Category Archives: Film Composer

Music, Basketball, and One Amazing Coach: Talking with Composer Grant Fonda about The House That Rob Built (2020)

Just recently I spoke with composer Grant Fonda about his work on The House That Rob Built, a documentary film that looks at the life and career of Rob Selvig, the iconic coach of the University of Montana’s Lady Griz basketball team. Underfunded and sidelined by men’s athletics, the Lady Griz bloomed under the fresh Title IX regulations that brought equal funding, scholarships and facilities to women’s collegiate sports. Selvig’s hard-driving style took the team from humble roots, playing before empty stands, and built them into the preeminent women’s basketball program west of the Rockies.

Los Angeles based composer Grant Fonda has collaborated with numerous creatives on a wide array of notable projects, including the acclaimed The Dating Project (dir. Jonathan Cipiti, 2018), the award-winning Down The Fence (Netflix, dir. MJ Isakson, 2017), and the multi-award winning Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton. Grant has been a collaborator in music departments for award-winning composers Thomas Newman and Heitor Pereira on Spectre, Finding Dory, Bridge of Spies, and Minions. He also has worked with with the late James Horner on Titanic Live! and John Debney on a live show for Disneyland’s California Adventure.

Please enjoy my conversation with Grant Fonda about The House That Rob Built.

How did you get started as a composer?

I’ve been around music for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was a classically trained pianist and always encouraged me to make music, even before I started taking lessons. He and my parents fostered creativity by letting me pursue my passions, and I always gravitated back to music, always dabbling in creating my own tunes. One teacher after another said “Hey, Grant, you’re really good at this. You should think about composing for a career.” In a way, I guess you can say that I finally fell out of pursuing a career as a music educator and fell into composing. 

What was your starting point in composing for The House That Rob Built?

As is often the case in this business, it started with a relationship. I had been the composer for Jonathan Cipiti’s The Dating Project and Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton, both produced by Family Theater Productions under the guidance of producer Megan Harrington. Jon and Megan really wanted to get the “team” back together again for The House That Rob Built, so I got the first call! Naturally, I was delighted. 

This might come out wrong, but when you were writing this music, did you think of this primarily as music about basketball first and the man second, or about the man first and the basketball second? Or was it an equal focus between the two?

Without question, Rob as a person, the team as a unit, and the individuals of the team always came to the narrative forefront over the game of basketball itself. I was always thinking about the intensity of basketball, but directors Jon Cipiti and Megan Harrington were quick to remind me that the story was firstly about the heart of the players rather than the game. That heart, legacy, and connection had to translate to viewers without getting lost. 

For the instruments, what did you decide to include in the orchestral mix? I hear a lot of strings, but I know there’s more than that.

You’re right, a string quartet forms the foundation of the score. The only other truly-orchestral instrument in the palette was a felted piano, but the soundscape also features the Nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle) and the voice of the amazing Hannah Rose Lewis. I suppose that you could also say that there’s an “orchestra” of synths –– I wanted the synthetic part of the sonic universe to feel simultaneously organic and forward-thinking while embracing a bit of a retro vibe at times.

What prompted your decision to go out and mix in the actual sounds of basketballs into the music? That strikes me as the kind of decision that will either work really well or not at all (I thought it worked great).

Thanks! That’s awesome. One of the things that kept coming up in our spotting session was the need to capture the intensity of women’s collegiate basketball, but there wasn’t going to be a lot of sound design to help us because reenactments were usually working in tandem with voice-overs, and the sound quality of archival footage was noisy. I had the idea that it’d be interesting to try and blur the lines between sound design and score by incorporating sounds of the court, but I knew it’d be a tough sell unless it was executed perfectly. It had to feel organic without being campy. Jon and Megan loved the pitch in one cue, so as I wrote, those source sounds started to become the backbone of the percussive side of the score. 

Are there other atypical sounds mixed into the score that we should be keeping an ear open for? 

The Nyckelharpa is a fun treat for the ears in this score! We had so much fun recording this at the session, and there’s part of me that wishes I had used it more often. The way that Malachai Bandy (our Nyckelharpa player) emotes in his performances is stunning and really exaggerates the sense of longing and feeling of nostalgic folk music. 

How long did you have to work on this score? Was it a close collaboration with the directors?

I worked very closely with Jon and Megan while writing, partially because I only had 21 days to write the entire score, and then about a week to record and mix it. I think I spent as much time on the phone as I did writing! Like a great coach, Jon and Megan checked in daily to see how they could help inspire me, give thoughtful feedback, and push me to elevate the story in every cue. Sometimes, solitude is a composer’s saving grace while they’re in creative-mode, but in this case, working against the clock with the team amplified the film’s narrative in a sublime way.

Was the scoring/recording process impacted by the pandemic in any way?

It wasn’t, thankfully (we recorded in fall 2019), but we almost did have to reschedule the recording session because my wife started having pre-labor for our daughter the day before the session! I’ll never forget calling Jon Cipiti and saying, “I know this is not the call that you want to get the day of a recording session, but I think that we might be having a baby instead of recording strings tomorrow.” Thankfully, our gorgeous daughter arrived about two weeks later, and the session went as planned.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack/score?

I love the cue Title IX because of the unusual textures and Hannah’s masterful vocal performances, but my favorite cue in the film has to be Strong, which is featured within the last scenes of the film. This was some of the first footage that I saw, but some of the last notes that I penned. To write it well, I knew that I’d have to draw from other parts of the score and also be emotionally up for the task because the different parts of the narrative come together to pack a wallop. The resulting almost nine-minute-long cue are some of the highest highs and lowest lows that I’ve ever composed, and I still feel a lump in my throat when I watch/hear it, a year and a half later. 

Anything in particular you hope audiences take away with them when they watch the documentary and hear this music?

I hope that people are reminded that inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places and through unexpected circumstances. I hope that they’ll remember that unity can be found and thrive in diversity. And, I hope that viewing and listening audiences will be inspired to invest in the next generation to build things that are greater than their wildest imaginations. 

I’d like to give a big thank you to Grant Fonda for taking the time to talk with me about The House That Rob Built.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

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A New Music for Superheroes: Talking with Composer Andy Bean about Kid Cosmic (2021)

Recently I had the opportunity to talk with composer Andy Bean about his work on the Netflix animated series Kid Cosmic, which premiered on Netflix on February 2nd, 2021.

Andy Bean is an Emmy-nominated composer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. He began his career barnstorming across the U.S. and Europe for nearly a decade with The Two Man Gentlemen Band before landing a gig writing music for the Disney animated series, Wander Over Yonder. He is currently songwriter and composer for Netlix’s Kid Cosmic, Disney’s Puppy Dog Pals, and Disney’s Muppet Babies re-boot. Between the latter two, he’s written over three-hundred songs across dozens of genres and scored over one-hundred episodes.

