Sound Advice From a 14-Time Loser


Some things you should know about being Kevin O’Connell: He owns a tuxedo after years of renting. The acceptance speech he’s never given hasn’t changed substantially over the years, although now he would thank his wife of seven months, Heather.

He would thank her if it comes to that, and yet O’Connell knows it won’t. He has been in this position too many times before--nominated for an Oscar but attached to the wrong ticket, a guy who did admirable work on a movie that was otherwise dismissed as a piece of low art.

If O’Connell’s name isn’t called tonight, his tally will be 15 nominations, zero wins. Among active artists, these are statistics matched only by singer-composer Randy Newman. With his two nominations this year, for both his score and an original song on “Monsters, Inc.,” Newman risks pushing his Oscar-less total to 16.

O’Connell, a rerecording mixer with more than 20 years of experience on some of the biggest Hollywood films in recent memory, is nominated in the category “achievement in sound,” where the competition includes “Moulin Rouge,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Amelie” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”


O’Connell is up for “Pearl Harbor,” the widely panned blockbuster released last summer by the Walt Disney Co. Though it came out to bugles of hype and grossed nearly $200 million domestically, the film is strictly an Oscar wannabe.

Despite its technical wizardry, none of its four nominations are in marquee categories, which means Disney hasn’t cared to trumpet it with the kind of multimillion-dollar publicity campaign touting “Lord of the Rings” and “A Beautiful Mind” as achievements in everything.

And so, though O’Connell didn’t conceive the hackneyed love story in “Pearl Harbor,” or overact in it, he will likely be held responsible, in a way. It was the same in 1984, when he was nominated for “Dune,” and 1998, when he went to the big Oscar dance with “Armageddon.”

Such is the sound guy’s lot.


“Now I’m the guy at the Oscars, when somebody loses, I’ve had their wives come up to me and say, ‘Will you do me a favor? Will you please talk to my husband? He’s very upset,’ ” says O’Connell, interviewed on the Sony lot on a recent weekday morning, before he started another long day mixing “Spider-Man,” the film version of the comic book character due out in May.

“I say, ‘Listen, dude, you’re a young guy, you’ve got the rest of your life ahead of you.’ ”

This afternoon, instead of working, O’Connell will put on his tux and go to the Kodak Theatre for the Academy Awards ceremony. It is a ritual he says he loves, even if it has yet to end in triumph. He says this without bitterness or pretension, which is why it sounds so odd, coming from a guy who works in Hollywood.

“The only year that I went thinking I had a chance--and it’s not because I thought it, it’s because everyone in the world was telling us, ‘You guys are a shoo-in'--was for ‘Top Gun,’ ” he says. “And we lost that year to ‘Platoon.’

“Ever since then, I’ve always known that we weren’t the winning film. I’ve known it going in.”

With all his nominations, O’Connell, 44, has become something of a legend within the ranks of those who keep track of such things. But he is also among the elite in his field.

Although he politely deflected discussion of his income (“Just say I make what a doctor or lawyer makes,” he said), sought-after mixers can earn healthy six-figure salaries.

Rerecording mixers are responsible for giving definition to all of the sound components compiled for a film--and these can number into the thousands--blending and balancing for maximum clarity. While sound editors and production mixers do the actual compiling of material, from dialogue to explosions, O’Connell and his partner, Greg Russell, are at the controls when it comes time to use them, acting as an advisor and collaborator with the film’s director.


In this way, O’Connell has developed longtime working relationships with big-name directors Rob Reiner, Lawrence Kasdan, Tony Scott and “Pearl Harbor’s” Michael Bay.

Perhaps if the names were Spielberg, Soderbergh and Scorsese, O’Connell would have his award by now, but if he harbors any resentment about this he betrays none. Yes, he wouldn’t mind having a few “dialogue movies” such as “Gosford Park” and “A Beautiful Mind” come along, but mostly because O’Connell has met his share of retired sound guys with hearing problems.

Along with Russell, O’Connell is currently blending the high-octane melange of sounds, most of them fabricated, for “Spider-Man.” This means 16-hour days amid a tidal wave of noise. At home, O’Connell says, he keeps the volume on his TV low.

Generally speaking, the mixer hears a movie six decibels louder than the filmgoer--and this at a time when many audience members feel blasted out of their seats as it is. O’Connell feels their pain, and tries to massage a collaborative lowering of the volume in the screening room. “If I want to do this job for another 10 years,” he says, “I can’t be doing it at the levels I’m doing it now.”

