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Keeping Score – David Wingo Gets His Due

The Steady-Delivering Composer of Barry Gets the Shine He’s Always Deserved

Oct 11, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Back in 2003, the second feature film of emerging director David Gordon Green took an intuitive look at young love in a small industrial town. For misplaced city natives like myself, who always felt more captivated by rural society, All the Real Girls was a window into simpler lives a quieter world apart. The allure was no doubt feathered by a nascent Zooey Deschanel charming everything her eyes encountered, but the endearing, awkward naturalism of the film was cultivated by its soundtrack. Green’s lifelong friend David Wingo–who had starred in Green’s first camcorder movies as a kid–collaborated with mutual pal Michael Linnen to loft in pastoral ambient pieces that drifted with rivers, smokestacks, and emotional conundrum. The score swirled about the blossoming of love, and the processing of its loss and when a movie and its music communicate so fundamentally, you make a mental note of all those responsible.

David Wingo just received his first Emmy nomination for outstanding music on the HBO hit series Barry. Despite what you can argue about the internal flaws of entertainment voting bodies, an Emmy nod is a peak of recognition. But Wingo’s career track belies a burning motivation for wide renown. He has stuck mainly to the realm of projects by writers and directors with alternative vision, with a compositional style leaning away from genre fare and into the cinema of nuanced story and character.

Instead of sensational brio, Wingo has regularly distinguished himself with timely measures of acoustic and analog ingredients to elevate a scene. The slow-building music from the Texas indie-rock landscape he was a part of in the ‘90s is probably more responsible for his approach than any particular cinematic influence, and that sensibility has been the constant through his scoring. Those roots manifested in the coolest way when Wingo teamed with Austin post-rockers Explosions in the Sky to score another David Gordon Green gem, 2013’s Prince Avalanche. Wingo’s gentle touch is there, but surrounding it are examples of rushing sound accentuation displaying a reach for grandeur.

When given the opportunity, Wingo can go big. On a pair of Jeff Nichols films, 2011’s Take Shelter and especially on the 80s-era Amblin Studios hommage Midnight Special in 2016, he flexed muscles he wasn’t exactly known to have. The magic of those scores lived in their ushering of an otherworldly specter into ordinary midwestern environments. Low end rumbles became harbingers of ensuant drama and reckoning, and these were Wingo’s big swings. In Take Shelter–the story of a common man who has visions of apocalyptic storms–an opening theme of foreboding enters on raindrop piano keys and low moving bass clouds. As the story unfolds, the theme gathers strength like a storm cell and by the time we reach the climactic finale, Wingo leans into it with multi-layered orchestration right up to the cusp of the big reveal. It’s a closing sequence that stops your breath.

With even more means for expanse at his disposal on Nichols’ “cousin” to Take Shelter, Midnight Special, Wingo produced one of the more badass themes to ever open a movie. It’s the kind of sound to image ratio that brands itself in your memory. Our protagonists are introduced as they set out from a roadside motel one early morning in great planes country. It becomes quickly evident that two men are on the lam with a young boy, protecting him from something. A voice on a police radio scanner identifies the make and model of their ’70s Chevy Chavelle, and it pulls abruptly off the freeway onto a wooded country road, accelerating into hiding. The driver situates night vision goggles over his head, suddenly cutting the headlights, leaving you with the car’s onrushing silhouette against the dark morning sky. When Wingo’s delayed piano notes rise on the elongated back of a sinister horn and string section that would make Hans Zimmer smile, you feel your blood pumping…fast. It was one of those score pieces that announces a tone of what you’re about to watch with direct and immediate force. After that you were locked in.

Creators of Barry, Bill Hader and Alec Berg, were well aware of the range Wingo could hit when they brought him on to a show that has snuck up on everyone like its main character on the job. To honor the show’s unrestrained writing and course, however, they’ve gone the selective route with employment of his minimal sonic backdrops. Because Barry is not decisively a comedy, drama or thriller, the ambiguous tonal terrain accentuates Wingo’s versatility and delicate hand. The narrative can turn from hilarious parody on acting classes in Hollywood to technically efficient assassinations and drug stash house raids, and Wingo’s finesse shows through in treating all sequences. That was likely the largest factor in why Wingo’s score for a “comedy” series was recognized in an Emmy category traditionally dominated by music for dramas.

