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The guy problems of fawn-eyed rom-com star Anne Hathaway in the American big city and nowhere town. Asia’s pesky buildings that get in the way of a man in a big monster suit (or at least in the good old pre-CGI days). Never shall these two movie worlds, or protagonists meet – especially in the case of a composer whose lovers usually get split asunder by Cylons, Walkers or nasty British soldiers. But there’s got to be a first for everything for Hollywood, and Bear McCreary. In this case, it’s “Colossal,” wherein Hathaway’s woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown through a series of bad luck relationships goes back home to sort her wreck of a life out – only to discover that her angst is controlling a major, monstrous wrecking ball in the form of a creature terrorizing Korea’s capital of Seoul. Gradually breaking through her alcoholic, guy-fueled haze, Gloria takes control of her life by making the beast half a planet away do some unexpectedly silly things (or at least the kind of wincing stuff Godzilla did back in his drunken, dancing Elvis period).
However, when you at first listen to Bear McCreary’s glorious, city-stomping score, you might think he’s playing the continuing adventures of the can-do heroine who just blew up a space invader at the end of “Ten Cloverfield Lane.” Such is the rousing orchestral weight and emotional mystery of “Colossal,” which gradually tips its hand to the more intimate, ironically dramatic story at hand from the eccentric mind of director Nacho Vigalondo. But then, the idea of taking a small view at a gigantic genre twist is often a spin on Nacho’s offbeat Spanish films as “Timecrimes,” in which a time paradox unwinds in someone’s home, and “Extraterrestrial,” where an invasion is waited out in an apartment. McCreary’s score for “Colossal” makes you realize the scope is just a bit bigger, and intimate at that. Alt. score faves like acoustic and rock guitars blend with bombastic symphonic foot-smashing, an angst-ridden cello finds an accompaniment in blasting brass, and tender piano builds to cosmic revelation worthy of Gozer the Gozerean. It’s witty and emotionally stratospheric scoring that has it both ways, often playing the straight, musical creature to a wacky, well-realized idea in a way that only expands McCreary’s catalogue of genre music, while showing the different, dramatic paths he’s equally capable of.
Indeed, it’s likely that the collected works of this protégé of Elmer Bernstein would stack higher than Godzilla if you put together the likes of “Battlestar Galactica,” “Black Sails,” “Outlander,” “Agents of SHIELD,” “The Walking Dead” and all of the other hit shows to his credit. Yet it’s McCreary’s forays into movie theaters that provide some of his best work, from the wondrous “Europa Report” to the metalhead demon busters that comprise the “Knights of Badassdom” or the eerily haunted beauty of “The Forest” and “The Boy” (we can even throw in some dance moves of a “Step Up” picture in there). But given its own tonal connection to the riveting, exceptionally constructed bomb shelter break out of “Ten Cloverfield Lane,” “Colossal” comes across like the tip of an iceberg to just how many genres McCreary is capable of in a movie, and score that delightfully, and movingly has its way with two unlikely ones.
What’s your for the giant monster films of yore, and how do you think their scores played into that?
I have always loved a good giant monster movie, and have tremendous respect for the legacy of the genre. “King Kong” was certainly the first giant monster movie on a large scale, and featured one of the first recorded scores in the history of film. So, in a way, every film with music owes a debt of gratitude to giant monster movies!
What was it like working with Nacho, especially given how unique his genre films are?
Nacho quickly proved himself to be as distinct as his films. I was inspired by his film, and even more inspired by his creative leadership. His grasp of the story, the themes, and their interaction, was as detailed as any filmmaker I’ve ever collaborated with. He was fun, funny and clear in articulating his vision.
We’ve never quite seen a “Kaiju” movie like “Colossal.” How would you say it subverts the genre? And was that a big appeal for you to do the score?
It subverts the genre by being a different film entirely that happens to take place within that world. I think the film is character drama, wrapped up in a love letter to the “Kaiju” genre.
How much did you want to emulate the sound of “Kaiju” movies with “Colossal?”
It was not a concern of mine in the slightest, to be honest. I did not revisit any classic monster movies scores before scoring this film. I focused on the character arcs and the tension. There certainly are big moments in my score, but those were not the focus of my creative energies.
