Film Composer Interview: Heather McIntosh Talks About Her Love of Research and Collaboration

Heather-McIntosh-filmBy: Bill Graham

I sat down with composer Heather McIntosh a few weeks ago at SXSW where she had three films at the festival. Her best known work to date as a composer is the wondrous one she put together for the much-talked about the movie Compliance from director Craig Zobel. Since then she’s made a number of scores and so we talked about how that all came to be. McIntosh revealed that she actually wrote most of the score and had it on set before Compliance was even shot, which is quite rare. She also talked about finding a musical shorthand with directors, her feelings on temp scores, how much of a workaholic she allows herself to be, why she kept working at a video store even when her own musical career was blossoming, and much more.

Bill Graham: So, you have a few films at this year’s festival. I’m curious how soon you realized that was going to happen. Are they emailing you and letting you know?

Heather McIntosh: One of the films, I picked up right around the time they were here. Faults was a very quick schedule. The other two films [Vessel and Honeymoon] I had been working on from before and it was just a matter of hearing the news. It was super exciting to know. I’ve just been working a lot so you just hope that it’s going to go to a great festival. I hope that there will be more of that.

Music is one of those things where you can take it on the road with you. How much of a workaholic aspect do you try and stay away from and how much do you just embrace that?

McIntosh: I embrace the heck out of it. I’ve got my whole setup with me now and I’m about to turn this into a work trip. I brought all my stuff with me. I drove here and after this we’re going to go to Athens, Georgia to record with some friends there. I’m always working and the portability just makes it that much easier. I can do it from anywhere. I’ve worked on scores on tour. I worked on the score for Compliance on the road and tracked cello stuff all over the place. But I will work a 20 hour day. I’m not afraid of a serious day.

Riley Stearns, the director of Faults, mentioned after the screening that there were some very light subtleties in the score despite the loud music and emcee next door. I picked up on that stuff but I’m curious because you don’t always know where that kind of subtle music will be used, right? So did you give him a lot of soundscapes to play with or did he have some specific cues?

McIntosh: He knows exactly what he wants. He’s a very thoughtful director. We went through all the cues together. I played him things and there were some textural things that I did that gave him a pile of sounds. I manipulated some cello sounds that play a big part as the film progresses. We had some of those cues in very specific places but then I also gave these other, underscore sounds that could be played with a bit. But he knew what he wanted. He would come over to my little studio and I’d play him the cue with all the layers and we’d just pull away the layers. I’m not very precious with, “this is how it has to be.” I love the collaboration with the director. You can find out what isn’t working for the scene and pull away and maybe you use the most simple aspect of the score. The one low tone or there’s a little layer of a simple chord and that’s all it needs. I want to make sure he can do that. There’s a bit of give and take. I write with a lot of layers for that purpose.

As a composer, you get to choose your instruments. Are there any out there that you would like to incorporate that you haven’t gotten around to yet?

McIntosh: Yeah, on a project that I’m working on right now. I’m getting ready to work on some instruments that I haven’t used much. One of them is some choral ensemble stuff so that’s going to be exciting. I’ve worked with vocalists and multi-tracked them to make them feel like the chorus, but I’ve never been able to get a bunch of people in a room and have them sing in a church or in a space and get them to do the vocalized sounds. I also hope to record some tracker organ, which is a big pipe organ like in a church. So I’ve got plans to do that very soon. And I’d just love to do more live ensemble things like strings. Those are the most exciting things right now. It’s cool because you can say, “I’ve got this project coming up and this is what it needs.” Then you get to explore what those sounds are. Sometimes you have the conversation with the director in a more open way.

Since I’ve been covering the film industry in the last few years, I’ve noticed that composer’s star has dramatically risen. Whether it’s people from the outside coming in like Daft Punk doing a major blockbuster film like Tron: Legacy or just the composers in general. I’ve noticed a lot of crossover as well. Music is bleeding into film. With that kind of higher profile comes behind the scenes footage. So I’m curious if you seek that special features stuff out or do you generally just listen to other works during a film?

McIntosh: I’m a huge fan of film music and I worked in a video store for like 12 years or something like that so I am a nerdy, nerdy cinephile that watches tons of stuff. I was doing that the whole time I was in college and I’ve played in a bunch of pop bands that were bigger. And I’d still come home from tour with Lil Wayne or something and I’d go back and work at the video store because I just love being surrounded by that. A lot of that is directly applied. I’m watching the film and I’m seeing how the film works. As I’ve seen more and more films I’m more aware of what the score is doing. Not just that I’ve been affected. It’s interesting to get inside of it more now that I’ve done a bunch of projects. But I’m a heavy researcher. When I work on a project with a filmmaker, I’ll usually ask what they are tonally looking for to get some sort of reference. I will get a big list of films that are informing the director’s decisions. Even if it’s just stuff they love. Even if it’s not directly pulling a page from that film’s book. But I love doing that sort of research. We are nailing the tone. With Honeymoon, I asked for [director Leigh Janiak Midnighter] to just make this huge list and I watched everything on the list. I got myself in the headspace of the motivation for the film.

