Interview: Pharrell Williams on the Music of “Hidden Figures”

Posted on December 21, 2016 at 3:37 pm

“Hidden Figures,” the true story of African-American women mathematicians at NASA during the 1960’s is one of the most uplifting films of the year. Its score is composed by by Hollywood legend Hans Zimmer with Benjamin Wallfisch and the best pop producer in the business and one of the most popular performers as well, Pharrell Williams, who told me “I’m lucky to be a part of this film.” Even before he got involved, Williams had begun to experiment with some 60’s-inspired compositions. “I grew up around that kind of music because I was born 11 years later. So I used to hear it around the house, my parents played it and at my grandmother’s house too, I used to hear the music. That’s a very crazy time, but it felt good and it was all music that evoked, music that came from the soul and that’s why they call it soul music. It was like you could just feel the core of where someone was coming from.” He used a mix of old and new instruments to create the sound.

Copyright 2016 Nell Minow
Copyright 2016 Nell Minow

Williams has worked with a wide range of musicians and performers. “Collaborating allows me to channel and learn new ways of working, new ways of thinking, new directions. This is all an education. Life is an education, so every time I collaborate with somebody it’s like a crash course into the way that they work, into this new moment that we are sharing and into uncharted territories.”

He told me what he learned from Zimmer and Wallfisch about writing music to complement a story. “Hans always likes to find the poetry in a script and then he likes to parallel it with the score. And Ben is like a seeker of tenderness.  I like to stoke the fires and try and stimulate something. So it was like this really interesting trio in the way that we worked. It was a whole lot of fun. And ultimately we came to the conclusion that when you think about scores there’s always like the default go to, Euro/Anglo angle when composing a score so we thought well, these women were not Euro and they were not Anglo. They were African-American, they were women and it was the 1960s, so those were our coordinates. That’s what we locked in on and that’s what we tried to chase.” He said this might be the music they listened to as they were cooking and driving to work.  “This music was meant to be the backdrop to the most important dialogue and the most important stories in its universe, in its world and so the music was never supposed to shine brighter than what was going on in the film because that was the most important part.” He said that does not mean creating the melodies differently but “you’ll know when it’s doing too much. I tried to pull the fire out of something first. Like in other words if you ask me do that then I have to go to that dial I have to dive deep on the four dimensional level and try to well up as much fire as I can and then I dial it down once I’ve got it.”

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Interview: Joby Talbot, Composer for “Sing”

Posted on December 19, 2016 at 3:20 pm

When a movie is called “Sing” and it centers on an “American Idol”-type amateur singing competition — with animal characters — it presents something of a challenge for its composer, who has to figure out a way to tie together a wildly and often hilariously disparate bunch of songs and singers. So it was a lot of fun to talk to composer Joby Talbot about how he managed to create a lively and engaging score that meshed with a bunch of iconic tunes from many different genres.

“The film is directed and written by my old friend Garth Jennings,” he told me. “I wrote the music for both of his other films, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Son of Rambow, and when he asked me to do it I completely leapt to the chance to work with him and with Illumination, one of the absolute greats in this golden days of animation that we’re living through at the moment. I love “Despicable Me’ and ‘Lorax,’ and all those other movies they have made. Garth explained what it was and he said that they made the decision early on they were going to keep the whole score and song elements quite separate. They do overlap occasionally but Harvey Mason Jr. and his team were in charge of the songs and I was in charge of the score. We realized very early on that the score was going to have a lot of work to do. It’s really important that in this film it is necessarily broken up by some numbers but there’s something that’s really a central kernel, and impetus of the film that really takes you through it. The score really helps you leap between the different storylines or the different characters but most importantly really helps you identify with the characters, helps gets across their kind of emotional journey and who they are and helps you really care for them and fall in love with them. That’s what I was setting out to do with the music. The music cues in the score, even though sometimes they are quite short when they fall in between songs just taking you from one to another, that doesn’t mean they are small or not important. They’re doing so much work all the time. The themes being developed and a whole number of different emotions being thrown at you — that is the work of the score, so it’s actually a huge challenge but I really enjoyed it.”

