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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Composers Interview

Critic’s Choice Nominations 2012

Posted on December 12, 2012 at 6:38 pm

I am, as ever, honored to be a part of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which selects the Critics Choice Awards (be sure to watch the award ceremony live on the CW January 10 — I’ll be there!!)  Here are the nominees:

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
The Master
Moonrise Kingdom
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
John Hawkes – The Sessions
Hugh Jackman – Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
Denzel Washington – Flight

Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts – The Impossible

Alan Arkin – Argo
Javier Bardem – Skyfall
Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master
Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
Matthew McConaughey – Magic Mike

Amy Adams – The Master
Judi Dench – Skyfall
Ann Dowd – Compliance
Sally Field – Lincoln
Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables
Helen Hunt – The Sessions

Elle Fanning – Ginger & Rosa
Kara Hayward – Moonrise Kingdom
Tom Holland – The Impossible
Logan Lerman – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Suraj Sharma – Life of Pi
Quvenzhane Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Les Miserables
Moonrise Kingdom
Silver Linings Playbook

Ben Affleck – Argo
Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty
Tom Hooper – Les Miserables
Ang Lee – Life of Pi
David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg – Lincoln

Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained
John Gatins – Flight
Rian Johnson – Looper
Paul Thomas Anderson – The Master
Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola – Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal – Zero Dark Thirty

Chris Terrio – Argo
Tony Kushner – Lincoln
David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
David Magee – Life of Pi
Stephen Chbosky – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda
Lincoln – Janusz Kaminski
Les Miserables – Danny Cohen
The Master – Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Skyfall – Roger Deakins

Anna Karenina – Sarah Greenwood/Production Designer, Katie Spencer/Set Decorator
The Hobbit – Dan Hennah/Production Designer, Ra Vincent & Simon Bright/Set Decorators
Les Miserables – Eve Stewart/Production Designer, Anna Lynch-Robinson/Set Decorator
Life of Pi – David Gropman/Production Designer, Anna Pinnock/Set Decorator
Lincoln – Rick Carter/Production Designer, Jim Erickson/Set Decorator

Argo – William Goldenberg
Les Miserables – Melanie Ann Oliver, Chris Dickens
Life of Pi – Tim Squyres
Lincoln – Michael Kahn
Zero Dark Thirty – William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor

Anna Karenina – Jacqueline Durran
Cloud Atlas – Kym Barrett, Pierre-Yves Gayraud
The Hobbit – Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey, Richard Taylor
Les Miserables – Paco Delgado
Lincoln – Joanna Johnston

Cloud Atlas
The Hobbit
Les Miserables

The Avengers
Cloud Atlas
The Dark Knight Rises
The Hobbit
Life of Pi

Madagascar 3
Rise of the Guardians
Wreck-It Ralph

The Avengers
The Dark Knight Rises

Christian Bale – The Dark Knight Rises
Daniel Craig – Skyfall
Robert Downey Jr. – The Avengers
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Looper
Jake Gyllenhaal – End of Watch

Emily Blunt – Looper
Gina Carano – Haywire
Judi Dench – Skyfall
Anne Hathaway – The Dark Knight Rises
Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games

Silver Linings Playbook
This Is 40
21 Jump Street

Jack Black – Bernie
Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
Paul Rudd – This Is 40
Channing Tatum – 21 Jump Street
Mark Wahlberg – Ted

Mila Kunis – Ted
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Shirley MacLaine – Bernie
Leslie Mann – This Is 40
Rebel Wilson – Pitch Perfect

Cabin in the Woods

The Intouchables
A Royal Affair
Rust and Bone

The Imposter
Queen of Versailles
Searching for Sugar Man
The Central Park Five
West of Memphis

“For You” – performed by Keith Urban/written by Monty Powell & Keith Urban – Actor of Valor
“Skyfall” – performed by Adele/written by Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth – Skyfall
“Still Alive” – performed by Paul Williams/written by Paul Williams – Paul Williams Still Alive
“Suddenly” – performed by Hugh Jackman/written by Claude-Michel Schonberg & Alain Boublil & Herbert Kretzmer – Les Miserables
“Learn Me Right” – performed by Birdy with Mumford & Sons/written by Mumford & Sons – Brave

Argo – Alexandre Desplat
Life of Pi – Mychael Danna
Lincoln – John Williams
The Master – Jonny Greenwood
Moonrise Kingdom – Alexandre Desplat

“Lincoln” received a record-setting 13 nominations for the 18th annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, beating out previous record holder “Black Swan,” which had 12 nominations in 2011. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” garnered nods for Best Picture, Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis, Best Supporting Actor for Tommy Lee Jones, Best Supporting Actress for Sally Field, Best Acting Ensemble, Best Director for Steven Spielberg, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Best Score.

