An Interview with Jerome Leroy, composer for THE MISTOVER TALE
Check out our recent interview with Jerome Leroy (THE HUNGER GAMES, HAROLD & KUMAR 3D), the composer for THE MISTOVER TALE! Support our IndieGoGo campaign!
Harry Tappan Heher: Everyone loves the music - and I think it is going to be a big part of the film. So essentially what was the influence of the landscape, or other composers that you have worked with, or how the process unfolded in your mind? You composed the music, so what was it that you wanted to convey with certain instruments or a certain style of music?
Jerome Leroy: What really excited me about The Mistover Tale was the importance of the location—the island and the landscapes—which is infusing the story in many ways. I also loved how the character relationships developed, and there was a lot of thought behind how we would represent that with music.
Obviously we talked about some of the... not “ethnic”… but Celtic elements within the story. It wasn't to the point where we wanted to make it sound Celtic, but we wanted to bring that out at a sort of subconscious level. That's why I went with the Celtic harp for example: it sounds similar to a harp but is slightly different. You wouldn't necessarily know the sound unless you really knew the Celtic harp.
We also used low drones to express a certain sense of tension that was part of that idea as well. We thought about how we would represent each character, especially Cliona. I decided to go with the fiddle for her because there is a real earthy quality to it, it can be very romantic and beautiful, but at the same time if you go within the really low range of the instrument it can sound almost gritty. It spoke to this sense of who the character is and what she goes through… that she is of the earth but she also has this big hopes of leaving the island - she has this big wish for something that could happen in her life, a vision of a place where it's bigger than it is right now. With this instrument you can go gritty and earthy and you can go up and make it very lyrical if you want to, so that was part of it the decision to use it.
I used a lot of wood flutes and recorders, things that would give an almost astral quality, because the film has a lot of those really beautiful shots of nature, of the island, of wind, of birds which I know were very important to you. I had to figure out how to complement all those beautiful shots without being "over the top", without being too "on the nose", and it was important to have really beautiful, quiet, contemplative music, and the solo flutes were a really nice way to do that. As a matter of fact I used the alto flute a lot because it’s a soft instrument that can be really hollow, and it can go really low in range. I tried not to disturb the peace of the island!
And I actually discussed this with the mixer when we finally went to mix it: how to make every instrument sound as if it were coming from nature. It feels very...not washed out, but very wide.
All in all, we really thought about how to make the music be part of the experience without being "in your face”—very much like the film.
HTH: Were there any other composers or film scores that you looked to while you were composing the music?
JL: You know, there was a lot of inspiration, but the score was so specific and so naked... I would say maybe Carter Burwell was one of them—he did all these Coen Brothers movies like “Fargo”—these really naked and “simple" scores, but which have a lot of underlying emotion.
In fact the very first time we met about the film, if you remember, I was thinking of using the piano, and as I began writing I started to feel that the piano was, in a way, too classical, in the sense that the piano would have to be played in a controlled environment. You don't have those piano sounds on an island, it just wouldn't have worked, so the score was really written with the idea that if I were at the top of a cliff or at the top of a hill, what kind of music would I hear? So the inspiration really came, interestingly enough, from the island. It sounds sort of spooky but with most movies when you think about the underscore you don't think about where those instruments are being played, whereas with "The Mistover Tale" we really had to think about that. It's such a peaceful environment yet such a strong environment, we had to figure out a way to reconcile those two things musically.
I know you and I talked about "Babette's Feast" [the film by Gabriel Axel] at some point early on in the process, which was really interesting because, while it doesn’t happen on an island, it does take place in a very desolate place, and there's almost no music at all in that film. I think there's music at the beginning and at the end and that's it. We both felt the effect was working there, but that "The Mistover Tale” really needed some kind of an underscore, and that the challenge was how to merge this very quiet environment with the necessity to bring out some of the emotions that we wanted to bring out. So it was like the inspiration came not just necessarily from music, but more from “silence" and how to make music work within that space.
