|SxSW 2016 Interview: THE SEER composer & musician Kerry Muzzey
by Jason Whyte
THE SEER - At SxSW 2016
"THE SEER is a documentary film that is about the changes happening in present-day rural America, in this era of industrial agriculture; but as seen through the mind's eye of Wendell Berry, the American poet, farmer and activist. The film revolves around the stories of several residents of Henry County, Kentucky, and they each face difficult choices and tough times that are reshaping their relationship with their land and their community. Itís an example of this very quiet ideological struggle in rural parts of the country thatís becoming louder and louder as industrial agriculture takes over many of our countrys' small farms. The challenges and decisions these farmers face have become urgent. And this way of life that has always been very iconic American and very simple and beautiful is quickly disappearing." -- Kerry Muzzey, the composer and musician behind the South By Southwest 2016 entry THE SEER.
Glad to have you as a part of SxSW 2016! Are you going to be attending the screenings of THE SEER?
Yes! I'm so excited to finally see this on a big screen and in a theatre with a killer sound system. There are a few screenings of THE SEER during SXSW, and I'll be attending the (March 12th and 13th shows with Laura Dunn and some of the crew. I finished the score in the summer of 2015 and I have been dying for people to see this film. It's the kind of movie that gets under your skin and begs for repeat viewing. I found it incredibly moving to watch. It made me nostalgic for my hometown back in smalltown Illinois and for a simpler, quieter way of life.
At what point did Laura approach you about scoring her documentary, and what were your experiences in working with her?
I met Laura back in 2007 when she licensed some music from me for her film THE UNFORESEEN which went on to win the "Truer than Fiction" award at the Independent Spirit Awards. We met in person at a screening of the film at the MOMA in NYC, and I was struck by how nice she was. And THE UNFORESEEN floored me; I had never seen such a gorgeously-made documentary before, and the topic sucked me in. We stayed in touch periodically, and two years ago she reached out to say she was editing THE SEER and wanted to know if I could send some new music her way. During those in-between years I had written so much more music, and had released a few albums under my pen name THE CANDLEPARK STARS that's very cinematic post-rock, and I was just about to head to London to record a modern classical album called THE ARCHITECT. So I had a ton of new music to give her. She's the director and editor on her films, and music is something that's super important to her. I knew that she normally worked with licensed music rather than commissioning original scores, so I was just hoping that a few of my pieces would end up in the film. She did want to use a couple pre-existing pieces of mine, but then reached out about a year ago to ask if I'd be interested in doing an original score as well. My response was a giant, bold, all-italics YES! I thought she was a dream to work with. It's funny, so many directors start off the director-composer relationship by saying "I don't know musical terms and I'm nervous about trying to explain what I want in a way that will make sense", and I always tell them, "Just tell me what you're aiming for and how you want it to feel. No fancy musical terms necessary." And her feedback was always so specific and so clear that I had no doubt about what she was aiming for. I don't think she realizes how good she is at working with a composer. I also love her passion for this subject as she wears it on her sleeve. Her documentaries are labors of love and she spends years on them and I think this one was six or seven years in the making. People who love what they do are the best people to work with.
What is the process like for you in putting together a score? Who are your key collaborators?
I start by watching the film, and just taking a few notes throughout if something strikes me. I like to see it first as an audience person. You need to get a feel for the broad strokes of it before narrowing in on the specifics. I will watch it a second or third time before sitting down at my rig with it. "How to start" is always weird, and I can't think about it too much or it feels overwhelming, so I just start. Period. Jump right in, don't think too much, don't over-analyze it, just go with your gut feeling. The feeling and the size and scale of the film tend to dictate how big the score will be, and documentaries are best when the music is on the less-is-more side, so with this one I started with a piano because I know Laura loves quiet piano stuff, and also because it provided a nice texture to put against the picture without coloring the narrative too much. I knew that I wanted something that sounded sparse and a little bit Americana but without sounding like Copland, or cliche Americana stuff, so I settled on a style that was primarily piano and cello. It clicked right away. It fit the picture perfectly.
My collaborator on this score is my friend Peter Gregson, who's a brilliant cellist and also a composer. It's his cello that you hear throughout the film, and he had such perfect instincts for what I was going for that I never had any notes or corrections for him! He's based in London so we did everything over Skype and email, and just file transfered cues back and forth. He's like the 20% of my composer brain that I can't quite access. He fills in the blanks. It's like magic and that's why I love working with him: he always opens up new possibilities that I had never thought of. As soon as I heard that combo of piano and cello against picture, I knew that was it. It just felt right, and it made the story feel a little bit more three dimensional to me. The right score seems to make the picture itself sparkle just a tiny bit more. Colors are brighter, the experience is more dense, the words hold more weight. Or maybe it just heightens things enough that you're more apt to notice the little details you might otherwise miss.
Then there's always some back and forth with your director about the basics: do you like the tone I'm striking, am I punching up the right things, is it too big or too small, am I missing something you wanted to hit, that sort of thing. You always hope that your first submission for a cue is 70-80% correct and that you haven't missed the mark by too much. That was the case with this score: I had the benefit of knowing what kind of music Laura likes so our work was more about fine-tuning than about scrapping something and starting again from scratch.
Did you have any specific challenges in scoring a documentary versus scoring a feature film? For example, the documentary subjects inspiring your music as opposed to a narrative film?
