Keeping Score – Rob Simonsen Gets Open About His Process and Latest Score for “The Way Back” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Keeping Score – Rob Simonsen Gets Open About His Process and Latest Score for “The Way Back”

An Instant Sports Movie Classic Gets the Score It Deserves

Apr 21, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Appreciation of film music has grown steadily over the last two decades to the point where even casual music fans are taking notice of the artists behind the score. As the field of composers has expanded to include popular recording artists, new modes of music production have augmented and transformed the pasture of traditional instrumentation, giving movie soundtracks dynamic appeal. It has even become trendy to obtain the vinyl copy of a film score for enjoyment outside of the film viewing experience. Just recently, there was a genuine buzz surrounding record releases of Jonny Greenwood’s score for Phantom Thread and Nicholas Britell’s counterpart for If Beale St. Could Talk. Praises of their delights entered the mainstream. Movie music is becoming popular music.

Yet, even as the acknowledgment of the significance of music in film has spread beyond the circles of filmmakers and cinephiles who know all too well, it can still be argued that the average moviegoer underestimates the power of a good score. The ideas and actions of character, as extensions of the writers and directors, project the morals of a story; the power of music [and indeed, cinematography] is to color them. In no small way, film music intensifies the experience more directly than many people realize, leaving viewers besotted with a lasting glow they can’t wait to share with others.

A prime example of a score with that complete potency has just come from the hands and heart of composer Rob Simonsen. His music for The Way Back propels Gavin O’Connor’s latest film about a former high school basketball star (played superbly by Ben Affleck) dealing with alcoholism and asked by his alma mater to return to coach the team. Simonsen’s music emerges from the shadows to steer the film in its moments of pain and glory, elevating it to a tier with some of the elite sports dramas ever made.

The score for The Way Back is the film’s beating heart, allowing all of its other vigorous parts to function as a formidable whole. As a collection of all original pieces, it stands as Simonsen’s grandest soundtrack to date, eminently listenable from beginning to end. But as with many breakout works, this one is preceded by an established line of output.

Like any writer, the one for music gains more command when the vocabulary and digestion of the language expands. Simonsen’s alphabet was the piano, and as his tastes and interests grew, so did an encyclopedic consumption and appreciation for instruments and production techniques. With this arsenal, Simonsen has shown unusual range through a long catalog of film work. He has fashioned structured tracks that would blend in readily with pop genre records, like the standouts for films like Love Simon and Nerve. Conversely, he has exercised restraint in painting in the recessed backgrounds that quietly drive the mood, as he demonstrated in the scores for Foxcatcher and The Front Runner. His ability to sustain the full arc of character relationship was heard in The Spectacular Now where he illuminated all of the nervous flutters and confusing energies of teenage love. And when it was his turn to deliver the singular theme that epitomizes a movie’s heart, he nailed it with the main theme for Tully, one of the prettier stand-alone score pieces in recent memory.

On The Way Back, Simonsen has combined his natural grace on piano with inventive techniques in sound recording and mixing to produce a truly innovative score.

Two narrative worlds come together in The Way Back, along with two corresponding musical worlds. On the one hand, there’s the intimate music that shadows the personal demons of Affleck’s character, Jack Cunningham, and his battle with alcoholism. Here you have simple, melancholic, reverberant piano played in mesmeric depth on Simonsen’s upright Bosendorfer. The keys are striking in their singularity and weight. They introduce you to a life, and from the stoney, expressionless face of Affleck, you know right away that it’s a troubled one. The opening cue of the film guides you through Jack’s daily routine as a construction worker. It sets the tone just as Randy Neman’s sparkling high keys did in introducing one of the other great sports movies of all time, The Natural – albeit in a lower, more contemplative register. The keys provide the ambiance.

