Greta Gerwig. Imagery provided by Sunshine Sachs/Photography by Jack Plunkett.
Last month I was commissioned by an editor in Hollywood to interview Greta Gerwig on the red carpet before the screening of her film Lady Bird at the Austin Film Festival in Texas on October 26, 2017. The Hollywood Reporter published the interview. (IMDb also redistributed the story.). I loved the film and it was a pleasure to interview Greta Gerwig. She was a smart, kind & articulate artist to interview. Therefore I was not surprised when I read this week that Lady Bird broke box office records.
“Lady Bird opened to limited audiences its first weekend, showing in four locations (making it a specialty box office release).” According to Jezebel “it blew past typical ticket sales for smaller box office openings of its kind,grossing$375,612 in fourtheaters, with a theater average of $93,903. That makes it the best speciality box office opening of 2017. For context, look at the numbersof comparablefirst weekend openings this year: Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled earned an average $64,160 per theater in four locations the first weekend and The Big Sick grossed roughly $82,800 per theater it’s opening weekend in five locations. And, asIndieWire points out, since Katheryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty grossedroughly $83,430per theater in five locations back in 2012, that makes Lady Bird the best ever limited debut for a movie directed by a woman. Since Lady Bird has already exceeded box office expectations, it will be interesting to see how well it does when it opens in more theaters during the next few months. And considering the rave reviews and ticket sales, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film lands several nominations around Oscar time, including Gerwig for best director.”
Known to most as an actress, Greta Gerwig has been part of the film industry in a multitude of roles both on-camera and behind the scenes during the last ten years: acting, writing, producing and directing. Within her recent film Lady Bird, Gerwig showcased her directorial debut as the exclusive writer and director. When I asked her on the red carpet when she knew she was ready to direct a solo project, Gerwig stated, “It was a very long process of writing the script but once I finished writing. I felt like it was the moment I worked toward for ten years and I’d always wanted to direct. And I thought, this is the moment, this is when you do it. I don’t know that you ever quite feel ready, but I think I felt like enough is enough. You’ve got enough training. Go for it.”
Gerwig’s movie has traveled to festivals worldwide, receiving accolades and high praises along the way. Lady Bird is a comedy about a young girl in Sacramento named Christine. She refers to herself as Lady Bird. It’s also a semi-autobiographical story about Greta Gerwig. The story revolves around Lady Bird’s senior year at a Catholic high school, figuring out how to leave home to pursue her life dreams in NYC because (she thinks) she hates California, only to realize how beautiful it is upon leaving. Lady Bird is a charming, evocative and beautifully stitched together film with hilarious, witty dialogue. Gerwig captures the melancholy, vibrant spirit of youth and the bond between mother and daughter.
Based in Los Angeles, Darren Fung is a talented, award-winning music composer. Born in Canada with strong Chinese roots, Mr. Fung’s music is a medley of the East and the West. His love of music began at the age of three and led him to become an accomplished composer. After a lifetime of living in Canada, Darren Fung moved to the United States to create music for film and TV in a new location.
Fung has a colorful, diverse, and nostalgic music style with a powerful yet gentle effect on the viewer’s senses. “With over 100 composition credits to his name, Darren Fung is seminally gifted and a highly influential composer who is well-respected in the TV and Film scoring worlds. Fung is one of Canada’s most accomplished composers, thrice nominated for a Canadian Screen Award. Most recently, he scored The Great Human Odyssey, a mini-series that explores the roots of humankind. The project opened to widespread critical acclaim in Canada, winning the 2016 Canadian Screen Award for Best Music and receiving a nomination from the International Film Music Critics Association. (The Great Human Odyssey premieres in the U.S. this fall onPBS.)Darren utilizes an epic, large-scale orchestra and choir to bring this special’s score to life, replete with memorable melodies and unique musical colors. His diverse credits also include a recreation of Canada’s second national anthem (the beloved Hockey Theme) for CTV and TSN and the theme music for CTV’s flagship morning news show Canada AM. Additionally, Darren scored Bell Canada’s Orchestra advertisement spot (for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics), which was voted as Canada’s top commercial by readers of The Globe and Mail. Darren’s feature and short film scores have been heard at prestigious film festivals around the world, including Toronto, Cannes, and Sundance. After Fung studied at McGill University and worked full-time as a composer in Montreal, he moved to Los Angeles and is represented by Maria Machado of Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency and CW3PR.”
