As mentioned in a previous post, I was very excited when I heard about Netflix’s first feature film production, Beasts of No Nation. So when I was offered the chance to interview Grammy winning producer Dan Romer about his score, I really couldn’t wait to watch the film. And when I finally experienced Agu’s tale it left a feeling in my stomach that only movies such as Apocalypse Now or documentaries like The Act of Killing had been capable of before.
But before we delve deeper, please experience a tiny glimpse into Agu’s world. Just like Dan Romer mentioned when I talked with him about his score, London based trailer house Intermission did a really great job on the film’s trailer:
While Dan was not involved in the making of the trailer, he told me, he was deeply involved in the post-production of the movie itself. So much so, that director Cary Fukunaga recommended that he seek therapy once everything was done:
Beasts of No Nation was a really harrowing process for me. I was working out of a middle booth next to Cary’s edit bay. He would constantly come into my little writing room and I’d be head on my desk crying while working. Therefore he told me: You need to get some help after this film’s over. And while I was only a couple of months into the project at that point, Cary was years into it. He has a very strong soul.
From Glory at Sea to Beasts of No Nations: Getting to know Cary Fukunaga
You might recognize Cary Fukunaga’s name from Sin nombre or the first season of True Detective. But Dan and Cary first met briefly after the short film Glory at Sea in 2008, on which Fukunaga worked as the underwater camera operator and Dan as the score composer. Cary then asked Dan if he would score his short film Sleepwalking in the Rift, Dan was interested and from then on both stayed in touch. Sleepwalking in the Rift is shot in 8 vignettes and you can watch all of them on Vimeo.
Now for Beasts of No Nation, Cary sent Dan a text message mid December 2014 saying: “Hey, I’ve got a film for you to score.” Dan was all up for it and got on scoring the movie this January whilst finishing up the dramas Digging for Fire and Mediterranea. Dan decided to work every single day and not take any weekends while working on Beasts of No Nation. He tried to work on it as much as he could: “I had to fully immerse myself in the film,” he told me. Because of Sundance and Cannes he had to leave for five days to go to Mexico and mix the score for Digging for Fire with director Joe Swanberg as well as take another 10 days off to finish his score for the Jonas Carpignano helmed film, Mediterranea, which he co-scored alongside Benh Zeitlin. I’ll talk about Dan’s close relationship to Benh later on.
Tension and Ambiguity: Scoring and Re-Scoring Beasts of No Nation
So after these short breaks, Dan delved right back into his score for Beasts of No Nation. Since the project was a very emotionally demanding one (as he had already told me), I asked him if he felt that the breaks had even been good for him:
I think it helped because I was working on Beasts of No Nation at night – alone. I think it helped me get perspective on it to have those ten days working on another project and then be able to get to Beasts of No Nation at night and think about what I was doing. But I wouldn’t have taken 10 days off if I didn’t have Mediterania to score.
Coming back to the score itself I was curious as to how he approached such a difficult topic like child soldiers. Before the interview I was told that Dan had approached the score from Agu’s perspective (the child soldier at the center of the film), and that he’d created a self contained musical world that oscillates between themes of innocence, confusion, and terror. So I asked him to elaborate on his entire approach and how it all began:
Cary sent me a very developed rough cut somewhere in the middle of the process of editing and I watched it a couple of times. It’s a very emotional film and we started making sounds in the studio. My musical Sound Designer, Saul Simon MacWilliams, and I made a bunch of samples together and I got to work on writing music. Emotionally we were talking a lot about tension and ambiguity. I’m scoring from the point of view of Agu, not from the audience’s point of view; and a lot of what’s happening in his life, is a lot of fear and uncertainty.
I feel like the score reflects that in a way where there’s almost no score in the village. All we have is one piece over Agu talking about his family. And it’s very soft and kind of a soft, sweet piece. I felt that the sounds that they would normally hear in the village were better suited to score what was happening at that point in the movie. I didn’t feel like we should be drawing real emotion from the score until things start really happening, until things start really going wrong. It’s a lot of tense music through the first half and some emotional music here and there but mostly tense music through the first half. Then at a certain point in the film that ends and it shifts to mostly emotional music.
