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“Each Film Speaks with its Own Voice”: An Interview with Composer Nathan Halpern

After Parkland

It’s been quite a year for composer Nathan Halpern. He had four films at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival—the feature-length documentaries After Parkland and One Child Nation and the narrative features Goldie and Swallow—and while he hasn’t slacked in his new output, all four of these projects have gone on to impressive post-festival activity.

One Child Nation (directed by Nanfu Wang, a previous collaborator of Halpern’s) premiered at Sundance in 2019, and was acquired by Amazon Studios for a theatrical run in August; it’s now streaming on Amazon Prime. And three of the films are hitting theaters right now: After Parkland (directed by Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman) was acquired by Kino Lorber and ABC Documentaries in November and began a national theatrical run on February 12 to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting that the film depicts. Goldie (directed by Sam De Jong) showed at Rooftop Films last summer, was acquired by Film Movement, and began its theatrical run last Friday, February 21. Finally, Swallow (directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis) was purchased by IFC Films and will launch its national release next Friday, on March 6. Each is worth watching out for as they move into new markets.

Despite some surface similarities the films are incredibly diverse. After Parkland is a devastating and surprisingly joyful film about the ramifications the Parkland shooting had on its survivors and families of victims. One Child Nation begins as an autobiographical personal essay film but evolves into a much broader examination of China’s One Child Policy that created her entire generation and affected untold thousands of families across China and, through international adoptions, the United States. Goldie is a funny and poignant coming-of-age story of a young woman trying to care for her sisters and keep them away from Child Protective Services while pursuing her own dream as a hip-hop dancer in the streets of New York. And Swallow, perhaps the strangest of all these titles, centers around Haley Bennett’s captivating performance—she won the festival’s Best Actress award at Tribeca—as a young woman forced into the role of an upper-class housewife who copes with her stifling surroundings by ingesting increasingly dangerous objects, a psychological study heavily tinged with noir. All four films feature strong female characters, real or fictional, asserting themselves against outside systems intent on their repression, but their tone and style differ widely, with Halpern’s scores changing to match.

Halpurn’s done this type of thing before, with two films playing at Sundance in both 2016 and 2017, and his quickly expanding resume has marked him as a composer to follow. He’s perhaps best known for scoring Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, which won the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes two years ago, and Bing Liu’s Oscar-nominated feature doc Minding the Gap (2018), now on Hulu. But his work includes numerous other fiction and nonfiction films, earning him an Emmy nomination and placing him on IndieWire’s 2015 Composers to Watch list. His scores for these four films all evince a stylistic similarity—often through sustained chords on the strings, slightly dissonant sounds that appear to have been electronically modified, or restrained percussion or piano motifs to increase energy and imply a sense of momentum—but they partake of a vast array of orchestrations and musical styles, including jazz, minimalism, hip hop, and anything else that will help convey the story. At one point in After Parkland, a basketball team honors their fallen teammate: the score loses any sense of time as an electronic shimmer evokes an ethereal plaintive voice. Then when a game begins traditional string instruments return, along with a discernible tempo, quick but still respectful, as a pitched percussion instrument taps out a syncopated rhythm that evokes a tabla playing behind the droning melody of an Indian raga. The overall effect of using such diverse methods within one sequence, far from jarring, illustrates Halpern’s ability to use disparate elements to create a unified, emotionally satisfying whole. His use of silence and single instruments is equally deft, as at the the March for Our Lives rally in D.C. on March 24, 2018, when Emma Gonzalez stands mute at the podium and Tori Gonzalez, a subject of the film (seen above) whose boyfriend was murdered in the massacre, finds her voice to finally speak publicly. Tori’s journey and sequences such as the graduation ceremony at the end of the school year also show that when Halpern pulls out the stops to create a soaring orchestral melody he can avoid cliche and still land emotionally in the best tradition of classical Hollywood scoring.

Filmmaker: You’ve worked in a variety of art forms, not just cinema. What do you enjoy, or not enjoy, about film scoring that you don’t get in creating for a dance company or stand-alone musical composition?

Halpern: For me, the creation of a new song or composition all comes down to inspiration. The emotional and conceptual forces that motivate the piece in the first place, create its shape, and give it life. It’s the drive to express deep emotional response that makes me interested in creating music in the first place—it’s really the prime mover. As a composer, one of the great blessings of being commissioned to write a film score is that at least part of that inspiration is gifted directly to me from the film itself. I react to the film, and it inspires me on an unconscious level.

Ever since I began writing music, I always drew inspiration from other art forms—novels, poetry, paintings, even philosophical texts have provided fodder for my music writing, even when channeling a really personal experience. But with these forms, the inspiration was maybe a bit more conceptual, whereas I’ve always had a very immediate and visceral emotional response to films that I could express musically. I mean, I remember as far back as being 15 years old, watching Rosemary’s Baby and staying up all night writing songs and music that expressed my impressions of that film and the way it made me feel—and I’ve had experiences like this on countless occasions.

