torsdag den 18. januar 2018

"Downsizing": Interview med filmkomponist Rolfe Kent


I Bries Blog-O-Ramas række af interviews med internationale filmkomponister er turen nu nået til britiske Rolfe Kent (f. 1963).

Rolfe Kent (t.v.) og Alexander Payne (t.h.) | pr-foto: BMI

Komponisten Rolfe Kent har til dato lavet fem spillefilm sammen med den amerikanske instruktør Alexander Payne. Deres seneste samarbejde, ”Downsizing”, kan ses – og høres – i danske biografer fra i dag.

I den satiriske dramakomedie ”Downsizing” udvikler en gruppe norske videnskabsmænd (deriblandt Søren Pilmark) en sensationel metode, der kan skrumpe mennesker til miniaturestørrelse. I Omaha melder kontorslaven Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) sig som forsøgskanin. Han håber, at det vil forenkle hans stressede tilværelse at bo i et samfund, hvor alt er nedskaleret, og pengene derfor rækker meget længere. Desværre får hans kone (Kristen Wiig) kolde fødder før indgrebet, så 12 centimeter høje Paul må gebærde sig alene i sit uvante, nye lilleputliv.

Bries Blog-O-Rama talte med Rolfe Kent om ”Downsizing” og kunsten at skrive filmmusik, da vi mødte ham på Toronto Filmfestival i 2017.

Ud over musikken til Alexander Paynes film (”Citizen Ruth”, ”Election”, ”Rundt om Schmidt”, og den Golden Globe-nominerede ”Sideways”) har Rolfe Kent skrevet partiturer til en lang række komedier, bl.a. ”Mean Girls”, ”Kate & Leopold”, ”Blondinens hævn” (Legally Blonde), ”Wedding Crashers” og ”The Matador”.

Rolfe Kent arbejder også ofte sammen med instruktøren Jason Reitman (”Labor Day”, ”Up in the Air”, ”Thank You for Smoking”).

Tidligere interviews i serien om filmmusik:
> Laura Karpman (Paris må vente)
> Lesley Barber (Manchester by the Sea)
> David Holmes (Out of Sight, Oceans Eleven m.fl.)
> Alex Puddu (The Golden Age of Pornography)

> Rolfe Kents officielle hjemmeside (eksternt link)

FOR FOREIGN READERS: ”Downsizing” (starring Matt Damon) marks the fifth collaboration between British composer Rolfe Kent and American director Alexander Payne. In this exclusive one-on-one interview for Bries Blog-O-Rama, Rolfe Kent talks about composing his score for Payne's fanciful satire, and answers our regular Composer's Questionnaire.


Brian Iskov: ”Downsizing” is your fifth feature score for Alexander Payne. What kind of brief did he give you this time around?
Rolfe Kent: Alexander said he wanted this to be beautiful classical music, and that it shouldn't sound like movie score. That was the mystery I was trying to figure out. "Beautiful classical music", that runs the gamut, doesn't it? I actually grew up down the road from Stanley Kubrick in Hartfordshire just north of London, and that Kubrickian approach of juxtaposing classical music with images, "2001" being the classic example, that was sort of the approach we ended up taking.

Certainly during the downsizing sequence, there is a Kubrickian quality to the images. So it made sense to do a grand Johann Strauss-inspired waltz or do bits of grand opera in other places. That's what I ended up doing after lots of experiments, lots of things where the music didn't fit the film. So I went, "oh, it's as if it is an independent piece of music that happens to be in the film". Mostly those didn't work, we tried lots of styles of classical music.

Is that a Norwegian opera singer one hears in parts of the score (the cues ”Five inches tall and all alone” and "Ngoc guides Paul upriver and to the other side of the tracks")?
It is indeed. I wrote some Norwegian lyrics in there. There are two places in the film where they are singing in Norwegian, and they are sort of commentaries of what is going on on the screen. I'm glad you mention it because I've been wondering whether Norwegians will pick up on it. It's actually not a Norwegian singer. I do have a Norwegian singer in the film, but not singing the Norwegian bits. She helped the singers pronounce the Norwegian bits correctly in the bits that she wasn't singing. Opera is a thing where you often don't understand the words, even if it's in your own language. So I'm curious to see whether any of it lands with Norwegians or Swedes.

There's one bit, it's actually underneath the dialogue so you'll never hear it except on the album, but it's simply saying that Paul (Matt Damon) is carrying Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) and working hard and things like that. While he's carrying her down the stairs and then being told by her how to use the vacuum. In fact, years ago I learned that the word for vacuum in Flemish was 'stofzuiger', and in Norwegian it's 'støvsuger'.

