Oscar-nominated Lion composers explain co-scoring a film

"It really is a score of the both of our voices together"



How do two pianists score a feature film together?

Writing and composing music for film can be very much a personal affair. You must embrace the story, the characters, their interactions, and interpret them in a musical form that lies within you. So how do you approach creating music when you collaborate with a fellow composer of the same instrument?

In this latest CutCommon Global interview, we talk to composers Hauschka (Volker Bertelmann) and Emmy Award-winner Dustin O’Halloran to hear their take on film scoring collaboration for the feature film Lion.


Dustin O’Halloran

Images of Dustin by Scott Irvine

You have worked on several movies produced in different countries. What are some differences you’ve noticed when working with production teams around the world?

I think every country has a different style to make films. Most European films are smaller crews and there seems to be less producer input. Post is more director/editor focused. They are usually more independent-minded projects with smaller budgets so they have to get the most out of the elements they have. But I think it’s more differences in directors and their diverse processes than where they are from.

How has winning an Emmy Award (for your TV theme to Transparent) affected your musical career and musical decisions when working on new projects?

It was a surreal experience to win this award, and perhaps it’s helping bring better projects my way. But I still look at everything the same, and asking the same questions-will I be inspired to work on this?

What were the challenges of co-composing the soundtrack to Lion?

Our biggest challenge was finding the right restraint while still reaching a deeply emotional place. It was more about performances – which sometimes were entire single, unedited takes – as well as finding the delicate balance of just using a few instruments to convey many emotions.

As pianists, how did you both share the role of writing the music? Did you designate themes, arrangement, or orchestration to each other?

We began by working in our own studios for a few weeks getting into the film and finding ideas, then we came together and worked for four weeks to finish the film and the end result is really both of us working on everything. Sharing ideas, orchestration and working on themes. It really is a score of the both of our voices together.

What influences did you draw upon when deciding the style of music to write for Lion?

[Director] Garth Davis had a lot of our music already in the temp, so our DNA was attached to it from the start. He really wanted us for both of our individual styles and what we bring. So in this way, it was never a question of style, but finding the right tones.

How did you draw upon the contrasting cultural aspects of Australian and Indian society?

This was not so much a story of different ethnic cultures or class…but a more universal feeling of longing and a connection to family, so the score is more focused on this aspect. Hauschka’s prepared piano sounds worked really well for the first part of the film when Saroo is in India – as you can feel textures and colours and dust that is in the picture in this sound, without it ever becoming Indian music or something ethnic. The idea of the film is you follow Saroo and his feelings through this incredible journey and how no matter where you are from or what class. This feeling of love and family is universal.



Images of Hauschka by Mareike Foecking

What aspects of your experimental music do you draw upon when composing for film?

I am sometimes asked as Hauschka to do the music for a film but a lot of times it is a complete different approach and I love it. I think to have diversity in your career always helps to grow and to get not stuck. So, it can happen that a score of mine for a movie is not at all experimental and I love it.

How do you enforce musical boundaries around your compositions for film?

I think in certain genres, it is definitely more possible like thrillers, science fiction or horror movies. Because in those genres, sound is as important as melody and the experimental music is dealing with a lot of sculptural sounds that are free of timing and of attachment to any style. If I have the chance to create a unique musical approach to a movie, that is not putting my music necessarily in the foreground but that can help to support the movie, I am happy. For my really rough experimental compositions, I have space on my records.

What were the challenges of co-composing the soundtrack to Lion?

I think there were hardly [any] challenges because Dustin and I understood each other so well and Garth Davis is a very warm, communicative director and person. I think [the challenging thing] was to do a very subtle and restrained composition but that also reflects the strength of the topic, which is, in a way, home, religion, the question – ‘where do I belong’? And also the topic of awareness. That has taken us the longest to find a puristic language for that.

What was your experience of sharing the role as pianists?

In the beginning, we worked alone for three weeks but sent themes and ideas back and forth. Dustin was taking my ideas and I his, and we worked with them on new cues. In the end, all the cues are mixed and all the ideas even. We worked on all the chord structures together. It is great to have someone you work with, and you can discuss things on an equal level.

What influences did you draw upon when deciding the style of music to write for Lion?

Well, Garth Davis approached two pianists, so I guess he was not expecting guitar music in the beginning and it was clear that he wants to have modern music and no native Indian music. So in a way, for us it was soon clear that we work with all sorts of different pianos and strings.

How did you draw upon the contrasting cultural aspects of Australian and Indian society?

I had the feeling that the main topic of the movie could play in any culture in the world as it is dealing with rudimentary longings and feelings of human life. Especially in our days, we can feel it even stronger that connecting and care taking. And also, finding a place where your home is, is more and more important and it connects all the people in the world. So I have the feeling that this movie is a universal film [though] the autobiographical aspect is playing in India and Australia. For the music, it was clear that we do music of the here-and-now and I think it works pretty well and was the right decision.

You have also recently finished work on another feature film In Dubious Battle, and documentary Exodus. How did you overcome the challenge of juggling these big projects that have similar production deadlines?

The problem with projects is mostly that even though you try to plan your year and to have space for everything, a lot of times the projects you said yes to are suddenly all happening at the same time – because things get delayed or money has to be raised etc.. So in the end, if you work on a certain level, you have to find a structure for yourself that can actually handle the amount of parallel work. In my case, that means that I have assistants that help me with all the handling of sessions and to have everything structured. I am sitting down and do all the creative work. In the beginning it was hard as I always did everything from scratch, but I found out that a lot of time is lost by importing sessions and making them accessible for recording.


The composers have been nominated for an Oscar for their score for Lion.


Images supplied.

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