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Q&A on music supervising award-winning film ‘Norman’ with PEYMON MASKAN, owner of Little Mountain Music Supervision - Jan 10, 2012

“I used to approach films with a perspective of putting together a bunch of cool bands that will make people buy the soundtrack. My motivation nowadays is more about storytelling”

picture Since hit indie movies Juno and Garden State helped popularise the “mix CD of cool bands” style of soundtrack, there has been a recent trend towards single artist scores such as Trent Reznor’s The Social Network, Karen O’s Where The Wild Things Are, and now Andrew Bird’s Norman. The award-winning film is defined by its remarkable score by indie artist Bird that both perfectly complements the film’s emotional journey and makes for a superb standalone album.

Continuing our series on music licensing, we get a first-hand impression of how a music score and soundtrack are created from the film’s music supervisor Peymon Maskan, who explains his approach in finding music to contribute to the "emotional journey of the audience", and reveals how his musical choices are informed by storytelling rather which bands would make a cool soundtrack and why an indie artist was chosen to write the score.

How did you come to work on the ‘Norman’ score and soundtrack and why was it a good match for your talents?

I read the script before meeting with the director, Jonathan Segal. The film is about this dark and unique teen, Norman. He is utterly disconnected from his classmates, and his home life is disintegrating. So there was this really interesting duality between these worlds that could be brought to life with the score and songs.

Plus Jonathan was super focused on getting the music right, and I have that kind of focus too, so the environment was ripe to create something meaningful.

Can you summarise what your range of responsibilities were as a music supervisor for the film?

There were all the typical tasks like spotting the film, pulling together composer ideas, managing the budget, developing a backend strategy, artist negotiation, scheduling, music editorial, and eventually mixing. But creating a system for Andrew [Bird] to record the score while he was in the middle of his biggest world tour, that was the real trick on this one.

How do you begin a project like this? For instance, do you first sit down and watch the film and then discuss musical ideas with the director?

Generally speaking, I'm trying to find inspiration: something that gives me insight to the core themes of the characters and story.

Just as important is understanding where the director is coming from; what his personal music tastes are; how music speaks to him/her; and knowing what role music plays in his/her life. I try my hardest to get beyond the more obvious musical choices, to find music which contributes to the greater emotional journey of the audience.

I used to approach my films with a perspective of putting together a bunch of cool bands that will make people want to run out and buy the soundtrack. That's still important, but my motivation nowadays is more about storytelling.

The more interesting work on Norman came from listening to Jonathan; breaking down the story; paying attention to how the cinematographer, actors, other designers and locations commented on the text; and using those elements to extract some parameters for the music.

Musically what did you decide would best suit the themes and mood of the film?

Norman is going through so much in the film, and he feels he has no voice in the world. His mother died in a car accident years ago, and his father is losing a battle with cancer. His dark sense of humour gets little love at his high school, and he contemplates suicide regularly.

Because of his lack of voice, I started brainstorming about vocal instruments, and thought violin would be a good idea. Norman's loneliness wanted whistling, which could also underplay his dark sense of humour. So who is the best fiddler and whistler around? Andrew Bird.

Why did the music come to be wholly centred around the music of one artist, in Andrew Bird?

Because the film is centred around one character, it felt right to go with one artist who's work could evolve from score to songs, giving voice to these feelings trapped inside of Norman. The score works to reveal his interior journey (his loneliness, feeling out of control and incomplete), then evolves to songs which play his external journey (his first kiss, first date, etc). Andrew achieved this perfectly.

How did the process of actually scoring the film proceed in terms of you working together with Andrew?

Andrew was in the middle of a giant tour at the time, so we had to create a unique workflow. When Andrew was home in Chicago for a week or two between shows, he would stop by the studio with musician and score producer Kevin O'Donnell and engineer Neil Strauch. He would lay down tracks which music editor Mark Skillingberg, Jonathan Segal and I would cut to picture. Every time Andrew would send music it was like Christmas morning!

