Keeping Score – Composer of Many Hats, Miles Hankins Talks “A Quiet Place” and “Long Shot”

Jul 03, 2019 Web Exclusive
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There’s a kind of intrigue to which I’m inclined and I’ve alluded to it before; I become super curious about those composers fluent through the range of emotional expression, the ones whose IMDB credits jump all over the page. When you break it down it shouldn’t be surprising that someone capable of identifying and feeling sadness and happiness, humor and fear, can then communicate all these musically – certainly if that individual speaks in notes and chords. Yet and still, when a composer for film can reach into the essence of the various core sensations to strike an audience with comparable feel, I perk up. I suppose I see it as a window into a sensitive nature: a high attribute of the artist.

Through his career that gets cooler by the project, composer for the screen Miles Hankins has distinguished himself early and often with his ability to capture whatever emotion a scene or archetype calls for. His broad thematic vocabulary and savvy across genre styles have benefitted him in an industry where versatility opens doors to an array of creative worlds. With a background in jazz piano, grand orchestral composition and electronic sound design, Hankins has been a worthy collaborator with the great Marco Beltrami since contributing additional music to Beltrami’s score for 2015’s Fantastic Four. The two have had a mutually advantageous relationship since, leading to Hankins’ current emergence as a jack of all trades composer.

Hankins’ swiftness in switching hats is revealed in the diversity of his last few projects. Since helping Beltrami to compose the award-winning score for one of the more inventively captivating horror films of this century, A Quiet Place, last year, he has written and arranged the music to two sports-based HBO documentaries and reunited with Beltrami again for their latest collaboration on the sharp-witted political rom-com Long Shot. This saw the balance of scoring tip over to Hankins for the first time.

In terms of genre fare, the two features in this pack, the smart Long Shot and even smarter A Quiet Place, couldn’t be more different. This drastic swing in genre territory afforded Hankins the opportunity to extend the reach of his hybridized skill set and show command in both worlds.

For A Quiet Place, a suspense-horror film in which the central theme is silence, Hankins, Beltrami and others across the music and sound design departments saw their roles become just as important, if not more, than any other. In a mostly depopulated American landscape where noises attract the sightless but seriously terrifying creatures hunting mankind to near extinction, the music had to coexist with the sounds, and silence, of the natural world. Dormant for long stretches of the suspenseful ride, cues enter judiciously, acquainting you with close bond of a family quietly clinging to survival. The mainly rueful tones steer you to the tenuousness of their existence, never letting you feel too hopeful for their prospects. Owed in large part to the sorrowful strings and decaying keys of piano, the feeling of connection to the characters and investment in their fate is amplified. Hankins and the others make the most of their opportunity to strike terror as well. Though handicapped by no sense of sight, the hunter creatures of A Quiet Place pose a seemingly unstoppable threat and the music that announces their presence drips of their danger. Introduced in one sudden, shocking action in the opening sequence and terrorizing the many edge of your seat sequences throughout, the music is the delivery mechanism for the palpable fear coursing through the film.

Not long after A Quiet Place reached the end of its campaign, Hankins and Beltrami took a big leap over to the lighter end of the spectrum to work on Long Shot. The music revolves around far more conventional interplay, though unlikely dynamic, between a Secretary of State and her old acquaintance turned new speechwriter. The reunion of Director Jonathan Levine and Seth Rogen, who co-starred in Levine’s [I feel] underappreciated 2011 dramedy 50/50, finds Rogen back in his enviable role in Knocked up: that of the average joe who surprisingly gets the beauty. With Charlize Theron as our heroine Secretary of State, it essentially takes the premise and seriously raises the ante.

Hopping spryly through the lily-pads of the alternating musical genres, Hankins accents the fantasy scenario, playing up their professional and romantic banter between Rogen and Theron with panache. As was the case in Knocked Up, Rogen’s character holds his own in the mismatch relationship and the score embellishes his follies and Theron’s warming to them. In amusing character developing set-ups where we learn the quirks and triggers of the co-romantic leads, you hear the familiar indie-folk guitar melodies found in Judd Appatow films. When the storyline shifts abruptly into the semi-absurd action sequences that make the movie fun, Hankins is equal to the task, evoking the dramatic themes of the counter-espionage, counter-terrorism era of Harrison Ford characters, with deliberate nods to films like Air Force One and Clear and Present Danger. Then I suspect you’re hearing Hankins’ background in orchestral jazz on a cascading theme that resonates elegance at a state dinner. Instead of the sounds of a barren countryside and alien demons, Hankins bounced off of source music that jumped from Boyz II Men and DMX to The Cure and Big Thief.