Same as in Danish.
And in Glaswegian, the word for dust is 'stoor'. So a 'stoorsuger' makes perfect sense which points to the close connection between Scotland and Scandinavia. I managed to get that word in the lyrics.

That's bound to be a first.
Probably in the history of Hollywood film music.

Did you begin composing the score during production or in post-production?
There was a rough cut when I came aboard, but nowhere near a final cut. I was on the film for about five months which is a generous amount of time for a film score. I wouldn't say it was a luxury, there was plenty of pressure and always lots to do. It wasn't as if I could write music and was approved. Alexander was still watching the way the edit developed and said, "Yes, that is very nice. Maybe it will be in the film". So there was lots of waiting for feedback. It was trying things out and waiting to see if they fit into the film and whether they were going to stay and if they weren't, writing more music. I must have scored the film 2½ times.

What do you do with the unused cues?
Nothing. It is easier for me to find new ideas than to try and repurpose an old one. I've had as little as four weeks to write a score. Then you've got to think fast. But I've never pulled anything out of a drawer. To be honest, that's harder work because I don't remember everything that I have done which is probably a good thing because a lot of it is awful! So it's good to be excited by the new experience, the new possibilities and come up with something in the moment.

Four weeks, is that a fun challenge or just hard work?
It depends. I haven't done four-week films often. I can think of three. What's nice about them is, by the time you record the orchestra the music hasn't got stale at all. Actually recording orchestra is full of surprises because I can't remember everything I have written, it happens in such a compressed amount of time. When you are at home, the days just go on and on and on, whereas when you're on holiday, a week passes and you can't believe it wasn't a month because of all the experiences you've crammed into that short period of time. When you first got off the plane in this new place, it feels like ages ago because so much has happened since then. That's what it's like, doing a score in a month. You are hearing a piece of music that you wrote three weeks ago, and you're going, "Wow! I remember this! When did I do this?". You've written so much stuff since then.


How did you get into writing film music?
At twelve, I thought writing music for film was the thing I wanted to do. It was always on the  compass. Whatever else I did, whatever other ambitions I embraced, there was always this idea that sooner or later I'm gonna come back to doing film music. I just worked my way up from the bottom. I found work writing music for industrial training videos and that eventually morphed into doing documentaries and lots of student films. It's actually through doing lots of music for short films for lots of different directors that I met some of the directors I still work with now, including Alexander Payne. I worked with him first on a couple of short films.

Do you have a philosophy for writing film music?
I regard myself as a filmmaker, a storyteller. Just as a director of photography in the film world is telling stories with the camera, I regard myself in the same spirit. The guiding principle is always how to tell the story, where are the emotional contours needed, and what keeps it feeling like a pageturner, really. Generally in film you want the story to be pulling you forward so you have odd little things ... Standard music will resolve at the end. But often in film music you don't want to resolve because that means you have stopped, and you're not pushing towards the next page. So you end up having unresolved endings so that the audience is going, "What? What happens next?"

Are there any genres or types of stories that you enjoy more than others?
When I was a kid, one of the things that made me want to do film music was the moodiness of John Barry's music to the Bond films. And pretty much John Barry moody music to everything. It always had these gorgeous chord changes. For listening, I love that slightly dark, velvety quality. And I've written some stuff like that, and it's not that interesting to write. It's great listening to. So genre-wise I just like trying different things. Sometimes I am preoccupied by having no chord changes. There's an old story with Brian Eno telling U2 to write a song with either one or two chords maximum. I think that's a fantastic discipline. You write really melodic and interesting music when you are allowed no chord changes. So things like that interest me.

> John Barry: Den lækre lyd af luksus

Other times I will completely embrace lots of modulation where the keys change all the time, it's a much more John Williams-like atmosphere. Who knows where it ends up, certainly not where it began. That is beautiful because it keeps on refreshing and surprising. Within that I sometimes love to do the big orchestral thing with lots of whirling woodwinds and big french horns, and then other times doing something very minimal and synthetic is what attracts me. Whether it is an ambient, soft atmopshere and tiny details or just solo flute with long, long reverb over a delicate background.

Do you have certain things that you constantly find yourself doing over and over again because you know they will work?
A standard toolbox. Yeah, there are some habits that are hard to avoid. People refer to muscle memory, meaning your hands form the same shapes so you always go to the same patterns or certain chord changes. For me, I use lots of different instruments partly because it produces different ideas. If I'm singing, I'm not writing the way I do on the piano. If I am playing the violin, I'm playing differently to on the guitar or the melodica.

