72nd Emmy Nominee Douglas Axtell
In late July the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced its list of nominations for the 72nd Emmy Awards. Local 479 Sound Mixer Douglas Axtell was among those honored with a nomination for the category Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Limited Series or Movie for his work on the HBO series “Watchmen”.
This is Douglas’ third Emmy nomination and his eighth award nomination altogether. Provided below are excerpts from a conversation with Douglas.
In 1986 DC Comics published a highly regarded series called Watchmen, which was a cultural phenomenon – did you have any thoughts about this project going in?
“Oh yeah. When I found out that Damon was rebooting Watchmen I was like, WOW – I love what he does – this is going to be interesting.”
The most talked-about sequence in Lindeloff’s Watchmen is a depiction of the 1921 Attack on Greenwood (aka the Tulsa Race Massacre).
“Tulsa turned out to be a very timely, a very relevant subject. Honestly, I had never heard of the massacre in Tulsa [until this project]. I’m fairly well informed, politically, but I was shocked. I began researching the race riots. It wasn’t taught in school, it wasn’t taught in university. I had a college roommate from Tulsa, but it never came up – this wasn’t on anybody’s radar – [learning about it] was a revelation. That’s why I say it’s a very American story – it’s uncanny. Who could have predicted masked police and racial unrest? The parallels [to the events of the summer of 2020] were freaky.”
Did you have any preconceptions going into this project?
“Not really. You just have to trust the process – it got better and better, when I found out that Trent and Atticus [Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails] were involved – well then, we knew it was going to sound like something, you can’t put hokey effects behind that music – we knew this was going to be special.”
Hiring a Boom
“[Boom Operator] Robert Maxfield is a good friend and I asked him who he thought I should use for boom on Watchmen. He suggested Chris Isaac, so Chris and I agreed to meet at a coffee shop. He was not at all what I was expecting. He was really low key (he’s a musician), and just very mellow. He seemed…. I didn’t get him. I called Max back and said “This is the guy??” and Robert said “Yeah, he’s the guy – you’re hiring him. So I hired him, and you know what? [laughing] I loved the guy. I was so sad when we parted ways. He’s amazing, he’s a beautiful person – I was so sad when he left the business and moved to Memphis to start over… [laughing] he broke my heart!”
“So Chris and I, when we were on Watchmen, Chris really got it – he got Damon, he got Regina King, he got the project. To have the entire sound team really gel on a subject matter? You don’t often see that, especially on television – but it’s what happened on Watchmen.”
Damon Lindlof was the Showrunner and lead writer for this series, what was that like?
“He knows what he’s after. Around Episode 3 the show started getting out ahead of its skis – Damon decided that some of the material we had shot didn’t fit the tone he wanted, so he made the decision to rework the script and recast some of the characters – a few months later the show resumed shooting and the crew returned to several locations and reshot entire night sequences, with all new cast members. You don’t see that very often.”
What is your approach to capturing sound?
“People don’t talk about how things sound anymore.”
“Despite the technical nature of our job, we’re not there to just push buttons. That’s not our function – our focus is completely different from the technical, it’s about preserving that very special magic that happens between ‘action’ and ‘cut’. That’s what we’re tasked with, what we are protecting. There’s a really special moment when you’re rolling – it’s that exact emotion the actors feel in that moment and you’re recording it. You can always go back and ADR it, but you can never replicate the magic in that moment. I try to record sound as simple and cleanly as possible.
“When I worked with David Lynch his big saying was “bring me the firewood” – so I brought my own sensibilities to my choices, and then I would take those ideas to David. I brought the ingredients, and he made the dish. As a filmmaker he understood what I was doing, and I understood what he wanted. That relationship is everything.”
“I don’t believe in automatically wiring people all the time, right from the start. Our craft is about making decisions about how things will sound. It’s our job to make those choices. If we’re just technicians putting mics on people then we’re not doing our job. We are there to be capturing the magic.”
“You wouldn’t record an album with a lavalier mic buried under someone’s clothing. I’m not saying that it wouldn’t work, but it’s not done – and it’s not done for a reason. We need to approach our craft from the ‘How does it sound?’ standpoint – that’s how I work.”
With that philosophy in mind, were there any scenes in Watchmen that really stood out for your department?
A flashback scene with actor Don Johnson in a dining room. Don sings at the end of the scene and we had blocked it, rehearsed it, and everybody loved the way it worked – Chris and I discussed how we should capture all the dialogue for the scene. I had this feeling – I knew what I wanted it to be, so I told Chris: we’re doing it on one microphone – it’s going to be so beautiful this way, it’ll be like an orchestra… each actor with their own part, and that’s how it turned out. Really nice. Chris [on boom] moved around to capture each actor – you could feel the sound as we moved around the room.
Working in the Time of Covid
“Covid has everyone in flux… nobody knows what’s happening. I was offered an amazing 9 month show two months before Covid hit. I was coming off a show and about to go right into that next job – a fantastic job – but then the director said I cannot shoot until there’s a vaccine and it went on hold. So a few things are beginning to come back, but it’s definitely not normal yet. So, maybe in 2021?”