upon a Time, Ulano says the nearly 200 locations and 107 speaking parts offered a wide range of opportunities for creative approaches to sound, though "the hardest thing was the driving work," because Tarantino films "in real vehicles, in real time on the road, and throws all kinds of challenges into that situation — open windows, high rates of speed."

Citing the scene in which Margaret Qualley's Manson follower Pussycat hitches a ride with Brad Pitt's stuntman Cliff Booth — and moves around inside the vintage Cadillac's front seat — Ulano says he needed to give the actors freedom to perform, while at the same time using multiple unobtrusive approaches to record sound.

"You need to be ready for the unexpected, so I'll put mics in strategic places within the vehicle based on my interpretation of what I've seen so far," he says. "I try to preemptively make it a free zone for the actors to do what they think they need to do. And if there are interactive components, I let the actors know and we work it out. That's a collaboration."

Mixing this on-set sound, he adds, is about creating "a unifying factor amongst all of those little pieces that makes it a single piece of cloth, so that when the audience hears that performance, they're not engaged in any kind of recognition of the changes and the transitions. It's not about microphones and sound levels and technology. Those are hammers and nails. It's about connection with the character that drives everything."

Of working on the set of a Tarantino movie, Ulano sums up, "If you had to imagine the best circumstances to do the thing you love to do the most, with the people you love doing it the most with — that was what it was like working on this movie." He notes that particularly memorable moments during the production included recording the dynamic repartee between Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton and young Julia Butters' Trudi, and with Al Pacino's Hollywood agent Schwarz. "I got to sit alone with Mr. Pacino, waiting for a setup at one point," he says. "We have common ground in New York. There was this lovely conversation about [a past] time and place in the journey of New York as a community. I treasure that time."


Aural Adventures Through Space and Mind

These films nominated for sound editing and mixing required audio experts to venture into the far reaches of space, descend into madness and revisit the violent battlefields of World War I. 


"The main aim of this 'one-shot' approach was to lock the audience in with what [soldiers] Blake and Schofield are experiencing, so we designed the ambience to slowly unravel in the same way that you would experience it in real life," says supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney of the World War I drama. "Sometimes the intensity would be building over a 10-minute period; other arcs would play out much more quickly." Production sound mixer Stuart Wilson adds that keeping the connection to the characters was crucial. "Our two leads were mostly wearing three microphones each, to capture different emphasis of breaths, equipment and footsteps," he says.


The biggest challenge for the sound team on Fox/Disney's Ford v Ferrari was finding vintage cars to record authentic sounds. "We had mics on the transmission housing and transaxles that gave us whines and different interior sounds," sound designer and rerecording mixer David Giammarco says, adding that they recorded additional classic cars "as a base, and we augmented them." Of the final mix for the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, which is roughly 25 minutes of the movie, rerecording mixer Paul Massey relates, "You couldn't have them driving with music the whole way, and you couldn't have driving with just effects the entire way. We had to pick and choose the moments [to give the race] a feeling of emotion."


To follow the-man-who-would-be-Joker's "descent into madness, everything would start off normal and then our sound effects reacted to what was going on with Arthur [Fleck]," explains supervising sound editor Alan Robert Murray. When Joaquin Phoenix's character is harassed by, and kills, three Wall Street bankers, the sound grows more sinister as the scene progresses. "It was … starting at a normal atmosphere and then amping it up as the torment increased," Murray says, adding that this included such sounds as a subway car's screech: "And the trains going by took on a sinister sound. They were made up of processed jets and roller coasters and anything that was dark and gritty."


Integrating new sounds into the Star Wars legacy meant looking back at the work of famed sound designer Ben Burtt, who created many of the original film's iconic sounds. "That's the trick, if you're going to make a new TIE fighter sound, is to examine Ben's recipes for what a TIE fighter sound is and make that the thing, but with your own ingredients," says supervising sound editor/designer David Acord. Supervising sound editor Matthew Wood adds that because Carrie Fisher died before production, her scenes involved "respectful" use of previously unused footage — both picture and sound. "I think it honored her character and also worked on a technical level."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.