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'Can I phone a friend'

When a famous film director asks you a difficult interview question and being hired may depend on your answer, this cheeky response could have backfired. It didn’t. The director in question was Jonathan Glazer and he was giving a Zoom interview to Tarn Willers, a hopeful for the role of Sound Mixer on Glazers upcoming movie, ‘THE ZONE OF INTEREST’. Tarn’s cheeky quip raised a laugh from Glazer and his subsequent answer demonstrated both his creative approach and his technical knowhow. He was hired for the most important job of his career to date. 

Tarn Willers hails from Rotherham in the north of England. He loves his football and is a lifelong Sheffield United fan. As a teenager he envisaged a career in radio. It didn’t happen because, as he put it, it was impossible to break into a radio career in Rotherham in those days. And yet, in February and March of this year (2024), he will attend both the BAFTA’s and the OSCARS respectively, as a nominee for his leading work as Production Sound Mixer on ‘THE ZONE OF INTEREST’. Tarn puts this success down to a series of sliding door moments in his life and he is testament to the adage, there is no one way into the film industry; each must forge their own path. Thanks to serendipitous happenings and encounters, through dogged determination, and good old northern humour, Tarn has created, chased and grabbed every opportunity that life offered as he climbed his way to the top of his profession. Britflicks sent screenwriter Garrett Hunter to find out how he did it.

Tarn Willers How I Made it in the Film Industry and Became an Oscar Nominated Sound Mixer

GH: You have been nominated for an Oscar. When anyone enters the film industry in any capacity, to be nominated for an Oscar is widely recognised as reaching the pinnacle of achievement in their chosen career. So, you might say, to put it into football terms, you have made it to the World Cup final. How does that make you feel? 

TW: Ha, ha. It was total shock. It was a total shock.  I've never ever thought, from starting work in the film industry, I've never thought about making it to the Oscars, ever.  So to get this nomination has kind of blindsided me a little bit, it's really come out of the blue. 

GH: So from these dizzy heights of Oscar and BAFTA nominations, let's go back to you first setting out in the film business. You're from Rotherham in the north of England, did you set out to be a sound engineer and were there possibilities there, or did you have to go to London to start your career? Or was film work even on your radar, or something you fell into and then decided later it would be a good career? 

TW: I actually always wanted to work in radio, but when I was still living in Rotherham and Sheffield that proved impossible. I did some hospital radio but then it proved impossible to get any further. Yes, back in those days you had to go to London and kick doors open and I didn't know anybody in London and I didn't have the inclination to go to London and do those things. And in the end, the way life went, I couldn't find my way and this film thing came later anyway. So I ended up, from where I was, I ended up doing a TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) course. And then I fled. I went to Spain and that's how I got into the film industry actually, weirdly. 

GH: How did you go from teaching English to working in film? 

TW: I was teaching in my third or fourth year in Spain, I had a private student and his friend ran the local TW station because in Spain every town had a TW station and his friends took delivery of two new cameras, DV cam’s, that's how long ago it was.  But the manuals came in English, German and Italian and they couldn't speak any of those languages so my student asked me if I could translate them into Spanish because I was fluent in Spanish, and they would pay me.  Now at uni I'd done some film production and filming and that kind of stuff so when I translated the manuals I also became the only person there who knew how to use the cameras. So I said to the guys, give me a job and rather than just, here's the manual, I'll show you how to use the cameras. So they gave me a van and I got an unpaid job but a free van and every morning I would go round their town filming footage for the news broadcast, so GV[1] footage for the news broadcast which they would air at lunchtime live, it was the only live TV broadcast on their channel. And then in the afternoons I'd go to the local school and teach English. 

GH: So there was quite a bit of pressure there, if it was for a live broadcast!

TW: Yeah, it's got to go live. Each day we'd turn up in the morning and they'd give us a list of stories and say right the council have got a meeting whereby they're, I don't know, they're planning some new road works and a new bus station, we need two minutes on that. Or that the local football team have just signed a player from the team down the road and it's caused a bit of a hoo-ha, we need a minute or two on that, and various stories and so I'd go with the journalist who would do her report into camera, sometimes a piece to camera in front of me, and then I would have to just get the GV footage to go with that and we'd take it back in. At about 12 o'clock we'd finish, we’d take it back in and they'd have like an hour to edit it together for their packages for their news bulletin. So I started as a camera operator. 

GH: That's a different way in. I mean they say there's no straight forward way in. 

TW: There's no way; people in the film industry fall into the film industry. So I started as a camera operator and then one day on the live news bulletin the guy who did the sound-desk called in sick and so they said we need to, you know, and I'd finished with the camera, my work's done by then,  so I said well show me what to do and I'll do it. So I did the live sound desk that day which is very simple, very straight forward and thought no, this is more like it. And then in the summer I got a phone call from my friend who worked at the National Film and Television School, NFTS, in Beaconsfield who said that they were starting a new location sound recording course, it wasn't ready yet, it wasn't developed, but would I want to go on it at a huge discount price and we'd be like their lab-rats where they'd carry on designing the course but with six students who'd be there to give them feedback and tell them. 