Enjoy this interview about his work on Kid Cosmic!

How did you get started with being a composer?

I was writing songs and performing with The Two Man Gentlemen Band back in 2012 when I was asked to submit a theme song demo for Craig McCracken’s last show, Wander Over Yonder. Craig and the team liked the theme song and asked me if I wanted to try composing for the show and I said… sure! Half the show was frantic banjo music, which I was comfortable with. The other half was synth-driven space orchestral stuff, which I’d never done before. I was a total novice writing and producing music for TV, so I basically locked myself in a room for 6 months and figured it out the best I could.

So I just finished watching season 1 of Kid Cosmic and I loved it! I have to ask, were you really not told anything about the premise aside from “imagine a 70s garage band”? How do you start composing for a show from that kind of starting area?

That’s definitely how it started. As Wander Over Yonder was finishing, I met with Craig and he basically said, “I’ve got this new idea for a show, but I’m not going to tell you that much about it. Just that the main character in the show has a favorite band called Dr. Fang and The Gang, and I’d like you to start writing music for them.” He showed me a drawing of the band and gave me some references – some older stuff and some contemporary fuzzed out garage bands – and I started writing music that night. I was a songwriter first before ever writing music for TV, so a “write songs like this” assignment was in my wheelhouse.

Of course, as I learned more about the show I started tailoring ideas to particular characters and refining the sound. But a handful of the tunes that I wrote early on are part of the score and soundtrack.

What was it like working with Craig McCracken again after Wander Over Yonder?

It’s great! On both shows we’ve worked on together, he’s given me really specific guidance on the concept he has in mind for the show’s sound. Then he gives me an incredible amount of creative license to figure out the nuts and bolts of it. For me, that balance of clear guidance and creative freedom is my favorite way to work. And just as importantly, we seem to be on the same wavelength musically. We like the same kinds of stuff.

It sounds like the story was written to accommodate your music, which doesn’t happen all that often. How did the process of making the story and music work together happen? Were there any unexpected difficulties?

Not so much the story, but I know Craig and the team built specific scenes around certain songs. Before writing and storyboarding started on season 1, I gave the team all the stuff I’d been working on while we were in development – songs and score sketches. I had some ideas about how they’d use some of them – fast rock songs for action scenes for example – but they also incorporated some of the ambient desert score stuff I did in really cool and surprising ways. So for me, it was great. I wrote a bunch of music then sat back and watched the incredible artists working on the show build super cool scenes around it.

Of course, the stuff I wrote ahead of time only covered a portion of the score. So one of the challenges was trying to match the energy and spontaneity of the early tracks when I was writing new music to picture. Most of the songs on the soundtrack were written before production started . But a handful are extensions of shorter pieces I wrote to picture.

How much time did you spend working on the music for Kid Cosmic? Where did the musical ideas start and how did it branch out as you kept writing the music?

Years. I started contributing musical ideas in late 2015 and actual scoring to picture didn’t start until late 2019. During that whole period, I was kicking around musical ideas and submitting demos whenever I had time in my schedule. The abnormally long development period allowed for a lot more experimentation than if I’d come on closer to post production. A lot of time was spent trying to incorporate synth and spacey sci-fi elements into the garage rock sound we started with. The songs ‘Galactic Interference’ and ‘Groundspeed Hustle’ are examples of that.

Also, If I write a bunch of songs in a short period of time, they tend to sound way too similar. So, getting to space out the writing over a long period helped with that.

What instruments are used in the musical score?

Traditional rock band instruments – guitars, drums, bass, organ – make up a lot of it. I leaned pretty heavy on some fuzz effects for guitar and vocal sounds. Distorted vocals with a slap-back echo are a big part of the Dr. Fang and the Gang sound.

I also got to work some pedal steel guitar into the desert country stuff. That’s always been a favorite instrument of mine, and I learned how to play just for the show. The rest of the score is a mix of traditional orchestral score, and synth-heavy stuff for the more sci-fi-y parts.

Did you create specific musical themes for each of the Local Heroes? As I watched the show I thought I heard musical ideas that recurred for different characters, particularly Rosa and Kid Cosmic.


Absolutely. The Kid has his theme. Papa G’s got a few hippy country cues I use for him. And Rosa’s got a recurring cue, too. We worked up most of those early on.

What inspired the “serious sci-fi” part of the score? For example, the awesome music when Kid Cosmic and the group are exploring the wrecked ship, it sounds like regular science-fiction music. It’s all dark and ominous and really fun for me to listen to, and I’d love to know how that came about.

Thanks, that episode was fun to work on. That was some great guidance from Craig and the team, to score an episode featuring a cat who can see the future with something John Carpenter-y.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

“Greasy Spoon Space Gal” is one of the jukebox source tunes I wrote for the show. That kind of simple country rockabilly with silly lyrics is right up my alley.

Thanks again to Andy Bean for taking the time to talk with me about his work on Kid Cosmic!

See also:

My Thoughts on: Kid Cosmic: Season One (2021)

Composer Interviews

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Creating Music Good Enough to Eat: Speaking with Composer Enis Rotthoff about ‘Love Sarah’

I recently had the opportunity to talk with composer Enis Rotthoff about his work on Love Sarah, a touching film about a daughter who works to open the bakery her mother always wanted with the help of her grandmother. Rotthoff’s composer credits include “Guns Akimbo” starring Daniel Radcliffe and Samara Weaving, “The Sunlit Night” starring Gillian Anderson, Jenny Slate, and Zach Galifianakis, as well as Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize nominee “Wetlands.” Rotthoff started his musical career working under Academy Award-winning composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (Finding Neverland). Rotthoff’s soundtrack album for Love Sarah will be available January 22, 2021.

Enjoy!

First, could you tell me about how you became a film composer?

As a ten-year-old I was fascinated by the music in films. I would memorize the melodies of the film scores in order to try to play them at the piano later. It was an early love for film music in a very playful way. At some point I started improvising on the piano and began journaling my emotions into little piano pieces which turned into my first compositions.

As a teenager I was so passionate about film music that I tried to learn as much as I could about films and their scores. A scholarship for young composers during my high school years is what gave me the foundation to study the works of classical composers and film composers. After high school, I studied Film Scoring at the Film University Babelsberg and Audiovisual Communication at the University of Arts Berlin. What really added to my journey was being an assistant to Academy Award-Winning Composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. With all of these experiences I felt ready to start this life-long adventure of composing for films and to enjoy the beauty in that.

