Name: Susie Benchasil Seiter
Occupation: Composer, conductor, orchestrator
Nationality: American-Thai
Recent release: Susie Benchasil teams up with composer Austin Wintory for the score to upcoming limited series THAI CAVE RESCUE, streaming September 22 on Netflix.
Recommendations: Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem” is my favorite musical work and one that I constantly draw inspiration from.
I’m currently reading Say Thank you for Everything by Jim Edwards. It teaches collaborative leadership with an emphasis on humility and grace.

[Read our Austin Wintory interview]

If you enjoyed this interview with Susie Seiter and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.

Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for film music?

I loved movies first and foremost. My dad had an extensive beta and VHS movie collection and movies were constantly playing in our house. Music came seprately as, like many children, I took piano and dance.

My love of movies and music converged when I got to learn Disney musical themes and Super-hero themes in my piano lessons.

Which composers, or soundtracks captured your imagination in the beginning? What scenes or movies drew you in through their use of music?

My earliest memory where a soundtrack captured me, would be Disney’s The Little Mermaid. My friends and I couldn’t get enough of those songs and score.

Fast forward 21 years, I ended up teaching Alan Menken’s daughter when I was a music teacher right after college. I introduced myself to Alan at the school cafeteria and I asked him if I call him with some questions because I was interested in film music. He ended up being a kind mentor to me.

That meeting of such an extraordinary artist in such an ordinary setting is one of my favorite reflections of being young, curious and dream-filled.

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 hadn’t had a strong enough drive to score a project until I heard about Thai Cave Rescue. I primarily work as an orchestrator and conductor, so my role is to help other composers realize and complete their vision. I love the orchestra and working with orchestras around the world.

Thai Cave rescue was an extraordinary story with passionate people behind the making of it. They wanted to tell this story in the most authentic way possible, and since Thai music was already in my blood, I had a unique background that was crucial to making an authentic Thai influenced score.  My mom was a Thai dance teacher who taught from our house so I grew up with Thai music and bands playing in my basement. I participated heavily in Thai cultural events and had close ties to a large Thai community in Washington DC/Baltimore.

I also had a 20 year career-long grasp of orchestral music working as a film score orchestrator and conductor. I was immediately confident that I was uniquely qualified to help our showrunners (Michael Gunn and Dana Ledoux Miller) tell this beautiful story as authentically as possible.

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?

My key idea behind approaching film music is always to create something I hope is beautifully unique, through colors, dynamics, approach and use. I also think silence and breaths in music can be the most beautiful addition and I feel its important for music to always have room to breathe.

I have a classical background where I studied all the rules and how to break them skilfully. I’m also an alto singer in choir with a Broadway voice so I’m used to finding the balance between blending and shining when appropriate. I am also a dancer, so I see the use music as a constant collaboration.

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 the sound track is incredibly important and by nature, the unsung hero of a film. Most people don’t even realize there is a soundtrack. They have music whispering in their ear how they should feel or react and don’t realize that the music is doing this whispering.

But if the soundtrack is poorly written, it's very noticeable and distracting and it can ruin a movie.

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?

My writing partner Austin Wintory and I were hired to score Thai Cave Rescue well before principal photography started or even a script was finished. We wrote a demo suite in 4 sections based on what we knew of the story from the news and included themes we wanted to emphasize. That 10 minute demo (and various edits) became the temp track for a lot of the series.

The kind of music we wanted to write was a Thai Classical score rooted deeply in orchestral traditions. There’s not a lot of music out there to draw from for a temp sounding like that. So naturally, our music became the temp. In fact, the final scene in the “Thai Cave Rescue” series is our music demo we wrote a year ago. The final scene was exactly how we imagined it and likely how everyone did too.

How did you get started scoring for films and what were some of the specific challenges?

This was my first official score even though I’ve been an orchestrator and conductor for film and live concerts for 20 years. I was Austin’s (my co-writer) orchestrator for most of our careers.

In the shift to create original music, I had a huge mountain to climb, particularly with the technology. Fortunately,  I had 6 months to write suites and themes before I needed to write to picture so my full time job became a crash course in tech, while writing suites and themes that we would send to the picture editors for temp track.

One HUGE bonus to being an accomplished conductor before ever scoring a scene: I was able to access the tempo and pace of a scene immediately. I could look at a scene and immediately know where I could hit certain moments with continuity.

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’ve always had a microphone nearby with Digital Performer / Protools as my sequencer. I would also sketch out material in Sibelius because I am extremely fast writing in notation software and orchestrating for large ensembles.  My vocals have always been my first instrument and I sing and chant throughout this score.

I also had a few string libraries to master, a brass library and several Thai instrument libraries including some custom made libraries that we had made for this project.

Can you take me through your process of composing a soundtrack on the basis of a movie that's particularly dear to you, please?

There’s a scene in episode 4 of Thai Cave Rescue where the rice farmers are being asked to flood their fields, effectively wiping their entire means to make a living. In the scene, most of the farmers are rejecting this idea, arguing for their livelihoods. But one woman, the eldest and most influential, tells the authorities to flood her farm to save those boys, and she gives a disapproving look to her colleagues.

I wanted that sacrifice to be meaningful and honor the Thai people for their important role in the rescue effort. So as the farmer stands to sign away her farm, a very well known Thai folk melody plays verbatim, then the orchestra swells to acknowledge this beautiful sacrifice as the rest of the farmers follow suit. It was a nod to Thai national pride, and a beautiful “thank you.“

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.

Because I’m an orchestrator and conductor, my gut instincts interpret a scene with pace / tempo and colors needed for a scene. That part comes quite naturally to me. I’m also an incredibly sentimental person, so emotion is also always at the forefront.  

Then I play something into my sequencer with my limited piano skills but endless knowledge of sound pallet, and just edit my performance so it sounds like a great performer played it. My editing skills have served me well!

What, from your experience and perspective, does the ideal collaboration between you and a director look like?

Ideally I’d love to be involved from the script development process because a great story is everything.

I’d love to have in depth conversations about stories, people, emotions, triumphs and losses. I’d love to go back and forth with ideas and have interesting discussions about the How / when / where and why. I invest a lot in people and projects and ideally I’d love for that collaboration to be met with a similar commitment.

How do the other aspects of a movie's sound stage – such as foley and effects – influence your creative decisions?

I’m always aware of the sound pallet because I don’t want to get in the way or compete with another element that’s also important. It’s like a delicate dance where everyone gets their moment.

I want my music to end up in the mix as I expected, not manipulated to make room for other sound elements so it’s always important to be mindful of the other elements in the mix.

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?

I have a very keen ear / eye for detail that, when distracted by something, I can’t get past that earworm or eyesore.

A successful balance is one that blends naturally, without much manipulation and something that won’t trigger my propensity to fixate on an unwanted / unnatural detail. A successful balance is when I’m able to experience a film as if I don’t work in the field and never notice anything, even the music! (Although I always notice the music)

Once the movie is finished, what is the value of the score you composed outside of its original context?

I think the value is that the score compliments and reminds you of the scenes and special moments in the story.

Some story-driven music cues have a stronger influence than others. There are moments of soaring melodies and drama where music reminds you of a crucial moment in the movie. But there are also subtle music cues that don’t really stand on their own for listening enjoyment because they take a back seat to more important elements such as dialogue.

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'?

I don’t think there’s a “wrong” or “right” way to score a scene. It’s all up to the artist's interpretation of the story and as long as it’s serving the story, I don’t think the music could be wrong.