By: Jessica Nakamoto –
The basis of any good story is a sprinkle of truth. And in the case of film drama, What They Had, this was certainly the case. Arriving in theatres today (Oct 19th), the strikingly realistic family tale draws inspiration from first-time director, Elizabeth Chomko’s, personal story of dealing with the effects that Alzheimer’s leaves on not only those with the disease, but the loved ones surrounding them. A powerful tale peppered with family tensions, strong emotions, and a surplus of love, the film is a cinematic feat in many regards.
And, in charge of one of the most important aspects of bringing these on-screen events to life was London-based composer Danny Mulhern. While crafting the score for such a heartfelt production presented difficulties, the challenge appeared to be something that Mulhern, tapping into the notion of musical intimacy, mastered with ease. Together with a refreshing amount of creative license from Chomko and access to the talents of the acclaimed London Contemporary Orchestra, Mulhern produced a score reflective of the ups and downs, levity and humor, and overall humbling beauty of an individual story of family dynamics.
Before the film makes its official appearance in theaters throughout the U.S., we had the pleasure of caching up with Danny and getting the inside scoop on his experience composing such an emotional score, working with the London Contemporary Orchestra, and more!
The movie premiered at both the Sundance and the Toronto International film festivals and I heard it was your first time at Sundance for a film! That must have been so exciting!
Yes! My first time at Sundance for a film. It was super exciting! Freezing cold, but a really nice atmosphere there. It’s funny, the weather seems to create an informal atmosphere because you can’t wear anything other than super warm coats and clothes! (laughs) Even the premiers have this sort of informal vibe to them, which is really nice.
That’s excellent! As someone who’s now attended events such as these, what do you think are some of the biggest positives or takeaways from these types of gatherings?
The best thing is getting to hang out with the director and other people on the film who I didn’t get to meet because I was working [on What They Had] in England. So, getting to meet Elizabeth Chomko, the director, was fab! (laughs) I got to hang out with her for a bit.
The score didn’t take long to write. I think it was about three and a half, four weeks. It was really like a race at the end. And she was great! We managed to meet up in Sundance for the first time and that was good!
But also, meeting a load of other composers as well, some whom I also saw in Toronto and even at one of the premiers here in L.A. Having this sense of community with composers that are working on films and going around has been a lovely thing which I just wasn’t expecting.
How did you first get involved in composing the score for What They Had?
The amazing Mary Ramos, who was the music supervisor on the film, reached out to Decca who put out my [album] work. 1631 Recordings, which is a neo-classical label in Sweden, are published by Decca Publishing and have a bunch of amazing people. Arbel [Bedak] from Decca put me forward to the director, Elizabeth. She was apparently kind of gunning for me once she heard the music, which was a big compliment for me putting out those records! (laughs) It was a nice validation.
Elizabeth sent over the film and it really moved me. So, I immediately went into the studio and tried to come up with something that would capture what I was feeling. Then, she phoned me for the first time when I was at the piano and we had a really nice chat!
Going back to my records, it was on the back where Elizabeth heard some pieces. She loved a piece called “Departure”. It wasn’t right for the film, but we did end up using one from the same album called, “Held Together With String”. It ended up in one of the key scenes!
This was a really good guide for what the music should be like for the rest of the film as well. Elizabeth just said, “I love what you do, so please do that”. It was lovely freedom.
It’s actually the best job I’ve ever had! I’ve done a lot of television, for about 20 years, but this is easily the best job creatively. It’s beautiful!
Given the film was drawn from her own experience, did Elizabeth ever provide personal insight behind certain scenes for you to draw inspiration from, or was the score complete creative freedom?
It’s a bit of both actually. I’d say broadly, it was creative freedom. But inevitably, there are tricky scenes. And she was fantastic at guiding me through those!
There’s one really beautiful scene between Hilary Swank and Blythe Danner in the shower. It’s this sort of intimate scene and I couldn’t nail that at all. Elizabeth really had my back and gave me some great talks about the motivations behind the scene. I got that, and I’m really pleased with that cue now. It’s really nice!
Initially, we had a spotting session, which is when the music supervisor, composer and director sit down. We did that over Skype and decided where each piece of music was going to go throughout the film and what the motivations behind them were. I took a lot of notes during that session and that was super helpful as well.
It turns out that Elizabeth is also a composer! I didn’t realize until sort of half-way through the film and because I don’t think she wanted to step on that. She was really humble about absolutely everything, even though she’s super talented!
I think it really did help in terms of a bit of empathy for me and what I was going through because she’s a musician herself. She’s never composed a film as far as I know, but it just meant her dialogue with me was good.
You had mentioned the beauty of some intimate moments on What They Had. One thing that I really love about the film is that it has both this very emotional sense but also includes moments of lightness and humor.
As a composer, how do you approach a project that involves this emotional range of feelings?
That’s a good question! I was really worried about being too heavy-handed. The cast is so brilliant and the film has quite a real quality. I’m really pleased you like it! They had such chemistry!
