The Sound of Winning: “Hacksaw” Mixer Kevin O’Connell on HIs Oscar
Given the news cycle of the 21st century, it can be easy to forget that some shocks can still be good ones. But that’s how sound mixer — and maestro — Kevin O’Connell describes the state he was in when we last saw him, backstage in the press room at the Oscars.
After achieving a record as having the most nominations without a win, O’Connell, guessing that La La Land was the likeliest winner in his category, was still reeling — happily — from one of the “most shocking moments” of his life, when he heard his name called, along with the rest of his team, as the winners for Hacksaw Ridge.
We caught up with him again, via phone, a few days after that particularly sweet shock, to see how it felt to be on the possession-of-a-statue side of an Oscar nomination, after a wait that goes back all the way back to Terms of Endearment.
O’Connell said he “felt humbled,” by the award, and said “to me, the nomination is the win. There are 300 films each year. When I got the call that we were nominated, that was the win right there. That was the high of the thing for me.”
Well, until he heard his name called. “That’s even better,” he allowed, with an almost audible grin.
Of course, since he hadn’t actually planned on winning, the revelries had to be cut a bit short. Although his wife wanted to go to the Vanity Fair party, O’Connell said “I left the Governor’s Ball at 1:30 in the morning and went to bed. I had to be in the lobby of the hotel at 4:20 in the morning,” for a Good Morning America appearance, none of which was planned on when he left work at Sony that Friday saying “don’t worry,” he’d be in at his regular hour Monday. “I thought we weren’t going to win,” he emphasized. But he was back at work on time after all, ABC breakfast telly notwithstanding — only with an Oscar statue in hand.
But is that gleaming, bald statue the culmination of a process, a formula if you will, developed back in his Top Gun days, and equally applied to the aural aspects of film, whether it’s superhero fare like a Spider-Man movie, a musical like Pitch Perfect, a Muppets film, a horror movie like The Purge, or a thriller like The November Man — to name but a handful of his credits.
“There’s no standard approach to any of it,” he said. Though the first step is to “decide if you have a film anchored in reality, like Hacksaw is.” They knew that director Mel Gibson wanted it to be brutal and immersive — a “you are there” quality designed to impart the very real hell of war.
So O’Connell and company knew that more than sound “design,” this would also require a lot of “heavy duty sound effects editing.”
O’Connell’s co-winner, Robert McKenzie, and his team “was in charge of artillery — making sure he knew which gun was being fired by which actor. The sound editors had to scour the globe to get period specific artillery sounds — then we’d have to sweeten and augment,” so the sounds could be as authentic as possible, another aspect important to Gibson.
But then the gun being fired by actor Vince Vaughn’s character, for example, “sounded like a pea shooter — you have to augment it for dramatic purposes.” Which of course, is why you have sound folks.
Lots of them, Among those lead “augmenters” were the other two co-winners, along with McKenzie, Andy Wright and Peter Grace.
O’Connell in fact calls himself the “figurehead” for all that hard work. “I did win an Oscar on Sunday — (but) it takes an army to put together a soundtrack like Hacksaw Ridge,” he says, using an appropriate metaphor for the film in question: “ADR mixers, editors, Foley walkers, Foley artists, sound editors — all these people work so hard at what they do, and they bring their best to me.”
And in the eyes of the Academy, clearly they did. But O’Connell has no regrets about the decades-long wait as a repeat nominee: “Never give up on your dreams,” he asserted. “Everything happens for a reason, and there was a reason I hadn’t won for the last 33 years.”
That reason? When he won for Hacksaw, he had “his wife and kids sitting with me.” That wouldn’t have happened had he won for Terms, Top Gun, Days of Thunder, or any of those “pre-digital” mixes, which had to be done live each time, with numerous tracks.
O’Connell found those early mixing conditions tougher than than modern digital era — for starters, you couldn’t “save” particular elements.
“On Top Gun we’d mix a reel, where 8 of the 10 things were great — we didn’t want to remix, ‘cause maybe only 7 out of 10 would be great (the next time). You get 9 of the 10 things right — when I punch in, maybe 3 or 4 things would go wrong. Now,” he concluded, “we don’t have to settle.”
Not even for being “only” a nominee.