How did you get connected to Love Sarah and what did you think of the film’s premise? It actually took me by surprise what the film was about, I misread it first and when I realized what it was about, I was very surprised.

The director Eliza Schroeder and I had met a decade before to work on a short film together. Because of scheduling conflicts, our collaboration did not happen back then. I was amazed to hear from her so many years later and she asked me if I was interested in scoring her debut feature Love Sarah.

The first thing she shared with me was a little teaser trailer about the film with first impressions of some scenes. When I saw the tasty desserts, the beautiful dancing scenes, the deep felt emotions and the uplifting energy of the film I was immediately drawn to it.

The story is about a daughter who wants to realize her deceased mother’s dream of opening a bakery in Notting Hill (London) with the help of her grandmother and her mother’s best friend.

The film has elements of drama, comedy, romance and a sense of presence in the scenes that I found refreshingly positive.

How did the collaboration process with director Eliza Schroeder work? Was it mostly a discussion before scoring began or was it a collaboration throughout, from beginning to end?

Our collaboration was very close and at the same time I had lots of space to experiment and come up with ideas. 

The film is directed in a way that every scene moves towards something. Even in moments of a feeling of emptiness the film moves forward. I was inspired by that.

In our conversations, Eliza gave me many emotional directions for the film but did not tell me how to achieve it with the music. Once I presented my musical ideas in connection with the film’s scenes, we discussed in more detail what to adjust and what to highlight. Eliza is an amazing filmmaker to work with.

How did you approach scoring a film like Love Sarah? Did you start with an over-arching theme, or a musical concept? In general, where did the score start and how did it grow as it came together?

The opening sequence connects all of our main characters, so the complexity of the beginning was high. We took a lot of time to adjust and fine-tune that sequence. Usually the Opening Titles (Album Track: Meet Sarah) would not be the first thing I´d approach on a film but we took the opportunity to create themes for all story lines and characters and incorporated them in the Opening Titles. 

In a way, the first music you hear in the film is like an Overture introducing the many emotional layers of the film. All themes are related to each other and to Sarah, whose passing away is the reason for all these characters to meet. So there is an idea of hope built into the concept.

Interestingly if I think of growing a score I’d think that it might build towards the end of the film. In the case of Love Sarah the music starts very energetically and builds over the course of the film. But the very end is reflective, healing and leaves lots of space. I love that, because for me clarity and healing can happen in calm moments.

On a possibly related note, how was it decided to make the music so whimsical? It sounds like a lot of fun in so many places, something I wasn’t expecting in a film that starts like it does. What was the thought process behind that? (I really like the whimsy, it makes the music a lot of fun to listen to).

I am glad that it transpires. Eliza early on said that she wanted the film to be hopeful. I liked that a lot and could also see it in the performances of the actors. It was a fine line to find the balance between deep felt emotions and a life-affirming sense of positivity. 

Since the film is also about the magic of baking and the adventure of opening up a bakery, this gave room to make the emotional journey fun and inspiring on the musical side. It is a message of the film, to stay positive in the face of painful events and experiences. 

For this one scene where the music is composed to this character who is dancing (instead of the other way around), how did that come about? It’s very rare for film music to be written in that fashion, was that decided from the beginning? Or was it tried the other way (dance moves choreographed to music) and it just wasn’t working out?

This was one of the gifts of the film. The scene of the character dancing did not have any music. It was a free dance performance. Beautifully done by actress Shannon Tarbet. That scene represented a moment of reflection, self expression, healing and the feeling of being in charge of your own destiny. Something very positive.

We decided that I´d compose music to her performances which was truly inspiring. I found myself studying and channeling every move of her dance. Sometimes I was going with the body movement, sometimes with the flow, sometimes with the overarching energy of that movement. I found myself creating a choreography on top of a choreography where the music and the dancer sometimes precisely meet and sometimes divert. It was a wonderful experience for me as a composer which I hope to build on in the future. 

What were the challenges of scoring a film in the midst of a global pandemic? Did this negatively impact the process or were you able to work around it fairly well?

The film was luckily finished before the pandemic. However, the release was delayed because of the pandemic.

Do you have a favorite part of the score?

My favorite parts are the dance sequence (Album track: The Final Dance), the moment where the bakery opens (Album track: Opening The Bakery) and the moment Mimi has an idea for how to create the right desserts. (Album track: A Home Away from Home)

What do you hope listeners take away with them when they hear the music to Love Sarah?

I wish that the music gives them a sense of hope. And that there is beauty both in sad and hopeful moments. That’s how I feel about the film and its music. That all feelings and experiences in the film can be enjoyed. And maybe that’s something to take with us into our lives.

One last thing, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your work on this film! The music is gorgeous!

Thank you so very much. It was my pleasure and thank you for the great interview.

I hope you enjoyed my interview with composer Enis Rotthoff about his work on Love Sarah. Just as a reminder, the OST for Love Sarah will be coming out tomorrow January 22, 2021.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

The Curious Case of Apollo 13 (1995) and Art Garfunkel’s “All I Know” (1973)

Of the many film scores that James Horner worked on during his career, Apollo 13 (1995) remains one of my favorites. Horner’s music leaves you on the edge of your seat as you watch the highs and lows of the infamous Apollo 13 mission. A notable example is a cue titled “The Launch”, which covers the scene where Apollo 13 blasts off into space. It’s classic James Horner; a stirring melody that slowly grows until it fairly explodes with the moment of launch. And yet…this particular cue hid a secret that I was unaware of for many years, and that’s what this article will be talking about.

I really should give credit for this to my mother, since she’s the one who made the connection first. Growing up, almost every time we reached the launch scene in Apollo 13 she’d pause and say something to the effect of “I know I’ve heard that melody somewhere else.” But she could never remember where, and so the matter would always drop. Then, a few years ago, when we were on a trip together, it finally hit my mom where she’d heard this particular piece before: it formed the base of an Art Garfunkel song from 1973 titled “All I Know.” I was understandably skeptical of this assertion, until I located the song in question and hit the play button, James Horner’s music fresh in my mind for a comparison.

Almost immediately, my jaw dropped to the floor. The melody of “All I Know” and a particular section of “The Launch” were more than similar, they were practically identical. Here are the respective pieces for comparison:

First, “The Launch” from Apollo 13 (relevant section starts at 6:11)

And now, “All I Know” from Art Garfunkel’s album Angel Clare (relevant section begins at 0:25)

This is undoubtedly the same melody, which begs the question, why did James Horner seemingly appropriate it? That’s what the bulk of this discussion will be about. As it stands, there are several possibilities for why James Horner would have chosen to incorporate the melody of “All I Know” into his score for Apollo 13. These include:

  1. The song was popular at the time the film’s events took place
  2. The lyrics of the song expressed a sentiment appropriate for the film and therefore Horner included it.
  3. Horner simply liked the melody and appropriated it for the film’s score.