In 2016, Mr. Fung spoke with local Texas writer, Nicolette Mallow, to discuss the bird’s-eye view of his life lived in music and how he came to be in California with his wife and daughter after many years in Canada.
Darren Fung and orchestra. Photography provided by CW3PR Inc.
Nicolette Mallow: Will you please tell me a little about when your love for music began and when you learned to play an instrument?
Darren Fung: I started playing piano when I was 3. Music has always been part of my life. After piano, I dabbled a little in violin and then the saxophone. I loved trying new instruments and playing the music in my head.
NM: Yes, I read in other interviews that you tend to create music with a large-scale orchestra. That makes sense, given you learned to play so many instruments… What number of instruments (musicians) entails a large scale orchestra?
DF: A large scale orchestra can be 40, 50, 60 people. Even 90-100. For me, that means anything over 40. Over 40 is a pretty big orchestra…Now, do I prefer to work with a recording group? I also like the challenge of not having a large scale orchestra and doing other things that are not orchestral.
DF: Yes, and no. I always loved music, but at the age of 15, I knew I wanted to be a composer. But it was hard for my family at first to accept that I am good at this, good enough to make a career of it. My mother is a Chinese tiger mom, and she wanted the best for me growing up. She had a preset idea of what my future looked like. She wanted me to pursue something more secure than music. Music or a creative career was too risky. So, when I first began music school instead of pursuing a life as a lawyer… it was hard for her. Culturally there were some conflicts and it would’ve been easier and more accepted had I chosen to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. My mother is very supportive now and she is very happy for me that I chose music.
NM: I understand the family and cultural aspects of what you just said. My Latina mother was most displeased, if not furious when I said I was going to Savannah College of Art & Design 12 years ago instead of Barnard or Stanford to be a psychologist or doctor. But she, too, is now very happy for me that I chased my artistic dreams.
DF: Yes it can be hard at first to choose your own path.
NM: In regards to music composition, what are some of the most distinct differences between Canada and the US?
DF: The most significant diff between the two is that Canada is more comparable to the Indie film scenes—the budgets are not that big. The AFM calls them low-budget films because we are lucky to get around a $3 million budget. We are supposed to do more with less. However, since we are so close to the states, we have a lot of similar musical influences.
NM: Reading about your career, I saw the phrase “musical colors” mentioned in writing. Can you tell me a little about what musical colors means to you?
DF: Instruments or sounds are our palette. Composers (and musicians) can kind of make whatever we want out of it. Musical colors are why I think I love orchestra so much because there is so much available—so many colors and moods to portray. Not to say other genres of music don’t have that. But I am a classically trained musician, and to be able to take that stuff and play away. It’s endless and I never know what will happen and I love it.
Darren Fung and orchestra. Photography provided by CW3PR Inc.
NM: Were you nervous or excited to recreate the 2nd national anthem for Canada?
DF: Both. When I recreated the 2nd national anthem for hockey night in Canada, we wanted to pay homage to the original, but with a whole bunch of orchestrations and differentiators. For the longest time, it was a really iconic song in Canada. Everyone knows the song and it’s equivalent to Major League Baseball’s classic tune “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”…At the time I was working with CPC and they wanted to make it their own. I was 26 at the time and I didn’t want the country hating me as the guy who guy who f*cked up the hockey thing… However, I was thrilled to be part of the project. And at 26 I got to work with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and specific members who the company hired to play. So to be given that budget and content for a major broadcast was amazing.
NM: The Great Human Odyssey sounds amazing. What was it like writing for this TV show?
