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Interviews, Music

Interview: Michael Brook talks TIFF 2015, U2 connections, & digital technology

By: Tamar Faber (@Tamar07) –

Michael Brook. (Photo: Fred Jagueneau)

Michael Brook. (Photo: Fred Jagueneau)

Even though Michael Brook never planned on scoring films, he has made the best of it. From scoring films like The Fighter, Into the Wild and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to making his own solo albums, Brook is a music industry veteran, and his discography continues to grow with his new projects premiering at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Brooklyn and About Ray. He took some time out of his TIFF 2015 schedule to talk to us about collaboration, film festivals, and what movies he plans on seeing while here in Toronto.

Welcome home! You grew up in Toronto; how has the local arts scene changed?

Well, I left 30 years ago. It’s clearly evolving. When I left, I was playing in bands and things like that and that was a great thing, I thought. [There were] so many great bands and good music.

Obviously, the film industry has grown immensely – it goes up and down based on the exchange rate, I guess, but it is a pretty vibrant film scene up there!

That plays into the success of TIFF over the past couple of years. Is there anything for you that sets TIFF apart from other film festivals?

My impression is [all festivals] have their own distinct characters. I went to Sundance this year and it is kind of determinedly low-key and casual. It is in a small town. [It is] remote. When it’s on, there isn’t much else going on in that town.

As for Toronto, I [came] about 20 years ago and then about 3 years ago when I worked on a U2 film that opened. It is an incredibly professional and well-done thing. I didn’t get to see much of the festival when I was up for the U2 [film] because it was just such a tight schedule.

Well, now that you are back this year, do you have some time to explore the festival a bit? Are there any films that you’re excited to see while you’re here?

I want to see Demolition (directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and starring Jake Gyllenhaal). Someone who worked on that was telling me it is incredible. That’s the only one I know about right now. I have been pretty busy trying to get a bunch of work done. I’ll try to figure out what to do once I get there!

I can imagine that you have been busy; You composed the music for two films premiering here at TIFF (Brooklyn and About Ray). What was your creative process like while creating each score?

I don’t like to initially think about stuff too much. I like to just see what happens, if time permits. I just kind of sketch ideas without worrying about exactly where they’ll go in the film, or if they will go.

I like to write a lot of ideas really quickly, [which] are really raw and undeveloped. For me, a big part of the process is then just trying music against picture with no expectation. I think that is how you get a lot of magic, happy accidents – on a good day! A big part of my process is looking for happy accidents and then developing and exploring them.

Mory Cohen as "Tony" and Saoirse Ronan as "Eilis Lacey" in BROOKLYN, which Michael Brook scored. (Photo: Kerry Brown)

Mory Cohen as “Tony” and Saoirse Ronan as “Eilis Lacey” in Brooklyn. (Photo: Kerry Brown)

So then, experimentation plays a big role?

Yeah! If I have time, that is my favourite way to work! Also, whenever it is appropriate I like to get the director, the picture editor, or the music editor involved in the process. They will think of things that I would just never think of or, they will bring something fresh to the table that helps. When things are the source of more than one creative input I think it makes things better. Sometimes bands are better than solo artists.

Do you prefer to collaborate than work alone? What are your ideal working conditions?

I usually end up doing a bit of both, actually. I certainly highly appreciate the collaborative aspect to it.

What drew you to each of the projects premiering during TIFF?

I think the thing they both have in common is often something that I’m attracted to [which is] the emotions are not really black and white, sort of like real life. Sometimes a good person will do a bad thing or make a mistake. It’s not like there is a hero and a villain. [Both films are] emotionally nuanced and more complex than a lot of films, and I like that complexity and ambiguity in film, and actually, in any form of art.

Are they different from the typical “Hollywood narratives”?

The sort of cliché Hollywood films, when they’re good, they just push all those buttons and it feels great and you can really enjoy it. It’s kind of like going to a really good steakhouse: they do a really good job at making a steak and a baked potato but sometimes you just want something that isn’t that.

You’ve been nominated for both a Grammy, and a Golden Globe, does that kind of recognition change the way you approach your work?

I don’t think so. Those are things that bring my work to the attention of other people who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise, so in that sense they’re good! But I think that they didn’t change much about what I do or how I do it.

Is there a pressure to live up to some kind of expectation and does that change the way you approach your work?

Well, yeah, it does. It’s not necessarily about award nominations but more about wanting to do something you feel good about, and doing something you would like yourself. You know, you can’t always achieve that, but it’s a great thing when you do.

How has digital technology impacted your creative process? Does the abundance of technology benefit or hinder you?

Yes *pauses*. Both *laughs*. [Digital technology has affected the field] in a few different ways. It really makes it very possible to collaborate over great distances now. Sometimes I’ll work with filmmakers I never meet. Also, I’ll collaborate with people who are working with me [but] we don’t have to be in the same building. I think that those are the good things.

