'Brooklyn' Composer on Nodding to Irish Music, Keeping the Score "Non-Cheesy"

Michael Brook tells THR about director John Crowley's surprising feedback, explaining "neither of us knew exactly what we wanted."

Brooklyn's composer wanted the score to nod to Ireland and conjure up emotions — but not too much.

Director John Crowley's film, which is garnering significant Oscar buzz, stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, an Irish immigrant in 1950s New York who adjusts to life away from her family while falling for an outspoken plumber. The film opened on Friday in theaters.

Brooklyn composer Michael Brook has had a busy and varied career, having written the scores for such films as Into the Wild (2007), The Fighter (2010), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) and the upcoming Elle Fanning-starrer About Ray.

Brook spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his efforts to keep Brooklyn's score "non-cheesy," Crowley's surprising feedback and his memories of working with David O. Russell. To hear the score for Brooklyn, click here

How did you first approach tackling Brooklyn's score?

A big goal that John had was, we wanted to underscore emotion and the internal state of mind of Eilis in a sort of non-cheesy way, which is tricky. (Laughs.) In a certain way, you have to refer to a common musical vocabulary, but he was very keen to avoid hitting the nail on the head too strongly, as was I. So that was a big part of our trying to find the right balancing act within the score, making it emotional and making it slightly unpredictable — in some ways, those goals are slightly in conflict, so that was a big part of our creative struggle.

What went into the choice behind the instrumentation?

We wanted to give a little bit of a sense of place between Ireland and America, but in a subtle way. We didn't want to do standard Irish or Gershwin-y type tunes. But we wanted to give a nod towards those things, so there's a little bit of mandolin in many of the Irish sections, and there's a little bit of clarinet or upright bass in the American parts.

Were you previously familiar with traditional Irish music?

Actually, because I had done the records for Real World Records with [Irish singer] Iarla Lionaird about 20 years ago, he insisted on taking me around Ireland to go and see all these traditional performers perform or to meet them, so I had this amazing, one-week crash-course education in Irish music that was incredible. In that sense, I was aware of it. But it was surprising that the Sean-nos singing is traditionally unaccompanied singing, and it's almost like a sung poetry in a way. 

'Brooklyn' composer Michael Brook

How much input did [director] John [Crowley] have?

When we started out, about a third of the way through the process, everything was going really well, and it felt like, "Well, we're almost done." (Laughs.) And then John said, "But now, see in this part here, can we finesse this a little bit, and what can we do to bring out this?" So it was a very sculpted approach to creating the score. And neither of us knew exactly what we wanted, so the musical conversation went back and forth many times, and it ended up with something that is definitely a product of both our involvements to a large degree. 

Was there any key difference between this film and others you've worked on?

One big difference was recording with a larger string section at Abbey Road in the Beatles room, which was great. For me, that was a really exciting and enjoyable part of it. With piano, we had sampled piano, and I thought, "That sounds pretty good." [But then] we thought, "Why don't record the part with a [human] player?" The difference was so shocking for me — probably a naive one. The big lesson was, the more humans are involved, generally the better. 

What was it like working with David O. Russell on The Fighter?

It was a great experience, actually. I think I was a little bit trepidatious about it. Probably, he went through a phase when he was younger, and he was great to work with — really smart and very perceptive of things. I think people understandably want to hear the stories about the fireworks, and there were no fireworks. It was just a solid, enjoyable project and a great movie. 

What was your experience with scoring Sean Penn's Into the Wild?

It was hard, not because he was hard. It was one of those projects where somehow we ran out of time. (Laughs.) They were mixing the film at Skywalker, and I was trying to stay ahead of the mix. (Laughs.) Doing new cues or changing them or recording different parts. Music is such a big thing to [Sean]. He's like a lot of directors I've worked with, where they love music, and they're slightly intimidated because they don't have a musical technical vocabulary. Which I think, it's better if they don't, actually. I prefer to talk about just the emotional goals. 

Email: Ryan.Gajewski@THR.com
Twitter: @_RyanGajewski