Given Korea is the setting of its monster rampage, how much of an Asian quality did want to bring to “Colossal?”
I think my score, with its folksy strumming electric guitars and solo cello melody, has a distinctly rural American sound. The large orchestra represents the giant monster and the stakes of the danger, but the iconic sounds of the score are intimate and indie-rock in nature.
How did you want to thematically contrast the characters of Gloria and the monster, then have the music gradually bring them together with their symbiosis – especially give how different the worlds are of the “indie comedy’ and “giant monster” scoring are?
Gloria has a theme that stands out pretty frequently in the film. Her solo cello melody is often supported by strumming electric guitars. Those elements definitely come from the “indie” film world. I used an orchestra to achieve a larger “blockbuster score” sound when appropriate. In fact, the opening Main Title cue is actually a bit of a musical joke: a tense ostinato in the low strings and mounting huge brass fanfare build tension that sounds like it will reveal an epic monster, and instead, we cut to Gloria sheepishly opening a door to her boyfriend’s apartment after having been out drinking all night. At the end of the film, I brought the two sounds together, putting the “indie cello” melody in the soaring full orchestra. It was an epic, fun moment.
Usually films follow on storyline. But what kind of challenge did it pose given “Colossal’s” intercutting between Gloria and the monster?
I chose to focus the music entirely on Gloria. We witness the fantastic events through her eyes, so I generally chose to score her reaction to the events, rather than the events themselves.
Two instruments in “Colossal” that are particularly featured with the orchestra are the guitar and cello. Could you tell us about the score’s ensemble?
The guitars and solo cello were my way of rooting the score in an “indie film” persona. I wanted the score to feel almost schizophrenic for the first hour of the film. Like, some edgy indie rock band scored half of it, and a classically trained orchestral composer scored the other half. Then, as the film progresses, the two musical styles merge to form a coherent vision.
Colossal doesn’t quite prepare for you for its most massive subtext about abusive relationships involving men. As a male composer, did that affect you emotionally, and make it all the more challenging to play the score from a female perspective?
The themes of abuse, both in substances and relationships, run deep in this story, and those themes inspired me to give the score a sense of emotional weight and importance. The film is about how relationships can become imbalanced, with dominance overtaking vulnerability. This is represented in the score with the acoustic solo cello struggling to hold its own against a relentless and overpowering synth pulse. I suppose in that regard, the feminine voice of the score is represented by an acoustic instrument, and the masculine voice is represented by a synthetic instrument.
In its way, minus its indie vibe, “Colossal” plays as a sequel score to “Ten Cloverfield Lane,” one of last year’s best films, and scores, especially in how the music “opened up” a movie that could have been claustrophobic. Could you talk about scoring it, and how you hope to remain part of the “Cloverfield” universe?
I wouldn’t have thought of it until you mentioned it, but there is a musical structure that’s similar to both films, I guess. Both films start off very contained, and build to a huge finale that’s bigger than what you’re anticipating based on the first hour of the film. That story structure obviously has an impact on the requirements of the scores for those films. As for the “Cloverfield” universe, I am always up for whatever JJ Abrams wants me to do.
There’s a fun, bombastic quality to your score. How important was it to give “Colossal” that extra, astounding push without overwhelming it?
This was a huge question, and the first thing I tackled in scoring the film. It was vitally important that the score deliver an epic, soaring finale, without overpowering or destroying the tone of the film. The last 12 minutes of the film, were the first thing I wrote (in fact, I scored the entire 12 minute last reel on spec as a demo to land the job!). Once the final reel was approved by the director and studio, it was an easier process to reverse engineer the rest of the score.
Conversely, how important was it for you to give an insane story like this emotional weight?
Giving a story emotional weight is truly the only thing I am ever concerned about when doing a film, regardless of genre. Without an emotional connection, plots ultimately lose my interest after about 30 minutes. It was the intensely satisfying emotional arc of this film that made me want to do it in the first place.
You’ve been upfront about how you use a team of composers given your insane workload something that’s been commonplace in the industry for years now, though not talked about as candidly as you do. How do you retain quality control, and are there projects where you are determined to be the sole composer on?