GH: So like Beta testing? 

TW:  Yeah, like beta testing the course. So I joined that and it's now a very successful and oversubscribed course, but we were the lab rats basically. 

GH: So have you thought of possibly getting back in touch them to say, hey look what the fruits of that first experiment were

TW:  Well I've been asked already to go back and do a talk and yeah I'm still in touch with people there, same friend still works there. 

GH: That's amazing, so if that guy hadn't called in sick that day, you might not be in the running for an Oscar! 

TW:  Yeah exactly.  Sliding doors. 

GH: So what was your first pro film that you worked on where you were hired as a sound guy? 

TW:  So while I was at film school... The thing that happens is you go to film school and they teach you how to be a sound recordist, as it was called then, now a production sound mixer, but when you come out into the real world you start at the bottom as a trainee, putting carpets on floors and changing batteries and cleaning cables. And so the tutor came in one day and said we've had a call from a production office, a program called Footballers Wives, which at the time was a hugely popular entertainment program, and they're looking for a sound trainee and they've asked us to recommend somebody. So who's interested?  And there were six on the course, two guys weren't interested because they'd got other ideas, one guy had already been offered a job so there were three of us left and for whatever reason I was the one that got selected. So I went straight out of film school onto my first job as a sound trainee on Footballers Wives with a production mixer called Jonathan Wyatt, who's still working, we're still colleagues, he's still working it. And it just went from there. I got a lucky break. 

GH: So that was obviously in TV work (TW)? And when did you get your first film break? How did that happen?

TW: Well the kind of TW and film just kind of overlaps as you progress through the career.  It's not as straightforward as I only do TW, I only do films, I only do... Although it seems to be like that for commercials, for people who do commercials it is a bit like that, but the film and television world kind of overlaps. Or it has done for me. 

GH: So how many films have you worked on to date? Not including student or amateur films, but Feature films? Feature releases?

TW:  I would have to look on my IMDB to tell you the answer to that. Honestly I don't know. 

GH: Bringing us forward to the present day...  How were you approached to work on this film, on 'THE ZONE OF INTEREST'? How did that come about? 

TW: How did I get the job, or once I'd got the job how... 

GH:  What was the first point of contact? Like somebody called you and said... 

TW: So I was at home in Warsaw, Poland and I read an article somewhere that said Jonathan Glazer was planning to come to Poland with his new movie set at Auschwitz and immediately I said, Jonathan Glazer's coming to Poland! Well, my eyes lit up, my ears pricked up. I thought he's going to need a good sound mixer and maybe an English speaking sound mixer. As it turned out the dialogue in the film is in German but I decided to make it my mission to get on that movie. And I saw in the article the name of the Polish producer whose company would co-produce the film. So then I went on a mission to get contact details for the producer, the Polish producer. And, you know, she’s already part of an Oscar winning production with 'Ida' so you don't get those people's phone numbers so easily. I asked everybody I knew in the Polish film industry, have you got her number?  No, no, no, no. 

GH: Could you not just go onto IMDB Pro for it? 

TW: Well, yeah. But you don't get people's phone numbers; their personal phone numbers that easily. Even on the call sheet, I look on call sheets and on the call sheet - which we get every day, it's like our daily work plan - people's phone numbers are on there so if you need to phone the head electrician, if you need to make a quick call and find somebody it's on there. But the director and the main producers phone numbers are never on there, they don't give their phone numbers out because the last thing they need is loads of people ringing them all the time.

GH: So what happened? How did you... 

TW:  One day I was with some friends, who shall remain nameless, who work in the film industry and I was telling them this story, one of them took a pen out of his pocket and a piece of paper and looked into his phone, wrote a number down, slid it across the table to me and basically said, no one can ever know where this came from. So as soon as they left - we'd had lunch together - when they left, I phoned the number straight away - no time like the present man - and amazingly she answered and I just dived straight in, hello my name's Tom Willers, I'm a production sound mixer but I live in Warsaw, I'm English, I want to work on the Jonathan Glaser movie. 

GH: Brilliant. No messing about. 

TW: And she said oh, erm, okay, but listen I'm in a meeting right now, give me half an hour and I'll call you back, okay? Thanks. And with that she hung up and I thought, fuck. 

GH: Haha. But did you think she had given you the brush off? 

