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'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Director and Composer: 'We'd Cry Together, Then Write Songs' (Q&A)

The unsung hero of the awards-magnet film "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is the score, explained by co-composers Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin (the film's director).

Beasts of the Southern Wild' - Trailer Thumbnail

Beasts of the Southern Wild is Oscar-nominated for best picture, director, adapted screenplay, and actress (Quvenzhane Wallis), but the Academy overlooked Beasts' music. However, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave it best music score, and the Chicago, San Diego, and DC film critics gave it nominations. The Hollywood Reporter's Victoria Ellison asks composer Dan Romer and director/co-composer Benh Zeitlin how they invented music to structure the film's emotion, like levees guiding a river.

The Hollywood Reporter: Were you talking about the score as you were writing the film or did you sit down and start to compose after?

Zeitlin: Music is in mind from the very earliest stage of writing the film. If you only write and direct, you’re writing complete scenes and going back afterwards and trying to fill that in with music. But when you write from a musical place, that information is integrated from the very beginning. In writing the screenplay, and the shoot and the edit, I’m jotting down the most bare-bones ideas. Themes, melodies, very basic chord progressions. As the picture is getting close to finished, I show up with this gigantic bag of ideas. Then Dan and I throw all that stuff out and start rewriting together and expanding on what’s there.

Romer: It’s greater than the sum of its parts.

VIDEO: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Star Quvenzhane Wallis Recounts Her Fairy Tale Journey

THR: Music gives Beasts an opera-like cohesion – you’re in this dreamlike world of Hushpuppy’s reality.

Zeitlin: The entire score is Hushpuppy’s point-of-view, her thoughts. There are times when the voiceover almost takes on the quality of being lyrics to a song. We’re scoring around these things that she is going to say, to explore Hushpuppy’s internal world and her vision of the universe. She is a very quiet person, actually, onscreen. It isn’t like she has tons of friends to talk to, it's not like her dad is a conversationalist. So we knew from the very beginning that the way you were going to get to understand this girl was by being able to understand her thoughts, and her thoughts are a combination of the music and words.

THR: Silence is important, too, as well as the sounds of the weather, the sound of the animals.

Zeitlin: Yes. It has to do with the way her mind is working at any given moment. When she’s looking inward and analyzing herself, her place, analyzing nature, that is when you’re hearing music. When she is unstable, those are a lot of the silent parts of the film, because she is not in a space to contemplate and analyze the world. We thought a lot about when you are six. At that age, I just had movie themes playing in my head all the time, whenever I was alone, if I was eating a bowl of cereal. Everything was glorious, so that those inward childhood moments where she is in her own space take on this epic, cinematic quality.

THR: Tell me about the use of the Cajun music like the Balfa Brothers and The Lost Bayou Ramblers.

Zeitlin: We thought we were going to score the film from a place of much more traditional Cajun music. It ended up feeling not exactly right, because her thoughts don’t really come from Louisiana culture. She is much more an alien type of thinker. And so the movie score needed to show a much more mystical side of her personality, and the Cajun music functions in the film when it's happening in real life. We take this piece of live music the musicians are playing onscreen, a very traditional South Louisiana song. And then as Hushpuppy starts to think about it, the actual musical score re-voices that Cajun song into her type of music. A mixture of this traditional thing and a much more mystical thing.

Romer: The situation was, Benh brought this incredible song "Off the Wall/Valse de Balfa," which translates to "The Balfa Waltz." It’s on the one chord for a lot of the song, then it goes to a second chord for a moment. So when the Cajun band is playing, it’s happening in real life, and then the orchestra comes around and re-harmonizes it in the way she hears things in her head.

Zeitlin: Dan really is brilliant combining the symphonic strings with texture, like a banjo or a fiddle player, or using tables and chairs to create percussion, to keep this sort of rickety, swinging feel, and those more messy instruments as part of the larger texture of the symphonic score -- even when we were departing from specifically referencing Cajun music.

Romer: We started out with a mainly orchestral score, and then after we recorded the strings and horns, we went back and added a bunch of folk instruments, banjo, accordion, guitar, bunch of percussion, also some piano parts we hadn’t tried before, and just kind of saw what fit in.