It didn't take long for the score to take shape. We would play with the different themes he created, trying them in different scenes and working with Andrew to find ways to set up those themes earlier in the film.

Finally, Jonathan and I flew to Chicago. Andrew recorded the score from scratch, starting at the first scene and working his way through the film in chronological order. It was one of the greatest experiences I've ever had. He is a true artist and genius, and a total gentleman.

Can you give any examples of how the emotional impact of a scene or a significant development was heightened with the music? For instance, are there subtle rhythms that you are following in the film?

I love this question, because at the heart of my job is a perception for rhythm. Great actors speak in rhythm, and great editors, like Norman's Robert Hoffman, use those rhythms to inform their cuts.

For the “first kiss" scene in particular, Andrew had written ‘Night Sky’. He took a pass at the song, playing it to picture. We all were standing around the monitor discussing it afterwards, and I expressed concern that the lyrics might possibly clash with the scene's dialogue. I've seen it happen in the mix countless times – a perfect song ends up being mixed so low it’s barely audible because something in the song is clashing with the sonics of the actor's voice.

I don't profess to know much about music theory. I don't play any instruments, and sometimes my ignorance leads to unusual ideas to solve a problem. So I threw out the idea of Andrew singing the lyrics around the actor's dialogue. Before I finished the sentence, Andrew rushed back to the studio and began working on it. Watching the scene in the film, you would never know. But his lyrics masterfully avoid the dialogue, and the whole scene is elevated as a result.

The soundtrack features songs from other artists. How did you come to choose these particular tracks?

Jonathan and I were excited to give Emily's character a song for the scene leading up to the "first kiss". I've always loved Khaela Maricich's work in "The Blow", so I approached her. Her instinct for dialogue rhythm and lyric were spot-on, and pairing her with the genius Richard Swift (who just produced songs on the upcoming Shins record) was a no brainer. It gave the scene an organic feel, versus the electronic sound The Blow traditionally has.

For the "head shave" scene, we worked for months to get Wolf Parade's ‘You Are A Runner, I Am My Father's Son’ to work in the scene. Wolf Parade did an incredible slow version of the song, but it was a little too dark and didn't play the wondrous curiosity on Norman's face as he shaves his own head. So Chad VanGaalen did a cover as well, which was a little too raw. Eventually we went with Chad's song ‘Rabid Bits of Time’ in the scene. It was an idea Jon and I played with early on, but we were blind to it as we were obsessed with making ‘Runner’ work in the scene. That process revealed a lot about the scene to us, so when we finally looked at ‘Rabid Bits of Time’ again, it was perfect. Definitely one of my favourite song uses in a film I’ve done. Luckily, Wolf Parade was kind enough to allow their slow cover of ‘Runner’ to have a life on the soundtrack.

The soundtrack flows together beautifully as a stand-alone album. Given recent similarly successful single artist soundtracks, such as for Social Network and Where The Wild Things Are, do you think there is a trend towards film soundtracks having a greater prominence as stand-alone albums, and also having a greater significance to a film’s success?

Yes, I do. Working with a musical artist as a composer is a very powerful tool in a music supervisor's arsenal. The right artist can give a film "star power" as much as a name actor can.

But I wouldn't recommend it for just any project, or any artist. Working on film is a frame accurate endeavour. The story comes first, not the music. For many artists, this can be too big a leap to make. They are used to playing in front of stadiums full of people who adore every note they play, even cheering the mistakes!

The process of giving notes to an artist of Andrew's calibre must be done with great care. They need to remain inspired throughout the process, so it's a delicate balance. Andrew Bird handled it really well, to his credit.

The soundtrack flow is another product of Andrew's vision. He sequenced it himself, combining some score cues together in very inventive ways that could have only come from his mind. The result just reinforces his vision and voice. The best compliment I've heard is that without having seen the film, you can imagine it by listening to the soundtrack. The sequence is a big part of that effect.

interviewed by Barry Wheels

Read On ...

* Universal Republic's Leah Streetman on securing TV & film placements
* A panel of music supervisors discuss TV & film licensing for The PRiMER