Talbot met the director in the 90’s, when he was playing in a rock band and Jennings was doing music videos. “I used to play in a band called Divine Comedy way in the 90’s in England and he was one half of Hammer and Tongs who made their name doing promo videos for pop songs. He’s one of the really famous directors in the golden days of the pop videos back in the day when there were enormous budgets and MTV ruled the world. Garth was one of the main guys and we met through our mutual friend Nigel Godrich, the producer of Radiohead and Beck, he’s got great, amazing talent, and Garth was directing actually a commercial for British telecom, the big telecommunications company in Britain and it was supposed to be like a sort of 90 second mini disaster movie with all kinds of objects falling out of the sky. Nigel suggested me for the music and although I hadn’t met Garth I actually knew his wife quite well. She had been in charge of the clothes we wore on a particular pop video that we did.

Copyright 2016 Illumination
Copyright 2016 Illumination
And we met and instantly we got on really, really well. Garth had never worked with a composer actually scoring in any of the films he had made and I felt incredibly lucky to be the guy who got that gig because and his approach as a director is inspired by people like Billy Wilder. He likes that kind of old-school moviemaking and he was adamant he wanted an orchestral score and he wanted it to function in a way those great orchestral scores of yesteryear worked. With my background in classical music that absolutely chimed for me and we just hit it off and never looked back really. Working with him is always a complete joy. I have a couple of collaborators in different fields who I really, really love working with and Garth is one of the best. He such a thrill to work with. We just get each other; it’s great.”

This film has animal characters that include a pig who is a housewife and mother, a shy teenage elephant, and the ape son of a crime boss. There are dramatic incidents which could be quite intense in another kind of film like a robbery, a parent in prison, and a fire. Talbot spoke about finding a way to musically reassure people that it’s exciting not too tense or scary. “There was one cue where they go to the visiting room at the prison and they were aware that that might be rather scary and alarming sequence for a little kids, so that was the one cue where they said, ‘If you could try and reassure us with the music rather than amping up the scariness but everything else, that would be great.’ I just was going with my feeling as to what the emotion of the scene was meant to be. The big robbery sequences were really kind of full contemporary action. So we brought in some really fantastic guitar and drum and bass players and overlaid it with big, bombastic orchestra. But those sequences don’t last that long, so you are just like catapulted into that world and then you are spat out the other end and you get on with the rest of the film. One thing I’ve learned pretty quickly, there was no putting any kind of intro into anything, it is just like, blam! We’re into the cue, here we go. The film actually lives or dies on whether or not you believe in these characters, believe in their motivations and care what happens to them and really root for them. The music has a huge role to play in that. For example, Meena the elephant is so paralyzed with shyness. It isn’t until later in the film that she sings and so the music really has to tell you what she’s failing to tell the world until finally of course in the end she has the opportunity to tell the world that she’s absolutely great. Tori Kelly has amazing vocal power. She’s incredible.”

The movie has a sensational collection of great songs, from “My Way” to “Shake It Off” to “Baby Got Back” and even “Bad Romance.” I was able to persuade Talbot to confess which is his favorite: “I am a big Steve Wonder fan, so ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” But he adds, “The things that’s really nice about it is that you might go there knowing full well that you don’t like some song or kind of music and then you find yourself with a big smile on your face tapping your foot.”

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Interview: Nicholas Britell, Composer for “Moonlight”

Posted on November 4, 2016 at 8:00 am

It is always a pleasure to catch up with composer Nicholas Britell, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask him about his gorgeous score for one of the best films of the year, “Moonlight.”

The movie includes three very different time periods with different moods and locations as the main character — played by three different actors — goes from child to teen to adult. How do you keep the score distinct, locate the audience in the time and place, and still keep the consistent context?

