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Sharon Van Etten and Katherine Dieckmann on Scoring Strange Weather

Holly Hunter in Strange Weather

In 2015, the year this story begins, Sharon Van Etten had never scored a film. She’d also never heard the name Katherine Dieckmann. Van Etten had just released I Don’t Want to Let You Down, the follow-up EP to her exquisite 2014 album Are We There. Van Etten’s music does things to people, and it did a number on Dieckmann, a former music video director for Aimee Mann, R.E.M., and Wilco. Enchanted by her songs of muted melancholy, Dieckmann became convinced that Van Etten had to score her latest feature, a road movie set in the American South. The two met and felt an instant kinship. Van Etten agreed to score Strange Weather, Dieckmann’s fourth film, before seeing a script.

Two years later, I find Dieckmann and Van Etten sitting snug in the corner booth of a Manhattan hotel bar. The two exude a natural chemistry; to interview them is to step back and let the ideas and anecdotes bounce off one another. Strange Weather stars Holly Hunter as Darcy, a woman hamstrung with grief seven years after the death of her son, who sets out on a road trip with a close friend (Carrie Coon) to learn more about her son’s final moments and settle a score with a man she believes wronged him. The film moves much like a Sharon Van Etten song: it’s a leisurely paced ballad that never strains to make you weep, and yet it holds a depth of feeling that sneaks up on you.

Dieckmann had worked with composer David Mansfield on her first two features – A Good Baby (2000) and Diggers (2006) – and Joe Henry on her last film, Motherhood (2009). Those experiences, she says, were instrumental in helping her introduce Van Etten to the art of film scoring (full disclosure: Dieckmann teaches screenwriting at Columbia University, where I work, like Darcy in the film, as an academic administrator).

Our conversation – full of digressions on motherhood and mixtapes – focused on the granular details of scoring a low-budget feature. How do you foster a healthy collaboration between composer and director? When is a musical cue too on-the-nose? When do you simply let a scene play in silence? We also touched on Van Etten’s recent TV work (The OA, Twin Peaks), Dieckmann’s career-long love affair with music in film, and the merits of The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” (opinions vary). Strange Weather arrives in theaters and on VOD on July 28.

Filmmaker: So tell me how this collaboration came about.

Dieckmann: This collaboration came about because I was so obsessed with Sharon’s music. I played it constantly. I know exactly when I felt like she had to score the movie. I was driving in Jackson to make the movie. I came to the end of “Just Like Blood,” and I listened to the instrumentation and I was just like, “This woman can score a movie.” The instrumentation was so sophisticated. I could tell from listening to her so much that she would be a natural.

Van Etten: I’d never scored a movie before, and my manager Zeke [Hutchins] called me to say, “I think this is something interesting, would you be willing to meet her?” Sometimes I just need a nudge for something that I’m uncomfortable doing. I’ve worked with other people, I’ve expressed my own thoughts, I’ve been able to write my own songs, but I was nervous about writing for someone else. She came to the management office, and as soon as she started talking about her film – how passionate she was about music and her work, and also wanting me to find my own voice within that – as soon as she left Zeke and I were like, “I need to do this for me and for her.”

Filmmaker: So you were sold before seeing the script?

Van Etten: Yes. She sent me the script afterwards.

Dieckmann: I think the first time we talked I was in Jackson; I did that call with you and Zeke. We were all kind of nervous, trying to feel it out.

Van Etten: Then she came to the office. I saw her in her chunky glasses and her cool box haircut and her alternative-grunge clothes, and I knew we were kindred spirits. She understands me. She stems from a time that was inspiring for me musically.

Dieckmann: It’s funny because we’re 20 years apart in age, but we have the same thoughts about things across those two decades.

Filmmaker: I’d love it if you could take me through the process of scoring the film. You have the meeting, you’re on board, what happens from there?

Dieckmann: Well, you always temp in stuff, right? So we had temp music for the purposes of rough cut screenings. Sharon and Zeke came to our first rough cut screening.

Van Etten: We watched the whole movie and we stopped and we talked. She had a couple of my songs in there already.

Dieckmann: So we would talk about very specific scenes and then Sharon would go off and write sketches and send them to me and I’d give her feedback. It was hard because I respect Sharon’s musical intelligence so much I was like, “I don’t wanna tell her what to do!”