DF: It was 85 minutes of music in 7.5 weeks. There was material to score but we didn’t start writing till 7.5 weeks before we recorded… Niobe Thompson (Producer and Director of The Great Human Odyssey) sort of talked about bringing me on board as he was shooting. Almost two years before he started editing, I saw some raw footage. And I have to admit that when I first met up with Naobi, there was not a lot of money and I was not really sure the resources were available to create what he wanted with an orchestra and choir. But then he showed me the first warrior of this man jumping across ice flows. Drone shots across ice flows, and the backdrop was spectacular. The costumes, everything was visually stunning. And I realized we needed to get the music to match the greatness of the film… Fast forward in time and he then needed trailers. Then suddenly later on I am going to Prague so I can record a couple of cues to cut… Fast forward to the final count down where we are talking frame by frame, intentions, character and motivations; figuring out the music for each character and each scene.
NM: Do you have any hobbies that you enjoy to keep you balanced outside work?
DF: Hockey and rowing are my two hobbies. Often I get up atstupid-o-clock in the morning around 5 A.M. to go rowing before work. What I love about hockey and rowing is that it’s two completely unrelated things to music. I meet people who aren’t in the business and it’s not a sedentary job. I get to move around and I get to blow off a lot of steam. I keep biz cards on me, just in case, but I like that it’s totally separate from work. Honestly I worry about the day where I might have to give one or both of them up… I find so much sanity and comic relief in hockey and rowing. Im horrible at both… but trying to get physical activity is necessary. And it’s fun to go have a beer with the guys sometimes.
NM: Are there any genres in film or television that you would like to write for that you’ve yet to work on?
DF: I’ve been lucky so far and enjoyed all my projects. But I would like to write for sci fi or opera. I haven’t yet had the chance to do either. Also, Animation is something else I am interested in. I like changing things up and I just finished up on an installation work for a gondola ride in Banff. So long as it’s a great project with great music: count me in! I am always looking for new projects and I came to LA to establish myself here.
For more information about Darren Fung please read his online bio. And to hear many songs or tracks from Fung’s music portfolio, please check out his SoundCloud page.
Roc Chen is a Sichuan-born, award-winning composer who has created music for film and gaming. Recognized within the U.S. and China, Chen’s music has the power and the beauty to bring cultures together from around the world, which is no easy task. His film roster includes “Chinese Zodiac” with Jackie Chan, “Forbidden Kiss” and the Chinese adaptation of “Everybody’s Fine” (American adaptation ft. Robert DeNiro). Roc also partnered with DreamWorks to create music for the film “Kung Fu Panda 3”— and his music is present in the award-winning, internationally broadcasted documentary TV series “A Bite of China.” Chen’s video game work even dabbles into “World of Warcraft” and “God of War” orchestras—as well as the “Might and Magic” series and his latest work underway with “Prince Adventures.” Recently partnering with Danny Elfman to bring music to Disney Shanghai’s newest ride, Alice’s Maze; Roc Chen’s music brilliantly celebrates the fusion of the American storyline of Alice in Wonderland with Chinese culture native to the Shanghai location.
This summer Roc Chen was interviewed by Nicolette Mallow. The two discussed his background in music, technology, and the power of music and how it can feel like time traveling. Mallow also inquired about the challenges and rewards of merging Eastern and Western cultures for film, Disney, DreamWorks and much more. And Chen opened up about how his music can be like an invisible, magic mirror that reflects everything inside the listener’s heart. The written interview proceeded as follows.
Nicolette Mallow: Will you please tell me about your background in music? Did you always know that music composition was your life calling? When did you begin to play music and write music? As a child, what did music feel like?
Roc Chen: When I was a kid, sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night humming the melody from “The Godfather,” and I thought to myself, “Maybe I should be a film composer when I grow up!” Like many kids, I learned to play classical piano at the age of 4, but unlike many kids, I loved to keep the sustain pedal down to create a bigger reverberation (just like in film scores). And, of course, my piano teacher would always get mad at me for doing that. I’ve always known music, especially film music – it’s my life calling. However, I spent my college life in what is considered a Chinese Stanford (University of Science and Technology of China). We had a large and great orchestra band there and the conductor asked me to be the assistant conductor, so I’ve had the chance to learn from each and every different instrument – not from a book but from a real orchestra band. Later on I also obtained a Master’s Degree in Composition from the Conservatory of Music. I consider myself pretty lucky to have a background in both music and technology!
