I recently had the chance to talk with Ian Eisendrath about his work as music supervisor for Come From Away. Eisendrath worked on both the Broadway show and oversaw the filmed production that is now on AppleTV+. Come From Away, for those not familiar, recounts the real-life story of when hundreds of passengers were stranded in Newfoundland for a period of time in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It’s a powerful story of people coming together in a time of need and I recommend checking the show out if you get the chance.
I hope you enjoy this interview!
Just to start with, can you explain what a music supervisor does?
It’s a challenging thing, because everyone will have their own definition. I’m going to give you mine. A music supervisor is responsible for the entire musical product. We get involved from the early phases of development when the piece is just being imagined and conceived by the writers, directors, studios, and producers. Our job is to support, collaborate, and participate in what the music can bring and fulfill for the creative vision of the storytelling. I think every single film, TV show, every single narrative has its own needs for music.
It’s a bit more detailed than just being the composer for something.
Yes, a music supervisor often interacts with almost every member of the filmmaking or creative team, beginning with the writer. If one of the writers is a songwriter than the music supervisor gets in the trenches with that writer and starts to help them develop the way that they’re telling a story through music. To make all that possible with logistics, making sure everybody has what they need. And there’s a plan and a schedule and an infrastructure for the music team, to create a feedback and even in the case for Come From Away, generating creative material that makes its way into the score. I think every single project has its own DNA.
You’re constantly redefining your role based on what’s needed. You also start interacting with the director and help to make sure that director is supported in their vision. [You also] help with the notes and communication and collaboration between writers and director, and producers and the studio and development of the demo material. In the case of a lot of things I’m working on that involves producing the actual demo session, finding the singers, rehearsing with singers, finding musicians, engaging orchestrators and arrangers, or doing the arrangements to create the material that you then record for the demo. And then editing and producing those demos in collaboration with writers, filmmakers and the director.
I spent a lot of time coaching the actors and helping the actors connect with the material, connecting their performance to the music and the lyrics. [I also] make sure that the director and writers are getting what they want out of the vocal performance and then looking at how that translates to camera, figuring out exactly how we’re going to capture the music. If it’s on camera, is it all played back? And are we lip syncing? If so, how do I coach that and make sure that lip sync feels emotionally correct? If it’s a live recording, which was a lot of what we did in Come From Away, it’s coaching those performances as the shooting is happening, editing all of that is supporting the director throughout the post-process as they are figuring out what their cuts are, which obviously impact what the music is. I often conduct so I’ll conduct the orchestra during the final recording and will co-produce the soundtrack and I like to feel like it’s filling in whatever holes are necessary on the music team to be completely supportive and in partnership in music as a storytelling medium in the film, or if it’s a theatrical production, television show, or album.
You worked on the Broadway version of Come From Away also right?
I was fortunate to be involved from the beginning and worked closely with David [Hein] and Irene [Sankoff]. The writers were also the songwriters, and we worked with the director and Kelly Devine the choreographer to figure out exactly what the score needed to do at every moment. [We took] the gorgeous songs and fleshed them out with vocal arrangements, basically creating this 100 minute musical documentary, which wasn’t like any Broadway show that had been playing. I was just listening to all the development stages, rewrites, readings, and I was able to be their music supervisor, and arranger. We ended up with five different companies telling the story at the same time across the globe. I have a music supervisor for those. And then when I was trying to figure out how to make it a film, I was obviously interested because I love all the similarities and specifics of film and music. I was able to help reduce the gap from what it was on stage to turning it into something that would be the definitive film adaptation of this material trying to capture the essence of the audience.
When and how was it decided that you’re going to make a film version of this show?
The pandemic was what really brought this to the forefront. There was always a discussion of what it would be like as a feature film, I think there’s still discussions [about] that. But during the pandemic, with all the theaters shut down, and people unable to access that live performance experience, and really in need of stories that could comfort but could inspire. The idea was, let’s create a live film musical event that gives people the experience of going to the theater and watching from living rooms.
But we didn’t know if and when theater will be back. We did the scenes, and it was March 8 2020. And many productions were [being] postponed. We were just living in this world of live theatre might never be a thing again. And we heard from so many people that experienced the Broadway show. The story was meant for any way that people could still experience it during a pandemic. And this was the answer to that.
So is the show that you created a single performance? Or were there multiple takes that were compiled together?
It was many takes. We rehearsed for about three weeks. And we rehearsed it so that we could run it from beginning to end. Then our director, all of us together, started talking about how do we capture the film, and I clearly wouldn’t be removing distancing to just shoot the stage show. We broke it into pieces, and many shots, the way we started so that we could never lose the sense of how the show flowed in the theater, that we did the performance from beginning to end with an audience in the theater.
We did that first. We spent all day getting a master of five minutes. So essentially, that was our master. This is what it all looks like if everyone went from beginning to end for continuity. And anytime we wanted to pop out into a wide [shot] of the theatrical experience that was available to us. But then we approached it like shooting a film where we had multiple angles and essentially cut together something that hopefully you’re not aware of all the shots and you’re experiencing it like you’re at the theater to kick around and following whatever actors talking and, lighting in theaters often like the camera. So, a lighting designers job in theater is to cast the focus on where we should be looking. So that was like a great guide for us. Everything got shifted so that we tried to basically follow the audience’s gaze and recreate what an audience might be doing during a live performance. So they have that experience. They’re sitting in the front row, but at home.