The first possibility can be discarded almost immediately. While “All I Know” was released in 1973, the events of Apollo 13 took place in April of 1970. Therefore, this song would’ve been unknown at the time the incident took place. It is, however, plausible that Horner was looking for songs from that general time period to incorporate into the score, and may have included it even though there’s three years separation between the song and the film’s events.

The second possibility shows a little more promise, that being that perhaps James Horner chose to incorporate this song because the lyrics of the song expressed a sentiment appropriate for the film.

I bruise you
You bruise me
We both bruise too easily
Too easily to let it show
I love you and that’s all I know

All my plans
Have fallen through
All my plans depend on you
Depend on you to help them grow
I love you and that’s all I know

When the singer’s gone
Let the song go on

But the ending always comes at last
Endings always come too fast
They come too fast
But they pass too slow
I love you and that’s all I know

When the singer’s gone
Let the song go on
It’s a fine line between the darkness and the dawn

I could almost make the argument that this song bears the tiniest bit of relevance to the plot, that being the unending love between James and Marilyn Lovell. However, I can’t quite make it work because the times the melody shows up in the film doesn’t work.

That leaves the third possibility, and the likely answer: James Horner at some point heard this song, liked what he heard, and wrote it into the film’s score. It’s not unheard of for film composers to do such a thing, it happens way more often than you might think and Horner was particularly notorious for doing it. With that being said, one thing still puzzles me: why wasn’t the song cited in the end credits? I’ve double and triple checked the credits for Apollo 13, just to make sure I wasn’t missing it, and “All I Know” isn’t cited at any point. Unfortunately, fate has conspired to make sure that Horner isn’t here to ask about it, though I’d like to think he left some notes somewhere that would explain how “All I Know” ended up in the score of Apollo 13.

This is only a preliminary look at this interesting example, hopefully someday I’ll have the chance to analyze this example in full and find out the whole story.

See also:

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

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The Music of Snow Hollow: Talking with Composer Ben Lovett about ‘The Wolf of Snow Hollow’ (2020)

After getting to check out the soundtrack for The Wolf of Snow Hollow, I knew I had to speak with composer Ben Lovett about his work on this soundtrack. Fortunately for me, the moment came and I took it! It was so exciting to get to ask Ben Lovett about his work on this score and I can’t thank him enough for taking the time to answer my questions about the music for The Wolf of Snow Hollow.

Ben Lovett is an American recording artist, songwriter and composer known for crafting unconventional scores to a diverse range of films including the Netflix original The Ritual, Independent Spirit Award nominee The Signal, the Duplass Brothers’ survival thriller Black Rock, Amy Seimetz’s award-winning noir Sun Don’t Shine, Emma Tammi’s avant-garde western The Wind, and the time travel sci-fi noir Synchronicity which earned Ben a nomination for “Discovery of the Year” at the prestigious World Soundtrack Awards. Lovett’s latest work includes scores for the Hulu series Into the Dark, the colorful taxidermy documentary Stuffed, Orion Pictures tragicomedy The Wolf of Snow Hollow from director Jim Cummings, and a new collaboration with Ritual director David Bruckner on the Searchlight Pictures thriller, The Night House.

How did you get started with being a film composer?

I was tricked.  Someone convinced me I could do it even though I tried to argue otherwise.  Or more specifically, they convinced me I had no good reason not to try, and of course they were right.  That was in college at the University of Georgia in the late 90’s and I’ve been doing it ever since.

How did you get connected with The Wolf of Snow Hollow?

The producers at Vanishing Angle reached out early in post production. I scored “American Folk” for them a few years back and had a good rapport there. Jim is part of a great community of filmmakers that all share an orbit with Vanishing Angle and he was familiar with some of the scores I’d done. I watched “Thunder Road” and absolutely loved it. I knew after about the first 10 minutes that I had to be part of whatever he was doing next.

I saw in the PR announcing the release of the soundtrack, that you said that you and the director talked together and some big names came up, like Herrmann and Prokofiev, in regards to the music. How big an influence did they play in the film’s score? What other names came up in the discussion that ended up having an influence on the score?

When I came onboard Jim sent me a YouTube clip of a 75 piece orchestra performing Prokofiev’s “Romeo & Juliet” and said “The score needs to be like this!” The budget was very modest and there wasn’t a lot of time so as reference points go that one was exciting and hilarious and terrifying all at once. Jim was super enthusiastic about the score though and I could tell he wasn’t afraid to swing big. He referenced Jon Brion’s score to “Magnolia”, and the Jerry Goldsmith score for “The Burbs” as spiritual reference points as well. So I dove in with this sort of Mt Rushmore of influences in the background and tried to just channel the spirit of all that into some kind of hybrid, low budget, horror comedy appropriate, musical jambalaya.

More specifically, how big an influence did Bernard Herrmann’s music have? I swear I can hear parts resembling Psycho (1960), especially in “Third Crime Scene.” Are there direct musical homages in there? If so, was that a thing decided on from the beginning or did it just evolve as the scoring process continued?

That evolved along the way. It was more a sense of feeling like that was a common language where all those other references crossed paths. There weren’t direct homages or specific Herrmann scores I was referencing, it was more channelling the spirit of his style as a general point of inspiration. There’s something very signature in the way his scores operate melodically, and some intangible quality about the nature of their relationship to the picture and how his music informs the overall aesthetic of those films.

“Third Crime Scene” is kind of a thought experiment of me going, “What if Bernard Herrmann had scored “Peter & the Wolf’? I was never afraid of landing anywhere in the vicinity of his talent so it felt like a safe exercise to swing for something with a similar mentality, or whatever I’d interpreted that to mean. I didn’t get too academic about it, it just seemed like a fun sandbox to play in and one that seemed appropriate for this film.

How did you approach scoring The Wolf of Snow Hollow? Did you have a lot of time to work on the music?

Definitely not. I’m not sure I’d know what to do with a lot of time, does that exist? It was a small window from start to finish, very much your classic race the clock, down to the write, 11th hour, head first slide into home plate kind of finish. But that’s also the job, honestly, so I’m no stranger to that.