Something else I want to touch on are temp scores and your relationship with those. I was talking to a director recently mention that he had a frequent composer collaborate with him across several projects and at a certain point he stopped using temp scores because it made the relationship awkward. Some directors might show a clip with a temp score tacked on and it was sometimes from a Sergio Leone film with Ennio Morricone doing the score. It’s big and bombastic. And here is this other composer, one guy, saying, “You want me to do that?” So this director always felt like temp scores just messed with the composer you’re using. How do you feel the temp scores play into things and does it put a lot of pressure on you?

McIntosh: I fee like, as a researcher, overall a temp score is very helpful. It can get you a frame of reference for what they want the film to do. I’ve worked on a film last year called Black Box directed by Stephen Cone and his score was, “It’s like the Breakfast Club but it meets Flowers in the Attic.” So that very romantic and scary feeling. Big strings, big orchestral. All those scary 80s movies that have that child-like cellist and vocal stuff. Huge scores were temped in that film but it totally pushed me to try to make the music huge like that. Then there are times where it’s just a good jumping-off point. “We don’t necessarily know what we want, but we put this in here, and I can tell you why it’s not working as well.” It doesn’t always need to be the perfect fit. But temp scores are helpful. It takes a lot of work unless you’ve worked with that person a whole bunch. But if you’re working with a limited time-frame, having a general shape for the film, I’m not opposed to it. I’m not going to write it like that guy’s temp score. Ins and outs. General tone. Things like that that aren’t always totally right but you can have a conversation about what you like about that. It can be hard if they’re just plugging stuff in there just to fill up the space. But temp scores can be helpful, especially if you’re a musically-inclined person. Working on Compliance with Craig Zobel was great because I wrote a lot of music before the film was even shot. So on the set they had the entire sketches of the score and they were passing it around to everyone. Which was really cool to have one of the producers come up and be like, “Oh my God, I love the music for the film!” That’s super exciting to know you’re already a part of the thread of the film.

I’m curious about how that occurred. How did it go from you being pegged as the composer and making it before the film was even shot?

McIntosh: I guess we had just been talking about it a lot. I’m good friends with the director and we had been talking about working on this project for a little while. I was actually working on another film I was going to score first from him and I got an email, “Put that other one aside, [Compliance] is happening sooner than later.” I was living in Athens, Georgia at the time and he had family in that area. He came up around New Year’s to listen to the sketches I had made and I just had this body of work that I handed to him saying, “This is what I’ve got. What’s working? What’s not working?” After we had that meeting, I started recording with actual musicians and tracking the stuff. It’s so fascinating to watch how it informs the edit when you have the actual music. When your music is the temp score. Jane Rizzo, who is the editor, is such a musical editor. Her brother is a conductor and there’s a lot of musicality around her. She’s great about what she says as well. “I love how this is working. What if you did something that flourished while he’s running down the stairs?” To be able to use the first half of a cue and then build on it to develop the rest of it. It was a really great process so I hope to work like that more.

One thing I’ve noticed, even as you’re speaking, is that composers have to use a lot of broad and general terms to describe their methods and music in general. “More flourish here. I want more atmosphere. Go lower.” How much of a glossary have you picked up on and been able to feed your directors? It is a learning process as you’re working together.

McIntosh: Right. It’s interesting because I feel like every single filmmaker I’ve worked with, you develop your own language on how that works. It can be the funniest stuff, though. “Do that chuggy thing you did on that other thing.” Goofy language that isn’t necessarily proper. It’s best to stay away from proper musical terms. A lot of the time a director may feel out of their depth and then they’re asking for things they don’t really want. You hope that the director can just treat you like an actor. “I just need this to be the feeling of this.” Then it’s sort of where you design your own weird language. “You know how you have those drippy strings on that one part? More like that… but maybe not so manic.” Stuff like that.

So, you mentioned being friends with Craig Zobel of Compliance. Have you done any more collaborations with filmmakers?

McIntosh: Yeah, Stephen Cone, who did Black Box, we’ll hopefully work together again. I’m still in the early days of composing but I hope that the relationships I built with folks will continue. I’ve got some other good things coming up but I don’t want to talk about them yet! [Laughs].


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