Our Favorites 2021: Composer Alex Weston on Making Waves in “The Novice”

We looked to those in the film community who went to great lengths to bring joy to audiences this year and a reason to be optimistic for the future in Our Favorites series. We will be highlighting their efforts throughout this week.

Alex Weston’s music has a way of sneaking into your ears and staying there, as had happened to Lauren Hadaway, the director of “The Novice.” Needing a break from the intense post-production of the already rigorous thriller, Hadaway had queued up a playlist for “Portrait of a Lady on a Fire” to decompress, thinking that she’d be swept away to the French countryside as she went for a hike. But to her pleasant surprise, some random tracks from “The Farewell” had sprung up with their graceful weaving together of piano notes that tremble well beyond their initial touch, the nimble plucking of strings and haunting human voices, and her mind inevitably went back to her work.

“I was driving up the Angeles Crest trail of mountains next to L.A., I immediately turned my car around, ran home and changed all the music out [to a temp score from [his music] for ‘The Farewell’ and some other songs we had done,” Hadaway told me earlier this year upon the premiere of “The Novice” at Tribeca. “I wrote this really impassioned e-mail [to him] being like, ‘The score I discovered just happened and suddenly everything’s clicking. I need you to come on and I need you to score this film.’”

Weston might’ve been expecting the call – maybe not from Hadaway, but from someone to explain how to his great bemusement the playlist of a movie he had no hand in has been one of the biggest drivers of traffic to his Spotify account. Still, the composer who had decamped from the city towards quieter territory during the pandemic knew it was fate when Hadaway pitched him the story of a competitive collegiate rower who sacrifices all other aspects of her life for her sport.

“I was in the middle of nowhere in Maine with a view of the water, so I started working on ‘The Novice,’ doing the score with full view of the harbor and boats,” recalls Weston, who was more happy to . “It was very fitting for a rowing movie.”

Although Weston may have found the calm in the water required to create, it is reflected in the intricacy of his work on “The Novice,” rather than the the propulsive and enthralling score itself, mirroring the unforgiving drive of Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) to be the best. Paired with the dazzling visceral experience of rowing that Hadaway could muster from her own experience, both on the water as a rower herself and as a filmmaker who came up in the sound department knowing exactly how to extract the most sensation from every ache felt by Dall, the score is as all-consuming as the sea, insightfully pitting string instruments against each other as if they were the competing impulses inside Dall’s head, putting her mental well-being at risk to prove herself physically in a seeming duel to the death.

The music brilliantly segues in and out of harmony as mind and body can be aligned or at odds with one another, one of Weston’s specialties as he’s prone to having his scores for films grow more sophisticated alongside the growing consciousness of those at their center, often blending classical and electronic instrumentation or bringing together other disparate elements into sync. Earlier this year, his work on Rebecca Eskreis’ “What Breaks the Ice” felt like an epiphany as it charted the informal education of a 15-year-old (Sofia Hublitz) in a quiet lakeside community who is intrigued by the faster life of a city girl her age (Madelyn Cline) who has come to town for the summer, with the music almost imperceptible as part of an overall sonic landscape until the realizations of what was in front of her started to make themselves known. Likewise, the spirit of adventure was captured in “Exposure,” Holly Morris’ yet-to-be released doc about a group of female explorers with their sights set on skiing to the North Pole that premiered this fall at DOC NYC, where the discovery of inner strength that happens on the expedition can be heard stirring inside throughout thanks to a deeply attuned string section.

A composer who works in consonance as opposed to dissonance, Weston is building a body of work that may be eclectic in practice, working in a variety of mediums as well as registers, but singular in execution and has the refreshing ingenuity to match the rousing nature of the high notes he usually writes in and shortly before “The Novice” arrives in theaters and on demand, he kindly took the time to talk about how he was able to get inside the head of Alex Dall and how recording the score during COVID gave the score character in ways that were unexpected, as well as his path to composing and usually being the last in line during the process of making a film.

What were the initial conversations with Lauren about?

One thing that was really important to Lauren and I was to not to tip our hands too much as to Alex Dall’s inner life. The term [Lauren] kept using was we should be looking at this like an animal in a zoo and not understand what’s going on under the surface. You know by the end of the movie that Dall is fucking crazy, but in a weird way, we wanted the music to feel at the beginning almost neutral, giving you an indication that something is going on, but no indication as to what. We wanted to find a simple theme, which is the melody that opens the movie, that [could] be versatile enough so that by the end we could have the same material reimagined and developed into something like ferocious and violent.

When Lauren’s got such a strong background in sound, is it a different discussion than you usually have with directors?