I got tired of people asking for the comedic pizzicato so on one film I switched to do just reggae, swung reggae. And I found it was delightful, it had all the energy I wanted, had the wit I wanted. So I am always looking for the things that break the habit because you do tend to have certain habitual responses. I spend quite a bit of time mapping out ideas, approaches to stop it becoming a traditional approach for me. One thing, I was always starting from the low frequencies. I used to be a bassist, and the pizzicato always gives you the bottom end as well as the middle. So I wrote myself a little note. "Start with high frequencies". And it turns into a very different, very satisfying kind of music. It is much more spacious which I loved. But I have to remind myself how to do that because my habit is always to come from the middle and work my way out.

Mentioning Brian Eno again, he had those cards, "Oblique Strategies" he called them, which was ways of breaking habits and coming up with something unexpected. Although I have the cards they don't feel like they apply, but the spirit of that I absolutely apply.

Is it a prerequisite that you feel moved by your own music?
When I am writing it, absolutely. I sometimes think of it as Method composing, if you get the emotion first then the music will support that emotion and come from that, rather than feel a distance from the work and be cynically producing notes that evoke emotion. That doesn't really work for me, it doesn't satisfy. Going into the emotion first and then seeing what the music expresses is much more useful.

Which score has been your greatest challenge?
I really like the challenges, actually. I think of them as a problem solving situation, a puzzle thing. Because I often get films where they don't actually know what the emotional line is, so the director can't tell me. So it's a question of figuring out what it is, a way to make sense of it. Which is a sort of a Rubik's cube in each film, puzzling out where the important parts are.

I was very intimidated on ”Sideways”, simply because I'd never written a jazz score in that way. I'd done lots of swing music but never really a jazz score. Alexander had also played me a bunch of Piero Umiliani with Chet Baker, and ... How can I compete with that? That's a very high bar. I found that a huge challenge at first. At some point I realized what Alexander was really looking for were my kinds of melodies manifested in a jazz genre. Somehow or other that made it much easier.

Another part of that challenge was, specifically on ”Sideways”, we have lots of samples, lots of gear that can reproduce something akin to orchestral music. Jazz is much, much harder for the synthetic machines to produce. This is just for the writing process, you still use a real orchestra at the end. But with the jazz, to demonstrate what I had in mind was much harder using the gear that's currently available.

Have you been asked to score a scene that had your own temp music on it?
I don't know because I don't listen to temp. Not at the beginning, certainly. Generally the only reason I listen to temp is if I go to a preview screening with a test audience when I haven't recorded my score yet. At that point I will have written most of the score anyway so I don't get compromized by hearing what they have been using. I hate hearing what they have been using. If it's me, it doesn't really help because it still boxes me in to what they were thinking rather than what I can contribute.

What would you call the current period of film music?
I think we're breaking out of a very boring period. It's probably true that there has always been long periods of a lot of generic film score. Certainly in the music from the 40s there is a lot of generic stuff. It seems to me that the last decade has been a lot of people just sounding like each other. But now we've got some very individual voices, and I'm hoping that it continues to go in that direction, that we get more and more of those. Because it's inspiring to hear something with a lot of personality and character in it. The other stuff just tends to sound boring. It's corporate or produced by too many people. What's that great quote about no great piece of work ever came out of a committee? But there are some great voices and some very individual talents, and I feel like we are breaking into a new era.

Have you stolen anything from the composers you admire?
Stolen is a very dark word. ”Being inspired by”. Well, all music is built upon other music, it's a common vocabulary. It's funny when you listen to a great standard, like a hit from the 40s or 50s, and then you listen to all the songs that were written by the same people right around that time. They are all the same. It's just that that one had something special that just stood out. I think music is often like that. Quite often the person who comes up with the great new idea isn't the best exponent of it. It's the person who is inspired by, or borrows, that language. I mean yes, John Barry, I've played with those chord sequences, the idea of those chord sequences a fair bit when I started out. Much less so now. And sometimes when I didn't, it would sound even more Barryesque than when I did. When I was doing it unconsciously, it showed up more.

[Ennio] Morricone, absolutely. In so much of the work of his that I love, there is string orchestra and solo wind. That could be a pan pipe, a whistle, a flute or a clarinet. ”Cinema Paradiso”, it's got lots of saxophone. There's the harmonica, The Man with the Harmonica, which one is that?