On the other hand, you have Jack’s redemption as a head coach and motivator of a young, underdog basketball team. The more stirring, inspired musical cues are layered with authentic sounds of the game as percussive elements, showcasing Simonsen’s zeal for experimentation. The production value and synchronicity of basketballs bouncing, hands slapping, and sneakers squeaking is thrilling and invites you into the action, transporting your theater seat, or the one on your couch, to a seat in the bleachers. When the team starts winning, the momentum carries with the music as you find yourself rooting for the characters like they were your hometown team. This is the trademark of a sports movie that has worked its magic.

It’s easy to cheer for Jack Cunningham and his team of likable players that bond in triumph. The same goes for Rob Simonsen. It’s great to see someone who has so faithfully served the films he has worked on, be the star of one of them. He has swam, and sunk, and floated in all waters of film genre and his score for The Way Back is his shining achievement, certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination. And like those great artists and performers who you discover to be great people out of the spotlight as well, you applaud louder. Speaking with him reveals as much. He is quick to sing the praises of his principal filmmaking collaborators, as well as the contributors that are so often unsung. What is more, Simonsen’s rare ability to intellectualize the music he writes for character and story affords transparency to an art form with as many mysteries as it has rewards. If you hang on for a stretch, you’ll get the picture.

Charles Steinberg [Keeping Score]: When we first planned to talk, it was before the pandemic had taken hold. Originally, I was going to jump right in and ask you about your new breathtaking score for The Way Back. Now it seems only appropriate to ask you about how this new reality has affected your industry and specifically your work.

Rob Simonsen: My daily life hasn’t really changed much. I’m still waking up and going into the studio and writing. The release date of the film I’ve been working on [Ghostbusters: Afterlife] got pushed nine months…It’s impossible to record orchestras right now. A lot of musicians have home recording setups and that’s keeping recording alive but it’s not the same as being with an orchestra in a room. The days are still full but now my team is all working we can’t have lunches together. But I think more than anything the impact is psychological. It’s pretty hard to focus right now because of everything that’s going on, but I’m grateful to still have work. I know a lot of people are just stopped dead in their tracks, so I feel really lucky.

Are you using this time to explore some things, some ideas or styles that you didn’t have the time for before?

Somewhat. With less distraction or obligation comes more opportunity to do more studying and experimenting and listening. If this keeps up then when I’m done on this [current] project, I’ll have some time to go deeper on some things…The film I’m working on now is written for orchestra and is unlike anything I’ve done before.

Looking at your body of work, you strike me particularly as someone who’s always looking for the next challenge. It’s like you don’t want to stay in one lane and even if something isn’t directly in your wheelhouse, you give it a try.

That’s the great [potential] of working in film music; it always affords you the opportunity to explore new things. I routinely get the chance to learn about new and different styles of music that I might not otherwise listen to and figure out how I can digest those in terms of what I’m being asked to do. I embrace that.

Have you been ill-prepared for some projects? Was there a project that when you took it on, you felt like you needed to play catch-up?

All the time. Film scoring constantly takes me to school. Sometimes a project comes along and I understand exactly what they want but other times the story is asking for something that I’ve never done before. I’m always getting schooled by the picture and that’s one of the things I love about it. Film scoring is very open-ended. I don’t think there’s a point where you’ve done it all or we’ve said everything that can be said. It’s a bottomless sandbox…Arriving at a target in a unique way is a challenge that’s always there and it’s always exciting…and terrifying.

You need that fear factor right?

Totally. And if it’s not scaring me then I feel like I should be trying harder or looking at it from a different angle. That’s where you grow the most. I’m always up for it.

Well, you mention arriving at a target. I feel like you hit a sweet spot in the latest film you worked on, The Way Back. During the dramatic basketball game sequences, the music is so compelling and essential for the thrill and tension and emotional payoff. Was there a eureka moment for you when you found that balance of what you wrote in those unfolding scenes? Do you know when you’ve arrived based on a sensation you feel?