Working in modern television requires a composer team to keep up with the massive amount of minutes necessary every week. Because all my television scores feature live players, most with full orchestra every episode, my team at Sparks & Shadows also includes orchestrators, engineers, music editors, copyists, session producers, and employees dedicated to coordination, logistics, project management, sample development, and tech support. Everything is in-house. The operation is massive, but allows me the creative support to spend my every waking minute involved with the creative concerns of my projects.
How do you think “The Walking Dead” has changed in the way where it’s now featuring scenes that rely entirely on music? And given the epic war that’s coming in the next season, how do you see your music for the show growing?
I have been fortunate to be a part of “The Walking Dead” since day one. My score has evolved as rapidly as the show itself, now nearing the end of its seventh season. I am just completing my fourth season with showrunner Scott Gimple, who really appreciates the value and emotional impact of music, and envisions sequences where score will be featured prominently. I am eager to see what happens next season!
With all of the film and television work you’ve done, it’s almost a surprise that you’ll be scoring your first non-genre dramatic movie with the upcoming “Rebel in the Rye,” about J.D. Salinger. What was that experience like, and do you hope to get more “straight” assignments like this?
Working with Danny Strong, creator of “Empire” and an accomplished actor / writer, on his directorial debut was a remarkable experience. It felt like a feat to land a film without time travel, robots, aliens, zombies, pirates, or demons. Scoring “Rebel in the Rye” was one of the best experiences of my life, yielded one of the best scores of my career, and I hope very much to do more films like it in the future.
You’ve also scored your first feature documentary “Unrest,” about a Harvard PHD who’s suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Could you tell us about your approach for it, and the big difference you’ve discovered between writing for features and non-fiction here?
I learned a lot working with Jennifer Brea on “Unrest.” Her film is a chronicle of her personal journey suffering with CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), telling both her intimate story and that of people like her around the world. For Jennifer, this film is literally her life. So, approaching it as I would a fiction film proved to be pointless. I rewired my thinking so that I was scoring her life, and thought of the film as a byproduct. The music had to be as intensely personal and intimate as her filmmaking. I am really proud of the film, and excited that people will get to see it on PBS in the near future.
Another forthcoming project is the Blumhouse production of “Half to Death,” a “Groundhog Day”-like movie about a heroine learning how to get to the bottom of her multiple deaths. What’s the trick of scoring a film with repeated scenes, and how do you want to repeat, and the change the music for it?
Oh my, word gets around fast. I’m just getting started on this one. It’s too early to say, but I am looking forward to tinkering with this. I am attracted to the idea of using similar music for repeated sequences, but ultimately, my motto is always “Follow the Character.” It’s more important for me to adapt with the character’s POV. I have some ideas crazy ideas that I’m looking forward to pitching the director soon.
With “Colossal,” how do you think you’ve contributed to movies about giant monsters, as well as millennial relationship problems? And when you think about it, are they the same thing?
I’d love to think that my score checks both of those boxes. That was certainly my goal. We’ll have to see how people respond when the movie comes out.
Colossal is another atypical genre film, and score for you. Do you find these films more interesting than a far bigger, cookie-cutter opportunity that might come your way?
I always enjoy working on projects that challenge me, and make me a better composer for having done them. I like to think that even a “cookie cutter” gig might present cool musical opportunities. But, for now, I just keep my eye out for interesting projects that push me out of my comfort zone.
“Colossal” rampages in theaters April 7th, with Bear McCreary’s score available on Lakeshore Records. Pick up your copy HERE
Visit Bear McCreary’s website HERE
Hollywood is a town of the young when it comes to the composers who get all of the cool gigs (perhaps excepting that 85 year-old duffer John Williams). On that note, there are few creatively hotter, hipster commodities than Rob Simonsen at finding unique, vibrant groove that speaks for a new sound of film scoring. Simonsen began his career as an assistant, arranger and then addition composer to Mychael Danna on such brilliantly non-conformist scores as “Where the Truth Lies,” “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” and the Oscar-wining “Life of Pi,” Making his solo feature debut with the knightly drama “Westender” (in which he played a role as well), Simonson has since amassed dozens of credits, with a particular emphasis on quirky, character-driven films. Tapping into an alt. rock sound so preferred by Gen X’ers and millennial audiences yet with a strong, old school sense of orchestral melody, Simonsen has chronicled their romantic angst for “(500) Days of Summer,” “The Way Way Back” and “The Spectacular Now,” as well as a rhythmic addiction to the net with “Nerve.” He’s heard the creepily symphonic sound of true crime with “All Good Things” and “Foxcatcher,” as well as using impossibly lush strings and electronics to mesmerizingly embody eternity in “The Age of Adeline,” or even hell’s kitchen with a cool, cutting-edge sample sound for “Burnt.”
