Brooklyn Record Producer Scores Acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild
June 29, 2012 by Janice Brown
PARK SLOPE: Multi-instrumentalist record producer/mixer Dan Romer (Ingrid Michaelson, Jenny Owen Youngs, Jukebox the Ghost) is now officially a film score composer to watch out for. His first feature film – Beasts of The Southern Wild – picked up the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, and the Caméra d’Or award at Cannes 2012. It premiered in the U.S. via Fox Searchlight this week.
Beasts is an epic folktale – an end-of-the-world story set at the edge-of-the-world (coastal Louisiana), and poignantly told from the perspective of a 6-year-old named Hushpuppy. Directed by Queens, NY-born Behn Zeitlin, a Weselyan grad who moved to New Orleans post-Katrina, the film looks wide-eyed at some of the biggest questions, tackles huge themes of global warming and poverty and the future of our civilization.
Zeitlin told the LA Times, “I wanted to make a film about holding on to things that are important. You have to stand by the things that made you.”
It’s an epic, sweepingly cinematic story set in a somewhat fantastical world but based on issues that are very real, and told through organic performances by Southern Louisiana local, non-professional actors. The score – co-written by the director with Romer – also seems to reflect the epic/personal and fantasy/realism story dynamics. A blend of big-and-small film-score orchestral, with Cajun jams, and frequent flourishes of brass and jazz, the score brings you – movingly, chills-inducing-ly – into the world of the Southern Wild, known as “The Bathtub”. Watch the trailer here:
The film is getting all kinds of accolades, and given its score was quite unconventionally created by the director with a popular indie record producer/mixer – using entirely live instrumentation – we needed to know more. And put a call into Romer…
How was the Beasts score produced? I know you do a lot of your record production work out of your own studio in Brooklyn…is this where the film music came together?
Benh Zeitlin and I wrote, arranged, recorded and did the basic pre 5.1 stem mix all in my home studio, Drawing Number One Studios in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The one part of the score that was recorded elsewhere was a part of “The Bathtub” which contained a performance of “Balfa Waltz” played by The Lost Bayou Ramblers. We recorded them in Lafayette, Louisiana at a studio called Electric Comoland.
Benh and I had learned from previous work that if you need a recording of a genre that is very much specific geographic location-based, it’s really best to go to that place to get it. And the Lost Bayou Ramblers are awesome. So.
Who else played on the score? Featured musicians, vocalists, etc.?
The score is 100 percent live instruments, no MIDI. And the musicians included:
Jonathan Dinklage – Violin and Viola
Dave Eggar – Cello
Pete Donovan – Double Bass
Kenny Warren – Trumpet
Dave Nelson – Trombone
Dan Romer – Accordion, Guitar, Piano, Celesta and Banjo
Alan Grubner – Fiddle
Seth Faulk – Toms, Percussion and Dulcimer
Elliot Jacobson – Bass Drum and Cymbals
The jazz band is:
JP Schlegelmilch – Piano
Adam Schnelt – Saxophone
Sean Moran – Guitar
Adam Christgau – Snare Drum
The Lost Bayou Ramblers are:
Louis Michot – FIddle and Vocal
Andre Michot – Accordion
Cavan Carruth – Guitar
Andrew Austin -Peterson- Upright Bass
Paul Ehteridge – T-fer/Percussion
My additional engineers were Mike Tuccillo, Saul Simon MacWilliams, Jon Samson and Soundtrack mastering engineer Devin Kerr.
What was the director’s hope for the music: what did he want it to do / sound like? And how did this translate in your process and instrumentation?
Benh is part of a film collective called Court 13 whose mission is “to tell huge stories out of small parts.” Huge stories have orchestras playing their soundtracks, right? So we made an orchestra out of eight people. All of the orchestral string parts are only three musicians, doubled and doubled and doubled again, which we knew would be the case and would end up being part of the sound. In fact, our violin/viola player Jonathan Dinklage played for over 30 hours on this score. 15 of those hours were in one session. He is a warrior.
We thought that the emotions we wanted to evoke would be best brought through simplicity. We used a lot of basic repetitive rhythmic patterns and a lot of melodies that could just as easily have been sung by a pop singer as played by a trumpet.
We actually didn’t pre-arrange any of the percussion, guitar, accordion or banjo parts. Once we finished recording the score, we went back through it and tried those instruments everywhere we thought they would fit. Some of it stuck, some of it didn’t.
It’s rare that a film score composer would also be such an active record producer/engineer, with lots of artists and musicians coming through the studio regularly…how did this contribute to the score?
Benh and I are both lovers of pop music. I would say at the end of the day that the film score, compositionally and arrangement wise, has way more in common with pop music than it has with traditional score or classical music. A lot of the parts that the strings are playing are parts that are essentially identical to what I would write for a bass, guitar or synth.
Quick note: When I say “Pop Music,” I mean music that is popular. When I say that term, I’m not just talking about top 40, I’m talking about The Beatles, Tom Waits, Kate Bush, Talking Heads, Jay Z, Nirvana, Die Antwoord, and Louie Armstrong. Not just Ke$ha. But also Ke$ha. She rocks.
Almost all the musicians on the score are musicians who have played on records I’ve produced. You can hear the violin and cello players on Jukebox The Ghost‘s new album “Safe Travels” and on Jenny Owen Youngs‘ album “An Unwavering Band Of Light.” The trumpet player can be heard on that same Jenny Owen Youngs record, and also Lelia Broussard‘s album “Masquerade.” The three percussionists on the score are the three session drummers that I use, who are all firmly based in pop music, and 99% of the time play full kits.
Assuming this was all recorded to Pro Tools – any other technology or specific sounds/instruments play a big role in producing this score?
We wrote all the themes on an upright piano in my living room, but everything else happened in pro tools. I used the pencil tool to enter all the MIDI in during arranging.
I learned my basic orchestration skills at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School from analyzing Bach Chorales, under the watchful eye of my teacher, Robert Apostle. I told him I needed to learn more theory than my classes were covering, so he gave me a stack of Bach to decipher. Learning this way made it so that I never touch a keyboard during orchestration. I need to see all the notes on top of each other and write them one by one. I don’t want my fingers dictating any of my voicings.
Who mixed the score and where?
It was all mixed in the box. I did all of the EQ and compression in my home studio and made a stem of every instrument. Benh and I then did some basic 5.1 mixing out at the Skywalker Ranch in San Fransisco. We later took those sessions to Dig It in NYC to do more 5.1 mixing.
I used A LOT of compression. Mostly the Waves CLAs, APIs and R-Comp. I also used a lot of de-essing. I think the de-esser is one of the most underused processors. It really tames harsh frequencies on anything. Whenever there are staccato or pizzicato strings, they are being parallel compressed by the CLA 1176 emulation. I think staccato strings being slammed sound awesome.