CLINTON SHORTER

October 20, 2010 | By

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The meteoric success of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) makes it appear the career of Canadian Clinton Shorter began in 2009, but as the composer explains in our edited conversation, it all started more than 10 years ago, working hard in television before branching out into feature and short films, including Blomkamp’s Alive in Joburg (2005), the striking short that inspired District 9.

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Mark R. Hasan: How did you get into film scoring?

Clinton Shorter: Well, I was playing and writing for my instrumental rock group trio, and we used to jam all the time. A buddy of mine brought the film score to Never Cry Wolf (1983) by Mark Isham, and I’d never heard a film score like that before with a lot of synths, and was just floored by it – I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.

That really set me down the path, and I went to this school where I took a digital music program, and I learned a lot about synthesis and MIDI and basically studio operations. I did some composition courses, and then I got a gig as an assistant to a local composer in Vancouver by the name of Terry Frewer. He was working all kinds of shows, like The Chris Isaak Show (2001-2004),Beggars and Choosers (1999-2001), and over five years we worked on about three hundred episodes of TV, and quite a few films, and it just went from there.

MRH: It’s a good training background, because among the TV movies, TV episodes, short and feature films, you’ve scored a lot of genres.

CS: That was the one thing I learned working for Terry: you have to be able to write lots of different kinds of music and write it fast – very fast… I appreciate that work, and it is rewarding, but the whole time I was hoping to do features like District 9. I didn’t think I’d ever get an opportunity that would be this big (I hoped so) but it’s not too often you get to say ‘I’ve got the number one film in North America, opening weekend.’

That’s pretty exciting.

MRH: I noticed you also scored Neill Blomkamp’s Alive in Joburg (2005) which is the short film that inspired District 9.

CS: Yeah, that’s right. I met Neill back when he was working at a CG facility with a buddy of mine whom I met at school, and everybody in that facility thought that Neill was going to be something really special, because he was so young and so gifted, and had such a keen eye. I saw his stuff and was just blown away, and I started chit-chatting with Neill and working on a few of his little side projects, plus I did several commercials, and that short, Alive in Joburg. I guess I’ve known Neill for about 7 or 8 years.

MRH: Did Blomkamp have to fight to get you onto the feature, film, because I know sometimes studios prefer to use a major name composer, whether or not that person is or isn’t appropriate for that film?

CS: I don’t know exactly to what length he had to fight, because if you look at the reality of it, Peter Jackson gave him a lot of leeway.

Neill’s a first-time director; he co-wrote it with Terri Tatchell, his girlfriend, and it was the first screenplay they’d written; [you also have] a first-time actor; the cinematographer is Neill’s DP that he used for his commercials and shorts, but he’s never shot a feature before; and my buddy Julian Clarke is the editor.

Jules and I had about the same amount of experience – we’d never worked on a thing of this scope – but with all those people on, I felt pretty good that Neill wouldn’t have a problem getting me on there. We’re all really lucky that Peter Jackson gave Neill the kind of leeway that he got, so it’s good news for everybody.

MRH: This is your biggest film to date, and I noticed that you also worked with a lot of really good people, including The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, music producer James Fitzpatrick, and I think Jeff Toyne is also credited in the film?

CS: Yeah, Jeff did a great job – just awesome. There were a lot of people that were able to work on this thing, and they gave me deals; we really had top penny-pinch, and I got a lot of favours, so I’m very thankful for everybody that I was able to work with for sure.

MRH: The music for District 9 is very different from Alive in Joburg. Were there any ideas that you ported over, or did you start completely from scratch?

CS: Neill was really challenging me to think outside the box because he felt he had a unique film on his hands. It was real tricky for the first few weeks; we were really trying everything – lots of different rhythms – and it took us the full three weeks of experimenting to get what we wanted and to get the palette down was a big trick… Once we got it, it was full steam ahead, and writing like crazy.

MRH: If a film is set in South Africa, it’s natural to use musical elements of that culture, but I find that you use African percussion and vocals to support the film’s conflicts rather than establish and remind audiences of the film’s setting.

