Each week on The Hollywood Reporter’s Behind The Screen podcast, host Carolyn Giardina chops it up with the secret weapons who help bring some of your favorite films to life, such as cinematographers, editors, production designers, composers, visual effects supervisors, and other unsung heroes in entertainment.
In the latest episode, editor Joi McMillon and supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Onnalee Blank discuss their work on The Underground Railroad, the Amazon’s original series executive produced by Barry Jenkins. This series, which follows Cora Randall, as played by Thuso Mbedu, chronicles Cora’s escape from slavery and subsequent efforts to elude a notorious slave catcher.
In designing the sound for the series, Blank explained that she strived to make the series sound unique. More specifically, “like a Southern show meets a horror movie, meets a Twin Peaks vibe meets something different that has its own name.”
That atmosphere was captured, in part, due to the efforts of Florida-based sound designer Watson Woo, who helped by recording sounds from his home turf.
“There’s 17-year cicadas that were coming through Florida at this exact time,” Blank said. “So he camped out in the Everglades for three nights and he put microphones all up in the trees and he got a whole soundscape of anything that could possibly be used, walking through a swamp. He got chased by an alligator.”
Blank also revealed that her work required recording an 1835 steam train that she found “disturbing to see” because it still had a car attached that was used to transport our enslaved ancestors. Both she and McMillon believe that this attention to detail translates on screen and discussed what they hope viewers take away from the series.
“You have to know where you came from in order to get where you’re going,” McMillon said. “I think the importance of telling stories, not only telling our stories in our history, but telling them in this way, is acknowledging that our past did happen. But these people were resilient and they never lost hope. I think Barry did such a good job of shining a light on the humanity and the dignity that these people had to possess in order to keep going.”
She continued, “I think that’s the biggest takeaway from this series—the importance to not dehumanize a group of people who survived in spite of, but to shine a light on the humanity and dignity of these people that survived through something that a lot of people could have lost hope. A lot of people could have given up, but they decided to keep going. And I think that’s something that should definitely be celebrated and remembered.”
Check out the latest episode of Hollywood Reporter’s Behind the Screen on your podcast platform of choice.