In terms of knowing when I’m there, I always think of what I heard Quincy Jones say – and I’m going to botch this so forgive me – but he said something to the effect of, you don’t know if it’s going to be a hit or not and the only way you know is the same way everyone else knows: it’s the goosebumps. If something turns you on, there’s a chance it will do the same for others. I think about that all the time. If I can drive at something that gives me an emotional response, I hope I’m in the right ballpark. Sometimes it works for me and not for the director. Sometimes it works for me and the director but not for the studio. A lot of scoring is getting everyone on the same page of what feelings one should feel [at a certain point] and is the music giving you that feeling…Sometimes you get lucky and everyone loves the first thing you do and it stays through the whole process. A lot of times you have to grind it out. That’s why composers are used to social isolation. [Laughs]

I thought the use of basketballs and sounds of the gymnasium for percussion was so inventive. Where did that conceptual experimentation come from? They all sound so authentic and also really work as rhythmic components.

It came from one of the first meetings with Gavin and the editor, David Rosenbloom. We were talking about body percussion and that introduced the ideas of basketballs bouncing and sneaker squeaks and clapping instead of traditional drum hits. We also had members of the USC marching band come in and drum on empty plastic buckets and the court floor. I didn’t want it to sound like a clean studio recording. I wanted the same perspective as the sounds of a real game so we were looking at different highschool gymnasiums. We went to Hollywood High and a couple of places out in the Valley and they all sounded pretty cool but they were a little too noisy…

Too much echo or ambient noise?

Some of them were a little too big in a way that you couldn’t get the reverb out of them if you wanted to get tighter hits. The other issue was ambient noise from outside the gyms, air conditioning and things like that. But the biggest killer was the buzz of the lights and the hum of electricity that you get in a gym. That can all be shut down but finding time to allow that with student events and team practices became tricky. So we ended up going to Henson Studios. They have a big room with tall ceilings and wooden floors so it sounded enough like a gym and was controllable. The sound designer Mark Mangini came in with his Foley [field recording] mobile rig and recorded as he would if he were going to a real game to capture basketball sound effects. So it wasn’t a set up one would use for recording music. It was more natural and we also recorded at a high sample rate so that we could pitch and slow things down…We did all of this before much music was written. There were a few sketches but for the most part, we were just accumulating all of these patterns. And there’s no percussion used from kits or anything else besides those patterns. It turned out phenomenal; Mark crushed it. He’s such a creative guy and a great collaborator. And the sound and editing departments worked closely to try to make [the sounds of the game and music] feel in sync, but not too overtly so that it seemed like a Nike commercial. [Mutual Laughter]

That’s so cool and it was really effective. There were quite a few different game sounds like dribbles and the sounds of a ball being caught, slapping hands and sneakers on the hardwood, but there was this nice spacing between those elements so that you could hear each part distinctly.

That came from a great sound mix by Greg Hayes and the sound dubbing team…It’s amazing when you can get everyone on the same page when there’s time. I got hired early on so I was giving over music as they were shooting. We had the time to make choices on when we were going to push the sounds of the game forward and when they would fall away to let the music come to the front. Sometimes the music is making room for those rhythmic sound design elements and vice versa. There was enough communication between all of us for me to know when they were going to clear out all the game sounds so that I could just play quiet piano.

Like on the cue for the closing moments of the big game.

Exactly. But we were [finding that balance] in every game sequence. Gavin was very cognizant of when he wanted all the basketball sounds to drop out and when the music should carry us. Originally for that big rematch game, he had chosen a very quiet heartfelt source song. We were both jazzed about that idea because normally when the team hits the winning basket, the trumpets fire up and it’s bombastic – that cathartic moment. Gavin had the idea of something quiet and emotional but he ended up liking one of my pieces enough to put it in there instead. It’s a nice thing when composers get to take those moments. There are a lot of films where the score is just teeing up the big moment and a [source] song comes in at maximum volume.

