New York City born, raised and based composer Chris Hajian’s career has encompassed an eclectic range of projects. After receiving formal training at New York’s High School of the Performing Arts and receiving his degree in classical composition from the Manhattan School of Music, Hajian’s film composing career took off in earnest with his work for Sundance indie films like Ten Benny (starring Adrian Brody) and Mr. Vincent. He then went on to score TV shows such as Comedy Central’s The Upright Citizens Brigade, ABC’s The Knights of Prosperity and Bravo’s Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List and feature film scores for The Take, Inspector Gadget 2 (Disney), Yonkers Joe, Ex-Terminators and Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2, among others. But having done work for network television and major studios hasn’t prevented him from working on unique documentary films - projects for which he has a passion and a gift for supporting filmmakers’ visions with his music.
Hajian has composed music for the HBO documentaries Naked States and the sequel Naked World, about the work of photographer Spencer Tunick. He also scored the music for Nursery University, which told the stories about New York City parents on their quests to get their children into nursery school, and which had its debut on the Showtime network. He just completed work on an upcoming documentary, Kinderblock 66: Return to Buchenwald, and signed on to to work on the score for Men of the Cloth, a doc about Italian master tailors. But before those films see light of day, his music graces two new documentaries, Unraveled, about the corrupt lawyer Marc Dreier, and First Position (Sundance Selects), about a prominent NYC ballet competition. Unraveled premieres in New York City and Los Angeles on Friday, April 13th and First Position will be released on May 4th. Although both films are set in New York City and address the subject of ambition and, garnering awards and acclaim on the film festival circuit in recent months, they tell completely different stories - one dark and one uplifting - and presented Hajian with an opportunity to display his musical skills in unique ways. He recently talked to Playback about what documentaries, and these two films in particular, mean to him.
You’ve had a real diverse career, and you’ve created music for a variety of projects, from TV to feature film to documentaries. What do you enjoy about scoring documentaries?
As a composer, documentaries are one of most challenging types of scores to write because of the delicacy of the narrative. You have to really be careful that when you tell the story that you’re not compromising a vision that the director has for the documentary. It’s very challenging and you have to have a lot of confidence in your ability to tell the story, and not always in a big bombastic way, but in a real pure way, and I love it. You’ve got to support the story and not smash it because you’d be doing a disservice to the craft of documentary filmmaking.
Let’s talk about Unraveled. Tell me what the film is about.
Unraveled is an amazing project. It basically chronicles the life of this very powerful attorney, Marc Dreier. Right around the time that Bernie Madoff got arrested, Dreier got arrested for an over $700 million fraud. It’s fascinating because the documentary takes place in his home, his penthouse, that he lived in from the time that he got arrested until he got arraigned. You’re really watching a man who’s cornered, who’s coming to grips with spending life in prison. He doesn’t know how long yet, but he knows he’s going away for a while. So, unlike most documentaries when other people are the talking heads about someone or about something, this is strictly him talking about his life; the crime, the deception, his emotional state of mind, and it is a fascinating physiological study.
When Marc Simon, the film’s director, with whom I had worked previously on Nursery University, told me about the film and showed me the opening footage, I thought, “This is incredible. It’s one guy in an apartment, so either the first thing you think of is from an interest level, and while so much is learning about him and why he went down this path, there’s a lot of tactical information, promissory notes, how he scammed his hedge funds, and all this stuff, invading his clients’ accounts. There is a good amount of connect-the-pieces, and as a composer I didn’t want the audience to start get bogged down by the technicalities. I wanted them to be invested in what was happening, because once you understand the deception and how he did this, it makes the story of how this guy pulled these scams off for six years even more incredible.
The film, musically, has two parts. One is the real crime drama, and so part of it is really scored like a feature, like how you would score a crime drama or a mystery. The second dynamic is the personal aspect, and the psychological aspect, and the kind of loneliness that this man is facing and is going to face obviously even more in prison, and how, in his mind, something is clearly off that he would make these choices. So, it’s intense psychological study mixed with this web of crime and deception.
So how did you approach supporting the story musically?
