1) DANIEL YOU RECENTLY SCORED A DISNEY MOVIE (PETE’S DRAGON). HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
Pete’s Dragon was co-written and directed by David Lowery, my friend and long-time collaborator. To date, I have written music for all of David’s films.
David and I were both interested in having me compose the score for Pete’s Dragon from the beginning of the pre-production process. Being my first time scoring a film of that size and scope, I think the folks at Disney were rightfully apprehensive about having me come on board. But David fought pretty hard for them to give me a chance. And, in January 2016, Disney moved me into the Pete’s Dragon post-production studio, where I wrote several pieces for the film as a kind of audition. The folks at Disney ended up being really supportive of the work David and I were doing together, and very encouraging of the music I was writing at the time. In fact, the first piece I wrote and shared with them ended up being the main theme of the film. From that point on, I essentially lived at Disney for three months, composing seven days a week, on average twelve hours a day.
2) HOW DID YOU HANDLE THE RESPONSIBILITY AND PSYCHOLOGICAL BURDEN OF TAKING ON SUCH A BIG PROJECT. DID YOU EVER FEEL INTIMIDATED?
I think because the process was compacted into such a short period (three months to compose seventy-five minutes of fully orchestrated score), I didn’t have much time to feel intimidated or scared, or let the usual questions of “am I headed in the right direction?” or “wait, how do I do this again?” stick around for too long in my head.
I had never composed a score of this magnitude, so I had some moments of self-doubt towards the beginning of the process. But when I started turning in orchestral demos to David, then the producers, then the folks at Disney, and the feedback was, for the most part, positive, I felt like I had some new understanding that – even in the moments when I had no idea what I was doing – I would be able to figure out all the puzzle pieces one way or another. Thankfully, those puzzle pieces just kept fitting.
I played in orchestras growing up, and while I was composing the score for “Pete’s Dragon”, I spent a lot of time going back to that experience in my head, when trying to think about the kinds of orchestrations I wanted to use, the kinds of instrumentation that I should make my palette. But then the film itself also tells me just about everything I need to know, in terms of what’s musically necessary to help tell the story. I find this to be true no matter the size of the film.
3) CAN YOU PLEASE COMMENT ON YOUR BACKGROUND? YOU’VE BEEN IN BANDS, YOU WERE AN ACTOR, A PLAYWRIGHT AND YOU EVEN DROVE A BUS!
Hmmm…not sure if I qualify as an actor. Maybe a bad actor?
My parents are both musicians and they started me on violin lessons when I was three years old. I studied classical violin until I was 17, and started playing in bands when I was 18. Most of the music I wrote for the following decade was awful. I can’t bring myself to listen to it, and on the occasions where it is forced upon me, or I force it upon myself, I cringe. But I kept going anyway, and kept writing music, and have always hoped that every composition I write could in some way lead me to improving upon what I’ve previously done. Lucky for me, I still feel like that’s the case. The music I wrote last year was, on the whole, better than the music I wrote the year before, which was better than the year before that…
I did drive a bus! Proudly serving as an employee of Chapel Hill Transit off and on for six years, while I was living in North Carolina, running a tiny record label with my friends and touring up and down the East Coast. Driving a bus was my day job while I was trying to “make it”. Best day job I’ve ever had. I would sit around the bus garage a lot, write out sheet music by hand, play dominoes and spades with the other drivers, and eat a lot of peanut butter sandwiches.
I spent 2007-2012 mostly on the road, touring with different bands (St. Vincent, Polyphonic Spree, Other Lives, Broken Social Scene) all over the world. Touring is tough on the mind, the spirit, and the body, but I found it to be absolutely magical. Performing for audiences is to this day one of the true loves of my life.
I started scoring films around 2010, writing music for my friends’ short films for no money. Though I had no intention of pursuing film scoring, I found that I really enjoyed it. It checks a lot of boxes for me: my love of composing, my love of storytelling which I had studied as a playwright, my love of movies in general…
4) CAN YOU PLEASE ELABORATE ON YOUR EXPERIENCE OF SCORING THE EXORCIST?
Rupert Wyatt had heard my score for “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and approached me about writing music for the pilot of “The Exorcist”, which he was directing. I then met with Rolin Jones, the show runner and executive producer, and felt instantly like I had found a kindred spirit, whose interest in and knowledge of classical music surpassed my own. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I felt like Rolin wanted a modern classical score for the show, wanted to forgo a lot of the musical clichés of the horror genre, or perhaps take from the most interesting musical examples in it while leaving the rest behind. That prospect really appealed to me. I worked on the pilot throughout April of last year, and the show was picked up for one season in May.
I wrote multiple pieces for the show throughout the summer of 2016, before filming began. This was partly to avoid some of the rush of a fall TV production schedule, but also partly exploratory, to find some of the musical voices of those characters. When I’m composing, I mostly work by myself: write, record, edit, and mix most parts at my home studio, or I arrange parts for larger ensembles which I then take back home after they are recorded. For “The Exorcist”, I did ask percussionist Bobak Lotfipour to write several percussion pieces, which I then used as the foundations for larger compositions I wrote. He brilliantly came up with the idea to use ear tapping (google it!) as a percussive element in the pilot, when I told him that Rolin had asked me to write some music that sounded “like insects crawling around in your brain”. We ended up using the ear tapping and several of Bobak’s other percussion ideas throughout the show.
5) YOU ARE CERTAINLY ON THE RIGHT PATH, WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE TO COMPOSERS WHO ARE JUST STARTING OUT?
Find someone with whom you can collaborate on a short form media project (short film, commercial, PSA, etc.) and, no matter what the subject, see if the visuals give you any feelings about what you think the music should be. Write that music and watch it again with your music in it, and an open mind. If it doesn’t work, try another piece of music.
Of course people come to this work from every direction you can imagine. But as someone who never set out to intentionally pursue a career as a media composer, I would say that my own experience – writing music for short films for friends for no money, and writing music for commercials for a couple years – was the best training I could ever ask for. It kept me humble and flexible, and forced me to try out a lot of different ideas and styles, on little to no budget. The hand-clapping I used in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” – which became one of the most identifiable aspects of the score – was there because I had used it previously in David’s short film “Pioneer”, when I was broke, and was recording in my apartment, and needed something percussive, but not so loud that it would annoy the neighbors. I still search out that kind of willingness to be flexible and humble, no matter the size or budget of the project.
Maybe I had a leg up, because I have a degree in playwriting, for which I studied a type of storytelling very close to the kind that happens in films, and I studied it at a fairly advanced level. So I feel like I both understand and am fascinated by plot, story arcs, character motivations, and the other major conventions of traditional film storytelling. Maybe take a class, or just read about what makes a good script/story. Or just find a movie you love which has music you love, and try to dissect it a little bit – why do I love this? what is the music’s relationship to everything else happening in the film?
When I’m writing music for a film, a TV show, or anything else along those lines, the main question I ask myself over and over again throughout the process is this: am I helping to tell the story being told in the best way I know how?