This year’s Sundance Film Festival is over. As new films enter the marketplace and new filmmakers are exposed to the industry, new talent will be discovered and on display. Directors and actors often steal the spotlight on these projects and while we love to introduce you to these artists we also want to highlight the other players that accentuate their films. Today, we’ve invited composer Jess Stroup to guest blog for us and talk about scoring his first feature film, which premiered in competition at Sundance, Camp X-Ray.
Sometimes a piece of music comes along that lends itself perfectly to cinema, even though it was not composed for that purpose. Such is the case with Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel.” You’ve probably heard it. A serene, minimalist composition featuring simple piano arpeggios and solo violin, it has been licensed for film, TV, and other media, most recently in the trailer for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. The first time I ever heard it set to picture was in Gus Van Sant’s Gerry.
Gerry is one of my favorite films of all time, and easily one of Van Sant’s best. It’s a simple story: Matt Damon and Casey Affleck play two friends that go for a hike in the desert and get lost. They’ve only planned for a day trip, and didn’t think to bring food or water for an extended outdoor adventure. Without too many spoilers, let’s just say that things turn dire and the ending is not a happy one.
What I liked about Gerry when I first saw it, and still do, are the risks that it takes with the storytelling, the filmmaking, and the music. The film moves at the same pace as the characters do, in real time, which by cinema standards is very slow. The opening of the film is five minutes long, just a long shot of the two friends in a car, driving into a national-park-like setting, while “Spiegel im Spiegel” plays in its entirety.
Later, there are long close-up scenes of hiking boots in motion, no music, just the repetitive, rhythmic sound of two people walking in sync with each other. Early on, it is apparent that the two characters, both named Gerry, have known each other for a long time. They have an easy rapport and speak in a language that develops between old friends, with inside jokes and references to experiences they have shared together. The soundtrack for their journey is only two pieces of music by Arvo Pärt: “Spiegel im Spiegel” and “Für Alina.” Where “Spiegel” features solo piano and violin, “Für Alina” is even sparser. A piano plays occasional improvised phrases, leaving lots of silence in between. For me, this works so well in Gerry because it is not an obvious choice for musical direction, and the use of only two themes sets a consistent tone throughout.
Let’s talk about other possible options for what the music for Gerry could have been. We’ve got two guys lost in the desert, in what becomes a life or death situation. It’s dramatic, sometimes scary, and other times downright hopeless. You could go the Breaking Bad route: slide guitars, menacing ambiences, and maybe some rattling percussion. Or you could do the minimalist electronica approach á la Traffic: ambient synths offset by low bass scales to score the drama and tension. And then there’s always the tried-and-true indie film sound: sparse electric guitar phrases with a little bit of tremelo effect, as heard in 21 Grams and others. None of these choices would be wrong, but Arvo Pärt’s classical minimalism creates the perfect juxtaposition that makes the film a little bit more special, more unique. The music is always beautiful, as is the film’s desert location, even when the plight of the characters is most bleak. The sparseness of the music helps us feel the gravity of being alone and lost in a desolate place. And when Für Alina plays, every so often the composer pauses to hit a low piano note, almost like a warning, or a reminder of the situation we’re in. It’s never heavy-handed; the music simply seems to say “here’s what’s happening, and it’s serious.”
Recently I scored my first feature film, Camp X-Ray, about a young woman stationed in Guantanamo Bay who develops an unlikely friendship with a detainee. Plenty of tension, drama, and conflict there. Early on in my discussions with director Peter Sattler, he mentioned classical music and that he wanted the film’s score to be handled with elegance. Even though the story is set in a cold and dehumanizing world, there could still be moments of beauty in the music, as the film focuses on human connection. The score should never be overbearing or tell the audience how to feel, but simply help in presenting the situation. One of the first musical references that we talked about was “Spiegel im Spiegel,” and the way it has been used in soundtracks,Gerry specifically. It was a great reminder that music for a dramatic film doesn’t necessarily have to be overtly dramatic. And even though the music I wrote couldn’t be more different from “Spiegel” and “Für Alina,” those discussions on Arvo Pärt and classical music helped me to choose a minimalist approach to the score, and we ended up with a soundtrack that I hope serves the film in a graceful and unique way.
Gerry has stayed with me all these years not only because of the director’s artistic choices, but because it has a strong nostalgia and realism to it. It brings to mind a lot of hikes that you or I may have taken with friends; and Damon and Affleck’s easy comradery and the real-time pacing allows us to live through their adventure with them. And while the soundtrack is haunting and beautiful, what it adds most to the film is that it never adds too much, never reaches the point of reminding us that this is a movie, a product for entertainment. Admittedly, Gerry is slow and challenging at times, reviews on Netflix vary from one star to five, and some viewers have compared it to watching paint dry. But that’s the risk of taking the road less traveled in filmmaking; not everyone will like it.
Jess Stroup is a go-to arranger and score producer for composers around Los Angeles, and has contributed arrangements, production, and session work to blockbuster films such as Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief, and TV shows on SyFy, ABC, TNT, and more. His music can be heard in commercials for Target, Chrysler, and Hewlett-Packard, as well as trailers for movies such as Tyler Perry’s Single Mom’s Club. In 2013 he scored his first documentary, Hotline, and his first feature film, Camp X-Ray, is a Sundance 2014 Dramatic Competition Selection.