NM: Art has the power to take us places, particularly music. Music can take listeners back in time within seconds. Music can evoke feelings or fantasies within us and it’s almost like time-traveling… What do you feel are the most powerful components of music that allow us to transcend time, space and imagination?
RC: All the components of music such as melody, harmony, counterpoints are powerful enough to allow us to transcend time, space and imagination—but personally I think the most powerful one is the abstract part within the music. Pop songs take us into a specific world because the lyrics/words are quite specific and straight-forward. But instrumental music such as film scores without any lyrics or words are abstract, so it takes people to their own and unique places, to the different secret places deep within each person’s heart. This is also the beauty of scores. Film scores, though there are specific picture/scenes synced with it, can allow us to re-create those scenes and characters in our own way when we hear music outside of the cinema. It’s like everyone is a director and everyone directing his own version of that film in his brain. This is the beauty of film scoring. And of course, there are certain skills and ways to evoke those feelings or fantasies in the way of composition.
There’s a music piece of mine, “Deep in Their Hearts,” originally composed for the most renowned documentary in China called “A Bite of China Season 2”. It has moved nearly a billion people in China and around the world. I tried to tenderly and beautifully play the piano with a melancholy and nostalgic melody. It was performed by beautiful strings, woodwinds, with some abstract inside harmony, fine orchestration and counterpoint. The result is this music cue, which has moved lots of people and has surpassed pop songs to reach the top of the Chinese billboard. Thousands of fans came to my Chinese Twitter to express their feelings hearing this music to me and it’s actually quite interesting to read those comments. Some people say it reminds them of their childhood loneliness; some say it reminds them of some moving moments in that documentary; some people say it makes them cry with happiness. Some people say the woodwinds in this cue are funny and playful. It’s all different – and I feel like my music is like a mirror – each person saw and found their secret place deep in their heart by hearing this magical mirror.
Roc Chen. Photography provided by CW3PR.
NM: What are some of the distinct differences between Eastern and Western music styles pertaining to film?
RC: Well, this is a little bit of a huge topic that I could talk about for days and write a book about. The scale of notes and melodies are different between the eastern and western worlds. Still, as for the relationship between music and film: I think one of the most distinct differences is the eastern style is more implicit while western style is more straight-forward and passionate. As I’ve been traveling between LA and Beijing a lot, I also found this difference within people’s behavior between the two countries. I guess one of the benefits of my goal as trying to be the most international composer is I can always get to know more about people from both worlds.
NM: Would you please share with me the challenges of integrating Eastern and Western music? Is it difficult to please both audiences?
RC: Many Hollywood films with pure western music are also enjoyed by lots of eastern audiences, but most of this music hardly reaches their hearts. So sometimes with only a few elements from the East can really move the eastern audience and ironically enough it moves the western audience too! Also, each film project is different and I’m always very careful with this challenge by always listening to the director’s ideas regarding the direction of the film. I always offer my suggestions and opinions on the direction of music but I would respect my director’s opinion because it is the film – a combination of many arts. It’s a whole project we’re going to present to the audience, not just music. There’s a project I did, “Heroes of Might and Magic VII,” the 7th game of the famous “Heroes of Might and Magic” video game franchise. I write some of the cues in a pure-western style and some cues have a little bit of East and West combined flavour. It all depends on the specific occasion.
NM: What lead you to work for Disney Shanghai?
RC: I guess people loved what I did for “Kung Fu Panda 3” as a Chinese music consultant, and then I got introduced to Disney by my friends at DreamWorks. But really, I think it’s because of my specialty of knowing both East and West which lead me to work for Disney Shanghai.