That’s a great question. It was very important that there be a real cohesion across the chapters in the film. Yet, at the same time, Barry and I wanted to make sure that there was a musical transformation taking place as Chiron’s life unfolds. Early on in our conversations, Barry told me about his passion for “Chopped & Screwed” music. This is a style of Southern hip-hop where you take tracks and slow them way down; in the process of doing this, the pitch goes down and you get this real deepening and enriching of the musical texture and the sound quality. This style of music is really woven into the film’s landscape, and we then had an interesting idea of how to bring it into the score. At one point in our discussions, Barry and I wondered: “What if we chopped and screwed my classical score to the film?” In other words, what if I wrote and recorded instrumental and orchestral music and then we chopped and screwed it? We both got really excited by the possibilities that this aesthetic approach presented. We thus started a two-part process of scoring the film. First, I would write music inspired by the film and record it with live instruments. Then, I would take those recordings and chop and screw then, bending them, slowing things down, morphing the whole audio of the pieces.

The results of that process were fascinating: slowed-down violins started to sound like cellos, cellos started to sound like basses, piano notes started to sound almost like weird bells – the possibilities were just huge.

So, over the course of the film, one element of the score’s evolution is that the recordings are chopped and screwed and transformed. In the beginning, we hear Little’s Theme, which is a piano and violin piece. This comes back in chapter two, as Chiron’s Theme, where it is modulated down, a bit lower and deeper. Then, for the scene inside the schoolyard, Chiron’s Theme is totally chopped and screwed; I slowed it way down and it is pitched about three octaves down. Then I layered the track on top of itself and ran it through a vinyl filter. It comes out almost unrecognizable, and yet you feel it rumbling in the subwoofers of the theater. The result is this total transformation of the piece – at times you might just barely be able to make out Little’s Theme from the beginning of the film within it, but you feel it. So those ideas of continuity and transformation across the chapters of the film were really at the front and center of our collaboration.

The beach and ocean play an important part in the film. How did that influence your score?

That’s an interesting question. Actually, I was very moved by the soundscape of the film when I first saw an early cut. Barry and I spoke at that time about the sound of the ocean. I was very into the idea that there is this symmetry that happens where the movie could start right from the beginning with the sound of the ocean, as you are sitting in the theater, and then at the end of the film you come back to this sound.

The ocean brought to me certain ideas about the sensitivity of the approach that we could take. There’s something so beautiful and hypnotic about that sound of the ocean. And the ocean is significant to Chiron, and is at the center of many important life moments for him.

When I read the screenplay to the film, and after watching an early cut, the first word which came to my mind was “poetry.” There is a true poetry to the way that Barry created this film: there is a feeling of beauty, of tenderness, of intimacy and sensitivity. When I started work on the film, I said to myself “What is the sound of this feeling of “poetry”? “What is the musical analogue to that?” Among the first pieces I sent to Barry was a piece I wrote called “Piano and Violin Poem”, which became Little’s Theme. In some ways, the beach and the sea, the natural world — all of those things were influential in my trying to evoke a feeling of beauty, and tenderness, and poetry.

Do you use any unusual instruments or sound effects?

Absolutely. This is something that I really explored in depth in “Moonlight.” In fact, one of the pieces that I wrote utilizes certain sounds from the world of the characters, not just typical instruments. For example, just before the scene where Chiron is going into school to fight back, we see him looking into a mirror over a sink. Many of the “musical” sounds that we hear in the music are actually sounds that I drew from earlier in his life. There’s this sort of rushing-air texture in the music, which is actually the sound of the water from Chiron’s bathtub from when he’s a little boy in chapter one; I took that sound and wove it into the piece of music that I was writing.

Another example is where there’s a percussive drum hi-hat-like sound that plays with an insistent rhythm throughout the sequence when Chiron is going back into the school. That sound isn’t actually a drum, it’s the sound of Chiron and Kevin high-fiving earlier in the film. I was imagining that he’s about to go forth into this very intense moment of his life, and his memories and his thought processes are so wound up with his relationship with Kevin, so he might almost be hearing certain symbolic sound memories like that in his mind. There were quite a few places throughout the film where would I would take sounds from one part of the film and weave them into the musical landscape of another part.

As for specific musical instruments, to some extent their sounds are linked with the idea of the Chopped and Screwed music, where we were taking real instruments and morphing their sounds into unique textures. There are musical sounds you might not hear anywhere else, because they’re sort of impossible to create in the real world. But, after recording a cello and bending the sound lower and deeper, you get some very fascinating textures.

This film’s main character is silent and isolated for much of the film. How does that affect the responsibility of the composer?

