Filmmaker Interview by Chris Olson
How would you describe the role of a composer on a film to those who don't know who they are?
A composer is the one who comes up with original music to support the film, and ultimately enhance it. The composer, or music...is a bridge between story and emotion. Music has that power to reach the audience and establish a connection on a deeper, subconscious level..really pull you in and affect the way you feel in reaction to a given moment or scene, or even a certain character. Sometimes music itself acts as an additional, invisible character, one that isn’t seen but is felt.
Having worked on a fair amount of short films. How does the process differ from say TV, Documentary, or a Feature?
They all differ in process to some extent to begin with, but broadly speaking, scoring shorts holds pretty much a similar process to longer formats - only on a smaller scale. Once In and Out points for music have been established, which would usually take place with the director at the spotting session, you'd go back to the studio break the score down to individual cues and say your prayers. Haha.
Of course, each film is different and the approach I’d take varies from one film to another. Also, for shorts you’d obviously have less minutes of music to write and the teams are smaller, which oftentimes makes the process of getting cues approved a bit faster since the music doesn’t have to go through all the people involved in say a TV show or feature that need to approve your cues.
Production budget would naturally run lower for #shortfilms in comparison, so when it comes to the actual music production and recording of the score, chances are you won’t be looking at hiring a full orchestra...I always try and have musicians to play on my scores, at least one or two live elements..and record/experiment with instruments myself...So, unless the film calls for something that’s more electronic oriented, you’d have to come up with creative ways in terms of live production and orchestration.
With all the technology available I find there’s still something about live performance that’s irreplaceable.
Another difference I can think of is when it comes down to the writing process. For shorts there isn’t as much room for developing motifs or themes as in say, a feature. I find it difficult to come to terms with that sometimes...especially when I have ideas on how to develop a good theme and a need to explore it further.
On the short film, The Critic, what was your ambition for the music?
Given I had about a week more or less to write and record the score, my ambition was to make it to the deadline while not getting fired.
My main challenge for the score here was to support the storyline without having the music reveal too much too soon, if that makes sense. Stella Velon, the film’s director and writer who also plays the lead character, wanted the music to keep some level of tension under dialogue, yet be very subtle, almost neutral or transparent if you will, while gradually building up without getting too overpowering or ominous for the first and second half of the film. Musically, there’s a fine line between suspense and ominosity per-se...and it was a challenge for me to crack that code. Once I established that vibe we were good to go. I guess I kinda lucked out there as I took a first stab at it, and Stella liked what I came up with.
Another thing I had in mind was to create some sort of catharsis towards the end of the film, with all that tension building up and bring it to a resolution as we see her character’s breakdown. My ambition there was to come up with something musical that will be moving and heartfelt for the viewer without going sappy. I wanted to maintain that integrity and rawness found in Stella’s performance, especially on these strong moments where her character breaks down, and not get in the way or alter the vibe but to bring out what was genuinely moving for me at the center of it all.
How was it working with Stella Velon, given that she was behind and in front of the camera? Was her vision specific? Or did you play a role in shaping the final piece?
Stella was wonderful to work with. She’s one of those directors who gets you inspired simply by having a chat. The fact Stella both directed and played in The Critic actually got me to experience the film from both an inner and outer perspective and contributed to the way I approached scoring for that very same reason.
When you think about it, that played perfectly to our advantage being that on many levels The Critic deals with the inner workings of an actual movie actress, with Stella playing that very same character! We both also felt that the music should respond on some level to the interplay of reality vs. one mind’s eye, what's real etc etc, which this film handles so brilliantly.
She had a clear and strong vision for both the emotional context and storyline, which is very useful as a composer. She also encouraged experimentation with different textures, and brought a sense of collaborative spirit within our team which is key...#filmmaking is a collaborative effort.
We worked closely with Greg Richling who is the Executive Music Producer and has helped distill and communicate Stella’s strong vision further in a way that could be expressed on my end through music. Stella, Greg, Jean Gabriel Kauss who is the producer and myself had some very interesting chats on what we’re after here, and where.
It was my role then to take in all that, and translate it into music.
What are the challenges for being a composer making films in 2018?
Aside of the fact everyone seem to want the music done yesterday — and it better sound amazing? Haha.
Well, I think technology has always been one, be it pastimes’ underdevelopment or the over-flood of technology we are experiencing nowadays. The fact that we all went digital, film included -- literally, and that you can now have a studio with a trillion and a half sounds at your fingertips means film composers are no longer only writing sheet music but are also music producers and sound engineers. Don’t get me wrong here I’m not saying that's a bad thing at all, it’s just the way things have evolved.
Nowadays, filmmakers want to hear a cue fully realized before they sign it off to say, go on and record it with an orchestra. There are pros and cons to that.. but basically it means as a composer nowadays you’d need an entirely new, additional set of skills compared to composers in times of say Bernard Herman, Max Steiner or even early John Williams and the Moviola days, which in fact wasn’t too long ago at all when you come to think about it. I sometimes wonder if technology liberates or confines us. Probably a bit of both.
Who are your favourite movie composers and for which films?
While I was still living in the UK I got the chance to see Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood at the Barbicans played live to picture start to finish by the LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) and Jonny playing the Ondes Martenot and that was pretty powerful.
More recently I heard John Williams at the Hollywood Bowl here in LA and hearing Schindler’s List live was mesmerising. There’s many more. Let’s see...Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another one that never gets old. If you’re ever in LA go see him play at Largo he’s great.
Anything Thomas Newman is brilliant, his score for Wall-E was beautiful. Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerard’s Gladiator. Clint Mansell’s Requiem For a Dream. A while ago I had Phillip Glass’ Mishima playing on repeat in my car. That’s the one place I get to actually sit down and listen to music these days, which oddly enough makes me appreciate traffic more.
What's next for you?
A feature #documentary I scored called Drugs narrated by #JKSimmons is being released on Amazon Prime next week which is exciting. It’s a strong film. Great cause, taking aim at Big Pharma. Definitely been an eye opener for me while I was working on it, and I hope it will be so for many others. Other than that I have two more shorts coming out, one being a comedy which was refreshing to work on, and a feature film in the pipeline.
What would you say if you were a dolphin?
Where did my legs go?