But to get to this point it wasn’t as easy as it might sound. Apparently they decided to re-score the entire movie and in the end Dan also moved to New York to get as deeply involved in it as possible and finish the project:
When we first discussed what kind of sound we wanted, we originally tried doing a fairly orchestral score with a lot of strings and horns and pianos. I scored the entire film all the way through with those sounds. Then we took a step back and looked at it and we decided it would be really cool to try replacing the strings and the horns and piano with different synth sounds and sample sounds.
I went through the whole score and did that. Afterwards Cary said Great, we’re definitely on the right track, why don’t you come to New York for a week and we’ll work on it together and I said Great, that sounds fantastic. So I flew out there with my computer and took up residence where he was editing and we worked for a week. Towards the end of the week I asked him what if I stayed for two weeks. He said great and so we kept working. Then eventually I just said that I’d be staying until the mix was done. I felt like I had so much emotionally invested in the film that I needed to stay until we had crossed the finish line. We ultimately finished up in May.
Taking the perspective of a child soldier: How to score the unimaginable
I went on asking him about one scene that was definitely one of the key moments in the movie for me. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t watched the movie yet but the track to the scene is called These Are The Ones and by that alone, everyone who has watched the movie should know what scene I’m referring to. I imagine just how incredibly difficult it must have been to find the right sound for such a scene and here’s what Dan told me about it:
That was a piece that I definitely spent a lot of energy on and thought about a lot. That piece is all rising high-end material. It’s all just high-end tension and then as soon as the blade comes down it switches to all low-end information. I was trying to put myself in the shoes of someone who’s going through that and think about When that moment happens, what does it feel like? I think having it be in slow-motion and having the audio be kind of far away all of a sudden cued me into what the right thing to do musically was. When you go through that kind of a tremendous experience, the question is, does it feel crazy and wild or does it feel like the earth is stopping. And I went with the earth is standing still. At that moment of the score it’s all low-end and almost no musical information.
A leitmotif of the movie is the recurrent vocals of Agu’s mother. One of Agu’s main goals is to get back to his mother and so she is also followed musically. Dan told me that the mother’s voice was an idea Cary had very early on: “He set that up by having her singing that song in the first couple of scenes. She sings the song Twer Nyame when she’s doing dishes and then whenever you hear the mum’s voice it’s always singing that melody.” Even when Dan hummed the melody to me at this moment in our chat it automatically teleported me right back into the scenes in the movie where you hear Agu’s mother sing.
Another key element is the rapping of children that is also used without direct context to the visuals throughout the film. Cary had told Dan how a lot of times children in Ghana would just be singing together. So at one point Cary would ask the children to come over, put microphones on them and had them start singing again. In the end there was a large bank of children singing together to use in the post-production.
Staying away from a colonial sound: The placelessness of Beasts of No Nation
One very interesting element of the movie is, that you don’t know where exactly it’s all happening. You don’t know the country the characters are in. It was shot entirely in Ghana though, and while Dan never went to Ghana, there’s a very interesting article in The Guardian about the difficulties Cary Fukunaga faced while shooting of Beasts of No Nation.
I’ve listened to the score countless times by now and what strikes you the most is just how mesmerizing it really is. It makes you watch the movie and follow Agu’s story through his eyes in a sort of transfixed state. You become so emotionally invested that more often than not you want to grab Agu and pull him out of the scenery. But just as in real life this is sadly not possible, so you keep watching no matter what. It all feels like a dream, but definitely not a pleasant one. Just like Dan said during the interview, it’s such an important story that is told and I hope as many people as possible will get to see it.
Just like how the movie itself is not located in a specific part of the African continent, the score itself is likewise without place. Dan told me how Cary always told him how he didn’t want the film to sound “colonial”, which is also one of the reasons why they decided to rescore the film. Cary wanted it to sound like it didn’t have a region attached to it.
Closely connected to this ideal is the way sounds were created for the film. Dan used dream-like ‘70s synths, manipulated submarine sonar sounds, and the playing of wine glass rims incorporated with bode acoustic guitar, mellotron organ and trombone as well as the fact that all of the percussion for the film was played on buckets or by beating string instruments with sticks. I asked him how he got to the point of using this somewhat unusual instrumentation:
The score is mostly made of samples that we built in the studio. It’s about two thirds samples and close to one third synths and then some organic instruments filling in to make it a little bit more human sounding. The idea was to use sounds that you couldn’t put your finger on what they were exactly. The idea was to have the sounds come from organic places but to put them into a sonic space where you couldn’t tell what they were. For example: One of the bass sounds that I used a lot was actually a viola pitch shifted down three or four octaves. I got really into If this instrument is pitch shifted into this place, what does it become? If it’s slowed down to this speed, what does it sound like.
