Interview with composer Rob Simonsen on the mechanics of musical storytelling, the impact of technology on film scoring, and the beneficial ubiquity of pop music.
Rob Simonsen has been writing music for the screen for nearly a decade now. He has done commercial work for Apple and has provided music for the TV series Dollhouse. Simonsen’s close relationship with composer Mychael Danna has afforded him the opportunity to provide additional music for many scores ranging from Surfs Up to Life of Pi. He has also co-composed music for (500) Days of Summer and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World with Danna and fellow composer Jonathan Sadoff, respectively.
After opening his own studio last year, he was approached to compose music for The Way, Way Back and The Spectacular Now, both of which debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival to enthusiastic critical acclaim. We were fortunate enough to have him talk to us about his friendship with Danna, his affinity for pop music, and what a whirlwind it was to score two Sundance hits.
While some may not know your name, they’ve probably heard your work in both television and film, most likely with your contributions to composer Mychael Danna’s scores. How did your relationship with Danna come to be?
The first film that I scored, which was a film that I made with a bunch of friends, premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival [where] Mychael was a guest speaker, and I happened to listen to the talk that he gave and loved what he had to say. I thought he was pretty brilliant and his music was awesome. And so I approached him, introduced myself, and a festival programmer who was a big fan of a film that I did invited me to come along for lunch with Mychael, of all people. And so here I was, living in Oregon, having scored this very small little indie film and now I’m sitting at lunch with the core festival people who had something to do with music.
That night Mychael was walking into a party that my friends and I were all walking into. We didn’t know anybody there except each other so we just spent the whole night hanging and talking. We had a lot in common [and] some sort of relationship formed there. A year later I was looking to move away from Portland and learn from someone and I got in touch with Mychael who said he was looking for someone to work with. I said, “Okay, well I guess I’m definitely moving to LA and pursuing that.” We started working together after we moved to town and he let me work up the ranks underneath him.
Many aspects of filmmaking are accomplished through the collective work of various individuals. In the context of film scoring, how involved are you when contributing additional music?
It’s always a collaboration. Most of the time with additional music positions you’re an extension of the composer and that may look different form project to project, but the goal is always to get the film to the finish line and make it the best it can possibly be. On one film there may be a situation where a composer is brought [in] outside of the scope of the main composer to provide additional things but it was never like that for me. Mychael always brought me in to help make his cues fit the vision of his score.
How do you go about approaching projects like Little Miss Sunshine and more recently Life of Pi, one an interpersonal road trip, the other a fantastical adventure about one man and his faith. How do you mentally and musically tackle those differences in genre?
The first thing that I think about, and I learned a lot about this from Mychael, is what angle should the score be speaking to the film from? And the answer is never the same. One of the interesting things about being a film composer is that each film has its own unique world that can have its own unique musical solutions. I think it’s a question of, what are we seeing on screen that needs to be supported and what aren’t we seeing on screen that can be interesting? Mychael has taught me a lot about speaking to an intellectual level of the film that may not be seen. We don’t get the opportunity to do that with every film, but often it’s a concept that’s the first thing to come up. The work begins in the mind.
I remember when I first heard Mychael talk and he mentioned that sometimes the beginning of the score would be just sitting on the couch and thinking. I really think there’s a lot of merit to that. For me the score always starts with the concept and thinking about the story and characters rather than just the purely musical idea. I think sometimes, very quickly, the musical idea can tumble forward from that concept. But I think that’s where it all starts. Oftentimes that concept can provide a structure that will inform musical choices.
You seem to respond to what the movie gives you on a character level, regardless of genre.
Exactly. The film often talks back. It tells you what it will handle and what it won’t handle. Sometimes we try a piano and it just doesn’t seem right for the character. For (500) Days of Summer we started with smaller, intimate instruments. There’s some ukulele, there’s some piano. But very quickly we realized that the orchestra has this flourishing, romantic quality, but not a big orchestra. Oftentimes orchestra size can be dictated by budget, but I find it’s more appropriately dictated by the character you’re going for. The size of a string quartet, a chamber group, or a full-blown orchestra has such an impact on the character. (500) Days of Summer didn’t need a huge orchestra. For Life of Pi we wanted huge choirs, huge orchestras, all sorts of soloists and textural things. We needed music that was larger than life.
