Sundance Interview with: Dan Romer

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Dan Romer is an award-winning music producer and film composer. In 2011, he and Benh Zeitlin scored the feature Beasts of the Southern Wild [2012, dir. Zeitlin], which went on to four Academy Award nominations, including Best Motion Picture of the Year. In 2015, the song “Say Something” by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera, which Dan Romer produced, was awarded the Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. He also composed the scores for two films that had their World Premieres at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival: Finders Keepers, directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel; and Digging for Fire, directed by Joe Swanberg and co-written by Swanberg and Jake Johnson. Finders Keepers and Digging for Fire have been picked up by The Orchard for theatrical and On Demand distribution later in 2015. At Sundance to support both films, Dan Romer spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about his new work as a film composer, the acclaim he’s received as a pop music producer, and collaborating with Sundance scions. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.

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Sean Malin: I know you primarily as a film composer, but you’ve also worked as a recording engineer for years now. Where did you study to become an engineer?

Dan Romer: I didn’t actually study sound engineering – I went to school for pop music arranging. I got my undergraduate degree in pop arranging at SUNY Purchase and was on the path to getting my Master’s in pop songwriting, but I failed film scoring, so I never got the degree.

SM: *Laughs* How does someone like you fail film scoring, exactly?

DR: I just didn’t show up.

SM: Why, because you felt like you already knew what you were doing by that time?

DR: No, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at that time. There was a point where the professor just said, “Listen, start coming to class so you can at least pass.” But then I started working on the first film I ever scored, Death to the Tinman [2007, dir. Ray Tintori], which ate up all of my time. I really meant to make it to that class so that I could pass and get my Master’s; I even went to the professor and said “The reason I couldn’t make it to class is that I’m scoring this film. Can I just turn in the film as my final project?” But she told me it was too late by then – and to this day, I still don’t have the degree.

SM: So you failed. Then Mr. Tintori’s film plays at Sundance [where it was given an Honorable Mention for Short Filmmaking Award] and suddenly you’re a working film composer, right?

DR: Well, yeah, but I hadn’t actually considered film scoring as a possible career choice until after I did Beasts of the Southern Wild. I never intended to do film scoring – I intended to be a rock singer. I wanted to be on stage, waving my arms and screaming. Even now, I would say I’m doing about half film scoring, half pop music production.

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SM: Beasts was made by a collective, Court 13, of which you are not a member. How did you wind up working on that film?

DR: When I was seven years old, I was living in Park Slope and going to PS 321. I had this friend named Ray Tintori who lived in the same area and would later go on to do special effects on Beasts. In high school, Ray and I were in a few bands together. We started one called Phantoms that consisted of me on keys, Ray on bongos.

SM: At that age, were you being classically trained? I was a piano and keyboard player in childhood, but I stunk at it. I imagine you had innate skill with it.

DR: I was in Voice Training at LaGuardia [High School of Music & Arts.] That’s where I became obsessed with Bach, which is really useful for learning how to create four-part harmonies for string arranging. But I’ve never been much of a classical piano player myself, actually. I’m much better at reading midi than sheet music. The way I do my pianos now when I’m scoring is that I put my laptop next to my piano, I control the ProTools rig through the laptop with the midi sitting there so I can just reach over and program it.

SM: Your music incorporates a lot of synth and keyboard work, which was so big in film and on the radio when you were growing up with Moroder, Faltermeyer, Vangelis, etc. When did you know you wanted to be a pop musician?

DR: I probably knew by the time I was ten-years-old. The Who’s Tommy [1969] made me want to write pop music.

SM: Do you have your own recording studio?

DR: I live in a house with two other composer/producer/songwriters, so we share a studio there.

SM: Anyway, as you were saying, you were seven years old…

DR: Phantoms was the band. Me on keys, Ray on bongos, and Josh Penn was the singer.

SM: The Oscar-nominated producer of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Josh Penn?

