Do you see yourself then more or less conducting emotion for the audience?
I think the score is the emotional language of the film. I feel like there’s a part of every story that can’t be filmed or written or spoken. There’s a part of the emotional experience of any character’s story where the best way to describe it, or the best way we know to understand it as an audience, is by describing it musically. We all have a basis for understanding things through music, it’s personal for everybody, but it’s one of the most instinctive aspects of human experience, one of the things we don’t have to be taught. So I’m trying to have that conversation with the audience about what’s happening in the story, but in a way that stays as subliminal as possible, leaving some room for them to interpret the connection on their own.
Are you complimenting the emotion of the audience or manipulating the emotion of the audience?
I often say I work in the field of Advanced Emotional Manipulation. That’s what composers do, right? I don’t have nefarious intentions, of course, ultimately it all serves the greater goal of entertaining your audience, trying to get them inside the experience of the characters. But it’s your job to stimulate their emotions, to fire little hooks into their subconscious to connect external actions with internal feelings. You try to guide them to their own emotional connection without forcing it, without the audience noticing that you’re there at all. I aim to motivate a feeling more than describe one.
We’re mostly talking about the documentary, Stuffed. How did you get involved in that project?
We were just talking about the darker, more intense side of things I do, and I think doing something light-hearted and fun and upbeat like Stuffed was sort of a reaction to all that. When I got the call about it, I had just finished scoring The Ritual in London back in 2017. ‘The Ritual’ was an incredibly intense experience for me, and I was a little drained from tackling several dark, intense films in a row. The prospect of diving into something very melodic and colorful was very appealing.
“She wanted music to help instruct her how to shape that into a story based more on emotions…”
Erin Derham, the director of Stuffed, said to me, “I want to bring you on at the very beginning, and have you start writing music before we finish shooting.” She wanted to have a lot of the score in hand before they started editing, so that the score could help guide the way the film developed. I jumped at that opportunity and started writing different suites of music inspired by some early raw footage and initial interviews with some of the characters. It took over two years for them to make the film, so the scoring process was a bit unusual. I decided to create these little vignettes for all the different characters – musical pieces that weren’t specific to the edit, but that aimed to describe the unique way these characters felt about the work they did. And how the director felt about the subject as a whole, part of which was to challenge any notion that taxidermy is some kind of morose, macabre facet of society. It’s very much a film about art, and artists making such detailed and incredible work in an effort to honor and preserve the beauty of nature. Erin said she wanted to make a film based on emotions, not facts, and wanted the music to help guide her in the process. So that’s what we did.
I assume during those downtimes, you just chew on what you’re seeing, and then by the time Erin’s ready to edit, you just present her the music?
Yeah, yeah. They were shooting on and off for two years so new characters would appear, and they’d send me the footage and say, “Take a look at this new footage we filmed in South Africa of this guy who lives with lions,” or, “We met this Swedish Cowboy who lives in Ohio that’s become a major character in the film, and we need a theme for him.” So I would get all these interesting combinations of adjectives to combine together into various musical vignettes — Allis, the tough-edged Los Angeles diva who does hummingbirds — or Jaap & Ferry, the two eccentric Dutchmen who model their work after 17th-century paintings, or Tim Bovard, the last on-staff museum taxidermist working in the United States. I would get footage of these people and try to create a palette of sounds and emotions that sort of captured these characters in their natural habitat, the way they did with their animals. I started to mirror the experience of walking around inside of a natural history museum and looking into the different dioramas, which are these little frozen moments in nature focused on a different animal – that’s all taxidermy. Instead of a traditional score exploring and expanding one larger thematic idea, ‘Stuffed’ became more like a bunch of little musical dioramas.