HTH: Or is it that the music is a continuation of the sounds of the wind and the sea and the land - as if the sounds were natural sounds that could be found in nature, but they are obviously instruments.
JL: Very much so. And it's a very good point; for example at the very beginning of the movie we just hear the sound of the waves and the sounds of nature, and you want the music to come in in a way that is not disturbing or distracting us from the sounds of nature. So maybe in your mix you really want the nature to disappear, but how do you cross-mix to make that as seamless as possible? That really was a challenge.
HTH: And I remember talking to you about it and saying I want some scenes to have no music at all, so you could really feel the emptiness - and then you brought it back in.
JL: Absolutely. In the end there is really only about 35 minutes of music in the film, which is not a lot in a 90 minute feature film. But it was on purpose because we really wanted the music to be there only when you needed it, and to really complement what the island wasn't already giving us—or was giving us but wasn't necessarily as obvious for the audience as you wanted it to be.
HTH: And I'm sure it was challenging composing for the two death scenes in this film - and a ghost scene - I'm sure that was a hard thing to tackle.
JL: The thing with the deaths is that they are sad obviously, but there is also this whole concept of rebirth in the film, and so musically I had to find elements that I could bring later on in the rebirth and the ghost part of the story, elements that wouldn't feel completely out of place. For example, there are ethereal vocals that I used at the beginning of the film when we see Cliona, and they come back—without doing any spoiler—those are being used later in the film. It's the same thing with the dulcimer that I used sparingly throughout the movie; they really become their own, in an “evil” way, during the ghost part of the story. So there was this idea that it was really important to develop the music so it can accent that, once we go into that part of the story.
HTH: Other than that, any major challenges - when you were starting it -anything that you were stuck on, that took you a while to figure out how you were going to do it - how you were going to pull it off?
JL: I think one of the challenges obviously was that this is a low budget film, which brings its own set of challenges. Because we really wanted to have an acoustic score—using live musicians was very important. Luckily we were able to do that and I thank you for that—
HTH: And I thank you—
JL: … and that's such an important part of that type of score because the character development is a critical point in the story. We both felt that emotion could only come from those live instruments. That's why I talked about the fiddle which really represents her and who she is. You're not going to fake that with synth instruments, so the thing I'm really happy about was that we were able to write a score that, in the end, we could produce with live instruments. That was one of the challenges; how we were using soloists and how to make that work. In a way I was forced to write smaller but in the end that was a good thing, for the island wasn't this big thing, it didn’t need this huge orchestral score. I always thought about it as this minimalist kind of score, so that was a challenge but actually it was a blessing. And also a big challenge was not over-doing it. You know, there's a tendency, in Hollywood obviously, to make it be bigger than it needs to be. And the danger was that we always wanted to walk this fine line. In the love part of the story, yes, they're in love, but I couldn't go overboard with it, considering what goes on later in the film, so there was always walking this fine line in the same way that the movie was walking this fine line. So that's why it's was a challenge but also a blessing, and that's what makes it different and original. That's why it is what it is.
HTH: Well and also you're a French native - and in European filmmaking and music for film - you know they actually tend to use a lot of piano in French films [JL laughs] which you didn't do. But it's a more softer score than Hollywood productions - it's not - as you said about "Babette's Feast" - that there are only two places where that has music. I think that's quite common over there [in Europe] -
JL: I think the fact that it's an indie film already makes a big difference, we don't have to justify it like, you know, "oh my God we have so much money we need to spend it on something!” I think that's a part of it. But, I agree, I do think that my sensibilities, being French, are for Debussy and Erik Satie and composers like that, it's in my DNA. Not only because I like their music, obviously, but that's also kind of "where I'm from," so there is this tendency. And, you know, that's something I love about this film, this “impressionist" quality—what is called pointillism in painting, where it's just like little dots and that's how you get the full painting. If you look at a Monet painting and you go very close you see all the little dots and they don't really make sense, but once you pull back you see the whole picture. And in the same manner there is the music. Debussy was a perfect example of this—I'm not going to say I wrote like Debussy, certainly not, I wouldn't be able to—and this wasn't the point anyway, it is still a film score, it's still a film. But I think I tried making the emotion come from the addition of all those little things. For example, there's a motor with the harp and the dulcimer that is built like that, it just keeps repeating; you add a flute or a fiddle to that and you build something that's really minimal but that has a lot of potential emotions in it. Maybe everyone will find what they really want to find in it, but there is this tonal—we're not doing anything crazy—this sense of pointillism, if I could say, in the music, where we just have in the brushstrokes exactly what we need for you to be able to see, to realize what the picture is about, without going extremely realist or without being extremely detailed. It's more about those little points.