Faced with two very different cinematic worlds that filmgoers look to for diametrically opposed emotional responses, Miles Hankins said “I got you.” Where one film presented the challenge of forming, holding and stoking the mood of one sonic atmosphere throughout, the other drew a hopscotch course of musical styles to leap from and to. Hankins handled both with style and grace, as he did in fielding questions about his different approaches to writing that different projects call for. It’s anyone’s guess what territory Miles Hankins will head into next but he’ll be prepared with his hearing amplifier, shotgun, and a lot of ideas [Ok, that was a Quiet Place reference.] 

Charles Steinberg (Under the Radar)You’ve shown yourself to be a sort of jack of all trades in setting the musical tone of a production, what’s your sweet spot where you find the most command?

Miles Hankins: As a film composer, we all have to be chameleons in some regard. My background is in jazz piano and orchestral writing and electronic music as well. I guess you could say that my sweet spot is somewhere in the intersection of those three things. In some ways, the [HBO Documentary] Being Serena series did allow me to flex those muscles, but it was almost more “poppy” – like I was making a pop record...Serena and Beyoncé are kind of best friends and so there are some Beyoncé tracks in there. The music needed to be able to coexist with that. There was even one scene with an r&b vocal track and I had to write score that came right before it, in between, and after the vocals...it had to feel like it was one through composed song and little things like that made me feel like a mini-record producer...But most of the stuff I do is for film score...What I would really love to do is go back in time and be able to write the score to a movie like Lawrence of Arabia or something, where the orchestra can just completely soar and you can be sort of uncompromising about it.

No restraint. Shoot for the moon.

Yeah just let it go, ya know? We get to do that from time to time – John Williams is still writing the score to Star Wars – but now things are a bit more hybridized. Electronic music plays a bigger role. It’s all cool, I love that too. It’s always exciting to jump in really in any capacity.

When you mention electronic composition, have you ever done anything purely and obviously electronic for film?

In terms of my relationship and interest in electronic music production, it’s always really in the sound design and production aspect of it. I’m not as specifically interested in just flat out EDM or trance or techno tracks. I have so much respect for those producers and artists. I’m always curious to know who’s doing what and I’ll check out something that like Deadmaus or someone did to see if I can cop a synth sound or something. But I’m never specifically trying to produce a straight-up EDM track...Electronic music folds into my workflow more in the production sense. I do think it’s interesting to hear some of the scores that are coming out that are purely electronic. I think the best of them are amazing. Some of the more modern electronic scores are a little limited in terms of what they can convey (emotionally) and maybe sometimes that’s the point. I like knowing that you can always add something like a string section or some other elements to keep the options open. I just don’t like the idea of limiting anything, period.

It seems the more I talk to composers, that versatility is key, as in anything you do professionally. Being able to draw from different genres and areas and doing it with confidence. I’m very interested in your relationship with Marco Beltrami. I really love his work. What have been the criteria for you working with him in the past? Is it your versatility that makes him want to work with you? Certainly, in Long Shot the cues moved around a lot to different stylistic areas.

I met Marco about six years ago through Buck Sanders who is one of his longtime collaborators. Buck is a brilliant composer in his own right. He’s one of the most creative sound designers currently working in film. They were in the middle of Fantastic Four, which was a pretty high-pressure film and I came in to help out. It was kind of trial by fire but we they were pretty happy with the writing I did and we’ve worked together many times since..Marco likes to try things outside the box and do something special with every score. He has a very small team of people that he trusts implicity. We all do a lot of things fairly well. I don’t think any of us is more of a specialist in one area than another. We’re all well rounded...A lot of films Marco will score completely on his own so I don’t work with him on all of them and sometimes I’m busy doing my own stuff. But then he’ll call me and say there’s something coming up and it would be cool to bring me on to pitch in with some writing. In the case of Long Shot, Marco and I share a main title on that. We co-composed that.

Did you take the reigns a little more than you had on past projects with him?

Marco let me run with certain ideas that he felt were working well and which the filmmakers were responding positively to.  Every project is different and this one was a particularly fun and rewarding collaboration.

Do you see this, then as a step in the evolutionary progress of a film composer? Right before you handle a feature on your own, so to speak?

