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Making independent movies is a game of resourcefulness, and few know it better than three film composers debuting new works at Sundance: Will Bates (I Origins and Notorious Mr. Bout; previously We Steal Secrets), Rob Simonsen (Zach Braff‘s Wish I Was Here; previously Spectacular Now), and Joseph Trapanese (The Raid 2; previously Oblivion). Bates, Simonsen, and Trapanese continue to carve out unique careers in film music, floating between Sundance-worthy indies and more commercial work. We sat down with the three composers to casually talk about the state of the industry, the impact of the digital age on music and how they forge new sounds while still jumping all those hurdles.
The Hollywood Reporter: You’re all veterans of Sundance who have experience working on bigger projects. Does the scale or approach of indie film in 2014 offer new possibilities composers struggle to find in Hollywood?
Joseph Trapanese: I think I’ve been very lucky to work on some films that have somehow walked that line, where it’s a big film, but we could also make bold decisions. That’s what’s great about working on films that might be premiering at Sundance, where you can take a risk. You can make a decision that some people might find odd or bizarre. And you take that risk so that you can try to achieve something beyond the usual day-to-day music that we encounter. So to me, that is a great freedom that I have when doing movies like The Raid.
Will Bates: It’s kind of like a safer place to experiment a little bit, and stretch, right?
Rob Simonsen: Yeah, exactly. And it’s not just safer, but I think a lot of times we don’t really have a choice. It’s like, well, we’re not going to have an orchestra, so what can we use that would sound cool?
THR: Are there examples from this year’s batch of scores that speak to that point?
Trapanese: There are a few moments in The Raid where I pulled out this old Casio keyboard I had from the 1980s. I hadn’t used it in years. I’d loaned it to some friends and they’d sent it back, and I had it sitting in my shed. I said, “Oh, this might be cool to use.” I turned it on and starting fiddling with the knobs, getting things working, and it turned out that it was completely broken, and any time that I played a note, the right pitch would come out. But it sounded so nasty and distorted and disgusting and horrible. It was so perfect for this film. It just sounded awesome, and it made this ridiculous noise that is a really key element in a few scenes.
Bates: Rob was saying something about not being able to bring in an orchestra, and I feel like that’s a sort of welcome restriction for a couple of these films. I had two movies this year, one called I Origins, and another one called The Notorious Mister Bout, and the Mister Bout movie is about a Russian arms dealer and it’s tons of horns. I come from sort of a jazz background, so it was kind of an excuse to dip back into the brass, which was really, really fun — just kind of getting out the old collection of wonky old wind that I’ve got here and just really going to town with a spooky Russian sort of Afrobeat. This guy is an arms dealer. He traveled a lot around Africa and the Middle East, and so the score is kind of informed geographically. But it has this Russian undertones. It was really fun, and it was a really short timeline as well, so even if I wanted to kind of bring some people in, it just wouldn’t have been practical. We just kind of did it all in-house, you know.
THR: Rob, you’ve worked on a lot of films that are naturalistic and kind of small-scale character dramas that don’t necessarily have a genre to push. You seem to find kind of the same outlet there to play with different sounds and instruments.
Simonsen: This film that I’m doing — Zach Braff’s movie [Wish I Was Here] that’s premiering at Sundance — he fell in love with some piano music of mine, and that’s why he came to me. I remember at our first meeting, he said, “Every time I hire a composer because they did something I like, and I tell them that I want that, they go off and do something else. And I’m really serious when I tell you I want you to do that.” So it was kind of great, because there’s no budget anyway, so let’s just have a piano score. And, you know, it ended up being right.
THR: Are the demands or interests of Sundance filmmakers different then studio movies?
Trapanese: I don’t necessarily think about it like that. Every time I approach a project, whether it’s something like Oblivion or this one, The Raid, I try to construct a box to work in that helps me figure out the rules and how to make something work. What’s interesting is when you run into the sides of the box and you realize you have to push against it a little bit, and that’s where the art starts to come out.
Bates: That’s the thing that really gives a movie its identity as well — creating that box, sourcing that inspiration that will give the movie its uniqueness, its unique palate. It also seems to me that the whole notion of a Sundance director seems to be really changing. There are some surprises in there [this year]. I also know of a couple of movies that didn’t get in, that one would expect would have, and it seems like maybe they’re kind of trying to shake things up a little bit, which is great I think. Like, there’s a different kind of smattering of directors this year. And you know, Joe, your movie — having a sequel at Sundance is kind of amazing, really.
Trapanese: It’s a real testament to the fact that this isn’t Raid 2: Bigger Building. That’s probably what Sundance was expecting. Or, you know, what most of the world was expecting. Gareth [Evans, Raid 2 director] is hoping that people are really taken aback and really enjoy where we took this movie.
Simonsen: I think that one of the major differences [with indie films] is that we don’t have studio expectations, which I find can often be concerned about making money. There are certain standards that need to be met in order for something to be successful. I mean, I’ve been a part of some really large studio films with my mentor Mychael Danna. And I think it’s really interesting to see how the filmmakers can oftentimes get squeezed by the studios because they’re doing test screenings and they think, “Oh, we have this $200 million film, where’s our $200 million score?” You know, I just saw Gravity recently and it struck me that that score was probably 98 percent done in [computers], and that was a huge success. I think that maybe that’s a testament to changing tastes that are more electronic. You can do a lot more electronically and have it sound huge and bombastic and aggressive without necessarily having to have a hundred-person orchestra in there.
THR: Do you think that’s a positive thing?
Simonsen: I think it’s kind of a double-edged sword, because I love orchestras and I love orchestral music, and I think that there are times when that’s called for, and that has a certain elegance. But it’s interesting, as time goes on, I hear more and more directors and other people in film refer to classical instruments and say they sound old. You know, somewhat recently we were talking about flute and someone said, “Yeah, but you can’t put flute in there because it just makes it sound old. It makes it sound old-fashioned.”
Trapanese: I have two thoughts I want to add, one is specifically about Gravity. Steven [Price, the film’s composer] is a friend of mine, and I do know that they recorded a lot of orchestra. Steven did a lot of postprocessing with the orchestra that took, maybe sometimes, four layers of orchestra and turned them into something else, using the computer. And I think that is truly a heartening thing. It’s one of the reasons I got involved in what I do because I was trained classically, but I couldn’t really get all the sounds that I wanted out of a classical orchestra.
Bates: [Electronic music] is more my background. I started out as a jazz musician and then discovered electronic music and techno and then slowly got more into film music. I guess using technology was part of my toolkit right from the beginning. So in a way, it’s happened kind of quite advantageously for me, that film music is finally sort of embracing the electronic palate. I think it’s sort of post-Social Network, you know, Trent Reznor and all that stuff. It’s kind of worked out rather well that this new wave of film scores seems to kind of involve that palate.
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