Initially, I planned to title this installment, Interviews – Part 2. Not terribly original, I know, but since it’s a follow-up to Monday’s interview-heavy day, it seemed apropos.
Besides the delightful chat with Kelly Reichardt, I also sat down with Lesley Barber, who composed the film score for Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, the first film I saw at the festival and, by the slimmest of margins, my favorite thus far. It is the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an emotionally withdrawn Northeastern man, hiding away in the anonymity of urban life, until he receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died, leaving him as the legal guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee reluctantly returns to Manchester to make arrangements for the boy and must confront the tragedy from his past that forced him to leave.
As befitting a film about grieving, on the surface, the film projects a silence and stillness approximating the darkness that envelopes Lee, but there are bursts of choral music that will grab and shake you to your core. The effect works, in that, it doesn’t drown out the visual passages or the dialogue within these narrative beats; the music merely provides yet another layer of depth, creating a symphonic swell of emotion. Each element had to come together precisely to achieve this level of complexity.
Barber previously worked with Lonergan on You Can Count on Me, therefore they have a collaborative basis upon which to build. We covered the specifics, but improvised our way through a host of shared musical and film references, which I cued up by mentioning the first film score I can remember falling for on both an emotional and an intellectual level – composer Zbigniew Preisner’s work on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue. The story of a wife (Juliette Binoche) mourning the loss of her child and her composer husband who was working on an orchestral theme to celebrate Europe’s reunification. Music provides the heartbeat and the very air for the film to breathe as this woman, a composer herself, opens up to the world again via an aural jumpstart.
Preisner offers snippets of the melody for the husband’s project throughout the film, teasing us and the wife, as we together discover the haunting secrets of this couple’s married life. Over time, the fragments become unified, and we have been actively involved, it feels, in this process of creation. The film ends with the revelation of the completed work.
I remember seeing the film in either late 1993 or early 1994, during its US release and damned near running out of the theater, in search of this score. The melodic shards scored moments in my daily life. I wanted Preisner to supply me with a soundtrack of my own.
Mention Blue to a composer, like Barber or Dustin O’Halloran & Volker Bertelmann, who works under the name Hauschka (the duo were the subjects of my second musical dialogue that day), and there is immediate recall. Preisner’s name leaps off the tongue. He may not be as universally well-known beyond the composer clique as say Ennio Morricone, John Williams, or James Horner, but he is certainly a key that opens a door into a select club.
O’Halloran & Hauschka (the composers collaborated on Lion, the new release from Garth Davis), in the later interview, nodding along as I dropped Blue into our discussion, which led to a grooving and quite trippy excursion, including a hilarious admission to our shared affinity for the love theme from Superman – with complete recall of the dialogue clips from the movie (Margot Kidder as Lois Lane breathily asking – Can you read my mind?). It made for a good laugh.
I was at a bit of a loss, speaking with the Lion team prior to seeing their film, but I was able to catch a Hauschka pop-up concert at a small club, far away from the TIFF village Sunday night. It was a bit of a trek, but well-worth the journey to glimpse a musician walking a musical tightrope. With a stripped-down electronics kit attached to the club’s piano, Hauschka eshewed playing older material – from either his solo work or bands – instead, gathering and composing soundscapes on the spot. Trip-hop atmospherics merged with piano-based melodies. With each step, he was building his high-wire out of the sounds in his head.
I take notes during screenings along two separte tracks. On one hand, I capture scenes or snatches of dialogue I want to replay in reviews. But on that other side of the page, I list references – other films, novels, songs, any and all cultural and/or social and even historic touchstones – that emerge for me, during the viewing experience.
Without the benefit of paper, I found myself working through Hauschka’s performance in that second stream. It was as if he was conversing with Craig Armstrong, a former collaborator with the trip hop group Massive Attack and now a film composer (a Golden Globe winner for Best Original Score – Moulin Rouge) and Anne Dudley, founding member of the 1980s sound collective The Art of Noise and, you guessed it, also working in the film score world (an Academy Award winner for The Full Monty).
Recognizing the creators of these musical lines in the films we see and love opens up another level of awareness. That is why, a couple of years ago, here at TIFF, I fatefully decided to have my first sit-down with a composer. Music was already a language I had a passable connection with – you could say I can speak a phrase or two, but I can’t read a lick. And when I speak it, to be fair, it is just in references and illiterate feelings.
But that’s enough of a foundation to begin a conversation.