This is sort of the way a lot of composers are evolving in the industry today. You see a lot of guys coming through Hans Zimmer’s studio [for example] and five years ago they were writing additional music and now getting their own films. That’s just become one of the ways composers find a path in the industry. Composer and apprentice relationships [are like] painter and apprentice relationships. Without an arrangement like that, there really is no tried and true path. I get emails and calls from aspiring student composers asking how to get started and and I say try to find work with someone more established than yourself and pay into that relationship. I’m at the point now where I’m represented by my own agent and have my own work coming in with tv series for HBO and Netflix...Marco remains one of the most original and interesting composers working in film music, so his scores are always exciting and challenging projects to collaborate on. Beyond that he’s just a great guy, who’s been very generous, afforded me amazing opportunities, and we’ve been in the trenches together on some adventures now, so there’s a connection, and a sort of short-hand. So I don’t look at this like some kind of stepping stone that I can’t wait to move on from. I’d be thrilled to throw in with these guys for years to come, no matter what else I’m working on along side it.

There was a total leap in genre from A Quiet Place to Long Shot. How do you contrast the deeply felt sadness of A Quiet Place to the lighter fare of Long Shot in terms of your approach, your mindset, the level of difficulty…From the uneducated viewer’s standpoint, one seems harder than the other. But that could be a total misconception.

In terms of difficulty, I think you’re right. A Quiet Place was a uniquely tricky puzzle to solve. There’s almost no dialogue in the film and there were a lot of almost philosophical considerations to figure out. Sometimes you work on a film and you find the sound right away but this was tricky. We had to experiment. At one point we got an orchestra in just to record gestures and sonic ideas, just to throw some paint at the canvass so to speak and see what we could come up with. Once it clicked it was great and we were really proud of that score. I think it was nominated for a Golden Globe.

It was, yeah.

But it was born from a lot of experimentation and labor. In the case of Long Shot, that was comparatively simple and easy going. It’s a political comedy so we wanted to play into some of that Americana. We had a big 60-piece orchestra for some of that sweeping patriotic stuff. There was an indie folk band feeling [What I tend to associate with Apatow film scores] with ukulele and acoustic guitar that plays to the love theme and some of the character themes. There’s a bit of a stripped down and quirky quality to that, which is nice. Then there are those hilarious action scenes in the film where the score goes more to that epic action genre style. So it was a lot of fun, but we weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. We were trying to create something that worked and sounded right for the characters. That’s kind of ultimately what it’s all about. To go back to the first part of your question, every project, no matter how difficult it is, comes down to the basic idea of being a storyteller. [Regardless of genre], I like to tell stories and figure out what needs to happen with the music.

In both of the cases of A Quiet Place and Long Shot, you’re playing off different things; you’re playing off the soundlessness of A Quiet Place, which actually has a lot of ambient sound to it that you may not notice if you’re not paying attention. Like the sound of feet on the ground and leaves and water. In the other case you’re playing more off the characters and their interactions, and I noticed too, a lot of source music. You have Boys II Men, DMX is in there, The Cure, Big Thief...How do you compare playing off of one to the other?

It’s a good question with sort of a similar answer. No matter what you’re playing off, you zoom in and see what it needs in the moment. If you throw something at me, I eventually chip away at it long enough and figure out what it needs. Sometimes it comes so immediately. You’ll watch a scene and maybe a DMX cut precedes it and you smash cut to a mastershot of a cityscape and you’re like, ok, I can ramp it up with some score here coming off that track. Other times you can watch something hundreds of times and be like, I have no idea what to write for this. The hard part isn’t coming up with a melody or a tune or the right kind of orchestration. That comes naturally, I think, to most trained composers. The hard part is trying to figure out which side of the story you want to play; which characters point of view do you want to play it from...If you have a scene with two lovers having a quarrel with opposing points of view, who is the protagonist? Who do you want the audience to be rooting for? Do you play the anger of one or the sadness of the other? What are we trying to convey? Sometimes you go through different iterations. Maybe one side isn’t working so you change the point of view of the music. Then you have a different energy that starts to make it a whole different scene. In turn, that makes it a whole different story. Then you’re off to the races. But yeah, in terms of these two films, you couldn’t get more polar opposite than A Quiet Place and Long Shot. To be totally honest, going into a scene in A Quiet Place, you were in a deep dark zone creatively and that's how we found it.

Well the stakes are quite high in a film like that, right? Because the music is so important. Every time you hear a theme, it’s like you guys are right there directing the emotion and drama of each scene.