With all of Simonsen’s credits, it’s ironic that one of his most clever, and thoroughly fun scores is a throwback jazz heist soundtrack with a hip, mature feel for “Going In Style.” It’s a hundred-and-eighty (plus thousands of more dollars) turn for both Simonsen and actor-director Zach Braff after their collaboration on “Wish You Were Here.” Gentle whimsy gives way to a rollicking, fat brass section, whistles, and a suspenseful orchestra that might befit the golden days of Steve McQueen barreling down the streets of San Francisco. But in this case, it’s the dream team of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin as three seniors who are mad as hell as their corporate mistreatment, and decide to take on a bank for the retirement robbed from them. Far more optimistic than the sad, gritty 1979 original, this “Style” is feel-good multiplex entertainment that gets the goods with well-weathered chemistry and symphonically jazzy flourish to spare, especially in Simonsen’s fresh retro grooves.
If these thieves might do their best not to get a rap sheet, Simonsen himself is getting labeled for comedy for good reason. At year’s end, he’ll be going on the lam with Owen Wilson and Ed Helms for “Bastards.” As their two man-children try to find their father in a series of screwball incidents and verbal squabbles, Simonsen provides an instrumentally eccentric take on a free spirit vs. stuck-up sibling. It’s a winning score that takes Simonsen on a road trip that’s familiar for its stripped down sound, but like “Going in Style,” offers the composer the chance to go for new, broader musical punch lines.
Certainly nothing if not prolific with the often musical chairs release dates of the many movies he’s scored, Simonsen also has the distinction of having another film scored by him on “Going in Style’s” April 7th opening date. And it couldn’t be for a more different movie, if beautifully familiar Simonsen score, than “Gifted.” Returning him to the company of “(500) Days of Summer” director Marc Webb, if in way more grown up surroundings, “Gifted” finds a math-magician little girl whose gifts are closely guarded by her single dad, who’d rather have her find a winning formula in life than becoming a guinea pig savant. At first depicting their relationship with ethereal magic, Simonsen introduces a more serious, symphonic sound for grown ups trying to tear them apart, yet with a subtlety that distinguishes the composer’s dramatically melodic instincts in a rich grab bag of distinctively vibrant, and stylistic scores.
How did you first connect with Zach Braff, and why do you think you were in tune as a composer and director?
Zach discovered me through an Apple commercial that I scored. He said he was watching TV and the “Photos Everyday” ad came on, which has no voice over or dialogue – just music accompanying all these beautiful shots of people taking photos on their iPhones. He loved the music on the ad and thought it was perfect for his film “Wish I Was Here,” so he did a Google search to find out who did the music and then found me. It was only after the fact that he found out I had done a fair bit of work with his editor and producers, so it all came together happily.
Not only is “Going in Style” Zach’s first “mainstream” film as it were, but it’s also a whole new, broader orchestral comedy sound for you, one very different from the kind of alt scores you often do. What were your mutual challenges like?
Zach has never made a film that was scored to this degree, so there was a lot of discovering about how to make the film work with score, which was achieved through a wonderful team Zach had with his editor, Myron Kerstein, music editor Andrew Silver, his producer Donald DeLine and music executive Erin Scully. Everyone wanted the same thing, but it took us time to figure out how to get there. Zach was very trusting of me and the process and we faced all the challenges together.
On my side, the initial challenge faced by all composers, is how to do something that hasn’t already been done – and done so well by the greats. In the journey of a working film composer, there isn’t always the opportunity to invent something new, so then it’s a question of how much fun to have with the genre and established approaches.
For me, this was a great opportunity to have a bigger, broader sound that harkened back to the 80’s and so many films I saw growing up. The fun, orchestral approach to “Back to the Future” was something we discussed in terms of how that score plays to the film. So really, it was trying to find unique musical material with melodies, motifs, etc, and then having fun.