In O’Connell’s world, a mixing stage named after Cary Grant, the films and their myriad sound elements are “busy shows” with deadlines looming. After “Spider-Man,” he heads right into work on “Men in Black 2.” After that, it’s “Dreamcatcher,” directed by Kasdan and based on the Stephen King novel.

Maybe more so than actors or directors, sound technicians give truth to the cliche: Just being nominated is an honor, because mixers and sound-effects wizards are selected by their peers in the academy, who choose five nominees out of several hundred films.

After that, the voting goes Academy-wide, and all bets are off.

In the case of “Pearl Harbor,” the film was a particular sound challenge, says director Bay, because there were so many environments depicted.


“You are in planes, you are in the sky, you are underwater, you are in ships,” Bay says. “There are so many different types of atmospheres where [the action] happens.”

And yet, because some Academy members view nominated films at home, the sound O’Connell and others slaved over is heard coming out of a TV, not the lush THX or Dolby sound systems familiar in movie theaters.

“I can tell you while looking at a movie [where] the dubbing mixer was responsible, or [where] the production mixer [the on-set recordist] was responsible. But very few people who are voting have that ability,” says director Tony Scott, for whom O’Connell has worked on “Crimson Tide” and “Top Gun,” among others.

Officially, O’Connell is nominated this year along with Russell and production mixer Peter Devlin. If they win, O’Connell will speak.

If he has had any complaints, it’s that seating for nominees of his ilk can be less than desirable. There have been years, in fact, when O’Connell could hear his name being called among the nominees but couldn’t even see the stage.

O’Connell’s own first foray into show business was brief: At 18, he got a job as a projectionist at Twentieth Century Fox Studios, only to discover after a month that he had to take an extensive test to qualify for a union.

He failed the test miserably, he says, and subsequently tried his hand at firefighting for a year, joining the L.A. County Fire Department. One day, he came home from battling a brush fire in Sylmar; his hands and face were burnt, and his arms were chewed up by yucca plants. He’d lost an alarming amount of weight. He was 19. His mother took one look at him and said, “This is killing you; let me get you a job.”

Skippy O’Connell worked as a secretary for the head of the sound department at Twentieth Century Fox, and she got her son a job at Warner Hollywood. As a rerecording mixer, his first credited movie was the 1982 comedy “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.” His first nomination, at age 24, was for the 1983 drama “Terms of Endearment.”

The film won a host of awards, including best picture, best actress and best director. But the award for best sound went to the team on “The Right Stuff,” which also took home the honors for best sound-effects editing. O’Connell’s streak had begun.

By then, sound achievement had evolved from its early days, when it was considered part of a film’s overall special effects. Only one award was given, and the recipient was a studio’s sound department. In 1969, when Jack Solomon and Murray Spivack won for their sound-by credit on “Hello, Dolly!” on-set recordists and rerecording mixers began to come out from behind Oscar glory.

“There’s no one else out there who’s ever done this job, ever, who has accumulated 15 nominations. That’s bold, man, nobody’s done that,” says Russell, who has been O’Connell’s partner through seven of them. “The most up until this year was 14, by a gentleman who was a wonderful mixer, the dialogue mixer that Kevin worked with for many years, Donald Mitchell.”

It is lunchtime now, and the two sound guys are loading up on burgers and steaks in the Sony commissary before heading back to work--to the dark, loud and unformed universe of “Spider-Man.” To yet another busy show.

At a nearby table, “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi is lunching too--with several men in suits. They occupy another world from the casually dressed O’Connell and Russell, who have about them the confidence of men who understand their presence isn’t wanted on the red carpet. But they also know that Hollywood cannot function without them, particularly at a time when as much as 90% of a film’s sound content is built in after shooting ends.

This is something of a credo for them--be indispensable, but don’t advertise it. Tell people you make what a doctor makes. Put on your tuxedo, and don’t leave the house without the speech.

But pre-Oscar jitters still envelop him, year after year.

“I get this feeling that I can’t even describe to you, where I have trouble talking to people,” O’Connell said. “I feel choked up, and my body temperature goes to about 110. Up until the time the award is announced.”


Freelance writer Michael Mallory contributed to this report.



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