An exploration of ambience: composing the film score for "Verbatim: The Ferguson Case."
Last June, I met Brett Weiner at the PT Barnum Awards, an annual event that honors Tufts University alumni who have excelled in the Entertainment Industry. Brett was among a number of young Tufts graduates whose work was showcased for that event. His film Verbatim, which took the transcript of a deposition in which a lawyer tried desperately to get an office manager to admit that in fact, there was a copying machine in the office, and cast actors in the roles, was gut-wrenchingly hilarious. I introduced myself Brett afterwards. He was planning another Verbatim film for the New York Times’ Op Docs series – this next one would require an underscore.
The new film, Verbatim: The Ferguson Case would use transcripts of the grand jury testimony of Darren Wilson, the policeman who killed Michael Brown, and of Dorian Johnson, Brown’s friend who saw him die to provide the script.
Brett liked the samples of my work I sent him. He sent me back some music cues that he felt reflected the approach he wanted to take in this next film. There were a few electronic cues that Mark Isham composed for American Crime Masters, as well as a slow, haunting Gorecki string quartet, and finally, a slow-building electric guitar drone by This Will Destroy You that was used in the Foxcatcher score.
I suspect that a lot of directors and producers, when seeking a composer, look for someone who has written the exact kind of music they want to hear in their film. I propose that a production is better served with a composer who is versatile who knows how to use music to accommodate a director’s vision. Hearing examples of what Brett had in mind was very helpful for me. A lot of what I’ve scored called for a much more active score – one that helps to tell a story. With this Verbatim film, I would be called upon to use a different approach than what I’m accustomed to. As an artist, the greatest creative opportunities are those that require you to stretch – to explore new territory.
An underscore can be a tool of manipulation. A composer can use those elements in his palette; harmonic and rhythmic tension; to influence the sympathies of the viewer. With Verbatim: The Ferguson Case, Brett was striving for a kind of objectivity – both the cop and the witness had very different accounts of what transpired around Michael Brown’s death. Brett didn’t want to sway the audience either way. He wanted a very ambient score from me. My music could comment on the emotions that led to this young man’s death without assigning blame.
I was determined not to use any synthesis to achieve this. I’m not someone who particularly responds to electronic music. Of course I have a sample library that I use to generate temp tracks so a director can hear what I have in mind and witness that I’ve hit all the obligations of a scene. But these are orchestral samples, and they fall short of the incredible alchemy that happens when you get live acoustic musicians to record the music in the studio. There is something urgent and emotionally engaging that a live instrument can do that I just can’t achieve when the computer plays back my work.
My idea was to score this film for piano, a string octet (2/2/2/2) and a contrabass. Writing for very small string ensembles is very different than writing for large sections of string players. There’s an extreme amount of variability that each individual player generates from the act of dragging a bow across strings. When you have 16 first violinists doing this simultaneously, the irregularities are ironed out and the result is a very satisfying wash – the tone is pure and full in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself.
When writing for a very small ensemble of strings, you want to write much more transparently. You don’t have the liberty of having at least 3 players on a line to even it out. You’re writing for a group of soloists.
Some of the tricks I employed were those we explored when Conrad Pope and I were orchestrating for Mark Isham from 2006-2011. In response to shrinking music budgets, Mark was having us orchestrate for much smaller string sections. Two scores of his in particular, Lions for Lambs and The Valley of Elah use this approach. In order to reinforce particular tones, we’d use natural harmonics on the contrabass. If the harmony only calls for 4 pitches, then, only 4 instruments would play the chord – there would be no unnecessary doubling of a pitch unless each player was doing something different with it – for example, one player sustaining the note and the other player on that same note, only bowing tremolo.
For the opening cue of Verbatim: The Ferguson Case, I had all the strings playing the open G string – some on natural harmonics. Of course there could be no vibrato on all these open strings. The result was haunting and reminiscent of a bagpipe drone.
There are a number of short cues in the film that are mostly just pads. They owe their existence to the film’s use of text cards that inform the viewer of facts that aren’t in the testimony. Brett wanted underscore to frame this text.
The three cues I wrote for the climax of the piece, when both Darren Wilson and Dorian Johnson describe Michael Brown’s death, required more. I wanted to convey the tension that both men felt, even while not judging their accounts. For one cue, M4 “Struggle” I had one viola and one cello playing a tremolo on the same pitch – the D below middle C. When one instrument would be playing normale (bowing between the bridge and the fingerboard) the other would be bowing sul ponticello (right next to the bridge – which generates a much richer series of harmonic overtones). The two players would gradually slide their bows between these two positions to create ongoing feeling of harmonic shifting even as one low note was being sustained.
One contrabass playing a pulsing figure pizzicato is a really big, powerful sound. I didn’t need electronic percussion here. It was like the very large gran cassa bass drum conveying the heartbeat of a terrified person, only, with a discernable pitch.
When Brett and I met a week after we’d spotted the film, so I could play him what I had written, he had me strip some of the cues down even further – paring back some of the melodic elements (which I got to use in the End Credits). Composing for film is a “people pleasing” business. The idea is to use your grasp of your medium to help a director achieve his vision. It’s an art of accommodation. You want to give the film what it needs. Sometimes, a director’s inclination runs afoul of your own strong sense of that. You then have to thread the needle to find a way to both support the director’s request and also make it work within your own understanding of how music works with film.
Fortunately for me, Brett Weiner is very good at communicating exactly what it is he needs. He was very specific, which made my job a lot easier. I was able to make the changes he called for. He was very pleased when he finally got to hear live instruments playing the cues I’d written at the session. And we even had enough time that day for me to record my own versions of two of the cues for my reel.
And now, Verbatim: The Ferguson Case is going to Sundance. It’s very gratifying to work on good projects. For me, there’s something particularly satisfying about having a chance to contribute to something that helps generate a much-needed debate. We are at a critical juncture in America on the issues of Racism. We are seeing a preponderance of young, unarmed African Americans being gunned down by police. I’m so grateful to have had a chance to work on a film that explores this urgent issue and provokes us to look deep into ourselves and our society for ways to change for the better.