Don’t think of yourself as a composer: From producing pop music to film scoring and back
Towards the end of our conversation, Dan told me that this approach of making real instruments sound unreal was always one that he had been interested in when also making pop music – so we also got to talk about his career as a pop music composer, which is deeply connected to his still very young career as a film composer. Dan got into film scoring through a collaboration with a childhood friend back in 2007 and here we get to talk about Benh Zeitlin again:
I did not intend to be a film composer from the start. I was singing and writing songs in a rock band in college and I had a friend named Ray Tintori who I’ve known since I was seven years old. We grew up in Park Slope together and he attended Wesleyan for film. Our senior year of college he called me and said he needed a score for the senior thesis short he was making. It was called Death to the Tinman. He knew I was a musician and that I was producing. I told him that I had never scored a film before and that I wasn’t sure how to do it. He said, he had this friend named Benh Zeitlin who had never scored a film either but thought that he could kind of direct me musically. So Benh and I met up at my college [Suny Purchase], spent ten days making the music for the short and we just really liked working together.
Benh then asked me to score his short film Glory at Sea. We did that together and really enjoyed collaborating with one another, so he then asked me to score his feature Beasts of the Southern Wild. That was my first feature.
Regarding Beasts of the Southern Wild and Beasts of No Nation there’s one very interesting connection between the two films besides their names themselves. Dan is a big fan of a band called Slavic Soul Party!, that plays every Tuesday in Brooklyn’s Barès, and it’s his favourite live show to go see when he’s back in his hometown, New York. You should definitely check them out in this video. Two members of the band were hired by Dan to help him with the scores of the two movies mentioned above: Kenny Warren, played trumpets on Beasts of the Southern Wild and one of the trombone players played on the Beasts of No Nation score.
The making of the 4-time Oscar nominated feature film Beasts of the Southern Wild would probably be worthy of an entire article itself but since it’s connected to where Dan stands now, I at least want to share a bit of what Dan told me about the making of that movie. I find it to be very inspiring for not only young filmmakers, but young artists in general. Here’s how it all came about:
It was a pretty crazy experience. Almost everyone of us who worked on the film were under the age of 30. It was almost everyone’s first feature. We were youngins; just a bunch of friends who weren’t sure whether or not we’d get to make another feature together. We thought this would probably be our only chance to make a film together in that context and so we all really put our entire life into making that film as good as we could because we didn’t know if we would get to do it again.
After Beasts of the Southern Wild I felt like I could do probably an equal amount of film scoring as pop music.
If you didn’t know yet, Dan not only created the fantastic score of Beasts of No Nations but he also produced the Grammy-winning single single Say Something by A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera. When I asked him at the end of the interview if he had any specific wishes regarding the article, he only said “Follow your heart” right away, just like Cary Fukunaga told him in the very beginning when he started scoring Beasts of No Nation. Dan can’t wait for the release of A Great Big World’s new album When the Morning Comes, on November 13, which he produced. So I feel like ending this article with Hold Each Other from the upcoming album. You can find all the links to stay updated on Dan Romer’s work below the video as well as his recommendation to young composers:
My advice to young composers is to not always think of yourself as a composer; think of yourself as a musician. If you say: I’m gonna score films and that’s all I’m gonna do, you’re gonna miss out on a lot of great opportunities. I think it’s really important to know how to do every part of the music making process and if someone asks you to arrange horns for a funk band and you say, I’m not a funk horn arranger, I’m a film composer, then you won’t do that project. But maybe you will arrange horns for it and it will blow up and people will like it and then that might somehow lead to another thing and then that thing might lead to some other thing and that thing might lead to you scoring a film. I think if your entire scope is just film scoring, there are far less avenues to go down. And if you end up as a film scorer that’s awesome. If you end up as something else, maybe you’ll be happier doing that than you’ve ever been doing film scoring. It’s impossible to say.
You can find all information about Dan Romer’s upcoming projects on his website, on Facebook and Twitter. You can purchase the soundtrack for Beasts of No Nation on ITunes and Amazon. Dan also told me how much he likes Riothorse Royal, you can find their music on their website.