Cues in Barry toe the style line as well. Rattling passages of suspense are spaced with the same accordion [I believe] used to lend Hader’s character, as Wingo puts it, a “hangdog” pittiability. Barry’s main theme, with it’s piano keys stumbling and searching for balance, suggests emptiness; a vessel without meaning, not dissimilar to some of Carter Burwell’s musical perceptions of tragic folly. In an entirely different spectrum, other cues capture the swirling pall at the base of Barry’s dark side, sparked then mounting like the properties of boiling water in a kettle. When the storyline veers into suspense, slow-reveal action sequences are accompanied by dark rhythmic percolations calling to mind the most gripping passages of Breaking Bad. Barry reluctantly carries out his clandestine hitman duties to compositions that echo Dave Porter’s gears turning to Walter White’s plan-hatching.

After following Wingo on the off roads of cinema since the turn of the millenium, it was nice to see him get his due recognition for Barry. And his music gives you extra incentive to sink into a show you already love. Part of you wants to hear what Wingo would come up with if he got to take some big hacks on a large scale project again, and that will likely come [though apparently not with his next score for the investigative slow-burner, The Report]. For now, Wingo has his hands full in the domain of episodic television with Barry, and the Showtime series Kidding. The cool thing though, is that a call from David Gordon Green or Jeff Nichols is probably not far off. Whatever is next, heavy or light, ambitious or intimate, history says Wingo has it covered.

Charles Steinberg [Keeping Score]: You grew up in Texas?

David WIngo: Yeah, I grew up in Dallas. [Director] David Gordon Green and I grew up together.

Right, ok. So the working relationship started very early then..

We’ve known each other since we were eight. Dare I say it’s the longest going relationship between a composer and a director.

I would think so! Did you two do your first filmmaking together?

Yeah, he made some silly camcorder movies that I’m sure he would be aghast if they ever made their way to the public. There were three or four of those in high school and I was acting in those. Acting is a stretch of the word.

So it sounds like he was primed from a young age to be a director, whereas I get the sense you were never thinking about getting into film music.

No and it’s certainly not false modesty to say that if it hadn’t been for David, there’s zero chance I would have ever gotten into it. I was just a record nerd and an indie rock guy and just making four track cassette recordings in my house. I would send those to David when he was off at film school just because we were best friends and I wanted to share what I was doing. He ended up putting some of it over a short film that wound up inspiring [Gordon-Green’s first film] George Washington...something struck him as the right tone. Then we made George Washington and that’s how it all started. But it was basically something I wasn’t even considering [before that].

You had your sights on just being in a band then?

Yeah, making my own lo-fi, indie recordings and that changed my trajectory. It wasn’t even until we were at the Berlin FIlm Festival that I started to think about it. I thought George Washington was going to be a one-off. We made it for no money and I didn’t know if anyone would ever see it and I was like, “Well, that was fun.” But then it got rapturous response at the festival and I thought to myself, maybe I should do more of this. I was only twenty-four so I was still very much figuring out my place in the world.

I was rewatching George Washington the other night because I hadn’t seen it since it came to DVD back in ‘01. A lot of those first pieces were just sketches.

That’s true. The whole movie kind of feels a little episodic now and the music certainly was, I mean we didn’t know what we were doing. We were just making little songs and there were no running themes or anything.

So All the Real Girls came on the heels of that then? Was it based on the response to George Washington?

Yeah it was Jean Doumanion, who had been Woody Allen’s producer, that [made it happen]. She had a really fascinating career. She took over Saturday Night Live the years Lorne Micheals wasn’t there and discovered Eddie Murphy…

Oh wow.

Yeah she took a real liking to George Washington and [it went from there]. It’s interesting to see All the Real Girls now because of the early roles for a lot of young Actors. Like Shea Whigham and Danny McBride and Zooey Deschanel.

Right, that was Danny McBride’s first role! He knew David or something like that?

I think Jeremy Davies was supposed to play that role and something happened with two weeks to go and he had to pull out so he asked Danny. He was always the funniest guy in the class but was never interested in acting. He was in LA trying to make it as a writer-director. He was hilarious but he wasn’t in anything after that for like six years. That was just going to be a one-off for him.

What was the next thing he was in?

The Foot Fist Way. [Writer-Director] Jody Hill always thought from being friends and writing partners with Danny, and from All the Real Girls, that Danny needed to be in movies…Danny was just not that proactive about it.