NM: In regards to Asian American crossroads within the entertainment industry – how did you begin to infuse the American storyline of “Alice in Wonderland” with Chinese culture native to the Shanghai location of Disney?
RC: First of all, it’s always teamwork! It is done by Danny Elfman, myself and another beautiful lady from Disney Imagineer. We put Chinese lyrics such as the translation of “Alice Are You Lost” and other lyrics written initially by Danny into the melody and make sure it really sounds great in Chinese. A lot of times, you’ll hear directly translated songs sounding very, very weird after translation. This requires a lot of experience of the Chinese culture and customs along with musical experience of the tone, pitch and rhythm of each note and its relationship between other notes. We tried many different ways to avoid a common phenomenon in Chinese music which is called “Dao Zi,” meaning the pitch of the notes will not violate or conflict with the tone of the Chinese words. I also had my female choir friends at Beijing singing the melody in Chinese beautifully while we remote-recorded them here in Los Angeles. We also did a lot of tweaks during the recording session.
NM: Do you have a favorite genre of music that you love to write? You are talented at composing many forms of music. But do you have a favorite style?
RC: Well… It’s really hard to pick one favorite style for me as I’ve worked in a lot of different styles and genres. But my favorite one is the one that best supports the film. As long as the form of music can do a good job to support the camera and film – that’s my favorite!
NM: Your career is most impressive and I have watched many of these films. However, I must admit that I have a fondness for “Kung Fu Panda”… Was that your first time writing music for animation? What did you enjoy most about this DreamWorks project?
RC: With this film, Hans Zimmer is the music composer while I worked alongside him as the Chinese music consultant. I offered direction and guidance on the Chinese instruments, Chinese musicians, the articulations and specialty of Chinese instruments. I also consulted on how to combine the instruments with Western orchestra music to the DreamWorks music team. I enjoyed turning the song of the last scene of “Kung Fu Panda 3” into Chinese and recording 40 amazing pop choir singers from Shanghai so when the film was released. Everyone could hear the final product of “animal” singing in Chinese happily in the end scene!
NM: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to highlight?
RC: I just finished recording with an orchestra in Nashville for a new animation feature I scored, and I’m also going to score some new exciting feature films, animations and TV series but due to NDA reasons I’m sorry to say I can’t disclose them right now.
NM: Lastly, I grew up reading the book “Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan about four Chinese American immigrant families living in San Francisco. It’s a bittersweet, tragic and beautiful story that I still enjoy reading in adulthood. Since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of China and I hope to visit someday. And of course when the movie came out I enjoyed the soundtrack. My point in mentioning “Joy Luck Club” is because for years, I’ve always wanted to learn more about the roots of classical music in China. But I never know where to start… Is there a book you’d recommend or a certain time period to study for those who want to learn about the roots of music in China?
RC: This is a great question! But frankly, I personally think the best book of Chinese music history or Chinese musicology is not in English but in the language of Chinese. Just like if you wanted to learn the western musicology: you’ll have to read that greatest musicology book in English. When I was in the Conservatory of Music, there was a school book called “History of Chinese music” which nearly covers all different kinds of music from pre-Qin Dynasty times, to Tang Dynasty music, to Qing Dynasty and even modern music of China. It also covers the musicology of a lot of different areas of China such as the music from the north of China – which is so different from the south of China. Music from HeBei Province is also so different from the music from the ShanXi province or the ethnic Uygur group in Xin Jiang areas. I have this book in my Beijing studio and I’ve always wanted to purchase an English-translated version to keep in my Los Angeles studio. Without any luck, I Googled and searched Amazon and didn’t find this book or any book just as great. Maybe some book publisher could work with me to translate a classic book into a new one in English.For those who want to learn about the roots of music in China, most people will probably say the Tang Dynasty is the best time period to study as it is one of the most brilliant time for all kind of arts. But I would personally recommend the eras around the Qin Dynasty such as the Three-Kingdom era, Warring States period, etc. If you research it and dive deep enough, you’ll see music in those ages are clearly fundamental not only to Chinese music, but also to the music of the Eastern world.
