Moviegoers rarely pay attention to the melodious movements dancing behind their favorite scenes.
Whether it’s a two instrument harmony stepping through the dialogue or a big symphonic theme painting in a new location, directors use composers as emotional tour guides for their stories. But just like their contributions, composers are often overlooked when it comes to a film’s celebration.
So for 2015, we wanted to get to know about some of the music behind the festival.
On a wooden bench near the top of Park City’s historic Main Street, we caught up with Zack Ryan, composer of one of this year’s entries, “I Smile Back.”
“I love Park City,” Ryan told Utah.Film on a brisk Monday morning. “I’ve never skied in my life. I’ve spent no time in any ski resort town. It’s beautiful. I love it. I think it’s got such a great vibe.”
Ryan’s thick, disheveled hair and casual dark hoodie suggested he’d awoken only a few minutes before the interview, but his demeanor said otherwise. He was gracious, quick to smile and excited to talk about his involvement with director Adam Salky’s latest project.
“I was brought on board by the two producers, Brian Koppelman and David Levien. I had worked with them on an ESPN ’30 for 30’ documentary they’d directed about a year-and-a-half ago. I was introduced to them by a mutual friend, and they brought me on board, introduced me to Adam Salky, the director, and we had a good conversation about the project.”
“I Smile Back,” based on Amy Koppelman’s novel of the same name, explores the darker, inner-musings of a suburban housewife, and represents comedian Sarah Silverman’s first work as a dramatic actress. Because of several of the film’s themes, Salky required a unique sound for his story, and met with Ryan early on to discuss his vision.
“He came over because it’s not a traditional score. It’s not violins and flutes, or a lot of recognizable sound sources. We developed a lot of the sounds together, finally settling on using a heavily processed version of a celeste, which is this childlike-sounding, music-box type of keyboard.
“It might sound like an overly intellectualized approach,” Ryan continued, “but there are themes throughout that deal with the way her childhood affected who she is as an adult. In that way, using the celeste seemed appropriate. It was gentle enough, where we weren’t being overbearing emotionally. It’s a very delicate movie in that way.”
While Ryan had access to an almost completed film through most of his process, occasionally Salky would need to add dialogue to a scene, so Tamara Meem, the film’s editor, or Salky would call Ryan and read lines over the phone in place of the actors.
It wasn’t until Sunday’s premiere that he was able to see the movie with the completed sound edit in place.
“I finally got to see it with all the correct voices, with all the sound effects. That in an almost subconscious way immerses you more into the movie.You hear the car horn when you’re supposed to. You hear the door shut when you’re supposed to. Everything’s in place.
“It was surprising that I was able to sit back and just watch it and enjoy it. I was very happy with how it all came out, and I think the audience was, too.”
On the topic of advice for aspiring composers, Ryan, a Berklee alumnus, explained that technology has changed music and film in a dramatic way and that going a traditional route, like he did, may not be the best way for everyone.
“I think it’s like Malcolm Gladwell said, ten thousand hours to master anything.
“If you’re a musician, I would say, wherever there is a film school, go throw flyers up saying you’re available to write original music for student projects. You’ll learn so much working on short films. Being stylistically versatile is incredibly important to becoming a working composer. Anything you can do to get experience in different genres, different styles of music, is going to be hugely beneficial.
If you’re not near a film school. You can still be working on stuff that can be seen all over the world.You can work totally remotely now, especially now with people who make web series, they make YouTube videos, and do stuff in the new media world. I think it’s a great opportunity for younger, aspiring composers to jump on board, because you can now take geography out of the equation.”
Ryan’s work-hard-wherever-you-are philosophy became evident when after our interview, he confessed he was heading back to work. Even the ski slopes of Park City couldn’t keep him from his music.