And now look at him. He co-wrote the new Halloween right?

Yeah and that’s the cool thing, that it’s kinda come full circle with him. He wrote and directed the new HBO series The Righteous Gemstones. It’s super impressive. He’s finally directing and that was always his thing in the first place, so it’s pretty cool.

With Halloween, was it always a foregone conclusion that John Carpenter was going to do the music, even though you had the long-standing relationship with David Gordon Green?

Oh yeah [Iaughter] that was always part of the deal. Blumhouse and John Carpenter were already [together on it] and came to David and Danny. It was always understood that John [the original composer for Halloween] was going to do the music. He hadn’t done the music since Halloween 3 I think and was excited about doing it again.

Will you always wonder what you could have done with that score?

[Laughter] Sort of but also when watching it, it makes it feel like a real Halloween movie. I think they’re just about to start shooting the next one [Halloween Kills] too…A very good friend of ours, Paul Logan, is one of the writers on the third one [Halloween Ends] as well. David always makes things a family affair. If he meets someone talented and on his wavelength, he’ll eventually get him in the mix somehow…He has his list of people he wants to get something going with, whether it’s a big time actor like Pual Rudd…they had always talked about doing something and then Prince Avalanche came along.

I love that movie.

Me too. That’s probably my favorite movie of his. We met Explosions in the Sky [the Austin band who co-composed the music for Prince Avalanche] when we moved to Austin and became really good friends with all of them. I ended up going on tour with them playing bass for a while. David always talked about wanting to do something with them. It’s like he finds a project and sees it as a way to work with people he’s always wanted to work with…It’s really cool working with someone who’s that interested in getting everyone he knows involved.

I’m curious about your relationship with Explosions in the Sky and how that started. You already knew them and toured with them before the Prince Avalanche score?

That was actually before I toured with them. It was totally meant to be with those guys. The way that it came to be was interesting. On All the Real Girls, we were scoring it and David wanted an Explosions song from their first album in the film…He got a random email from them saying that they loved George Washington and if David ever wanted to use their music to just reach out…We didn’t meet and get to know them for several more years after–We had common friends in the Austin music scene, like American Analog Set. Working with them is cool…I never expected to walk in and become the fifth member of Explosions in the Sky in their process–I didn’t want to get in the way. They had never worked with another person, so I was doing stuff on my own and I’d send it over to them. Some tracks I spearheaded but based it on some of their textures, and vice-versa. They weren’t doing a lot of guitar on that, hilariously. I’m sure people listen to that and go, “Oh, this clarinet and piano part is probably Wingo and this noisey guitar part is Explosions..” It was actually the other way around…I had a trombone player and was really enjoying adding his stuff. I thought it gave the movie more of a hang-dog comedy vibe. There was some melodica in there I was doing too…but mostly the distorted drony guitar stuff, which was strangely me and not Explosions–all the pretty piano stuff that seems more like my scoring was always those guys.

You’ve collaborated on a few scores. Beginning with Michael Linnen?

Yeah, Michael was an old college friend and he was in a band called Monroe Mustang. When it came time to do George Washington, I didn’t have any of the resources to do something like that on my own but he had an eight track and we added all this instrumentation and that was it. We went on to make music together for Undertow and All the Real Girls and Manic.

Your music together was gentle and bucolic and I thought played well against the ambient source music in All the Real Girls, like the Mogwai Fear Satan song. Were you paying attention to the source music when you were writing?

Not really. That was the kind of music we were already making on our own…At that time during the mid-late ‘90s in Austin, it became kind of the thing. I think Bed Head was the genesis of it. They were the first quiet Texas rock band, I feel like, and it spawned a wider appreciation of that kind of music. They really changed the Texas indie rock scene. And then Stars of the Lid came along. At that time they were even more sparse than they became, just guitar drone. American Analog Set…Explosions…Everyone seemed to be listening to the same stuff and that sound was in the Texas air at that time. You’d go to shows in Austin and those were all the opening bands–Mellow spacey music was what we gravitated towards. Explosions in the Sky did not come out of a vacuum. They took a sound that was going around and made it massive.

You were composing in that area for a while but at what point would you say that it jumped up a level in terms of production and using wider resources like an orchestra?