In terms of the approach, I knew I would have a limited number of crayons to draw with so I made a decision to just pick just the boldest flavor of each color that I needed. I guess that’s where the Herrmann thing comes in – I wasn’t going to have a lot of instruments so I needed to make sure the parts could carry a lot of water for us. It was figuring out how to pack big ideas into small packages, in that sense. How to deliver on the ambition of the director within the logistical limitations of the schedule and budget. I felt like the film had the capacity to hold something pretty audacious, it’s just something in how Jim directs movies. The score needed a distinct musical personality that could address the horrible reality of the things going on in this town, but specifically in how they’re related to this manic central character trying to put a stop to them – to find both the comedy and humanity in his struggle, because that’s really where the movie takes place thematically.

On a related note, are there leitmotifs in the score or did you approach it another way?

There are certainly some thematic, recurring melodies and variations in there that map out the arc of the main character, but we weren’t too dogmatic about those always accompanying specific situations or thematic moments. You routinely have characters in the film that are introduced then promptly killed off, so it became more about the recurrence of certain instruments and sounds than melodies, and what those sounds might represent to the viewer. Because I was working to locked picture with a new director and very much doing both at full sprint, sometimes the process influences decisions as much as any sort of creative intention. You’re trying to do your best to help make the movie as good as you can, while you can, with what you have.

Do you have a favorite track in the score?

Nah. Once they’re done you love em all, because you no longer have to feed them and change their diaper and they’re not keeping you up all night. I don’t have kids so I don’t know if that analogy works but, it’s sorta like that I imagine. Once they’re grown and leave home you forgive them for all they put you through. Maybe that’s where the analogy breaks down, I don’t know. More to your point, I think I’m more likely to listen back to ones that either took an unexpected turn along the way or endured some interesting metamorphosis by way of film scoring being a naturally collaborative process. Generally the ones that are the hardest to nail are usually my favorites in the end. I think the progression of the three crime scenes is a pretty fun journey. If you play those in a row you really get a sense of the variety of ground we needed to cover. “Detectives” and “Returning Evidence” maybe best capture the overall spirit and intention of the score, and are both thematic pieces that contain recurring elements.

What do you hope listeners notice when they listen to this music?

Well I always hope the album provides the means to re-experience the story in a way that reveals another level to what you might have enjoyed or experienced in the film. I feel like there are elements of any story that only music can describe, or that it best describes, in some strange innate way that we experience things as humans. Once you have a reference point for the characters and the story, my hope is that people can throw on the album and revisit Snow Hollow and uncover some new clues about what was going on there the whole time.

Again, I’d like to thank Ben Lovett for taking the time to speak with me about his work on The Wolf of Snow Hollow. Please check this film and soundtrack out if you haven’t already.

See also:

Soundtrack Review: The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)

Composer Interviews

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Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Talking With Composer Ilan Eshkeri about Ghost of Tsushima (2020)

This past summer I had the tremendous opportunity to speak with composer Ilan Eshkeri about his score for the video game Ghost of Tsushima. Eshkeri attended Leeds University where he studied music and English literature. He also worked at this time with fellow composers Edward Shearmur and Michael Kamen. Notable film scores from his career include (but are far from limited to): Coriolanus (2011), The Young Victoria (2009), 47 Ronin (2013), and The White Crow (2018). He’s collaborated on several films with actor/director Ralph Fiennes.

How did you get started with being a composer?

Well, really I wanted to be a guitarist in a rock band. While pursuing that dream I ended up working for a composer and not long after became close to Michael Kamen. And then I got my first break writing film music. And I really enjoy having such an exciting career that developed from many different directions all at once. It takes me in all sorts of directions.

How did you get connected with Ghost of Tsushima?

Playstation actually reached out and contacted me about this game. I was initially reluctant because I don’t really like violent, action games, that’s not really my thing. I don’t have any great, moral objection to it, I just don’t know how I can connect emotionally to that. Or, as an artist what can I say about that in my music? What peaked my interest is they’d been using music from an art house film that I had done a few years ago, a Shakespeare film called Coriolanus. The score for it is, I think, very unusual, quite extreme and uncompromising. Typically my work with Ralph [Fiennes, the director] is like that. It was amazing to me that this mass entertainment AAA game and video game studio would be coming to me and referencing this extremely unusual art house music that I’d created.

Then I went to Seattle for a meeting with Playstation and they spent 45 minutes to an hour with this incredible multimedia presentation that talked me through the entire plot of the video game. By the end of that I was completely blown away and sucked into it. It wasn’t what I thought. This is a game about a young man who is in a state of emotional conflict because he has been brought up and trained in a certain moral code. However, in order to save his home and the people he loves he has to go against all of that. This was, therefore, a rich place to write emotional and powerful music.

Was it different, working on the score for a video game as opposed to film or television?

No, I don’t think so, because to me it’s all storytelling. It’s the oldest of human art forms. If we look back at the history of humanity, the earliest form of art we have is cave painting. What were they doing in a cave painting? They were telling a story. We moved from cave paintings to songs, the Iliad, the Odyssey, to theater. That developed into dance and acting with operas and plays; you have all these different forms of storytelling and in the last hundred years we’ve had cinema and that came from the invention of new technologies. Since then, the next step in my eyes is video games. A new technology was invented and humans decided to tell their stories through that medium. And the story of Ghost is about the new ways versus the old ways. So really, Ghost is telling a very old story but through a new medium. To answer your question, my job is exactly the same. I tell the emotional narrative of the story through the creation of music. Whether that be theater or ballet or video games, whatever the medium, eventually I’m doing the same thing.

How did you approach scoring Ghost of Tsushima? Was there a lot of research involved in the type of music and sounds that would be appropriate for such a locale and era?

Yes, absolutely. This was inspired by Sucker Punch, they wanted to bring a sense of authenticity to the game, to the extent that they got reeds from the island of Tsushima in order to make it look more naturalistic. I was inspired by this search for authenticity and I wanted to apply the same thing to the music. I found a professor of Japanese music, Professor David Hughes, who is fortunately one of the leading experts here in London and he was very kind to talk to me and explain things and tell me where to look. I was learning about Japanese scales and harmony and how the instruments worked. Then I worked with a lot of amazing musicians and they inspired me a lot. These musicians were very patient and taught me how to write naturalistic music for the instruments.

So I used a lot of instruments that we know here in the West, like the koto and shakuhachi. But my explorations also took me to another instrument called the biwa. In fact it’s called the Satsuma biwa, there being several types of biwas, but the Satsuma biwa was the instrument that the samurai learned to play. And I’d never heard of it before. What happened is that towards the middle of the last century, the art of playing the biwa had been virtually lost. As I understand it there was one master of this instrument left and had taught a handful of people. One of those is a very inspiring lady called Junko Ueda. And she, fortunately for me, lived in Spain so it was easy to get her to come to London. She spent a lot of time explaining about the instrument, she played a lot and you can really hear about the instrument solos in the opening of the piece on the album. She’s a special performer and I was really lucky to be able to include her on the soundtrack.

