'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Kevin O'Connell ('Hacksaw Ridge')

No one in Oscar history has received more nominations without a win than this sound mixer, whose 21 noms span 33 years, and who explains how he does what he does and why the Academy's voting process has room for improvement.
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Kevin O'Connell

"I've never been more appreciative, humbled and just overall excited about the fact that I've been nominated," says Hacksaw Ridge sound mixer Kevin O'Connell of his 21st Oscar nomination — which he shares with Peter Grace, Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright — as we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's "Awards Chatter" podcast. "I don't want to say I took it for granted in the past, but I certainly don't take it for granted anymore."

O'Connell, 59, has worked in Hollywood for nearly 40 years, and is one of the most respected practitioners of his craft. But he is best known for a dubious distinction: in Oscar history, no person has accumulated more nominations without ever winning. His noms span 33 years, from 1983's Terms of Endearment through Mel Gibson's 2016 war film, with noms in between for Dune (1984), Silverado (1985), Top Gun (1986), Black Rain (1989), Days of Thunder (1990), A Few Good Men (1992), Crimson Tide (1995), Twister (1996), The Rock (1996), Con Air (1997), The Mask of Zorro (1998), Armageddon (1998), The Patriot (2000), Pearl Harbor (2001), Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Apocalypto (2006) and Transformers (2007).

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O'Connell, who has lived in Los Angeles since he was a child, is the son of an accountant father and a mother who rose from a secretarial position to the assistant head of the sound department at Fox in the 1960s. He initially chose a different path, spending a year as a member of the L.A. County Fire Department's brush fire division. But one day when he was 19, after he finished a grueling day at work, his mother begged him to consider a different profession — namely, one in sound — which he begrudgingly did. In January 1978, O'Connell started working as as a machine room operator, or recordist, at Samuel Goldwyn Studios, where he had a hand in films such as Grease (1978), National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). "I was hooked," he says.

Before long, O'Connell had worked his way up to the job of a full-fledged sound mixer — he explains that sound editors create sounds that don't exist, while sound mixers weave together dialogue, music and sound effects — and began making his name on sound-centric films like Top Gun, directed by Tony Scott, with whom he would reunite on many other films prior to Scott's death in 2012. ("I don't think any other filmmaker had more influence over my career," O'Connell says.) In 1989, he went to work at George Lucas' Santa Monica-based Skywalker South facility — where he first teamed up with Greg P. Russell, "one of the finest re-recording mixers I've ever worked with in my life," with whom he would partner for the next 12 years, resulting in 12 of his noms — before moving in 1993 to Sony, where he would remain through 2007 before going freelance for eight years ("I kinda had to jump off the hamster wheel for a little while") before returning to the studio in 2015.

Year after year, the Academy's sound branch nominated O'Connell, often for movies that "broke sound barriers," such as those with Scott and later Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Transformers). But year after year, the full Academy, which gets to weigh in on all categories during the final round of voting, passed him over, usually in favor of prestige pics that also were nominated in the best picture category. (Only three of O'Connell's 21 noms have come for films that also were nominated for that accolade: Terms of Endearment, A Few Good Men and Hacksaw Ridge.) This largely went unnoticed by people outside of the sound community until O'Connell received his 18th nom, which put him into sole possession of the record for most noms without a win. (It was around them that O'Connell first revealed that he had been forced to bow out of two films that went on to win best sound mixing, 1989's Glory and 1990's Dances With Wolves.)

Hacksaw Ridge — one of four 2016 releases mixed by O'Connell, along with Passengers, Ben-Hur and Central Intelligence — marks a reunion for him and Gibson. The two previously worked together on 2004's The Passion of the Christ and 2006's Apocalypto, the latter of which he was mixing when Gibson's personal troubles began to make headlines. ("We were asked to leave" the Sony lot mid-mix, O'Connell reveals.) "I have to say, Mel's changed a lot — we both have," volunteers O'Connell. "We both went through some rough times there." O'Connell has nothing but praise for Gibson, which Gibson has reciprocated in public Q&As, particularly hailing O'Connell's work on his film's big battle scenes. O'Connell says of them, "Those entire battle scenes are completely stitched together and choreographed by the sound team. None of the sound you're hearing is real." When sound mixers or other craftspeople have done their job well, people usually don't notice it, but O'Connell was very touched that one group of people did notice the sound of Hacksaw and have complimented him about it after screenings: real World War II veterans.

Does O'Connell feel that he's been robbed of an Oscar over the years? Not at all. In fact, he goes out of his way to praise the sound mixers and mixes that were chosen instead. (He also makes some news by saying of former partner Russell, who's also nominated this year, for the 17th time, "I wouldn't rule out the possibility that Greg and I could do another film again in the future — I think it would be great.") But he does think that the current voting procedures — such as having sound mixing winners decided by all 6,687 Academy members, as opposed to the 456 members (less than 7 percent) who belong to the sound branch — ought to get another look. "We could have a better system in place so that the end result is, perhaps, a little bit more reflective of the sound community," he says. But, as always, he chooses to focus on the positive side of his strange experience: "If there is any one lesson in this, I think it would be for anyone who had ever had a dream to not ever give up on their dream. Even if I don't ever win, I'm OK with that. I'm OK with the recognition that I've had. And I feel it's an honor to be nominated as many times as I have been."