‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Sound Artist Breaks Down the Insane Noises of the Manson Murders

Breaking celery stalks in order to create the sound of cracking teeth was all in a day's work for Gary A. Hecker.
"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"
"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

Quentin Tarantino movies are defined as much by their sound design as they are by the director’s trademark writing, and over the filmmaker’s last three movies a big part of the Tarantino sound has been crafted by supervising foley artist Gary A. Hecker. For “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” it fell on Hecker to figure out how to create the head-smashing, dog-biting, and flame-throwing murders that make up the movie’s climax. The scene in question finds Manson cult members Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), Tex Watson (Austin Butler), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty) breaking into the home of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) in order to kill him. The “Manson murders” are upended when the killers run into Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who along with his dog dispose of the cult members in brutally horrific ways.

Hecker recently spoke with Vulture writer Jordan Crucchiola about the sounds that went into crafting the revisionist Manson murders, and they range from the expected to the extremely unexpected. To nail the sound of Cliff’s dog ripping clothes, Hecker simply tore up “different pieces of jeans and thick pants, sweats — big tears and yanking on the cloth.” The foley artist tried to match sounds as best he good, smashing a 1960s-era phone into a wooden desk to get the sound of Cliff slamming a head repeatedly into a wall phone.  Hecker said Tarantino “wanted everything violent,” so he just pounded the phone into the desk as hard as he could.

When Cliff moves from the phone to a cement mantle and continues to bash one of the killer’s faces in, Hecker turned to smashing the “meaty part” of his palms together on a cement slap with the mic in super-close proximity. “I got those face hits so you could hear face and skin,” Hecker said. “[Cliff] probably did it like four times or five times, so I did those, and it actually hurt to do it.” To properly represent the sound of teeth crunching into the skull, Hecker ingeniously cracked celery stalks for each tooth.

One sound that was not created using foley effects is the fire that explodes out of Rick’s flame-thrower and is used to kill Susan. “The flame itself, we don’t do fire on the stage,” he told Vulture. “Once in a while we do fire effects, but I don’t like to do it. The fire was done with sound effects.”

Hecker went on to praise Tarantino for his commitment to sound design. “He’s really into signature sounds, and that’s what I do in Foley: try to create signature sounds,” the artist said. “He really appreciates it, and he’s really picky. Your sound can’t just be average, ordinary sound. It’s rewarding to me because if you know all that hard work is going to be under the magnifying glass, it’s a challenge. Then I’ve got to make it killer.”

Outside of his work on Tarantino’s “Hollywood,” “The Hateful Eight,” and “Django Unchained,” Hecker has also worked on such films as “The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Hunger Games,” and “Justice League.” Head over to Vulture’s website to read more from Hecker and other below-the-line crew members.

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