When was it decided to blend the sounds of traditional Japanese music with a full orchestra?

That was always the plan. The thing was, how do we keep the focus on the traditional Japanese instruments, how do we highlight them? And for me, how do I use the orchestra within that language? All of the music in the orchestra, all the melodies and scales are all based on Japanese scales and I used two of those. And any Japanese instrument could play virtually any orchestral part. I also built my own system of chords using the notes from the pentatonic (five tone) scale. Everything in the orchestra is based on a foundation of Japanese tonality. Where I needed to, for effect, I broke the rules absolutely, but not often. That was the plan behind the orchestra.

How much time did you have to score Ghost of Tsushima? Did you have any game footage to work off of? Or was it more like storyboards?

There was a mixture, because I came on in 2018. When I started working on it there were storyboards, bits of footage. There was some crude gameplay where I got a feel for the character. It was a lot of different things, many bits of inspirational material. I worked on the game on and off for about a year and a half.

I’d like to give a big thank you to Ilan Eshkeri for taking the time to speak with me about his work on the music for Ghost of Tsushima.

Let me know what you think about Ghost of Tsushima’s music (and the game itself) in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Soundtrack Review: Ghost of Tsushima (2020)

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

RIP Ennio Morricone (1928-2020)

I normally don’t comment on moments like this, as I normally reserve my blog for film and soundtrack reviews, but the passing of Ennio Morricone, a veritable titan in the world of film music, cannot be passed over without a mention.

I woke up this morning to the news that Ennio Morricone had passed away at the age of 91. He composed over 400 scores for film and television, and to this day might be best known as the composer for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (you know the piece I’m talking about). But Morricone’s work stretches far beyond that (rightfully acclaimed) film. He composed for spaghetti westerns, comedies, Hollywood films, foreign films, television scores, when you look at the complete list of scores Morricone created, you’ll be amazed that one man could create so much.

But I think the memory that will stick with me the longest about Ennio Morricone is how he won the Oscar for Best Original Score for The Hateful Eight at the age of 87 (making him the oldest person to ever receive a competitive Oscar to date). That he didn’t receive an Oscar until so late in his career is something of a crime in my opinion, but I’m glad he did receive some official recognition of his work from Hollywood (and rightfully so, as the music for The Hateful Eight is incredible).

The world of film music will never be quite the same again now that Ennio Morricone is gone. Rest in peace good sir, and thank you for everything.

Let me know about your favorite score by Ennio Morricone in the comments below.

See also:

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

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Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

To the Future: A Talk With Halli Cauthery About the Music of ‘Future Man’ Season 3

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk with composer Halli Cauthery about his work on the third and final season of Future Man. The Hulu original series Future Man  was co-created by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. His credits also include the Netflix/DreamWorks animated series Turbo F.A.S.T., for which he received an Emmy nomination in 2016; the critically-acclaimed thriller The East; Bernard Rose’s 2015 film adaptation of Frankenstein; the Shrek Halloween television special Scared Shrekless; as well as the Lifetime Television film Living Proof.

He has worked extensively with composer Harry Gregson-Williams, contributing additional music to such films as Cowboys & Aliens; Unstoppable; Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time; Shrek Forever After; X-Men Origins: Wolverine; and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian; as well as Bee Movie and Winter’s Tale alongside Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams. He has also worked with Henry Jackman (Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle; Captain America: Civil War; Pixels; Turbo); Danny Elfman (Hellboy 2: The Golden Army); and Bryan Tyler (Iron Man 3).

How did you get started with composing for film and television?

I got my start working under the mentorship of the renowned composer Harry Gregson-Williams. After completing my postgraduate studies some years ago I lived in London for a while, working as a jobbing musician, playing in orchestras around the city (my initial musical training was as a classical violinist at the Yehudi Menuhin School), as well as teaching, and writing music for the concert hall. But I soon began to feel that, if I wanted to earn a living writing music, the smart move would be to go into film and TV. And so I got in touch with Harry – whom I had known years earlier when I was a young kid and he was a singing teacher at the same school where I used to go for my after-school violin lessons! – to ask for advice. We re-connected, he invited me to come to California for a few months to see the process of film-scoring for myself, and soon I was working as his assistant, and he became my mentor.

What did you think of Future Man when you started working on it?

I thought it was utterly mad in all the very best ways! I loved it: it was funny, clever, silly, jam-packed with quotable lines and memorable characters, and just delightfully weird… I knew straight away that it was going to be a blast scoring it. And I wasn’t wrong!

Did you know, going in, that season 3 would be the last for Future Man?

Yes, we were all aware of that. Which is a double-edged sword: very sad to say goodbye to it, obviously, because I’ve enjoyed myself immensely; but at the same time, knowing that you have a definite end point to build towards can be very useful creatively.

Where did you start in the scoring process for season 3? Did you build off the previous seasons or did you start in a completely new place?

It’s a little bit of both. In the first place, if I interpret the question very literally, I did technically start in a totally new place, because the first piece of music you hear in season 3 is the ‘Monday Night Football’-style music accompanying the ‘Running Man’-type TV show that the main characters are forced to take part in during episode 1. In a more general sense, though: the great advantage of coming back to a show in its third season is that much of the underlying musical architecture is already in place: I already know what the ‘sound’ of the show is, and I already have a network of existing themes because those things have been established from season 1. (For example, I already have a Josh theme, a ‘Resistance’ theme, a Tiger+Wolf theme, and so on.) Having said that, with each new season there are always new characters and new situations that require new themes and sound worlds. Most obviously in the case of season 3, there are the scenes set in Haven, the ‘realm outside of time’ that the main characters become trapped in during the second half of the season. These required completely new music and a new ‘sound’ from the previous seasons.

A related question: did anything specific inspire the sound of Future Man, be it season 3 or any previous season? How did you come up with the sound for this season and series in general?

Haven inspired a slightly more unconventional approach during season 3. When you are depicting a place that’s supposed to exist outside of time and where the usual physical laws of the universe don’t always apply, that’s a pretty big invitation to do something different and get weird, musically. So I took the opportunity to experiment a bit with sound manipulation: taking audio and time-stretching and/or compressing it, reversing it, etc. to achieve strange effects. I also took the opportunity to write some twelve-tone music; and, for added ‘off the wall-ness’, to combine this with a part for a microtonal piano. The result is very trippy!

How much time did you have to score season 3 of Future Man?

I began working on season 3 in October, and we wrapped early in March – just in time, as it happened, before we all went on lockdown! It was a slightly shorter production schedule this season, with eight episodes as opposed to the thirteen that comprised seasons 1 and 2.

