BY CHRISTOPHER LEON
What do Nicolas Cage, Kylie Minogue, and Beethoven have in common?
Reza Safinia, that’s what.
The London-raised, Los Angeles-based composer recently finished work on his latest score for feature film The Trust starring Nicholas Cage and Elijah Wood. Reza’s music offers emotive piano lines juxtaposed with fragile and sometimes busy echoing percussion. He creates an immersive, poignant musical backdrop to the Brewer brothers’ new release.
Reza started out in the music industry as a songwriter and record producer/engineer for Universal Music. During this time, he worked with some of the biggest names in the industry including Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, and the Freestylers before making his transition into composing for TV and film. Drawing inspiration from sources as wide-ranging as the Nine Inch Nails to Beethoven, his most recent works for film include a series of shorts and documentaries along with a full score for the Stephen King adaptation Mercy.
In the latest CutCommon Global feature, we explore Reza’s creative process for film scoring and his view on the role of the composer in Hollywood.
In your new film The Trust you switch from orchestral melodies into dark and distorted electronics. How do you remain flexible in your composition?
I listen to so many types of music, and they’re all kind of swimming in the back of my mind all the time, so I don’t really think too much about it. It just kind of feels natural when to use one style or another, or when to blend.
For this soundtrack, you’ve incorporated long, atonal ambient sounds with percussive hits sunk into a distant background. But at the same time, your music is shining through and maintaining a sense of impact. What made you decide on the profound use of reverb?
That’s a really cool question! Reverb is like Nutella. Sometimes, you can use a bit to make your day more exciting; sometimes, you wanna go crazy and go all out, and sometimes you’re better off without it! Reverb is a great tool for shaping psychoacoustics when you don’t want the music to do much but you do want to affect the mood. You can make things sound far, close, dense, hollow, warm, cold, and these things play with the audience’s perception of the emotions in a film.
The Trust theme itself is a lullaby-esque waltz which moves seamlessly into the other tracks in the film. Why did you choose a waltz for the main theme?
Because the rhythm of the waltz, and the percussive instruments, hinted at light-heartedness even though the tune itself is quite moody. That formed the foundation of bridging the gap between the comedy and the complex moral story.
How many times did you have to go through the film before making any musical decisions? The film’s storyline sees its characters and direction morph over time, from comedy to drama. How did you approach this scenario as a composer?
By the time I get to writing, I just dive in. I’ve already put so much thought into the music spotting process that, come score time, the director and I will have narrowed the brief right down. Of course it’s not always perfect and you end up doing revisions, but I try not to overthink my first pass, and just write as organically as possible. Regarding the tonal shift, we made a lot of those decisions in the temping process. We found some cool things that worked early on, and later on, but they were sonically worlds apart. When it came to scoring, I knew exactly where to begin and where to end, the middle transition was the hard part to figure out, but I just built one cue off the other knowing where I had to get to and it kind of fell into place!
When composing and producing music for films, are you focused on production ‘in the box’ – working with sample libraries and composing on the computer – or do you prefer to use real instruments and external hardware for processing?
I use both depending on what I’m going for. Nothing beats real instruments, off the grid – no quantize for me. But it’s not always the best for a scene or a movie. Sample libraries can open up a wealth of sounds you don’t have at your disposal.
We have many talented composers emerging here in Australia, with some aiming to enter the world of TV and film scoring. How important is it for emerging composers to have an understanding of electronic music, its production and its use in film?
Awesome, I’d love to hear their music. Electronic music use in film is growing all the time, so it can’t hurt. That said, there are some fantastic scores that have no electronic influence, and still most of the big Hollywood films are more orchestral.
How in demand are classical skills in Hollywood? Is it more advantageous to approach film scoring from an electronic music producer standpoint, or as a fully-capable ‘classical’ composer?
Both electronic and classical skills are in demand. Sometimes directors/producers will want a composer that can do both, sometimes one or the other, and sometimes, they’ll want to pair a classical composer with an electronic one. It’s completely dependent on the requirements of the film, both from an artistic and financial point of view.
When scoring for a film, other than the director’s approach, what influences you and your musical direction? Do you focus on characters and their development, the setting of the film, or the underlying emotions/tensions of the overall film?
All of it. I approach the music like a method actor playing every role. I immerse myself into the story and the characters. I inhabit the psychological space of each character and pretend it’s the character writing his own theme. Sometimes I’ll imagine I am the universe of the story and write from that perspective. Whatever it is, I try and feel the emotion at every point of the film and translate it into a musical expression.
What do film directors look for when choosing a composer to score their films? Is there a process of submission of material for review before you land the role or is it a production company decision?
It’s so hard to say because so much of it is an individual choice to do with the personality of the director. And regarding the second question, that depends on how much control the director has. Some directors have all the say; some have limited say. Also depends on the producer and how they interact with the director. More often than not I’ll have to get a committee approval before getting hired, especially on bigger budget films.
How do you create or choose your palette when scoring a film? Do you have to exercise restraint when summoning the creative flow from so many different genres and styles?
I’ve grown to trust my instincts so I don’t hold back. If I want to try something, I’ll do it, and if it doesn’t work I’ll scrap it and try something else. To create the palette, Sometimes I’ll start by scoring the most pivotal complex scene in a movie that has the most going on in terms of characters coinciding, story points resolving etc… then I’ll use that as a basis to deconstruct and reconstruct the rest of the score. That’s not the only way though. Sometimes, I’ll just start from the beginning and work chronologically and my palette will develop as I work through the film.
Stay tuned for The Trust film release in Australia.