Often composers fall into a groove, defining themselves with a particular style and running with it across the cinematic board. Not so with Nathan Barr, whose career is speckled with comedies, horror movies and a little of everything in-between. Barr’s eclectic resume includes True Blood; Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever; Broken Lizard’s Club Dread, Beerfest and The Slammin’ Salmon; The Last Exorcism; and Ruben Fleischer’s upcoming action comedy 30 Minutes or Less.
His latest, the character-driven thriller The Ledge, was picked up by IFC Films after premiering at Sundance. The movie centers on Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) who has an affair with Shana (Liv Tyler), the wife of fanatical religious man Joe (Patrick Wilson) who forces Gavin to either jump off the ledge of a building or watch him kill his wife. It’s like that middle school game “MFK,” but real.
We sat down with Barr during Sundance to talk about his process as a composer, the similarities and differences between his many projects and what how each one is its own musical challenge:
Your background is primarily in horror movies and broader comedies, how did you get involved in a smaller drama like The Ledge?
It’s that not-exciting-story that everyone has. My agent submitted me and they basically asked three or for composers to write music for a scene.
Is that common? Where you’re basically competing against others as opposed to being selected from previous work. You’re auditioning, essentially.
Yup. And they give you a week and I guess they resonated with mine the most, so I got the job. Especially exciting for me, as you said, I’ve done a lot of horror films, to sort of side step into drama.
Do you feel like you could translate your process for orchestrating a horror movie, the qualities you bring to that work, into drama?
Well, scoring a film is scoring a film. Different beats maybe, but it’s the same process.
You still use notes…
[Laughs] Exactly. I think most composers — and this happens to actors too — they get pigeonholed into something. They negate your abilities. The Ledge was a breath of fresh air.
I imagine like most artistic processes, scoring a film begins somewhere different for every person. For The Ledge and your work in general, where do the ideas begin? Is there a germ for each idea or is something less specific then that?
Composing is improvising. You start improvising and you figure something out. The Ledge was the same. You watch the movie, you figure out how you feel about it emotionally and how you want to leave that movie feeling at the end. That’s how I approach things. In this case, after seeing it, I felt that the guitar would be a major instrument in the score. I picked up a guitar and it happened.
And unlike many composers, you actually perform the music yourself, if I recall.
Yup! On this film too.
You’re a one-man band. Does that make the process a little crazier?
It does! The guy I learned from, Hans Zimmer, when I first started, we were driving one day and he said, “Nate, you know, you’re such a people person. Are you going to be okay spending the rest of your life in a room alone?” And I was like, “well, I never thought about it that way.” But I love the process, so I am okay with it!
Especially with films. Eli’s films in particular, where you’re watching this incredible violence around the clock [Laughs].
The movie relies heavily on its character threads, weaving them together and moving back and forth between different perspectives. How did that come through in your musical choices?
I think one of the things that most dictates the sound of a score, to me, is the look of the film, how the cinematographer and director have chosen to visualize the film. Once you’ve done it enough, you can look and go, “that will not work with an orchestra.” Or, “that will work with guitars.” I have no idea where that comes from.
Sounds like, “the gut.”
Yeah, I think it’s second nature at some point. This film, it’s a very small, intimate story. It wouldn’t fit with the film. [Liv Tyler's character] plays guitar in the movie and I could work that into the score. So yeah, there were big visual cues in the film that sort of helped me to determine the direction.
At last year’s Comic-Con, you spoke on a composer’s panel and revealed that you own a flute made of bone…
Yeah [Laughs], I own a human bone trumpet from Tibet.
I was hoping there may be some equally whacked out instruments that made their way into The Ledge
Oh, it would be really hard to hide that sound. It’s pretty rocking. In the movie though, I used something called an array mbira, which is not an instrument you see everyday. It’s like these metal spokes you pluck and the length of the spoke determines the pitch. It’s pretty featured in the film.
With the handful of characters, was crafting themes for each an important aspect of constructing the score?
Yeah, there are themes for all the characters. The one, Joe, who’s sort of this right wing, religious nut in the movie, in a very stereotypical sense, we needed a sound for him in the movie that brought the audience in. Creepy, but not over the top. He’s already like that, they lit him that way. He’s lit like this very diabolical character. The music had to reflect that without being on the nose. That’s why I chose the array imbira.
What was the dynamic like between you and director Matthew Chapman? I know that some directors can be very hands on and come to a composer with temp track and demand something similar. Others can back away and let the musicians do their thing…
Matthew’s amazing. He’s one of two directors who I will ask to sit on the couch behind me while I’m writing. I’m literally messing around with the guitar trying to find something and he’s sitting there and, God bless him, he’s quiet. He understands not that I’ going to be fumbling around and not to go, “no, no, no that sucks,” or, “yes, yes, yes that’s good.”
I’m picturing you playing a few notes and looking up for his facial expressions.
It’s funny you say that. I’ve noticed in my thousands of meetings for the films that I’ve done, that when people sit cross-legged and they put their foot up on their knee, when something isn’t working for them you see their foot start to bob. Absolutely true. When I’m playing a cue for someone, I’m always looking out the corner of my eye at their feet, and the minute it starts bobbing, I know I need to work on something.
What about working with temp scores? Do you feel like they impede your process?
I’ve been blessed most of the time to not have director’s who are totally committed to their temp scores. The Ledge had some music in it when I saw it, but it was clearly something that wasn’t working for anyone,
Always a plus.
With many films under your belt, do you feel like you continue to learn new things about the craft? Is there anything specific about The Ledge that sticks out?
I think every film has its own challenges. I found this one to be difficult, because with horror films and comedy films there are genre expectations by the audience. With a horror film, to some extent you already know what that sound is going to be. You may not know your melody, but you know that there are going to be some weird sounds. With a drama, it’s wide open. It’s a much more complicated process. You’re starting from ground zero, whereas with a horror movie it feels more like halfway.
And with something like True Blood where you’ve done three seasons and are about to embark on a fourth — how has that continued to evolve and remain interesting for you? Have you seen any of the fourth season?
Nope. They sent me the scripts but I don’t read them. As a fan of the show, I want to watch them! New characters, new themes, new dilemmas each season keep it fresh. I think the world gets broader because they’re introducing new elements and it changes. For example, Bill and Sookie were really central in the first season, pretty central in the second and not quite central in the third, because Eric (Alexander Skarsgård ) got involved — which is great for me, because I have that “Bill and Sookie” theme and…we get it. We hear the theme! Now we can play with new things.
The Ledge hits theaters on July 8, while the fourth season of True Blood debuts June 26.