The Blair Brothers' Score Feels at Home in Award-Winning Sundance Film
By Rachel Perkins, ASCAP Film, TV & Visual Media • February 23, 2017
The Blair Brothers aren’t strangers to Sundance Film Festival but this year’s film was a first for Macon Blair with his feature directorial debut of I don’t feel at home in this world anymore scored by Brooke and Will Blair. The brothers often collaborate with childhood friend, director Jeremy Saulnier who brought most recently Green Room and Blue Ruin through the festival. This year they kept it in the family, technically, although anyone who has worked with them knows that they treat everyone like they’re blood. Which is why everyone was stoked when Macon took home the “U.S. Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize”- one of Sundance’s most prestigious awards.
I don’t feel at home in this world anymore premiered on day one of the Sundance Film Festival. How was it received?
Will: As well as it could, there was plenty of laughter.
Brooke: Yeah, there was a really good reaction. There are lots of heavy shifts between dark comedy and violence, and the jokes landed and the violence landed. People were reacting all the way through. That’s always a good sign.
Will: It was a very fun screening.
Are those themes you both gravitate too?
Will: Unlike some other darker films we’ve brought to Sundance, this one has more consistent laughs. Right when things might start to feel too heavy, too dark, there’s a moment of levity.
Brooke: That breaks it up a bit. It’s not just constant violence. There is always something that lightens the mood and then gets back to it. So it’s a roller coaster, up and down, and it moves pretty fast.
How do you navigate that with the score? Did Macon guide you guys?
Brooke: Oh for sure, there are definitely really strong beats to hit with this, putting on the brakes and then ratcheting it up and then putting on the brakes. There’s a lot of that for sure.
Will: He did also have strong ideas about specific themes for specific characters and let us interpret those however we saw fit. Ruth (Melanie Lynskey’s character) had this throwback R&B Motown groove saxophone following her around. Elijah Wood’s weirder, quirkier character had more New Wave and awkward '80s sounds following him around. And the bad guys had dark Theremin, moody, creepy themes. That helped us weave in and out.
What’s the film about?
Will: Ruth is single, presumably depressed.
Brooke: A little bit lonely.
Will: A young woman who has a great heart but who has trouble with the world around her and the way people treat each other. Her house is broken into, her computer is stolen, in addition to some very sentimental items and the police don’t go out of their way to get to the bottom of it. Macon is a big fan of these noirish throwback crime novels, so in the middle act we launch into Ruth’s DIY detective mission where she is going to find out who broke into who house and stole her things. [It's] a very simple story but she gets an unlikely partnership with her neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood’s character) to get to the bottom of it. They get tangled up with the bad guys and all sorts of unsavory quirky people.
Brooke: Yeah, they get in over their heads pretty quickly and it escalates.
Will: And then the unexpected keeps unfolding.
How long had Macon been working on the film?
Brooke: It actually happened pretty quickly. I’m not sure how long he had the script kicking around.
Will: We read the first script over a year ago.
Brooke: And then he pitched it to Netflix pretty much a year ago
Will: And he got the thumbs up here (in Park City) last year. Then they were shooting in Portland, Oregon by April.
You three must have had a pretty music-centric upbringing, when did you two decide to focus on scoring? How was that different from Macon focusing on acting, writing, directing?
Will: Believe it or not, Macon brought a more musical education to the household and that’s what prompted our interest in music. He got all of the cool stuff before it was cool, this was pre-internet, he has some way of getting these bands late 80’s early 90’s before they broke and he would make these awesome very eclectic mix tapes on cassettes that we would dub and just play constantly around the house. I think the score, and the songs he licensed and selected for the movie, kind of resemble these mixtapes we put together growing up that were genre-less and bounced around from a lot of rock and roll, and sludgy heavy rock but there’s always some soul music and Motown and hip-hop and Latin and country and western. You’ll hear all of this between the score and the songs, to push the story along.
Brooke: I didn’t realize until watching it last night that it is back to back music, between score and source music, it does not stop and that’s a rollercoaster in and of itself, all different moods and they all fit really perfectly with each scene. That was Macon. He had the whole thing mapped out and all the artists picked out.
Will: The songs that he licensed weren’t really a question. They were written into the script very early on. He was listening to these as he was writing these scenes. There was a moment there, where there were a few songs he thought he wasn’t going to be able to license for whatever reasons and he got them. He got everything he wanted. It helped complete the movie for sure.
Were there any moments of uncertainty or difficulty with the score?
Brooke: There was a big shift in the story inside a mansion, and without giving away any spoilers, it was a pretty long confrontation scene. It was a good six minutes and the score has to go all over the place. That took a long time to do, and it was a lot to wrap our heads around.
Will: The final 15 mins was an even bigger sequence where the film is starting to climax.
Brooke: There were tons of shifts.
Will: Macon came to town for a few days and it was really fun for him to be in the studio with us. In lieu of actually picking up an instrument, he did actually conduct and compose on the fly.
