Rob Simonsen is the composer on two Sundance features, The Way, Way Back, starring Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell and The Spectacular Now, starring Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller.
The Spectacular Now
Sutter Keely lives in the now. It’s a good place for him. A high school senior, charming and self-possessed, he’s the life of the party, loves his job at a men’s clothing store, and has no plans for the future. A budding alcoholic, he’s never far from his supersized, whisky-fortified 7UP cup. But after being dumped by his girlfriend, Sutter gets drunk and wakes up on a lawn with Aimee Finicky hovering over him. Not a member of the cool crowd, she’s different: the “nice girl” who reads science fiction and doesn’t have a boyfriend. She does have dreams, while Sutter lives in a world of impressive self-delusion. And yet they’re drawn to each other.
The Way, Way Back
The Way, Way Back tells the story of 14-year-old Duncan’s awkward, funny, and sometimes painful summer vacation with his mother, Pam, her overbearing boyfriend, Trent, and his daughter, Steph. Although Duncan has a tough time fitting in and finding his place, he does find an unlikely ally and mentor in Owen, a carefree employee at the local water park where Duncan gets a job. Over the course of the summer, as his mother drifts further away, Duncan—with encouragement from Owen—begins to open up and come into his own.
Simonsen is our final contributor for our Sundance Guest Blog Series and he talks about what he looks for when signing on a film and which films have made an impact on his work today.
The work of a film composer is to reach under the surface of a film and unfurl (subtly or overtly) the emotional secrets of the characters; to give the audience a sense of the internal reality of what we’re watching on screen, or conversely, to paint that internal reality in a new light. For instance- watching someone get their ear cut off to Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” (Reservoir Dogs)…not what might be expected. It’s not underscore that’s tense, nervous, and horrified – all of that is already coming across on screen very successfully. This music flips you. It’s a classic, upbeat radio jam that paradoxically intensifies all the feelings – making it more horrific, more helpless, and yet, I’m also laughing my ass off. Instead of tuning in to the horror of the victim, we’re hearing the soundtrack to the unsympathetic gyrating of a mad man. It was irreverent, fresh, bold, unique, and totally changed my perspective on shit. I think I was about 16 when I saw that for the first time.
Of course, in many films, that kind of flipping is most often done with songs, not score. But the kernel of awesomeness to take away (as a film composer) is how much music can have an impact on the perspective of a scene. Who owns the scene? From what angle do we want to experience this from?
Tarantino is the master flipping perspectives around with music. I loved the modern hip-hop in Django, the surf rock and R&B of Pulp Fiction, the flash and bang of the cues in Kill Bill. I may not get the opportunity to do that very often with score, but the lesson hits home.
The opening sequence of The Spectacular Now is focused on our protagonist, Sutter Keely, a free-spirited, alcoholic high schooler, as he describes the crumbling of his last relationship. To his oration we see images of kids jumping into pools, taking shots, drinking beers and stealing the night. This could have easily been scored with music that matched 1:1 what we were seeing, perhaps something they’d be rocking out to at such a party. However, what we ended up with (after trying several different tonal/instrumental approaches) was not music “of today”. Quite the contrary, we used a brass section, playing in a quasi-New Orleans, drunken marching band, high-spirited kind of way. It’s a classic sound, not really a modern one. Kind of a Bob Dylan “Wigwam” approach. Jumbled. Exuberant. Joyous. Simple. We endeavored to do something a little less expected. And at the same time, this was trying to speak for a more subtle character level of Sutter. He’s a carefree spirit, a wandering clown. Drunken brass…it fits, and it’s hopefully adding a character of something not necessarily on screen.
Another big movie music Miramax film for me was Trainspotting. It was all source cues, but at 18 and getting heavily into electronic music, the use of Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day” took me deeper into Eno’s work, and that scene left an imprint that still remains fresh. And then there was the climactic ending of that film, set to the thump of Underworld. The heart-pounding, adrenaline rush-inducing 4/4 kick drum that unrelentingly carries us towards our anti-hero’s victorious escape which capped off that brilliant film with so much excitement it had me coming back to the theater I think 3 or 4 times.
I’m gushing a bit, remembering all these moments that left such a mark long before I ever considered a pursuing film composition as a career. I think to this day they are subconscious points of reference for the perfect and unexpected blend of image and music. Thank you for bringing that to me, Miramax.
What I look for when signing on to a project:
I look for a great story; an interesting perspective. To paraphrase Robert McKee, in a good story, we are introduced to a world that we do not know, and in that world we find ourselves. Something that rings true and brightens or deepens life. That sounds kind of highfalutin as I type it out, but it’s true. I just want to be moved, and I want to be part of something that moves me, and if I have the opportunity to help out musically to such a work, I’m in. I like being part of a challenge in that way.
How I got involved in film:
I grew up with music around me, my grandmother being a voice teacher and making sure every grandkid picked an instrument and got lessons. I needed no encouragement though, as I spent many hours creating and noodling on the home piano in the basement, oftentimes picking out melodies from movies I had watched.
When I was 12 I got my first sequencing keyboard, where I could layer different parts on each other. That was huge. Then came a Mac SE when I was 14 with more sequencing power. I was addicted. In college I was asked by a close friend to play piano on a score he did for another friend’s college film. I was fascinated by the process, and it dawned on me that there was a potential career in creating music for movies. Well, since I spent half my free time making movies with my friends, and my other half making music for myself, this was a no brainer.
My first feature film that I scored premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2003. Mychael Danna was a guest speaker at the fest, whom I had the pleasure of hearing. Mychael and I became acquainted that day and we stayed in touch. A year later we both moved to LA and I began assisting him on such titles as Being Julia, and Where the Truth Lies. He let me work up the ranks under his tutelage, co-writing (500) Days of Summer and other titles, providing additional music for numerous films, amongst which are Moneyball and Life of Pi. In 2009 I opened up my own studio and this year in Sundance I’m very excited to have both The Spectacular Now and The Way, Way Back in the festival.
Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and six other Tarantino films are now available in a Blu-ray box set. Get your copy today.
The 2013 Sundance Film Festival is now over. Thank you to all of our guest bloggers and congratulations, we can’t wait to see the films!