On His Idiosyncratic Connection With the Safdie Brothers
I hadn’t seen Daddy Long Legs, but I had seen Heaven Knows What. I kind of vaguely knew them socially from just being in New York. We were roughly the same age and doing stuff in and around the city. But at some point, they reached out and I went to their office in Midtown. I walked in and they were totally immersed in this world that they were creating. Their walls were covered with tapes and DVDs. There was an Akira poster on the wall which was hanging right next to an Abel Ferrara poster for King of New York.
Even that weird contrast, I remember it was really powerful for me. I was like, “Oh, we’re cut from the same cloth. Right. There’s no rules here. There’s only brutal realism and science fiction, and there’s a time loop that connects those things.” And so right away we had so much to talk about. I remember the first thing Josh told me: “You know, we’ve never made a genre movie, and I think we have to. We have to make a genre movie.” And they were talking about Good Time.
I was really excited to work with them from the get-go just because it was really natural. It was really comfortable. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine working with these kids. We were all cut from the same cloth. We were all philosophically volleying around the same types of ideas about what rules exist and what rules don’t or whatever.
So, we did Good Time, and we went to Cannes with it. We had a great time, and then I was like, “Oh wow, I really need to get back to OPN stuff.” So I holed up in this house in south central Massachusetts to record Age Of. I was busy with that for awhile. Then off of that, I had a large-scale show that I had created for that record, which we called Myriad. And it took all of my energy to convince people to support it because it was prohibitively expensive show to put on.
For them it’s a risk because I’m a quote-unquote avant garde composer, or whatever dumb conception of my career people have. That struggle took a lot out of me. But luckily we were already hatching plans for Uncut, which I had known about because they had been writing it for like 10 years. They had sort of explained it to me going back as far as before Good Time.
There were things that were changing that did make it difficult because they have such unbelievably anal second-to-second notes, beat-by-beat, frame-by-frame on the action in terms of the score. They have really, really specific notes. It’s a lot like a ballet. It has a very, very intense emotional wireframe that’s beneath all of this stuff.
Just because it seems crazy and chaotic doesn’t mean that we’re in any kind of chaotic state when we’re making it. I’m following their map and then I’m basically just working in reverse.
On Capturing Howard Ratner’s Anxiety While Composing
At some point, I started online gambling, in-game NBA betting on one screen in the studio while I was writing, just to get into it. My bets were very small, but still, for someone that doesn’t bet, it’s totally thrilling and insane. Not that I would recommend anyone do that. In small doses, you could totally see how it can spin out of control and become a bigger problem, or you just simply want a bigger dose of that.
There were some tricks, but the anxiety… I had writer’s block, some depression. There were all kinds of things happening in my life leading up to the very important moment of playing the film in its entirety for the producers. The Safdie Brothers can take the act of just climbing a fence as if you’re watching War and Peace. It’s just totally insane and that’s the lovely thing about the stories they tell. The problems are very real, and yet the way we animate those problems, those conflicts, or those moments of tension to make them seem as if the world is imploding around you is the fun of it.
We can characterize those very real life situations in very crazy fantastical ways through the music, which is something that I kind of do in reverse or inverse in my own stuff. There’s this kind of sense of that music and noise and silence, or all these things are metaphors and that you can create a picture of something even though there’s nothing specifically to say or to depict.
I’m a pretty calm person. I don’t naturally necessarily go to that level in my own life, but I love embodying it, imagining it, or tinkering with the mechanics of what that might sound like in my own music and in the score. So that’s totally natural for me to jump in there. But I did appreciate the sort of extra steroidal rush of actually betting, because it just makes whatever activity you’re doing instantly insane. It just enhances everything. It’s just purely a drug.
On Bringing In Humans to Hug the Synths
Early on in the process, Josh Safdie and I talked about an orchestral synth score, so I dug up this rejected score for Alien Nation that Jerry Goldsmith had done. Someone else ended up scoring it, but Jerry’s original score’s out there. I had heard it, and it was just like this nice mixture of synth stuff with orchestra. And then of course Vangelis’s stuff, which is sort of a hallucination of an orchestra through the synthesizer. At some point, I’m doing this stuff and it’s working out, but then we’re starting to ask ourselves questions like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if this was all kind of hugged by other instruments. Let’s get some sort of organic contrast going here.” So we started pulling in some people we knew, and some people we didn’t know.
Eli Keszler, who’s a percussionist who I had worked with on a live show, he was drumming in my ensemble for Myriad for Age Of. He came through and added some stuff. And I worked with this saxophone player who also plays flute named Mario Castro. He’s a guy in the city that’s really, really talented that my engineer knew. We had done all of this stuff with Mellotron flutes, and so Mario kind of traced over that and did his own very interesting arrangements, sort of following what I had written on keyboard. He played it on flute and did some harmony stuff. There were contributions from singers and all kinds of stuff that’s happening. That really kind of enriched the whole thing.
I think everyone was really stoked on it once those very human textures were in there, primarily because Howard Ratner is just dripping, he’s just visceral. He’s a human. He’s a real human being. And you feel that in the film. And we wanted that to be somehow a little bit reflected in the score if we could do it.
On the Musicality of New York and the Sales Pitch of the Saxophone
There was this sort of core nucleus to the score that was Howard Ratner; he’s surrounded by all of these people, and he’s either carnival barking, trying to convince people to do things, or selling stuff, which to me sounded very soloistic. When you get a sales pitch, it’s not that different than a saxophone solo.
That busy-ness and density of talk of New York is kind of discursive sound. There’s a poetry to it, to talking, to debate, the sort of joking around and teasing each other, one upping each other and all that stuff. That, to me, is very soloistic, a kind of language of music and a sort of virtuosic language. It was fun to play with that.
This is Howard’s story, but there’s this interplay of the outside world—and it’s a busy world, a dense world. There are many, many voices and many, many superficial desires, a lot of things going on. It’s a busy, energetic world filled with people. And then there’s this sort of interior world, which is hinted at and is described kind of very beautifully at the beginning and the end of the film. And without going into detail, it’s a spiritual communion. It’s a place devoid of people blabbing on and on. And Howard is at the crossing point.
I knew that really anchored me. It had to do both of those things. It needed to have that chaos of the city and the chaos of Howard’s desires, but it had to also kind of fall back and dissipate. And all that fragmented stuff needed to get smoothed over into this other world, the spiritual world that’s teased so beautifully in the film.
I feel it’s a little bit schizophrenic in that way, that Howard’s life is a little bit compartmentalized, the way that Howard is. He has his Long Island thing and his Midtown thing. He’s trying to keep all of these pieces, trying to keep everything going. But, at the end of the day, he’s a fool, he doesn’t know how to do it, and he makes bad decisions. It doesn’t mean that his dreams are wrong or that his desire to succeed or to overcome all of these things is wrong. He’s just who he is.
I remember this moment when we were premiering Gems at Lincoln Center, watching from the side. We were about to go out for a Q and A or something like that. And Ronnie Bronstein, the writer, he could tell I was nervous. He looked at me, and he was like, “Dan, if not now, when?” And he was talking about happiness. [Laughs] He was talking about happiness and it changed my life.
Honestly, I’ve been trying to think about things that way since, because you really do have to stop being so hard on yourself about every little thing. I’m just the kind of person where even the good life stresses me out to no end. It’s like it’s not good to me. It’s like, “Oh well, good and no one else gets to have it? What does that mean?” And all this shit. But I’m trying to enjoy it.
Ronnie hit it out of the park.