Van Etten: But I also needed it. I can write a song, but creating a mood to make a scene believable and drive home the emotion, I had never done that. A song is very different from a moment. It’s 10 to 30 seconds of “How do I make this feeling?” You helped me so much with that because it’s definitely not what I’m used to. And my songs are really long. I’m not even a pop songwriter where it’s three minutes; they’re always five-plus minutes.

Dieckmann: It’s really tough in scoring because you have to write to frames.

Van Etten: Which I’d never done.

Dieckmann: And the movie was so low budget. You remember that day in the studio? We didn’t have the normal support system, let’s just say.

Van Etten: Like tech people. I don’t think either one of us is very tech-savvy.

Filmmaker: So were you trying to play the film off a laptop?

Dieckmann: Oh, yes.

Van Etten: I have a laptop and a very humble studio in a basement in DUMBO. Katherine would come and check on stuff. So there’d be 10 versions of this 10-second moment, and if the music is set to the wrong cut it feels like it doesn’t work.

Dieckmann: It was cumbersome. I had very specific ideas of where I wanted certain musical moments to hit, as did Sharon. It wasn’t like we were in disagreement; we just had to get it all to cohere in a very low-tech way, and that was challenging. I remember one cue that was really tough was the cotton field, the crane shot.

Van Etten: And that scene is so important.

Dieckmann: In test screenings people were saying, “Why didn’t you just end the movie there?” That moment needed to feel like it wasn’t releasing all of the emotional energy of the movie. We had this Sigur Rós track temped in.

Van Etten: Which was really beautiful.

Dieckmann: It was beautiful, but it was too soaring. It was too big.

Van Etten: Watching the scene and hearing that song, I just kept thinking, “This scene is so beautiful with this piece; I don’t know if I’m going to do better than that.”

Dieckmann: My editor Madeleine [Gavin] created a cue out of stems of songs that Sharon had given us, and Sharon was like “That’s it, man. I’m writing this cue.” She threw down the gauntlet. Then the cue she wrote, I love it. Anytime I have to do a Q&A, I always peek open the door [during the film] because I want to hear that cue. I remember when we mixed it, there’s that one little note that you do that’s almost dissonant, you know? It makes it so it’s not perfectly pretty. It did exactly what it needed to do, which is not push the emotion too far.

Filmmaker: So how many musical cues, roughly, go into making a 90-minute film like this?

Van Etten: A lot. I’m a list person, so I’d leave with about 20 to 30 notes on the, uh, cues. See, I know the vocabulary. The “notes” on the “cues.” (laughs)

Dieckmann: So then there would be notes, and Sharon would have instrumentation ideas on how to push a cue in the direction that it needed to go.

Van Etten: I usually start very minimal, so there’s more room for interpretation, as opposed to something that’s super big and you’d say “Can you take everything away?” I started very minimal, like, “Is this the right energy?” And then Katherine would be like, “Can you add something more rhythmic, can you add some humming?” (laughs)

Dieckmann: Humming, oh my god. I was like a humming abuser.

Filmmaker: There is a lot of humming in the film.

Dieckmann: And just open vocalizing. I felt like Sharon’s voice was like a character, almost like a Greek chorus, in the story. I liked the idea of using Sharon because she wasn’t regionally specific. You know, you see movies set in the south and they’ve always got that slide guitar, or like Lucinda Williams, who I listened to a lot while writing the script, but that would have been so on the nose. Sharon’s music to me felt a little more modern, not so dead-on.

Filmmaker: Sharon, you mentioned a lot of your songs are over five minutes, and now you’re writing 10, 20 second cues. As a newcomer to this process, how did you find this work?

Van Etten: Thank goodness it was Katherine. It was very challenging, but I still felt like it was very creative. It helped me look at writing in a new way, where I’m writing for someone else to make their piece happen. When I write my songs I write the melody, I write the chords, I have the ideas for the instrumentation, and then I present it to musicians who can play it better than me. But I always have the draft first. So I had to put my own feelings away about what writing a song was and realize this is a new thing altogether.

Filmmaker: So would you be emailing Katherine audio files, or would this be in person?

Dieckmann: Both, really.