This is definitely not your grandfather’s “Going In Style,” which was a very good, but downbeat movie. How important was it for you to establish a tone that was dramatic, but also played the lighthearted nature of the film?
Our rule was to never take away permission to laugh. Even though our heroes face real consequences, we were careful to never go dark. Zach’s films tend lean in with emotion so we also knew upfront that we needed warm fuzzy melodies.
When so many fun, jazzy “heist” scores have been done, what’s the challenge of finding something new for the genre?
As I was saying before, I think it’s about having fun with an existing genre. Not all films can handle experimentation, and they need to feel connected to their predecessors. So for me this was a chance to get into scores and records that I’ve loved for a long time, a love letter to Lalo Schifrin, Roy Budd, CTI Records…it’s musically referencing 60’s and 70’s but the approach and production is more of an 80’s, almost Amblin kind of thing.
How important was it to bring a youthful vibe to the score, while at the same time playing the particular challenges that reflect these characters’ ages, as well as their distinct personalities?
Zach wanted the youthfulness of the granddaughter character to come through in her scenes, so we needed something with energy there. And with our three main characters, despite their physical age, were playful and fun with each other. We never wanted to make their situation seem sad, we always wanted to lean into the fun and excitement.
A retro element would definitely come with aging characters like this who were in the primes of their youths in the 60s and 70s (as well as the 40s in one cue). How did that determine what kind of vibe did you want to explore for them, and how to incorporate that into a big orchestral sound?
I was definitely inspired to go retro, but not too much. Recording/mixing engineer Alan Meyerson was a brilliant partner in finding ways to give nods to the music we were referencing, while still staying modern.
What are your own favorite “heist” movies and scores, and why? How did you want the score to “track” the big, climactic robbery?
“Bullit” by Lalo Schifrin is one of my favorite scores of the genre (and films). John Barry’s stuff with the Bond franchise. Anything Roy Budd was doing in the 60’s-70’s like “Get Carter.” Quincy Jones, Deodato, Morricone. Even Sam Spence’s NFL Films stuff. I love the sound of electric bass and drum kit with orchestra.
There’s also a fun, subtle tropical flavor to “Going in Style,” as well as whistling and swinging flutes. How did those ideas come into play?
The whistling was actually an idea that Zach had, I think. It seemed like a fun idea so we went with it. There’s some body and mouth percussion in some spots as well. There’s a carefree playfulness to that stuff so it seemed like something to try and work in. The tropical vibe wasn’t intended, but maybe that’s just inherent with bongos and congas, of which there are a lot. We did a lot of Latin percussion, headed up by Pete Korpela, who is a fantastic player and brought a lot of groove to the whole score.
As fun as “Going in Style” is, does scoring a film like this make you reflect on your own mortality, and challenges that you’ll be face a few decades down the pike, especially in a composing industry known for its ageism. And if so, did that emotion play into the score’s more heartfelt moments?
You mean, was my own sadness about aging channeled into the score? Yes. Yes, it was.
“Bastards” is more in tune with other eccentric comedy scores you’ve done like “Girl Most Likely” and “The Way Way Back,” especially with its unplugged acoustical sound. How did you hit on this approach here, which also uses a more subdued orchestra?
“Bastards” needed something plucky and I wanted to find a way to get pluck without using plucked strings. I ended up using them a bit, but they’re 1:1 blended with palm-muted acoustic guitar plucks most of the time, so it makes it a little bit of a smaller, more intimate and hopefully unique sound. It still sounds like plucks I think, Ha! But the story for “Bastards” is really about a couple of brothers who are still trapped in their childhood selves in a lot of ways, and they reconcile by going on an adventure to find their father. So there needs to be a spirit of adventure driven by emotion, but big orchestra just felt too big and adult for that. It was the softer, quieter tones of acoustic guitar and upright piano seemed to match their characters.
It seems like just about any eccentric instrument is possible in “Bastards.” How did you pick which ones to use, whether it’s a dulcimer, a ukulele or a fuzz guitar?