Crystal Grooms Mangano is a composer that has created music for film and television, and her most recent project was for the documentary film “Asperger’s Are Us”. The film made its grande debut at SXSW 2016 in Austin, Texas. During this time: Netflix bought the global streaming rights to the documentary, “Asperger’s Are Us”.
To talk more about her musical background and composing the soundtrack for “Asperger’s Are Us”— Composer Crystal Grooms Mangano chatted on the phone with Austin Examiner, Nicolette Mallow. The phone interview took place shortly after the end of the The SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals 30th anniversary held in March 2016.
SXSW 2016 ran a synopsis of the film containing the following: “For the members of the comedy troupe “Asperger’s Are Us,” it’s easier to associate with a faceless audience than with their own families. No matter who the crowd, best friends Noah, New Michael, Jack and Ethan have one simple mantra: ‘We would much rather the audience appreciate us as comedians than people who have overcome adversity’. In this coming-of-age heartfelt documentary, this band of brothers finds themselves at a crossroad. With real life pulling them apart, they decide to plan one ambitious farewell show before they all go their separate ways. People with Asperger’s don’t deal well with uncertainty, and this is the most uncertain time in their lives.”
Nicolette Mallow: I read your biography about your compositions for film and television, but will you tell me the overview about how your journey as a musical composer unfolded?
Crystal Grooms Mangano: I began playing piano in the 1st grade. Then I added on the flute, the electric bass and I participated in as many music groups as I could while I was in school. Back then I started composing piano pieces. And I loved playing piano reductions of film scores, which I know frustrated my piano teacher. Like the time I brought a piano piece from “Seven Years in Tibet”. In college, I studied music and film together at Montana State University because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to pursue. Their dual degree program allowed me the freedom to learn both spectrum’s… I sort of created my own path by absorbing, learning and combining as much as I could from studying film and music. Practicing both at the same time. I met so many people in both departments. It gave me a great background into all aspects of filmmaking, editing, directing and music. Sort of like learning the ground base for what goes into making a film… When I got to LA, it was a big change and a bit of an adjustment. I was born in Casper, Wyoming and then moved to Montana. But I have grown to love Los Angeles. During the last four to five years is when I really started composing for film and television.
NM: Do you have a process when composing music for film and TV? Or does it alter depending on the project?
CGM: Yes, it depends on the project and the Director. A composer can come on at any point in the project. A composer can begin as early as the script, or as late as when the film is being edited at the end. I recently worked on a horror film and I read the script in advance and then submitted a demo to the Director while he was editing. And then once they were finished, I came back and created the complete score… During the making of “Asperger’s Are Us”—I came in close to the end when they were almost finished editing. I didn’t have much time to think about the music. Before writing anything down, I watched the film multiple times. Just because I really wanted to know as much about the story as I could, first. One of the first tracks I sent was “First Rehearsal” when the guys are looking for a place to rehearse. The scene shows their personalities and struggles; exterior influences. They so much want to focus on themselves and are having so much fun with it all. And I wanted to portray the spirit of their comedy troupe. They do it because they love it and their friendship becomes formed around this comedy troupe. But they don’t have a space so they keep getting kicked out of places and it’s not going smoothly. The score at times is a little off-kilter and a little unconventional as far as instrumentation. I wanted to show they’re having fun and that’s the point of what they’re doing.
NM: I listened to your tracks several times. The music is so playful, fun and it makes me want to go on a walk outside or take an adventure somewhere. There is something about the music that reminds me of youth and the playful mood of being young and free… Music is so powerful. When you’re creating music for a project, does it affect your mood? I would imagine the horror music was vastly different than this documentary.
CGM: Music is powerful and it does affect my mood. I really have to get into the same mindset as the music I am trying to write: anxious, happy, subdued. Whatever mood it may be, yes, it can be difficult because I really have to get into the film. “Asperger’s Are Us” was really light and cheerful as opposed to the darkness and eeriness of a horror film.
NM: I read that you run marathons… Does running help calm your mind and help you write?