That’s right. By virtue of its nature, score is very manipulative. It tends to be less obviously so in a film with a lot of dialogue and sonic elements. Once you expose the music in this stark relief of silence, it becomes a very delicate balance...to thread the needle and not overplay the hand. But if you take it away completely, you’re relying on camera shots and some sound design with visual [physical] acting performances without dialogue. The film needed music, no question about it. It was just a question of how much and finding the sound of that film, which took time to figure out. [Director] John Krasinski was always really conscious of that and trying to make sure we were striking that balance.

Were you directly working with the sound designers in that case and more than in other cases?

Yeah, in some cases because the score in A Quiet Place is so sound design forward. Buck Sanders, who I mentioned earlier, came up with a lot of really cool proprietary sounds for the film. He built some instruments from scratch, I think and came up with some psycho-acoustic sounds that he later manipulated...Really unique and amazing proprietary sound sources to work with. We had a lot of dialogue because we didn’t want to be stepping on their toes and wanted to make sure their stuff wasn’t going to step on score. In the end, I think we found a pretty good balance. If we do another one…

Oh, I hope, I hope! The last scene suggests there might be another one.

Yeah if it happens, we’ll probably incorporate [that dialogue] even more. Even if it’s not on A Quiet Place film, the next time we work on something that’s tapping into that ambient space, we’ll try to invoke more of a collaboration with the sound team because I think you’re right that it’s really important. If you’re in a band and have a keyboard player and a guitar player, you want to figure out who’s playing how so that you’re not muddying it up. You want deliberate separation and the exact same principle applies in a sound-design forward score, where you want to make sure each of the voices gets heard and isn’t covered up by something.

Well whatever balance you were trying to strike was done successfully. I was mesmerized by all of the sound elements in that film and how they conveyed what wasn’t being conveyed through words. As far as what you used on A Quiet Place, I remember Marco talking about this “wind tuned” piano in that film music documentary, Score. I was trying to figure out if that was used because the piano had that sort of decaying, degraded, quality.

That was something that Buck and Marco built right before I started collaborating with them. They used it on The Homesman with Tommy Lee Jones. It’s a beautifully haunting score. When I first met Buck, that piano was still set up. It was pretty extraordinary. The piano wire stretched from the soundboard over to a water tank and the wind would blow it. It sounded really otherworldly. With the piano in A Quiet Place, we used a tuning configuration that’s not standard tempered piano tuning. It’s something called iceface tuning. So if you think of a piano keyboard, within an octave divided into 12 semitones, you have a C going up to a C# and then eventually up to a B, which are half steps. You have this chromatic 12-tone tuning. The tuning on A Quiet Place, if I recall, tweaked that slightly so there would be quarter tones and micro-tuning alterations to that chromatic temperament. So there was tuning between half-steps, in other words.

So that contributes to its watery sound?

Yeah, and we also processed it. But yeah it definitely gives it that slightly off feeling. You could say it’s straight-up out of tune. But it’s not completely. That’s what’s kinda cool about it. When you grow up studying western music, everything has to be in this perfect harmonic tuning but when you develop your ears a bit and start to reach out to other kinds of eastern tuning and world music, you start to hear the beauty in these pitches that are sort of in between the lines. We wanted to try to hit that and still make it beautiful. The idea was to make something that might inherently sound ugly and the listener could still make it beautiful. But good ears, man. You definitely picked up on that.

I’m trying to develop my ear more and more in this process. I find it endlessly fascinating. But yeah, you mentioned not trying to reinvent the wheel in a movie like Long Shot. There were these recognizable kinds of themes in the way that you hear light acoustic string parts and think of Judd Apatow family comedies. Then you hear the action sequence cues, which remind you of ‘90s Harrison Ford–Tom Clancy adaptations. Is that what you mean by not reinventing the wheel?

Yeah, there are a few different sonic voices in the Long Shot score. What I mean when I say that we weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel is that I wasn’t trying to turn the orchestra in Long Shot into some completely new presentation with synth hybrids and all that, like how Hans Zimmer might have done on Interstellar. The orchestra on Long Shot doesn’t need to be a groundbreaking sonic event. It just needs to be a beautiful orchestra playing our themes [straight] and telling the story. In the case of the action cues, it benefits from sounding like other traditional or historical hybrid action cues because that kind of triggers the memory factor of the audience, so they know where we’re going with it. Almost in the same way when Elmer Bernstein would score Airplane or Gostbusters; he would play certain scenes [traditionally] and the audience would hear and realize why this is funny. He’s playing it like a classic dramatic disaster, action cue when its Leslie Nielsen up there pulling eggs out of someone’s mouth.