Fumbling around until it felt right, pretty much. We used cimbalom, which is a fantastic instrument that I first heard my friend Chester Englander play with the LA Phil. It’s got a unique sound that can blend so interestingly with other things that we’re really used to hearing. It’s a fairly intuitive thing I think, just wanting something different and hunting for the right sound. I spend a fair bit of time at the outset just thinking about and experimenting with the palette.
How do you want to hit the difference between one brother who’s hopelessly wound up, and the other who’s a free spirit?
One is loose and goes with the flow, so we have something that’s laid back and relaxed, whereas the other one is uptight and needed something angular that is a little tense and also melancholic.
Like “Going in Style,” “Bastards” is a “caper” film of sorts, in that the mission is to do whatever it takes to discover who their real dad is. Tell us about capturing that kind of alt. jazzy sneaking about, as well as the idea of a multiplicity of potential, woefully flawed dads?
I think in the end I’m just tried to do what sounded sneaky to me. We knew there needed to be sneak in the score, but I think the discovery of the score was a theme that had a bit of hope and adventure. I imagined two young boys playing in the forest, setting out on a quest to find their lost father, the king. Waving a flag as they march into the unknown. There’s something sweet and earnest about that, and inevitably they get into shenanigans.
Is it particularly fun to play a road trip where bantering dialogue is as big a part of the physical comedy?
It’s quite different. Again, this was a bit of a broader film and score than I’m used to. But it was fun to play that up.
Despite its shenanigans, there’s an emotional core to “Bastards” about dealing with parental rejection, and wanting to be loved. How did you want to hit that without being overly sentimental?
Exactly as you said – to hit it without being overly sentimental. I was just trying to serve the scenes, which director Larry Sher did a wonderful job with. There’s some real emotion in that film. I get misty eyed every time I see it.
How was it for you to reteam with director Marc Webb on “Gifted,” this time as the sole composer?
It was great. I love Marc and he’s someone I’ve had a friendship with since we all did “(500) Days of Summer.” He’s a wonderful filmmaker.
Do you think there are instruments that naturally convey the innocence of children? And how did you want to play them here, especially given that this girl is super smart?
Anything small and bell-like seems to ring true for the sound of children. The main theme for the girl in “Gifted” is very simple. Elemental. She’s a normal kid in many ways, but a genius in others so we needed a more adult, complex sound from the orchestra that could keep up with that.
How did you want to play her bond with a dad of normal intelligence?
I would say he’s above average intelligence. But the life he is trying to give her is one of normalcy. He wants her to have a chance at developing without the pressure from the world to juice a mind like that. There are some interesting questions about the morality, ethics and responsibility of genius there.
There have been many kid’s “courtroom” movies that have gone wrong, especially given scores that tended to be treacly. Was that a concern here, especially as the score grows increasingly solemn with its dramatic stakes?
Yes, we never wanted to be too cute. McKenna Grace, the young actor that plays the lead is extraordinarily funny, smart, and entertaining and we didn’t want it to turn into cuteness.
You’re part of an “Echo Society” that stages new works from composers in Downtown Los Angeles. Tell us about the group, and what kind of creative outlet it gives you?
The Echo Society is a group of like-minded friends who gather to create new works of art, and share that with the greater LA arts community. This city is so rich with artists of all disciplines. We wanted to connect with other artists that we may not have a chance to work with in our “day jobs” of film composers, etc. For us it’s really important to make art for art’s sake – to see what’s possible and to cast a vision for something that moves us. We try to execute that with as much passion and commitment as we can in a way that will hopefully move others. It’s been wonderfully rewarding as a composer. I’m just as excited to be there to experience it as an audience member as I am to share it as a co-creator.
You’ve got quite an interesting film coming called “House of Tomorrow,” which mashes architectural legend Buckminster Fuller with the story of two punk teens trying to get laid. What can we expect from that score?
The score is all analog synths and glass flutes. The idea was to capture the sound of the future from the past. So there’s a ‘science documentary’ from the 60’s kind of vibe. It was wicked fun.
When you hear “Going in Style,” “Bastards” and “Gifted,” what do you think they say about your range as a composer? And where do you want to go in terms of exploring uncharged musical areas?