Following closely behind is “Les Misérables,” which received 11 nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor for Hugh Jackman, Best Supporting Actress for Anne Hathaway, Best Acting Ensemble, Best Director for Tom Hooper, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Best Song for “Suddenly.”

David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” also impressed with 10 nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor for Bradley Cooper, Best Actress for Jennifer Lawrence, Best Supporting Actor for Robert De Niro, Best Acting Ensemble, Best Director for David O. Russell, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Comedy, Best Actor in a Comedy for Bradley Cooper and Best Actress in a Comedy Jennifer Lawrence.

“Life of Pi” earned 9 nominations, and “Argo,” “The Master” and “Skyfall” each garnered 7 nominations. Jennifer Lawrence leads the female nominees with nods for Best Actress, Best Actress in a Comedy and Best Acting Ensemble for “Silver Linings Playbook” as well as Best Actress in an Action Movie for “The Hunger Games.” Bradley Cooper leads the male nominees with nods for Best Actor, Best Actor in a Comedy and Best Acting Ensemble for “Silver Livings Playbook.” Judi Dench was nominated for both Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress in an Action Movie for “Skyfall” and nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated for Best Actress and Best Young Actress for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” contributing to the film’s 3 nominations, including Best Picture.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

Posted on July 5, 2012 at 6:00 pm

A prize-winner at Cannes and Sundance, this near post-apocalyptic story of a father and daughter in a condemned part of Southern Louisiana is a stunningly assured debut by first-time feature director and co-writer Benh Zeitlen and extraordinary performances by a cast of non-professionals.

Six-year-old Hushpuppy (the mesmerizing Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry, who owns a bakery in New Orleans) live in homes made from trash in a fictional community called The Bathtub.  They do not have electricity, running water, or telephones, but Hushpuppy is happy and feels lucky to be there.

Zeitlen, the 29-year-old son of folklorists, makes this story exquisitely lyrical.  It is poetic in tone and epic in scope.  Seeing through Hushpuppy’s eyes makes it feel like a fairy tale because of the freshness of her conception of what is real and what is fantasy, what is strange and what is ordinary, what is scary and what is comfortable.  Like Margaret O’Brien in the beginning of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” she introduces us to the community she loves.  Like Alice, she brings us into a strange and enchanted world.

‘The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world,” she tells us; while ordinary people in other places only have one or two holidays, they celebrate all the time.  She is a part of a fiercely devoted community.  We hear her repeat what she has been told and we see the contrast between what she is telling us and what we are able to understand.  Her father’s hospital gown and the precariousness of their shelter signify nothing special to her, but we can tell it means that her father is very sick and the next big storm will flood The Bathtub.  What we see as peril and deprivation, she sees as a place of myth and plenty. And she sees it as her home.  For her, it is “the prettiest place on earth.”  That is what she has been told and that is how it seems.

Later, when they are taken to a shelter, we see that through her eyes, too.  For Hushpuppy, it is not a place of rescue and protection but a place of strangeness and sterility.  Buses parked outside, ready to take displaced people from the exotic but familiar world of The Bathtub to strange-sounding far-away places like Des Moines seem institutional and predatory.  Later, another possible rescue takes her to a part of the “civilized” world that again, we understand when Hushpuppy does not see how very dangerous it is.

Hushpuppy’s teacher points to the tattoo on her thigh to illustrate her stories about the aurochs, boar-like prehistoric beasts.  The fable-like timelessness of the setting makes the era of the aurochs feel very close.  When they appear, in a scene of breathtaking synthesis of myth and metaphor, Hushpuppy’s spirit seems to expand to fill all of the courage, resolve, and vision of the human spirit.

Zeitlen achieves a naturalness and state of wonder that is breathtaking to experience and one of the most impressive films of the year.


