by David A. Koran
SoundtrackNet recently had the opportunity to interview composer Austin Wintory about his recent works and his new score for Jordan's Academy Award submission, Captain Abu Raed. I've known and corresponded with Austin over the years since my days in college and the days of USENET groups, well before the plethora of websites now dedicated towards the art. He's "one of us", a fan and admirer of the art of film scoring, who made the enviable leap to full-fledged award-winning film (and game) music composer.
How did you come to go from being a film music fan to a full-fledged composer?
My obsession with film music started at about age 10 when my childhood piano teacher introduced me to some of Jerry Goldsmith's early scores, namely Patton and A Patch of Blue. Die hard fanatic since then. Almost immediately my piano lessons were geared more towards learning to compose, and from then till high school I was really working to hone my chops. Eventually went to study at NYU and USC, and somewhere in there started working professionally. My real professional training came in the form of lots and lots of student films and little indie shorts. That eventually led to features and video games and all the fun stuff I'm doing now. But truthfully, I'm probably more a fan of film music today than ever before!
Do you think your initial interest in Goldsmith affected your musical style when scoring professionally?
I am sure it was inevitable that my love for Goldsmith has influenced my writing! However, what I admire about him was his ability to synthesize his influences into a new and unique voice. It's really clear listening to his music that Goldsmith was into Stravinsky and especially Bartok, yet he's not the 'poor man's' version of either of those. He's truly his own animal. But beyond the notes themselves, what perhaps most influenced me about him was his sort of "clean slate" approach to each film. It almost seemed like he scored each movie having never scored a film before, there was such freshness and originality to his thinking.
Do you think having started out as a fan better prepared you for your studies as well as now, as it is a career?
Being such a die-hard fan gave me a fairly extensive knowledge of the existing scores out there, which ended up having one unexpected benefit. When I watch a film with the director during a spotting session, there's typically temp music throughout, and 99% of the time I can immediately identify where it came from. Since directors usually don't know the film music repertoire so much, it's a safe bet that they chose that music because it comes from a film they like. So basically, by identifying the temp music I'm able to get an insight into what sort of films they like and kind of gauge my approach bearing that in mind...
Who has been the most influential composer (and style) for you to this date?
Clearly Goldsmith again, though I am always so excited to hear or see something new of Elliot Goldenthal's. He just recorded a new Michael Mann score here in LA last week and I'm so thrilled to see him again in the world of film following his Grendel-related hiatus.
Who are your favorite a) past and b) present film music contemporaries?
Hmm that's a really tough one! I guess it's a cop-out to say Goldsmith for the first one. Like all else, I endlessly admire John Williams. Of the "founding fathers," my favorite was always Franz Waxman, though I've become especially taken with Alex North lately. He's a composer I didn't explore much growing up, but now I'm finding I really identify with his approach. As for today, I think Dario Marianelli and Alexandre Desplat are two of my heroes. I am so eager to see what each did with The Soloist and [The Curious Case of] Benjamin Button respectively. It's very exciting ...
Reviewing your credits, you've spent a significant time working composing for video games, how does that differ from scoring for films and for the concert hall?
The basic premise behind scoring a film or a game is the same; a director or producer has a vision for it and you're trying to figure out what that is and translate it into music. However, in my experience, what makes games so unique and special is the fact that there's opportunity for implementing the music in a truly non-linear way. I don't think there's any other medium in history that can create a musical experience like that, so it's exciting to be in such new territory. Also, the types of people that work in games are usually radically different personalities than those in film. No better or worse, just really different!
Does the non-linear aspect of writing the music present any challenges that a straight forward film or television score doesn't have? Do you have to be careful when you introduce themes or motif for fear they may be introduced "out of order" or be confused with other pieces meant for other action or scenes in the games?
The non-linear aspect of game writing is what absolutely sets it apart from films or TV, though there's also typically a fractional scoring budget so that separates them as well. However, despite it being non-linear, you can still exert quite a bit of control that resembles more traditional linear media. So themes or motifs being introduced too early are probably unlikely. It just means that the moment-by-moment execution of the music is somewhat left to chance. I think that this will get more and more free though as we develop more sophisticated music engines. Right now games are still pretty linear. But the rate of change is astonishing, so it'll be soon I've no doubt.
Which medium do you prefer writing for the most (game, film, or concert performances)?
