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Kevin O'Connell: Oscar bridesmaid

Dalton Ross checks in with the sound mixer on the eve of his 20th Academy Awards as a nominee. Plus: ”Friday Night Lights” fallout clogs the e-mail inbox

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Kevin O'Connor

Kevin O’Connell: Oscar bridesmaid

I don’t like to lose. My hyper-competitive upbringing has instilled in me a win-at-all-costs mentality. It’s also made me a big-time hypocrite. I sit and lecture my children on how we play games to have fun, and that winning and losing doesn’t matter, all while I’m smoking them for the 300th consecutive time at Sorry!, Trouble, checkers, and chess. That’s right, you heard me — I go full-force against my children in board games. Let the kids win, you say? Whatever for that.

So I took the Oscars pretty hard last year. for 19-time Oscar nominee — and 18-time non-winner — Kevin O’Connell in the Sound Mixing category for his work on Apocalypto. We got him onto the back page of the magazine. We followed up online. We put him on Oprah! (Okay, I can’t say I had much of anything to do with the Oprah booking, but as a campaign manager you have to learn to take credit for anything and everything.) Alas, when the big night came, Kevin was left trophy-less again. The night would only get worse. Right after his category was announced he rushed to be by his ill mother Skippy’s side. She died that evening. Not only that, but while he was there, one of the Sound Mixing Oscar winners, Michael Minkler (Dreamgirls), had this to say at the backstage press conference.

”I think Kevin should just like maybe just go away with 19 wins and just call it a record and that would be the end of it. We work really, really hard at what we do, all of us do in our craft. And if we, you know, stumble upon an award like this, you know, if somebody is willing to honor us with something like this, we are so grateful. And I just wonder what Kevin’s trying to do out there by trying to get an award by using sympathy. And Kevin’s an okay mixer but enough’s enough about Kevin…. I just think that maybe he should just take up another line of work.”

Talk about kicking a guy when he’s down. Minkler has justifiably been raked over the coals for his comments. Dude, you just won an Oscar! Show a little class. (I would like to point out, however, that I had some correspondence last year with another Dreamgirls winner, Bob Beamer, who couldn’t have been more pleasant, especially after I jokingly referred to him as a ”clown” in print. Beamer’s okay in my book.)

So, Oscar night 2007 didn’t go so great. I remember e-mailing Kevin after, saying, ”We’ll get ’em next year.” Well, guess what? It’s next year! And not only that, but O’Connell is once again nominated, for his sound mixing work in Transformers. And I gotta say, I feel good about 2008. Really good. Last year, I figured Kevin was a longshot for two big reasons. First off, he was nominated for his work on a Mel Gibson movie, and coming off of Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic remarks, there were a lot of people in Hollywood that simply were not going to vote for a Mel Gibson movie. Secondly, there were a lot of folks — like me — who don’t know a whole lot about sound mixing who probably automatically voted for Dreamgirls because it was a musical, figuring that sound and music simply go together. (This is not to dis and dismiss the work on Dreamgirls, which I am sure is first-rate, just an obvious point that it — as a musical — was probably a natural choice for a lot of people.)

This year, however, is a different story: No Mel, and no splashy musicals to get in the way. The competition — Ratatouille, 3:10 to Yuma, No Country for Old Men, The Bourne Ultimatum — all seem to have a pretty equal shot at a win. That’s good news for Kevin. And even better news for me if Kevin keeps to last year’s promise to thank me from the Oscar stage. (Although after 20 nominations, I’m not exactly sure how high I’ll be on that list. Probably somewhere between ”Annoyed Man in Library” and ”Slushing Lady” from City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, another O’Connell masterpiece.) In any event, I called Kevin earlier this week to see how he’s feeling heading up to the big night. It was a trying year for him with the loss of his mother, who got him into the sound business to begin with, but he is looking forward to busting out the tuxedo once again and having a swell time on Feb. 24 — win or lose.

So, Kevin, I imagine your mom has been in your thoughts a lot as the ceremony gets closer?

