by Dan Goldwasser
New York based film composer Andrew Hollander is soon to be a household name with over a dozen film scores to his credit and countless other musical ventures. Recently he scored the darling of the Sundance Film Festival, a small flick called Waitress which was picked up by Fox Searchlight for distribution and is in theaters now. SoundtrackNet met up with Hollander recently in Los Angeles.
You had done a bunch of independent films prior to Waitress - how did you come on board to score this one?
Adrienne Shelly and I had worked together quite a bit. We met about 10 years ago when she was doing a short film called "Lois Lives a Little" that was being cut by an editor I had worked with previously. So he recommended me to Adrienne, and she heard my reel and brought me in. We hit it off, and ever since then we've been working together. We've done two short films and two features together, with Waitress being the second feature.
We had a really great working relationship and an amazing friendship - she would bring me in early on projects, usually when she wanted to have a song or something integrated into the story. We did it on Waitress, and we did it on a movie called I'll Take You There, where we wrote a song called "The Bastard Song", which one of the characters sings in the film and I produced an end title version with David Johansen (from the New York Dolls) singing it - that was a lot of fun.
So you would come in and work for the on-screen material...
Exactly, which is what we did with Waitress. Adrienne would usually give me scripts early on, just to get a sense of the tone of the film.
Did you find that it would be easier to start early before they even shot the film, or would you rather wait until you had a close-to-finished film to work from?
I do like to read scripts and come in early to get a sense of the film. I always keep in mind, though, that once it's shot it could be entirely different. I also like to talk to the director early on because sometimes you could have a conversation about the music before they shoot that might affect how they film certain scenes. It might be something small that comes up and makes them think that they need to get more coverage of a scene because they know that the music might play a certain way. Or the opposite. It doesn't always play out that way, but I think that having those creative conversations early in the process can be really beneficial.
In the case of Waitress, you wrote the song early on. Did you also consider writing some of the score before they filmed?
I didn't really, because we weren't sure if the score was going to come from the song - which was something we initially kicked around. Often times, as far as really starting to compose the score, it can be tricky to find which part of the film you want to tap into until you see the performances, until you see how it's shot, which was true with Waitress. If there are moments that can be interpreted a couple of different ways, I want to key in on those other things within the score to keep it all balanced.
In Waitress, the song was on-screen. Were you still working on the film before they began editing it, or did you take a break from it?
When I was in the midst of scoring Waitress I was primarily working on that - but prior to that, I'd just done a film called Gray Matters with the Yari Film Group.. I scored it, and co-wrote the end title song. Then I went into Waitress.
You have a rather varied background. Not only are you a composer, but you're also a songwriter and producer...
I tend to have both things happening simultaneously, but there are periods where I'll lock myself away and will only be working on a film or only be working on a record. But more often than not things overlap a bit.
With a movie like Waitress, which allows you to write a song as well as a score, do you approach each aspect differently?
I love it when score and songs are integrated, like in The Graduate for instance. Not all films need that sort of approach, but I like keeping that line blurred - you hear a piece of score, and maybe it's from a song, or maybe it becomes a song - or maybe it doesn't. I like the idea that it all feels like it's from whatever world that film is. So I love to work on these kinds of projects. I don't necessarily approach scoring and songwriting all that differently.
I want to find whatever is unique to that film or that artist. Even before I get into orchestration, or arrangements, or production ideas or anything like that, I want the song or the theme to work in its simplest form. There are occasions where the score is much more about the texture where that isn't as relevant, but very often for me, I find that I just want to be able to sit down and play the theme on the piano or guitar, and before anything is done to it, make sure that it's doing what it's supposed to in the context of the film.
So you're more into themes...
I think I'm more story-oriented, so I like themes to have their role and I feel it's very important to have them very well integrated and woven into everything else. It's important that it’s seamless – so, how the film looks, the dialogue, and the interactions between the characters and music - everything has to be woven together the right way. Since music is usually the last thing to happen in a film, I need to look at everything that has already been done, and say "what is it that the music needs to tap into here?" And sometimes there are a couple of different possibilities, and the director might want it to tap into something specific, or they won't necessarily know and I'll give them a few options and we'll see how it all balances out with the other elements of the film.
How involved are you with the directors, when it comes to collaborating on their films? Do you like them to be always present, or would you rather they leave you alone to do your own thing?
It totally varies. Sometimes Adrienne would be in the room. We were working on the idea for the "Pie Theme", I played one little thing and she said, "Oh, I like that! It should keep going up or something!" So often times with her, I would play her a little something and she would know right away, and then I'd know right away, and that was it. Then I would do some sketches of themes, and throw them to her and the editor, and they would play with them in a few different scenes and see what was feeling good. When they were closer to locking picture, they’d send it to me and I’d score scenes very specifically.
Some directors like to be around and it's nice to have them around - and some directors like to be around and it's not great to have them around. I find, more often than not, with the directors I work with on more than one project, after the first project the trust has been established. So they can say, "Hey, this is the vibe I want, this is what I'm thinking - you might have other ideas, so work on it for a little while and let me know what you come up with." And that's really nice, because it's nice to know what a director wants a film to feel like, because then I can watch the movie and figure out the role I think the music needs to play to make the film feel like that. So I like being given that freedom. Of course it's also nice to have some sort of direction - usually the director knows if they want an orchestral thing, or if they want a small unique ensemble with unexpected instruments, or maybe something more ambient.
What kind of ensemble did you use on Waitress?