Brooke: He was all over place: more of this, switch to that. If we saw Macon getting excited, we knew we were making the right decision. It was really exciting because of the mutual trust. There wasn’t a lot of prep time for this film with the way schedules worked out so we demo-ed [only] a handful of ideas. So in the studio it was a lot of first takes, gut reactions and improv and having Macon react to it. It was a unique way to score a film that we hadn’t really ever done before. And it kept it really scrappy, and immediate and rough around the edges and that’s what this film needed. It didn’t need a slick perfect score; it’s rock 'n’ roll, edgy and fun.
Will: The majority of the score was based on his interests - lots of drums, doubled drums, layered tons of guitar, tons of bass, weird keyboards, weird saxophones on top of that. A rock 'n’ roll score approached like a garage band recording their first demo - a lot of improv and first takes intentionally by design so it didn’t feel too perfectly stitched together. It was really loose.
What was the scoring process like with this film in comparison to others?
Will: Kind of the same, less preparation and more reliance on our experience - we’re always playing in bands, our experience from performing on stage, our experience as drummers and guitar players which is what we were doing prior to film work. It feels like- we’re in a room, I’m reluctant to use the word jamming, but [we were] jamming to the picture in front of us. We always had the film itself playing in the room. That was unique. In other movies, there is more time and plenty more discussion that goes into it when you might not know the director or project as much and you’re literally getting to know a new friend or collaborator and their taste and interests. We were able to skip over that with this. There weren’t as many revisions and as much back and forth, and rough drafts and final recording. It was more of let’s just get in a room and play the movie and start making music until it’s scored.
How do you both together stay creatively diverse and versatile?
Brooke: Each project we work on is a little different and each director asks for a new approach that pushes us into a new direction- whether it’s a certain instrumentation or to go bigger than we’ve gone before or hold back. We’re always been asked to change a bit. And the stories and characters are always different even though we’re using the same tools and instruments, there’s always a different approach about it. And that’s fun, it’s like a new job and a fresh start. Usually they are very different movies- we will be working on a documentary that’s lighter and then switch to a film with Jeremy (director Jeremy Saulnier) that’s dark and heavy - we’re always switching gears.
How has being based in Philadelphia shaped your careers?
Will: It’s funny we were just talking about this. I think maybe a few years ago we would have had a different answer and possibly feel left out of the industry or community and sometimes we do but we’re feeling good about the work we do there and we have our own community there. For example for a film like this [ which ] required a handful of other musicians and instruments like saxophones, theremins, singers and vocalists, we wanted to bring other people into the mix and we have an ever growing group of musician friends in Philly that don’t get to work on a film score every day. They do session work and gig around town and it was exciting for them, even if it’s just jumping in on a scene or two and helping us finish it. It feels like our own exclusive crew that is helping us get things done. And there’s an advantage, sometimes, to be slightly removed from the industry. It contributes to the feeling that this is a job, on the outskirts, so to speak, but we’re here to do a job and we’re really thankful we got this job. So let’s put our heads down and do it and bring in some friends to help us finish it. I think we’re happy where we are.
Did any other family members help?
Brooke: Actually my two year old daughter! There’s a moment in the score during the Motown throwback track that Will was talking about where we have like a gang vocal section. And for that, we had all of our friends kids, pretty much all of our friends and anyone who was available come into our studio and stack big vocals of people, screaming, and lots of kids in there. So my daughter was part of the gang vocal choir section.
Will: She actually got a credit of like 30 people and the average age was probably like 12. There were old people and young people. Macon’s son and wife actually screamed on that vocal and we had friends around the country singing on their iPhones and sending us files that we were able to mix in. Macon was very big on making this as family and community inclusive as possible, the story, the cast, our mom and dad were both in the movie.
Brooke: Will’s in the movie.
Will: I had a short cameo. I’m the piano player at church and Dad’s the preacher at church.
Y’all played in bands, gigged around town, at what point and why did both decided to start scoring full time together?
Will: We were in different bands growing up, we had to individualize, and then decided pretty early by eighteen or nineteen that we were dead serious about collaborating together and we’ve done that ever since with the exception of a few little solo projects. Then we started doing short films and student films, hanging around filmmaker friends, Jeremy Saulnier’s early short films and his first feature and this all over lapped with our band experience. Then we had a rock band for eight years that dissolved right when Blue Ruin was going into production, it was great timing that Jeremy asked us to work on that with him. In that process, we pretty much decided that was the direction we would like to head.
Brooke: It seemed like a good time to explore something new. And then we started to get some jobs because of Blue Ruin and some commercial work and it seemed like a good time to look at this as a career and take it seriously. We both decided to leave our jobs at the same time and dig in.
What’s slated next?
Will: We just finished a score for a film Macon co-wrote and has a role in called Small Crimes also another funny quirky crime movie but different in tone which we got to include an even bigger group of folks from Philly in, like 20 to 30 different musicians by the time we were done with it.
Brooke: It’s for Netflix as well. And then we’re working on a thriller called Sweet Virginia and another thriller called Wheelman.
Will: We have great friends in Philly who are documentarians Don Argott (Sheen Joyce and Demian Fenton), who was at Sundance with Rock School like eight years ago and Art of the Steal, the Barnes’ Foundation documentary. He and his wife are Philadelphia-based documentarians and we get to work with them. We’re doing an '80s retro synth score for a John DeLorean documentary and the history of the car.
Watch I don't feel at home in this world anymore today on Netflix.