Van Etten: I would send them to her for overall vibe, and then the editor would put it to picture. So when we had enough of the cues lined up again we’d sit together and go over notes. We did that three or four times to make sure we’re all on the same page with where the cues are over time, because this went on for six months to a year.

Dieckmann: It was great because I cut out of my editor’s house. It was all very homemade. I remember the first time you came, we talked about childbirth for like two hours. We barely talked about music. Can I say that you’ve now had a baby?

Van Etten: Yeah. I wasn’t even pregnant at the time or anything.

Dieckmann: She was just thinking about getting pregnant.

Filmmaker: Congratulations. My sister gave birth to twins yesterday.

Dieckmann and Van Etten: Ahh!!!

Van Etten: That is crazy.

Dieckmann: That is the reaction of two women who have had babies.

[Baby chatter]

Dieckmann: I remember that time we met and we drank wine and talked for like three hours about emotions. That’s all work – you know, it’s not “work,” but it feeds the work. You develop a trust with somebody.

Van Etten: You understand the other person and where they’re coming from.

Dieckmann: And then you have a vocabulary. Including about childbirth.

Filmmaker: Katherine, when you were writing the movie, when you imagined what it might sound like musically, what did you have in mind?

Dieckmann: I remember one scene I played Lucinda Williams’ “Pineola” over and over. There’s something about the feeling of that song that is so much the feeling of the movie, but I didn’t want the film to sound, literally, like that. It was more like the energy or the emotion of the song gave me an idea for a scene. That’s much more what happens when I’m writing than, “Oh, that exact song in that scene,” unless I script it that way. The script I’m writing now has a Bangles song in it. It’s a very specific cue about these two characters and they dance to that song in the ‘80s.

Van Etten: What song is it?

Dieckmann: “Dover Beach.” Do you know that song?

Van Etten: No.

Dieckmann: I’m sort of a secret Bangles fan. Some of the Bangles, not all.

Van Etten: Why does it have to be a secret? It doesn’t have to be a secret. (laughs)

Dieckmann: Not all. Not like “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Van Etten: Even that song is fun.

Dieckmann: I can’t stand that song. Anyway, that’s different, because the song is part of the content of the scene. Otherwise, I just knew I didn’t want it to sound like a traditional southern movie. The only song that might even feel remotely too familiar is a song that’s very atypical for you, “Save Yourself.” That’s not a genre you usually write in. It’s a little twangy.

Van Etten: And positive, and upbeat.

Dieckmann: It’s got that certain sound that you can imagine in a southern women’s road movie.

Van Etten: The pedal steel.

Dieckmann: Exactly. When I put it to picture I thought, “I don’t fucking care if it’s got a pedal steel in it. I just really like it.” Other than that, I don’t think there’s any music that was composed for the movie that feels stereotypical in any way.

Filmmaker: Sharon’s music has always struck me as a perfect soundtrack for driving. Katherine, I was curious if this was the vibe that drew you to her for the film, this laid-back road movie sound.

Dieckmann: I don’t think it’s that. What Sharon does so beautifully in her songs is open up emotional space. That’s what I was most attracted to. There’s a great open space for you to develop your own emotional reality in what she’s doing, and I don’t think everybody does that. Some singer/songwriters do it, and I think you do it really well. And that’s great for film, because people want to have space for their own emotional response. We all know movies where we hear music and it’s just like “Oh my god, don’t tell me what to think and feel. Stop! Let me have my own emotional response.”

Van Etten: “I’m not ready to cry yet!”

Dieckmann: Don’t try to force me to cry because I don’t want to cry. I love the cue that Sharon wrote for when Holly buries the shirt in the yard. It’s really spartan.

Van Etten: I was so happy about that, because I kept trying to overdo it.

Dieckmann: You wrote at least one other cue I loved [for that scene].

Van Etten: It’s such an emotional scene. I remember I was trying to write something song-like, and I literally hit one chord, and that one chord brought a tear to my eyes.

Dieckmann: And with the humming. It’s just very simple. Emotionally, I kept cutting the film back, because I didn’t want to oversell any emotional beat. People were like, “Well, if I don’t cry when she’s burying the shirt, the film doesn’t work.” And it’s just like, “Maybe you should just cry during the credits.”

