Tech Support: Wylie Stateman on experiencing sound in a Quentin Tarantino movie
Supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman earned his sixth Oscar nomination this year for “Django Unchained.” The soft-spoken industry veteran has now managed to earn a nomination in four decades – the 1980s (“Born on the Fourth of July”), the 1990s (“Cliffhanger”), the 2000s (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Wanted,” “Inglourious Basterds”) and now the 2010s.
I recently had the chance to speak with him about his passion for the craft, his career and, of course, the experience of working on “Django Unchained.” And that passion for sound has been present for a very long time.
“The very first toy that I can remember in my childhood that I truly fell in love with was a tape recorder,” Stateman says. “When I think of the most valuable toys I’ve had they’re all capable of recording sound.”
Those “toys” have certainly changed over the years, however, as digital technology has changed what Stateman does on a daily basis. “In terms of its indestructibility and ability to manipulate data, it’s amazing,” he says. “We can do truly complex things that in an analog world require miles of wire and millions of dollars of physical equipment.”
Did this result in anything being done on “Django” that would otherwise have been impossible? “Actually, the answer is ‘yes,’ but I’m not sure it’s terribly interesting,” Stateman says humbly. “We have tools to allow us to look at sound that have changed it like Photoshop has changed how you change picture. Syllable by syllable, it’s become more ‘photoshop-friendly.’ Basically, that’s what’s happened.”
When it comes to passion about movies, sound and music, Stateman found a kindred spirit in Quentin Tarantino. The duo have continuously collaborated since the “Kill Bill” movies. “Working with Quentin is always a unique experience," he says. "He really takes pleasure in experiencing film. He wants his films to represent a style that he’s been exploring for two decades. So when you see a Quentin Tarantino film, it’s clearly based on his vision.”
In the aural realm, Stateman says Tarantino “experiences sound from the view of an audience member. He has a tremendous love for music of all genres and time periods. He has in his mind every word of the dialogue, every beat of the music and a sense of pleasure from the combination of music, dialogue, sound design and sound effects. And all of that gets blended into a vision of presenting his take, his twist on a genre.”
So was this film meant to be a “western” such that meant Stateman felt obliged to recreate the soundscape in an old school way? The answer is a pretty clear "no." They used many classics and some obscure films as references, but things moved independently from there in accordance with Tarantino’s vision. “This wasn’t just a ‘western’ to him – it was a ‘southern.’”
Tarantino was of course not the only other person integral in creating the movie’s sound, as a massive team came together to make the film work. Production sound mixer Mark Ulano, film editor Fred Raskin and Stateman worked together throughout the editing process. At the final mix with Michael Minkler, everyone got together and everything that had been fluid was made permanent in the soundtrack – dialogue, effects, music, etc.
As for the Oscar race? “It’s flattering and it’s a wonderful feeling to be a finalist amongst my peers,” Stateman says. He acknowledges, however, that the experience brings him out of his comfort zone in both good and bad ways. “I’m much more comfortable behind the scenes in the studio, so it’s a chance to step out a little bit," he says. "I feel that it’s a great honor and with all honor comes responsibility. That’s the responsibility to my team, and it’s a lovely thing.”
Stateman is one of many nominees this year whose failure to capture a statuette to date is surprising. I’m confident he’ll win one of these years. Will this be it? We’ll find out on the 24th.