We used a small string section, piano, acoustic guitar, toy piano, mellotron, accordion, glockenspiel, and bass and drums on a few cues. The "Pie Theme" was an upright piano that was filtered to sound just a little bit different, then a glockenspiel on top of that that we darkened a bit so it didn't sound too bright. It gets into this more surreal "wonderland" kind of thing, which worked great - especially for the pie fantasies.<#GOOGLEAD#>
Do you do that a lot?
I am a big fan of taking different acoustic instruments, and combining them to create new sounds. It gives me a lot of options, and sometimes it will just give me more ideas. If I hear a certain piece I've written played by an instrument I wouldn't normally marry it to, it might work right away - or it might give me another idea. I tend to record a lot of things live as I'm writing, as opposed to mocking everything up with synths and samples. A lot of times I'll bring in a couple of other musicians just to get the sonic palette of the movie in place, even if they're not the exact cues and pieces I'm going to use at the end of the day. It's great both for me to have the sound in my head, and for the director to hear what my idea is.
Have you also done the big orchestral thing?
Yes, working with an orchestra is always fun. But if you're working on a movie that has budgetary constraints and you have limited time for an orchestra, it can be very stressful.
What is your musical background?
I started playing music when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I was into sports before that, and then I took up music and threw myself into it.. I studied classical piano for a couple of years, and at the same time a few friends of mine and I put together a band so all throughout school I was playing in different rock bands, doing Battle of the Bands, and stuff like that - but I always had an interest in film music.
What kind of instruments did you play?
It was the 80s, so I had a stack of keyboards - my parents were very supportive, so I got to have some fun stuff. We had a finished basement, so my band and I would rehearse down there. During my senior year of High School I had been listening to a lot of Thelonious Monk, and all this other stuff I never listened to, and really got into it. So from there I went to UMass/Amherst, mainly because Yusef Lateef was there. He’s a legendary composer and saxophonist, and played all sorts of unusual woodwind instruments, and I knew him from all these records that he played on.
He was a teacher up there, and I was fortunate to study with him, which led me to playing on three of his albums - which to this day are three of the best experiences of my life. Because it was just me and a bunch of incredible musicians who I'd been listening to and was in awe of - I just got thrown in, and it was amazing! It was free form, improvisational music. Yusef was great - he really brought in people that he wanted because they do what they do, so I didn't feel like I had to emulate anyone. And that was a real vote of confidence, and a really incredible experience for me.
While I was in college, I also studied traditional orchestration, big band arranging, and did a lot of different stuff. I had a good idea at that point that film music was at least part of what I wanted to do with my career, so I knew that having a handle on these different kinds of things would be valuable to me at some point, and that proved to be true. I moved to New York a year after college, and just dove in - I got a small indie film, with a director who I am still good friends with to this day.. I couldn't have had a better first film experience - I was timing cues with a stopwatch, I didn't have any gear, I had nothing! I was calling friends, looking for musicians to play on the score, and had a really great time working on it. And that was something where I ended up doing the songs and score as well. When I moved to New York and started doing that, I was playing in bands and starting to produce some artists, and doing small indie films through word-of-mouth.
So it really is about who you know...
Talent will get you hired but you have to know people to get up for the jobs in the first place.
Yeah, it did incredibly well at Sundance so Fox Searchlight picked it up there - and are doing a great job promoting it. I'm really glad - I'm so proud of the film. It’s been said that a film composer can be pigeonholed by their first big score, but I wouldn’t mind being known for Waitress. There are a lot of other things I do and can do and love to do, but I'm happy for people to know this side of me. I’m proud of my work on the film and I really love the movie as a movie.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
There are some good things on the horizon, but my superstition prevents me from saying anything.
Do you find that working and living in New York makes it difficult to work on movies in Los Angeles?
A lot of times the directors will be back and forth, and the production companies will be out here in LA, and I'll be working in NY. Certainly technology has made things easier. I do come to LA quite a bit though.
Do you work with pencil/paper, or compose into the computer?
I do both. Usually I'll just put up a room mike and sit at the piano, and play to picture - or I'll pull up some samples and play to picture. I try to get my first ideas down before I start thinking a lot. Often times I'll start watching the picture and stumble across some themes that way. After that, when it gets more specific, I might jot ideas down on paper or I'll record into ProTools and transcribe them, but it can be a little bit of both.
Do you have any dream projects?
That's a good question! I don't know if it's that specific, but I will say that I love films where I can really get involved with the score and the songs. So I love the idea of being able to compose a score and also bring in different recording artists that I'd love to work with, and integrate those songs and that vibe with the film. Like Magnolia. I really like that kind of approach a lot. It's not for every film, but I love the idea of being able to incorporate all these artists that I've worked with, or artists that I'd like to work with, on the song part of it. And to produce and oversee all the song stuff and co-write some, maybe have them write some, and then have the score and the songs live in their own world.
I like it when you put on a song or a piece of score, and people immediately think of that movie. One thing that Adrienne and I did listen to a little when we started working on Waitress was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. There's a lot of magical wonderment stuff happening there, and so for me, if it's people I love working with... Adrienne, sadly, is not around anymore but she was one of those people who I just loved working with. She had all these great fun ideas that she wanted to try, and had a real dynamic thing about her that just got you thinking, as a composer, about all these different ways you could try things. She was one of those people who really pushed me to make sure that the music had all these different elements without feeling too complicated. So it could be very soulful and have an element of wonder and be a little lonely at times, and once we got those themes and put them against picture we were like, that's it!
Waitress is now playing in select theaters, and is released by Fox Searchlight.
Special thanks to Allie Lee at Chasen & Co. for her help with this interview