Robert Redford's Oscar-Nominated Composer Mark Isham Makes His Sundance Debut (Q&A)

Mark Isham Headshot - P 2012
Getty Images

Mark Isham Headshot - P 2012

Popular musician-turned-composer Mark Isham, Oscar-nominated for A River Runs Through It, who has scored approximately 100 other films, has composed the score to George Tillman, Jr.'s coming-of-age tale The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, which premieres at 9:45 p.m. Jan. 25 at the Sundance Film Festival's Eccles Theater. The film stars Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Mackie. Isham will speak on a panel with Terence Blanchard, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, and Morning Becomes Eclectic host Chris Douridas at 3 p.m. Jan. 25.

Isham tells The Hollywood Reporter's Victoria Ellison about his work with Tillman, Robert Redford, and Alicia Keys, and why he'll be shivering less at Sundance this year than he did on his first visit years ago.

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THR: This is your first trip to Sundance with a film you scored. But aren’t you part of the Sundance family thanks to your work on Redford's A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show, The Conspirator, and Lions for Lambs?

Isham: That’s true. I’ve gotten to know Mr. Redford pretty well and I’ve been a teacher at his clinics up there. But I’ve never been there for the festival. Well, I played the opening night once, years ago. Flew in, got freezing cold and played outside, which was a trying experience [laughs] and got on a plane and left. So I never even spent the night and I never saw a single film.

THR: There is a kind of family resemblance in Sundance films -- a certain social consciousness, often gritty stories of people in tough circumstances triumphing, or sinking. Is there a style of film score you associate with Sundance? Would you call this score the “Sundanciest”?

Isham: Well, they tend toward being more socially relevant, perhaps more experimental, more not seeking to be the blockbuster, but seeking to tell a good story in an interesting way. Certainly Redford himself has an interest in socially relevant films. Everything that he has directed and even those that he acts in tend to have a story that he feels is worth telling, and that is in some way trying to better society at large.

THR: Do those types of films create a certain kind of score? Can you group those films you did with Redford together in terms of the sound, or is each unique?

Isham: All have wanted an orchestral score. I think he has a very classic style of filmmaking. I do try in every film to find the best genre: really modern electronic, more classical or textural, or some hybrid. His films to me always wanted a sense of that classic, orchestral film score.  Now, Quiz Show was unique in that, taking place in the '50s, the pop music was still very jazz influenced, big band, swing. So we delved into that for that film, which was a lot of fun. But yeah, there is a sense of very high aesthetics in Bob’s films. I mean, A River Runs Through It is so beautiful to look at. So I’ve always felt that you’d want to match that aesthetic, somehow. And we’ve always used an orchestra.

THR: Can you give me an example of how one director might work with a composer, as opposed to another?

Isham: I’ll pick on Redford. He is somewhat unique in having the acting background. He is very clear about the role of the characters and the character development. He looks at the development of his stories really through the eyes of the characters. He is very specific and very clear about the arc they‘re going through, how the characters impact each other, the emotional change. He never really got caught up in timing specifics, he never really cares if that symbol crash hits on the door opening or on her look. He is much more interested in just the pure emotional evolution of the story and therefore the music being in tune with that.

THR: You’ve worked repeatedly with several directors. Does your process with them change when you know each other better?

Isham: I try to make sure we don’t fall into a rut. I looked at The Conspirator, the last film I did with Redford, and said, "Maybe we should try an electronic score here." And tried temporary music like that, but it just didn’t work. I work with the great action thriller director Gary Fleeter quite a bit. We'll debate for hours: "Should that cymbal crash be two frames later? Five frames? Is it on her eyes? The knife in her hands?" Wherever you're gonna get the biggest adrenaline push. Brian De Palma is very much like his movies. He's about the huge gesture. He's not that specific, but if you get something wrong emotionally -- I'll never forget, in the studio he said to me, "That's supposed to be sad, just damn sad. It's not sad!" It's very black and white, big gestures, just the big black and white ideas of it all.

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Each time with Robert Altman I would make sure, even if for just a day, let's try something exactly the opposite of what we did the last time just to be sure that we’re not falling into a pattern. Altman was probably the most experimental himself, and consequently every film I would do with him could be very, very different. And every film I did with Alan Rudolph, his protegé, was very, very different. With the Sundance film, I'd worked with George Tillman, Jr. before. The last film we did had a huge orchestral score and on this film it's very intimate, solo piano with electronics.