Filmmaker: Or a week later.

Dieckmann: Right. I didn’t want to push any scene as being the big emotional one. I debated many times about not having any dialogue at all in that scene, and if I could cut the movie again I would take all the dialogue out. Just have it be silent, because I think Holly’s face is strong enough. I love the cut from her face to a shot of a stark tree. You don’t need to sit there and hang in her face and beg people to cry. The music was doing the same thing of just going like, “This is a fact of emotional life, and we’re going to go to the next fact of emotional life. We’re not going to…”

Filmmaker: Tell you what to feel.

Dieckmann: Yeah. Oversell any particular emotional moment and make it be the moment, because that’s not really what the film is about.

Filmmaker: I noticed there’s no music during the film’s two most dramatic moments. I’m referring to Holly’s confrontations in the hotel and the office building. Was that your intention from the beginning, or did you ever experiment with music in those scenes?

Dieckmann: No, that never crossed my mind.

Filmmaker: I’m curious why.

Dieckmann: Because I think those scenes don’t need anything. They don’t need any suggestion of anything. I mean, even the end of the motel room scene, which goes right into [Sharon’s song] “Kevin’s,” I weighed many times where to have the first note of the cue come. Carrie [Coon] goes, “Sometimes that’s all we got.” It’s one of those, like, line-lines.

Van Etten: Line-lines. (laughs)

Dieckmann: You know, it’s like a closure line. Then there’s the beautiful first chord of that song, and I was like “Should I move it down five frames?”

Van Etten: It’s like when you’re doing tracks on a record, like “How long do I wait until the next song?” That pause between. One…two…

Dieckmann: The pause is important.

Van Etten: Yeah, like with the old mix tapes. Do you hit the pause? Do you stop?

Dieckmann: How much air?

Van Etten: Yeah. You have to let those scenes breathe.

Dieckmann: I was almost hesitant to even have that chord on Carrie Coon’s face. But then “Kevin’s” is so beautiful over the packing up and the scene when she sees the boy on the bike in the street. That you could argue is tugging at the heartstrings a little, but it just made the scene so much more emotionally powerful to me.

Filmmaker: Sharon, your work has appeared in a number of films and TV shows. Had you ever been asked to score a project before?

Van Etten: I’ve never been asked to score.

Dieckmann: Well, they were idiots, whoever those people were.

Van Etten: Zeke and I had a conversation before Katherine had even reached out to us about how there’s more to being a songwriter than touring and making records. There has to be more than that. It’s a dead-end lifestyle. It’s an unhealthy lifestyle, and I know that I’m capable of more than that. So we had a conversation about what I would do outside of that. I’d already decided to go back to school, to be home, to just write and be open to opportunities that presented themselves. I had just finally gotten my first space by myself where I was able to go to work every day and just create stuff, not necessarily for anything. During that time I had a few “Can you do a cover of this song for this show?” things. This was the first time that I was creating something completely new. I feel forever grateful because I want to do it again and I lucked out with having you as my guide. I felt very spoiled because I know it doesn’t happen that way.

Dieckmann: Now you know. You can totally go do it. You wouldn’t even need any guidance.

Van Etten: It takes chemistry.

Dieckmann: It’s true, it’s true. But you have the skill set now. You know what all that stuff is.

Filmmaker: You know the word “cues.”

Van Etten: I know what cues is. I know how to line up video in my Pro Tools. (laughs)

Dieckmann: It’s a particular set of skills. People can be brilliant singer/songwriters and not be able to figure out how to score. It’s a different thing to step outside your own practice and figure out how you bring your musical intelligence to something that’s not entirely yours. It is yours, but it’s in service of something else – someone else’s vision. It’s not like an ego thing. Some people just can’t get outside how they work.

Filmmaker: Are there any plans for a physical or digital release of the score?

Dieckmann: There are not. The cues are so short.

Van Etten: Somebody asked me about that, too. I’d be curious to hear them back to back. The cues that you have are edited to be a certain length. It would take a complete remixing to make it a soundtrack, to make it listenable, which is not out of the question.

Filmmaker: Strange Weather reminded me of the other films I’ve seen where a director works nearly exclusively with a rock musician on the soundtrack. I’m thinking of Neil Young in Dead Man, Simon & Garfunkel in The Graduate, Elliott Smith in Good Will Hunting. Did you have any reference points like this in mind?