CGM: Running clears my head. Running gives me space for my thoughts. First part of the run, I am thinking and stressing about projects. But once I get into the run, that space clears and I am able to enter a creative place. I come up with a lot of ideas and bring them into the studio after a run. The more you sit and work, the more you get where you don’t know if you’re having fresh ideas or not.
NM: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming artists entering the entertainment industry?
CGM: My advice would be that if you’re going to pursue something to remember why you want to do it. Always remember, never forget. For me, when I am getting upset or I am frustrated by the process of it all—whenever I feel burnt out or discouraged: I remember why I love this. I remember that it makes me happy and brings me joy. Keep that remembrance and the love of it all the focus if and when you get caught up in the politics of the industry. Don’t lose sight of why you want to be there. Always put that love and that positive energy into your work.
To read more about Crystal Grooms Mangano and her biography, please refer to her website at www.crystalmangano.com. Stay tuned for the film “Asperger’s Are Us” to appear on Netflix.
Note: This article was originally published on Examiner.com in March 2016.
World-renowned modern and classical composer, Kerry Muzzey, wrote the musical score for “The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry”, a documentary directed by Laura Dunn and executive produced by Oscar winner Robert Redford and Oscar nominee Terrence Malick. “The Seer” held its world premiere on Mar. 12, 2016 at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Composer Kerry Muzzey and the crew of “The Seer” hit the red carpet several times to promote their newly released, award-winning documentary. The SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals is celebrating its 30th year. And this year “The Seer” was awarded the ‘Special Jury Recognition for Cinematography’ for SXSW 2016.
Music is a key element within the world of cinema and Kerry Muzzey knows how to set the scene, musically, with his innate gifts of sound and music. The score for “The Seer” is absolutely lovely and befitting to the story without dominating or overpowering the documentary. On Mar. 15, 2016, Kerry Muzzey consented to a phone interview with Austin Examiner, Nicolette Mallow, to talk more about creating the score of “The Seer” and his musical background that lead him to Hollywood and SXSW.
A little more about the synopsis of the film in preface to the interview: “The story of ‘The Seer’ revolves around the divergent stories of several residents of Henry County, Kentucky who each face difficult choices that will dramatically reshape their relationship with the land and their community… Henry County, Kentucky, like many rural landscapes across America, has become a place of quiet ideological struggle. In the span of a generation, virtues of simplicity, land stewardship, local economies and rootedness to place have been supplanted by a capital-intensive model of industrial agriculture characterized by machine labor, chemical fertilizers, soil erosion and debt—all of which have frayed the fabric of communities. Writing from a long wooden desk beneath a forty-paned window, Wendell Berry has watched this struggle unfold, becoming one the most passionate and eloquent voices in defense of agrarian life… Filmed across four seasons in the farming cycle, ‘The Seer’ blends observational scenes of farming life, interviews with farmers and community members with evocative, carefully framed shots of the surrounding landscape. Thus, in the spirit of Berry’s agrarian philosophy, Henry County itself will emerge as a character in the film – a place and a landscape that is deeply interdependent with the people that inhabit it.”
Nicolette Mallow: When did you begin playing music? Would you mind telling me a little bit about your artistic background?
Kerry Muzzey: When I was 10 years old I started learning on classical organ. By the age of 11, I began writing music. But really it goes back even further than that because when I was 6 or 7 years old, I recall going to see “Star Wars”. Sitting there in the theater as a kid, when the film started rolling and the music came out of the speakers: it gave me goose bumps. I’ll never forget the feeling, even now. The music blew me away and all I could think about the rest of the day was “Star Wars” and its musical score. I have extreme reverence for John Williams. And I believe many composers can say that John Williams’ music was and is a true inspiration. Right after that movie I went out and bought the soundtrack on vinyl and listened to it on those giant headphones from the 1970’s. The music sounded like classical but it was more specific and inspiring. It was very intense and evocative for a child because it was focused and in conjunction with the picture… As a child I wanted to be a composer, a spy and an airline pilot. I dreamt of becoming many professions just like any little kid would. Yet I always kept coming back to music. My mother raised me entirely on classical and she told me that when I was in her womb: she played classical music for me and held the headphones next to her belly for 30 minutes a day for nine months.