DR: Singing and writing our lyrics. I’ve been friends with Josh since I was eight and we were on a baseball team together. He’s around Sundance now, too [as producer of Western, dirs. Bill and Turner Ross]. Still one of my best friends in the world, like Ray. Ray’s parents were in the film industry: his father, John Tintori, is the former head of the NYU film program [at Tisch School of the Arts], and his mother’s an incredible script supervisor. So Ray was growing up in that world, making films on his camcorder, while I’m making music. When we went to college, we didn’t talk much – he went to Wesleyan, and I was at Purchase.

SM: The whole legend of the Court 13 folks begins at Wesleyan. Were you visiting your friends there while you were at SUNY?

DR: Once in a while. I was in a band then called Fire Flies that would play at Wesleyan from time-to-time. We went Top 40 in Germany but we didn’t make much of a dent here. Still, it was the most serious band I’ve ever been in. Ray was doing his thesis film [as Fire Flies was touring] and he called me saying “Hey, I need some music for this film.” I told him I had never scored a film before; I just made pop music at that point, although I had already been using a lot of string quartets in my arrangements because of my training at LaGuardia. So Ray tells me he’s got a friend named Benh Zeitlin who can’t really play music by himself yet but who could definitely direct me musically. Originally, on that film, I think Benh was listed as the “music director”, but we’ve agreed since that whenever we work together, we’re co-composers. It doesn’t matter who does what after a certain point. We were both about twenty-two at that point and I think we have taught each other a lot since then.

SM: Since you decided to collaborate on Mr. Tintori’s thesis film.

DR: We scored Death to the Tinman and it got into Sundance.

SM: Right after which [Mr. Zeitlin] went to work on his short, Glory at Sea [2008]. Did you score that as well?

DR: I did.

SM: Even so recently in the past, short films were still getting pretty short shrift in terms of public attention. Did these projects get you any notice as a composer?

DR: At that time, I was getting much more recognition as a pop producer, and arguably I still am. More people certainly know “Say Something” than the Beasts of the Southern Wild score.

SM: Nonetheless, Mr. Tintori’s and Mr. Zeitlin’s films put you into the world of film scoring. Composing for movies can be extremely taxing. Was that work that you enjoyed doing?

DR: It is taxing but I absolutely loved it. If you care about something, it’s all taxing. The guys who made a doc I scored called Tomorrow We Disappear [2014], Adam [M. Weber] and Jim [Goldblum], actually hired me based on my work on Glory. We had never met before then. Now Adam and I are working on a script together, but we had been in talks to work together even before Beasts came out.

SM: How soon after working with Tintori and Zeitlin did you start to feel like this could become your path?

DR: I did Ray’s film, I did Glory, then Beasts; and I also did a short with [dir.] Cary Fukunaga, who had worked on Glory, called Sleepwalking in the Rift [2012] right after that.

SM: Small world, it seems.

DR: He’s a great dude. When I took that project, I was in a place where all I was interested in doing was working on cool projects. I’m still in that place. Whether someone wants me to score their film or produce their record, it just needs to be something great for me to do it. I recently produced a record by this band Jukebox the Ghost simply because I knew [the record, Jukebox the Ghost] would be good. And now, they’ve just played on Conan.

SM: You’ve proven yourself as a producer of synth-pop and dance music at this point. In terms of musical style, being a film composer requires significant flexibility – you can’t only be doing what Harold Faltermeyer did in the ‘80s, and neither could Faltermeyer for the record. When did you start to realize you had to expand your capacity in order to start locking down jobs that required a wider musical vocabulary?

DR: It’s happening now and over these last couple years. As a composer, there’s a big rush around August for films finishing up that need music to apply for Sundance. The offers come in and you basically select the films you think are the best to work on. I don’t expect that more than one, if any, of those projects will necessarily get into the festival. Sometimes you have one that gets in, one that doesn’t, and you make the Sundance-bound one your priority while the other film hopes to get into SXSW. But suddenly last year, I was put into a position where two of them got in, and they both became “priority.”

SM: So that means you were composing these projects at the same time?

