April 7, 2011
Motion picture soundtracks have always fascinated me. In the Soundtracked series, composers and/or directors offer commentary on their film's soundtrack, and share insights into the creative evolution that melds music into the final film.
I was thrilled to compose the music for Win Win, being a fan of Tom McCarthy's previous two films The Visitor and The Station Agent. There's a flowing rhythm to his work where nothing is overplayed and the bigger moments are rife with nuanced subtlety, eschewing grand gestures and extraneous fanfare. It's that winning combination that pulled me deeply into each of his movies, as very real, three-dimensional characters navigate through their circumstances.
When I begin scoring a movie, I like to imagine that the film has it's own "band," or more precisely - a combination of instruments that create the band sound. This conceptualizing is especially useful if the film dictates that it be a smaller ensemble musically. Then, breaking it down further, I think of the sub-classification and sonic attributes of each instrument and when combined, the collective sound the band makes. For me, electric guitar is about as wide a category as food, and so many versions of the electric guitar are taken into account. This consideration is taken to the other instruments too. A very basic and crude example of this is to take a band consisting of electric guitar, bass and drums - that lineup can make light jazz music or they can make death metal. But a jazz guitar and a guitar best suited for death metal guitar are vastly different from each other, not only physically, but how they are amplified and recorded. The instrumental casting in a score is very important as well, as is the creativity that the musicians bring to the table. The devil is in the details.
At the inception, the overall directive for this film was to write music that was visceral and organic, nothing slick or over intellectualized. The mindset was to veer more towards sparseness in regards to instrumentation and orchestration. Guitar was chosen as the primary color in the musical landscape, and I set out using various acoustic and electric models to help create a wide range of textures to handle the scope of a story that touches on shades of both drama and comedy. I also used a GuitarViol, which is fretted like a guitar but bowed like a violin evoking the sound of a violin/viola/cello.
Percussion would be another key component. I wanted to forgo the usual suspects of shaker, tambourine and the like, in order to provide rhythmic energy and give the score another unique element of the "band sound". Drummer/percussionist Brian MacLeod was bought in, along with crates filled with "off the beaten path" percussion, and weird items that were decidedly not percussion - all to coax a wide and interesting rhythmic palette. Rounding out the core instrumentation were bass and processed keyboards.
In the interest of making this soundtrack CD as compelling and as complete a listen as possible, alternate versions of cues were included to add contrast to those heard in the film.
I don't always start with the first music cue because sometimes it's beneficial to begin with emotional or transformative scenes from other areas in the film. This is where the canvas is open for development of key themes from which to borrow from, deconstruct or expand. But for this film, the opening scene was the perfect backdrop to set the musical stage and here it was imperative to hit the right tone coming out of the gate. I returned to this cue a few times at various stages of the composing process and wrote a few alternates to order to come to right emotional tone, tempo and desirable ratio of levity and weight. In this opening, Mike's theme is revealed in the finger-picked guitar figure, and this melody is extrapolated several times throughout the film.
"Good Man, Bad Place"
This is one of the alternate opening themes. "Fallen Angel" is another as well.
"Drive to Oak Knoll"
We referred to this as the "caper music." I'm creating a bit of tension and apprehension with the guitar figure along with Brian's percolating percussion, then adding ambient textures of keyboard to build it dynamically. The end tag was taken from another revision and edited at the end for your listening pleasure, or at the very least, mine.
Here is where we see Kyle wrestle for the first few times and witness his incredible prowess and skill. This rocks the coach's world, and in the midst of some tough times (and a crummy wrestling team), it's a breath of fresh air. I've combined three cues; starting with the revealing moment of Kyle's first wrestle, where we take notice of something special; then morphing over the two following wrestling scenes, solidifying that Kyle is a superbly gifted athlete, exemplified by unleashing rock guitar and drums. To speak of themes, Mike's is constructed as a melody whereas Kyle's is built from sound and style. A theme doesn't necessarily require a melody, a theme can be style and feel without a melodic backbone.
"Rubber Meets the Road"
The stakes get a little higher through consequent matches. We are at full bore rock at this point, but something happens to derail Kyle's focus -which the drone signifies. Looking for a segue to another piece, on a purely musical level it made sense to join to an earlier cue which plays over a scene of levity and healthy anticipation of what's good about Kyle entering Mike's world.
Kyle's lanky friend, Stemler, decides he's ready to jump into the ring wholeheartedly, no doubt inspired by Kyle's natural ability and coolness. This cue traces the arch from comic ineptitude to a victory of sorts. Musically the sparse ensemble has added flavors of banjo, keyboards and a little voice. Tastes of orchestral elements are layered to build the ending crescendo.
"The Secret Apprentice"
This is an alternate version of "Stemler Wrestles". The oblique melody courtesy of the GuitarViol, peppered with the uncommon triumvirate and downright strange bedfellows of Tahitian ukulele, organ and tuba.
This music is about the hope for another chance; to rebuild broken trust and ultimately, forgiveness. I love how this scene perfectly illustrates Tom McCarthy's way of saying so much with tasteful economy and in this case, with no words at all.
The music here touches on layers of Mike's predicament; the aftermaths of chaos, hurt and disappointment, but with an underlying glimmer of hope. Ambient textures of processed keyboards were added to the sparse guitar figure, quoting a line of the opening theme. Then it's edited onto a much earlier cue, just before Mike makes the choice that will eventually come back to haunt him. Percussion enters here and the guitar quotes the opening theme once again.
One of the guitars I used frequently throughout this score is a baritone 12 string, and you'll hear it in this piece which is an alternate version of "Morning After." Mike's opening theme is called back, but modulated, slowed down and in a minor key. As a composition device it's beneficial to reuse themes for continuity, and it helps to have a nice rich melody, elastic enough to bend and shape in a number of ways.
Here's the perfect example of how music can tilt a scene towards drama or comedy. Although the music begins with a tense drone, it unfolds into something quirky playing into the comedy of a scene that could be taken more seriously. I wrote an arrhythmic guitar figure embellished with a GuitarViol figure for the cello sounding slurs as the basis. Then I added some "non-percussion" percussion, a Wurlitzer keyboard, and bass guitar.
As I had expected, I found it to be a very rewarding experience setting music to this gem of a film helmed by such a passionate and talented director. Behind every composer is a creative team, and I want to thank Tom, Mary Ramos the music supervisor and Gedney Webb the music editor for their expertise along the journey. I also give thanks to team at Mom+Pop records for releasing this soundtrack.
Win Win links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Soundtracked submissions (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtrack)
Online year-end 2010 music lists
weekly CD & DVD release lists
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)