THR: Did you say there were influences of Kate Bush and Rihanna and Beyonce?

Zeitlin: I wanted the score to have this grand cinematic quality but also be something that a kid would like. Songs that would stick in Hushpuppy’s head. Knowing Quvenzhane, what kind of music she likes, that’s where this modern pop influence came from. We need to write a song that Quvenzhane is going to dance to during the credits (Laughs).

THR: At events promoting Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhane is always dancing.

Romer:  Yeah, I had a dance-off with her at Sundance, and I got really destroyed. We love Kate Bush. The score is modular: small amounts of information are put up against each other. A lot of the themes are continued in small pieces, which is what pop music is based on. The concept of getting four chords, looping them, and having different things come in and out at different times. Benh and I always end up singing lyrics to the music we’re working on. It’s very important to us that our melodies can be sung, like a pop setting or a folk music or a film score setting.

Zeitlin: “Hounds of Love” and “This Woman’s Work” are the two Kate Bush songs I was listening to particularly. The strings in “Hounds of Love” and some of the melodic themes from “This Woman’s Work.” We would sit around watching the music video and cry together and then write songs.

Romer:  I still can’t get through that video without sobbing uncontrollably (Zeitlin laughs).

THR: Was there an instrument that signified Quvenzhane’s voice?

Zeitlin: The celeste, the bell piano. That is the most foreign to all the other textures in the film and voices her most cosmic philosophies. She starts thinking about the particles in the air, and the invisible pieces of the universe, and all these kind of like high physics that she only partially understands. We felt that the celeste communicated that feeling of being little particles. It’s like the celeste in The Nutcracker. People associate that instrument with childhood and innocence. There definitely was a set of chords that was for Hushpuppy. For her mother, some Edith Piaf sort of French jazz chords that you don’t hear anywhere else in the film, to give her her own texture.

Romer:  From day one, Benh was playing around with chords during editing. Playing around with celeste sounds.

Zeitlin: We also had themes: the “traditional theme” that represents The Bathtub [the Louisiana setting], to communicate the community and the importance of that. And there was one for the world coming apart, a sort of apocalyptic set of chords.

THR: Is the “traditional” that triumphant theme, the one that sounds the most like a regular movie theme?

Zeitlin: Yeah.

THR: Were you influenced by other film scores?

Zeitlin: We listened to Daman Albarn and Michael Nyman’s Ravenous score a lot. Carter Burwell’s scores for Coen Brothers movies I really love. Caleb Sampson’s score for Errol MorrisFast, Cheap & Out of Control. The Neverending Story. John Williams scores, E.T., Jurassic Park. Really gigantic, iconic scores that you remember for the rest of your life.

Romer: One of my party tricks is playing the Jurassic Park score on a tuba.

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THR: What was your biggest challenge?

Romer: Our biggest challenge was the best part, working 20-hour days during the last few weeks. That’s when Benh and I just felt possessed. Putting our all into everything and just having it completely devour our lives.

Zeitlin: In one unbelievable moment, we had so little time left, I had a headphone on one ear listening to a voiceover, the other ear was open to listen to the tracking of the music, and I was simultaneously giving notes on both things. Fairly harrowing.

Romer: He did great, though. He had great comments on the music.

THR: Do you have favorite scenes?

Romer: The opening scene with the little fish, where the pizzicato thing represents the fish in a sonic way. And when Hushpuppy jumps off the bus her father has just put her on. I had to keep taking breaks every ten minutes ‘cause I couldn’t stop sobbing.

Zeitlin: The theme that you said sounds like a movie score theme. We had this humongous theme that we loved, and it was a challenge to restrain ourselves from using it all the time. In the final version, you really just hear it at the very beginning and end. That took a lot of discipline, but it structures this world conceptually. It plays the chorus upfront, and doesn’t give it back to you until the end. There’s a couple of Rachmaninoff concertos that work like that, and I thought it was so effective. You only hear that theme again when the picture is cut to black. The way those choruses sandwich the film and bracket the structure, I find very emotional.

Romer: There are references to that theme throughout the film, but the actual proper melody only happens at the beginning and the end.

Zeitlin: Yeah, we tease it in.