I’d say the film is two halves. The first half, I had to be very delicate and have this kind of subliminal work, capturing the complexity of underlying tensions and stuff like that. And then, later on in the film, when things open out a bit more, the score gets a chance to breathe. There’s more of an outlet of emotion at the end where the score could then come to the fore a little bit more.
It was a bit of a tight-rope walk there. I was very concerned about being too heavy-handed. Thankfully, Elizabeth is so intelligent as you can tell from the script. A film having an Alzheimer’s sufferer in it could be a little bit like, “oh God…I really don’t want to watch that!” (laughs) But, there’s so much levity in it and so much universal family stuff. You don’t have to have experienced dementia or anything because the family element is so recognizable; the roles you fill as children when you go back to see your parents and things like that. It all felt quite real. And also funny! There’s a lot of funny bits in it I thought.
Given this atmosphere of the film, were there any instruments that you knew you wanted to specifically use or even avoid for the composition?
Yes! I wanted to keep it super intimate. Elizabeth used a really good word. She said, it’s got this “home-spun” vibe. Just like the music that she liked of mine, the film had this feel as well.
You’ve got the felt practice pedal down on the piano and it’s really closely miked, so you can hear every little creak of the keys to indicate the intimacy. Stuff like that. I didn’t want it to get too big. I didn’t want to have too many players in the orchestra until the end. There’s a chamber ensemble at the end, and that’s as big as it gets! For the most part, I just wanted to keep it intimate.
The sort of standout cue for me is probably deciding to use two French horn players during one of the scenes. It was quite a long cue and an emotional turning point in the film. Hearing horns for the first time seemed to really suit that scene. And the way Elizabeth mixed it, her musical sensibilities are wonderful! She actually took the piano almost completely out and I love it! You can hear the horn players breathing and you can hear the click of the keys on the horns. It’s so intimate and I’m pleased with that. The decision to use a horn when it had only been piano so far was quite nice.
I should also say some things about the London Contemporary Orchestra who I’ve had a relationship with on my records. I brought them onto this film and they’re just fabulous! Being open-minded when adding improvisations, that’s usually where the best stuff comes from! So, we did a little bit of that, which I managed to get into the film in some places.
Do you think working with such a talented group like the London Contemporary Orchestra puts you into a different mindset as a composer?
Yes, I think so! It was a revelation to me to work with them for the first time on a short film about three years ago. I booked this session at a really expensive studio in London. And it turned out, the film I worked on with them hardly needed any music! (laughs) I had all this time booked with these people! (Jokes) It was terrifying! So, I brought piano improvisations I’d done to the studio and then laid out these slightly controlled, random, instructions for them.
Once we recorded the score, there was all this time left, so we did that. It just blew me away! It’s almost like you’re hearing your own music for the first time. You can then ask them, “oh, that’s good! Can we do more of that here? More of that there?” It’s just an amazing way to work!
Since then, I’ve used this process of getting all of the pieces of music recorded as written, going back in the afternoon to have an improvisation session across those same cues, and then, deciding to use bits and bobs of that later on. It always adds something interesting and “other” about it. I just love working with them, for that!
Did any of those original moments or pieces from the extra time ever make it into one of your albums?
Absolutely! There’s an EP called Metanoia, which has a song called, “The Last Piece of Summer”. That’s from the very first session that I ever had with them. Also, there’s one called “Safe House” on my Safe House EP, which is also from that very first session.
I was like, “oh my God!” (laughs) Those pieces are actually piano improvs and I ended up just using the strings and harp! I took the piano out because having them playing on their own across this improv piano sounded nice. Those pieces survived on the EP’s.
I had two or three sessions after that first one to record tracks with them in the same way we did for those EP’s and albums.
What originally inspired you to do album work, outside of say film and T.V. compositions?
It was having done a lot of television. I’d been writing T.V. for almost 20 years and I was getting to the point where I was saying “yes” to every job and being this guy who was just composing to deadlines. Partly because I had a new family. I had a baby and I thought, “I must work!” (laughs)
Then, I got to a point where I was like, “hang on, do I like any of the music I’m writing for this? Do I like some of the shows I’m working on?” It was a real feeling and I almost may as well have been doing something else because I wasn’t feeling connected to my music anymore.
That was the key really, to have a little break from T.V., make my stuff, and feel connected. I got a new piano and started listening to some really unusual, interesting, and immense world of amazing contemporary classical and electronic music which I’m still loving. Doing that, I set myself on a journey which helped me bridge to music again and sprouted the relationship with the L.C.O. And then, on the back of that, I got this film! So, it’s kind of all validation for really trying to connect to your art again rather than just bashing out music for money.
It sounds like a really good breath of fresh air then, for you to do this film which was so emotional and so intimate.
Yeah, absolutely! I think myself and Elizabeth must have pretty much cried every time we spoke! (laughs) I think it was so hard for her and the music obviously wasn’t there until right at the last-minute. She was worried. Was it going to be any good? It must have been a thought process being a first-time writer-director. And it was a low-budget, independent film.