Definitely. It seemed like all of my life, those first 19 nominations I had, I was trying to win for her. At this point, obviously she’s not around any more, and so now the focus is on my own family. It would be nice to get the monkey off the back.

What sound-wise was the biggest challenge for you on Transformers?

It took an army of people to bring Transformers to the screen in terms of sound, including my partner Greg Russell, who is also up for his 12th nomination this year without a win. The biggest challenge at the end of the day was to provide a soundtrack as clear and defined as Transformers was without it becoming a train wreck with so many sounds happening on the screen at one time.

So you needed to show some restraint?

Greg and I have been working on many action films and we look at each shot on the screen and decide, what’s important and what should we be hearing for that one shot. And then the next shot may be completely different. So all the sounds that go in one shot may not make any sense on the next one, so we don’t even need to hear them, they don’t even need to be there. We just try to focus on what’s happening on the screen at that time.

Dreamgirls was obviously the favorite last year. Who do you think is your biggest competition this time around?

I actually think this year there is a really level playing field. I think all of the films are excellent sound mix choices. I don’t know if we have a frontrunner. I think that because No Country for Old Men is up for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Director — what happens is that they have a huge campaign behind the film, and the sound gets kind of lumped in that as well. So if anyone has a little bit of an advantage, it’s No Country For Old Men. But if it wins, it was a great sound job, so it deserves to win as well. I believe that any film that wins this year is worthy of the award.

NEXT PAGE: Kevin O’Connell on Michael Minkler’s comments last year, whether this is finally his year, and just what the hell is Space Chimps?

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Has there been any postscript to the Michael Minkler thing. Have you guys spoken at all since that fateful night?

To be honest with you, there were so many events happening in my life last year, I have really put that on the bottom of my things to deal with and I haven’t really gotten to it yet. I never watched the footage. I never read what it was about. And I haven’t had any contact with Mr. Minkler, other than the letter I received from him telling me that his statements were taken out of context and misunderstood. So that’s pretty much all it was, and that was the end of it. If I see Mike, I see him. If I don’t, I don’t. And that’s fine.

During the writers strike, I kept thinking, Watch this be the year Kevin finally wins — and there’s not even a stinkin’ broadcast. Damn the irony!

That would have been just fine with me. They could have taken that Oscar and put it in a box and put some bubble wrap around it, and sent it to me and I’d be just as happy as if I won it on the stage. It wouldn’t really matter to me. But at this point it looks like the show will go on, so I’ll either win or lose in front of 300 million people — again! And if it does happen this year it would happen on a film that really is worthy of that honor. So if it did win, I don’t think anyone would be shocked. And because it does have a chance, I feel a little more nervous than I normally would feel.

What were you like when you heard you got the nomination?

I normally have had trouble sleeping on that night, but this year was different; I was sleeping but I’d wake up every 20 minutes having some weird dream. So it was a little anxiety ridden, and I don’t know why that was. That hasn’t happened to me in the past, but everything this year is a little off. Which could be good for me.

I feel it, Kevin. I think this year could be the year.

All the nominees in this category are friends of mine, so whoever wins, I’ll be happy for them. I won’t be upset that I didn’t win. I know what it’s like to lose, so I wouldn’t wish that on them either. If I ever did get an opportunity to make a speech, one of the things I’d say is to all you nominees, don’t consider yourselves losers. You guys are winners and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Is it weird having people like Oprah and Katie Couric calling you up and wanting to talk?

Now that I’ve been nominated this many times and not won, it’s become a bit of a press issue. In the past, from the morning I got nominated until the Oscars, I never talked to anybody but my family. And now I’m doing interviews and television shows, and it adds a bit of tension to the whole time for me. I’m still trying to do my job, so I need to figure out ways to do this in between. So, if anything, I would say there is a little more anxiety between the nomination and the Oscars than there was, say, four or five years ago. The one good thing is maybe I’m the messenger to tell people more about sound, and how important it is to motion pictures. And by making my story more public, then I can understand where the good is in this whole thing, because sound doesn’t get a lot of publicity. Now people all over the world know what a sound mixer is. At least a lot more people than did five years ago.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a movie called The Ruins. It’s a movie directed by Carter Smith. It’s about a group of college-age students who are on vacation in Mexico and decide to visit some old ancient ruins the last day they’re there, and they find more than they bargained for. It’s a horror thriller.

