October 20, 2010 | By

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Having scored shorts, feature films, video games, and written music for the concert stage, Austin Wintory is well-schooled in writing music that fits a film’s needs and a director’s vision, and his latest projects include music for the Jordanian filmCaptain Abu Raed (2007), and the horror film Grace (2009).

There are no common elements between the scores, and in our conversation, Wintory describes his determination to constantly learn and develop his skills, and he shares thoughts on a recent and highly unusual project – a concert piece inspired by Joss Whedon’s cult TV series, Angel.



Mark R. Hasan: You have a varied music background. How did you get involved in film composition?

Austin Wintory: My sort of unhealthy obsession with this crazy career that I have with fim music and video game music went back to when I was ten years old, and I discovered the music of Jerry Goldsmith, courtesy of my childhood piano teacher.

MRH: When you were in film school, you scored a great deal of short films, and I wonder if all those shorts provided a great training ground for different formats, genres, characters, and different stories?

AW: Yeah, all of the above. In two years at NYU I did thirty student films – not only at NYU but at other schools around Manhattan, like the Columbia School of Visual Arts, etc. – and indie things. The very first job that I had came from an out-of-work actor who was frustrated that he wasn’t getting more jobs, so he decided to take the bull by the horns and make his own movie that would feature him. That was my first true professional job shortly after moving to New York. Then at USC, the same, but lots more of it – another sixty or seventy student films and things like that at the AFI and UCLA.

The most significant training, though… was learning and meeting all these different types of directors and filmmakers, and the different personality types that directors tend towards… What I came to realize most important for me, and what I was passionate about, was the collaborative experience more than the musical end result… Nothing trains you better for that than student films, because [students] don’t really have any idea of what they’re doing, and so they say things that put you through hell without meaning to; they’re completely honest intentions, and you learn so much about the art of collaboration, and learning to take a deep breath, and take a step back.

MRH: I guess that’s probably one of the hardest professional skills to acquire, because film is a collaborative medium, and you’re dealing with a lot of different types of personalities; sometimes you get challenging egos, and sometimes you get people who speak the same musical language because they come from a musical background. You learn how to meet the demands of a filmmaker and communicate, too.

AW: It’s not like collaborating with structural engineers to build a bridge where there are very objective rules governing it like physics. In film, there’s some of that, but it’s largely subjective, and that’s the one huge X factor that throws everything into chaos and craziness, but I sort of love that.

MRH: It’s funny that you mentioned that you scored over thirty films within a two-year period, because that’s a huge amount-

AW: So many of them were so tiny that I did them in an afternoon.

MRH: Well, I wonder if that diversity is what helps you with your current work, because you write for the concert stage, video games, and other mediums which are a lot to juggle, whereas some people stick with just a handful of genres or mediums, and maybe later in their careers they move towards something else.

AW: I’m a big fan of the notion to kind of reinvent yourself every single time you put pen to paper, and my hero of heroes was Jerry Goldsmith who was the quintessential composer for doing that. Each film was a whole new project for Goldsmith, and yet there exists also [distinct] periods of his work: his experimental period of the sixties and then into the seventies; the very big orchestral scores of the eighties; and in the nineties [the] relaxing of the experimental techniques, but otherwise big orchestral scores that are totally different in feel and sound from the eighties.

You listen to Planet of the Apes and compare that to Star Trek: Nemesis, which was basically the last score he wrote, and there’s almost forty years of evolution between the two, and yet they’re instantly him… Goldsmith was in the absolute sense a true artist, and since I know I’m no way nearly as brilliant as he was, I just force myself to work in all these different areas in the hope that that’s kind of the avenue towards expanding and flowing.

MRH: Your score for Grace (2008) certainly has more experimental elements than Captain Abu Raed, and I wonder if some of the ideas in the former stems from your interest in writing 20th century music for the concert arena?

AW: Absolutely. I remember I was in college at NYU and would have dinner with my mid-eighty year old cousins, and they were very, very fluent as music appreciators; they knew the concert repertoire very well, and had memories of Leonard Bernstein concerts at Carnegie Hall. They were definite music aficionados, and I remember once hearing them refer to Igor Stravinsky’sThe Rite of Spring as ‘new music,’ which premiered in 1914, so it’s always kind of a loaded term to always refer to ‘contemporary music,’ because that usually means anything from the 20th century, which now means music that is a hundred years old or more.