So what changes, if any, did you have to make for the production to let it be filmed?
We had, just the way we approached the material. And this was what made it a really interesting thing to supervise the live show; underneath everyone’s dialog, underneath everyone’s singing, we created this ensemble, choral vocal layer that basically the whole ensemble is constantly singing and providing what we feel like film score subtext to what the seven above it, at that you have an enormous singing. So, in the live show, you have multiple audio elements going on simultaneously that you just can’t capture for a film at the same time. Because you have no ability to mix it, to position it, to clean it up into focus.
A lot of the job was figuring out how are we going to shoot this? Who’s going to hear what, what kind of timing are we going to be on, knowing that we have to create something that is flexible in the edit, so it’s never going to run and the time that the show runs. There was a lot of work in terms of, we’re going to send people’s music through earwigs, like you do on a film, set the band, and then we’re going to have the soloist sing out loud, while the group vocal does a pass. Then we’re going to flip that around and the soloist is going to lip sync while the group sings out loud. Then we have all these on-camera musicians, moments that happen live in the room, we needed to capture those. And where do the microphones go, and how are they hearing what they need to hear, how do we get this so that the beginnings and the ends on either end of every shot have enough flexibility to be cut.
And then we got all this raw material that we reassembled in the edit process, and then again on the mixed stage, and hopefully what people are feeling is, oh, wow, it seems like it’s all done live. And in real time, with just one big series of mic setup across the stage, that would be impossible to do and deliver in a satisfying way to the audience. Without really isolating sound or really isolating music. We also wanted to get live vocal performances. There was a lot of attention paid to exactly how they’re sounding and singing for all their live vocals on camera. There are no songs or pre-recorded solo vocals, they’re all live, they’re all real. And it’s the same thing with the ensemble vocals. The band is a mixture of pre-recorded and live. And it was just like a big giant puzzle, to hopefully give off the impression that it was just this natural, easy, organic experience that the audience and the actors and musicians were partaking in.
It sounds like it was a big job. How long did it take to like complete the adaptation from stage for film?
We found out about this, I think it was November of 2020. And then everyone started working non-stop. It just became a full time obsession. And that included working on the adaptation of the scripts, changes that needed to be made for the approach to how we’re going to film it, beginning discussions with the many talented team members involved and how we were going to record and produce their work. [It also involved] working with the film team and working with general management in terms of, how do we get everyone, an entire company and film crew quarantined, living in a hotel COVID tested COVID free so that the cast could be masks off and the audience to be masks on for many hours.
During the time that we didn’t know the rules of COVID we didn’t know how it worked. It was a massive undertaking and many people on every level and facet of production from creative to management, to catering to transportation had to just think way outside the box. And it was this beautiful synthesis of the film crew coming together with the theater crew and figuring out how do we make our worlds intersect, we all need each other to make this happen. Sort of like what the film is about, to the all these people being landed together from all parts of the world, with no warning in a moment of crisis, figuring out how to survive and make the best of a challenging time together. So it feels like we were having our own Come From Away experience while we were filming, and trying to tell the story.
Yeah, I did have a more general music question too. I noticed that it said the traditional Newfoundland songs are included. How was it decided which ones to use?
So David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the writers and I, immersed ourselves in the music. We have playlists that last four to five days that we just repeated and lost ourselves in and got to know all of that really well then approached the arranging and the musical sound of the show and all the original music, which is rooted in the music of Newfoundland, which I think of as, traditional Celtic, modern rock band. So, we have whistles, Irish flute types, all of that. A Celtic fiddle. We have guitar instruments, the octave, the mandolin, all those that are traditional and at home in Newfoundland, and the bodhran, which is sort of an Irish frame drum. And that gets mixed together with electric guitar and contemporary drums, electric bass, piano, keyboard sounds, acoustic guitars, and it’s just a beautiful mashup of tradition, and contemporary voice.
And as we started developing the music that would be playing under the show, while dialogue was going on, there’s this moment where there are these traditional players that are all fighting simultaneously, to honor and represent all the different states. We found some traditional songs, and it was really just by listening to the music of Newfoundland and falling in love with that, figuring out what is the tone of this moment, oh, this is like a big party.
There was another moment where there’s something much more involved and much more melancholy. And we chose another tune that was traditional to Newfoundland to play there. Most of what we did is create material based on the song based on the melodies and the harmonies that David [Hein] and I wrote, and interpreted those as Newfoundlanders would. They felt like a traditional or contemporary music of Newfoundland, playing underneath the dialogue and rooting us to the characters and the location, but then they’re gonna for the score totally be used. And suddenly, I have a more southern Texas almost country vibe to represent the pilot from Texas. There are moment with characters who are from Africa and so we’re trying to pull in some of those instruments and those sounds to represent those characters.
I’d like to thank Ian Eisendrath for taking the time to talk with me about his work on adapting Come From Away for the small screen. I hope you enjoyed this interview and have a great rest of the day!
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