That’s a good question. I was cognizant of the fact that there are many places throughout the film where Chiron isn’t speaking, and the film really embraces the quietness of certain scenes. I think it’s a beautiful thing when characters don’t need to speak in order for the audience to understand them and feel their emotion. There are moments where, for example in the third chapter, Kevin and Black are looking at each other in silence. I find those moments incredibly poignant, and there aren’t any words being spoken. So if there is music in those places it might be able to express an idea of what the characters are feeling. The music can connect us with unspoken thoughts. From the very beginning of the film, I thought about how certain types of music might be able to get us into Little’s point of view.

Along the same lines, while choosing the places where music goes in a movie is important, in many cases, an equally important choice is where doesn’t music go. Where should there be silence? This was something that Barry and I spoke at length about as well.

I have to ask about the theme music you did for Slate’s Culture Gabfest. How did you combine all of their ideas in such a brief piece? Is that harder than creating a feature-length score?

For those who might not be familiar with that theme music: a few years ago, I was asked to write the theme music for the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast show. The specific assignment entailed combining many different “ideas” and creating a sonic identity for the show. It was certainly a fun challenge to try to combine so many ideas into a sonic one-minute “signature” for their show! I would say the main difficulty with combining the ideas into 1 minute is in finding a way for the ideas to “blend together” in an interesting way. This can be tricky, as you don’t want the ideas to just be a noisy jumble! Writing a sonic signature like that and scoring a film are thus really two very different activities. The biggest difference with writing a feature film score is that the approximately 90min-120min of a feature film give you so much space to explore the musical ideas. As opposed to “compressing” them into a short span of time (as in the Gabfest theme’s 1 minute length), with a film score one is able to focus on the architecture of the film and the geography of where the musical ideas go within that architecture. One of the most exciting parts of the process of film scoring is getting the chance to develop ideas over the length of a film. A lot of the joy of the process is in seeing how things evolve.

My previous interview with Nicholas Britell was about the beautiful song he wrote for “12 Years a Slave.”

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Middleburg Film Festival: Salute to Composer Henry Jackman

Posted on October 24, 2016 at 9:14 pm

The Middleburg Film Festival had an outstanding line-up of films, many with filmmakers present to answer questions. But unquestionably the highlight of the festival was the concert tribute to composer Henry Jackman. Middleburg is unique in its annual recognition of film scores with its Distinguished Film Composer award, and they do it right. The Shenandoah Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of maestro Jan Wagner, performed the world premiere of suites from films scored by Jackman. The finale included the Freedom Choir singing with the orchestra the haunting score from “The Birth of a Nation.”  Hearing the music without the sound effects and dialogue demonstrated powerfully how essential the score is to establishing the mood, direction, and character of the story.

In between clips from Jackman-scored films that ranged from “Monsters vs. Aliens” to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and Seth Rogen’s “The Interview,” Jackman spoke with Middleburg Film Festival Advisory Board member John Horn about the “weird and nasty noises” he includes in some of his compositions. He said that the first film that made him think about the contribution made by the music was, of all things, “Predator.” He was still in school, studying music, and was captivated to hear that the “Predator” score was “very harmonically sophisticated music with tritone chord changes.” He laughed that years later, when he told composer Alan Silvestri how much that music had inspired him, Silvestri responded, “I didn’t even try with that one!”

Despite the fact that his music teacher told him that “Film music isn’t real music, dear boy,” he decided to pursue it.

He said that one advantage to working on animated films is the longer lead time.  He often has a couple of years with updates on storyboards and character designs, while with live-action features, he hopes for as much as three months.  He is happy when the director has a sophisticated understanding of music (Edward Zwick impressed him by asking whether “the da capo should start here”), what he really appreciates is a director who will be clear about the mood and story.  He is glad to have direction with terms like “stress, kinetic, and narrative.”  He emphasized more than once that a film composer has to understand story as well as music.

A composer can help a movie’s problems, but can’t fix them, he told us.  “Music can sneak you past things” and “when characters are off the screen you can add some narrative.”  He said that Hans Zimmer told director Ron Howard that he could convey all of the dense historical background for “The Da Vinci Code” by writing music that “will make the audience feel devastated and know that what happened was really unfair,” and that would be enough.

