Composing for Sundance with ‘The Spectacular Now’ and ‘The Way, Way Back’ Composer Rob Simonsen and ‘The Rambler’ Composer Heather McIntosh
Films that are submitted to festivals come with many questions. Will my film be accepted? Will people be interested in watching it if it is? Will it get distribution? What will happen if it does get distribution? But these questions are also what make film festivals so exciting ‐ the great unknown and all the possibilities it contains.
This year’s Sundance Film Festival gave festival attendees (and soon audiences all over) many different films from comedies to dramas to horror. Signing up to work on an independent festival film can end up being a labor of love, but it can also open doors and catapult otherwise unknown talent into the spotlight. The road to Sundance has been seen through the eyes of writers, directors, and actors (which can be found on the Sundance website), but I wanted to look at the process from the composer side of things and was lucky enough to speak with not just one, but two composers who ended up with a total of three films at this year’s festival between them.
Rob Simonsen who composed music for two of Sundance’s most well-received coming-of-age films, the heart-felt The Spectacular Now and the funny The Way, Way Back and Heather McIntosh who created the inventive and sinister soundscape for the surreal The Rambler.
To begin, I asked both Simonsen and McIntosh how they got involved composing for their respective films. Juggling two films, Simonsen explained,
“The Way, Way Back was the first film I had the opportunity to be involved in. I think the music supervisor, Linda Cohen, threw my hat into the ring with the directors and producers. I put forth a reel, and they were familiar with (500) Days of Summer and some of the other work I had done, and they set up a screening for me. I loved the film and also noticed some of my music in the temp [score] so I felt like we were already speaking a similar language. We had some phone calls and a deal was made.
It was during the final mix of The Way, Way Back that I got a call about The Spectacular Now (another strong Sundance contender.) The music supervisors, Sean Kent and Gabe Hifler, I think put me up for that. I watched it, loved it, met on it, and we moved forward. It was a whirlwind. I think we finished the final mix on Spectacular about a week before it premiered at Sundance. It was a thrill to go with two films, and they did so well, I felt really lucky to be a part of them both.”
Thanks to her previous Sundance experience, McIntosh became a composer for The Rambler due to those relationships, saying,
“Craig Zobel, the director of Compliance (a film I composed the music to last year) suggested me as an addition to the project… to bring an extra level of orchestral and electronic oddness to the mix along with the strange song-smithing of Jed Maheu and lonesome guitar bendings of Scott Honea.”
While both The Spectacular Now and The Way, Way Back tackle coming-of-age stories, they each do so in their own way with their own unique style and tone. Simonsen explained how he differentiated between the two films, saying,
“They are quite different in approach. The Way, Way Back is more solidly a comedy, and overall is much lighter in tone. We needed a core theme for our hero, Duncan (Liam James), who is trying to find his way. We needed a touchstone, and something that helped speak of his internal world and struggle, as there’s a lot of scenes with him where he doesn’t say much. We needed to be tracking him on his journey. I used piano and guitars in a more straight-ahead way for that score.
In Spectacular, there is a lot of humor, but the film is more of a darker drama. It deals with alcoholism and some tough growing-up realities. The score needed to be simple, almost innocent or naïve, and needed to be textural. I used a lot more synths, analog and digital, as well as created/found sounds and whatnot on that score. There also isn’t a major theme, or a Sutter (Miles Teller) theme, per se. There’s kind of a “good times” piece (using a kind of drunken marching band kind of thing) at the beginning and a “in love” motif/palette as well as more of a “sad times” vibe. These kind of thread around and develop throughout the film, but they evolve and change and are more like associated vibes rather than direct themes.
So it’s quite different from The Way, Way Back where we hear Duncan’s theme in a quirky, awkward way in the beginning, and then fuller and more triumphant at the end.”