Okay, well, then, what the hell is Space Chimps?

It’s a fun animated film I did the last few weeks for Barry Sonnenfeld. It’s coming out on July 18. NASA has to send somebody into space to find out what’s going on and they end up sending three chimps. It turns out the chimps are a little smarter than they thought. It’s a great little film from Vanguard Animation.

Well, any film with the word ”chimp” in the title, I am automatically in. Finally, let’s get to the most important question of all: Did you get hooked up with some totally sweet Transformers toys or what?

Michael Bay is a very sweet guy, and when he heard my 5-year-old son was a big Transformers fan he sent some really cool stuff over to the house.

Well, that’s it. Let’s hope those toys are right on the fireplace mantle, keeping the spot warm for Kevin’s Oscar. O’Connell in 2008, people!

NEXT PAGE: Obsession of the Week, the Five, and Reader Mail!

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OBSESSION OF THE WEEK

The writers strike is over. People are going back to work this week. Shows will be back on the air soon. Enough said.

THE FIVE

Click here to see this week’s video on My Five Favorite Television Variety Shows. Take a stroll down memory lane!

READER MAIL

It’s an election year, so I suppose it’s no surprise that we can’t seem to get along. Last week’s column on Friday Night Lights‘ sophomore slump drew plenty of agreement, and even more vitriol. However, I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the letters taking me to task for my column also agreed with many of the points I made. It’s almost as if they didn’t want to believe it was true, that their favorite show was letting them down, and were pissed at me for pointing it out to them. Anyway, awaaaaaaaaay we go…

You’ve been reading my mind! I was a latecomer to Friday Night Lights in its first season, and I discovered that it was as good as the hype. Saracen and Julie deciding whether to have sex. Tyra’s assault intercut with the thrilling mud bowl. Smash dealing with racism from the coaching staff. Not to mention the terrific performances of Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as one of TV’s best couples. Great stuff. But the second season has been lobotomized, and the Landry/Tyra mess was just a sign of things to come. Saracen falls for a nurse and then goes nuts. Riggins living with that weird ferret guy and then stealing his drug money. Jason Street’s magical used-car sales pitch. And one major misfire that you neglected to mention: Smash deals with racism…again. Racism shouldn’t be dismissed as a been-there-done-that issue, but the way they’re dealing with it this season is poor. Did you notice how Smash and his white girlfriend had been dating for several weeks without being subjected to any racism? But when it was decided to make it a storyline (starting with the dinner with her parents), suddenly Dillon became Racists-R-Us? And then there was that guy at the movie theater, a mustache-twirling villain who couldn’t have been more racist if he were wearing a white hood. Goodbye subtlety, hello sensationalism! The acting is still stellar, and there are bright spots in the storylines (Tami’s sister and new-baby woes, Smash hounded by college recruiters), but if this is the way the show is going to go, they may as well change the title to One Tree Hill.” — Daniel Montgomery

This has been my biggest problem with the show this year: Stuff happens out of nowhere and then happens at a ridiculous pace, and then sort of dies and goes away. There’s no buildup. I know some people feel there was with the Saracen thing — that it was a result of all those events of the season that caught up with him. I get that to a degree, but still, we didn’t see him acting like a complete ass until that one episode, and then — BAM! — out of nowhere he’s calling teachers ”bitches” and showing up for practice drunk. Not very subtle.