Character-based romantic comedies like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and (500) Days of Summer have a certain personality about them that gives composers the freedom to think outside the box. What is it about these films that draw you in?
I never expected to do romantic comedies. It’s an interesting turn of fate. I always gravitated towards larger scale orchestral work and dark, dramatic science fiction kind of stuff. The earlier stuff I was helping [Mychael Danna] out on was Breach and Fracture and these darker, moody scores. Little Miss Sunshine led to (500) Days of Summer, [which was] co-composed between Mychael and I, and that score made its way into certain temps of other scores. I’ve gotten that call [to do romantic comedies] because there was something in the temped score that people liked.
Scoring comedic films is very difficult, especially when you are asked to ride that line between serving the comedy and trying to make an emotional core for the character. It should be melancholy but not too melancholy. It should be bittersweet but not too saccharine. It’s a very delicate balance that I’m often asked to achieve. I think it’s an interesting challenge anytime I’m presented with a film that I resonate with, that I think is good and written well, especially when they come to me because of past work. It’s a challenge to try and find new ways to hit that similar vibe that they might be looking for.
As a composer you have a huge responsibility over the audience’s emotional connection to the film. When you score a film you’re essentially transcribing your emotional reaction into music. Could you elaborate on your creative process?
When I sit down and watch a film what I’m trying to do is watch my own reaction. I’m trying to record my own response to the scene with music. How am I feeling right now? How do I want to be feeling? What musical approach is going to get me there or what musical approach might lead this scene to be more interesting? When you watch a film without music it’s very revealing. It’s like seeing someone naked [laughs]. Sometimes it’s a process of really reinforcing what’s there, so the music has to help focus on what angle we need to be experiencing this scene from.
I love thinking about [composing] from a storyteller perspective. For me, music is a tool to help tell a story and it’s always, always this perfect blend of emotion and cognitive thought. I think a lot of great film composers are very much storytellers. A key ingredient to being a really strong composer is [understanding] human emotion and the mechanics of storytelling. Do we need to be sitting right where we are or helping steer the boat to something grander or something smaller?
Congratulations on having had two prominent films debut at the Sundance Film Festival.
Thank you, yeah, it’s definitely exhilarating. I couldn’t let myself really think about it too much. I take the role of observer and participant, but I’m careful to manage my expectations. I was really thrilled being along for the ride. I love both of those films and they’re both different, and I was very glad that I was able to do something quite different for each score.
Initially I hoped there’d be no cross-pollination because they happened so close to each other. In November I scored The Way, Way Back and in December I scored The Spectacular Now. Since August [with Life of Pi] it’s been a whirlwind and, as is often in a composer’s life, I think I went maybe four months without having a day off, so I was hoping that I could really mentally explore completely new territory with The Spectacular Now and The Way, Way Back. When I heard that there was a chance that they would both be in Sundance it was a thrill. The last time I was at Sundance was with (500) Days of Summer. It’s always a special experience to go there with a film, but to go with two films was amazing. To experience the weekend with The Spectacular Now and all the awesome buzz that film had gotten, and then on Monday to go to the premiere of The Way, Way Back and get the standing ovation at the Eccles [Theater] that turned into a bidding war and sold for $10 million. Both films had just done so extremely well I just– it was brilliant.
I’ve noticed with The Way, Way Back that there’s an almost lyrical quality about the score. I respond to your music similarly to how I respond to some of the bands I listen to. Could you talk about how you’ve been influenced by music alternative to film scores?