Dieckmann: No, but I love all those examples. The thing that I talked about the most was Paris, Texas.

Van Etten: Which really intimidated me. Like, “You know, make it like Ry Cooder.” (laughs)

Dieckmann: There’s something about the way that music lends itself to the landscape. The movie was so much about the southern landscape, and that’s how I thought about it. What’s the music that’s going to emotionally connect itself to this world and enhance it? I did think about Sharon’s voice being the voice all the way through, which I really liked.

Filmmaker: Sharon, you recently appeared on two TV shows: The OA and Twin Peaks.

Dieckmann: My god, the Twin Peaks thing killed me.

Van Etten: That episode was the craziest…

Dieckmann: I love that song so much. I was so proud of you.

Filmmaker: I was curious about the chronology here.

Van Etten: All of this coincided. The universe was like, “This is your year to do shit you don’t normally do.”

Dieckmann: Including have a baby.

Filmmaker: Was there any discussion of you appearing in Strange Weather the way you did on those shows?

Dieckmann: No. If I had a good part for her, sure.

Van Etten: I have to hone in my acting skills before I work with Katherine.

Dieckmann: Oh, stop it. I had people in that film who gave beautiful performances who’ve barely acted before. That’s never an issue.

Filmmaker: When I first saw the cast list I thought you were acting in Twin Peaks.

Van Etten: I know. People kept asking me, and I was like, “I want to tell you but legally I’m not supposed to tell you.” I didn’t even know if the musical part was going to end up in the show or if it was going to be extras. They worked with a lot of bands and they shot them one after the other over like a day or two, so I didn’t even know if I was really in it.

Filmmaker: Speaking of TV, Katherine, I know your career began with The Adventures of Pete and Pete, which is also a very music-heavy show. What brings you back to having music featured so prominently in your work?

Dieckmann: Because I just steep in it all day long. I love music so much. I’ve listened to music nonstop since I was like 11. This is what made me want to be a filmmaker. When I was young there weren’t even that many female filmmakers, so it wasn’t something I thought was available to me. The combination of loving literature, photography, and music – you can’t bring those three things together in any way except in film. I got asked to write this piece about Jonathan Demme for NPR the day he died. He was the example for me, Something Wild in particular. He always found a way to put music that was so personal to him in his films in a way that was not show-offy or trying to be cool. It was just coming from a very heartfelt place of appreciation.

Filmmaker: Were you familiar with Katherine’s other work before you met?

Van Etten: No. Part of me is embarrassed I didn’t know, but then the other part of me is glad because I didn’t have a preconceived notion of what she did. She still constantly reveals herself to me. Not only is she a teacher and a music fan and a film nut, but she’s a mother and a nurturer and a friend. And a gardener. (laughs) She does everything. She’s such a creative person. I’m glad I didn’t have a definition before I met you.

Dieckmann: We have a fresh vocabulary together. That’s what was nice.

Filmmaker: Sharon, when you think about film scoring now, do you think “Oh, that was an interesting thing I did once,” or do you see yourself doing this again?

Van Etten: I would love to do it again. With anything, you have to have the chemistry with someone. I don’t want to have my voice lost to a windbag or anything. I want to make sure that it is a collaboration and that the content speaks to me.

Dieckmann: It’s good because this is going to be in Filmmaker magazine. (leans into recorder) Calling all filmmakers: If you have a really good film, you can think about Sharon Van Etten for your film.

Van Etten: (leans into recorder) I still have a lot to learn! A caveat. I’m still not a professional.

Filmmaker: Strange Weather is written and directed by, produced by, scored by, and stars women. I’m curious how difficult it was to finance this film.

Dieckmann: Honestly? It was almost impossible. It took a long time. A lot of people turned us down, even when we had Holly Hunter attached. We ended up making it on a pretty small budget, but it was a budget that came with no strings attached. I got to make the movie I wanted to make. Holly said to me many times, “Man, one of the smartest things you ever did was make this movie for no money.” Because we were left alone. We did what we wanted to do. I can honestly say that there’s nothing in that film that anybody made me do or change. So then you live and die by what you’ve made, and that’s great.

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