Plenty of people have won Oscars, but only one man holds the record for the most nominations without a win. That would be sound mixer Kevin O’Connell, who recently received his 21st nomination, this one for “Hacksaw Ridge,” which recounts the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who served as a combat medic in the Pacific theater during World War II receiving the Medal of Honor for his service saving the lives of others.
O’Connell started his professional journey as a Los Angeles County firefighter. The job was sufficiently dangerous that his mother, Skippy O’Connell, decided to introduce her son to her co-workers in the sound department of 20th Century Fox — spurring his career change.
“I said, ‘Ma, this is the greatest thing ever. I get to work on films like ‘Grease’ and ‘Animal House’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ How can I ever thank you?’ She was this feisty Irish woman. She goes, ‘Someday, you go win yourself an Oscar, and you can thank me in front of the whole world!’ ” O’Connell recalls.
With more than 200 films on his resume, he’s still waiting for his chance.
On “Hacksaw Ridge,” what was the job of the sound mixing team?
The sound editors supply the mixers with all of the sounds — all of the explosions, all of the gunshots, all of the footsteps, all of the dialogue, all of the music. Every single sound on that battlefield is on the mixing console on a fader, and the level can be controlled. And so it’s the task of the mixing crew to take all of those sounds, put them in perspective into one cohesive form and use that to create whatever type of emotion we’re trying to evoke for the audience at that time.
What were some key sounds in the mix?
The sound editors, Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright, went to great lengths to make sure the sounds were authentic. Robert Mackenzie came across these wonderful World War II recordings of bullets whizzing through a battlefield that we used extensively throughout the film. And because of the modern mixing technology, where we have so many speakers in a room, 56 surrounding us, we literally could place those sounds throughout the entire theater—have them whizzing over your head from front screen to back wall, left wall to right wall, etc. [One veteran] said the one thing that provoked his PTSD a little bit was the sound of the whizzing, cracking bullets flying over his head in the theater.
Was it ever hard to find the right sound?
There’s a scene in the movie where after the first battle, Luke Bracey and Andrew Garfield [as Doss] are hunkered down in a foxhole. And Andrew falls asleep a little bit and is surprised by a Japanese soldier, who pops his head up over the berm. And we couldn’t quite find the right sound in either sound effects or music to shock the audience the way that [director] Mel [Gibson] was looking to shock the audience. So Mel said, ”Hey, guys, can I give it a try?” So we gave Mel a microphone and ran him the scene. And right when the Japanese solider popped his head up over the berm, Mel screamed into the microphone. Rah! And then we took that sound, and we placed it in all 56 speakers around the room. And trust me when I say that the first time we played it, it scared the crap out of all of us too. And that became one of our tools for adding some shock value.
What went into the sound for the flashbacks?
Well, there’s a scene after Desmond hits his brother with the brick. His parents are yelling behind him, and what we did is we ripped all of the top end off of the parents’ dialogue, and put different types of reverbs on them to make them sound like they’re in his head, not in reality. And then we took all of the natural backgrounds in the house, any atmospheres, and pulled those down, and then just took Desmond’s breathing and raised that up and put some reverb on it. And it gave you the effect that we’re literally with him in his head thinking about what he just did. And then there were a couple of times we did that on the battlefield.
How do you feel about your 21st Oscar nomination?
I haven’t been nominated in many years, and I have to tell you something: I mean, I really felt like it was like the first time for me. I was elated. I was thrilled. And by the same token, I was humbled by it as well. And I’m hoping the 21st time is the charm!