HTH: Unlike having your hand held musically, "this is how you should feel right now" - it's a little more subtle and open to interpretation.
JL: Hopefully! That was the goal anyway. it's not the big expansive melodies first in the strings and then in the horns. It's not like that. It wasn't that kind of film. I feel that with indie films, with the "auteur" films, sometimes there are negative connotations to it, so I don't like using those terms. I think more like what is the film about, and how do we help tell that story? Of course the fact that you can only tell this story as an indie film might be true, but that's not going to change how I write the music. I'm not going to write it differently because it's an indie film. The question was, what is the story being told and how can I help? And it ended up being inspired by how the film was shot. That's what ended up making the most sense.
HTH: Why do you think people should contribute?
JL: I think people should contribute to help the film being finished because it's an original and really beautiful film. One that I've never seen told before, certainly not in that fashion. And I think the technical qualities of the film are obvious: the photography is absolutely beautiful and the acting is great, and I hope that people will enjoy the score. But I feel like all these things put together created something really different and really special. It deserves to be finished and we're so close! People will enjoy a story that is original and that will actually speak to them. That's why I strongly urge people to contribute, absolutely.
HTH: Thank you Jerome! You know so many people ask me "Who did the music? It's amazing!" And ask how do they get a copy, and they want to know about you, and also how and why you composed it the way you did. Because it's all this ethereal music and they don't know it, and they can't place these sounds and the instruments, and I think they would be surprised that it wasn't a synth - you assume that these ethereal sounds came from some machine, but it was all recorded live.
JL: That's what was such a huge part of creating this. We're taking about real stories there, very emotional, inner stories in a way, and we just had to make it work with live players. In many ways I'm also looking forward to the film being completed so people can see that. I think the soundtrack album is great and by itself it's a beautiful thing, but it was really made to work with the visuals. When I was building the soundtrack album, I had to make it so it works as such; you know, you have a 45 seconds piece in the movie so you might not want to have that as a track, because it's too short, so you have to combine it with other pieces to make it work musically. In the film you would have one shot of Cliona walking—you just see her walking—and that shot is 30 seconds and it's a beautiful shot, with the island behind and with the sunset, and it's really something beautiful, and you see this as a composer and think "Oh my God what is better than this?" What is better than this because you are scoring to a visual, you really have a story to tell, yet you have so much freedom in what you can write, and it's within the confines of the film, but it's basically its own thing so I can do whatever I want. And that's 30 or 35 seconds that you don't get offered that often from a director or a producer. So that's the beautiful thing, when you watch the film and you have those inserts, that's when you notice and take it in—the island—and that's when you really take in what the film is really about. And I think the soundtrack album is great, it's really nice to listen to by itself—I hope people will feel that way—but I think it's the film that really pulls these elements together and makes it come to life.
HTH: Well I think that if you listened to the soundtrack and you didn't know the film, I think it would be a much different experience than if you did because the images come into your brain, and it puts you into an "island mood", when you listen to it.
JL: Yes, and it's like that for a lot of film music. If you listen to it as an album the construction in your mind is not the same; in the film it is really made to complement the visuals and the structure of the story.