What instruments were used in the scoring process? I like how several pieces of the soundtrack have a traditional “sci-fi” sound.

Throughout the show’s run the score has consisted of a mixture of synth elements and traditional orchestra, sometimes combining the two within the same music – the synth elements tending to be utilized during the more futuristic, sci-fi moments. In addition, during season 3 I’ve occasionally had to dig into certain specialized types of ensemble: an example would be the Medieval-style music in season 3 when the three lead characters find themselves in Medieval France; this required the full complement of crumhorns, shawms, recorders and so on! I also recorded myself doing a bit of fiddle playing for a scene set in 17th century North America, playing a traditional folk tune called ‘Rambler’s Hornpipe’.

 Last question: do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

A few examples spring to mind: in season 3, I would pick out the twelve tone music I mentioned earlier, as well as the over-the-top orchestral piece accompanying the final gag in the last episode. From season 2 I rather like the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ parody from episode 4, as well as the Renaissance-style version of the ‘Resistance’ theme heard numerous times throughout the season. And season 1 contains one of my favourite episodes of all: the one set in James Cameron’s ‘Smart’ house, which gave me the opportunity to write an episode of score full of music in the style of music from Cameron movies!

It was a great pleasure to learn more about Halli Cauthery’s work on season 3 of Future Man and I’m very thankful for the opportunity.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Looking at El Camino: An Interview with Dave Porter

I recently had the opportunity to speak with composer Dave Porter about his work on El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. The movie, a direct continuation of Breaking Bad, was released on Netflix on October 11, 2019. The story follows Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in the wake of Breaking Bad’s series finale.

Dave Porter studied classical and electronic music composition at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. He received an ASCAP Award for his work on Breaking Bad. Other composing credits include the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul, The Blacklist, and Preacher.

How did you get started in composing for film and television?

I grew up playing piano from when I was very young; my parents both are musicians though not professionally. I was always into music and when I got into high school I started to get into the technology of the time, digital synthesizers and computers. I found all of that very inspiring. I went to a liberal arts college called Sarah Lawrence College which was near New York City and there I learned to combine the two worlds: my interest in electronic music and my interest in classical music. In addition to that I learned to love the collaboration between music and film, TV, dance, theatre, lots of other things. That’s what really sparked my interest.

What was it like to return to the world of Breaking Bad after its been off the air for seven years? Or was it not that difficult since you’ve been working on Better Call Saul since then?

When Breaking Bad ended in 2013 we had a big event at the airing of the final episode, with the cast and crew and a bunch of the fans at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. They projected [the episode] on a huge wall and it really felt at that moment like I was saying goodbye to this world. Then Better Call Saul came along, which is a prequel to Breaking Bad. At the beginning I thought “Oh, I can get right back into the same world of characters” but actually because Better Call Saul happens so far before Breaking Bad it was entirely different. It hasn’t been until recent years, when the Better Call Saul timeline has started to encroach on the Breaking Bad timeline, that the music and those worlds started to meld. So when [El Camino] came up, totally unexpected to me, I was very surprised and excited because I didn’t think I’d get to see a character like Jesse Pinkman again. I was also excited because, in the process of working on Better Call Saul, and working back up to Breaking Bad, I had gotten excited about that idea, so it was in my mind already. In some ways it was not a huge transition, because I haven’t entirely left that universe.

How connected is the sound world of El Camino to that of Breaking Bad? Are the musical themes related?

Right at the beginning of El Camino, the score could have been ripped right out of the finale of Breaking Bad. That was very much intentional to try and connect our audience back to that moment in time. From there it actually does diverge into its own thing. That’s because it is a different story and is told in a different way. It’s also a film, which allows for a different kind of score than on a television show. There’s much more of an opening expanse of time to develop cues and the score. Since we’re focusing on one character, we really get to delve into him in a way I really didn’t get to during the series. The only exception to all that is in a few flashback moments within El Camino where we are once again placing ourselves back into the original Breaking Bad timeline. In those situations I’m going back and bringing back the score I used originally in various forms. That is to say, a newly tailored version of something I had already written for Breaking Bad.

On a related note, how did you decide on THIS type of sound world for El Camino? Given the plot, I was expecting something with more action in the score, but much of this feels very laid back.

There’s two aspects to that. One, part of it is grounding the sound of the musical score in a way that is relatable to all of the other aspects of the Breaking Bad universe. That way, when an audience hears [the music] they’ll feel that connection. There’s a certain world of sounds that I use on the shows that I definitely adhere to as well in the film. I don’t use a traditional, classical, Western orchestra. There’s no oboes or solo violins in this world, which was very much by design because, in Breaking Bad, I wanted Walter White to feel very much like a fish out of water.

The other aspect of figuring out what we wanted El Camino to sound like involved talking with Vince Gilligan about what the story really was. The story of El Camino, while it has a lot of tension and fast-moving elements about it, it’s actually a very cerebral movie. It’s a movie where we spend a lot of time in one character’s head, that of Jesse Pinkman. It’s his struggle to survive and also making right the wrongs he has made the best way he can. The score really takes a macro look at the storytelling as a whole. It certainly plays into the action. For the most part, though, the role of the score is to help us be with Jesse and be deep inside where Jesse is.

What was the scoring process like for this film? What was your starting point in putting the musical themes together?

That’s a good question. I don’t always do this, but in the case of El Camino I did it very much in sequence. I started at the beginning and worked my way through it. I did that because that’s how the film was constructed. First of all I knew we were starting right as Breaking Bad ends. I knew how I wanted the beginning of the movie to feel. Then I wanted to feel my way through Jesse’s journey. I thought the best way musically to approach that and have the music remain on a trajectory across the whole film was to do it in sequence. I was afraid if I jumped around that I would lose the overhead vision of the film. I was trying to keep an eye on the larger story of the film.

About how much time did you have to put the score together?

I was fortunate to have a good block of time. Music and sound are typically one of the last things to get done on a TV or film project. That was certainly the case here. I’ve been blessed to almost always get to work with a “locked picture” on Vince Gilligan projects which means that almost every aspect of the show is complete by the time I see it. I spent around six to eight weeks on the score for El Camino. By comparison, I generally have three or four days to do the score for an episode of Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad.

Do any of the tracks correspond to specific characters?

Actually they all relate to one person, which is very different from the TV shows. Everything about the music in El Camino is focused solely on Jesse Pinkman. It is really telling his story, his physical journey. It’s also his intellectual and psychological journey from where he is at the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie where he has a glimmer of hope for the future.

What kind of instruments are used in this soundtrack? Some of the tracks sound very non-traditional. 