Well, I love it when the score can take those moments too. I always did after I saw The Natural and that epic Randy Newman piece explodes with that game-winning home run. The music in this film was exhilarating too but in a more tempered way. I felt like a member of the crowd. The other main musical presence was your piano playing. I found it so intimate, which provided a nice contrast. During the isolated scenes of Jack when he’s off the court in his daily life, dealing with his addiction, you get these close-ups of his anguished face and the depth of field falls off…The piano brought that out in a heavy-beautiful way.

Gavin and I wanted to try and play against typical sports movie tropes and part of that is focusing on Jack as opposed to focusing on “the win”. So it was tricky because with the final game that you see in the film [there’s a climactic moment] but the movie’s not over. There’s that big moment but we have to refocus on Jack and track his internal world, which is still unresolved. We didn’t want it to be too heroic so that rules out brass, or too over-the-top emotional, so that kind of rules out strings; We have so many connotations for those kinds of instruments…What we were trying to do with the piano was make it simple and humble. Jack is not necessarily a sophisticated guy. He’s a blue-collar, common American guy trying to figure it out. Showing up some days and not showing up others. The piano struck me as being emotional enough but played simply to give the sense of an underdog and heart.

And the way it sounded was from that “Nils Frahm” school of piano sound where it feels like a living organism. The recording captures the entire instrument being played. It’s not just the keys but the reverb and the sounds of the pedals snd creaks of the wood. That contributed so much to the empathy you feel for Jack.

[*The piano Simonsen used for the cues in The Way Back is a Bosendorfer upright. It’s Austrian made and he has an 80s model. I recorded this conversation on Zoom and I saw it in the background of the screen. A gorgeous instrument]

Yeah, I love the sound of the piano with that recording technique. It’s something that has become a lot more en vogue in the last decade starting with people like Kieth Kenniff and his Goldmund records, Max Richter, Dustin O’Halloran, and Nils. A lot of piano that you heard in movies before that had a more distant quality to it. It was more grand piano from the orchestral perspective. The modern movie piano you hear is from upright pianos – not always, there’re still grands used – but the uprights have a smaller, more humble sound. If you put the mics up very close and play with felt in between the hammers and the strings, then it mutes the sound which instantly gives it a different quality. It’s much more internal and emotional. When the mics are that close, the mechanics of the piano are almost just as loud as the tone. In this film, like you said, that sound compliments the cinematography, which I loved. Eduard Grau shot it and he’s a genius. He nailed it. It was this raw but beautiful, up-close perspective and there was an equivalence with the piano. If the piano had been a clean, pristine, grand sound in a room at a distance it would have been…fake. This was about being up-close and personal and hearing and seeing the imperfections.

You must have been in a peaceful place when you played for these cues. Did you meditate beforehand or something?

[Laughs] Well, there was a lot of late-night recording for sure. Partially because I have mockingbirds and every year they’re mating right outside my studio and are incredibly loud. Even if I shut my windows, they still get into the recordings. In fact, there might be moments on The Way Back that if you listen very closely, you might be able to hear them. But yeah, it was just about taking myself to that place in the film and trying to connect with Ben Affleck’s character and performance.

Yeah, the viewer connects on a human level to those sounds so that by the time they are reintroduced back into the game sequences, the connective tissue has been formed and the emotion is greater in the climax. Another one of my favorite sports movie scores is one you worked on as well. What did you learn about scoring for sports films under Mychael Danna in Moneyball?

Moneyball was also a different kind of sports movie score-wise. It was about a sea change in the way the game was played and so there was the idea of rolling waves and using pattern-based music and repetition with a minimalist approach. Again, so much of this comes down to the director and how tightly they’re trying to thread the needle. Both Bennett [Miller] and Gavin are such sensitive directors. Bennett creates films that are, in my opinion, mesmerizing. He calls upon people who work on his movies to play at that level – to divine that mesmerizing quality. There’s almost a meditative quality that he goes for in getting the tension and the volume just right. There was a broad spacious feel to the score in Moneyball to relate to this tectonic shift in the sport. And it was also about playing the numbers and using patterns with a mathematical feel. I learned a lot from my mentor Mychael Danna in that process.