McIntosh took on the challenge of composing for a slightly out there film and described her process of creating that unique sound explaining,
“Calvin and I immediately connected when we started talking about the musical and visual artist Terry Allen, which led to talking about docs like Heartworn Highways, then on to a bunch of bands I played with, and all sorts of other musical touchstones. I never really thought of The Rambler like a horror film. In my mind, it high fives a bunch of cinematic references all right in the middle somewhere around the midnight movie category. It is a strange film and I imagine folks might find it odd that a lady was in part responsible for the sounds, but I’ve been making strange sounds for a long time. It was a really good fit for me to be a part of. As far as process is concerned… Calvin is a super musical dude, so I presented him with a bunch of musical cues knowing he would fold them into The Rambler’s brain melting world.”
Finding out an independent film, which can sometimes feel like a passion project, has been accepted into a major festival like Sundance is an unforgettable moment. Simonsen remembered,
“I heard unconfirmed things through the grapevine, but resisted talking about it or proceeding as if it was for sure. And then I found out both were in from the respective filmmakers within a forty-eight hour window of each other. It was a very exciting couple days when that news came through. I was just hoping they didn’t premiere at the same time! Luckily they did not.”
McIntosh ended up finding out The Rambler was headed to Park City through an email from the film’s director, Calvin Lee Reeder.
Once a film is in the festival, the excitement begins, but so does the waiting game of finding out if someone wants to buy your work and distribute it to a bigger audience. McIntosh was lucky and did not have to wait long, saying,
“It was announced the first day of Sundance, I believe. Sort of a magical and unusual situation.”
With two films in the festival Simonsen had twice the chance, but also twice the nerves, and as the films had their respective premieres, Simonsen recalled,
“Spectacular premiered first on Friday night. It was very well received, and being in the [U.S. Dramatic] competition it had already garnered a bit of buzz. I knew that there were distributors interested and the meetings happened quite quickly. I think by Sunday it had sold to A24 and everyone was thrilled about it. So that was an exciting weekend. Then on Monday The Way, Way Back premiered at Eccles. The film got a standing ovation and by morning had sold to [Fox] Searchlight for nearly $10 million. Unbelievable! I was in contact with the producers/directors so I knew things were going down, though I didn’t get details or confirmation on either until I read about it on Deadline Hollywood. The speed of that reporting machine is impressive.”
Getting distribution can sometimes be half the battle with things like re-edits needed to prepare the film for a wider release. With all three films purchased, I asked if changes to the scores would be necessary. McIntosh told me,
“Calvin has such a clear vision with his films. Though there is a loose improvisational feel to The Rambler, every one of his decisions are filled with intent. I don’t imagine any changes.”
Seeing as Simonsen was still completing the mix for The Spectacular Now a mere week before it’s premiere, he admitted,
“I think there might be some small tweaks to make. There was a a kick drum in Spectacular for instance I hope I get the chance to adjust. Some other minor things on my wish list, but I don’t have details on whether or not we’re going to open them up yet.”
Looking back on Sundance 2013 as a whole, I asked both Simonsen and McIntosh if they had any advice for up-and-coming filmmakers and/or composers about the festival process. Simonsen thought back on the festival itself and advised,
“Wear Smart Wool socks. Drink lots of water. And if Animal does a pop up cafe again next year, don’t miss it.”
While McIntosh looked back on her career path as a whole and said,
“I’m a big fan of attending as many panels as possible. I studied electronic music composition and cello in college, but the closest thing to proper film school/film composition school was working at a video store for twelve years, watching a million movies, reading a lot of film music books, and going to as many filmmaker and composer panels as absolutely possible. You can learn a lot at those things.”
Creating a film is an exciting process, but that experience is all the more heightened when surrounded by a major film festival like Sundance. Without the constraints of a studio, creativity can run free when working on independent films, but it is even more rewarding when festivals like Sundance make it possible to share that vision with an even larger audience.
The Rambler will be distributed by Anchor Bay, but a release date has not yet been announced.