There's magic afoot in Disney's The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Children arrive without being born. Leaves come alive and change the fortunes of an entire town. Pencils become musical instruments. Yet despite the film's charming, fairy-tale story, there are some big universal themes underlying the film. It was ASCAP composer Geoff Zanelli's job to capture that balance of fantasy and real life, whimsy and seriousness, with his score to Timothy Green. The week of the film's August 15th opening, Zanelli told us what that was like.
When did you know that you wanted this to be a largely acoustic score? And how'd you come to that decision?
I knew early on that the score should be acoustic and organic. Peter Hedges, the director, showed me a cut of the film and I started hearing folky instruments in my head. Guitar, dulcimer, ukulele, upright bass, things like that. The score needed to tie into the story, which is about a salt-of-the-earth couple who cannot conceive a child, and end up wishing one into existence.
The two gorgeous themes you introduce in the "Life Goes On" cue recur in many different guises. Did you always know that you wanted to base this score around musical themes?
Yes, I did know that the film would be best served with a thematic approach. Timothy gets a theme, then as you pointed out, "Life Goes On" is two themes which apply more to Timothy's parents, and a character named Joni gets a theme as well. Joni's is designed to work hand in hand with Timothy's theme, too, for times when I needed to weave the two together.
You've got such a gorgeous intermixing of strings and small acoustic combo. What sorts of less conventional instruments did you bring in?
I loved the opportunity to go exploring for the right instrumentation. There's hammered dulcimer, lap dulcimer, ukulele, mandolin, accordion, upright bass, wine glasses, prayer bowls, tin whistle, recorders and celeste in addition to the strings, piano and guitar. There weren't any synthesizers. The closest I got to anything synthetic was a mellotron, which is actually a mechanical instrument. And I have to give special mention to the dulcitone, which is a keyboard instrument, similar in a way to the celeste but with a more wooden sound. You can really hear the mechanics of the instrument, which is what I like about it. It was pretty hard to track these down. We ended up finding two of them in Los Angeles, but neither of them were fully functional so my keyboardist, Randy Kerber, had to make do by playing half the notes on one and half on the other. He had to be pretty acrobatic at times to get through the recording!
You use the human voice in a pretty unusual way throughout your score. Can you describe what you did and what specific effects you were going for?
Sure. I started by trying to do something musical with the sound of a sigh, trying to get in touch with how one might react to hearing that they'll never be able to conceive a child. That led me to the sound of low-pitched humming, which lends a solemn, subdued quality that doesn't overwhelm the picture. So that humming makes up one element of the vocals in the score. The other element is a girl named Sarah Rollins. Here, the idea was to have an innocent and pure voice that I could use to accent Timothy. It couldn't be operatic though. When I heard Sarah, I knew I'd found the right singer for the part. Her voice is folky and has that innocent purity I needed, plus a combination of humility, lightness and positivity in every note.
To me, the setting and colors of The Odd Life of Timothy Green are essential parts of the movie. Was it important to you and Peter Hedges that the music capture what it feels like to be in the fictional town of Stanleyville in autumn?
I'm glad you picked up on this! Yes, the score is meant to work hand in hand with John Toll's cinematography, which I found very inspiring. He and Peter created such a vibrant world, and that gave me license to write such a colorful score. There's another thing in the music that is meant to say "Stanleyville," which in the movie is famous for having this huge pencil factory. Early on, I took a bunch of pencils and started finding ways to use them as percussive elements for the score. I mean, pencils hitting pencils, or drumming on the back of a guitar, or rhythmically scratching across a sheet of paper, or anything else I could think of in the moment.
Many of Peter Hedges's other films have incorporated songs rather than traditional scores. Do you think that impacted your working relationship, or what he wanted out of this score?
Well, most of Peter's musical heroes are singers and songwriters, and he tells me that he was a little bit wary of having a composer at all. He did know, though, that he needed one for this project due to the scope of it. And the reason he needed me in particular was because I'm able to commit to a more song-like approach when it's appropriate for a scene, while still being able to go and write "The Big Tune" when I need that.
As far as how it impacted our working relationship, the film he made really did work better when I approached it with a more intimate sound in mind. There's a sequence where Timothy goes on a bike ride with Joni that comes to mind. The piece I wrote for that, "Love and Be Loved," will feel like a hybrid of song and score to the audience. When Peter heard the cue I wrote for that sequence, he was so inspired by the music that he went and shot some additional photography. Throughout the whole process, I was trying to live up to his movie, to honor what he was creating, but there is an example of him being just as inspired by my work as I was of his.
Geoff Zanelli and Peter Hedges at the premiere of The Odd Life of Timothy Green
There's a touching moment where Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton are talking about what sort of musician their ideal kid would be. What was your relationship to music when you were a kid? And what musical ambitions do you have for your daughter?
My relationship to music when I was a kid was that I was a fantastic consumer of it, an avid listener, but I was actually a late bloomer when it comes to playing or writing it. I didn't play an instrument until the first day of my sophomore year of high school when I got the guitar I found in our attic restrung. That means that by the time I went off to college, I was only a three-year-old musician. I didn't come from a musical family either, so who knows where it came from. My parents remind me that as a child, I would rock back and forth and if they'd ask me what I was doing, I'd say "listening to music!" And if none was playing, I'd tell them it was in my head. I can't remember a time when I wasn't hearing music in my head all day long, actually.
My daughter definitely responds to music and loves to sit on my lap when I'm playing the piano. She's just shy of three years old, so we just let her explore her interests without any formal training. If music is for her, she'll know it and I'll be happy to support her in that. This score has been the first music of mine that she's really responded to. If I play a few notes of my score for The Odd Life of Timothy Green, she'll shout "Timothy Green!" and come running over.
How did fatherhood affect the music you wrote for the film?
I think it's the very reason why I was able to write the score in the first place. I always try to find something in the movies I work on that I can connect with personally, and with this film there's a lot for me to grab ahold of. What Peter Hedges said to me in our first meeting was "This is a movie about what children can teach you if let them," so I'm writing from my own perspective as a father, having watched my child interact with the world. She has an interest in the world that is uncolored by outside influences. She can appreciate beauty for its own sake. Those are things I tried to channel into the music, the performances and even the recording of it.
Pictured (l-r) at the Society of Composers & Lyricists’s screening of The Odd Life of Timothy Green: ASCAP’s Jeff Jernigan, SCL’s Laura Dunn, ASCAP Board member/SCL President Dan Foliart, Geoff Zanelli, ASCAP’s Mike Todd and Disney’s Nancy Dolan
What made you choose ASCAP as your PRO?
I joined around 1996 or so, because I knew that ASCAP would be in the best position to track performances of my music in those early days as I was just getting established. For the better part of two decades, I've grown with ASCAP and they've kept up with me every step of the way. Now, I try to give back by participating in their Film Scoring workshop each year.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green is now playing. Find out more at disney.go.com/the-odd-life-of-timothy-green.
Visit Geoff Zanelli on the web at www.geoffzanelli.com.
Follow Geoff Zanelli on Twitter: @GeoffZanelli