On Midnight Special. There was orchestration on Take Shelter but it was on the cheap. My music budget on that was fifteen thousand dollars. We would have instrumental players come in and play a part eight times and play the next part eight times and so on. So it was a “fake” orchestra thing. It sounded big; I was actually surprised at how big it sounded and it made me feel confident that I could do an orchestral score. To know I could do that before I had to go on a stage with fifty musicians [like on Midnight Special] was really helpful. Directly after Midnight Special I did the Sandra Bullock movie Our Brand is Crisis and those were two Warner Bros. movies back to back where I had big budgets and recorded with an orchestra. It was great and I hope to do it again soon.

Yeah, I guess your scale is smaller for things like Barry.

Oh boy yeah. Barry is the thing I’ve worked on that the most people have seen by far – sometimes I wonder if more people have seen Barry than everything else I’ve done combined…But what I love about it is that it feels like a return to the indie film world in terms of our process. HBO is so generous about letting their creators follow their vision without stepping in very much. I don’t get network notes on Barry, I just get notes from Bill [Hader] and that’s how it’s always been working with David and Jeff Nichols. Bill’s tastes and sensibilities are very cinematic and outside the box; we’re not doing normal comedy music; it’s not a normal comedy series. I’m doing some of the darker, uglier, and “out there” music I’ve made, so it’s pretty awesome. Once we saw that the first season was so well received, everyone felt like we could double down on the weird tone and not be afraid to go dark. So for the second season, I went further into sound design. I got some new analog gear that really degraded the signal in a unique and nasty way. It was like, “Wow this is some gnarly stuff and it’s airing on HBO.”

Are you using the equipment with analog now that enables you to get recall on what you make?

I’m using a more recent Moog Little Phatty, which is all midi, so yeah I can get recall. However, with so many of the sounds I got on Barry, it was a one shot deal. Tim [Hurley] from the band Califone is a friend of mine and when I was thinking about getting a particular kind of sound, I was listening to their song “Pink & Sour” and there’s a particular guitar going on that’s unique and ugly. I asked him how he got it and he said he used the Sherman filter bank. It’s pretty limited in what it does and it’s expensive but if you want that specific sound, it does it really well. So I bought it. It’s almost like a mini modular synth in its own way. I don’t know what I’m doing [on it] I’m just turning knobs and slowly learning what they do, but a lot of it is just improv. I’m turning things until I settle on something that gets the weirdest feedback loop. Those are one-shots; there’s no way I can recapture those sounds…The nature of scoring is that the picture can change and you have to move things a few frames. With midi, you can slow things down enough to make it work. The approach of making something fixed that you can’t reuse it other ways is rare now but there’s also something exciting about it.

Can you recall a couple of moments in Barry where you made something like that that was usable and made a big impact?

Absolutely. It was the longest piece of music in the series on the penultimate episode of season 2. It was when Fuches was taking Cousineau out to show him Detective Moss’s car and it was inter-cutting between that and Barry driving out to get there from his audition. Most of that piece is ebowed electric bass run through distortion and the Sherman filter bank. I was looping over and over to get these crazy feedback sounds and you wind up settling on a pattern. I was doing take after take to get material and then I chopped it and shaped it from all of that. It was like shaping a noise collage. Halfway through doing that I had to decide whether I was going too far. There was nothing melodic about the music. It was ugly, experimental, almost industrial music. Like Throbbing Gristle or something. I just decided to keep going and when it was done I watched the sequence with Bill and Alec Berg. I was there twiddling my thumbs just wondering [what they were thinking]...and when it was over they were both like, “...Cool”. [Laughter]

I’m going to go back and watch that episode just to hear that piece now that I know how you did it.

Yeah at the end of the day, it was mixed low enough that you don’t hear everything that I did, and I was like, “God dangit!” [laughter] There was all this intricate textural stuff but I get it that it’s not going to all come through.

It sounds like Bill Hader and Alec Berg are really on board with your experimentation. Did they know your work well? What made them want to bring you on board?

Once again it was a North Carolina School of the Arts connection. It’s rare that something that I’m working on doesn’t come back around to [that origin]. Kris Baucom is a friend from there and he’s a post-production producer on Barry. When they were coming up with composer names, he threw my name out. Bill, being the cinephile that he is, knew George Washington and All the Real Girls and loved those scores, so my name got on the short list. Bizarrely, I got the job based on the first two scores I ever did.

