Daniel McMahon (right) and Miles Nielsen. Photo by Mike Graham.
Before 2010, ASCAP members Daniel McMahon and Miles Nielsen's stories weren't so different from those of many music creators. These two hardworking Illinoisans spent most of their time writing music, gigging and producing or engineering for other artists - all the typical moves for dedicated musicians trying to make a living from their art. So when they first took on a scoring gig for a friend's football documentary called Undefeated, it was all part of the same puzzle. Little did they know that the film would take on a life of its own, as McMahon explains below. The latest: just one week before the Undefeated's limited release on February 17th, ASCAP superstar P. Diddy signed on as executive producer. We thought it would be inspiring to get the full story of how McMahon and Nielsen grappled with this game-changing opportunity. -Etan Rosenbloom
In May of 2010, an old friend who needed original music for a film he was directing contacted Miles Nielsen and me. The film was a documentary about a high school football team from Memphis, TN, and its struggle to conquer demons both on and off the field. The filmmakers immersed themselves in this story by living with the team in Memphis and filming every part of the players' day-to-day lives. A year or so later, they came back up for air with a lot of footage to edit and the need for some music to soundtrack the stories of these characters they had been documenting. We were provided with an open door to audition material to get the job, so we booked some studio time, recorded four original instrumental pieces and sent them in. A couple weeks later, we got word that the film company liked our submissions and we were approved to do the project. Thus began our journey.
Diving in, the writing process for this project was full of blind creativity. We didn’t have a lot to go on. The directors, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, were in the early stages of editing around 500 hours of footage down to about two. The original musical direction given to us was to create dynamic, ethereal compositions with Hammond organ as the focus instrument. They wanted the character of Memphis gospel and soul, but with mostly atmospheric overtones. Seeing as they had just begun the editing process, there wasn’t any picture to work with.
So we got to work recording and submitting music in the vein of the given direction, composing pieces with spaced out organs and guitars, stomps and handclaps. As the directors narrowed down their edit, the direction began to change from both sides. We experimented with some different vibes, trying everything from simple nylon-string guitar pieces to snare drum cadences and movements with strings and woodwinds. They eventually sent us scenes and we created music to accompany each one. At times they had a very specific direction for us to follow, and sometimes they left it up to us to set the vibe and they would edit around our piece. As an example, here's a piece we wrote with layered and effected cellos along with a drum cadence. It was recorded to back a scene that needed a steady build of intensity with a final release.
"With God's Help" by McMahon/Nielsen
Eventually, ethereal soul music developed into straight-up Memphis soul, sometimes bordering on hip-hop, rock and blues. To accomplish a more authentic rhythm section sound, we called up Miles’ brother (and current touring drummer for Cheap Trick) Daxx Nielsen and invited him into the studio. We recorded Daxx playing different grooves at several tempos and made drum loops out of that. Upon completing the rhythm section work, we added horns, organs, guitars and necessary production. This collaboration proved successful and really helped shape a lot of what would end up being in the final edit of the film. This track was recorded for a scene in the film that needed a "movin' on up" feel, upbeat and progressive. We recorded the horns, drum, bass and electric guitar to reflect an old-school soul vibe.
"Soul Bash" by McMahon/Nielsen
At this point, the finish line (in terms of the film edit) was in sight, which allowed us to really start dialing in the music. It was the end of December 2010 and our deadline was May 2011. Unexpectedly, the film got accepted to the 2011 SXSW Film Festival, and our deadline changed from May to the end of February. Because of the change in deadline, the film company decided to bring in composer and fellow ASCAP member Michael Brook to help finish everything on time. With the scenes divided between us, Miles and I could focus more on the quality of a smaller workload. We turned in final mixes of our music two weeks before SXSW and they continued editing the film up until just days before the festival. While walking into the SXSW premiere, we half joked with one of the directors about whether the film was really even ready to be seen yet. Everything felt so rushed in the end. The next day, before the festival’s second screening, we learned that someone from the Weinstein Company was at the premiere; after an all-night negotiation, they purchased the film.
Now it has been almost a year since that deadline. The film continues to gain momentum. It has won multiple awards at film festivals, was nominated for a Critics' Choice award and has now been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category. As for us, we are back to work with our band, The Rusted Hearts. We also operate a studio in Northern Illinois called The Midwest Sound, where we continue to produce music for film/TV and work on various other recording projects.
Undefeated will be released February 17th in NY and LA and March 2nd in other markets.
Daniel McMahon website: getmcmahon.com
Miles Nielsen website: www.milesnielsen.com
Find out more about Undefeated here: weinsteinco.com/sites/undefeated