I’ll admit that there have been some missteps this season on Friday Night Lights. The biggest of course would be the Landry/Tyra situation, but as with all of the missteps, once I accepted them I really enjoyed how they were handled. One thing that needs defending is Saracen’s actions as a bad boy. Yes, it’s ridiculous to buy Saracen in that role and I think that’s the point. He is sooo out of place in all of those actions. I was cracking up when Saracen was looking at motorcycles, because that is the next logical step for his state of mind. Mad at the world? Buy a motorcycle. I think we were meant to see it as Riggins did. He knew it was temporary and decided to run with it for the day. So did I, and found it extremely entertaining. — Kurtis Meyers

I don’t think we were supposed to be laughing at him the entire episode, though. You can’t feel for a show if you simply don’t believe it, and I didn’t believe anything about that episode.

Okay, so you have a decent series of points about FNL. But what SHOULD they try to get more viewers? I think you’re probably right that the network told them they needed splashier stories and resolution every week. That’s been pretty plain this year. But if that makes the quality of the show tank, you’re right — scrap that idea. What should NBC and FNL do to get more viewers? Besides the obvious idea of actually promoting the damn show, which NBC can seem to figure out themselves, I don’t know how else to sell a show like this except move it to HBO. And I don’t have HBO, so I move to veto that idea. Glutton, give us some solutions, not just problems here. — Emily

Here’s the thing, and I said this last year when I was imploring NBC to bring the show back — Friday Night Lights will never be a highly rated show. The shaky cam, the setting, the fact that it is a sports show — it’s just too odd and different to be a big success. So why screw with the formula? Now the show still gets no ratings and simply is not as good. They should have just left it alone and hoped that they got one more great year on NBC, and then that a cable channel would pick it up off the scrap heap, which may still happen, incidentally.

While I agree that this season of FNL is nowhere near as good as last season — why do you choose to post this now? An article trashing the show (and I realize you weren’t exactly trashing it, just pointing out its faults, but still!) isn’t going to help the show get to a third season, which it sounds like you still want. Ben Silverman has already made it pretty clear that he has no intention of renewing the show for a third season (and has instead dismissed the show, urging people to watch 30 Rock — I’m sorry, they don’t even compare) so you won’t have a chance to see it improve. Why not take this chance then, to champion the show that we all love? Don’t bring it down in its final days, it’s just too depressing. — Step

Just calling it as I see it, Step (if that is even your real name). Look, I’m still a fan of the show, and when you are a fan of a quality TV program, you hold it to pretty high standards and are disappointed when it doesn’t live up to them. I hope Friday Night Lights is around for many more seasons. But I also hope if that is the case, that it can return to its more nuanced form of storytelling that we all fell in love in season 1.

Any chance that Survivor Live will return this season? I miss seeing you every Friday! — Chris Wisdom

Sorry, Chris. As I mentioned in my Survivor TV Watch, CBS killed the show. But Josh Wolk and I now do a weekly video interview with the booted contestant that can be seen at ew.com/survivorvideo. It’s called Survivor Talk, a name I am not crazy about in the least. But before you go check it out, ask yourself this: Do you really want to see more of me?

My favorite game from the ’80s is Atari’s Space Invaders and for the life of me, I can’t understand why they exclude it every time they do one of those Atari game compilations, like for PS2, etc. I already own two of those game compilations and Space Invaders is nowhere to be found, it’s a conspiracy I tell you! — Sheree Griffin

Former Glutton letter-writer (and composer of anthems such as ”Pac-Man Fever” and ”Froggy’s Lament”) Jerry Buckner may disagree, but Space Invaders also inspired the first great videogame tribute song. While the chorus of ”I’m hooked, I’m hooked, my brain is cooked” would seem to relate more to heroin consumption than videogame playing, it stuck with me as an arcade addict and still creeps into my consciousness every now and again. Apparently, I’m still hooked!

Any words of encouragement you’d like to share with 20-time Oscar nominee Kevin O’Connell? Have a favorite TV variety show you’d like to pimp? And where you do you stand on the big Friday Night Lights controversy? Send your questions, comments, and quibbles to theglutton@ew.com, or just fill out the handy-dandy form below. See ya!