Honestly I like to do all three to keep a complete picture. Games are great because you get to be really, really experimental. Non-linear composing is so foreign to most of us, so it's like shock therapy to work on a game. Films are tremendous exercises in dramatic instincts, so they really test you as a storyteller. Plus the collaboration is typically very one-on-one with the director, and that's usually an utter joy (depending on the director, of course!). In concert music you're your own master. Any musical idea is fair game to explore and that's tremendously liberating...
You were recently nominated for your work on flOw, which you've been attached to for a number of years, including the web based edition, how did you approach working for writing music for the different audiences (assuming the flash based version had technical limitations that a full console version did not)?
Well you pretty much nailed it on the head; the main difference between the various iterations of flOw was the technical limitations imposed on the web-based version. However, I have to say, those limitations are what led to the approach, which is ultimately why I got the BAFTA nomination I think. It's the classic story where people think I was being so "innovative," but in reality it would have been really difficult for anyone to do anything different I think. The limitations were that severe! But then working on the PS3 version we had so much horsepower that we could really take that initial approach and run like crazy with it. It was a blast! Truly that was one of the most fun and inspiring jobs I've ever worked. [Play "End Titles" from flOw]
Since you've worked on a wide variety of projects, both in size and scope, the inevitable question of budgets and size of orchestras become relevant... how have you had to adapt your writing style to accommodate these restrictions?
I try to be a purist and just watch a movie without bearing in mind the restrictions, then trying to figure out a way to score it how I want later. But obviously that's majorly idealistic. I remember reading a Mark Isham interview years ago where he talked about scoring a film with budget enough for 13 players, but the film had been temped with Basic Instinct. I've definitely gone down that road myself and I think it actually, like with flOw, can produce really interesting results. My goal with those projects is to dive head-in to the budget shortage, and really write a score that would feel somehow wrong if done on a bigger scale. Case in point, I just finished a film called Grace where we recorded 8 bass and contrabass clarinets at Abbey Road, and it came out awesome! It was surreal to hear so many of those beasts together...[Play "5m21" from Grace]
Given that it sounds like you're a purist when it comes to live performances, what's your view on synth based scores, or even utilizing "sound banks" (most famous being Zimmer's cache of recorded instruments) to help fill out with electronics versus using live players?
Every approach seems to have its right moment, though, yeah, I tend to be a bit of a traditionalist. Zimmer's use of pre-records and synths works beautifully with his overall composition approach. It stems so much from his background in the world of pop music producing, it's really hard to imagine a very "classical" approach from him. Though as soon as I say that, I remember scores like As Good As It Gets, which very well might be my favorite score of his, and that's totally pure and simple and not "produced" the way something like Gladiator or The Dark Knight is. So anyway, it's a technique I use a lot too, though not quite the same way he does. Sometimes there's a great sounding instrument you want to use, but it's not really "performable," or if it is maybe you want to use it so specifically that sampling it makes more sense. I recently did a score for a film called Print where I recorded lots of camera noises, like the shutter opening and closing, the flash case popping open, the flash charging, etc. Obviously "performing" that stuff wouldn't have been possible ...
Do you feel an electronic performance removes the "character" from the performance, almost creating a "too pure" environment that say, a happy accident during recording a live group may not provide?
When you're doing something with an electronic instrument, like a synth or something, you're obviously looking for that specific synth's character. A lot can be done to really "humanize" that performance, so by the end it's going to turn out great. On the other hand, I don't care how good an oboe sample is, a live player is simply always better. Even if you're looking for a performance very similar to the sample's performance, a live person gives you so much more nuance and subtlety. And also flexibility! Say a director says, "I hate the way he's playing that solo. It's far too emotional." At a session, you say "a little less dramatic" or something like that. With MIDI you have to go hunt for a sample to accommodate that, which you my or may not even have. It always just felt like a lot of extra work when a live player can facilitate it so much better. But even that's missing the point: people make music, not computers. If a computer is making music it's because someone used it as his or her instrument. As a great example, look at Michael Kamen's score to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He goes back and forth between live orchestra and Kurzweil keyboard samples. It's just part of the aesthetic and works fantastically. So is he "wrong" for doing synth versions of totally acoustic instruments? Obviously not!
How did you become attached to Captain Abu Raed?