TW: Yeah. I just thought that's it, that's the end of that. But sure enough, about an hour later, she called me back and we chatted and chatted and she was very interested to know that, not only for that project, that there was an English native speaker sound mixer [in Poland]. By then a lot of international productions had started coming to Poland, which I've been the beneficiary of since as well. So, yeah, we chatted and she said send your details, email my team your CV, whatever, and we'll be in touch. So I did. And they weren't. I chased them. But I heard nothing. It took about six or eight months by which time I thought, you know, it's gone. But what had happened was the pandemic had started so the film, unbeknownst to me, the film had been postponed for a year. So the whole project got pushed for a year. Then one day out of the blue they called me and said hi Tarn, can you do a Zoom interview with Jonathan Glazer and his producer... tomorrow? So having heard nothing for a month, it was that. I was like yep, what time? 

GH: And the rest, as they say... 

TW: As they say...  But it all came from me fortuitously reading about it somewhere and then chasing it, chasing it. 

GH: So you were obviously familiar with Glazer's previous films. Films like Sexy Beast, Under the Skin?

TW: Oh yes. 

GH: And so you wanted to work with that man? 

TW: Of course. 

GH: Did you have any preconceptions about what the job might be, or in the early stages at Least, did you prepare for this in the same way as you would for any job? Or did you know this was a bit different? 

TW: The next day when I had that interview with him - bear in mind it was kind of set up like an interview. I knew that he'd spoken to other people. I knew nothing about the project other than it was, I'd read that it was loosely based on an adaptation of a Martin Amis novel about an SS guard officer who falls in love with a commandant's wife in the Auschwitz and Holocaust period. That's all I knew. So we set up the Zoom call, and we go through the opening pleasantries, after which Jonathan looks at me and says, right: I'm going to make this film with 10 cameras. They're going to be hidden cameras. It's going to be like filming Big Brother in a Nazi house. The cameras are all going to roll at the same time. Actors aren't going to be given marks, they're going to be told to just move freely around the environment as they see fit. There's going to be improvised dialogue and we're not going to cut the cameras for anything up to an hour. How are you going to get the sound? 

GH: Good question! 

TW: That was it. That was his opening gambit to me. There was no, have you seen my other films? There was no like, well we think we're going to do this and it might be like this. 

GH: So he literally didn't know how himself? I mean maybe he had ideas but he didn't really know how he was going to go about it? 

TW: He just wanted to see if I'd got any answers. I later found out, I later learned through working with him. 

GH: So how did you do it? Overhead cables everywhere? 

TW: Thing is, he came with a bit of a reputation to me, like you know, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. But what I found out was, and that question was the epitome of it. He does, if you've got an answer. That's all he wants. And if it's not the answer he wants to hear, if you can explain why, if you can back it up with an answer, that says you sound like you know what you're doing and talking about, then he's all yours and he's listening. What he didn't want, by asking that question, was somebody kind of going, oh well, er, I think, may, you know, er, um, oh. 

GH: Waffling about it? 

TW: Yeah, waffling and bullshit. So I obviously gave him a good answer. 

GH: Which was? 

TW: Can I call a friend? 

GH: Haha. Really? 

TW: Yeah. 

GH: Haha. Good answer. 

TW: I made him laugh. Can I call a friend? I said. Then, please explain it to me again. So he explained it with a few more details. And I said, well, obviously I'll radio mic the actors, but it sounds like we need to put a mic wherever a camera is, it's like we've got to mic the house, effectively. And that's what we ended up doing. 

GH: That's fascinating, yeah, that's definitely a different approach. 

TW: Yes, it's a totally different approach on that film. Normally, when I'm speaking about a job, what they want is, get me the dialogue, get rid of all the other noise, get rid of everything, just get me the dialogue, and then sound designer and their team will add the rest of the soundtrack. This film was the opposite. He [Glazer] said, the dialogue is almost incidental. I want to hear everything; I want to hear every single sound, every single detail. It's got to be as real as possible. We're not doing a representation of something. We want it to be as real as it would be. So, it was a very different approach, yeah. 

GH: That kind of answered my next question, about technical challenges, how they differed from a more conventional shoot. Because as you recorded the live sound, you must have been aware there would be, other audio, almost like a backing track, or a sound-scape, by Johnnie Burns. 

TW: I was aware of it. But actually, only when I saw the film did I realise the intensity, what exactly that was. For us, it was film, what we ended up making was two films, the film that you see and the film that you hear. And I worked on the film that you see, and Johnny made the film that you hear. So when we were making the film, when we were on location shooting the film, I was recording a family drama, a suburban middle class family drama, about a family who, you know, they've got aspirations, social and professional aspirations. And it was about, I mean, I was just recording the day to day sounds, the banality of middle class family existence. Kids playing. A garden party. Dad taking his kids up the river in a canoe. Social engagements in the kitchen. 

GH: The banality of evil. 