It was actually really great in that way. Different directors have different vocabularies when working with music, Sometimes if the director is a musician they’ll give hyper-specific notes about individual pitches. And sometimes you’ll work with directors who don’t have any musical background and it’s difficult to understand what they want you to address. But Lauren, because of her background in sound and she knows what she wants, she knew the whole time how the score was going to interact with the sound design, which is a massive part of a movie. It’s very in your face and intense, which is great and there were a lot of moments where she would be giving comments, keeping in mind how it was going to play later with the sound design.

What was it like recording it?

It is, for the most part, piano and a string quintet, and it is all very close mic’d, so it feels ‘in the room’. One thing that I really wanted was to feel the physicality of these instruments. Obviously there’s electronics in the score too, and some atmospheric things, but for a lot of the important moments, especially for more of the sport moments, it is just strings. It’s is not a larger-than-life ensemble. In the film there’s a training montage and the strings are playing pretty difficult material very, very quickly and it gets faster and faster. As Dall is breaking herself down, I wanted my string players to sweat too. After we did a couple of takes of the last section of that piece, my first violinist was like, “So we’re not doing any more takes of that.” They were all complaining their arms were about to fall off. [laughs]

For any number of reasons including the fact you had to record during the pandemic, was it interesting getting an ensemble together for this because it is such a big sound for such a small amount of players?

This was actually the first time I was back in a studio since the start of the pandemic, which was an emotional experience. It felt so good to be back in that environment, but it actually was a pretty difficult situation. This was recorded last November and none of us were vaccinated yet. We used a studio that was probably larger than we needed at the time, a place called Studio G, one of my favorite studios up in Greenpoint. We had the players way more spaced out than you would normally have a string quartet. You normally have a string quartet kind of close together so they can blend and interact with each other. The team was comprised of all my go-to musicians. It was hard for all of us because it was their first time back in the studio too and we’re all nervous about getting sick by being in this room together.

Normally, you’d have a stereo pair of microphones in front of a string quartet recording the sound of the ensemble instead of relying on the close mics on everybody individually because you the sound of the group. When we have everybody so spread apart, with baffling in between them, the aforementioned full ensemble mics and stereo microphones are mostly useless now because the ensemble’s not playing like a normal ensemble. The only mics that were useful were the close mics, right on top of the instrument, which affected the quality of the sound as everything was super close and visceral. You could almost hear the rosin on the bow pulling against the strings because it’s that close. Ariel Loh, an amazing L.A.-based engineer was streaming the recording session from New York, did a great job making it feel like a cohesive ensemble, even though they were really spread pretty far apart.

This is going to show my naivete about sound recording, but you’ve talked a lot before about combining electronic sounds and organic sounds — is that a process where you actually can mix those two things together simultaneously? I assume that you have to record with the musicians first, but I wonder whether you can mix those processes since they’re ultimately so intertwined?

Basically I make demos first before we record. I have software instruments that can do pretty realistic mock-ups of what it will sound like with the real players. I send that to directors for the sign off before I go into a studio and replace my MIDI strings with actual strings. Because of that, it all happens at the same time. I am doing the electronic stuff with the software instruments, so we have a pretty good idea what it’s going to ultimately sound like. Maybe we’ll take something we recorded and process that, but a lot of the stuff I did on this score isn’t necessarily manipulating what we’ve recorded as much as it’s additional layers.

Generally, was it natural for you to think of music in a narrative way when you first started out?

I had a background with the jazz piano, which was actually what made me first start being very serious about music. My first musical passion was jazz and there was a period of time probably in high school when I was pretty sure I was going to pursue being a jazz pianist for a living. By the end of high school, I became more interested in taking improvisation and refining it and writing it down. I pivoted even more towards focusing on composition in college. I was scoring student films for my friends then moved to New York and kept doing little tiny microbudget shorts. I’ve always been interested in film scoring, but I didn’t set out to become a film composer. Even though I work primarily in film, I wouldn’t consider myself a film composer because what does that even mean? Film isn’t a genre of music. It’s like if people say their favorite genre is film music you’re like, “Okay, so is that Junkie XL or John Williams or Johan Johannson?” These aren’t the same things.

What was it like to see this all come together on “The Novice”?

It was incredible. The premiere was one of the first in-person film festivals, which like going to the recording studio for the first time in almost a year, was very significant moment for me. The screening was outdoors in Brookfield Plaza, which is also right by a boat dock, so it was pretty fitting that we have all these boats and a sunset, a really beautiful place to see it. Being in post-production is funny because when you go to premieres, it’s a big family reunion for everyone else. They went through this experience on set, they bonded, but no one knows me from Adam, and I’m just like, “You don’t know me, but I watched your face for eight hours a day for a month!” Everyone from the cast and crew were super friendly. A really fun group of people.

“The Novice” opens on December 17th in Los Angeles at the Nuart and New York at the Quad Cinema. It will also be available on digital.