THR: What were the challenges of The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete?  

Isham: Alicia Keys was the initial composer, and her schedule got quite frantic. So I was asked to co-write the score. She had written a lovely theme. The first thing I did was take the theme, organize it, and figure out how to use it progressively across the film.

THR: How did you use Keys' theme to express character?

Isham: I helped organize how to best use that theme, where to put it, and it sort of became synonymous with the character of Mister.

THR: Mister (Skylan Brooks) and Pete (Ethan Dizon) are the heroes of the title, two suddenly motherless kids who have to fend for themselves. What else did you write for the film?

Isham: I went on to write a few more corollary themes that were needed. There were quite a few other elements needed, because not only did we have the emotional side of these two characters but the environment they were in, that needed to be expressed musically.

THR: What was the environment? 

Isham: The two kids are growing up in the inner city, both their mothers are victims of drug addiction and both vanish within two weeks of each other, the one into the streets and the other into the system, jail. And these two kids, instead of allowing themselves to be picked up into social services, decide to survive on their own. It's basically their story of doing that over a six-month period.

THR: Did you bond with Alicia Keys because you, too, started out as a classically-trained musician who went pop, in the group Sons of Champlin?

Isham: I started out as a classically trained symphony trumpet player. Sons of Champlin was one of the seminal horn bands [founded by Chicago member Bill Champlin]. I toured for years with them. But my other interest was writing electronic music, which a film director heard  and said, "That would make great film music." [Isham's first break was scoring Caroll Ballard's 1983 Never Cry Wolf.]

THR: Have you worked with popular musicians before? 

Isham: Not only in record making, but filmmaking. I collaborated with, a number of years ago I worked with Lyle Lovett. In the record world I’ve worked with everybody from the Rolling Stones to Charles Lloyd.

THR: Did pop music inform your film composing process in some way, working off of Keys' theme?

Isham: She had found the right middle ground. It was a very simple piano theme. The simplicity of it, if you would think of it as pop, it isn’t necessarily. Film scoring tends to want to be very simple melodically as well. I did bring perhaps a little more complexity to other parts of the film, but the theme that describes Mister and his specific personality, I think she did a very, very good job. Well, you know, she is a classically trained pianist. So she understands.

THR: Walk me through your process.

Isham: There’s two different approaches. On Dolphin Tail, I’d seen the movie and I thought this is a theme-based score. I sat at the piano with paper and pencil and wrote eight 32-bar themes, then brought them into the studio and started constructing electronic mockups of them: a family theme, a family reunited theme. But Warrior, which is a much more aggressive, almost like a rock-band score, evolved in the studio with samples and guitars and drums.

THR: How do the Warrior themes relate to the characters?

Isham: There is a father and son theme. There are two sons and a father and they’re all estranged. So there was a single theme that could unite them in this common estrangement. I found that much more effective than having a theme for each character, having a theme for what brings the characters together, what they share. So when the same theme will play over the father not speaking to one son as it does over the sons on each other, the music is actually allowing you to see what they share together. It brings clarity and emotional richness to the story.

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THR: How do you elicit the sound of estrangement?

Isham: In that case, it wants to be a modern score. It doesn’t want to feel orchestral. So let me build some guitar sounds. I felt that the relationship is so suppressed, compressed, nobody saying anything to anybody, so the music has to have a certain stillness. And then I just started fooling around, playing combinations of notes. Trial and error. My criterion is the ooh factor, where my right arm hair is standing up. Where I say "OOH!",  well then there’s probably something happening here.

THR: How did you feel when you first worked with Redford on A River Runs Through It?

Isham: I was replacing another composer and I was young. Working with Robert Redford, oh my God. I was a nervous wreck. I just wanted to make Bob happy, finish this thing, and not get fired.

THR: How did the nomination change your life? 

Isham: I don’t think it changes it much. I’ve talked to guys over the years. Actually some guys say that after the win they work less. In fact, my agent said, “Get yourself a nomination -- that will help me. But if you get a win, statistics show that you don’t work as much” [laughs].  I actually don’t know if that’s true, but I don’t think that the Oscar process, whether you’re being promoted or you get a nomination or you win,  I’m not quite sure how much that does for anything.

THR: Did Redford treat you differently after the Oscar nomination?

Isham: My relationship with Redford didn’t change.