So that’s when playing something so on-the-nose serves the comedy, because people have those instant associations with how that kind of theme was used similarly in the past?

Exactly. Maybe the one section where we went for a slightly more original sound would be in the indie-folk band element...We kind of wanted to produce it in a way to give it its own sheen. Not to say that it’s the most unique sounding band, but we wanted to make it sound like a cohesive unit. I feel like when you hear those cues come in, you’re getting back to that same group every time. The idea was that those were supposed to be the sound of Fred and Charlotte: Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron’s characters. It’s their sound. It’s a little intimate, a little quirky. It’s just kind of their sound so when you hear it, it’s like their little soundtrack.

I’m always fascinated by that too. That seems to be the composer’s special skill. You’re able to say ok what is this relationship? It’s a little funny and quirky, a little testy but also romantic, and you guys are able to find the music that conveys all of that nuance. It seems like this innate sensibility. I’m sure there’s a lot of trial and error with that too.

I really appreciate you saying that because that’s exactly what we hope for. It’s very easy to [see one dimension of something] and say here’s a rom-com. But the last thing we ever want to do is write a generic rom-com score. In a film like this, even though we weren’t doing anything compositionally or harmonically that was revolutionary, we wanted it to be unique to these characters...these arrangements of notes aren’t just telling any old story, they’re telling their story.

I read that Charlize came up to you and told you that you brought the magic to the film and to the relationship with the music.

There’s a scene towards the end of the movie where she gives her big speech and it’s a pivotal moment where her character has to figure out what she’s going to decide to do. She had come in to watch that scene and the playback on what we had written and thought it was ok but not quite there. She wanted us to “bring the magic” in and push that moment. So we rewrote it a couple of different ways and we really tried to sell that moment. When I saw her at the SXSW premiere, I asked her what she thought and she told me we did it, we really brought the magic. She was really glad that came together. Charlize was a producer on the film as well, so it’s really important for us to make sure the filmmakers are happy.

That must be such a great feeling, to work really hard on something that’s important to a key figure and who you admire and have them say, “Yeah, you nailed it.”

Definitely. Long Shot was a pretty smooth project in that regard. Sometimes you’ll work for months on something and you’re doing your best work and for whatever reason it doesn’t feel like it’s landing. It can often feel like a difficult and seemingly thankless vocation when you’re in the trenches and working crazy hours. So when you get those moments of gratification or validation, it’s really great. Positive reinforcement is a wonderful thing for the soul and the creative process. Composers, like with many other professions, have to develop a thick skin so that when that [praise] isn’t forthcoming, you still have to bring your A-game every day. Long Shot was such joy because it was a positive experience all around.

I bet you were relieved when you didn’t have to score the very short sex scene.

Haha yeah. That would have been the shortest cue of my career. It’s a great example of how [director] Jonathan [Levine] uses song so well. There’s a lot of great source music in the film and he’s really sensitive to music and really gives the music department creative space to explore. That was a great example of how to use music to get the right result. I don’t think a score cue could have done anything there. [Laughter]

Well taking a page from Sean Fennessey’s The Big Picture podcast, I wanted to ask you what’s the last film you’ve seen where the score really blew you away?

I have this weird short term memory loss going on and I don’t watch a ton of movies or television shows because I’m working all the time now, so for me, recreational time is spent enjoying silence or being in the garden with my daughter or something. Having said that, there’s a composer called Nicholas Britell...

That’s so funny you mentioned him. I talked to him about If Beale Street Could Talk. He’s really one of my favorites.

I still haven’t seen that film but I saw Vice, which was one of the last films I saw in the theater. I wanted to see it because I was always critical of Dick Cheney and I was really curious to see what Christian Bale would do with the performance. I was just blown away by Nicholas’s score. It was representative to me of the kind of music I used to write. Like modern concert music but a bit more tonal. It was really in my harmonic wheelhouse and really refreshing to hear that score because so much film music is derivative and vapid in compositional and harmonic content. To hear a score that cleverly composed and well-orchestrated was really refreshing. He does something in that score with effortless shifting between major and minor tonality to give you this ambiguity about the character, which I thought was really effective and in certain places really exciting. There’s a grandiosity that’s a bit tongue in cheek that says, “This is all a big sham.” I’m excited to hear what he does next. I think he’s a really talented and important voice in the landscape. He’ a fresh voice and we desperately need fresh voices... I’m excited in whatever capacity I can continue to contribute something fresh.



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