You were mentioning a piece of source music that was replaced by one of yours for the big “chill-scene” in The Way Back. [This is a term coined, I believe, by Bill Simmons to describe the moment in sports films that send chills down your spine.] But in Moneyball, that great piece of recorded music, “The Mighty Rio Grande” by This Will Destroy You, was used for the chill-scene.

Yeah exactly, so that was a great example of the score teeing it up for that epic song to come in and spike it home. That’s our job sometimes. That’s a good example of a great piece of music getting into the film early on and sometimes it’s impossible to dethrone it [Laughs]. It’s gone through the proving process and anything you try to replace it with only solidifies its position; partially because of familiarity bias and partially just because it had the advantage of having the film edited to that piece of music. So that’s dealing with the world of temp.

[Just to clarify, “temp” is a piece of music that filmmakers edit the film to before they bring in the original score. Sometimes, like with Moneyball, that piece stays.]

I feel lucky because we never used temp in The Way Back, so we never had to compete with those things. We had enough material that we positioned score pieces in those chill-scenes and never had to do any exploration because Gavin loved it.

I just wanted to share this little amusing story about Moneyball before moving on. I was driving back into the city from a day in the country last fall and I wanted to ride out the inspiration I was feeling. So, I decided to see what live shows were going on that night. To my astonishment and delight, This Will Destroy You was playing at The Bell House in Brooklyn. I had no idea they were even going to be in New York and I had never seen them before. Obviously, I went and it was incredible – a perfect finish to that day. Just as they started to play that song “The Mighty Rio Grande” towards the end of the show some dude just shouted out, “MONEYBALL!” at the top of his lungs.

Hahahahahaaaaaa! That’s awesome.

It was one of my favorite live concert moments ever. Well, shifting to an entirely different kind of sports-related Bennett Miller film that you scored, I wanted to talk about Foxcatcher. I have to be honest, that was one of the most unsettling, creepy and depressing movies I’ve ever seen. Does a film like that sap everything joyful out of you? How do you balance things when you’re locked into a project like that?

Yeah, it’s a hard watch. You always have to give yourself over to the film. Scoring for me is a lot about trying to listen, trying to watch a film and pay attention to what I might want to hear if I was a member of the audience. In that process, you kind of have to psychologically meld your mind and emotions with the film that you’re working on, so yeah it was dark. It was also a long scoring experience – about six months. The material is so heavy that you just have to do your best to get in there and work. It can color you. It’s one of the reasons that I don’t know if I want to do horror films. I remember Bennett saying that Foxcatcher is kind of like a slow-motion horror film. [Mutual Laughter]

It totally is!

You know? It’s like watching a snake slowly coil its way around something for two hours. But yeah, I got affected by that for sure. It is a good chance to explore, just explore yourself really. My friend Ben Wynn who goes by Deru and is one of my collaborators in The Echo Society, a lot of his music is dark but beautiful and he talks about not shying away from the darkness; Don’t turn away from it but push into it and explore it. I’ve learned a lot from that. Foxcatcher was an exercise in that. But the music was never meant to heighten fear like you would do in a horror film. It was meant to heighten tension in terms of you having no idea how this person [John du Pont, played by Steve Carell] is going to react. It was more about the manipulation and [the feeling of] being on this guy’s property and treating people like they’re his property and all of the discomfort that came from that…As you get more experienced making music, hopefully, you get to manage your psychology a little bit better to know when to have a lockdown and not expose yourself to other things…There was a lot of learning about that on Foxcatcher...I think I now have a better sense of when to stick with it and when to walk away. The thread there was so specific there that if you take your mind away, you might lose it.

How did you come to discover that specific thread?