”Once Upon a Time in the West”.
And ”Once Upon a Time in America” ... Anyway, that idea of a beautiful solo wind instrument, or sometimes a woman's voice, and string orchestra - absolutely, I've been inspired by that. I've also been inspired by what I call "long melody". If you think of the tune of a Morricone film like in ”Cinema Paradiso”, the tune goes on forever before it repeats.

Same with "Gabriel's Oboe" from ”The Mission”. Again, solo wind. Oboe. Long, long tune. But somehow it always consistent in its sense of itself, in its sense of personality. But it's a long tune, it's not what most films or most songs use which is a four-bar or an eight-bar melody. Sometimes I go 16- or 32-bar melody. I've absolutely done that very deliberately because I think it's a great idea, and underused.

In ”Just Like Heaven”, the opening theme has a long, long melody. You have to listen for it to notice that that's the spirit of the thing. But everyone's influenced. John Williams, hugely influenced by Erich Korngold, and in turn I cannot help but be influenced by Williams' fantastic fanfares. I mean, no-one writes a fanfare any better. And maybe no-one writes one as good. So when I write fanfares, that's the bar. And what are you gonna use as your point of inspiration? I particularly like in his fanfares that he adds a little clash in the brass which makes it brassier. It's not just an A, or an A and an E. It's an A and an E, and then there's something else, like a B thrown in there. Just to make it grit a little bit. So I listen to that and go, Dammit! How do I do that? And how can I use that in my tune? So I'm definitely trying to explore the tools of other people.

Actually, in Thomas Newman, when I'm looking for ways of being witty in music, I realized that he sometimes would use rhythm as his essential wit. You'd have a pattern which bumbles along and suddenly stops, and then bumbles along again. And I never stop. I'm not used to stopping. So there's an idea. I mentioned it to him, actually. The wit of the interrupted rhythm is a lovely idea.

Speaking of John Williams: Do you feel that big themes have gone out of fashion?
I think it depends upon the project. ”The Raiders March” is probably unfashionable to write now, but to hear it now, it's completely inspiring. One of my favourite things of John Williams' is the march from 1941 which is a very entertaining and witty and quite monosyllabic march. It's funny, it's rhythmically entertaining. I don't think people are commissioning that kind of thing very often. I would love to be commissioned to write that. I know it does go out of fashion but maybe comes back in fashion. Actually we are now in this renaissance of Star Wars films. You can't have a Star Wars film without the ”Star Wars Theme” which is this big, brassy fanfare.

But they seem to be the only ones doing it. All the other superhero movies, I can never remember the scores when I leave the cinema.
I know. I am sure someone is making a deliberate choice there, but yeah. It's part of the reluctance to have people express their personalities in their music. I think John Williams gets to do it. A lot of the big action films, they are not looking for personality, and I think that's why those scores don't leave you with something that stays with you.

Which is the hardest for you: Writing or not writing music?
I find not writing music an absolute pleasure! Both when I am between projects and when people have asked for a scene to be scored, when I quiz them on why, there's actually no got reason to do it. So I absolutely don't need to fill a lot of film with music. I'm perfectly comfortable not writing music for a certain amount of time. And then the desire comes back.

What are you working on at the moment?
I'm not working on any films. I've got an immersive theatre production in Los Angeles coming up, and so I'm developing the soundtrack for that which is partly musical but also effects and binaural recording. It's a situation where the audiences are all gonna be listening on headphones, both to the performance but also to the things that are apparently going on around them. I have a couple of other theatre projects that I am also developing. My theatre company is called The Unmarked Door. The desire to be doing theatre has been there forever but the actual momentum is new.

When you are watching a film that you did not score, can you enjoy it without just listening to the music?
Absolutely. I'm a movie fan. Generally I only notice it if it's bad, or the film is tedious. Yeah, I get caught up in the film like everybody else.

If you had to pick one piece of your own music to recommend, which would it be?
Just one? That's a hard one. Right now, I love ”Downsizing”, and the great thing about it is it's got a song, it's got some opera in it, but it's also got the song with The Swingles at the very end. I very seldom manage to get an end title song into a film, so I'm very pleased with that. And the film is so melodic and rich that I think that's a pretty good one. It's not very contemporary in its sound, it's pretty vintage. But I think there's never gonna be one thing that fully represents.

Alexander Paynes "Downsizing" kan ses i danske biografer netop nu. Rolfe Kents musik til filmen er udgivet på soundtrack-cd af WaterTower Music og kan høres på bl.a. Spotify.

Alexander Payne's "Downsizing" is on general release in Denmark now. Rolfe Kent's original score is available on CD by WaterTower Music and on Spotify.

> Hør Rolfe Kents "Downsizing" på Spotify

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