Hader really is a cinephile, isn’t he? I’ve heard him talk about film on a couple of podcasts and he has this enormous capacity for film appreciation.

He’s Tarantino-esque.

He’s always making these references to old, obscure and foregn films. It’s wild. He says these references will often filter into the style of shooting on Barry. I wonder if the same holds true for the music. How do you talk about the fabric of the music and does he make a lot of musical references in the same way?

He doesn’t make a lot of specific references. I would say three quarters of our conversations about music were on the first two months of the job, during the scoring of the pilot, when we were still trying to find the tones – finding that balance of comedy and darkness. The sense I got from him was, “I don’t know what it is, but I’ll know it when I see it and hear it.” Rather than giving references of other bands or scores, it was talking a lot about Barry the character: His psychology and melancholy and inability to process who he is and trying to ignore that. The music needed to [bring that out]. Barry is so blank-faced that the music had to work to show his emotions, all in the framework of a comedy that’s also a violent hitman show. It was a lot of trial and error. This was the first show I’ve ever worked on and after the first month of nothing really landing, I was like, “Uh-oh…maybe TV isn’t for me.” There was a specific tone that he knew that he wanted and he wasn’t going to settle on something else. By the time we got to the pilot, we had established the tone and feel and purpose of the score. And like I was saying earlier, when after the first season the show was embraced so much, we all started to feel more free to go even further with it. I still get direction but we all now know what the score is and what it’s doing; the conversations don’t have to be as in-depth.

I heard Bill Hader talk about how No Country for Old Men was a visual reference for Barry in terms of the pace and mood and shooting. Am I wrong that I got a little bit of Carter Burwell scoring for the Coen Bros in the drab main theme for Barry’s character? The one you hear in the Cleveland opening of the series.

Yeah, sure! I can see that. [Burwell’s] is some of my favorite scoring and his sense of melody is certainly ingrained in me. That main theme that comes in and out through the series and has this melancholic piano thing going on, I was trying to figure out what it reminded me of. A friend of mine told me that it has a Stripes vibe and I was like, “Yes, that’s it!”

The episode this past season that got so much acclaim was “ronny/lily” and it was completely musicless except for that LeAnne Rimes song “How Do I Live Without You?” which was playing during the fight in the Rite Aid – and it’s so typically a Rite Aid song. When was the decision made to have no music until the end credits?

I didn’t decide that [laughter]. I was informed of that at the beginning of the season. That was one of the first things Bill told me. They hadn’t even started editing it yet and he told me there was going to be an episode with no music. He’s got real vision. That episode was obviously the bottle episode and it was all his, he wrote it and directed it and knew from the start that it wasn’t going to have any music. I was trying to get the editor Jeff Buchanan to throw in some drone or something and he was like, “It’s not going to happen. Bill is dead-set on it.” But when I watched it, it made total sense. It almost had to be one or the other. It feels real-time and you don’t want to be taken out of that so music coming in and out would have [taken you out of it]. If you had music the whole time, that might have worked. [But in the end] it totally made sense to not have any music.

So how is television treating you? Are you going to want to do more?

Oh yeah. I’m working on Kidding now and it has been an incredible experience to work with Michel Gondry last season. I was really happy with the music for that. I got to be a lot more melodic than I usually get to be. It was nice to have the change of pace from the droney, atmospheric stuff I usually do. I’ve loved working on TV so far. All I’ve done is Barry and Kidding and those were two dream projects for me.

I noticed too that there’s another project with Adam Driver coming up.

Yeah, The Report.

Will you be raising the stakes of musical drama like Midnight Special?

No. It’s a very minimal synth-driven thing.

Well I hope there’s something coming like that? I really loved the amplitude you reached in Midnight Special. It was such a bold musical voice. I want to hear you do something again where you really shoot for the stars.

Thanks! I would love to as well. There’s something coming up with David that might give me the opportunity to go big.

Or with Jeff Nichols again? That opening sequence in Midnight Special is one of the more memorable ones for me with regards to how the music complimented the drama. The way it looks and when Joel Edgerton’s character cuts the headlights to the car and you’re just going down this wooded road in the dark and then the title comes up in white bold to your piano cue! It’s so bad ass!

It was awesome. That’s some really good filmmaking. That was exciting. The first time I saw that I was like, “This is so cool.” I’m happier with that scene than with anything else I’ve ever scored.



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