After my first conversation with Bennett in New York, I was walking around trying to think of the sound of that kind of movie. Something I learned from Mychael Danna was that the first three weeks of working on a film might not be writing music at all. It might just be thinking about it, laying on the couch and trying to find a solution in your mind. You’re looking for a way in and under the skin of the film so that you can help express something latent and find its voice. That can be something very specific. So, after that first meeting with Bennett, I was walking around the city with those thoughts. I went down into the subway to catch a train and as I was walking down the stairs, I heard this interesting string-like sound wafting up towards me. I couldn’t quite tell what it was. When you’re far enough away from a piece of music it’s like Jaws: They don’t show the shark but there’s the implication of the shark. Your imagination is participating in what it could be. Whatever it was, it was entrancing. When I got down to the tunnel, there was this guy playing a cello. The rest of [the people] on the subway platform were silent. He was just improvising. He wasn’t playing classically; it was experimental and he was getting really unique sounds out of his instrument. It felt very alive. I just stood there for a few minutes and listened. I bought a cd from him and walked away but I was very affected by it. I returned to LA and was playing around with different ideas for demos and sketches, but I kept thinking about that moment and thought that could be the sound [for the film]. So, I called him up and asked him what he was doing the next morning. We got him into a studio for an early morning remote session and he just did his thing. The files he sent me were perfect. I cut them and processed them a little bit – put them through some tape delays – which gave it this swirling quality…That became the foundation for my piano melody. I sent that off to Bennett and he used it in the opening scene and in a couple of other places. That demo [of his cello and my piano] is exactly how it sounds in the film.

Honestly, that’s one of the most amazing stories and answers to that question I’ve ever heard.

Yeah, walking around the city asking yourself what’s the sound of this movie and you literally walk into the sound.

Did you try to emulate the sound of the cello in a subway tunnel during the recording?

Not exactly. A subway station is very reverberant. This does have a lot of reverb on it, kind of blossoming out, but it’s because it was mic’d up close. Similar to what we were talking about with the piano in The Way Back, when the mic is up close on a cello and it’s being played quietly, you get all of these little colors that sparkle. You hear the bow on the string and some of the mechanics of the player playing the instrument. It’s beautiful and raw. When you’re mic’ing something up close and it’s being played quietly, there’s this tension to it.

And it all lends itself well to this creepiness that carries throughout the film.

Yes, the slow-motion snake wrapping itself around you [Laughs].

Does working on a film like that for as long as you did impact your choices of what projects to take on next?

I think it certainly impacts the films that I get offered. A lot of times what happens is I will do a score that gets temp’d in the editing process of another film and that’s how an interest develops in me scoring it. The work that you put out tends to beget more work in that vein. Also at this point, I have built up relationships with filmmakers I’ve worked with on multiple projects. There are a few of them now who are always busy and because of those filmmaker relationships, I get to participate in whatever the new adventure is. Sometimes it couldn’t be more different than the project before…You get to dive into these different genres. Some people don’t. Some keep their artistic output a little narrower and there are certainly a lot of benefits to that. I have tremendous respect for people who kind of just do their thing. There are so many different kinds of music that I love. So, if I have the chance to immerse myself in something like funk for instance, [I love to dive in]. I’ve consumed music from a very wide spectrum my whole life and been affected differently by music from different genres.

That has been something that has made you stand out to me – the way you jump all over the place to different genres of film. For example, I love the music you did for Love Simon. That was a completely different world from the film music we’ve been talking about. It’s a synth-pop score that corresponds to the themes of high school movies like the John Hughes films we all love. I’m curious about the different synths and drum machines you got to play around with for that film.

It was exactly that. From the very beginning, the director [Greg Berlanti] and the filmmaking team told me that this was kind of a John Hughes thing and I instantly got that when I watched it. They were even using some of his score cues for the temp.

I loved his score cues. As great as the source music was for his movies, I always found his synth score cues to be very affecting.