Good, I’m glad to hear that because that was definitely the goal. With Breaking Bad and El Camino, maybe not so much with Better Call Saul, I’m definitely spending a lot of time trying to create sounds that are new, sounds that are interesting to the ear. I create sounds that are evocative and familiar that you can’t quite place. I take a lot of interest and joy in working with sounds that are electronically created or “found sounds.” There’s also taking a recording of something else and manipulating it into something that feels organic, like something you’d hear with your own ears in the real world. That’s part of the goal and what I’ve always wished for on these Vince Gilligan projects.

There were a lot of live performances [for this music]. One of the beauties of working on the film as opposed to the TV show is that I had the luxury of a lot more time. In that time I was able to record a lot of musicians and spend a lot more time recording myself playing instruments that found their way into the score of the film. There’s a lot of interesting instruments in use, including some non-traditional stuff in terms of the percussion and world instruments. Almost everything I do I’m later processing with various computer and synthesizer elements to blur the lines between real, organic instruments and what is synthetically created.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

Yes, there are a few moments that I love and I’ll give you a Top 3. There’s some music right after Jesse learns the fate of Walter White over the radio and he’s thinking about his next move. A second moment would be a piece where Jesse sneaks back into his childhood home. These are all things where Jesse is being forced to deal emotionally with things he would rather not. And the third moment was one of the hardest pieces to write by far, which is the very end of the film. I love how we worked to tie together all the emotion from Jesse’s journey in as few notes as possible and then leave the audience with silence at the end of the film-as we have so often in the Breaking Bad universe-leaving it open for the viewer.

When you started Breaking Bad, did you ever think it would come to all this?

Definitely not. When we began Breaking Bad, I knew I was blessed to be a part of something very special when I saw the pilot episode. It was unlike anything else that was on TV at the time. Twelve years later…to imagine that I still get to work not only with Vince Gilligan but so many of the wonderful people who have been part of that world for this long. This is something I’m so grateful for and I never could have imagined it.

My thanks to Dave Porter for taking the time to talk about his work on El Camino. You can find Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul readily available on DVD while El Camino remains available on Netflix.

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Exploring the Music of ‘We’re Here’: An Interview with Herdís Stefánsdóttir

Recently I was given the opportunity to interview Herdís Stefánsdóttir, a film and television composer perhaps best known for working on The Sun is Also a Star and currently working on the upcoming HBO series We’re Here.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir graduated with an M.A. degree in film scoring from New York University in 2017. Since graduation she has scored two feature films, an HBO series and a few short films. Her scoring work includes Ry Russo -Young’s MGM/Warner Bros. feature film, The Sun Is Also A Star and the HBOseries We’re Here. Herdís was nominated for The Icelandic Music Awards for her score in The Sun Is Also A Star. Herdís interned for the Oscar nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson inBerlin while he was working on the film Arrival (2016) and she has scored numerous short films that have premiered at top-tier festivals around the world like Berlinale, TIFF, Sundance and Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The subject of the interview was Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s work on the upcoming HBO series We’re Here, a short series about people being transformed into drag queens and coached into stepping outside their comfort zones by famous drag queens including Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara, and Shangela. We’re Here is currently set to premiere on April 23, 2020.

What drew you to composing for film and television?

I started experimenting with it a few years ago when I was in school. I was collaborating with dance projects, theater, and all that kind of stuff. I really enjoyed working with people and working on stories. It’s a totally different way of approaching music that I hadn’t done before. That’s how it started.

How did you get connected with We’re Here? It’s an interesting premise for a show

We’re Here [came about] from my agent sending in a portfolio, essentially a reel of my music that the creators really liked and they thought it was a good fit. And it is a good show, I quite like it.

How did you approach scoring a show like We’re Here?

Actually I’m not quite finished [with scoring], I’m actually in the middle of the scoring process. I just finished episode 3 and I’m working on episode 4. It’s definitely something that I hadn’t figured out before I started because what’s interesting is that the episodes all have the same theme with going to small towns. They’re talking to people and getting their stories. Each of the stories are so different and the characters are so different. So it kind of developed through the process of scoring. And I feel like where I am now, basically I’ve been creating a sound world for each person. Each story and each character gets their own sound. That’s how it’s been developing. And that sound is changing from episode to episode.

How is the process for scoring television different from scoring for film?

It’s very different. I’ve never worked on a project like this, that has real people and a real story, and it makes the scoring process almost indescribable because it’s so different from working on fictional material. It has to be so right, like when a person is talking you don’t want to go overboard and make it cheesy. You want it to be the right emotion without taking too much space. It’s a lot of work to get everything right. In film, there are moments where you’re just writing music for something where no one is talking and you can just write a piece of music more inspired by the film. But this [the show] is more like weaving a thread of music within all the stories and conversations.

About how long was the recording process for each episode?

For the first episode, that was the one I had the longest time to work on. That was when I was starting to figure out what I wanted to do, how do I want this to sound. That was more a process of experimenting and trying to get the right emotion and the right heart of this show.

I’ve been mostly working my myself in the studio and I record instruments, synths, different sounds, the piano, and my voice. Then I get friends to record specific instruments that I might need. And the further we are in the process the faster it’s happening. There’s definitely been more pressure for each episode as it goes on. And [the process] has been interesting because in a [traditional] narrative or fictional series you start creating a sound world with themes that are reused throughout. However, because each episode has its own identity, I always feel like I’m starting from scratch when I start a new episode. I would say it’s about three or four weeks per episode [to finish scoring].

Is the music for each episode connected to that of other episodes, or are they in their own musical “bubbles”?

They are definitely connected because there are two sides to it. There are the characters but there’s also all the moments in the show. Some scenes need cues to bring out a certain emotion so there’s definitely a thread connecting them. It’s a special element that defines each story or character. There is an overall sound that connects everything, even when I might play around and change the instrumentation for the different characters.

Did anything in particular influence the sound of the music you were making? That is to say, were you going for a particular sound?

I wasn’t at all. I was just kind of open to see where it would take me. What kind of surprised me was the different people, with their different stories, and how they called out interesting things. It was like “this person needs this in their story.” All of it has been developing as we go. I didn’t decide anything before [we started]. I just knew I wanted to avoid a typical TV score, I just wanted to create a unique voice for everyone.

What do you want viewers to take away when they watch these episodes and hear your music?

I just hope it gets into people’s hearts. I hope they feel the story. I think that’s the purpose of the music. It’s a way of helping people tell the stories.

I want to give a big thank you to Herdís Stefánsdóttir for taking the time to talk with me about her work on the upcoming HBO series We’re Here. The show will premiere on HBO April 23, 2020.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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