The film is so interestingly put together, and Marc Simon, and Matt Makar, the producer, and the editor Christina Burchard did an unbelievable job of just going back and forth so that the interest in this film stays there. Like I said, there’s this guy in his apartment. As he’s telling his stories of how he started his deception and fraud, the film is constantly reflecting back, and as they go back they added these graphic elements, which really take you back to his life, and that work is amazing in the film too. So every time they go back I wanted to create a motif that is like back to this crime, back to this web, so I have a 4-bar motif that kind of starts off “aha,” the next realm of his fraud! So that is how I handled all the crime stuff, and then from that motif, it develops of course, but there is a real thread. People would say to me that every time they hear that piano phrase it’s sort of like it almost becomes this little button of “wait, you think this is bad? Wait until you see this.” So that really helps propel the crime and escalates the stakes. And then, the psychological stuff I addressed with very, very abstract sounds, more synthetic, some piano and a lot of guitar effect stuff. You want to create thought, and you want people to think of this and kind of maybe have an empathy, but I don’t want to force sympathy, people will judge him how they judge him. Plenty of people will see the film and hate him. And plenty of people will see the film and go “I hate him, but I understand how somebody could go down that path.” I think that’s a sign of a well-made film, and I think it’s hopefully a sign of what I was able to bring to the film, that you’re able to go back and forth.
The other documentary you recently scored, First Position, also deals with the theme of success and reaching for something. But it is a more hopeful, optimistic New York story. Tell me about it.
Bess Kargman directed this beautiful film, First Position, and she basically followed several families and their kids’ pursuit of professional ballet. Obviously, it’s probably one of the hardest, most grinding, most cutthroat, difficult fields to survive in. What Bess did in the film though is very personal. It’s centered around this competition in New York, the Youth America Grand Prix, which is sort of the definitive competition for young kids. Obviously the real young ones are trying to do well in the competition to get noticed, and the kids around 14, 15 and 16 are trying to get scholarships and get recognized by ballet schools. So it is sort of the definitive benchmark as to who has a future and who doesn’t. What’s beautiful about the film is that Bess directed it in a way as to play against every stereotype you think about ballet, she did not want to make the Black Swan documentary version. It’s not a film about anorexic dancers, or parents who are insane, or disorders; it’s a film about parents dedicated to their kids, and who makes it and who doesn’t.
I’m sure there was a challenge in this because there are a lot of ballet scenes in which there’s music playing and you had to create music to compliment that. Talk about how you approached that challenge?
When I first saw the film, two things came to mind. One was that there was so much source dance music, most of it standard classical literature, Tchaikovsky, and all that stuff, and all that stuff is in there, and it’s not only in there when you see them practicing and dancing, it’s also in there when they’re backstage and maybe having a moment, and there’s still leakage from the stage, so it is all over the place. Now part of that is really cool, because you’re really intensely involved with them, but then when you spot the film you realize “Ah, but I really want to score this scene.” So what I did was I made a roadmap of every source cue and every key structure, so that I was able to sort of know that when my cues either came up against or came out of one of those sections, I would write in related keys, so that it would feel seamless. I think I did it well because a lot of people said, “I didn’t even really notice where the score was.” I was like “thank God,” because that was what you really want. There were some scenes where they were literally on stage dancing, then they’d come backstage, and someone didn’t have a good performance and they’d be having a bit of a meltdown. I wanted to address that.
The other biggest thing in First Position was when I saw the film, I realized that this ramp up to the competition is what’s keeping everyone invested in this. It’s human nature. You love these characters, you root for them, and you really want them to get through to the next round, so to speak. And I really wanted to make sure I was able to play up the intensity of the competition and the pressures that are on them, so I did that in a way that I think worked well.
It is a certain audience pleaser, this film. At some of the screenings at the Toronto Film Festival, people were so into the last 20 minutes of it, they were clapping in the theatre for the performances. It’s a real life-affirming story.
Working on a documentary, in which when you start the project you’re never quite sure if it’s going to reach its audience, I’m sure you must get a little more invested in it personally, since you’re all rooting for the film to make it out into the world.
You are a 100% right, and that is one of the best aspects of the business I’m in, You make so many dear friends along the way. Through films I’ve worked on, there are people in my life now - directors and producers that are like my best friends, and when it’s something you know is of quality, and both of these films symbolize that for me, you’re “going for it” with them, you’re putting everything you have into it, you’re supporting the film. I don’t think my job is done when I give my cues at the mix stage. Supporting the film is important. It’s something I want to do because I’m proud of it. I go to screenings and I just watch the audience a lot, just to see where they’re invested and what they’re reacting to and it’s really fascinating and highly satisfying.