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Based on a play Drama Family Issues Stories About Kids

Interviews: The Director and Stars of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Posted on June 26, 2012 at 3:55 pm

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a lyrical tale of a six-year-old girl and her father living in “The Bathtub,” a fictitious community based on condemned parts of southern Louisiana.  In an almost post-apocalyptic setting with no electricity, running water, phone, government, or business, they have a life filled with danger and deprivation but also with joy and a strong sense of home.  The film has won prestigious awards at Sundance and Cannes and opens in theaters this Friday.

A small group of journalists met with stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry and writer/director Benh Zeitlin to discuss the film.  Henry told us that he owns the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in New Orleans, which was across the street from the studio where the auditions for the film were being held.  “All the guys from the production company would come over and get donuts, get coffee in the morning, back and forth for the course of about a year.  We would sit down and talk about a lot of things.  They would put flyers in the bakery if anybody wanted to audition for this upcoming film.”  Henry auditioned but then he relocated the bakery and the producers could not find him.  They finally found him and offered him the part but he could not take it because of the demands of the business.  He turned them down three times and then managed to work things out so he could do it.

He talked to us about his character’s behavior which at times seemed harsh and angry.  “I often throughout the course of the movie was trying to emphasize with a passion and an urgency for her to learn how to do these things I’m trying to teach her because her daddy’s dying….She’s the most important person in the world to me and she don’t have her mother.  So it is important to me as her father that she learn how to feed herself, take care of herself, and survive and be strong because Daddy’s not going to be here.”  He identified with his character.  “Everything I try to do in real life, the businesses that I’m building and everything that I’m doing is something to pass on to my children.  No selfish needs for myself.  Everything is for them.  I brought that same passion about working things out in real life to make sure my kids are all right — I brought that same energy and passion to the movie.  As fathers, that’s what we have to do.”

He had never acted before, but “you can’t get better than real life experiences.  You could have brought an actor from outside.  But I was in real water this high from storms.  I was two years old when my mom and dad had to put me on the roof in the lower 9th ward when Hurricane Betsy came and flooded the whole 9th ward.  I was in Camille.  What better experience than actually going through that versus bringing in some actor from the outside that never done this before, that never seen a hurricane, that never been in a hurricane, that never had to evacuate their home, that never lost their home, that never lost their loved ones?  I’ve seen bodies floating in the water after storms.  Seeing things like that gives you a passion.  I felt what they felt because I’ve gone through that in real life.”

Quvenzhané Wallis told us that the scariest part of the movie for her was the animals.  “I wasn’t a fan of the pigs.  I’d never even touched a big, I’d never even seen a pig, I didn’t know what a big looked like.  I just knew what a pig was.  It got me scared and they were forcing me to do it but I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t know what I was doing.   I just didn’t want to walk up to it and touch it.”  She said she enjoyed acting and wants to do more.  And she talked about trying different things as they would do many different takes.  “Every mood that’s in the catalogue or the emotion log, that’s what he wanted me to do….Benh just wanted to make it look like a real story.”  But it did not take a lot of acting to show her character’s strength and ferocity.  “That is me!”

Zeitlin told us the film is “a heightened reality that’s “a bit of a love song to the region.”  There’s no place that exists in the world that is The Bathtub, but it’s all built of real things.”  The crew would create the buildings the characters lived on out of trash, just as the characters would have.  “Every piece of every house is something that we found somewhere in South Louisiana.  It’s almost like a junk sculpture where you’re collaging together a lot of different things.  It isn’t real in that you could go make a documentary about it but it is real in that it is all made from real stuff.  It’s not a fantasy movie.  It’s about what the world seems like when you’re six.”  The movie is loosely based on a play where the character is an 11 year old boy and played by an adult.  But Zeiltin realized that the character would understand everything differently as an 11 year old and he wanted the poetry of a six year old’s point of view.

They looked at between 3500-4000 children and Wallis was “so clearly the person” that “we knew what we were doing from then on.”

The Deepwater Horizon explosion happened the day they began filming and Zeitlin talked about what it was like to film in the midst of the spill and clean-up.  “That cloud was hovering over the town, getting closer and closer every day.  It added a lot of weight to what we were doing that really transformed the film.”

“The film is almost to me like a jazz funeral.  No matter what is happening, you celebrate anyway.  Dwight talks about this.  He says, ‘We were partying before the storm, we were partying through the storm, and we’re partying after the storm.’  That’s not a superficial thing.  It’s a refusal to feel sorry for oneself or be crushed by the weight of tragedy, a refusal to get defeated.”


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