TW: Yeah. And this was like the banality of kind of, the banality of day to day life. And we were never, we were never aware of the other soundtrack when we were making it. So there was never prompts and cues, [like] this is where the chimney noise is going to come in, or look over there because that's where the shooting's happening. We were making it peaceful, happy. 

GH: In hindsight, that was probably the only way you could do it, to make it logistically possible. 

TW: Totally. And that's what the movie shows us, is that, you know, it was as real as it could be. They lived there where we filmed it. Their garden wall was the camp wall. 

GH: Is that the genuine camp wall that you filmed at? Or did you recreate it? 

TW: We created it 100 metres away from the real one because we couldn't actually film at the real one in the real house because two families live there. Their balconies look over the wall. Their view is into the camp. Insane. 

GH: So given that, was there kind of a strange atmosphere on set when you realised how significant that location is?

TW:  Yeah. There were a few times where some of the crew, some of the Polish crew, would say to Jonathan, like, when are we shooting the horror? Because we know, we've read the script; we know this is a horror story. When are we going to film the horrible stuff? And the horrible stuff is all in the sound-scape afterwards. 

GH: It is amazing. Because I suppose, actually, that typifies what the family living there would have been like. They would have somehow blotted that sound out. Eventually they wouldn't have heard it, would they? The buzz of the electric wires, all that stuff, they wouldn't have heard that. Amazing. 

TW: There are archive photos, all the research, so that the production design team replicated the garden exactly according to archive photos. And in the photographs, you only ever see from the campsite view into the house and into the garden. So it looks, to all intents and purposes, like a beautiful house with a beautiful garden. You never see the other way. You never look at the wall and see the camp. And in the film, we show the wall and we show the camp behind the wall. We never go beyond the wall. 

GH: You can see the wire and hear the buzzing all the time. 

TW: Yeah, we show that in the film and we hear it in the film. 

GH: Given that you didn't actually know any of that Johnny Byrne sound-scape whilst you were shooting, when you saw it for the first time, it must have been a hell of a shock to you? 

TW: It was a total shock, yeah, because I wasn't part of any of the editing and post-production. I was working on another film by then. 

GH: And you suddenly realise it's a much bigger story. 

TW: Much bigger, much darker. It went way beyond anything I'd imagined. There was also a score by Mika Levy as well. 

GH: That was reduced somewhat, wasn't it? 

TW:  Yes. They created a lot of music, a full score. And I think Jonathan said, maybe that makes us feel empathetic in certain moments. Or maybe it dramatises things. And his idea was it's not to dramatise. It's that we step back and we just observe this thing. And it affects us. 

GH: Yes, so not to project the emotions.?

TW: Yeah. So they took away lots of their score. Apart from there’s a bit at the beginning which introduces us to the film. A long held chord that introduces us to the film. But yeah, the score is quite sparse. But again, it has a great impact. 

GH: So essentially there are three soundtracks. There's your live sound, there's Johnnie Burns' sound-scape behind that. And then there's the score? 

TW: That’s right. 

GH: Well, after all your hard work, it’s off to LA this weekend for the Oscar Nominees Luncheon at the Beverly Hilton with all the other nominees?  Then its fly back to the UK for a little thing called The BAFTA’S, in which you’re also nominated. And after that, back to Hollywood for the Oscars themselves. Do you have your tux yet? And will you wear one of those spinning dicky bows, to be in sync with the way your head is spinning? 

TW: Ha-ha. I do have a version of a tux. But I thought flashing lights rather than spinning round. 

GH: Silly question maybe, but how does that go, do you buy a tux here, or do you rent them in LA? 

TW: I haven't got a tux as such. I've got a grey velvet jacket which I bought from a second hand shop. But it was unworn. It was brand new. 

GH: That might be the only second hand jacket at the Oscars. 

TW: Actually there was a guy who won an Oscar last year. He was a director. I can't remember the name of the film. There was an article afterwards and his mum had commented that she was so proud of him because he won an Oscar wearing a thrift store suit that she'd been with him when he bought. And he'd been to a second hand shop and bought a tuxedo in a second hand shop. And she was more proud of him for that than actually winning the Oscar. I will polish my shoes though. 

GH: Do that. Get a nice shine on them. So the final question: Will you use your time in L.A. to try and get an agent perhaps. Because I know you don’t have one and this is potentially a career changing opportunity. 

TW: Maybe. It seems strange to think about it like that. It all seems a bit otherworldly to be honest. 

GH: It is. Well done. Congrats mate. All that remains to be said is best of luck at all the award ceremonies, the BAFTA’s, the Oscars. They don’t get any bigger. Ah, not good luck, break a leg. 

TW: Mate, cheers.

Garrett Hunter was talking with Tarn Willers in Warsaw, Poland

[1] General View footage which you might see on news broadcasts; usually still or panning shots of the location.


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