What it says about my range is a statement for probably for someone else to make, as I’m always just doing my best with any assignment. For me, a film score is always a chance to do something new. Maybe it’s just new for me, but that’s worthwhile. I’m always looking for ways to grow and develop as a composer and human being, and doing things I haven’t done before is always an opportunity for that. I’m also finishing up my first solo record and that will hopefully open me up more to making more music for music’s sake.
“Going in Style” and “Gifted” open in theaters April 7th, with “Style’s” soundtrack on WaterTower Music HERE and “Gifted” on Lakeshore Records HERE
Join the “Bastards” on their road trip at year’s end in theaters
Find out about the Echo Society’s latest LA performances HERE
Visit Rob Simonsen’s website HERE
Read the full review
From its first ethereal tones, Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman’s (Oscar-nominated CARTEL LAND) CITY OF GHOSTS music score and sound design achieves a hauntingly simultaneous balance of nearly-imperceptible presence and atmospheric poignancy. “I sorta figured if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” reflects Mr. Heineman when expressing why he continues his creative collaboration with composers and personal friends, H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg.
With Mr. Salinas and Greenberg’s consent, I offer to kickoff our visit with an immediate impression during the start of the film that distinguishes it’s score from Cartel Land’s…it deftly emerges with warm, melodic cello and higher-notes vibraphone progessions from a dreamlike silence, and only registers as a lilting, tender counterpoint to the viscerally intense imagery of ISIS-occupied contemporary Raqqa, Syria in the picture’s opening sequence well after we’re already emotionally all-in invested via what will certainly be a harrowing, yet inspiring cinematic experience. Mr. Heineman recalls, “Cartel Land was an amazing collaboration with Scott and Jackson, and they’re so talented. We all developed a sort of shorthand making Cartel Land and for me, this film was extremely stressful on a bunch of different levels, so I just wanted to keep that band together. I reached out to them about collaborating quite early in the process, which influences the edit, allows them to freshly color the emotions and feelings of the images based on what I was responding to, what felt right or didn’t right away. So, those first sessions were extremely important to developing the language of the film.”
After the aptly assembled opening sequence juxtaposes quick shots of human ingenuity with fierce ISIS challenges, the creative team offers rhythmic marimba and guitar during it’s aural foreshadowing of visceral collective human resilience by showing early-resistance Raqqa uprisings against the anaconda-like noose unleashed upon local residents as the IS fighters descend upon the region from the hallucination-like mirage of surrounding desert terrain.
Integral to this story’s resistance are local members of the resistance platform, Raqqa Being Slaughtered Silently, or RBSS. We first meet hope in the schoolteacher Mohamed and blogger/videographer Hamoud…then immediately witness IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi slowly ascend mosque pulpit stairs. Tension feels temporarily relieved, then abruptly withdrawn as pensive piano accompanies our introduction to the situation’s lethality…the group’s member Moutaz is assasinated, and the team flees Raqqa for sactuary in nearby Gazientap, Turkey to establish a RBSS headquarters and where we meet their partner, Ibrahim, as well as German safehouses where we meet liason, Mouza.
“Raqqa is a nightmare,” whispers Hamoud’s brother, Hassan, one of the “Raqqa 12″ internal/external correspondents early in the film, and Mr. Heineman kindly brings us into their intuitively collaborative musical scoring process. “First, I sent them (composers Mr. Salinas and Greenberg) a few clips because we didn’t have a cut yet, and they delivered 10 – 12-minute ‘concentrates,’ that had a lot of different elements and we’d sit around and talk about what I was responding to.”
I ask about how scene cues felt unique in so far as they ascended from silence, almost imperceptibly. Mr. Greenberg responds with, “I think that’s a testament to the editing of the film. Every cue would start with a single instrument or sound. The opening sequence was so impactful (sic), with every intense moment followed by another even more intense moment, so we wanted to allow each of those to linger with the audience as long as possible while also moving them along in the story. The challenge was, let’s let people feel this but not have the music drag them out of the story, so our solution was to go with really simple opening to the cues, and then they often return to their simplest form at the end of the cue.”