He talked about working in different genres and with different directors.  Paul Greengrass like “ruthless realism.”  But in a movie like “Puss in Boots,” there is “no point in trying to be subtle.  It’s not often you get to see an egg sword fight with a cat.”  And for  the provocative satire, ‘The Interview,” instead of going for the comedy, he created a big, pompous classical score, “something Kim Jong-un might approve.” And for “The Birth of a Nation,” he asked “Why wouldn’t Nat Turner get the same compositional and orchestral accompaniment” that Mel Gibson had in “Braveheart?”

He said that matching the score to the film can be “chess-like problem-solving.”  The festival’s award, then, was the equivalent of designating him a grand master.



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Interview: Composer Jake Monaco

Posted on September 30, 2016 at 3:56 pm

Jake Monaco is a multi-talented composer who has worked on a variety of projects for film and television. His music will be featured in Fox’s highly-anticipated action comedy “Keeping Up With the Joneses,” starring Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot, Isla Fisher, and Zach Galifianakis. He is also currently scoring three family-favorite animated series, “The Stinky and Dirty Show,” Netflix’s “Dinotrux,” and Warner Bros. Animation’s “Be Cool Scooby Doo.” As a producer and composer of additional music for Christophe Beck, Monaco has contributed to the animated magic of “Frozen,” the record-breaking laughs of the “Hangover” trilogy, the furry hijinks of “The Muppets,” and the award-winning documentary “Waiting for Superman.” What he loves about composing for movies and television is creating music that tells the story. He took time from his busy schedule to answer my questions.

What was the first instrument you learned to play?

Copyright 2016 Jake Monaco
Copyright 2016 Jake Monaco

I started taking guitar lessons when I was 6, but after a year of not wanting to practice, my parents let up. Then my freshman year of high school, my family moved, which left me with a lot of free time. I started getting more into music in general at this point and so I found that same guitar from when I was 6 and started teaching myself. I think it’s still in my attic actually… I should go and get it at some point 🙂

When did you first realize, watching a movie, that someone composed a score that helped tell the story?

My favorite movie as a child was Ghostbusters and although I didn’t know anything about Elmer Bernstein at the time, I remember the music being an integral part of the story.

What was the first composing job you got paid for?

I was accepted into the USC film scoring program 2006-2007. My first paid gig was with a director named Zeus Quijano on the short “Point of Entry”. A few years later he turned this 5 min short documentary into a 20 min version, which I was also lucky enough to work with him on. He is hoping to turn it into a feature eventually. Fingers crossed!

At what stage do you usually come into a project? Before or after filming has been completed?

It completely depends on the project. Some smaller projects, I have started working on themes or sound palettes prior to shooting, or in the case of animation, during the storyboard phase. Although on the last two features, I’ve been brought on only a few weeks before completion. I had two and a half weeks for “Absolutely Fabulous” and five weeks for “Keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s kind of exhilarating to be under that sort of deadline; adrenaline gets you through!

If you could go back in time and score any movie, what one would you pick?

Probably any James Bond film. I love them all (even the bad ones). 🙂

When you work on a film that mixes genres, like the action comedy “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” how is that reflected in the music?

I try to make the action sequences as fun as possible. While there are still stakes in the film, the music doesn’t have to play them so seriously, it’s ok to have fun! There’s a long, exciting chase sequence in the middle of “Joneses” that, while it has a driving beat and action elements, has a funk horn section and some crazy EDM synth interjections. The comedy is really all about timing; when is the perfect moment to drop out. A lot of the time, a joke plays funnier when the music pauses for it as opposed to commenting on it.

Did you incorporate any unusual instruments?

Without giving away too much, there is a running theme through the movie about the Joneses going to this little café in Marrakech in Morocco. So I did a little research and found some instruments native to that region that are sprinkled throughout the score. The two most interesting being the Sintir (or Gimbri), which is a 3 stringed mid/low register plucked instrument that has camel skin stretched over the body and the kemenche which is a bowed instrument that rests on the players knee and has a very distinct, almost nasal, tone to it.

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