A truly memorable film soundtrack not only opens up the world onscreen, but allows you to enter it—providing a sensory gateway that isn’t so much manipulative as it is emotionally captivating. And when a soundtrack is great, you can listen to it months or years after seeing a film and find yourself thrown back in your cinema seat, consumed by the sights and sounds happening before you—and with Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s stunning soundtrack for Beasts of the Southern Wild (written and directed by Zeitlin), you get the pleasure of that experience precisely. Turn up the volume and drown out the world with “Once There Was a Hushpuppy” and suddenly your tear ducts begin to tingle as you find yourself back in the world of the Bathtub, filled with the strength of the little girl who astounded us all.
One of the best films of 2012 by far, Beasts of the Southern Wild comes out on DVD tomorrow; but in addition to its release, the wonderfully powerful soundtrack to the film will also be released on vinyl for the first time through a new vinyl-only, music-for-film label, Thirty3 and a 3rd. Full of vim and vigor, the soundtrack is a mix of vibrant strings, classic Jazz Age piano, and hint of that awe-inspiring magical realism that the film conjures up. Last week, fresh off the excitement of their Gotham Award wins, we caught up with composer Dan Romer to chat about working with Benh, seeing the world through Hushpuppy’s eyes, and being inspired by Rihanna.
How did you and Benh begin working together? Well, we scored Glory at Sea together when we were about 22. But about a year before that, we had actually worked together when I had engineered the film score for his movie Egg.
What was your collaboration process like? I imagine scoring a film is a pretty personal thing, especially when the person you’re working with is the director and writer who had the original vision for the film. With Benh, the way we work together is we kind of just sit down and get ideas for melodies. I have a ton of musical training so my area that I know better is how all the theory stuff works and how the instruments go together and how arrangements work and his skill is more story-related. And then all the melodies and chords come from the both of us.
Had you read the script before it was shot? At what point did you start thinking about the music? I read the script before it was shot. It was a drastically different story than the movie is. We kind of got together and then I saw the cut without the music and it was just making me cry hysterically at some points. We had actually developed a lot of our musical language together already on the short film Glory; it’s a very similar musically. It’s pretty much all string-based, there were no folk instruments on Glory but we got the language together with that. Musically, Beasts is kind of a continuation on that thought we had started on Glory.
It feels like this large symphony of sounds but it’s also very intimate. What were you going for in terms of the feeling of the sound? This is both—for me and Benh—our first feature in every sense. This is his first writing directing/scoring of a feature and this is my first scoring a feature, so we were just kind of going on instinct. Not a ton of it was planned out. We didn’t say: Okay, we’re going to go for this kind of sound. We had the idea that we were going to have a combination of the sounds we’d already worked on with Glory and combining both aspects. But the big discovery we made along the way was that the entire score would be from the point of view of Hushpuppy. We figured that out somewhere during writing and it just changed everything for us. Whenever we tried to score a scene from the audience’s perspective, it kind of fell flat. But when we thought, “How does Hushpuppy feel about this scene?” and scored it that way, it scored much better.
Do you have any favorite songs on the album? I know mine are “Once There Was a Hushpuppy” and “I Think I Broke Something.” I would give you the same answer. What’s interesting: “I Think I Broke Something,” that actual piece is not in the film. It was in the cut at Sundance and Benh and I loved that piece so much that we decided to keep it in the soundtrack. “I Think I’ve Broke Something,” that melody comes in at times during the film. That was definitely my favorite iteration of that theme. So we decided to keep it on the soundtrack. I also really like “The Smallest Piece.”
What were you and Benh both influenced by while scoring this? Were you listening to anything in particular? We were listening to more pop music than anything else—a lot of Rihanna. We were also listening to a lot of Kate Bush, Tom Waits, Harry Belafonte, and to the ET soundtrack.
Do you have any other composers that you look to in terms of film scoring? Danny Elfman and Jon Brion have been two of my staples, and then obviously John Wiliams. I’ve watched Lost so many times, Michael Giacchino has just seeped into my pores. Benh and I would start the day sometimes by doing cardio and watching Lost together so a lot of the string stuff in Lost, a lot of the textures would be in my head.