I’m just so honored and amazed that it worked out and she liked what I did! It was an emotional experience because it is about her family and it meant so much to her. And, it’s validation for me on the back of my records. She didn’t have to pick me. She could have gone with someone more well-known than me and she didn’t. That meant so much. It felt like such a kindred spirit, that relationship with the director. So, I think the first time we saw each other in Sundance, we almost cried! (laughs)
It was bad, (jokes) it was a premiere with lots of photographs and stuff! She said, I can’t cry today! (laughs) It was a fun emotional experience.
For sure! Well, like Elizabeth, I really do enjoy your composition and the neo-classical and electronic bits that you incorporate into your music. What drew you to this sound versus something maybe a little more traditional?
Good question! I think it’s being influenced by other people’s records. I was a big fan of Johann Johannsson, his music, his records, as well as his film scores. They have the utmost integrity. I saw that as a really good way to sort of steer my career if I could, in any way, emulate that. Work on big films, but also keep your art. Keep your integrity. I love his music, his blending and electronics.
Also, people like Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka [Volker Bertelmann], who were doing film scores here and there, but also working on their own music. That was very attractive to me, to sort of have this cinematic ability as well as your own art.
So, it was really other artists who inspired me. And discovering things! The new way I’ve been listening to music, Apple Music and creative playlists, has been a bit of a revelation in the way you can just go on these big voyages of discovery over the course of a few hours and then, suddenly, you’ve got all these new artists you love! That’s one of the plus points of technology these days. You can immerse yourself in inspiration really.
Oh, and people like Mica Levi, who did the Jackie soundtrack. She’s also a brilliant electronic and contemporary artist. I do quite like the experimental side of things more because it sort of perks up your ears I think.
I agree! It’s really cool that we’re having this movement, almost, of people skewing towards the electronic side, pushing themselves, and branching out. I think it’s very neat.
Yeah definitely! And, it seems to have taken ages from the dawn of electronic music. It feels like people have tried to combine classical instruments with electronics for so long and it’s only now that people have hit upon a sort of blend which seems to be resonating with people.
I find that very interesting because there were all these attempts when dance music was really big in the 90’s and early 2000’s. You would hear these hybrids and they would be awfully heavy-handed and cheesy! (laughs) You couldn’t work out what was wrong with them. I think now, there seems to be an appetite for this. Maybe it’s because people are more into slightly darker, interesting, challenging, music than they were before? I don’t know. But I do find it interesting that now, it does seem to be a “thing” that people like listening to.
It’s incredible how many people listen to drone music! (laughs) I can’t go for that. But I’m really happy that people are out there really enjoying really wacky things! It’s great. There seems to be a lot of people listening to that stuff. It’s encouraging in a way!
One last main question for you, do you happen to have any other projects in the works that you could give us a sneak peek into?
I’ve got another record! This time, with a little bit more experimental guitar. That was my first instrument and I feel like I’ve neglected it. Possibly something with a kora, which is an African harp, blended also with a real harp from L.C.O. I love the idea of them improving around that with some polyrhythms. Maybe some African influence!
But these are all sort of ideas bubbling away which I’m eager to get home and try out! I also do a lot of piano improv videos which I put up online. I think there’s some germs and some nice ideas in there as well, so I’m looking forward to getting on to that. And, hopefully something live next year with L.C.O., I’d love to talk to them about that and put something together!
I’ve just done a BBC documentary about Princess Margaret. I’m not sure if it’s been out here [in the U.S.] yet. It was aired on the BBC in England about three weeks ago and I think it’s coming out on PBS. So, I literally just finished that before I came out here. It’s quite a busy time. It’s nice! I’d love to get more film work, which is mostly why I’m out here, because it’s been an absolute joy doing that.
I’d like to wrap things up with a few fill-in-the-blank sentences. Would you like to give it a go?
Sounds fun, I’ll give it a go!
First one for you. When I’m not composing I love to…
I love to laugh with my son. He absolutely cracks me up!
My favorite snack is…
(laughs) I used to eat loads and loads of croissants! But I found out I’ve got an intolerance for gluten so I can’t anymore. So, let’s say, Monster Munch!
That’s a good one, especially with Halloween around the corner!
The most out-of-the-box instrument that I’ve used in a score is…
Oh! That’s a good question! I played my guitar, a really old battered up guitar, with a pair of pliers! Just whacking it! (laughs) That’s a great sound. I’m going to do that again. That was bonkers!
A place I’d like to visit is…
Oh my, there are so many. I think maybe Iceland would be nice.
Last one! While in Los Angeles, I’m most excited to…
I’ve been doing so many exciting things since I’ve been here! Enough excitement already! (laughs) I went to the Fox Studio lot today and that was exciting. Tomorrow, I’m going to the Warner Brothers Studio to meet a music supervisor. I’m looking forward to checking that out because I haven’t seen any of that yet!
What They Had is now playing in select theatres. Buy tickets here.