Amin and I became friends after I had scored his AFI thesis short, called Morning Latte. He's the biggest film music nut I've ever met in my life. Growing up I could win any film music trivia game on earth and yet Amin puts me to shame... so when it came time to score Captain Abu Raed, he and I were very eager to collaborate. Initially, Gabriel Yared was interested. He saw a rough cut and was really passionate about the film. He and Amin met in Paris, and when Gabriel said he'd do it, Amin called me, feeling guilty, and said "Should I do this? I'd be stupid to not have Gabriel Yared score my first movie, right?" And I told him, "Yes, you would be!!" I really saw that Amin was conflicted. He was a huge of admirer of Yared's, plus having an Oscar-winner on your first feature is a great thing for a director. So I could see that, in the end, it'd be better for his career if he and I waited to collaborate until later. But then fate stepped in and Gabriel was booked to work with Anthony Mingella. Amin texted me from Paris saying that Gabriel couldn't do it and that he was thrilled that he and I could work together. Gabriel even emailed a show of support for both of us, and we've kept in contact ever since. It was unbelievably humbling and he's truly one of the classiest men in this business.[Play "In The Fog" from Captain Abu Raed]
Did you try to bring any of Yared's possible "sensibilities" into how you worked with the score? Or did you go straightforward with your own style and sound?
Any sense of "Yared-ism" in the score is surely born of my love for his music and totally coincidental. There are a few nods to composers in the score, though. Given the director's obsession with film music, he actually dedicated the film to Michael Kamen and Basil Poledouris. So for one scene I snuck a little Poledouris-ism in as a very intentional top of the hat, though it's fairly subliminal. In another place I had a little Kamen-esque motif, though I ended up taking it out because both the director and I felt it was way too obvious. Only later, after recording the orchestra, did we realize that it would only be obvious to people like us and that we should have kept it in! The only other little homage is extremely hidden. At one point in the film Abu Raed meets a frenchman at the airport who introduces himself as "Francois Trauffu", an obvious play on Francois Truffaut. The cue which starts the scene, a mere 14 seconds long, is a sort of strange re-arrangement of a transitional melody used in a cue from Jules and Jim. I changed it so much that only a side-by-side comparison makes it clear. Nonetheless I love those little nods!
While this is Jordan's entry into the 2008 Oscar race, how was it working on a foreign film? Where there language barriers, both literally as well as artistically?
It is Jordan's first-ever submission to the Oscars, we're all so excited! I discovered working on this project that the world of foreign films is a truly fertile place and one which I really, really hope to continue to work in periodically. I know Amin would like to make other Jordanian films in the future, but I also would love it if I could score the occasional French film, or Moroccan film, or German film, etc. With regard to Captain Abu Raed, it really didn't feel like I was scoring a "foreign film" though because Amin really wanted it to feel as universal as possible. So for example, the use of Arabic instruments in the score is really quite minimized in favor of a rich orchestral palette. It's meant to feel like a fable that could be told by any culture on earth, and so the orchestra seemed the best route to accomplish that. So in this one instance, there wasn't a single barrier facing me in terms of language or artistic approach.
What were some of the traditional instrumentation you chose for the score?
The score features tons of cello and oboe solos (inspired by the fact that Amin has two big dogs literally named Cello and Oboe!), in addition to violin, viola, harp and flute solos. Then there are obviously more truly "orchestral" moments. On the Arabic side, I used kanun and tablas, but also augmented them with blatantly non-Arabic instruments like sleigh bells, castanets and other hand drums. The idea was, again, to create a score which had certain "non-Western" elements, but which didn't feel specifically "ethnic." It really should feel as universal as possible. I think, now with a year's hindsight, I probably could have pushed this more, but overall it seems to get the job done.
Given you've now piqued your interest in foreign film, as it was, what non-US director would you most likely want to score for? (say if a Malle or Kirosawa were alive today)
Through this project I've had the great pleasure of meeting so many different Middle Eastern filmmakers. I recently saw a film called Falling From Earth by a very rawly talented Lebanese director named Chadi Zennadine and really loved the film. There's also a great Palestinian director named Hany Abu-Assad who's film Paradise Now is so damn moving (and funny enough, doesn't have a single note of score). I would love to work with him down the line. At Sundance this year I saw an incredible German film called Die Welle by Dennis Gansel. He really, really impressed me...
What was you initial approach to the project?
Well, like I said, Amin really wanted it to have a strong fable-like quality. So the first thing I did was write a main theme that would characterize Captain Abu Raed, as the man himself. The idea was to have it feel almost like a lullaby. It's an extremely simple theme, playable with one finger at a piano. Amin is so score-centric in his approach to filmmaking that it was critical for him to have a theme he could remember before a single cue was written. So after the theme was done I basically set about scoring the film in a pretty standard way.