I think maybe the not-so-good thing is that, in a way, the production process used to inherently involve points where you had to stop making changes; you had to get the prints of the films made so they could go into cinemas. Now, that whole process is in complete fluidity up until the very last second. Sometimes, I think constraints can be creatively helpful. I think that it may help people to know: “okay, I’ve got to get this part of it done by this time, or else it just won’t come out.” This process has been moved significantly and it’s kind of all one thing up until the very last moment.

I think for some filmmakers, this hasn’t made any difference and I think some were helped by the fact that they had some sort of staggered deadline.

(L-R) Elle Fanning, Naomi Watts, and Susan Sarandon star in About Ray, which Michael Brook scored. (Photo: George Nicholis)

(L-R) Elle Fanning, Naomi Watts, and Susan Sarandon star in About Ray. (Photo: George Nicholis)

You have worked on so many different kinds of movies from documentaries to dramas, when you entered this field, did you envision yourself composing for all kinds of films and do you have a favourite kind of film to score?

I didn’t really plan on getting involved in film; my basic plan was that I wanted to earn a living making music. I used to be much more involved in the album and touring side of things but the kind of music I worked on, that part of the music industry, has basically disappeared. I always enjoyed when I get to a bit of each one of those things, including film. I just sort of started transitioning into film as a bigger part of what I do. It wasn’t a goal, it was just something I liked doing and when the opportunity came to do more of it, I took it.

You have also made several solo albums – and worked in the music industry, as you mentioned. So, what are the main differences between how you make music on an album (strictly auditory) and film music (a visual aspect included)?

I think one of the big differences is that often, successful film music is incomplete as music. It is something that, when combined with picture, gives you a complete experience. A lot of film music sounds great, but some of it that is equally good as a score, might not sustain your interest as a piece of music. It might not feel finished. That’s a big thing.

The other thing is that working on a film might be closer to what it used to feel like for composers who wrote music for a patron… like the King or the Pope when he would say: “write me a piece for my daughter’s birthday!” Usually the director (or the producer) is closer to a patron in that you are writing music that they have to approve. So you can either re-write it if they don’t approve, or convince them to approve it.

Since this is a creative process, and people may feel deeply connected to the work, do emotions or ego get in the way?

One challenge that a lot of film composers deal with is called: “Temp Love.” While the filmmakers are working on a film or editing, they are going to throw music in just because you can’t watch a film without music. Sometimes, they have lived with this music for so long that it seems like anintegral part of that film. When the composer then comes in, it feels like the composer’s music is never going to be the same. That’s called: “Temp Love.” That can be when there is an emotional attachment to something that can hinder the creative process and can hinder the quality of the score.

I always try to get a director to listen to a piece of music twice. This is because the first time, they are inherently paying attention to the fact that it isn’t the same music they have had there for the last two months. Then, the second time through, maybe they will focus on it as a piece of music and how it relates to the film.

You have several U2 connections, including working with The Edge on the 1986 soundtrack for “Captive”, and working with Brian Eno and Danie lLanois in the mid-1980s, what was collaborating with them like? Is there anyone else you’ve enjoyed collaborating with?

I learned a lot from Brian [Eno] about how, and its cliché to say it now, but at the time he was initially saying that the recording studio is much more of a compositional tool than a place for you to document musicians performing. It’s a creative procedure.

I think, in terms of collaborating with people in general, I really wish I could do it more. It’s challenging because you have to give up a bit of serenity over your own ideas. At the same time, there is almost always an enrichment that happens that cannot happen from one person’s mind. That is something I really appreciate about the film process. For example in Brooklyn (2015), the film would have absolutely been different if John Crowley, the director, hadn’t been a big part in developing the music and experimenting and seeing where it took us and so on.

What kind of music, and which artists/songs have you been listening to lately? Where do you find music online, and in Toronto? 

I’ve mostly been listening to The Beatles; when I am picking up my son from school or we are going for a ride that’s what he wants to listen to. That’s been great. But that is not new! I find it really difficult to find new music. I am kind of excited about this Apple thing with iTunes where you just subscribe to it [Apple Music/ Radio]. But it is difficult and sometimes I will go a couple of years where I don’t find anything new I want to listen to.

So where do you draw inspiration from, musically?

Oh, I love Ennio Morricone, I think he’s incredible. It’s probably old now, but I like the Missy Elliot stuff a lot. Have you heard anything new and exciting recently?

Well, I am into hip-hop, and I find that Kendrick Lamar does an amazing job at painting a picture – rapping to music while at the same time creating a full experience of his life for his listeners.

Kendrick Lamar. Okay.

Lastly, any projects coming up in the future that you can talk to us about?

Yeah, there are a bunch of things we’re kind of sniffing around. I can’t say anything right now but potentially very exciting stuff. If I could tell you stuff, I would!



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