What a great question. And that answer is a definite YES. It took me a while to figure out how to articulate the wall I kept running into but once I was able to explain it, it was suddenly much more clear. I was so taken with this film that I jumped into it with guns blazing: the emotional stuff I was writing was REALLY emotional. And it felt great in the moment but when I watched it the next morning I thought, "This is awful. It's too heavy-handed. How could I have thought this was good just 12 hours ago?" And I realized what I was doing: I was scoring my actual feelings about what was happening onscreen, in a "telling it to you" way. And that's a big no-no in documentary scoring. It works great for feature films because when you go to the movies that's what you're buying into the minute the lights go out: you want the action or the drama or romance, you want soaring strings and sweeping vistas and big wham-bam action music to punch up the story for you. You expect that because it's part of the ride. But a documentary score is a completely different animal: the audience is watching it with a different purpose. They're watching to hear an honest story and to learn something, or to become engaged with something real. And the big pitfall that you have to avoid in docu scoring is using the music in a manipulative way, to help sway someone's feelings about the topic or to add too much emotional color or weight to something. This happened with the first cue I sent to Laura, and she had the best comment on it; her note was "We have to be really careful here to not let the music be too nostalgic, too sentimental, too emotional or too melancholy." And that one music note shaped the entire score. It meant being a little aloof with the score, and only dipping into emotional stuff now and then. So instead of bathing in the emotion, it's just a quick moment as a touchstone. I think this is also something that a documentary-watching audience will be keenly aware of; they are savvy enough to know when they're being manipulated, and you don't want to be the one to commit that crime. What that meant for me was that the score had to stay in the background and had to exercise a lot of restraint. It meant letting the story come first, and letting the integrity of our characters speak for itself. "How to stay out of the film's way" is a concept that I still don't think I can explain or articulate very well, but I can just say that you know it when you hear it. It was a tough thing to do because I was so moved by these peoples' stories, and by the people themselves: these were really good, salt-of-the-earth people who exuded honesty and kindness and pride in their work. I was so conscious of trying to not screw up the picture that I put a post-it note on my monitor that said "Do no harm." But at the end of the day it was an awesome challenge and I'm very proud of the end results. It feels like an honest score, and doing this gig made me better at my job. It was challenging in all the best ways.
While you are putting together the music for a movie, whether a narrative or documentary, what drives you? What keeps you going? How much caffeine?
I wish I could explain the buzz that I get when I add music to picture and it connects. It's like your brain is on fire and it's an addictive feeling. It's like you've been living in a black and white 2D world, and adding the music makes everything bright colors and high-def and 3D. I swear, music must somehow open up part of your brain that makes the visuals sink in even more. It's like it allows you to experience something more real and more tangible. The end result just feels good, and that's the emotional payoff for this work. I like the idea that people will watch THE SEER and be moved by it. As far as what keeps me going, I love a hard deadline. LOVE. Tell me I have 4 weeks, don't tell me "Well, we have a couple months before we need to get serious about it." Deadlines are good! Deadlines are motivating!
Also helping on the motivation front is the espresso machine I splurged on last year. I'm still learning my limits: I'm trying to find that happy place between feeling my heartbeat in my teeth and having to google "Can espresso kill you."
What are you most looking forward to about THE SEER having its screening at SxSW in Austin?
I finished this score about eight months ago and I've been dying to talk to people about the film but of course, no one has seen it yet. I want to talk about it with people who get it. I'm also looking forward to the audience reaction during the film, and their reaction at the end. This is one of those films that sticks with you after you've seen it, and that changes you a little bit. And for people who are Wendell Berry fans, I'm so excited for them to see how Laura did justice to his works. I hadn't heard of him before this film, and now I'm a convert.
After THE SEER, what are you working on next?
I am writing a full-length ballet that's going to take up the better part of my 2016. It's an opportunity that came out of the blue and I jumped on it. It hasn't been officially announced yet so I can't go into much detail, but it's a 100-minute work for full orchestra that'll be premiering in London in 2017. It's a very different challenge than scoring a film but I'm loving every minute of it. I'm using composer brain-muscles that I've never used before so there are some growing pains! 2015 and 2016 have turned out to be the years when I'm stretching in some interesting directions. It feels good.
Who are some of your favorite composers?
I am a sucker for the Italians. Ezio Bosso and Paolo Buonvino, especially. I'm also a huge Max Richter fan, and if you're a fan of film composer Nino Rota's scores, you should check out his classical works because they're beautiful and totally not what you'd expect. My film composer idols are Alexandre Desplat, Thomas Newman, Patrick Doyle, Mark Isham, Hans Zimmer and James Horner. And of course, John Williams! I remember seeing Star Wars in the theatre when I was a little kid and I was blown away by the music. I remember my mom telling me that it was someone's job to write the music for the movie, and I thought "Wow, that would be a cool job."
And finally, what is your all time favorite movie soundtrack?
Can I have a five-way tie? Jerry Goldsmith's RUDY, Patrick Doyle's MRS. WINTERBOURNE & GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Mark Isham's A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, Paolo Buonvino's L ULTIMO BACIO and Ennio Morricone's THE MISSION. OH, one more, Nino Rota's score for LA DOLCE VITA.
And to send us out, your all time favorite movie?
That's a tough one. But I'd say that AUNTIE MAME with Rosalind Russell is up there along with A CHRISTMAS STORY.
Be sure to visit THE SEER online at www.theseerfilm.com!
We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2016. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!
This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 11-19. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte
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originally posted: 03/11/16 02:27:32
last updated: 03/11/16 02:32:07