Totally. Yeah, it was amazing to have that opportunity because I grew up watching John Hughes films. The Breakfast Club was a huge movie for me growing up and knowing that we were trying to scratch at that classic 80s high school vibe but do it with a modern story really got me excited. It was a moment I had been waiting for because secretly when no one’s looking, I make synth-pop [mutual laughter]. Just for myself in my studio. I love the way it makes you feel. It kinda makes you cry but puts a smile on your face at the same time. It’s a vibe from an era that we don’t really have anymore. There is a certain kind of carefree emotional optimism from the 80s that’s gone. Things are either dark and heavy or silly and irreverent right now, so this was a fantastic opportunity to get into the synth stuff. I have a ton of synths and it was great to be like ok, what drum machine was used on that Thompson Twins song that I love. It was a great excuse to buy gear. I bought a LinnDrum. My experience of listening to music in the 80s was on cassette tape, so trying to render things with that vibe was a delight. You could actually thread that experience back to 500 Days of Summer, which was my first introduction to indie music. Like Nick Drake – I didn’t really know him before that. There was an acoustic guitar-driven world in that film that was powered by the songs. The songs were great and I always think the score should be clothing from the same closet as the songs. It was a foray into the whole world of autoharps and small pop arrangements and chamber groups and ukuleles and mellotrons and things like that. It led to the other indie-coming of age dramedy films I did over the last decade.

Speaking of how a composer works off of the source music soundtrack of a film, I was curious about your work with Jason Reitman. He has always put such care and emphasis on his source music. I loved the relationship between the source music and your score in Tully.

I love working with directors that have great taste in music. Jason is very musical. He consumes a lot of music and knows a lot about music. On all of the films that I’ve done with him, a lot of songs were already there [when I started working] and he knows very specifically what he wants from the score [based on those songs]...There’s so much great music out there and I try to be a student, but always in the way of digesting and reacting rather than trying to emulate. So, I’ll consume different intentions and vibes and then respond in a thoughtful way. I try to respect what exists and use it as fuel to explore something that I haven’t necessarily heard before. That’s kind of my philosophical grounding.

The main theme for Tully is honestly one of the prettiest, most emotive score themes I’ve ever heard. It was like an arrow to the heart and I’m curious why you think that is.

My buddy Christopher Ray is a multi-instrumentalist and a great guitar player and he found this guitar made by a guy named John Asher. He makes guitars for a lot of famous musicians like James Taylor and others. There’s something about the sound of that guitar; it has a sparkle. Christopher used it on The Spectacular Now; He played all of the guitar on that film. With Tully, I knew that was the sound that would work too, so I had him come in and play some of my structures and sketches. To me, what works well in those kinds of films is when you hear the imperfections. There’s a humanness to it and it’s not so clean that it can be a midi sample. It’s got character and vibe. He runs it through his pedalboard and gets the right amount of overdrive and reverb and delay. I recorded it that way and presented it to Jason. He loved it and it stayed the way I gave it to him in the film. That was another lesson for me. When you crack something and it’s right, no one wants you to change it. So, I’ve gotten into the habit of making recordings that can be final from the very beginning. It’s a little more labor-intensive than just sketching something out in a sequencer, but it’s usually better because I have found that [sometimes] my sketches will wind up getting used in the film. I ended up buying that John Asher guitar and I am not a guitar player by any means. I have it in the studio if I need it because sometimes there’s something about a specific instrument.

The Front Runner was a period piece taking place in the late 80s, something of an outlier in Reitman’s filmography. How did you guys approach that story?

For The Front Runner, we had a meeting where he said, “This is something completely different from Tully and I don’t know if it’s in your wheelhouse. I’m going for a kind of a jazz piano [David Shire] Conversation thing. Like Dave Brubeck.” I had studied jazz piano in college so I gave it a shot. Jason had a rule that he didn’t want any music in the film that felt like it was post 70s. All the music had to sound like it was coming from the 50s through the 70s. So, I got into studying what microphones were used in the recording of Kind of Blue. That’s one of the greatest albums of all time and the sound of that recording is so amazing to me. They used these old Neumann M 49 mics and the studio where Kind of Blue was recorded had a ton of those. That’s all they used. I think everyone was playing in the same room and those mics were up everywhere. I found a couple and got them into the studio for this film. They just have character. It was all very acoustic and a little bit of an homage to Davide Shire’s score for The Conversation. That was one of our north stars.