Amin and I never really had any disagreements over particular cues, except the very end of the film. I won't ruin the scene plot-wise, but it's a really, really emotional moment. My initial version really understated it. The whole scene was practically just cello and oboe solos. Amin wanted it bigger and bigger and bigger and I wrote 6 versions that kept getting more obscenely epic, until it finally felt like we were watching the grand finale of Ben Hur. At that point I put my foot down and told him that I was certain we were ruining his film, so we looked again at the first version, which Amin agreed was a far better way to go. So I won the fight (and remind him of this daily...). [Play "Finale" from Captain Abu Raed]
What other disagreements or positive surprises did you have working on the film?
Those were definitely the highlights. I guess the biggest "positive surprise" was just how easy it was to work with Amin, having never really collaborated on this scale before, in three short weeks. He's very particular, but so amazingly open to suggestion. I hear composers say that about directors a lot, but I personally haven't worked with anyone else who blends those two attributes quite the way he does. It felt so smooth and FUN! We had a blast. But we're both quite sure that our best work is ahead of us. He's got some absolutely killer scripts in the works right now...
How did Lisbeth Scott come to be involved in the score and what exactly did you two do together?
Very late in the scoring process I randomly started listening to Goldsmith's The Sum of All Fears with its totally haunting main title cue. It got me thinking about the possibility of using a vocal somewhere in the score. Amin and I never really discussed it, and I know we're really opposed to the now-cliche "wordless female vocal" that proliferates through so many scores. But I also had this feeling that it could be used in a really downplayed way somewhere.
So, I guess not surprisingly, the end credits came to mind. Amin had all this gorgeous aerial footage of Amman he was going to use for part of the end titles, so he said, "Why don't you have the voice come in after like 40 seconds, instead of right at the beginning?" So that's what we did - the orchestra recalls the Abu Raed theme then brings us something totally new and rich right as the footage comes in.
The question became, "who should sing this?" We talked about a few pop singers and whatnot that we had connections with, but quickly started talking about Lisbeth. I personally think her solo from Munich is one of the most stunning vocal solos I've ever heard in a film, and something in that raw emotional vein is precisely what we needed. So I called her and she was working on [The Chronicles of Narnia] Prince Caspian, plus her latest album at the time, and was really, really swamped. So she said "why don't you send me the movie and then we'll talk." So I sent her the rough cut of the film and she called me back telling me how much she loved the film and would be thrilled to be involved. So I wrote her this solo, and she wrote lyrics which Amin then translated into Arabic and taught back to her phonetically. I showed up at her studio and she said, "I had an idea of how to approach this I recorded ahead of time, so let me play you this first." She played back the most stunning, emotionally pure and raw thing I could have possibly imagined. I turned to Amin and said, "I think we're done here!" I literally didn't change a note. Her melodic sense was such an incredible and simple counterpoint to what I'd done with the orchestra that it seemed more honest to the film than the actual line I'd written her. It was just a truly special and beautiful moment!
Given that you've received a wide breadth of experience with various projects, what was your favorite project to work on?
That's a tough one! At the time when I'd finished it, that was easily Captain Abu Raed. No film I'd scored had touched me in that way. But I've done nine films since then ... the film I did this summer, Grace, may be my new favorite if only because it was no-holds-barred experimenting. The director encouraged me to really just try anything and everything I wanted, so it's tough to top that! [Play "3m14" from Grace]
Who would you most like to work with on a project?
Joss Whedon…easily. I'm a big fan of all his TV shows, and of course Serenity. The way he mixes humor and drama just blows me away every time. I'll find myself laughing then suddenly burst into tears, or on the flipside I'll be sobbing then suddenly break down laughing. He just immaculately understands human emotions and how to convey that on screen. Other than him, I'm a big big fan of Alexander Payne, but honestly his relationship with Rolfe Kent is one of my favorites today. I would love to work with Payne someday, but only if some apocalyptic circumstance prevented Rolfe from doing so, because I always get excited when they have something coming out.
What would be your dream project?
I guess anything by Joss Whedon! I also know a certain someone who wants to make the great modern adaptation of "Treasure Island," so I guess for now that's my dream project...
So, what's next on your project schedule that you're able to share?
I've just today finished the mix sessions for a new film called Knuckle Draggers, a really fantastic comedy that came my way a few weeks ago. And up next I've got a holiday film due out next Christmas called Make the Yuletide Gay, as well as a dark drama called The Sunset Sky. There are a few other things, but they're all still in that foggy "negotiation" phase so I'll leave 'em off the list for now!
Special thanks to Austin Wintory and Amin Matalqa for help with the article. Photo credits: Dan Goldwasser.