DR: Back-and-forth – in fact, for a period of time, I was writing and recording one during the day and the other in the evening. The projects I had at the festival are very different. [Joe Swanberg’s] Digging for Fire has a mostly synth-pop score; Finders Keepers has a more rootsy, Appalachian score. I had a co-composer on [the latter], Osei Essed [The Last Season, Glory at Sea], who I used to be in a bluegrass/rootsy band with. On that score, he plays guitar, dobro, mandolin, and upright bass, and I’m on piano, banjo, some percussion, and a little guitar as well.

SM: Mr. Swanberg has taken film back to a cultural moment of independence in the style of John Cassavetes in his work. He tends to be very flexible about what he’s looking for and what he’ll get even if he’s working on 16mm film or with a microbudget. When he approached you for Digging for Fire, what was he looking for from your score?

DR: We did two completely different scores at the same time. Originally, he suggested we try a big, John Williams-y, Hollywood-type score, something large and gorgeous, which we did. He was totally into it and was showing it to people, but they were coming back to him and saying, “Joe, this doesn’t feel like a ‘Joe Swanberg film.’” It felt weird. So Joe came to my studio in Los Angeles and suggested we start looking at new sounds to see what kind of stuff worked. At some point, I started pulling out some Juno synth stuff and he went “Yes, that’s the stuff we need.” So I wrote a track based on a quarter loop that changes based on what’s happening onscreen, rather than a traditional score.

SM: Did you go solo on that score since it was your second time around with it?

DR: I do some gibberish vocals on it. My friend Saul Simon MacWilliams [Beasts of the Southern Wild] and an amazing up-and-coming band from L.A., Riot Horse Royale, which is Emily Greene and Madi Diaz, are on it. The four of us all do some singing but you don’t hear the vocals until the final scene.

SM: It will be fascinating to see how a score changes the impact of a Swanberg project. His films have always avoided this kind of dramatis and grandiosity that overcomes so many earnest indies. As a filmmaker he seems to have an almost preternatural sense of calm.

DR: Even though this is his first time using a composer, he was so easy to work with. He was the kindest, most supportive guy…it was an amazing experience. We met at a Super Bowl party five years ago or so, and Ray introduced us. Ray says, “Joe, this is Dan, the composer who’s been working with Court 13. Dan, this is Joe – he’s an epochal filmmaker.” What I heard was, “This is Joe – he’s an apocalyptic filmmaker.” So for the next twenty minutes I went on a rant about Armaggedon [1998, dir. Michael Bay] and Independence Day [1996, dir. Roland Emmerich.] Eventually, Joe asked, “Why did we start talking about these films?” And I said, “Because Ray told me you were an apocalyptic filmmaker.” That’s when he told me that Ray had actually said “epochal filmmaker.” I was very embarrassed.

SM: Swanberg’s film is a thriller, and I just saw another Sundance film, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows [2014], that uses dulcimer tones and synth-scoring by Disasterpeace to create psychological unease in the viewer. It’s an old-school trope and your score will be part of that horror-thriller lineage in cinema. Did you study other movies actively in the process of composing?

DR: The less I know about a particular genre beforehand, the more excited I am to do it, especially if I’ve never done it before. I’ve seen many Swanberg films before, but I knew he wanted to do something different with Digging for Fire. Otherwise he would have just gotten pop songs – and there are pop songs in the film thanks to the music supervisor Chris Swanson, whose work is awesome. He’s got five films at the festival at the moment.

SM: The differences as a composer between making Appalachian music, a thrilling synth score, and radio pop for wide consumption are significant. Is there bleed over from project to project for you?

DR: I’m of the belief that there’s bleed over for every project, no matter what.

SM: How extreme is that bleed over? Do you have any particular examples?

DR: None specifically, but as a composer, your job is to just let your brain go and then you start to pick patterns out of the randomness. You can’t really take credit for thinking of your ideas; you can only take credit for thinking their good ideas and for using the best patterns that come to you. I don’t know how it happens but if you listen to the Beasts of the Southern Wild soundtrack and then to “Say Something” or [Ingrid Michael’s song ft. A Great Big World] “Over You” right after, you’re going to hear a lot of the same things. A lot of whole-note motion, a lot of similar voicings. It just happens.

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