I love how these forms of inspiration bounce back and forth between artists. You mentioned the use of my music in dance pieces, and it’s interesting, in the case of one piece that was done at the Royal Ballet Theater in London—compositions of mine that I’d previously written for an entirely different context were used in a new dance work. The creator of this work had his own personal emotional response to my music, finding his own inspiration to connection with it, and creating a whole new vision out of it. It’s a kind of artistic circle of life that I find very valuable.

Filmmaker: You mentioned this emotional connection. How do you determine the sound for each new film you approach? What’s the role of the director or other collaborators as you figure that out?

Halpern: Each film speaks to you with its own unique voice—you respond to it emotionally and you find what feels right for that particular piece. When speaking with the director, my first and primary concerns are with the feel and tone of the film, the way that the world of the film should feel, the type of experience that the audience should have, and the interior life of the protagonist. Much of the time, the way in which this next phase translates into creating music and sound is very instinctive and intuitive—I experiment with melodies and sounds, and the feeling and visual look of the picture guides me forward.

The process really happens in two parts. There’s the more intellectual side of it, where I love to analyze the dramatic and emotional structure of the film and its scenes with the director, figuring out the subtext of the scene, the point of view, and the themes of the film. But then there’s also the instinctive, intuitive part of the process, where I put all of that into the back of my mind and find music and sounds from that feeling with all of these conceptual ideas percolating and guiding me from the unconscious—it’s a bit like dreaming in that way.

Of course, we’ll also have more explicit conversations about ideas of instrumentation early on and along the way. For Goldie, director Sam De Jong was really interested in exploring wind instruments that connected things a bit to the jazz idiom. The idea was that although this was contemporary, there was also to be a bit of a timelessness to this very New York story. We settled on flute and a bit of saxophone (the latter of which I had never incorporated into a score before). These were versatile enough to connect us to the lead character in a kind of classic fairy tale sense, while still being a bit jazzy or a bit abstract as needed. Sam was a great and inspiring collaborator who would plant ideas but he really encouraged me to be very free and loose in my approach.

For Swallow, while it’s a contemporary film, there’s a strong aesthetic of Hollywood classicism and an almost period mid-century aesthetic. Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis (along with producers Mollye Asher and Mynette Louie) and I discussed very early on the idea that we would try to invoke some old-school Hitchcock/DePalma/Sirk feels.

But at the same time, the film covers a wide range of emotional tones, taking the audience on a complex and twisting journey with real emotional depth—it’s not a retro exercise in pastiche. And so Carlo liked the idea that our sound palette covered more than just the orchestra, as needed, and we just felt it out from there, scene-by-scene. As we moved forward, I created some strange and stylized sounds that were evocative of certain visual elements in the film—some of these Carlo really responded to and he encouraged me to develop them further and pepper them throughout the score.

Filmmaker: Goldie and Swallow are certainly not your first fiction films, but you’ve come more from a nonfiction background than narrative. What’s it been like starting to do more fiction work? Are there any distinctive differences for you in working with both forms or is the task of supporting the film’s emotional spine essentially the same?

Halpern: For any film that I score, fiction or nonfiction, I always come back to the same concerns and questions to guide me in my composition. First, I’m always concerned with subjectivity and point-of-view. That is, in the case of a film with a primary protagonist (like Goldie or Swallow) I always want to be sure to create music to dial into an emotional subtext that is authentic to her experience and emotion. This is the feeling that drives and motivates the creation of the music. In Swallow, our lead character Hunter goes to some unusual and unexpected places emotionally, and Carlo would walk me through her psychological state step-by-step in wonderful detail. And it’s this sense of her interior world that we wanted to have guide the music—the emotions and sonic style of every note and sound were guided and inspired by each twist and turn of her inner life.

I also want every film is to have a cohesive sense of thematic structure in the music. You don’t always have to have character themes in the classical or Wagnerian sense either. Sometimes, in the case of a multiple-protagonist story (like Rich Hill or Minding the Gap), I’ll create conceptual or emotional themes that help to bring the characters’ stories together, and enhance the sense of dramatic unity. When I’ve done nonfiction films, I’m generally commissioned by directors who really want me to use music to make the work feel more cinematic, and a rigorous, thematic score is the prime way to achieve this.

And then more broadly, as we’ve discussed, the musical score of the film can help to establish the overall tone and feeling of a film’s aesthetic, cluing the audience in as to what kind of world they are entering when the film begins. I’ve been lucky enough to score some very unique and special films that transcend obvious genre tropes, and nailing the proper aesthetic tone of the overall piece is, to me, one of the most clutch and satisfying parts of creating a film score.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about spotting in that regard? Are docs or fiction films easier to spot in any way? For instance, in One Child Nation you frequently begin a cue after an interviewee has finished speaking just before the picture cuts to a new action or voice-over sequence, and I’m curious how having that sort of syntax available effects the spotting process. What might make you decide that silence might be better than music in a particular scene?