NM: It seems as if you were destined to be a composer.
KM: Yes, and even though I started writing at the age of 11. It wasn’t until I turned 16 that my mother’s friend moved away and gave us their piano. I remember getting that piano and my family could not pull me away from it… Just the sound of a piano allured me. Complex piano compositions resonated with me so deeply even then. Because when you are playing a physical instrument: you can feel the hammers and strings inside its giant wooden case. It resonates in your heart and your hands. You can literally feel the sound as you’re playing music. It’s very powerful. That is around the time I began writing solo piano stuff. Playing the orchestra I heard inside my head. At the time, technology for music was not yet available to create an orchestra inside of a computer. So, it was a little different back then.
NM: I listened to the score you composed for “The Seer” in its entirety, twice. You wrote such beautiful music that compelled my mind to travel through time and feel nostalgic. The song “Daughter” struck a chord with me, in a good way… Was the music meant to be evocative? What is the biggest difference between writing music for a narrative feature versus writing a score for a documentary film?
KM: That is an awesome question. Writing music for a documentary was a challenge that took me quite a few tries to overcome. A narrative film is a completely different process than composing music for a documentary. Writing music for a documentary has to be subtle. The music cannot overpower the picture and it has to stay out of the way of the picture. The score cannot be traditional. For instance, a narrative feature film has a soundtrack of very specifically engineered music. It is written to make the audience feel something at that moment, so when the hero saves the world or the couple finally gets their big kiss: you expect the soaring strings. When making music for a documentary, if you’re too on the nose, or if you’re trying to punch it up too much, it can become a distraction. The audience that attends documentaries and is loyal to documentaries is also a highly intelligent crew. And you cannot use music to try and manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way. The music is simply there to beautify and assist the story as it unfolds in its own natural state.
NM: If you had to pick one song from the soundtrack of “The Seer”, which track encapsulates the spirit of the film? I’m curious to know which song is the beating heart of your composition.
KM: Yes, I can pick one. I believe it’s the sixth track and it’s a song called “Forty Panes”. It’s also the Director’s favorite (Laura Dunn). It’s a song about Wendell Barry and it has piano and cellos in the melody. It was magical to write and it kind of came out of nowhere. I was so in love with it that I actually got my cellist to record it before I even played it for Laura. Which is kind of dangerous because I am paying the cellist for his time. But I loved this cue so much. The way it resonates with the picture and how it struck a perfect balance… It’s the crux of everything and it’s beautiful… I sent the piece out to the Director and I was stalking my email waiting for Laura’s response. Two hours passed by and I feared the worst. And then her email arrived with a response, “I keep watching it over and over—and I kept crying every time I felt the music—and I don’t know why.” Right then, I knew that I got it right… The Director of “The Seer” is not only a good person, but she’s extremely smart and talented. She’s amazing and cool and I wanted her to love the soundtrack. Talking to her the other day, we spoke of that piece in particular as it being the high point in the films soundtrack: simple and quiet, but against the picture it can’t be anything else but exactly that… This wasn’t my first project with Laura Dunn, either. About eight years ago, Laura made a film, “The Unforeseen” about over development in-and-around Austin. The core of it predicted the housing crash a year prior to the fact. At the time she had licensed a few pieces of mine to use. Years later we reconnected and in this case she wanted me to score the entire film. Obviously I said yes and it’s been an amazing project. Laura and her team are so great at what they do.
NM: Do you have any upcoming projects that we can look forward to?
KM: Yes, I do have future projects. Presently I cannot say much because it hasn’t been formally announced yet. What I can say is that I am writing a full-length ballet for a full orchestra. And it premieres in London next May of 2017. This job sort of came out of left field. It’s a very heavy lift for me, it’s a huge challenge, but I am so excited to work with this choreographer and their innovative team. I couldn’t say ‘yes’ fast enough.