David Wingo on the Ugly and Corrupted Score of ‘The Report’

We chat with the composer about the freedom of building from a temporary score and the crucial nature of collaboration.
The Report Trailer Screenshot
Amazon Studios
By  · Published on January 3rd, 2020

Time is of the essence. A film composer is seldom hired early on in the process, finding the emotion of the movie as the filmmaker is also uncovering the vibe of the movie. This is a rarity and a treat. Mostly, however, the composer is brought in during the final hour. On The Report, David Wingo was given the film nearly fully-formed and picture-locked, with a temp score offered as an idea of where director Scott Z. Burns was at regarding the tone.

“This is the path of least resistance,” says the composer. “Their Report had a few orchestral things, but it was mainly synthy stuff. The clips were from Scott’s movies with Steven Soderbergh, Contagion and Side Effects, which Cliff Martinez did. Then some of Cliff’s work on Traffic and a few of my tracks from Midnight Special.” Coming in pretty late in the game, with less than seven weeks to get the job done, Wingo put nose to grindstone to bring the score together.

The Report is a vicious dental drill of a movie, tracking the nightmare plunge that Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) partook on behalf of Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) when he spearheaded an investigation into the CIA’s 2005 interrogation videotapes. Burns wanted to place his audience in the swarm-of-bees mental state experienced by his protagonist. Performance and editing are crucial, but without the properly impassioned score, the effect drips where it should pound.

“Scott wanted to have brass,” says Wingo. “A kind of dance theme to give a sense of patriotism and stateliness and idealism.” The deeper into the ugly inquiry Daniel travels, the theme deteriorates. As the system turns on him, so does the score. “He wanted to have a sound rather than a melodic theme or motif. It had to have a visceral quality to it, and a corrupted nature. That was a fun, unique bit of direction.”

Designing such a specific but as-yet-unknown ugly resonance was a challenge, but one Wingo delighted in discovering. Inspiration solidified while he and a friend were listening to a couple of albums. “There was a particular sound on a Califone record that I thought could work for this, but I didn’t instantly recognize it,” says Wingo. “[Frontman] Tim Rutili is a friend of mine, and he told me it was a piece of gear called the Sherman FilterBank, which I’d heard of before, but never really explored.”

The processing device is used to create filter sweeps and effects, and can easily damage your sound in a number of desired ways. “A lot of the score ended up running through that piece of gear,” he says. “It gives it a very unique analog distortion that doesn’t really sound like anything else. We ran the brass through that, and it was exactly what Scott wanted, signifying Dan’s deteriorating belief in the system, but also reflecting the nastiness and the horror of what was going on.”

Including shorts, documentaries, and television series, Wingo has scored thirty separate pieces. Avoiding stagnation is a concern, but one with an easy fix. “For me, whenever I want to do something different than what I’ve done before,” he says, “the magic trick is always getting something new. I just started a project, and I got some new string libraries. With different sounds, I end up writing differently when I’m playing with them. It’s not a conscious thing; it’s just a taste of my ear kind of thing.” Acquiring the Sherman FilterBank sent a shockwave of enthusiasm into the project. “It’s just one piece of gear, but it turns on those creative buttons that are hard to access all the time.”

Hopping from film to film to film is as much of a drain as it is a fulfilling imaginative endeavor. After completing work on Midnight Special and Our Brand In Crisis, Wingo found himself in a sixth-month period without a gig. He still had to chase the new. “I’ve always been a really bad drummer,” he admits, “but for those sixth months, I just played the drums every day. That was how I kept the creative light on. Going back to basics and learning an instrument. You have to get back to that elemental beginning of why you were ever attracted to playing and writing music in the first place.”

With The Report, Wingo took pleasure in the meticulous blueprint Burns had already laid out with the temp score. Some might balk at such a firm structure, but considering the limited time available, Wingo accepted the confines as a liberation rather than a prison. “Compare it to a house,” he says. “I came in, and they already had the foundation and the studs up and the design and everything.” Wingo just had to paint the sucker. “It was not an empty canvas. They gave me such a great spot to jump off from.”

If collaboration is not your goal, then get the hell outta movies. “I am from the band world,” explains Wingo. “I like the feeling that I’m collaborating, and at the end of the day, I’m trying to match the director’s vision with one piece of score along with the writing, the editing, and the acting. I’m just a part of the tapestry. The more I can understand the director’s vision, the better.” Coming late to the party on The Report or any other film is never a problem as long as communication is open and new ideas and new sounds are welcome. “The fact that they were so careful to express, ‘This is yours. Don’t take any of the temp to heart if it doesn’t make sense to you. That was great!” A composer cannot ask for anything more.

The Report is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)