Over the last couple of years I’ve really gotten interested more in pop production. [Jonathan] Sadoff and I were talking about what we could be doing [musically] and Jon said, “Yeah, we’ll have a snare doing this pattern but we’ll get the mic really far away so it’s a big, cavernous, roomy drum sound.” Jon comes from this [pop] world and his ideas are very much driven by the sonics of a sound rather than the actual notes. Coming from an orchestra, you’re mostly concerned with writing the notes, the melodies, and the harmonies and then making sure that it’s a beautiful performance you’re capturing. In pop it’s not necessarily like that, so I really started to consider the production of sound and how that had an effect on the final product.
I’ve always listened to pop music, but I think that the last decade has been a really great time for [the genre]. I think everyone is pushing the envelope, which is encouraging everyone else to push the envelope. There’s so much quality music out there that it’s almost overwhelming, especially [with tools] like Spotify. I have always looked to the hybrid approach of music making as kind of the ultimate. Using synthesizers, but letting organic elements and digital elements speak together. There are so many people doing that in amazing ways and that’s always personally excited me. It’s something that I keep striving for.
Having read your piece for BMI I was struck by how prominent a role iPhones played in the development of The Spectacular Now’s score. How do you think technology has changed the flow of productivity for modern film composers?
It’s given us less time to do our jobs. The advent of digital filmmaking has given filmmakers the ability to tweak things [and make decisions] to the last second, and sometimes that includes hiring a composer. It’s easy to kvetch with other composers about how we don’t have time but I really think that’s [been] a mainstay since the beginning of our profession and just something that we have to accept.
The way things are heard or experienced can also have a huge impact. For instance, if I do a cue that has a lot of bass and [the producers or directors] listen to the cue on their iPad it might be a really skewed experience. I think it’s important to make sure that directors and filmmakers are going to be viewing my material correctly because I know that people watch these things on their iPhones. [Digital technology] allows everyone to do more, which means [a filmmaker] could be out having brunch and then stepping out into the lobby, putting in their earbuds, and looking at a cue as opposed to coming over to my studio and seeing the larger image and really hearing the full intention [of the music]. It definitely complicates things. Whether it’s good or bad, for better or for worse, I can’t really comment on that. I think it’s just the reality that we composers need to learn how to deal with.
There are many alternative musicians out there like Trent Reznor and Daft Punk that are being given a chance to score films. What do you think is happening here? How do you think the current landscape of film composing is being affected?
That’s a really interesting question, and I think there are kind of two different angles that we can discuss that question on. I think one is that a lot of film composers have gotten a little stale. And directors have also become greater music connoisseurs. I mean, the amount of music that we consume is phenomenally more now than it was 18 to 20 years ago, and the huge amount of access and music that’s out there encourages people to … find their own music. If you’re a director and you’re musically attuned, you might be listening to music that really moves you, and that might not be film score at all.
At some point directors are probably putting in the music that they love, as are editors and producers. Who knows, maybe Fincher is a fan of Trent and one day he said, “You know, how awesome would it be if Trent scored a movie?” And it might have started there. I think that it’s really cool, bringing in an artist that has a musical identity to score a film. I think conceptually that’s great. Just as a viewer I don’t always feel like those choices make good film scores. I’m not saying anything about any of these specifically. I love The Social Network. TRON, for instance, I also love, but I’m not always certain that the right filmmaking decisions are being made with music. Again, I think that goes back to how much a person is approaching a score from a storytelling perspective. The other angle is that I think a lot of directors don’t feel like they can get a widely different score from a film composer as much as they could with an artist who might already be doing something in a similar vein. Often in Hollywood people never hire you to do something you haven’t already done. That could be completely untrue. I think it’s mostly just human nature to find someone who has produced something that exists already that’s exactly what you’re looking for.
So what’s next for you? I’m hoping that since both Spectacular and Way Back were both picked up we’ll be seeing official releases of your scores.
I believe so, I think they’re all in talks on that stuff right now. I’m working on a small film called Chu and Blossom and having a lot of fun with that. There’s a lot of other stuff brewing on the horizon. Nothing I can speak of yet, but it’s been an exciting year so far and I hope the rest of the year continues to be as exciting.
More information about Rob Simonsen, including pieces of his work, can be found on his official website: www.robsimonsen.com.