Interview: Dan Romer, Composer of the Score for “Beasts of No Nation”

Posted on October 18, 2015 at 3:42 pm

Dan Romer composed the score for Finders Keepers, a documentary about two men fighting over the ownership of a severed leg. “I saw the film and I mean I love it. You know I was laughing all the way through, well you know, laughing and crying ultimately in that film. There is a lot of heavy, sad stuff in that movie especially in the story of Shannon. It’s a really interesting story of where one guy who is addicted to drugs and he is able to recover from it and the other guy is addicted to celebrity and he does not recover. When I saw it I knew that it would be a really good project for me and my old friend Osei Essed. I used to be in a kind of bluegrass Americana band in college. I played the accordion in the band. We scored another film that actually just came out now called “The Last Season” which is a documentary about mushroom hunting.

He also wrote the score for the new Idris Elba film about child soldiers, “Beasts of No Nation.” The main character is Agu, played by Abraham Attah. Romer told me that he did not want the music to be too specifically connected to the usual sounds Western audiences associate with Africa. “Cary and I wanted the score to not feel like it had a specific region attached to it. I mean we didn’t want to do like an African percussion sound, we didn’t want to do anything that suggests colonialism instrumentally and we didn’t want to do orchestra. We felt like we kind of just wanted to do vintage 70’s or 80s synth score. We just felt like it didn’t connect to any typical region, it didn’t carry like specific group of people. It felt better that way in a way when you’re kind of are seeing things more from Agu’s point of view where they use a thing to more represent fear, anxiety as opposed to sound of the actual places. But that movie is scored from the point of view of Agu for the most part so we wanted to just kind of highlight what he was feeling as opposed to highlight the sounds that he might have grown up around.” Romer said that the sounds he used included samples he created, wine glasses, tambourines, even the sound of the coyotes that come into his back yard. “I would run out the balcony and start filming them and if you shift them down a few octaves they sound very, very cool. You just hear this kind of yipping. Once one start yipping, twenty start yipping so you just have this sound like going on and they’re very very loud. And they are just like down in this little valley behind our house.”

Romer started playing the piano when he was five “but I gave it up very quickly. Probably because it was so music reading focused. I kind of have a problem with the idea of having to learn to read music right away. It’s kind of like teaching kids how to read words before they can talk. I was seven when I learned to play the guitar. I was taught chord shapes and started playing songs immediately. So I stuck with guitar for a bunch of years and then when I was twelve or thirteen maybe I moved back to piano and I started teaching myself. And then because I was playing in a lot of bands I wanted to learn how to play bass and drums just so I could talk to bassists and drummers. So I learned bass and drum and one I got the guitar right I started playing accordion, mandolin, banjo and whatever I could put my hands on.”

At SUNY Purchase Romer studied music production. He worked with Ray Tintori, providing the score for a short film called Death to the Tinman. Tintori introduced him to Benh Zeitlin, saying that “he doesn’t really know much about music theory or how to play certain instruments but Benh kind of understands how music works in a movie.” Romer and Zeitlin worked together on that film, and then Romer scored Zeitlin’s short film. “And then couple years later he said he had another feature called ‘Beast of the Southern Wild’ and we ended up doing that score too.” He also worked with “Beasts of No Nation” director Fukunaga on a short film called “Sleepwalking in the Rift,” which he describes as “a visually stunning film.”

After Romer saw the rough cut from “Beasts of No Nation,” he worked closely with the team that was bringing it into final form. “We were a little family doing scores together. I did some of the score out in my studio in LA and then Cary and I talked on the phone and decided it would be better if I finished up the score in New York with him in the same place he was working with Pete, the editor. And then I spent maybe two weeks there and we just decided it would be best if I just stayed all the way through the final mix. I‘m from New York and so I was happy to stick around there for a long time and work with them.” He worked with a full orchestra. “I did a bunch of the percussion. I recorded all my samples in LA that I used that I was manipulating. And then I did a little bit of funky drum recording in New York and a little bit of trombone recording and I did some guitar recordings in LA also, some electric guitar. So there’s very few actual performances that just are persons playing music and then we are recording it and that’s that, it’s very manipulated. You can take any part of any sample and then stretch it across the keyboard and play it as a keyboard instrument and then use all different kind of parameters from the manipulations that you have been trying, distortion, reverb, and you can just put one note of a sample you made and it becomes many, many octaves of a new sound of an instrument you never heard before.”

Romer says he enjoys working in different genres. “What I want to do is work with people who I think are just amazingly creative.”

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