LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
And now to a story about the longest losing streak in Oscar history. A sound rerecording mixer named Kevin O'Connell earned an incredible 20 Academy Award nominations and zero wins. This year, he could break the curse. He's been nominated for his sound mix on "Hacksaw Ridge," Mel Gibson's war movie. That brings the count to 21. So NPR's Danny Hajek asks, will this finally be Kevin O'Connell's year?
DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: If "Hacksaw Ridge" breaks his streak, he'll have a pile of acceptance speeches to choose from. He's kept most of his drafts.
KEVIN O'CONNELL: I do have those. And they're in a drawer. And I don't pay much attention to that stuff anymore. I almost feel like this is like a rebirth for me at this point, you know?
HAJEK: O'Connell's the guy that brings sound into movies. He's at the mixing stage at Sony Studios in Culver City, Calif. This is his office. It's a movie theater. His desk is an audio-mixing board that spans the length of the room.
O'CONNELL: Well, first of all, let me explain to you how it works.
HAJEK: He sits behind hundreds of buttons, knobs, sliders, rows of worn-out audio faders blinking and glowing. He's worked on "Star Wars" and "Raiders Of The Lost Ark." In "Poltergeist," he distorted Carol Anne's voice that comes from the TV static.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POLTERGEIST")
HEATHER O'ROURKE: (As Carol Anne Freeling) Mommy, where are you?
O'CONNELL: It's the sound artists that bring those visual effects to life that make you believe that what you're seeing is actually real.
HAJEK: The epic launch in "Armageddon," Optimus Prime in "Transformers" - both Oscar-nominated mixes. He made Maverick's fighter jet come alive in "Top Gun."
O'CONNELL: Which is revving up in your face. And the second it explodes and starts to take off, we immediately pull those jet sounds down and raise up Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone" music.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN")
KENNY LOGGINS: (Singing) Highway to the danger zone.
(SOUNDBITE OF JET FLYING)
HAJEK: He thought "Top Gun" would get him the Oscar that year. But Kevin O'Connell's name was never called.
O'CONNELL: It hasn't been the right time for me.
HAJEK: But when will the right time be? Scott Feinberg, who covers awards at the Hollywood Reporter, explains.
SCOTT FEINBERG: The Kevin O'Connell phenomenon can really be explained pretty easily in the sense that sound people, members of the sound branch of the academy, are the only people who pick the nominees.
HAJEK: That accounts for O'Connell's 21 nominations. But picking the Oscar winner - that's up to the whole academy to decide. And Feinberg says that not everyone knows what goes into sound mixing.
FEINBERG: It's a coattail category. So if you have a best-picture nominee that's also nominated in that category, you can bet that's going to get a lot of votes just for being a movie that people liked.
HAJEK: And that, he says, undermines the craft. Sound is the other half of the movie. So take Kevin O'Connell's Oscar-nominated mix for "Hacksaw Ridge." While filling the battle scenes, O'Connell says the prop explosions sounded like firecrackers. And the prop rifles sounded like cap guns. So his team, including fellow nominees Andy Wright and Robert Mackenzie, had to redub all of it using historically accurate audio recordings to recreate one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
O'CONNELL: Explosion after explosion - we have bright explosions, ones that go (imitating explosion) and ones that go (imitating explosion). Then we have American guns...
(SOUNDBITE OF FIRING GUN)
O'CONNELL: ...Japanese guns.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIRING GUN)
O'CONNELL: Then we have the USS-Missouri-firing-16-inch-cannons sounds.
(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONS FIRING)
O'CONNELL: Every single sound, every single footstep.
HAJEK: A soundscape so real, a group of veterans who previewed the film were convinced.
O'CONNELL: One veteran said, I don't know where you guys got the sound of the whizzing bullets cracking overhead. But that triggered my PTSD 'cause I've never heard it since.
HAJEK: So is "Hacksaw Ridge" a winning mix? Scott Feinberg from the Hollywood Reporter says he'll have to beat "La La Land." And that won't be easy. But it's been a decade since Kevin O'Connell's last nomination. And next weekend, win or lose, he'll be back at the Academy Awards with another acceptance speech in hopes that number 21 is Oscar gold.
O'CONNELL: Hopefully, my time will come. But it's going to come when it's the right time. And hopefully, this year, it is.
HAJEK: Danny Hajek, NPR News.
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