Well, now that I know about those mics, I’m going to go back and listen more closely to your score for The Front Runner. Having listened to Kind of Blue countless times, I’m interested in the sound you’re talking about.

Ok, but please save me from any comparisons to that album [mutual laughter]. Don’t listen to Kind of Blue and then listen to The Front Runner!

Hahaha. I promise I won’t!

I remember hearing the director of Rogue One [Gareth Edwards] talk about the instructions he gave his crew during the making of that film. He said how he wanted it to feel like The Empire Strikes Back, but when they were thinking about what that means in terms of their creative choices, not to go back and look at what they exactly did in the original but just to try to remember how it made them feel. I love that and with movies like Love Simon or The Front Runner, I’m definitely reading articles about how things were recorded or doing other research – the nerd in me loves to dive into that – but mostly it’s about how it makes me feel. How did those John Hughes movies make me feel? How did The Conversation make me feel? How does Bill Evans make me feel? That is what I try to harness.

I wanted to finish by asking you about The Echo Society. The basis on which that was founded, which is essentially to gather with fellow composers for a night of performance and community, is something that would seem to be so healing right now. What was the philosophy behind starting that up and how important is it to have that connectivity with friends and colleagues in a field that isolates you the way film scoring does.

Having shared experiences with people is a vital part of the human experience that I love just as much as anyone else. Composers are used to spending a lot of time alone, especially right now. But in some ways, I feel more connected to everyone right now. I just had a zoom session with my extended cousins. I was thinking, you know, we could have been doing this all along and it took this pandemic for us to connect. There are a lot of those things happening because people need that connectivity and support. The Echo Society was started when I met Dustin O’Hallaran at Sundance in 2012. We became good friends. He was living in Berlin at the time and I travel to Europe a couple of times a year. He invited me to stop through. We caught some concerts and had some dinners and that’s where I met Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hildur Guðnadóttir and KiraKira and Apparat. It was really great to spend time with other musicians and talk about life and art and philosophy. It felt in such contrast to my conversations in LA, which were mostly about work…I came back to LA very aware that there are so many amazing artists here and we don’t give ourselves the chance to connect as comrades and collective creators. I wanted to get some people together and start the discussion of the possibility of sharing a space for recording, and workshopping ideas, and having people over for little concerts. Everyone was jazzed about that. This community was formed and we’re still really close with each other. When we throw shows, people come out and just get to hang, which is just as important as the show almost. You have composers, and artists, and dancers, and writers, and music supervisors, and people who might be fans of some of the artists or just fans of community art. It felt like such a vital thing to stay connected to art for art’s sake because that reminds us of why we’re doing what we do. It’s so easy to get lost in the job and let that be routine. But we all got into this because of passion for the art. I’m always hungry for experiences that give me that and I feel really lucky to have met this group of people that want the same thing. It’s a labor of love.

Do people play music that they’ve written for film in the gatherings?

No that’s actually one of our rules. It has to be music created for that night. We ask ourselves and the guest artists that even if it’s an existing piece of music, it has to be significantly reworked. By and large, it’s all new material, so it becomes a night that you can’t experience any other way. That makes it more vital. But it’s an evolving thing. We have just recorded an album with pieces from all the artists.

Oh very cool!

Yeah, my track “Refraction” came out already and Deru’s piece came out today. It’s going to roll out. We’re going to print vinyl and hopefully do more in the way of producing music from artists we know and like, and want to share our platform with. There’s a lot of exciting potential there.

I can’t wait to hear it. Maybe you guys can have a coming-out party at the end of this whole thing.

I’d love to. It has been discussed.

Well if you do, I’m going to be there!



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May 8th 2020

The Way Back effectively shows how redemption and recovery can be slow, but in the end, cathartic process. The finale is open-ended and hopeful but has a true to life feel to it.