Mr. Salinas expands, “There were a few cues that come in really strong too, so because mostly the cues were simple, so when the few cues that don’t behave that way come in, they feel way more impactful (sic), almost bigger than they actually are because we weren’t overusing that sort of strong. It’s sort of an instinctual tactic, that we can sort of really hit you hard when we need to. You’ll notice we do that with sound too, like when there’s an explosion or a phone suddenly dropping, it feels jarring. So, because before those moments, we’ve been in this interestingly delicate, smooth world, where I imagine your senses haven’t been overloaded yet, so we’re all sensitive to, when we go ‘to 11,’ how many times are you gonna do that and why.”
“When we were mixing with our amazing mixer, Tom Paul, who we worked with on Cartel Land, elaborates Mr. Heineman, “we said to him, ‘we want the film to have breaths but we don’t want them to feel like they’re breathing. So, in the sound mix, we did a lot of work with ‘reverb-ing’ sound in and out to help ease some of these transitions, make them seamless, make them seem like one long poem as opposed to a bunch of starts and stops.”
Case in point, about 3/4 into the picture, there’s a viscerally dynamic sequence elucidating the RBSS crew-in-exile as they emotionally transform from a sort of post traumatic stress detachment after settling into German safe houses, into a gradual fearless, actualized confrontation with German nationalists at an anti-refugee assembly. Tension builds as strings rise from a building bass and acoustic guitar trot that slowly gathers accelerating velocity into an alarming gallop. Mr. Heineman reflects on how he and the team approached music and sound challenges here with, “that scene was so chaotic and loud…there was a natural rhythm to the protests, and I feel that cue of Scott and Jackson’s is one of my favorite cues, so powerful. If you take away the ‘nat’ (natural) sounds, it’s pretty large and complicated but you just feel the emotion when you’re watching that scene. It’s really subtle in how it plays in the mix.”
Mr. Greenberg adds, “One of the things that happens in that cue is that at times, all the sounds get stripped away and we’re left only with music, and you can become aware that, ‘oh, wait a minute, the music was doing that the whole time,’ that creates a kind of whiplash impact.”
“It was similar to what we did sometimes in the Cartel Land mix, when we stripped away all nat sounds at the end of a cue and let the music bring it out,” Mr. Heineman recalls. “As a filmmaker, what I love is not going to a film with any preconceived notions or script in mind but letting it evolve naturally. If you’d talked to me a year ago when we started, would I ever think that we could include a scene of neo-Nazis marching through Berlin to somehow fit into this film. And while the film is sort of about this war of ideas, propaganda, information from these citizen journalists and ISIS’ slick propaganda, it’s also a story of immigrants, an exodus story, of Man’s understanding, coming to terms, and dealing with the cumulative effects of trauma…also, rising nationalism both in Germany and around the world. It’s about finding one’s own identity in a new place. So, what was beautiful about their music, is that nothing feels heavy-handed…it’s not like we get to Germany, Turkey, or Raqqa and suddenly the whole score changes. There’s a real sort of elegance to it, it’s so emotive but you’re not always aware of how the score is making that happen.”
Mr. Salinas chuckles at having utilized “that crazy precussion instrument – a ‘pocket piano’ I found at a luggage store in San Francisco” for that scene. It sort of sounds like an rhythmic organ but it’s made out of wood and makes really interesting sounds.”
Mr. Greenberg expands with, “It felt kind of like making an album where we felt free with Matt to experiment with shaping larger movements from those original stems. So, instead of aiming for a perfect cue, we did a subtractive rather than additive process, of a quickly freeing mashup approach. We also collaborated with a Syrian classically-trained musician, a well-known revolutionary songwriter who played over a dozen instruments…weird, distorted synths. We just did it and it worked very effectively because we all like similar source material and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Mr. Salinas adds, “I’d send in stuff, just as a jumping off point, and when it worked, it ended up in the movie.
In closing, I offer that the score maintains a organically-consistent vibe continuity flow throughout, to which Mr. Heineman generously lauds, “Yes, and I think that’s a huge testament to Scott and Jackson. One of the things I love about our collaboration is that we’re all sort of ego-less in the collaboration, there’s a trust that we’ve developed. For example, them delivering between 6 – 10 ‘stems’ for each cue, which allowed us the option to fine-tune everything. We played a ton with the stems.”
He kindly wraps to race after his next interview with, “I really appreciate your feedback on the film and our music process, it means a lot. Some people get the film and some don’t, and you get the intricacies of what we were trying to do.”