Name: Austin Wintory
Recent release: Austin Wintory teams up with composer/orchestrator Susie Seiter for the score to upcoming limited series THAI CAVE RESCUE, streaming September 22 on Netflix.
Recommendations: I heartily recommend John Mauceri’s recent book The War on Music, as a study of the interplay of politics and art throughout classical music in the 20th century. A fabulous book.
I also loved Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson, about Shostakovich and the composing of his 7th symphony.
[Read our Susie Seiter interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Austin Wintory and would like to find out more about his work, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for film music?
I became passionate about film scoring at a very early age, when first exposed to the scores of Jerry Goldsmith. The marriage of storytelling and music, particularly his brand of wildly imaginative music, really got its hooks in me and thus began a lifelong obsession!
Which composers, or soundtracks captured your imagination in the beginning? What scenes or movies drew you in through their use of music?
Like so many children of the 80s and 90s, John Williams was of course a towering figure. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, ET and later Jurassic Park.
But it was Goldsmith’s scores that made me actually pay attention to film scores: Patton, Planet of the Apes, Papillon, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and many others.
I subsequently fell in love with the old-fashioned sensibilities of James Horner, the daring boldness of Elliot Goldenthal, etc.
What made it appealing to you to score a movie yourself? What was it that you wanted to express and what did you feel did you have to add artistically?
I loved what I saw from these giants I’d come to admire, and wanted to try it for myself!
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to film music? Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or lineage?
I think Goldsmith really laid the foundation for me to think of film music as an extension of filmmaking process. He wasn’t really a composer whose music found its way into film; he was writing film music, born of the screen, the script, the cinematography, etc.
Today, the shining light of this thinking is Hans Zimmer. I very much identify with this way of thinking when it comes to both my film/TV scoring and also video game scoring.
How would you rate the importance of soundtracks and film music for the movie as a whole? How do you see the relationship between image and sound in a movie?
I think I unintentionally answered that above, but the shorter version is that perfectly executed film music is, in a sense, inseparable from the film.
There are dedicated scores, sound tracks, temp tracks that ended up staying in the finished movie and even scores that were written without the composer seeing the movie first. How do these different premises affect the finished movie, do you feel?
This is a bit too big of a topic to do justice to here, but my general thinking is that filmmaking is incredibly difficult and whatever tools the filmmakers have to try and make it as good as they can, they should take.
Some prefer to license music, others prefer to trust in collaborators, etc. It doesn’t matter in the end; people should use the tools they have access to.
How did you get started scoring for films and what were some of the specific challenges?
I started by scoring student films and very low budget short films, and eventually feature films. It’s a path walked by many young composers.
The obvious challenge is that you’re trying to build a portfolio and reputation and yet you’re in a position of competing with scores made by more experienced, better-funded composers.
It’s a Catch-22 that faces all young entrants to the industry.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I began pretty traditionally, focusing on the standard orchestra and experimenting more and more as time went on. Electronics, sound manipulation and all the various other tricks came later for me.
In the end, the main motivator was to simply expand the sound palette into new places. Hopefully unheard places!
Can you take me through your process of composing a soundtrack on the basis of a movie that's particularly dear to you, please?
The process is often not particularly glamorous! One simply meets with the filmmakers, forms a gameplan and dives in.
This usually entails watching an in-progress cut of some sort (maybe very rough assembly, or maybe close to picture lock, or maybe even just fragments of dailies), and starting to form ideas. We test them against picture and gradually build the whole quilt from the ground up.
I have periodically begun writing at the script stage, well before shooting, but it’s rare to be in that luxurious position.
I would assume that a major part of composing for film is the ability of interpreting the images and the narrative at play. Tell me about how this works for you and how these interpretations in turn lead to sounds and compositions.
I honestly don’t know how the translation of images/ideas into music works. It’s a semi-spontaneous process, reliant on instincts and skills built up over a couple decades.
I’m a big believer in having long conversations with the director or writer, and getting into the underlying truths and subtexts. Music drawn from the suggested ideas or allegories is often more potent than that which is simply aimed at the literal action on-screen.
What, from your experience and perspective, does the ideal collaboration between you and a director look like?
One of total trust. A dear friend and director of mine, Paul Solet, has often said “There are no rules. Anything goes, as long as it works.”
How do the other aspects of a movie's sound stage – such as foley and effects – influence your creative decisions?
These can deeply influence the work. James Newton Howard once said he felt his music played better with sound effects and dialogue around it, and I fully understand that feeling.
We’re not really writing ‘music’ as much as contributing to the ‘Audio.’ A proper mix has everything exactly in the right spot.
The balance between visuals, fx and film music is delicate. What, from your point of view, determines whether or not it is a successful one?
Ultimately, if it tells the story effectively. That’s it.
Once the movie is finished, what is the value of the score you composed outside of its original context?
It varies. Sometimes, very little. Sometimes we get lucky and the music plays well as its own work but that’s basically never the goal.
Different composers could potentially approach the same scene with strikingly different music. Would you say there can be 'wrong' and 'right' musical decisions for some scenes? In which way can some film music be considered 'definitive'?
The only real arbiter for right vs wrong in this case is how the audience responds. If the audience consistently and noticeably likes one approach better, it’s hard to argue with that.
We are, in the end, making it for them!