CS: It’s a bit of a different character arc. [With leading character Wikus], we’re dealing with a guy who’s completely oblivious to the world around him; he’s really ignorant, you don’t like him at times, so it’s real tricky to make sure you get viewers to care for him. The ones you really want them to care for are the two aliens (the father and son) but you have to have some good feelings towards Wikus’ character arc, and it was tricky because he was usually working towards doing things for himself, except for that one key moment where he turns around and goes and helps [the father].

It was really trying to keep the score positive at times where what happens wasn’t necessarily very positive – to keep hope, to keep the viewer engaged – and that was definitely tricky, because there were moments where he’s being heroic but he’s not being heroic for the right reasons, so it was a challenge for sure.

The other big challenge was the fact that the movie’s first act is just basically a documentary, and I was having trouble figuring out exactly how Neill wanted it scored. He wasn’t too sure how to articulate what exactly he wanted, but I figured it out in the end. He just wanted it scored like a documentary, where there’s basically just blanket music without scoring around dialogue or sequences – not scoring what was actually happening.

He just wanted it to be blanketed from the top to set the mood, mostly with percussion, so we did that, and just started to introduce more and more orchestra and lead lines as the movie progressed, and got more cinematic and dramatic.

We tried keeping it as African as possible, but the drums weren’t big enough for Neill, and they weren’t dark enough, and all the smaller instruments that are down there just weren’t working. We had to take a lot of liberties just to keep the African percussion and smaller vocals in there, and even the rhythms weren’t aggressive enough.

[SPOILER ALERT]

MRH: That’s what I really liked about the film is that it really drew from different genres and styles. One filmmaker that always comes to mind is British filmmaker Peter Watkins whose historical, political, and social documentaries involved an off-screen camera crew interviewing an historical figure, regardless of the time period or setting. Watkins added flashbacks as well as superficially mundane moments of character interactions like family dinners, and the drama came from these moments, often without little or any score.

I gather it must have been just as tough for you because Blomkamp interlaced so many genres and film techniques in the film.

CS: Absolutely. For instance, one of the trickiest themes is when Wikus escapes the operating table.

When he’s running, I had originally scored that the way I would naturally score something – with breaks, and when he slows down I would slow the music down.

It just wasn’t working for Neill at all… I managed to sneak in a few little breaks, like when he makes the phone call, but other than that, Neill just wanted a hard driving style, [that continues] when it cuts to interviews with Wikus’ friends.

It’s definitely tricky… There haven’t been many films that had gone from documentary style to completely dramatic and cinematic… Once I got to exactly what he wanted, it was A) a huge relief, and B) it was just great, because I knew exactly what we’re going for, and I could look at scenes differently.

[END OF SPOILER ALERT]

MRH: And will there be a soundtrack album?

CS: Yes. You can pre-order it now on Amazom.com, and you can pre-order it on iTunes as well.

MRH: And lastly, one of the filmmakers you’ve worked with almost regularly for the last couple of years is Carl Bessai, and I guess you’re scoring his latest film, Cole (2009)?

CS: Yeah.

MRH: What aspects of Bessai’s films do you find interesting, because he deals with wholly different kinds of subjects compared to District 9 and some of your TV work?

CS: His films are character studies and stories about people, and less about the environment around them… Cole is just about a guy in a small town who wants to get out of there and wants to be a writer, but for various reasons he has a hard time leaving, and is given a hard time for trying to leave – a little bit by his friends, but mostly from his family.

There’s not a whole lot of score in that film – I think there’s only about eight minutes. There’s a few emotional moments that I was asked to score, but I tried to keep that stuff as dry as possible, and add more help towards transitions. A big key moment at the end is a four-and-a-half or five minute large cue where the story really comes to a head.

It’s going to be at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and will be playing on a Tuesday in early September… [Carl is] a truly passionate Canadian filmmaker; he’s really about Canadian stories and maintaining the craft. I have tonnes of respect for Carl.

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KQEK.com would like to thank Clinton Shorter for discussing his latest work, and Melissa McNeil at Costa Communications for facilitating this interview.

For more information on District 9, visit the official film site HERE.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2009 by Mark R. Hasan

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Related external links (MAIN SITE):

CD:  District 9 (2009)

DVD/Film:  District 9 (2009)

YouTube:  Alive in Joburg

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