Halpern: I’m glad that you bring up spotting, because it is such an essential part of the process, and each film is so different. I’ve discussed this a lot in terms of the film The Rider—because this is a scripted, narrative film, with sequences that feel very authentic and cinema vérité, existing alongside more stylized and subjective sequences. For sequences that feel very “real,” director Chloé Zhao and I discussed that we would avoid music entirely, so as to not undermine the authenticity of the moment. But the film has other sequences that are far more stylized and subjective, and I wrote music that was designed to bring us directly into Brady’s subjective experience and emotional state. In the sequence where he rides his family horse Gus for the last time, we begin with fractured, defamiliarized sounds that evoke his woozy headspace post-injury; and then as he begins to ride, the music becomes clearer and more pronounced, and the violins and cello take over and come into focus, simultaneously evoking a transcendent feeling of this ride, and melancholy of what he is losing.

For One Child Nation (which I co-composed with my frequent collaborator Chris Ruggiero), we all felt that the interviews were so intense, rich, and even shocking—so we wanted to keep the music out of the way as much as possible, placing it only when it was absolutely necessary. This is a very provocative film, and any gratuitously placed music risks feeling like a security blanket for the audience—and you don’t want that. You want the audience to be confronted with the full weight of what is being said.

Filmmaker: Can you walk me through your process once you’re at your keyboard or monitor?

Halpern: When time allows, I love composing early ideas away from the picture completely, inspired just by the character or tone of the film. I’ve written any number of themes this way. It’s something that Carlo Mirabella-Davis (director of Swallow), really encouraged me to do. We’d talked about the film and the lead character of Hunter extensively, and he’d shared this beautiful poetic language with me on his vision of her character and the ideas of the film. And I used this to just write freely, playing with melodic ideas and sounds that I shared with Carlo—and these ideas became a crucial part of the thematic structure of the score. I then put these ideas to picture and finessed the details and contours of each given scene.

Another crucial element of Swallow that Carlo and I discussed (and which I love to do) was the creation and subversion of thematic material, making the familiar feel unfamiliar—the uncanny. Therefore, I created some musical pieces that at first felt stately and beautiful. But as the story progresses, the theme reappears, but in a somewhat warped fashion: the strings become warped, odd sounds intrude, and the key is deeper and darker.

Filmmaker: You talked about your approach to One Child Nation and After Parkland, but I’m curious about the fact that both are essentially about violent crimes, including murder, against children. Did you find thematic similarities informing your compositions for these films?

Halpern: For any film score, regardless of the subject matter, I focus closely on the point of view from which the music is to be associated. In the case of One Child Nation, we are experiencing the story through Nanfu’s eyes, and through the memories of adults looking back upon horrific experiences. The music here is very much inspired by the idea of memory and shifting perception (including the appearance of instruments recorded backwards). As the film develops, and we learn more about China’s One Child policy, it was important to directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang that we invoke a growing and deepening sense of absolute tragedy at the national scale—this enormous weight upon the national consciousness. Some of the delicate sounds gradually become heavily distorted, the strings become scraped and almost unrecognizable.

The musical thrust of After Parkland is quite different in terms of point of view. Here, the music does not relate so much to the murders themselves, but rather to the lives of the young people and their families who are attempting to put their lives back together, to heal, and to try to ensure that something like this never happens again. While there is certainly some invocation of tension in the music (particularly in the opening scene that sets up the story), much of the score is quite gentle and tends to come back to the theme of love between and amongst friends and families. The music eventually swells with the purposeful energy of their heroic activism. Of course, between the films there is certainly the commonality that one wanted to exercise as much restraint as possible in the music.

Filmmaker: In the same way, Swallow and Goldie couldn’t feature more disparate characters, but they’re both about isolated women learning to stand on their own two feet and claim their space in the world. Did this lead to any similarities in the music? To my untrained ear it seemed that you used a greater variety of instruments (even human voices in Swallow) and broader range and more pronounced melodic lines in these films than in the documentaries, but (if that’s even accurate) is that a product of budgets and fiction versus nonfiction rather than a result of thematic similarities between Hunter’s and Goldie’s journeys?

Halpern: It was so exciting to have Swallow and Goldie both playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, especially because their musical styles are so different—warped neoclassical for one and psychedelic jazz for the other!

For Swallow, the starting point was to have a musical score that would feel classic and elegant, evocative of classic cinema, with a strong emphasis on strings and pianos—our producers thought the final score sounded “Sirkian” in spirit, which I was delighted by. But over the course of the film, stranger and more disturbing sounds and more modern techniques come to increasingly disrupt this elegant sonic veneer. To your question about budget, I would say that this is less a matter of money than it is one of aesthetics—Swallow has been described as “warped fairy tale” so we needed more stylized music to take us into this heightened experience.

As we were discussing, the score for Goldie relies in part on jazz elements in its instrumentation and melodic techniques. At the same time though, the film is also something of a stylized fable—while it has its social realist aspects, there’s an ancient fable aspect to the story, and the social realist aspects are often disrupted by experimental editing techniques, and wild and playful animation placed on top of the images. Director Sam De Jong and I discussed setting the acoustic and organic instruments against odd and defamiliarized sounds—the pitched sounds of the ocean, warped trumpets, vocals run through tape delays and distorted beyond recognition…

Filmmaker: You have a lot of other films underway right now. What else are you planning or hoping to do in the next few years?

Halpern: In terms of film scores, my greatest wish is to continue to collaborate with filmmakers and films with whom I have a deep artistic connection, whose films and ideas inspire me.

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