A few weeks ago, on a particularly sweltering July 4th holiday in Manhattan, my wife and I opted to escape the heat and catch a movie. We chose Beasts of the Southern Wild, which has generated many critical accolades, most notably (so far) the 2012 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (the award for best overall film at the festival) and the Camera d’Or Prize at Cannes (the top award for first-time filmmakers). Beasts lived up to the hype. While the plot is not simply summarized - it could be interpreted as an adventure, a fairy tale, an allegory, a father-daughter story – it is a deeply moving and unique feature.
But it was the score, more than the first-rate acting or beautiful cinematography, that stood tallest as my favorite aspect of the movie. Beginning with a sparse melody played haltingly, the score soon becomes more complex, evolving into themes that stayed with me long after the movie ended. While researching the film, I learned that Benh Zeitlin, the director and co-writer, was also the co-composer, and an ASCAP member. Benh was kind enough to chat for a few minutes about the challenges of directing and composing together, his process for creating the score and his not-so-secret desire to create a proper pop record.
It’s unique to have a film director that is also a composer. Do you have any formal music training?
Not formal. I was in a band in high school and during that time, I was doing all kinds of things, but my main interest was music. Then I wrote a couple of musicals for theatre while in college. After that, I gravitated towards film, but I always wanted to write music for my own movies.
What instruments do you play?
I play guitar mainly and I can kind of pick around on piano. I normally write tunes for my movies on the guitar, almost as pop songs. Then I feel my way through them on a piano and use a MIDI keyboard to translate out some simple orchestration. Next my co-writer, Dan Romer, helps to orchestrate the songs and get it into the full arrangement among all instruments.
How did you come to work with Dan?
I know Dan through a couple of things. He recorded my high school band when they went to college. They became an instrumental act called Skeleton Breath and he recorded and produced their record. He’s largely a music producer and actually recorded the score to my first short film, Egg. When our mutual friend, Ray Tintori, made his film Death to the Tinman, we kind of scored that together. He took the lead on writing music for that film and I was kind of directing the music. That was really the first time that we worked together. We also co-wrote the score to my most recent short film, Glory at Sea. From that, it naturally followed that we would collaborate on Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Did you work on the score while you were shooting the movie?
Scoring started after filming was finished, while we were editing. During the editing process, I was writing songs as kind of temporary tracks. I would be in the editing studio with a MIDI keyboard and, as the editor was editing, I would be writing music for the scenes at the same time. So when it was time to really get serious about the music, I brought a whole pile of shards and scraps to Dan. We sorted through them together and picked out what we thought was working and what felt right. Then we would elaborate on those themes. Dan also wrote some new stuff to go along with what I had already written.
It seems like there are at least four or five predominant musical themes throughout the score. Were you responsible for composing those or was that Dan?
There are five themes and I think that Dan and I genuinely split the composing right down the middle. The main “Sparkler” theme is something that I wrote, but there is a complementary part to that song that is used in the credits and Dan wrote that. Of the five themes, we probably wrote two each and one together, so it was very even. Creatively it’s very much the two of us.
Earlier, you remarked that you always wanted to score your movies. What challenges are associated with this double duty?
The biggest issue is that it makes your post-production a whole lot longer. I need to be there for every second of the editing, every second of the sound design, and every second of the music composition. Normally, this would all be happening in parallel with other post-production processes. So the hardest thing is just the extra work. You end up editing all day, scoring all night and then doing special effects between like four and eight in the morning. And then starting it all over again the next day.
While it’s a lot more work, creatively it helps because it’s always a delicate thing for a director to agree to what music takes the forefront in a film. Oftentimes, if the music is taking the lead too hard it can feel over-scored. To me, “over-scored” is what happens when there is a different creative energy actually taking over for the primary creative vision. So scoring my own films helps us to use music in a really strong, leading, forefront way. Because it’s coming from the same imagination, it never feels like it’s interrupting or cutting against the overall texture of the film.
That makes sense. The score seems like a character in this movie.
Yeah. I mean it’s her character, hopefully. The idea was always to score subjectively from her point of view.
Where did you find the musicians to play the score?
They were largely part of Dan’s team. He records a lot of pop music so he knows really good string players. Most of the score is played by just a couple of people. We had this amazing musician, Jonathan Dinklage, come in and play all the violin and viola lines, which is about 80% of the score. So he recorded for some obscene amount of time – like 18 hours straight or something crazy like that. Then we layered one instrument over another. Nothing is played together. It’s all kind of layered.
With the popularity of this movie, it’s easy to imagine that you will be in high demand as a director. Do you have any future plans for a music-focused project?
My dream was always to make a film and then get together with Dan and make a pop record. A lot of the songs from [Beasts of the Southern Wild] actually have lyrics and a whole world around them that we don’t get to express through the film. We really want to figure out some sort of purely musical project to do together. It’s hard because the directing and film aspect of things takes so much time. So I don’t know exactly when we are going to be able to do it, but it’s something that we hope to be able to do in the future.
Do you want to continue scoring your own movies? Was this a positive experience for you?
Yeah, research and scoring are my two favorite parts of the movie making process, so it’s definitely something I would want to do on every film that I make. And I even like scoring films of other people. For example, Ray Tintori, who I mentioned earlier, is one of our friends and collaborators and he’s working on a feature now that Dan and I are going to try and score. We’re hoping to do some projects where I’m exclusively scoring.
Do you listen to music other than your own when scoring?
Yes, Dan and I listen to lots of Kate Bush when working together.
And does that have an influence on what you create?
Definitely. Also, we’re always taking apart pop chords and trying to figure out how to turn them into a score. More classically, I listen to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. As far as film composers, I listen to a lot of Michael Nyman, John Williams, early Danny Elfman, and lots of the big iconic scores [for movies] like Edward Scissorhands and E.T. And certainly tons of Cajun music. The Balfa Brothers, Happy Fats Leblanc, and The Lost Bayou Ramblers, who play on the score, are all big influences.
Any other music recommendations for our readers to check out?
Oh man. I’ve been listening to a lot of country music, especially Waylon Jennings, in a pretty extreme way. Also, there’s this Johnny Western song “Cowpoke” that I have listened to about 1000 times in the last two weeks. And I’ve recently decided that Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club is the greatest recording of all time. That’s our party music down in New Orleans for sure. Oh! I’m also obsessed with Robyn.
Me too - I love Robyn and get a lot of grief for it.
Forget about that. You got to own it.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is in theaters. Find out more at www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com.
Find out more about Benh Zeitlin’s work at the www.court13.com website.