But that said, I definitely look a lot to the concert music world for what I do. There’s a lot of that technique in Grace, but it’s through processed found sound and not a string quartet. I don’t know if it was the most original or the most innovative thing ever done; my goal was that it would only be that within my work. I personally feel that it was.

I’ve never done anything remotely like that in that detail. It was primarily a product of how lucky I was to have that much time and just work on it and think on it. Working on the score itself was three months, but being able to think about it and write music based on the script, and then just discuss it with the director was like two years. That never happens.

MRH: How was Grace conceived, because it’s vastly different from Abu Raed?

AW: I’m always trying to make sure that every single creative decision I make is not made arbitrarily but is driven by the film.

In the case of Abu Raed, the director was gong for a timeless and fable-like universality. The film takes place in Jordan, and it’s entirely in Arabic, and it seemed that an orchestral score that was entirely western sounding with only the subtlest hint of Arabic influence would be the way to make the thing feel like a world film, and not an Arab film.

Grace was a whole other world. I mean, this was all about the psychology. Grace was very single-mindedly about the mother’s perspective – Madeleine – and it was always about what was going on her mind, so that the score is kind of like signposts along the way to her defence and eventual coming to terms with the reality of her situation, and kind of rising above it, being scarred and almost destroyed.

MRH: Unfortunately I haven’t see the film yet, but I noticed towards the end of the score there are a handful of cues where you actually get some melody. Can you describe what those apply to?

AW: There’s a scene in the film where Madeleine is giving her baby Grace a bath, and Paul Solet, the director, called me from on set, and said ‘ I would love if you could write a lullaby that she sings to her.’ So after doing that, it became the natural jumping-off point from which to base the score. A lot of it is not melodic in an obvious way at all, but it’s still somehow derived from that melody, and everything comes back to that.

For example, at the very opening of the film we have the conception moment [and] we’re kind of looking at this heavily white-washed, blurry image of what looks like a foetus in the womb, and we’re hearing a very subtle heartbeat, and you get the tiniest hint of the lullaby introduced over that on solo cello.

Cello ends up being kind of an instrumental colour that I associate with the baby in this pure and healthy sense. Most of the time you hear cello, it’s basically meant to symbolically represent the baby as it’s supposed to be; the ideal. As the baby gets further and further from that and the film gets darker, the mother starts to become scared about the health of baby, and things start to psychologically derail; other elements start hitting up against the cello, and they sort of battle it out. The melodic fragments and full-on melodies start to merge more and more, but only in really key moments.

With big melodies, if you think of the classic scores [like] Max Steiner’s Gone with the Wind(1939), every single cue in that film is all about big melodies; it’s really a continuation of 19th century opera tradition, but films have evolved so much in the last hundred years that it’s not so much of a compatible approach.

[However], it depends on the film. Abu Raed, certainly, but for Grace, the director really wanted a quiet, subtle film. There’s fifty minutes of score in a ninety minute film, so it’s only slightly more than half scored, but so much of it is so transparent that you don’t even know that you’re hearing music instead of sound design in large portions of it; that’s just part of the aesthetic of the director, and that’s another reason why you don’t get any big broad sweeping melodies until the end credits, where you get the cello, and a serene, heavenly version of the lullaby… You couldn’t have had an orchestral score, which is certainly what we originally thought about; it’s too much volume for this otherwise very intimate film.

MRH: And lastly, what is Space, Time, and Plexiglass?

AWSpace, Time, and Plexiglass is basically just a simple concert program piece which I modeled on the over-arching character arc of Joss Whedon’s TV show Angel, the spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The basic premise of Angel was that from a status quo of evil, a hero rises, but the hero is sort of fundamentally evil himself… he’s basically a vampire who’s trying to help the world… I always thought that from a mythological standpoint that was a really great premise, and the overall arc of the show is about how he eventually comes to learn that no mater how much he does, he’s never able to affect the world.

It can apply to anything you do in life: even if there are no tangible results of what you’re doing, if you believe you’re doing what’s genuinely best for those around you or the world – do it anyway, and the results shouldn’t matter. Space, Time, and Plexiglass was my own telling of that basic theme.


. would like to thank Austin Wintory for discussing his latest work, and Melissa McNeil at Costa Communications for facilitating the interview.

Visit Austin Wintory’s website HERE.

Visit the official Captain Abu Raed website HERE.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2009 by Mark R. Hasan.


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD/Film:  Captain Abu Raed (2007) — Grace (2009)


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