Sound Editor Wylie Stateman on Creating the Sonic World of ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

Wylie Stateman’s work as a sound editor spans over three decades. He has worked with the likes of Oliver Stone, John Hughes, Cameron Crowe and Quentin Tarantino.

Stateman quotes Robert Bresson to break down where sound editors fit into the filmmaking process. “Bresson says, ‘a film is born three times. First, in the script. Second, during production and third, in the editing.’ My interest is understanding the first stage, dealing with the second stage and becoming an integral part of the rhythm and pattern of the sound.”

When it came to working with Tarantino on “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Stateman says the director’s vernacular for detail meant he had already done his research and knew what radio station he wanted and what songs he wanted. “Disc jockeys were extremely influential on popular culture. He knew he wanted KHJ,” says Stateman.

With that in mind and understanding how influential disc jockeys were on popular culture, Stateman was able to figure out how to integrate the music and radio announcements by bridging in points so the whole process sounded organic. He would create prototypes and present those to Tarantino and editor Fred Raskin. “They could use those elements to help further the vocabulary of the cut,” explains Stateman. “We would use the radio to lead into a scene or out of a scene.”

Stateman uses the Spahn Ranch scene as a highlight of the film’s sound design and a moment that really shows Tarantino’s muscles as a filmmaker.

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In the scenes prior to Spahn Ranch, Stateman points out that music was part of the emotional thread and that it all stemmed from Tarantino’s imagination.

When Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) arrives at the ranch, Tarantino knew it wasn’t a moment for a song to be playing. “You have this beautiful wide shot looking down the ranch, and this is where you’d normally have score or music,” says Stateman. “Quentin understood that there wasn’t a song that could speak to the evil of the place.”

Stateman opted for a twisted approach to incorporating sound design in place of music or score. “As the camera looks through the chopped up vehicles, the shot goes from a tight to wide shot. That’s the vocabulary right there, filling the audience with the sense of evil.”

Toward the end of that scene, Tex (Austin Butler) comes riding down, and it’s a moment of tension between Cliff and Tex as Cliff is navigating his exit. “That scene has no music until the final moment when he’s driving off and you hear the radio announcement: ‘5 o’clock in Los Angeles.'”

Part of Tarantino’s storytelling abilities is being able to put the audience in the shoes of the characters. “It’s a hyper-reality use of sound as a storytelling tool,” Stateman explains.

No part is more exemplary of that than the bar scene on the Lancer set, when Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) forgets his lines.

“Our Lancer bar scene was filled with sound effects. You hear the feet, the spurs, the ceiling fan and all this hyper detail that Quentin loves,” says Stateman. “When Rick forgets his lines, it goes silent because that’s what is in his head. He can’t remember the lines. His head goes blank and the set goes blank. It’s the opposite of reality, but it’s in alignment with how Quentin believes his films are character-driven.” He continues, “We are inside their heads. We see his anxiety. We see his joy. We see him try to maintain his professionalism.”

Stateman teases the director’s cut that exists with a lot more footage, and that footage pays further tribute to the love letter of all things Los Angeles.

“There is more of the film. There are some really beautiful scenes that really speak to things in LA. There’s the Hollywood pool party. You get a sense of it at the Playboy Mansion, but that’s inaccessible to most people.”

He refers to a particular scene that remains on the cutting room floor: another pool party, one that’s more relatable. “[Cinematographer] Bob Richardson shot a scene and it’s as beautiful as a Chanel commercial from the ’50s. Margot gets out of the water at a pool party, and the water rolls off her face in slow motion. It’s so LA. She comes out and it’s right out of a Chanel sex-bomb commercial of that era.”

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